By Botond Pinter
The intrinsic power of art can be wielded for a limitless set of purposes; fostering affection for the villain is but one of its many insidious possibilities. Siding with the antagonist is something that we’ve grown accustomed to in modern cinema, literature and music. Often, we become empathetic of a villain and, sometimes without even realising it, we permit ourselves to root for them.
Abel Tesfaye, better known as ‘The Weeknd’, is arguably the most successful self-proclaimed villain in contemporary pop-culture. Since 2009, Abel has zeroed in on portraying a dark, dysfunctional and nihilistic character. His music has always told fans of his nonchalant approach to life where absurdism is embraced in its full pandemonium. This form of noir-pop saturated with sex, drugs and empty romance produced the perfect villain whose enchanting voice captivated us. There was just one problem: the villain was too perfect. He was evil in every respect and was entirely unapologetic. Whilst many fell in love with the character, whether through a sense of dark fantasy or simply seeing 'The Beauty Behind the Madness' (as his 2015 album was entitled), his character was flawed in being one-dimensional - often singing of the same shameless lifestyle.
In Abel’s previous attempts to give his character some more depth, or a raison d’etre, we simply received a melancholic soliloquy which did little to develop our bond with the villain. In his recently released fourth studio album, 'After Hours', we finally encounter a new dimension of Abel’s devious villain. He submerges the listener in chilling anecdotal sketches that reveal emotions and ideas he had never explored before. Abel promised us a “brain-melting psychotic chapter” and that’s exactly what his new album delivers. It’s filled with ostensible self-contradiction, but under the surface displays almost unblemished harmony as his story becomes infused with self-loathing and a defective will to become a better man. In other words, this is a record about change. Those same cold lonely lines from the Trilogy era appear throughout 'After Hours' in their reversed form. The themes of change and reversal are most apparent in the fifth song on the album; 'Snowchild'. Abel guides the listener via anecdotes of his ambitious and tormented youth, portraying his lust for fame and fortune whilst delving into a dark underworld of drugs and relentless promiscuity. His motivations are the same as those he described in his 2011 song The Morning, in which he determines the pinnacle of success as the California dream. Snowchild, however, gives us a surprising twist. The lyric “Cali was the mission” reveals his change in attitude, and the next song on the album, Escape from L.A., appropriately captures the newly held sentiment. Abel believed that he would become fulfilled through money, drugs and sex, yet once he had achieved everything he previously desired, he feels emptier than ever. Instead, what he truly seeks for is a partner to settle down with and “share babies” – this is his vision of happiness. The optimism is short lived. Abel believes he had already found ‘the one’, but had hurt her in a failed relationship as a result of his inability to stay loyal and convey the love that he claimed to have for her (there is little doubt that Abel is referring to his relationship with Victoria’s Secret Angel Bella Hadid, whose recorded laugh is audible at 1:51 of Snowchild). He begs for a second chance. Sadly, our villain’s voice is more remorseful and apologetic than hopeful. His near certainty in defeat is what retains the dark, seemingly never-ending storm within him. When there remains nothing to hope for, Abel is quick to return to the ways of his earlier self despite a desire to become a better man: “I’m back to my ways cause I’m heartless”. This dark storyline is complete with masterful production by the likes of Illangelo, Kevin Parker, Ricky Reed and DaHealaeach adding a unique style. The final track on the album, 'Until I Bleed Out', is arguably the greatest example of the musical genius involved. The euphoric tapestry of sounds brings the listener to a climax of pleasurable pain as the album draws to abrupt end.
All in all, Abel gives us an irresistible work of art. It would be wrong to neglect mentioning the commercial success that After Hours has already enjoyed. The singles 'Blinding Lights' and 'Heartless' demonstrate the collision of Abel’s enigmatic R&B style and commerciality. Abel’s creativity in his music videos as well as the additional cinematic clips are just another element to love about this project. Nevertheless, this article has not so much focused on the numbers and commercial success behind the operation, but instead on the deeper meaning within the music. Abel’s villain is more breath-taking than ever. Our indulgence in his dystopian world may have been solely for imaginary excitement and escapism, but now that the façade of perfect evil has fractured, his villain has become one of flesh and blood. And yet, despite admissions of guilt over and over again, we love him more than ever. The Weeknd’s ability to manipulate us so through music is perhaps why he should be considered one of the greats of all time. Undoubtedly, Abel has a long career ahead and we await his villain’s next moves with bated breath.
By Edward Burnett
When I saw Noel Gallagher live last summer, something hadn’t quite sat right with me. Yes, the talent was there. Yes, the Oasis classics were being played. Yet, I found myself thinking that something was missing. Could what I had just witnessed be described truly as rock ‘n roll? The next natural step was to go to a Liam Gallagher concert and see if I found what was missing. A year later I was able to attend Liam’s gig at Newcastle’s Utilita Arena this past Sunday.
