On this latest release, the New Zealand quintet are staying true to their synth-pop origins, although they seem to be making a bid for freedom from the indie tag that sometimes accompanies the genre. Simple Forms has largely relegated to the background whatever drums and guitar balanced the band’s earlier albums. This album instead brings their big, pulsating synth hooks and beats to the foreground.
The result manages to be simultaneously overpowering and underwhelming: 10 chart-oriented songs with little variety, and lyrics that intend to be emotional but just do not translate. Anthemic lead single, ‘Higher’ opens the album with razor-like synths, which are then maximised in, ‘The Water Beneath You’. Alisa Xayalith’s soaring vocals carry momentum but sound too clean and over-produced. The latter half of the album is more palatable, with a brief, sombre piano appearance on the percussion-heavy, ‘Backslide’, and a number of slower tracks which are refreshing after the intensity of the first five songs. The most sedate of these, ‘Rotten’, draws the curtain on the album, a mellow soundscape of clicking loops and sparse drums.
One of the stronger points of the album is the lyrical interaction between Xayalith and Thom Powers on ‘Losing Our Control’ and ‘Falling’, reflecting the recent end of their eight-year relationship. The presence of Powers’ voice lends these songs an extra dimension and creates context for the otherwise vague lyrics, although on the occasions when Xayalith reverts to providing backing vocals for Powers’ few choruses, her voice still overrides his.
The theme of struggling to keep a fading love alive is the thread that holds the album together, but ultimately there are only so many ways this can be expressed in a shimmering synth-pop ballad. One cannot help but feel that this attempt to return with a born-again-from-the-ashes album has fallen somewhat flat. While the band cannot be blamed for aiming their sound at a more mainstream audience, they have risked rendering it bland.
Ultimately, songs which are intended to be neon-hued fail to deliver the ‘maximum impact’ the band is straining for, and end up being slightly dull.
Photo: Somewhat Damaged