Review Summary: "If we’ve alienated you, that’s a good thing.”
Being eclectic and willing to try new things is healthy in virtually any creative medium, and if Highly Suspect have ever been anything, being stuck in one place creatively certainly isn’t one of them.
From an early cover band career through to the obviously Red Hot Chilli Peppers-influenced release Highly Suspect
in 2011, the band that came before 2015’s Mister Asylum
could almost be considered an entirely different entity altogether. Before Mister Asylum
’s explosive and critically acclaimed debut, Highly Suspect were (naturally) still finding their feet in an industry smothered in copycats and diluted renditions of popular previous material, and it was where this very industry frustration proved the perfect timing for the release of an album that would remind those where the spirit of rock used to be. With Royal Blood’s titular debut winning acclaim and making the rounds worldwide, Highly Suspect’s next release would add copious amounts of fuel to the fire that proved rock still had plenty of bite to its bark, ironically to the point where Mister Asylum
so blatantly draws from the grungy, garage rock legends of long before that it’s somewhat remarkable it even attracted the attention that it did.
Indeed, while being commonly compared to Kings of Leon with a healthy amount of Queens of the Stone Age thrown in for good measure, Mister Asylum
very competently steps forward with excellence in execution and heart, fantastic songwriting, and a cocky “f**k the world, my love is real”
attitude that had been agonisingly absent from mainstream rock, but it’s hard to ignore the fact it’s ultimately not very original
. And, from a creative point of view, it’s crystal clear why Johnny Stevens and Co would quickly move forward with 2016’s The Boy Who Died Wolf
. When compared to its predecessor, The Boy Who Died Wolf
rather obviously aims for a grander direction, swapping out much of the blasting, garage rock influences that fed energy into ‘Mister Asylum’ and ‘Lost’ for ‘My Name Is Human’s slow burning introductory lament ”I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling myself – f**k everyone else”
. Sure, the track still features a chorus that relishes in explosive instrumentation and Stevens’ delivering exactly what made ‘Lydia’ so enthralling, but the implied emphasis on slower material was clearly there and rest of The Boy Who Died Wolf
followed as such.
With this all in mind, MCID
’s erratic direction is hardly surprising.
Caught off guard by ‘Fly’s introductory hip-hop influences and emphasis on electronics over electric guitar? You really shouldn’t be. ‘F.W.Y.T’ and ‘Viper Strike’s verses had you covered a good three years ago, hell, even to the point of appropriately predicting the thematic direction of the group’s next release; ”see, it’s MCID and we try to spread love.”
As such, hearing the twinkling, minimalist instrumentation and uplifting gospel-esque gang vocals ”dear Johnny, be real – it’s okay to feel”
with exactly the band’s intended direction. If you were expecting Mister Asylum 2.0
, the door out is back the way you came and it’s recommended you take it; ”if we’ve alienated you, that’s a good thing.”
As such, (and oddly sharing a certain symmetry with the polarising 2013 release, Paramore
), virtually every next track through MCID
continues forward with a singular stubborn agenda; to be as different as humanly possible from the previous track, and (as would likely be expected) this renders MCID
an extremely mixed bag. Where ‘16’ aims for the same heart ‘Chicago’ pierced, it unfortunately drifts by as forgettable as an empty paper bag in the wind, and before you know it the track is over. Elsewhere, secondary leading single ‘Upperdrugs’ features some of that extremely absent guitarwork likely to be missed by most listeners, and while it is
always a treat to hear Stevens completely let loose it can’t be ignored that the track is essentially a lesser ‘Wolf’ clone. From a “rock” point of view, ‘Canals’ is arguably the best to find on MCID
; utilising stompy riffage and a refreshingly aggressive Johnny Stevens spitting ”it feels like someone took a crack pipe – lit it with a torchlight and threw it on a gas line, there is fire everywhere”
. The track climaxes in what is possibly one of Highly Suspect’s most genuinely surprising moments, creatively, and instead of the usual guitar solo or Ryan Meyer’s slamming percussion that would pepper Mister Asylum
, a Swahili chant of ”basi aende, nakupenda wewe”
euphorically fills the bridge. Truthfully, it proves an exceptionally captivating moment, but actually living up to it is something that the rest of MCID
has trouble doing.