Anticipation was high among the Pretty Green wearing, Stone Island clad crowd as the lights dimmed, summoning what everyone had been waiting for, NME’s very own ‘Godlike Genius’, Liam Gallagher. Walking out to ‘F**kin in the Bushes’ in his trademark, carefree strut, Gallagher went straight into Definitely Maybe’s hit, ‘Rock n Roll Star’, to open the night. He couldn’t have picked a more aptly titled song to kick off the gig with as the performance that followed was one of the highest calibre in the rock and roll genre.
The setlist consisted of a perfect mix between his solo projects and the legendary Oasis anthems. Following the opening song, he went on to play ‘Halo’, ‘Shockwave’ and ‘Wall of Glass’ before mellowing on ‘Paper Crown’. It was refreshing to be shown that Liam is capable of both writing and performing well-produced solo songs which failed to look out of place in amongst the backdrop of such classic Oasis tunes. Shockwave and Wall of Glass’ galvanised an already bouncing crowd, adding a new level to the energy being displayed, with the verses as well as the choruses being belted out from all corners of the arena. Again, highly impressive considering both are only recent solo songs that are now in setlist royalty and rightly so judging by the effects produced. If truth be told, Paper Crown’s inclusion with its far slower pace was predominantly present for the crowd to catch a breather and regain their voices after a whirlwind first twenty minutes. To captivate an audience with songs that were released less than two months ago, especially when many will have attended for Oasis-led reasons, is not only an amazing feat but a testament to the rock and roll days of past.
Moreover, Liam’s handling of the Oasis hits definitely (not even maybe) did not disappoint either. ‘Morning Glory’s’ drum beat rattled the stadium, with the ground shaking throughout. ‘Stand by Me’ with Bonehead’s introduction allowed for the level of excitement to be raised off the scale for a crowd that hadn’t stopped singing all night. Then with ‘Wonderwall’ to finish the set was a perfect ending to summarise the vibe of the gig, as the words were sung so loudly by the Fred Perry wearing faithful that it was even hard to hear Gallagher himself. Ballads such as these with their effects on crowds show just how timeless and influential Liam Gallagher is. No matter how young or old, these are songs that can be enjoyed, showed by Gallagher’s own son Gene coming on to play drums for ‘The River’. Finally, as if the crowd were not already rocked out, Gallagher took to the stage for an encore comprising of massive Oasis hits with ‘Acquiesce’, ‘Supersonic’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’ all being played along with Gallagher cheekily devoting ‘Roll with It’ to ex-Newcastle United striker Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne. Then he eventually ended with a lively rendition of ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’. That tongue in cheek humour was shown throughout by the former Oasis frontman, from talking of Newcastle United’s Longstaff footballing brothers to ridiculing the technical team after two false starts with ‘Be Still’.
So, to answer my initial query of what was missing from Noel’s set last summer, it’s the swagger, the attitude and boldness of a true frontman. Someone who captivates the audience and owns the venue. Liam, through his humour, brashness and strut, emulated this image perfectly for the Newcastle faithful. Yes, Noel wrote many of those Oasis songs but when he performs them live without Liam, it’s a different atmosphere: it’s just not Oasis, it’s just not rock and roll. Whether Oasis will ever reform or not in the future is a whole other issue for another day, but Liam has certainly proved many of his doubters wrong about how successful a solo venture could be. While he keeps on producing performances like that, rock and roll lives on. True rock that leaves the listener feeling electric, thrilled or maybe even just a little supersonic. Why him? Why not.
By Edward Burnett
Having just seen Ten Tonnes live at Leeds Beckett Student Union this past Friday, I thought it high time I wrote a piece covering his debut album of the same name.
Ten Tonnes aka Ethan Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Hertford, England for those unfamiliar with the 23 year-old. His self-titled debut album was released earlier this year in May through Warner Bros. Records. Finally, Barnett comes from a particularly musical background with his older brother being none other than chart-topping solo-artist George Ezra.
Now the introductions are over with, let's delve deeper into the music itself. Although, as mentioned above, Ethan shares both blood and musical talent with sibling George, there is no need for lazy comparisons. Ten Tonnes manages to produce a totally different sound and one that inevitably energises crowds, which was conclusively the case at Leeds. Barnett brings a mix of indie-rock with lighter tones of indie-pop throughout his album, giving an upbeat yet also fresh all-round vibe. This combination of the various components of the wider indie genre are somewhat similar to the songs of Declan McKenna and both artists seem to attract largely diverse fanbases due to this unique mixture. Simply put, it is extremely hard to dislike this form of energising music.
