Review: Choke Up – Black Coffee, Bad Habits

Choke Up - Black Coffee, Bad Habits reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - British punk, hardcore and emo blog

Straight out of the musical hotbed that is Boston comes Choke Up, four punk rock dudes who ‘love the Weakerthans and King of the Hill’. With a heady mix of emotional hardcore outbursts and pop punk hooks, Black Coffee, Bad Habits fits nicely into the current alternative musical spectrum. At times sounding like a more grown-up Real Friends, at others like a more melodic Gnarworlves, and occasionally like how you imagine Fugazi would have turned out had they formed in the noughties and swapped politics for pizza.

Lyrically the record pretty much sticks to genre conventions of girls, growing up, and giving up on where you’re from (see Robyn’s excellent article ‘The Seven Basic Pop-Punk Songs’ for more on this) but the vocals are the real trump card here, switching from vicious screams one second to hook-drenched harmonies the next. At times sounding like Vinnie Caruana at his most bitter, before drowning in the guttural depths of a Rites Of Spring-esque tirade, and even bearing resemblance to Gerard Way’s stream of consciousness on early MCR, they soar above the nasal fauxmerican offerings of similar pop-punkers. I defy anyone not to furiously fist-pump their way through the screamo rant that concludes ‘My Oh My’… it’s fucking glorious stuff. It’s just a shame that sometimes the guitars struggle to keep up. They’re perfectly played and full of catchy melodies and driving riffs, but I’d personally like a little more feedback, squall, and general punk rock chaos to match the rawness of the vocals.

The record offers a couple of genuine surprises when the band ease up on the distortion and deliver two stunning acoustic tracks. Both ‘Polka Dots’ and ‘Dry Out’ tick all of the emo singer-songwriter boxes with the former’s stomping percussion and latter’s lilting slide guitars lending an authentically alt-country vibe. With confessional lyrics and a fragile vocal delivery, neither would be out of place on a Bright Eyes record. Despite the change of tact, these songs sit perfectly on the grand scheme of the record instead of feeling like the token acoustic offerings that plague the end of many lesser albums. In fact, when taken as a whole, Black Coffee, Bad Habits is beautifully sequenced, with real thought given to the order of tracks and how they flow into each other. Given that these days too many acts drop EP after EP without ever committing to a full-length record, this 14-tracker feels like a real statement of intent. Impressively strong for a debut album, it rewards repeated listens with an admirable variety of styles and never outstays its welcome.

The only criticism that I can really make of this record is that it can be hard to define exactly what makes Choke Up unique. There are a lot of bands peddling this sound at the moment and, although these guys do it so much better than most, they’re going to have to shout pretty loud to stand out in such a crowded scene. While listening to the record, there have been plenty of occasions when I’ve thought ‘this bit sounds like this band’ and ‘that bit sounds like that other band’. Being fortunate enough to grow up during the glory years of third-wave emo, I’ve maybe been spoilt by such reference points, but for the kids of today Choke Up could well be their Movielife or even their Brand New. This band have real potential for progression and if Black Coffee, Bad Habits is their ‘Your New Favourite Weapon’, I can’t wait for their ‘Deja Entendu’!

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4 out of 5 high fives!

Notes From The Keybed – This Month In Synths [January 2015]

So new year new music, something we’re very excited about here at Synth News … especially if it’s of the keyboard-smashing, filter-tweaking, sub-destroying variety, which is exactly what we have in store for you this month!

At the close of last year, we were sent the new single from impossibly young Norwegian synth-pop artist Aurora. ‘Under Stars’ features beautiful stacked vocal harmonies over a sublime electronic backing, and glitchy arpeggios punctuated by thundering drums and soaring strings. Definitely from the more-is-more school of production, the sheer wall of sound is enough to grab your attention! Despite this, it never overwhelms Aurora’s voice, which possesses a calmly affecting tone along the lines of Imogen Heap. Devotees of Ms Heap’s vocal-led electronica will surely lap this up, but the gentle sound palette and abstract lyrics will also appeal to fans of Regina Spektor and Paul Thomas Saunders. Aurora’s previous single ‘Awakening’ has been streamed nearly a million times on Spotify – with new material of this calibre, it won’t be long before she surpasses that impressive total. Certainly one to watch in 2015!

