Monday, January 28, 2019

album review: 'amo' by bring me the horizon

So this conversation is long-overdue.

And as such, it's difficult where to begin, especially as my lack of coverage of Bring Me The Horizon, especially in recent years, has felt conspicuous. Hell, I wound up seeing them live at a festival last year before I actually covered any of their albums, and while I've talked around them at very points, I've rarely addressed them directly. 

So let's piss off everyone all at once: Bring Me The Horizon is the classic example of an act that got a lot better by selling out, and selling out hard. They started off as a middling deathcore act that was about as intolerable as they came, but they quickly made a hard pivot towards regular metalcore and as early as 2013's Sempiternal began pulling from more accessible pop rock and electronic music. And while the content still wasn't all that gripping - lyrics have remained consistently underwhelming for this group, at least for me - it was the pivot that won the band a lot of traction, helped along by a major label contract with RCA and Sony. And from there, with every layer of electronics and softening of frontman Oliver Sykes' voice, the band saw more and more success, and by the time That's The Spirit dropped in 2015, they were getting critical acclaim to boot... and I just couldn't get into them. Yes, like everyone I can admit that 'Avalanche' is a fantastic song, but I've already mentioned my issues with the lyrics and I've never quite been grabbed by their hooks and I'd point to the larger issues being one of dynamics. For as anthemic and huge as Bring Me The Horizon try to be, the production rarely showcased the subtlety or colour to drive it home, and for all the symphonic bombast... look, I come from symphonic metal, I've seen it done right, and Bring Me The Horizon just never stuck the landing.

But hey, apparently with Amo they're going even more mainstream with even more synthetic layers, 'eaten by the Imagine Dragon' to quote my friend and fellow critic Crash Thompson aka The Rock Critic - go check his stuff out, it's excellent - and other critics have already started over-praising it, so what the hell: what did Bring Me The Horizon bring with amo?

So here's the thing: since Bring Me The Horizon has the reception among critics of being the 'good one' to like, I've seen a lot of comparisons being made to this project in a furtive attempt to justify the shift in sound, specifically to A Thousand Suns by Linkin Park. And as the guy who still genuinely likes that album to this day, I feel it's necessary to say this: like hell it is! Say what you will about the superficial change in tones, but Linkin Park had a command of atmosphere and dynamics and weren't so willing to fall in line with modern trends, to say nothing of real thematic ambition - even if it didn't work for you, they were certainly aiming high! And yet at the same time I can't say that Bring Me The Horizon was another act devoured by the Imagine Dragon either - yeah, this is easily their softest album to date, but the tonal and production choices don't have an easy parallel to modern pop trends, at least not directly. If anything, the comparison that came most to mind for me was a mid-2010s Fall Out Boy album: overmixed, a bit too overwritten and self-aware for its own good, and yet just filled with enough good melodies to be mostly passable. 

And keep in mind that this review is coming from someone who doesn't have volumes of history with the band and who was never quite won over either on their deathcore side or the more accessible pivot throughout the 2010s, so I'm not coming into this with the extreme sense of whiplash that diehard fans might feel, especially those who have been around from the start. And given a read through liner notes and Genius annotations highlights how much the band is interpolating or sampling their own work - a dicey proposition at best that can scream of recycling if done poorly - this does not feel like a deliberate 'sellout move' so much as a progression along a path begun on Sempiternal. Of course, it gets even riskier when the band seems to outright turn on their fanbase who has persisted throughout the past decade on songs like 'why you gotta kick me when I'm down' and 'heavy metal' - self-aware, sure, but maybe not the best idea to highlight sounds and tones you've consciously left behind with that degree of scorn. And hell, with a song like 'MANTRA', it's hard to ignore how just how easily its message of false prophecy could apply to Bring Me The Horizon's own relationship with their fanbase, especially given how they follow it with 'nihilist blues' and highlight exactly how they might not be the right sort of person to be followed or revered.

In fact, let's stay on the content for a bit, because if I were to highlight an odd frustration I have with amo, it's how scattered and thematically diffuse it can feel. Now this has been an issue with Bring Me The Horizon pretty consistently, but the pileup of drama and real-life tragedy can be a lot to absorb, from the collapse of Sykes' marriage and newfound love to the death of his friend from cancer, which when intermingled with the tumultuous commentary on the band's sound and direction... well, if pure information and emotional overload was a goal, I can certainly hear it. But I'm not sure the blend of self-aware commentary and real emotive upheaval comes together quite as well as it should - go to a song like 'sugar honey ice & tea' which describes how people are filled with these metaphorical substances for all of their opinions, but even tilting into nihilistic self-awareness it can sure as hell ring as sarcastic and sanctimonious, especially when paired with songs like 'why you gotta kick me when I'm down?' and 'heavy metal' and 'wonderful life' - and that can ring as a really obnoxious clash when the emotional drama roars to the forefront, even if Sykes isn't giving himself a pass. I dunno, the writing has the feel of someone self-deprecating to give himself an excuse to be an asshole and then trying to garner a sincere reaction to his drama, and while fans might more onboard with it, when you pair it with maximalist framing that cranks everything to eleven, it can be more than a little hard to stomach.

