Review Summary: A consistent, diverse & theatrical mainstream rock LP which could have done with some extra mongrel.
Since the much-publicized defection of a certain "king" to South Beach recently, we have seen the return of the divisive debate that stacks a champion team up against a team of champions. If there is to be a musical equivalent to cause similar discussion, it could well be that of an album of consistency as compared to an album which is half-filled with quality standouts and half-filled with filler. Unless one lives in Utopia, it will be very rare that you will come across an album loaded with memorable tracks from beginning to end. Logic would dictate that the best compromise for an artist would simply be to minimize the damage made by the filler, and this is a skill which has been handled superbly by Australian rock quartet Birds of Tokyo in the past. On their third LP however, they have (purposefully or not) switched tack and released a rather consistent effort. Is it for the best? Well, that would depend on which side of the debate you take.
Whereas their first two albums - 'Day One' and 'Universes' - arguably contained clear highlights which stood out from the pack, their self-titled release does not. Ask ten people what their favorite track is here, and you may well get seven different responses. As a consequence, a case could be made that the distance between this album's best and worst songs is minimal. That is a positive, right? Not necessarily; an observation which can immediately be made since the two tracks which open this LP, have also been released as its first two singles. Opener 'Plans' is a smooth mid-tempo cut that initially seems underwhelming both musically and vocally, while lead single 'The Saddest Thing I Know' uses keys and a delayed guitar melody to add a theatrical element which recalls 'Black Holes and Revelations' era Muse. It is clear from the outset that 'Birds of Tokyo' will see the band's slickest production to date, clearly looking to take on the mainstream charts.
As with most rock songs designed to appeal to the masses, the critical perception is likely to be that the band is playing it too safe and simply not looking to offend. Yet, there is not a great deal missing from Birds Of Tokyo's winning formula in the aforementioned duo, other than the biting intensity which made past hits 'Wayside' and 'Silhouettic' such memorable fan favorites. To use a colloquialism, both cuts could do with some mongrel! Those concerned that the Perth quartet will live by the lyric of "I gotta know what fate has planned for me... I give in" (included on the closer) need not worry however, as the album goes on to show an impressive array of diversity, style and growth. The rockier, but no less catchy, 'Dark Side of Love' sees a better balance reached... The vocal transitions are much more natural on what probably should have been the lead single, while the rhythm section of Adam Weston and Anthony Jackson is allowed to shine.
As already touched on with the lead single, there is a newfound theatrical component evident on this self-titled release which was only flirted with briefly in the band's past. In a testament to the quartet's controlled manner of handling such a sound, tracks such as 'Wild At Heart' and 'Waiting For The Wolves' may be the closest thing to filler due to the lack of such elements. Grower 'In the Veins of Death Valley' utilizes a fantastic orchestral arrangement, multi-faceted seven minute closer 'If This Ship Sinks (I Give In)' melds piano, strings and soaring guitars brilliantly, while the polarizing vocals of both 'The Gap' and 'The Unspeakable Scene' display the kind of likeable eccentricity which separates Birds Of Tokyo from the mainstream rock pack.
Workhorse front-man Ian Kenny - who shares his time with progressive metal act Karnivool - is once more the star of the show here. While there are a few moments where he appears to be in cruise-control (arguably for the sake of accessibility), he still exhibits a vocal range that reveals just why he is seen by many as having the best voice in Australia. When his falsetto suggests "maybe with the lights out, we can be bad" on 'The Gap', it is equal parts playful and sinister. However, his time to shine comes on gorgeous ballad 'Circles', which includes a genuine goose-bump moment when Kenny lays bare "I don't know which way I'm supposed to spin in this circle". The vulnerability conveyed in just this one sentence is something singers all around the world can only fake replicating.
In reviewing this album upon its release, a local journalist made a strong comparison to outgoing Australian icons Powderfinger. Suggesting Birds of Tokyo have released "the right album at the right time", it is an interesting discussion point which initially seems not too far off the mark. The retaliatory question must be asked however: Which Powderfinger are we talking about here? The young up-and-comers who had something to prove and were up to the challenge of fully exploring their sound, or the veterans who knew what would sell records and had hit the cruise-control button. It seems that is yet another debate to emerge from what will undoubtedly be a polarizing release, with the consensus most likely to lie somewhere in the middle range. Even that may be short-selling ‘Birds of Tokyo’ though, since focusing on the relative deficiencies (when compared to their back catalogue) of this LP would be doing it a disservice, as it is still likely to be one of the mainstream rock albums of the year.
Recommended Tracks: Circles, If This Ship Sinks (I Give In), The Gap & Dark Side of Love.