Tuesday, October 1, 2019

album review: 'hot motion' by temples

You know, this is the third time I've reviewed a Temples album and had the feeling that either everyone else is missing something in the experience... or it's just me and I'm maybe putting a band on a pedestal that doesn't belong there.

And that's a pretty rare thing for me - normally I'm confident when I praise an album I can point to exactly everything that works so damn well, and I'd like to say the same thing about Temples... but it feels a little less tangible with this band, especially as I've come down pretty heavily on blatant retro throwbacks with oblique lyrics before. Normally my answer has been, 'well, the compositions are so remarkably catchy and hook-driven to match a well-produced mix and underrated songwriting, that has to be it'... but outside of specific songs I don't tend to revisit Temples albums in the same way I do other acts I've praised to hell and back... until I put together end of the year lists and enjoy them back to front all over again! And while a bunch of musicians tend to agree with assessments of this band, a lot of critics don't - pretty consistently too, especially coming on their pop pivot with Volcano in 2017 that I loved just as much as their 2014 debut. So yes, I was setting myself up to adore this album and probably make many of the same defenses, even if this time it looked like critical reception was harsher than ever, but screw that: how was Hot Motion?

You know, this is the second time in 2019 where after two albums I'd put among the best of their respective years an act defaults into a chunkier, more guitar-driven garage-adjacent sound and I wind up just being less interested as a whole... and sadly, like with Kyle Craft and Showboat Honey, Hot Motion by Temples does feel like a step back for the band. And while the frontman has said that Volcano was driven by second-guessing what people wanted from the band in its increasingly dense melodic layers, it's hard not to feel like Hot Motion is considerably more calculated and a lot less layered and deep, across the board. In other words, while I can still see much of the template that I've liked about Temples for the past few albums, Hot Motion feels patchier, not so much leaner and heavier as it is just... less of what made the band so compelling - still good, but not great and nowhere close to what they've delivered in the past.

And what's exasperating is that at the core, Temples haven't changed up their sound much at all: still a huge, cavernous mix that allows for booming percussion, potent bass grooves, and frontman James Edward Bagshaw's voice to ride his multi-tracking and peal across the mix, and all with the sort of vintage, analog warmth and texture that's sounds like it was yanked straight from late 60s psychedelic rock, echoing across the decades. And again, I like this foundation: it's propulsive, it's rich and textured, and it sets the table for the intricate interweaving guitar and synth melodies that have always been this band's greatest strength. But while some people were skeptical in Temples' synthpop pivot across Volcano, it's hard not to feel like the band massively overcorrected here, centering increasingly chunky, distorted guitarlines at the forefront, with most of the nimble intricacy and interplay just outright gone. Take a cut like 'The Howl', where there is a very stark, fuzzy guitar lead that remains as catchy as ever against the marching band cadence and lockstep groove... but all the keyboards contribute is backing texture and the occasional flourish. So not only have you stripped out the brightest, most distinctive element of your compositions, you're centering a distorted lead that carries less tune with its timbre that in the annals of modern garage rock has become a go-to sound. 

And that's not saying that Temples can't assemble a real hook regardless - that's always been their specialty, and a lot of this album remains irrepressibly catchy - but the tones that build it just have less flair and colour, often not helped by the vocal melodies so closely matching the lead melody, and it makes these songs a lot easier to compare to other bands in this retro-leaning subsection of rock. And when Temples has never been the most edgy or visceral or alien or blissful band in psychedelic rock, you start looking for what makes this band more compelling or unique and this album starts coming up thin. Now again, that's not saying there aren't some great moments: the lead-off title track interweaves the bass with the lead-guitar and its countdown pretty effectively before the crunchy guitar slides in, the percussive melodic bombast of 'Context' sounds like exactly the sort of spiky Temples cut I adore - it's probably the best song here - there's a shrill jauntiness to 'The Beam' and 'Step Down' that wound up pretty endearing, and I dug the abrupt fuzzy change-up cutting across 'Atomize', which is very much outside of the band's usual wheelhouse. But on the flip side, when you have a cut like 'Not Quite The Same' that winds up meandering that only amps up tension when the guitar line just mimics the bass, or the weirdly flat melody behind 'It's All Coming Out' where the guitar transition feels wonky as hell, and that's not counting the moments that slide towards the dreamy, listless side of psychedelic rock that's just not all that interesting - and Bagshaw's falsetto doesn't always hit as well as it should - and the low points really do stand out.

And then there's the lyrics. Now I've given Temples far more credit than most in highlighting their self-awareness when it comes to their artistic process and the authority figures that they seem to regard with bemusement as they destroy themselves; pretty much the main themes behind Volcano, and I liked the level of detail that slid into painting an abstract but fascinating picture. So when Hot Motion feels even more disconnected and seems to be retreading similar ground but with thinner writing as a whole, it can't help but get really distracting really fast, especially when paired with the sort of pseudo-apocalyptic framing that I'm really starting to get sick of at this point. More to the point, it's starting to feel more than a little detached from any sense of urgency, which is kind of ironic considering the biggest force that drives any conflict on these songs from the countdown on the title track to the changing times on 'Not Quite The Same' to what seems like acceptance of the shift on 'Monuments'. Hell, both 'The Howl' and 'Step Down' seem like they're calling out that authority figure to quit playing the idiot and accept the consequences of coming irrelevance, and the band seems self-aware enough to see how this could apply to them across 'It's All Coming Out', but their observations of that creative impulse to work through it feels less impactful, falling into the bliss of the moment rather than parsing it, most blatantly obvious with the bemused 'You're Either On Something'. And here's the thing: that's a part of psychedelic music, that relaxing into creativity, so I'm not surprised to see that exchange and attunement of ideas described on 'Holy Horses' and 'The Beam' and 'Atomize', along with recognizing that give-and-take of artist and audience through song on 'Context', but one of the reason Temples stood out was their embrace of a more studied meticulousness, bringing a focus that on this project rarely materializes, leading to a thinner listen.

And that's kind of where I fall on Hot Motion as a whole - an overcorrection in composition and a listening experience that just doesn't have the spark that I've heard from them in the past. The hooks aren't quite as vibrant, the meatier riffs aren't as dynamic, and paired with writing that isn't quite as impressive, the album has the feel of a rock-leaning pivot that sacrifices some of what made Temples so special. There are snippets, to be sure, and I'm not really surprised they did this after the mixed reception to Volcano, but I am disappointed they chose this direction, which is why I'm giving it a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but not as much as their first two albums. I can only hope things swing around from here, but I hope it's not based off of anything I or anyone else says; maybe then the magic will come back. We'll have to see.

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