Some of the key songs to listen out for within the album are the jumpy and energetic opener, "Lucy" and the calmer yet equally worthy of mention, "Better Than Me". Both Songs use a great amount of notable drum beats and electric guitar chords which when put together in this joyful concoction make for great songs which have multiple replay ability. Lastly, the slowest and undoubtedly most emotional song on the album, "Missing You", is arguably the biggest gem in the entire collection. During the Leeds gig, armed with only an acoustic guitar (swiftly changed from the electric he had been using all gig prior to this moment) and no backing members, Barnett was able to capture the whole crowd with this single love ballad. A song about heartbreak and desperateness, it perfectly encapsulates all the issues that come with the fallout of a breakup. Needless to say, the song managed to his a previously raucous crowd to one now holding flashlights aloft and tears aplenty.
With such a powerful song already released as one of his career's first and it's equally powerful effects, alongside the plethora of other equally stellar tunes, it's fair to say that the Barnett family have another bright star in the making.
By Edward Burnett
Dire Straits. The Animals. Sting. The north-east of England has turned out several class acts on the global music scene over the last half century. Yet now there is a new name to add to the list in Sam Fender. The twenty-five-year-old solo artist from North Shields released his debut album on Friday (13/09), ‘Hypersonic Missiles’. Following both his previously successful singles and winning the Critics’ Choice award at the 2019 Brits, the album has been highly anticipated and for good reason. The music served up in the thirteen-song strong collection has both a fresh yet familiar ring to it, making it a classic for the future. This review will go into how Fender is able to achieve this sound or ‘That Sound’ as he calls it (yes, the puns have made a reappearance).
Firstly, Fender’s lyrics are arguably what give his songs this apparent ‘freshness’. Unlike many artists of new and old, he largely strays away from the typical topics which plague the large majority of music. Instead of choosing the usual stories of love or other tales of make-believe happiness (albeit a few love ballads make an appearance on the album, yes), he rather chooses to cover themes relevant to society today. Themes such as the rising rate of male suicide, homelessness, depravity and war all appear on the album, which therefore not only acts to raise awareness for Fender’s talent but of all the issues facing the world currently. ‘Dead Boys’ especially consists of hard-hitting lyrics such as “The anniversaries are short lived, but they come back around at a breakneck speed’ and going on to sing “Nobody ever could explain all the dead boys in our hometown”. Such honest and direct lines help emulate the singer’s own personal experiences of dealing with his friends’ suicides and the undeniable importance that the matter carries.
Moreover, the title track, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, helps to bring up the subject of war and its many negative effects alongside the younger generation’s ignorance towards current affairs. This is documented in Fender’s second verse with him singing “I am so blissfully unaware of everything, kids in Gaza are bombed and I’m just out of it”. This serious subject matter that is mostly unique to his catalogue helps ground Fender’s work and sets him aside from the plethora of rising young talent today. It truly allows for his work to have a purpose beyond music or enjoyment and therefore adds another string to his bow (or in this case guitar, if we’re going to be both literal and pedantic).
Furthermore, the tunes which accompany said praised lyrics do not stand out of place beside them. No, the sound that Fender mainly uses is guitar (typical with a surname like that) and with this, he is free to create a clean and almost familiar noise. His riffs are very reminiscent in substance to those of his very own idol, Bruce Springsteen, with such catchy and upbeat interludes throughout many of his songs such as the title track. Yet, at the same time as coming across similar to Springsteen, he manages to also come across crisp in today’s music market as this style of echo and canny guitar sound is not used often these days. This is prominent in the main riff of ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, as mentioned, but also the slow and touching, ‘Leave Fast’.
All in all, this blend of serious topics coupled with jumpy tunes help to create a familiar yet fresh sound which is as much a joy to the ear as it is a ponder to the mind. Thanks to the music itself giving the purpose of enjoyment, the strong and forthright lyrics give another level to his songs: one of information, panic and awareness. This itself gives the album a sense of inevitable immortality amongst its contemporary counterparts, which renders it a classic for years to come. One thing is for sure, with song writing talent like this, Sam Fender won’t be ‘leaving fast’ anytime soon.
By Edward Burnett
The Arctic Monkeys' third studio album, ‘Humbug’, was released ten years ago this week and can be characterised by frontman Alex Turner’s own lyrics from hit single ‘Crying Lightning’: it consists of “the strange and twisted and deranged”. Yet the album is far more than that and can be viewed as being pivotal to propelling (yes, mind the pun) the career of the High Green indie rockers.