This month’s random ‘synth punk’-tagged Bandcamp find comes from a rowdy bunch of punx with keyboards based in Massachusetts, USA. ‘Cassingle’ by The Pins And Needles is a delicious slice of proto-punk with two synths, a drum kit, and a lot of shouting. Remember when The Horrors were a genuinely alternative band instead of just a glossy shoegaze soundtrack? Well this two-track EP brings back joyous memories of the likes of ‘Jack The Ripper’, had it been recorded in a garage …  straight to tape … with one microphone. It’s messy, offensive on the ears, and made all the better by the fact that two of the band run their own DIY cassette-issuing record label. Wonderful stuff.

Another vital new release is the third EP from the epically named We Shall Meet In The Place Where There Is No Darkness. We’ll get onto their fantastic genre-spanning electronica shortly but firstly, a few words of journalistic integrity … I’ve been good friends with the core protagonists of the band, drummer Ben Cullimore and multi-instrumentalist Michael Wynn, for a few years now, having shared stages a number of times with them across various projects. This led to me contributing some synth parts to their 2012 EP ‘Banzai 711’, following which we did a couple of performances before the reality of having members living in multiple counties (and countries) kicked in. The band now operates as an open collective, with almost as many contributing members as words in their impressively literary moniker! For ‘The Island’ the group have expanded to include new vocalist Flossie T and guitarist Richard Webb, with virtuosic bassist Liam Lee-Hynes completing the personnel alongside the aforementioned Ben and Michael.

Now that’s out of the way and I won’t be subject to a #synthgate witch-hunt, it is fortunate really that the music is utterly brilliant. The sound of this record moves away from the Joy Division goes DFA 1979 of previous work into a New Order of disco-infused new wave, with classic pop songwriting sitting comfortably alongside organic synth textures. Throughout the EP, you can hear the time and effort that has gone into selecting and integrating the electronic sounds –  refreshing in today’s climate, where too many indie bands will call up a generic Logic preset and play some vaguely in-key synthesiser melody in order to satisfy hipster cravings. Instead the synths drift along wistfully in both tuning and timing, giving a much-needed human quality to this usually mechanical genre. Lead single ‘The Boy’ is the standout selection, as gloriously 80’s synths and staccato drum machine fills fight for your attention alongside infectious vocal hooks. The slap bass and disco guitar chops might be a little too funkalicious for some tastes, but in a year where Nile Rodgers’ Chic can be found in the upper echelons of festival line-ups, I wouldn’t bet against this making a comeback! WSM… fit in nicely between this disco revival and modern radio pop’s electronic dominance, supplemented by a refreshingly dark realism recalling the glory days of Depeche Mode. You can download ‘The Island’ now from their Bandcamp.

Amanda Palmer is a keyboard-shredding queen, pounding the hell out of a piano throughout the Dresden Dolls. She’s also an incredible writer, as shown by her book ‘The Art Of Asking’ – anyone involved in music, writing, theatre or any other creative endeavour seriously needs to pick up a copy now. But, best of all, she makes the insanely tasteless Yamaha SHS-10 keytar look cool …

Amanda Palmer Keytar - TwoBeatsOff.co.uk

To put things into perspective, this is an instrument that comes with Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’ as a demo song. It has crappy little mini keys that make a child’s fingers look big. And it’s made of bright red plastic, probably with its CE sticker from the 80’s still intact. Yet the fabulous Ms Palmer has been known to crack one of these out with The Grand Theft Orchestra, even making an appearance on her famous Kickstarter campaign video. Just Google Amanda Palmer + keytar and be prepared to have all of your preconceptions shattered. Just goes to show, it’s the player not the instrument that matters and that’s why she is this month’s Keytar Hero (still looks naff on everyone else though).

Review: Lanterns – This Is Not My Home

Lanterns - This Is Not My Home reviewed on TwoBeatsOff.co.uk - West Midlands punk, rock and alternative blog

Gloucester punks Lanterns release their new record on Monday, and they’re certainly not afraid to talk about their feelings. The band is the new brainchild of Joe Banyard, who often performs clever and pretty acoustic songs under the utterly brilliant or horrendously cringy pseudonym (take your pick) The Joe Banyard Sexperience, and he’s recruited former Still Bust drummer Sam Piper, Kav Townsend and Brogan Wilson to join him on a full band ride. While locals of the Gloucestershire scene will recognise a fair few songs on the record from Joe’s solo project, This Is Not My Home is a shining example of good, honest songwriting, and a masterclass in reinvention.

The eight-track album is short and sweet, but cleverly tied together by a series of tracks labelled ‘Happiness’, each with its own distinct identity. ‘Happiness Pt 1′ heads up the record with some beautiful vocals and proper jangly guitars. It’s rousing stuff, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. ‘Happiness Pt 2′ in comparison is totally different – mostly just guitars, with a haunting echo effect on the vocals, and slots in nicely as a quiet reminiscence. ‘Happiness Pt 3′ instead brings it back up to eleven – an anthemic rendition about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting it all back together, it’s fast and fun with a bloody fantastic build up at the end.