Without beating around the bush, where some of MCID
’s most glaring flaws lie are exactly akin to Paramore’s 2013 self-titled record, and unnecessary/pointless tracks to bulk out the runtime is certainly chief among them; ‘These Days’ is – to be blunt – boring, and ‘Taking Off’ allows you the incredibly mundane exercise of skipping forward 30 seconds and noticing literally zero difference in instrumentation, save for a warbly synthesiser lead that hovers around the track aimlessly. Elsewhere, and speaking as a devout Katsuhiro Otomo follower, actually having to state that “Tetsuo’s Bike” is absolutely f**king pointless is, well, f**king infuriating
. There is nothing
about this track that holds the remotest candle to either the character or Shoji Yamashiro’s stellar soundtrack that accompanies the film. Instead, it’s merely a pointless electronic interlude that bridges the gap between ‘Wolf’ wannabe ‘Upperdrugs’ and the painfully misfired ‘Tokyo Ghoul’ (featuring Johnny Stevens’ apparently very own Slim Shady persona, Terrible Johnny).
Continuing onwards, the album boasts a much anticipated Gojira feature, and it is with dubious optimism that ‘SOS’ steps forward. Now, when the French quartet Gojira is considered, Magma
inevitably comes to mind with little encouragement; standing as the band’s latest critically acclaimed release, and immensely devoted to exploring the emotional well left by the passing of the Duplantier brother’s mother, seeing Gojira now featured on a Highly Suspect track just seems… well, strange
. Structurally, the track is as sporadically invested as much of the rest of MCID
, pinning what essentially stands as a “typical” Gojira intro/outro to the bookends of a standard Highly Suspect rock ballad, but as a whole the track feels rather shallow. The only redeeming highlight is arguably the final 45 seconds, finally committing to the thematic inclinations a Gojira feature should
encourage with a haunting call of ”no one knows what happens when we die – do we remain?”
Now, while this has
been a rather critical overview thus far of MCID
, this is not to imply that the entirety of the album isn’t without some excellent highlights. Haunting instrumental piece ‘Juzo’ is stunning, while – surprisingly – ‘@tddybear’ (featuring Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves) is indeed also one of these; while lyrically featuring the cheesiest direction of the entire album, it does little to hold back just how exceptionally euphoric the track eventually becomes, patiently building from a slowly simmering instrumental backbone through to finally hitting thunderous arena rock heights and ”wish I could be, wish I could be, wish I could be your teddy bear”
calling longingly through the mix. Immediately following ‘@tddybear’, and instead featuring bassist Rich Meyer on leading vocals, is quite possibly Highly Suspect’s best track in years; ‘Arizona’. Treading similar ground to Thirty Seconds to Mars’ ‘Remedy’, ‘Arizona’ keeps things minimal with sweetly layered acoustic guitar and light strings accompanying Meyer’s performance. Again, comparable to Thirty Seconds to Mars America
, it seems bizarre to consider MCID
’s best track one absent the band’s lead vocalist, but it proves a healthy example in delivering exceptional material through experimentation.
When considering MCID
as a whole, focusing on one single element can be something of a frustrating exercise when so many others abrasively leap forward for your attention. Sure, there are moments that shine with the implied inclination that Highly Suspect could
release an album that completely shatters the hold Mister Asylum
has upon them, but there are far too many missteps and moments of creative confusion that bog down what seems a genuine effort to strive for new heights. Thematically, MCID
hardly seems the consistent release The Boy Who Died Wolf
at least tried
to be, and instead feels more akin to a “let’s just bundle all this into one package” compilation album. Again, there are
moments that strive for something special, but these often are marred by something aggravatingly generic by comparison; ‘Snow White’s final moments are absolutely fantastic, for example. The introductory lyricism ”mirror, mirror on the wall”
is (frankly) painfully uninspired despite the obvious fairy tale reference, but where the track shines is in the chorus. The vocals. The harmonies. The mid-tempo rock ballad that scratches all the right itches and is everything it claims to be. And, in the track’s final 30 seconds, I am reminded of why Highly Suspect are so damn good at what they do – when the stars align.
"Oh God, I swear that I can be strong.
I’ll kick as soon as it’s gone.
'Cause I don't wanna be something I hate.”