And yet most people aren't talking about the content. Nope, this is where the conversation circles back to the production and instrumentation, where Sykes took more of a role than ever in shaping the sound... and look, I'm not against the pop-infused metal approach on principle. Devin Townsend has been doing it for years, BABYMETAL's got their spin on it, and hell, Grimes herself worked with Poppy last year on 'Play Destroy' which did that very thing and that was nearly one of my favourite songs of 2018, so I wasn't surprised to see her here! But if I'm going to use Devin Townsend as an example of how to take this sound to eleven as Bring Me The Horizon so desperately want to do - 'i don't know what to say' has been described by the band as 'orchestra-meets-metal' seemingly without awareness that symphonic metal exists - we have to talk about the two consistent problems I've had with Bring Me The Horizon: mixing and dynamics. The most glaring issue is how Matt Kean's gummy bass tone can feel fused into the percussion and downtuned guitars, and that's assuming the drums themselves aren't getting programmed towards frenetic blurs of scratching or trap progressions, which means that the grooves can occasionally feel heavy, but lacking interplay or dynamics. And the unfortunate side effect to that is given how busy and borderline compressed the guitarlines and synths are in the midrange and top of the mix - along with Sykes' vocals, which span clean singing, a scream that we don't hear enough of and falsetto that we could absolutely do without, as well as the vocal samples and child choirs that can only add to the headache - the songs can feel really top heavy. Now I guess I'll give them some credit for trying to add interludes to split things up and force contrast, from the ghostly opener to the scratchy, desaturated keys, breakbeat drumming, pitch-shifting and blurry synth buzz of 'ouch', to the wispy hollowness that switches into a synth-inflected bass knock of 'fresh bruises', but these feel more like overmixed genre exercises than fully formed songs, and they nearly all run long. Now that's not saying there aren't moments or hooks I like despite all this, because again, on a compositional level Bring Me The Horizon can write some rock songs with real impact - the grinding crush of 'MANTRA' is absolutely overmixed and didn't have to drown Sykes' screaming on the post-chorus, but the hook is really good especially off the symphonic swell on the second verse, and as much as 'wonderful life' and 'heavy metal' don't quite have the impact as I was hoping, the potential in the hooks is there. Hell, replace unnecessary child choir with multi-tracking from Sykes on 'why you gotta kick me when I'm down' and you've got the sort of crushing trap-pop-rock fusion with the blaring synths that twenty-one pilots can occasionally knock out of the park. As it is, I dig the song - hell, step away from how 'conventional' it is and I'd say 'medicine' also works, especially with the synth melody, I certainly prefer it to the most blatant mainstream attempt with the love song 'mother tongue' or the choppy 'in the dark' with that tinny synth, vocal fragment, and inability to take off properly. And while I'm on that topic, then you have the overblown bass and buzzy atmosphere of the synth-rock of 'nihilist blues'... and look, I think it's alright enough, but everyone is buried under so many layers that any hint of real edge or intensity is absolutely gone - at least when Ghost made 'Dance Macabre' with an obvious dance focus, there was a good groove.

So as a whole... look, I'm not going to say I'm out of my element with this, I do see the appeal of a project like amo and I get its position within Bring Me The Horizon's progression - and I'll say this for the band, this direction at least feels intentional and a natural outgrowth of their previous few projects - just because mainstream rock converged in that direction as well is not Bring Me The Horizon's fault. That said, if there is a band that misunderstands the best way to maximize their strengths, it is this band, because self-awareness doesn't justify thematic incoherence and huge hooks don't justify overproduction, especially when you lose effective crescendos and effective grooves along the way. And when I've got that Poets of the Fall album from late last year and new Devin Townsend coming this year... yeah, this doesn't get there for me. I'm thinking a 6/10, recommended for the diehard fans who'll be along for everything, or maybe those who are looking for the easiest jump-on point. Otherwise... folks, I get the impression Bring Me The Horizon are going to start eating their own tail soon, and that could lead to dire straits indeed. Eh, we'll see what happens.

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