Although the ‘Happiness’ trio might be the glue holding it all together, there’s a lot more in store. ‘The Best You’ll Never Have’ is typically introspective and blissfully simple, but what it lacks in intricacy, it more than makes up for in emotion. Every track on This Is Not My Home is full of melody and soul, including lead single ‘Moving On’. A triumphant, heartwarming proclamation, this Gaslight Anthem-esque track is the shining star of the album. It might be a bit of a change of pace for Banyard and Piper, but you’d never know it – the songs translate so well from acoustic anthems to punk rock bangers. This is especially so in the case of ‘Safe With Me’. A live favourite, its shout-along final verse rounds the record off perfectly, and it’s given a power it could never have achieved as just an acoustic track. It’s not to say that every song’s improved by this reinvention because they were great to start with, but they’re given a whole new lease of life which has the potential to open up some exciting new possibilities.

Produced by local hero Dave Draper, This Is Not My Home sounds absolutely huge. It’s tricky to balance punk rock with clean melodies at the best of times, but in Draper’s capable hands, the record strikes the perfect tone. Every raw part feels that way, and every tuneful chorus rings out clearly. As experienced musicians, it was probably an easy decision for Lanterns to eschew the typical ‘do it at home on Garageband’ rite of passage for their debut, and it pays off extraordinarily well. Already, they’ve established what will surely become a signature sound, and it’s always nice to have a record that matches such a great live presence.

Lanterns have truly set the bar high so early in the year, and This Is Not My Home will surely be sticking around in your stereo for many months to come. Eloquent, heartfelt and charming, it’s one of the most impressive debuts I’ve heard in a long time and is a great sign of things to come.

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4.5 out of 5 high fives!

The Seven Basic Pop-Punk Songs

You may or may not have heard of a book called The Seven Basic Plots. According to Christopher Booker’s enormous tome, there are only seven basic plots in all of literature, and that everything else is just a derivative from those plots. Well, I’m here to tell you that actually, there are only really seven pop-punk songs. You’ve been to a pop-punk show, you own a Blink-182 album or two. You know it to be true! So without further ado, here’s the seven basic pop-punks and how to spot them.

1. Hometown Blues, Thy Name is Ennui

The first, and possibly the most recognisable pop-punk song, is the one about hating where you come from. And is this not something we’ve all experienced, predominately when we’re about 16 and it feels like the whole world outside of our suburban hellholes is just waiting to be discovered? Plenty of people have made a lot of money writing about this kind of disillusion.

This pop-punk can be flipped on its head as well, and the common theme of ‘I left but dammit, I miss everything and I want to go home to my mum where everything is nice and simple forever’ isn’t exactly uncommon either. And just occasionally, you’ll find both sides slammed into the same song, which is really what it all ends up as when you’re a little bit older and wiser and not just pretending to be a teenager for the record label.

Top pop-punks: Simple Plan – I’m Just A Kid, Good Charlotte – Waldorfworldwide, Count To Four – Lavender Town (actually, this one is basically ALL of these pop-punks in one)

2. That Girl Ripped My Heart Out of My Chest and Pissed On It

Pop-punk found its roots in songs about girls. Descendents built pretty much a whole career on writing albums about their feelings, and Blink-182 perfected it on their classic track ‘Dammit’. And let’s face it, a pop-punk album wouldn’t be the same without a track about how a girl (or well, anyone really) totally broke the singer’s heart and how everything sucks.

Unfortunately, these days, there’s a lot of pop-punk bands who don’t know how to write about anything else, or how to acknowledge that actually, there might be some problems that are their own fault too and not just their lovers. Buuuuut sometimes, when you feel like you’ll be broken forever, there’s nothing like falling back on some good old-fashioned rage. It’s impossible to find a record that doesn’t have traces of heartbreak hidden all over it, or splashed wildly across it.

Top pop-punks: Real Friends – I’ve Given Up On You, Fall Out Boy – Sending Postcards From a Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here), Never Heard Of It – She’s A Dick

3. Positive Mental Attitude, Brah

Hey! Keep your chin up! Do something cool! It’s all about the PMA, dude. And pop-punk has got plenty of it. Far less anger about real important things than straight up punk, but with a sense of fun that punk can easily forget, pop-punk provides the great middle way, full of sugary, colourful fun. If pop-punk was a drink, it’d be orange soda, and not the diet kind.

