Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This sugar pill

I was feeling horribly guilty about my last post when an e-mail arrived like a glimmering beacon in my inbox. 'Twas an opportunity sent from the world of Placebo to listen to their new album Battle For The Sun prior to its release. Granted, that's only two days away now, but No Matter! I saw it only as a chance to rectify my lazy posting with a live track-by-track account similar to my Bloc Party assessment.

But first, an introduction.

Placebo have been around for more than ten years now, and while they have flitted with the mainstream now and then they have been critically underrated. Generally, this is due to criticisms that the band have developed little since their 1996 inception, but I would argue it is precisely this familiarity, and variations on their own themes, that have led to their widespread popularity. Brian Molko's nasal snarl is one of the most distinctive voices in the industry, and their mix of edgy rock and po-faced introspection remains their selling point; unified by an aggressive energy across their catalogue. Their singles collection (2004's Once More With Feeling) proved they were efficient craftsmen of accessible rock, while remaining indebted to their gothic muse and while their albums are a string of consistently solid efforts, they have yet to create an unabashed masterpiece.

And so we come to
Battle For The Sun. Which could conceivably be a minor rebirth for the band due to a combination of a three year absence since 2006's Meds and the first with new drummer Steve Forrest (after the departure of Steve Hewitt). David Bottrill (whose credits excitingly include Muse, Tool and Silverchair) lends production duties while the engineer from Meds, James Brown (don't even think it) returns. Touted as a darker, heavier affair it is also the band's first concept album (insert sound of inhaling shock). First speaking to NME Magazine, Brian Molko had this to say:

"I believe
'Battle' to be the first of our albums to tell a story over the course of its 52 minutes. Our previous releases were really only collections of songs and even though the songs are ordered according to the musical flow, I hope that if you listen hard enough to the words that some kind of discernible thematic unity will begin to emerge."

It sounds like an ambitious record and a welcome return from one of Britain's most unique bands.
But now it's time to see if that's really the case...

1. Kitty Litter
A few choppy chords and we're straight into it and lyrically, we're dealing with some customary themes, namely desire, in this case in the impressionistic object of Molko's affection, or should that be sexual lust?
Just before the finale the song breaks down into handclaps and drums with Moko intoning "I need a change/ I need a change of skin." Ironically, this track isn't it. Placebo have a history of great opening tracks, from their debut's scintilatting
Come Home to Bulletproof Cupid on 2005's Sleeping With Ghosts, this however seems to break the run. It's Placebo by numbers.

2. Ashtray Heart
OK this is more like it, the song opens straight into a chorus, both in structure and in a mass of singers chanting something I can't quite decipher. We move to a quieter verse with a bouncing keyboard apreggiating in the background. There's a nice sing-a-long style pre-chorus before we return to that opening refrain. The rest of the track retains the same structure, save for a mild middle 8 section. It's not bad, but nothing special, perhaps an obvious single and thus it being so high in the tracklist.

3. Battle for the Sun
This track has already been heard by most, offered as a free download a few months back. Essentially it's very Placebo, which is to say it's reliably familiar in the same way the first two tracks are, but there's a rising ambition to it that sets it apart. A dissonant guitar line is built into a large rock workout, complete with a string arrangement to buff the main sound, the kind similar to a previous album cut like
Song To Say Goodbye. It demonstrates new drummer Steve Forrest's new dimension to the band, giving them a bit of a kick in the more energetic moments and providing some interesting rhythms and sounds in the verses.
There's some ominous lyrics too, particularly the refrain of "
Dream brother/my killer/my lover" as well as images of breaking bones and loaded guns. As the album's longest track it is given time needed to develop and grow, and surely will offer further rewards on repeated listens.

4. For What It's Worth
Chugging bass line and it's onward with the album, first verse "
The end of the century/I said my goodbyes/for what it's worth I always aim to please/but I nearly died." Then into the biggish chorus, the second verse has some cool falsetto that sounds like backing female vocalists and some more strings sliding about. The second chorus curiously breaks down into what sounds like an elaborate ring tone or a video game twittering in the background, later there's even a spattering of horns. This contains some deceptively experimental moments in the course of its sub-three minutes. Very cool.

5. Devil in the Details
A blipping synth moves in a descending pattern against a low-end bass and some hissing hi-hat from the drums. The album's first curse is a ripper too, "
He's a fucking pal of mine/that devil in the details." The chorus again seems to be fairly widescreen, that's not to say that Placebo haven't had a penchant for big sounds before; but there's a warmth and clarity to the kinds of choruses on this record so far that embrace space, as oppossed to previous records which favoured claustrophobia. A subtle difference, but interesting to note given this track's closing moments - they sound far bigger than three men.

