It should go without saying that the best aspect of running a music blog is having the opportunity to talk about good music. Even when it comes down to artists that one has always held in a high regard, having to view their music through a critical lens and elaborate on one’s colloquial and casual thoughts and translate them into a fully-formed, well-balanced and carefully considered critique can reveal previously unseen details and intricacies that work to enhance one’s view of said artist. As such, with my website being based around reviews of recently released records, there exists a bevy of bands who I have long since respected and remain eagerly lying in wait for the unveiling of any fresh, full-length material to pounce on and sink my teeth into. There are too many artists whom I am more than keen to write about to mention, so, to this end, I constantly remain hopeful of news of new releases from any number of these acts. Occasionally, however, an announcement will arrive of a brand new album from an artist whom I may very well admire, but who never crossed my mind as a possible candidate for someone I would have the chance to cover at any time in the near future, with the surprise unveiling of Brand New’s first record in eight years, Science Fiction, being precisely one of these instances. It’s hardly an unpopular opinion that Brand New released some of the best rock albums of the 2000s, but with 2017 granting the benefit of hindsight on the group’s earlier material and the context in which it was conceived, I see records such as Deja Entendu, Daisy and, in particular, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me as providing pop punk, post-hardcore and emo with a degree of depth seldom known to these genres prior to the existence of these releases. On a stylistic basis, Brand New’s integration of all manner of styles from under the rock umbrella, particularly indie, experimental and noise rock, heralded a significant amount of substance to their pop punk-orientated stylings, whilst the thematic profundity of frontman Jesse Lacey’s meditative arcs on mental illness, religious hypocrisy, nuclear holocaust and death were quite unlike anything to have been released within these genres at this point, and potentially went on to inspire the finely-detailed and conceptually-intense lyrical stylings of acts such as La Dispute and Touché Amoré. As such, albums like The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me are multifaceted to the point of requiring a minimum of listens to begin unpacking the entire scope of their stylistic underpinnings, from Brand New’s rigid compositional prowess and finesse for potent melodic configurations to Lacey’s borderline cinematic depiction of a descent into a state of demoralised prayer, so there was little reason to suspect that Science Fiction would be any different. At least, this is what I had personally hoped originally, with my first spin of the record warranting a relatively mixed response to Brand New’s decision to pen some of the most low-key and inconspicuous pieces of their career. Unfortunately, however, subsequent listens failed to reveal any level of gravity that had not become apparent upon my first few listens, with the band’s more restrained and muted compositional direction seemingly capturing more of a general mood than the emotional depth of their prime output. Although the lack of the same melodic tones of their earlier material across many of the mellower songs from Science Fiction is by no means a criticism in itself, Brand New don’t entirely accommodate for this change of pace with appropriately airtight song structures, with many of these cuts overstaying their welcome and allowing their drawn-out lengths to diminish the poignancy of their overall downbeat tenor. Likewise, Lacey’s lyrics, whilst leaning towards many of the same decisive, existential themes to have permeated most of Brand New’s earlier endeavours, are presented in a far more direct manner that, ironically, loses much of the urgency and percipience of his best work, with his observations providing a markedly more surface-level take on their hefty subject matter much of the time. Undoubtedly, the phenomenal compositional expertise to have been brandished by Brand New’s optimal output shines through enough for my feelings towards the album to land on the more positive side of the fence, but with Science Fiction having been confirmed as the band’s goodbye album, it nonetheless feels lacking in any definitive conclusions to their artistry.