These are my favourite kind of pop-punk tracks. They’re full of fun and life. These are the kind of tracks that pick me up when I’m down. They keep me on course, and they keep me thinking posi. And that’s what it’s all about. Keep it real, yo!

Top pop-punks: Millencolin – No Cigar, New Found Glory – Selfless, The Movielife – Me And You Vs Them

4. Hanging With The Bros Forever and Ever

It’s time to head out on tour and get crazy! There might lots of drinking, or even a few illicit narcotics, but there’s absolutely bound to be mad hijinks, skateboarding injuries and a prison trip. You guessed it – our next pop-punk trope is about hanging with your bros.

If there’s one thing pop-punk does well, it’s solidarity. All that bitching about your hometown and wasted opportunities just melts away into the background when your friends come into the mix. Just don’t forget that chicks can be bros too.

Top pop-punks: Set Your Goals – Summer Jam, Blink-182 – Reckless Abandon, Mest – Rooftops

5. I’m In Love and I Don’t Care Who Knows It

Of course, before all the torment and the heartbreak, there has to be love. And a good pop-punk love song has absolutely no competition. Pure of heart with loads of melody, you can’t help but feel swept up in a romance that isn’t even yours. And if you are madly in love, then every single song describes how you feel, because they’re way more real and appropriate than anything the Beatles did, or anything in a musical, right?

As one of the happier pop-punk tropes, it’s also one of my top ones. I’ve had a pop-punk romance playlist going since about 2005 and I’ve got no sign of slowing that down.

Top pop-punks: Sugarcult – Lost In You, Say Anything – Crush’d, Candy Hearts – I Miss You

6. I’m Just In Touch With My Feelings, Jeez!

Pop-punk can be deep too, you know. It can reach down into the very essence of human emotion and get all introspective and speculative. Don’t you even accuse it of being pretty and vacuous. Of course, it’s not as brainy as emo, and many of pop-punk’s graduating class (like Brand New, and if anyone says the first record isn’t pop-punk, I’ll fight you) have moved onto bigger, more serious art forms.

However, something neat tends to happen when pop-punk gets serious. Whether it’s battling personal demons, figuring out where it all went wrong or even just trying to decide where to turn to next, a lot of bands tend to turn out some of their best stuff when they start to think a little left-field. And that’s why we’ll never get a decent All Time Low record.

Top pop-punks: Descendents – When I Get Old, Amber Pacific – Follow Your Dreams Forget The Scene, Green Day – Redundant

7. I Hate Everything. Even That Puppy. And Your Mum.

Despite the assumption that pop-punk is a happy genre full of bouncy songs and floppy haircuts, it’s often filled with a lot of rage as we’ve seen above. However, a lot of the time, that rage is simply directed towards anyone and everything, because let’s face it – everything sucks.

Bands like Descendents absolutely own tracks like this, but they do it in a way that isn’t cliché or overstated, opting for a bit of humour instead. Of course, you can go the other way entirely, but virtually everyone knows ‘I’m Not A Loser’ and can’t remember the name of that song by those dudes who supported New Found Glory one time, so I guess they can suck it.

Top pop-punks: Say Anything – Hate Everyone, Descendents – Everything Sucks, Midtown – Empty Like The Ocean

Don’t get me wrong – for all my gentle mocking, I love a lot of pop-punk. But I’m yet to truly uncover a pop-punk track that doesn’t somehow fit into these broadly termed categories. Go on, pop-punk kids of the internet – prove me wrong. Write me a song that doesn’t fit into emotions typically associated with being in your teens or twenties. Or, if you’ve found another basic pop-punk trope, stick your answers on a postcard and email them to ripper@twobeatsoff.co.uk! Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put the entire New Found Glory discography on repeat forever and ever and ever.

If Rock Died, 2014 Saw Its Resurrection

About a month ago I was eagerly awaiting the band announcements for Download: Slipknot, one of my all time favourites, awesome to have them back; Muse, fantastic live band and a great headliners; then last and definitely least, Kiss. Why did it have to be Kiss? Why ruin what was looking to be such an enjoyable line-up? Why really shit up my 2015?!

