Review Summary: RIYL: The same humdrum for about 37 minutes.
Reviewing independent releases can be a tricky undertaking for several reasons. We see the objectivity vs. subjectivity argument - and the loose interpretation and applicability of these constructs - all the time. What's the balance that we should strive for, exactly? Is a review more than just some self-righteous, Metacritic-endorsed dickhead relaying whether or not an album, film, or video game is 'good'? What about publications that influence the proverbial hivemind or new, casual, or uninformed consumers -- can we say with any certainty that professional standards or integrity exist, regardless of personal writing styles or artistic approaches? My philosophy is that writing with transparent probity and candor serves as a satisfying counterbalance to writing with credibility and intention. I don't think I've ever misled anybody into believing that I am a professional writer; in fact, I figured my self-deprecation is old hat by now. My goal is that, after reading, my audience knows what to expect from a record, why I liked or disliked it, and whether or not it'd be their cup of tea.
Taking the above into consideration makes reviewing Hagana's self-produced One Year
a bit challenging. The Scottish trio's album title chronicles the misfortune, heartbreak, or strange happenstances that each member endured from the first recording session to the final mixing day, a time that coincidentally lasted a calendar year. One Year
is a throwback in the sense that it sounds like an '80s new wave/pop rock album, but all the synthesizers have been replaced with crushing, grungy riffs that wonderfully couple with the outfit's pop sensibilities. To that effect, envision XTC's Skylarking
or Tears For Fears's Songs from the Big Chair
and integrate that with The Wildhearts, Troublegum
-era Therapy?, fellow countrymen The XCerts, and/or early Nirvana riffs for the core Hagana sound.
After an ineffectual intro, One Year
officially rips open with the anthemic "Voice for the Voiceless", featuring a bruising main riff reminiscent of early Therapy? but infectious enough to distance itself from sounding overly boilerplate. The song continues its aggressive tempo, pummeling along with the tried-and-true method of heavily palm-muted verses bookending a confident, energetic chorus. "Voice for the Voiceless"'s guitar lead, especially in the chorus, could stand to be pushed higher in the mix - a common theme heard throughout One Year
- but "Voice" also shines with its abrasive drumming and raucous bass. The track's final minute, specifically, is a highlight with its piercing cymbal crashes and distortion-laden guitars. Meanwhile, lead single "Fuzzy Punch" is decidedly radio-ready with its memorable hook, harmonized vocals, and another heavy-hitting main riff. "Fuzzy Punch" also provides a glimpse into the band's punk aesthetic, which is prominently displayed on tracks like "Wait a Minute", the to-and-fro "Candy Boy" with its sardonic snarl, and the hasty "Trousernose". As a closer, "Connect 4" is striking, and its final two minutes are wonderfully bombastic. Drummer David Chisholm worked double-time as the album engineer, and to his credit, he does a masterful job ensuring that the percussion is crisp and appropriately mixed. I also quite liked the sharp, cutting bass tones from Gary Pycroft and how clearly they resonate throughout One Year
Unfortunately, Hagana's debut LP is marred by its lack of dynamism and depth. With some exceptions (such as "Seaquest"'s meandering first section or the aimless "Friend", which provides a brief, albeit bland respite from the cacophony), having one volume, tempo, and song structure from start-to-finish is not particularly captivating. Without the pauses in between songs, One Year
could pass for one giant setlist where the band takes the stage for a 30-minute gig and robotically plays its set, never interacting once with the audience or introduce what the next song is called. Lyrically, One Year
explores some off-the-beaten-path topics ("Sparrowface" has curious lines like "I want to talk to a penguin / I want to hear what he says / You must be so fucking freezing / Why don't you just fly away?", which might confuse armchair ornithologists), but they ultimately fail to engage more often than not. Similarly, vocalist/guitarist Leo Fox's range sounds supremely limited, and his banal delivery rarely ventures outside of that spectrum, oftentimes being drowned out by the buzzing guitars. Occasionally, there is an innovative vocal style ("Wait a Minute" is rather brilliant, sounding like Social Distortion-meets-Rollins Band with its rockabilly flair), but One Year
sports the same low-end and high-end vocal register with little, if any, variation or dimensionality. The same can be said for the instrumentation - the fuzzy guitars certainly deliver some bite in spots, but there's no discernible attempt to deviate away from the monotonous guitar tone or delivery. Some lead parts, such as ones heard in "Voice for the Voiceless" or "Watch My Step", could benefit from being pushed higher in the mix, but on the other hand, they sound like unfinished ideas.
There's little doubt that One Year
's contents would translate masterfully live. The energy and gusto contained in songs like "Voice for the Voiceless", "Wait a Minute", and "Fuzzy Punch" are clearly palpable and surefire crowd-pleasers. The hooks in these songs, along with "Watch My Step", the "Ahh-ah-ah-ahhs" in "Seaquest"'s final stanza, and sections of "Connect 4" are delightfully catchy. One Year
's primary fault is in its sonic consistency: the overall lack of dynamics, range, and depth outside of the distortion pedal, combined with only select memorable passages, makes for a trying listen. The tracklist could be arranged and re-arranged and the flow would not be disturbed; even further, sections of one song could be cut and pasted into another song and the album would still feel and sound the same, barring "Wait a Minute", of course.
Grungy, distortion-heavy, and sporting an admirable who's-who of musical influences, One Year
is a frenetic and energetic album that would be refreshing to take in live, but incorporating a few more stylistic and functional dynamics would make it less one-and-done and more of a mainstay in the rotation.
"Wait a Minute"
"Voice for the Voiceless"
"Fuzzy Punch" - video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zty7BhdoedU
I give up trying to embed a specific song: http://hagana.bandcamp.com/