With a significant portion of Science Fiction seeing Brand New distance themselves somewhat from the grittier side of their previous stylings, instead emphasising smoother, more polished textures, this new album is easily their least emo-orientated release thus far. More specifically, alternative rock circa the 1990s seems to be the salient stylistic touchstone evident across much of the tracklisting, but the extent to which the group distance themselves from these influences leaves certain points on the album feeling as if they haven’t quite been marked with Brand New’s signature stamp. Although not an issue in and of itself, these softer sonic textures seem to be presented as if a signal of the group’s maturity, but, without the same singularity that defined their past output, Science Fiction seems more to be in a state of transition, with Brand New still finding their own voice within this sound, leaving the album feeling somewhat disappointing for a supposed swan song. The gentle shimmer of the soft, picked guitar chords towards the front-end of 137, as an example, offers a slightly smoother take on some of the softer and slower songs from Nirvana’s In Utero, whilst the rises and falls in Lacey’s gruffer vocal timbre are evocative of Kurt Cobain’s distinctive ear for vocal melodies, with the comparisons to the grunge icon stretching even to the point of the pairing of Lacey’s apocalyptic, macabre imagery with an eerily subdued instrumental. Structurally speaking, too, the slow-burner of an introduction that sluggishly slumps towards an explosive climax, although relatively effective, reads like the framework to many a composition from fellow indie rockers and post-hardcore heads mewithoutYou, with a song such as Rainbow Signs, the closing cut from their latest album, Pale Horses, being a perfect comparison. With the primary point of sonic distinction between Brand New on 137 and these likely artistic influences being their resolution to rein in the rougher edge to their sound that has been so distinguishable on their previous, noise rock-tinged output, the song is left feeling like a slight question mark regarding the band’s pursuit of a definitive identity within this cleaner sound across the course of Science Fiction. Similar issues could be raised with the marked Modest Mouse inspiration on Same Logic / Teeth. Whilst the indie rock veterans have long since wielded a great deal of influence on Lacey et al., with the groups having even toured together, the cleaner sound on this song, bar the brief outbursts of screamed vocals, works to curtail the extent to which Brand New’s own voice can be heard amidst such stylistic reference points, especially when the listener is made to compare Same Logic / Teeth to the more dynamic and sonically-diverse stylings of Modest Mouse.
However, more interestingly, with the dirtier, emo-driven edge to Brand New’s sound having been pulled back rather substantially, Science Fiction allows room for influences from Southern rock, folk, Americana and even country to flourish in its place, with the results returning some of the most resonant moments from across the course of the record, even if artists such as Red House Painters, Fleet Foxes and even Tom Waits can nevertheless be heard amongst these stylistic roots. Several songs across Science Fiction even pick up on some striking tonal influences from neo-folk, which makes a lot of sense as a softer substitute for Brand New’s more emo-based sound, given the genre’s connotations of expressly dark and deathly lyrical themes. Even if briefly, the open sound of the slow acoustic strumming on Waste hits some tones that are reminiscent of a group such as :Of The Wand & The Moon:, which, when paired with Lacey’s moody and, once again, Kurt Cobain-derived vocal melodies, as well as the inclusion of trebly guitar tinkling and an eventual apex as the song reaches its lofty, inspirational heights that lean more towards previous Brand New material, makes for one of the most dynamic and vibrant songs on the record. Likewise, the guitar harmonics that open In the Water and reek of some of the group’s ear for enthralling melodic tones in the past set the scene in a rather beguiling fashion for what is the most explicitly Americana-influenced track on the entire album, courtesy of the Southern-flavoured steel guitar string bends, stuttering harmonica soloing and incredibly subtle mandolin incidentals, which come together to form a despondent, plodding alt-country composition that plays to the strengths of Brand New’s dispirited emo aesthetic surprisingly well. This being said, there is the odd moment wherein this new-found folk orientation is squandered by the band allowing themselves to fall into many of the trappings of certain derivatives of the genre. Could Never Be Heaven, for instance, features a very familiar, waltzing, arpeggiated chord progression, over which Lacey’s vocal melodies evoke the tones of folk rock from around the 1970s. When also factoring in that this song is so sonically divergent from those surrounding it in the tracklisting, as well as its status as the shortest cut on the album, Could Never Be Heaven unfortunately comes across as somewhat of an interlude or a brief, folksy ditty more than an entirely fleshed-out song that’s imperative to the progression of Science Fiction.