Prior to Humbug’s release, the Monkeys were known for their jumpy, rocky punk-esque songs which reflected on very real topics such as Sheffield’s nightlife and the experiences of a British adolescent growing up in that era. Yet when the northern foursome stepped into the desert to record with Queens of the Stone Age’s singer Josh Homme, a shift in genre occurred with what was produced. The subject matter delved far deeper into dark and fantasy themes alongside the sound evolving to an overall irresistibly unsettling noise made available by the emergence of sonic and electric influences. All in all, the previous norm lines had been blurred and with this the band had evidently matured from their days of singing about nightclub bouncers and riot vans.
A running theme throughout the album’s songs is a structure of two choruses- an original and a form of repeat, both at the same pace and audible pitch, followed by a strong, amplified, third stanza. This is evident in ‘My Propeller’, ‘Crying Lightning’ and ‘Dance Little Liar’ to name a few. The effect of this is a powerful dramatizing of each song, helping to form an individual story of fantasy coming from the dark side of Turner’s imagination. Humbug rightly unsettles with this and its bleak lyrics, acting to provide the first theme shift in the Monkeys' repertoire, crucially showing them able to deviate from their punk indie-rock origins.
Humbug also acted as a prophetic foreshadower of what was to come next for the Sheffield band. Firstly, romantic ballads ‘Secret Door’ and ‘Cornerstone’ not only provided a break from the sinister overtones of the rest of the collection of songs, but also stood as a teaser for Turner’s cheesy acoustic love song potential. This used clearly in the band’s following album, ‘Suck It and See’, which was devoted to that style of music with romance and acoustic guitars reigning high throughout. Moreover, Humbug’s introduction of sonic sounds also became prominent for the Monkeys in time with the band’s hit fifth album ‘AM’ (2013), which consisted of songs using the sonic soundscape to its full potential, one such example being the classy, polished tune, ‘Arabella’. Thus, Humbug was crucial in laying the foundations for the next batch of music from the Arctic Monkeys and documented the various twists and turns to come in sound and topic.
So, although overlooked in the Monkeys' back catalogue in favour for the earlier albums or the mainstreamed commercially successful AM, Humbug’s significance to the career path of one of Britain’s most successful twenty-first century bands was quietly undeniable.
Written by Edward Burnett
This week Liam Gallagher has released his third and presumably final single ahead of the release of his second solo album, Why Me? Why Not. The track, entitled Once, is a slow and heartfelt ballad which can be seen as a wakeup call to normality. Starting with the style, the song is very reminiscent of former Beatles’ frontman John Lennon’s vocal traits. For example, the nasally and prolonged way in which Gallagher sings “easier” in the song’s opening line is extremely similar to that of Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Stand By Me. This helps to bring a suitable tone to such a delicate topic, a topic which has moved away from the loud, rocky showmanship shown in earlier hits such as Rock ‘n’ Roll Star and Wall of Glass, showing a new sense of maturity in Gallagher’s approach.
This leads directly onto how the single’s lyrics and overall subject matter can be interpreted. One such line which helps depict this above-mentioned reality check is in the first verse with Gallagher bemoaning having to “just clean the pool and take the kids to school”. A personal swimming pool in England can be seen as representing the lavish lifestyle of a star, such as Liam’s time in Oasis where immaturity and having a good time were put to the forefront. This is perfectly demonstrated in Gallagher previously saying that “I know how to behave but sometimes I can’t be bothered”. Yet as the song mentions, only relics, such as the swimming pool, exist now of such a maxed-out lifestyle and climate of high global success. Along with normality resuming post-stardom, there are now responsibilities in the form of children, documented in the second part of the line. For anyone who has seen this year’s docu-film, As it Was (which portrays life after Oasis for Liam), it is obvious that family is pivotal to the rock star’s life, this credibly shown by his recent rekindling of his relationship with estranged daughter Molly Moorish. Therefore, the line acts as a clear reminder of this change of surroundings once the realisation of responsibility has finally kicked in. He’s now left in a far more mature situation with the mundane tasks of cleaning and school runs which evidently creates a lust to go back and do it all again but as the song goes on to state and repeat, “you only get to do it once”.
However, as the quality and originality of this track demonstrates that, alongside the other pre-released singles Shockwave and The River, Liam is getting a second chance at the big-time. Following the end of Oasis in 2009 and the largely unsuccessful formation of Beady Eye in its absence, you may have been forgiven for viewing Liam’s time being relevant and prominent on the rock and roll stage as very much up. Yet, this second coming with a revitalised career thanks to going solo back in 2017 is only getting more impressive with these 2019 releases, showing that in Gallagher’s case, you get to do it anything but once. As you were.