6. Bright Lights
Speaking of oppositions... this starts with a bright, shiny keyboard part sparkling atop a wall of guitars. Reminds me of the first time I heard
Starlight by Muse, a keening, yearning pop hook from a band who usually decried such casual approaches. So too here, with Molko comforting "No one can take you away from me" it's even a little reminiscent of Editors' brooding arena rock. It's three and a half minutes go by pretty quickly, finishing with a couplet of "A heart that hurts/Is a heart that works"

...can't believe we're at track seven already.

7. Speak in Tongues
Suppossedly Molko's favourite track on the album. An intriguing texture opens the song with a looped riff played by both upper-register piano and, I dunno, is that xylophone? It's a beautiful effect none the less. This pattern gives way to big chugging power chords which then give way to a lilting refrain with a breathy mass of singers. Again there's a lighter touch here that flys in the face of the jagged, rougher edges of previous records. At this point, i'd have to agree with Mr. Molko, the best track thus far.

8. The Never-ending Why
Not such a surprise then that it should be juxtaposed with a dark crunchy opening like this. Interestingly though it soon shifts to a brighter sound, again with a plinking part atop the melody (xylophone again I think). Around the two-minute mark there's some pounding emphasis on the chords that has some horns amongst the mix again. The last few tracks seem to be setting a new consistentcy in sound of a brighter Placebo, with a richer palette.

9. Julien
A dance backbeat and a throbbing bass changes the pace a little. To sidetrack for a moment, it should be mentioned that Placebo have a history of electronic dalliances on their records from. Here though it soon goes back to 'rock mode', a shame really it was starting to get interesting. Even more disappointing is that the violin part makes it sound like a retread of the title track.
At this point, i've heard little of the 'concept album' happening, i've been keeping an ear out but there don't seem to be any of the regular signifiers, characters or story-telling, of a concept album. Even the lyrics don't seem to have any recurring motifs. Perhaps there'll be a revelation to come.
...oh by the way all this digression from the track at hand is because it seems to be pretty derivative.

10. Happy You're Gone
Ah, do we have a ballad on our hands? Slower tempo, a marching snare drum and gently strummed guitar ....oh guess not, like
Julien the interesting intro gives way to 'rock mode' once again, it's not bad, more a louder section that says 'we're at the chorus now.' It's a nice track otherwise, Molko's semi-whine has always suited itself to yearning, those strings rear their head again too.

11. Breathe Underwater
This sounds like old skool Placebo, i'm talking
Without You I'm Nothing era here. Nothing more, nothing less. It's slightly faster in tempo and higher in aggression to what's come before it, an enjoyable addition to the tracklist.

12. Come Undone
A pretty restrained start offers another track to track juxtaposition but is yet again undercut soon after it sets its mood with a brash shift into alt-rock territory. It's not only a shame that this keeps happening on Battle For The Sun, but also a little confusing given the title tracks' structure lending it time and space to develop, something that these later tracks aren't afforded. Are we rushing to the finish line or something? either way, what starts promisingly shifts to a pretty average rock song.

13. Kings of Medicine
Luckily, the album finishes strongy with this, possibly Placebo's most interesting arrangement to date. All the elements that usually make up their sound are pushed to the background in favour of piano, acoustic guitars and a full-on horn arrangement. As its size expands so too does its symphonic appeal. In spite of the fretting, pessimistic lyrics "Don't leave me here to pass through time/without a map or roadsign" it's given an optimistic mood by the colourful clarity of the mix.

And there you have it...

Upon reflection, my first point has to be that is categorically, not a concept album, no matter what Molko says, this is not their American Idiot or even their Black Parade, in fact it's almost the opposite. It feels more like a collection of songs than ever before, there's even - dare i say it - some filler (in the shape of Julien and Come Undone). To be fair, this is after only one spin - perhaps the charms of the lesser tracks will reveal themselves upon further exposure. But as far as a unifying theme or story that ties the album together - no dice.

But In fact Battle For The Sun can only be called a disapointment when measured against the anticipation set up for it's unveiling. It's not a concept album - disappointing, new drummer Steven Forrest doesn't change the dynamic much - disappointing, there's no major development in their sound even with all those strings and horns - disappointing. There are however, other surprises to be had instead. Those horns and strings aren't a contrived inclusion into the group's sound but a rich addition - surprising; there's a brighter, spacier bent to some of these tracks - surprising; the ambitious desire for a concept record hasn't resulted in Placebo disappearing up their own backsides - very surprising.

So in summation, it's the kind of record that Placebo have always made, and while its lack of winning reinvention won't grab new fans, it won't really upset their current diehards either. It's what I pointed out was so good about Placebo to begin with, it's a comfortably familiar, reliably solid album and sometimes, that's all you need.

1 comment:

  1. I must say I agree, unfortunately. I had tried hard to like this 'new sound' but it simply hasn't grown on me... It sounds too pop-ish, too common. It's different from their previous work, but not in good way. There are tracks I like (Julien, For what it's worth, King of Medicine, Come Undone and Breath Underwater) but they will probably never grow to be my favorites.

    Glad to see I'm not only one who thinks this way. :P