This, however, leads to the question of the duration of many of the songs over the course of Science Fiction, with this album being Brand New’s longest by a considerable amount, whilst the general trend of the tracklisting witnesses many of the more understated cuts being drawn out for a noticeably long period of time. Indeed, the issue of whether or not many of these slowly-building songs justify their runtimes is a thorny one, with certain tracks reaching some sort of impactful pay-off, but often taking so long to get there and with such a lacking sense of tension or progression that such apogees don’t necessarily always seem well-deserved. The aforementioned 137 acts as a prime embodiment of this dilemma, in that the eruption of arpeggiated triplet soloing and thunderous accents in the accompanying instrumentation towards the backend of the song unquestionably pack a punch when it first hits the listener, but the preceding passages seem to overstay their welcome. This isn’t necessarily even a case of Brand New attempting a sort of slow-burner with the primary movement of this cut, more than the songwriting falls into instances of stagnation that leave the composition feeling underdeveloped as a whole. The opening track, Lit Me Up, however, is perhaps the most testing track on the record when it comes to unhurried build-ups, but it hardly seems like a warranted challenge for the listener. The first one-and-a-half minutes of the cut are dedicated to the group creating some subtle, non-descript ambiance to accompany a tape recording of an elderly woman relaying her experience in therapy, which is a perfectly appropriate introduction to the explorations of mental health across the rest of the song and, indeed, the rest of the record. However, with this sample already taking up a great deal of the cut’s duration, the band’s choice to continue these ambient sounds for as long as they do seems unnecessary, and even more so when considering that the main body of the actual piece itself amounts to one of the most underdeveloped portions of the entire album, with the ambience being prolonged further and accompanied by additions of sparse percussion and occasional instrumental swells, to support one of Lacey’s most uninspired vocal melodies from Science Fiction. Likewise, the closing track, Batter Up, certainly strikes some interesting melodic tones and harmonic textures at times, but its eight-and-a-half minute duration encompasses a very minimal compositional framework that would really only be effective if the band were to lace its scarce structure with a series of endearing subtleties that tide over the listener through Lacey’s closing statements on his memories and mental condition fading into a state of absolute nothingness. Instrumentally and compositionally, however, the band’s limited accompaniment for the singer’s last will and testament, as he completely sacrifices all hope, struggle to conclude Science Fiction and Brand New’s entire discography with the same decisiveness of Lacey’s hopeless resolve.
Ultimately, the key issues that recur across Science Fiction are perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it’s the more tightly-knit songs, which also play more towards the territory of Brand New’s previous material, that stand out as the strongest in the tracklisting. The firm, accented guitar riffs of Out of Mana that plummet down into a simple and subdued verse section, before rising with rigid vigour to meet the mighty vocal melodies across the chorus, are fantastically effective, both in the dynamic range on display and the potency of the well-defined melodies boasted across the cut. Meanwhile, 451 carries a stomping, bluesy groove like that which has showed up on only a handful of past songs from the group, and is met with some powerful punctuations in the lead guitar licks and the hook’s vocals that remain firm and fiery throughout. It’s the stylistic detours across Science Fiction, however, that can be rather hit or miss, with the majority of the group’s folk-driven forays being executed with an admirable amount of refinement, whilst the cues taken from other artists can lose the definitive identity that could have made one final victory lap from one of emo’s most powerful panjandrums all the more potent. As it stands, with Brand New having had one of the most memorable runs in rock music’s recent history, it may be easy to view their farewell record’s flaws as all the more apparent. However, although the album’s stylistic exploration could have been considerably more well-rounded as to make for a firm, finalised ending to the iconic indie rock outfit’s legacy, the experimentation across Science Fiction at least expresses the appetite for reconciling ideas from across the popular music map that has made Brand New’s classic material so memorable and firmly ingrained within rock’s landscape for so long.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10