So, where does my dislike of ‘one of the greatest bands in rock’ – not my words, not my opinion – come from? My dislike comes largely from the thoughtless, overly dramatic, idiotic mouth of Gene Simmons, the so-called ‘God of Thunder’, even though he didn’t even write that song. If you’ve been living in a cave for the last few months, let me fill you in on the stupidity he has spewed forth: Firstly, before we even get to “Rock is Dead”, Simmons had some pretty dumb shit to say about depression:

“For a putz 20-year-old kid to say, ‘I’m depressed. I live in Seattle.’ F– you, then kill yourself. I never understand, because I always call them on their bluff. I’m the guy who says ‘Jump’ when there’s a guy on top of a building who says, ‘That’s it, I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to jump.’ Are you kidding? Why are you announcing it. Shut the f— up, have some dignity and jump!”

There is no misquoting, no taking out of context, that is what he said. To be fair, he cited the trauma his mother went through as an example of people dealing with a lot of trauma and bouncing back, but he failed to note that depression is mental illness. An ILLNESS, not a choice, not someone being ‘a bit miserable’, but an actual illness. You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken arm to shut the F up and do some heavy lifting. All he has done is shown his ignorance, his insensitivity, and alienated fans. Luckily, Nikki Sixx (recovering addict) called him out on this:

“It’s pretty moronic because he thinks everybody listens to him, that he is the god of thunder. He will tell you he is the greatest man on earth, and to be honest with you, I like Gene. But in this situation, I don’t like Gene. I don’t like Gene’s words, because … there is a 20-year-old kid out there who is a Kiss fan and reads this and goes, ‘You know what? He’s right. I should just kill myself.’ For people who are depressed, there is a way out. There are many, many ways out.”

That’s right, shut the F up Gene.

Rock is Dead, it was Murdered

Shortly after pissing me off with his comments about depression, Simmons decided to get dramatic once again. In an interview with Esquire, he announced “rock is dead” and that this wasn’t a natural death, “it was murdered” by illegal downloads and file sharing. Okay, I’ll give him a little credit, illegal downloads have hurt the music industry, but killed rock? Why is rock dead and why is it the only genre shouldering this burden?

Does buying the albums make much of a difference? Well, it certainly did, but times change and so does the industry. The failure of a system calls for evolution, not bitching and whining about a time when things were easier. I remember being at a Lostprophets gig (back before, you know, all of the shit hit the fan) when the band called on fans to illegally download their music, if that meant they would listen to it more. This is what bands want, fans listening to their music; fans turning up to gigs. This is where bands make money and their reputation, live shows are what it is all about. “But young bands never get the chance to play big venues any more!” Oh really? Well as BMTH were telling 12,500 people in a sold-out Wembley Arena to “fuck someone in the eye”, they’d probably disagree.

Slipknot, again to use one of my favourite bands as a favourite example, saw their album this year debut at number one on the US Billboard. Shawn ‘Clown’ Crahan said at the time: “Once again we have received the #1 album in the country, for the second album in a row. By achieving this, it reconfirms that our culture is still alive.” Rock isn’t dead; if anything it is coming back stronger.

Rock’s Righteous Resurrection

Rock and metal are creeping back into popular culture, just look at radio air-time. The increasing amount of pop-rock spread throughout the charts is a sign that we might be close to a turning point, but even on top of this, full-blooded rock and metal are getting more traction too. Radio 1 have added BMTH and Of Mice and Men to their playlist and Dan P Carter’s rock show has been moved from its unsociable late night position to three hours of Sunday evening prime time. Rock isn’t dead, it is just transforming to lure more fans in. For a great example of this, look no further than BMTH’s ‘Sempiternal’. Shaking off the pure-noise sound and shaving off some of the attitude which made them one of the most hated bands on the UK scene, they maintained their metalcore roots and laced them with hooks and melodies to draw you in before the breakdowns shatter your spine.

Asked for his opinion on the matter, Corey Taylor (vocalist of Stone Sour and Slipknot) said: “I think people put too much [focus] on sales. ‘Cause that doesn’t relate to how many people have heard it… I mean, we had three million views of the Knotfest live streams. You don’t get an award for that. We had so many million views of ‘The Negative One’ video and ‘The Devil In I’ video. You don’t get awards for that. So, for me, what we did was great.”

He continued: “Just the fact that we had 65,000, almost 70,000 people, over the weekend of Knotfest, I mean, that proves something, you know?! You don’t always need a platinum album to relate that to success. So, with all due respect to Mr. Simmons, he needs to get out more… It’s an ebb and flow. It’s like that probably every — what? — 10 [or] 15 years. There’s an ebb. But it’s definitely coming back.”

If rock has died, it has been quickly resurrected. There is still plenty of stuff to be angry about and as long as there is, there will be a place for rock, metal and punk. The genre isn’t dying a death, it’s coming back strong; possibly to fuck you in the eye…

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