Review Summary: A line-up change prompts a welcome reinvention for Welsh pop-rockers The Automatic.
It's been quite a while since I've bought a pop album whose singles have made it onto commercial radio here in the UK. These last few months have seen a resurgence of punk rock and hardcore in my listening habits; it's not that I've actively avoided pop music, it's just that nothing in the charts has caught my interest in a while. However, if you'd told me six months ago that I'd soon be buying an album by The Automatic, I'd probably have laughed in your face. Y'see, when these four Welsh lads entered the public consciousness back in 2006, they seemed like some kind of indie-rock parody of "alternative" music at the time - debut single "Monster" while catchy and intially quite amusing, simply bolted big pop-punk melodies onto a pretty simplistic indie-disco beat, and in what seemed like a transparent attempt at appealing to fans of "that screamy music all the kids are listening to these days," the band elected to include some hideous squealy yelping from synth-player Alex Pennie. The other singles were similar in style, but far less catchy, and all equally ruined by Pennie's ridiculous vocal tics. In short, The Automatic were at best, a very average indie band, and at worst, a joke.
So, imagine my surprise upon seeing the video for This Is a Fix
's lead single "Steve McQueen;" gone was the aforementioned irritating keyboardist, and in his place ex-YourCodeNameIs:Milo
vocalist/guitarist Paul Mullen. The song itself is as catchy as anything they've done previously, with lead vocalist/bassist Rob Hawkins turning in a far stronger vocal performance than ever before, a complete lack of the disco beats and synths, and a much darker and more urgent tone to the music. There's a middle-eight section just before the final chorus which, having heard their older material, would be where you'd expect to hear a cloud of synth bleeps and some kind of screechy wig-out courtesy of Pennie. However, in absence, we are treated to some fine vocal interplay between Hawkins, Mullen, and other guitarist Paul Frost, before a particularly epic final chorus bolstered with full-band gang vocals. The end result is a remarkably catchy and solid pop-rock song, one which is indicative of the album as a whole.
The songwriting throughout is generally far more focused than that of previous album Not Accepted Anywhere
; every song is packed with memorable hooks and melodies, largely avoiding the novelty lyrics or general cheesiness the band were previously known for. While it would be unfair to the rest of the band to give new addition Mullen all the credit for this, he's certainly made his presence felt in a very positive way here. Contributing heavily to the vocal side of things, he provides some strong vocal harmonies and the occasional trade-off with Hawkins, and even takes on lead vocals on some tracks, including forthcoming single "Magazines" (a definite highlight, with something of an R&B influence), and "This Is a Fix" (probably the most rock-orientated track to be found here). Providing a second guitar, he's brought with him some of the fretboard freakery of YCNI:M, but rather than push The Automatic's sound towards the progressive post-hardcore of his old band, he's incorporated his style subtly and successfully, peppering the songs with wandering lead parts and melodies which complement the songs rather than overpower them. In fact, the aforementioned title track is the one which shows Mullen's influence the most heavily, and it's arguably one of the best to be found here. However, after all this talk of guitars, it must be said that the synths haven't been abandoned completely. Apparently Mullen and Frost are now sharing keyboard duties, and thankfully they've decided to throw the random bleepy maelstroms of old out of the window, instead using the synths to play actual melodies, like the ones which carry the subdued verses of "In the Mountains" and accent the vocal melodies in power-ballad-of-sorts "Make the Mistakes."
Despite my praise of The Automatic's apparent reinvention, there are a few weaknesses to be found within the album. "This Ship" and "Light Entertainment" aren't BAD songs per se, but the former probably should have been left as a B-side, and the latter doesn't exactly make a strong closer to the record; both are good songs in their own right, but don't exactly live up to the promise of the rest of the album. "Bad Guy," while being a rather raucous little number, features some uninspired and at times rather embarassing lines which recall uncomfortable memories of the previous album's lyrical missteps. However, despite these few mishaps, This Is a Fix
reveals new suprises with every listen, and is on the whole a very strong pop-rock album, with a far greater depth and variety than anyone could have expected.