I've been a fan of Nothing But Thieves after stumbling across their Graveyard Whistling EP 5 or 6 years ago. I've got a signed T-shirt from when i manged to catch a live show while they were still touring in 100 person venues prior to the release of their first album. I've also bought the deluxe editions of both of their records.
Their debut was a great start, that showed off how consistent they could be tonally and in their songwriting, obviously relying on their influences, but that's fine for a beginning. Broken Machine then built upon that with some first steps at experimentation, not every one worked, but more than enough did for me to love that album as much as the first. Even the EP released in the meantime, What Did You Think When Made Me This Way?, showed that the group still wanted to grow, with songs like Forever & Evermore and Gods proving that the best was still ahead of them.
Talking about influences, NBT's most obvious are Radiohead, Muse and Queens of the Stone Age. 3 bands that started with OK to decent debuts, sophomore records that built upon the original sound, while vastly improving the quality of their songwriting. Then third albums that blew most everything out of the water with critical acclaim and some of their greatest crossover into the charts, despite a sound that may not necessarily have fit mainstream. OK Computer, Absolution and Songs For The Deaf are 3 of my favourite Rock albums of all time!
All of this is to say, i was hyped for their next release and hopeful that it could match the quality of their predecessors. That is until the singles started dropping...
NBT have never been strangers to the use of electronics in their music, whether it was more Pop or Rock friendly they had done a pretty good job of using synth-pads as well as keyboards without losing any of the power or edge the song needed. Especially since they were doing this at a time when Fall Out Boy, 30 Seconds to Mars, Biffy Clyro and even Muse were falling prey to the overuse of already tired electronic sounds. However my initial impression of nearly all of the singles was that NBT were following this path a little too closely and as such this became the first release from them that i didn't pre-order.
Now that the album is here properly i can gladly say that the singles all sound much better in context of the record and that the band have managed to include greater electronic influences without losing their sound. Having said that, this is definitely the weakest project from the group to date.
"A moral panic occurs when a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests. Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as 'moral entrepreneurs', while people who supposedly threaten social order have been described as 'folk devils'."
The main theme of the record is an interesting one and very relevant to the social climate of most of the world, but especially the US and UK. All these fears that are being built up about groups of people that will "threaten" society and "our way of life". There's been plenty of moral panics before now ranging from the ridiculous like D&D is related to Satanism or Rock music is the Devil's music, to genuinely harmful like the Homophobic relation of HIV/AIDS as the "gay plague" in the 80's or the War on Terror that led to extreme Islamophobia.
Lyrically the album is filled with little gems that show off just how much the band have thought about this topic. From Unperson's chorus about people in 1984 who have been effectively removed from history by the State:
"And we're getting sick of your doublethink
We see you all and now the walls are cavin' in
And maybe I'm flawed, but I do exist
My thoughts are mine, I didn't sign up for this"
Is Everybody Going Crazy? then somehow manages to mix the sounds of some of the weaker QOTSA and Muse records (Villains and Simulation Theory respectively) to actually create an interesting sound. Lyrically dealing with the initial panic setting in:
"The sky is coming down
I know it's strange
But heaven's a mindset away"
The title track then sees the first victims being attacked:
"This is the last day of my life, yours too
Better be ready 'cause it's coming to find you
Oh no they don't call it a lie, it's post truth"
Phobia does a great job of creating an incredibly tense atmosphere, that builds as the song's tempo and volume increase. A little harder to decipher, but i think the song is about the power put into celebrities and the weight people place on their opinions:
"I love the night, but not the stars
The fame suckers in their block-long cars
I fucking hate the internet
Five-star hotel, and I don't feel well"
This Feels Like the End is one of the Rockier tracks here, with a heavier guitar than most of the record. The main hook and chorus have a great deal of power behind them, this could easily be an anthem sung back at the band by hundreds at Reading/Leeds. It deals with the lack of empathy we experience through our TVs and phones, in this in regards to the refugee crisis:
"Now we're getting numb to the numbers on the screen
But there's still more upturned dinghies in the sea"
There Was Sun kind of crept up on me, most of the songs here i either liked or disliked immediately and repeated listen didn't change much. This particular cut fell under the radar initially, but is now a lovely little piece of hope in the midst of a very moody and dark record:
"There was sun
Shone down upon me
Felt so warm on me
Golden leaves hanging on the trees"
Can You Afford to Be an Individual is probably my favourite song here. Easily the heaviest, it comes as a real gut punch after several softer tracks. The closest thing to a guitar solo can also be found here. It's also the most lyrically scathing, directly attacking Trump and his supporters as well as the left's echo chamber:
"Oh, you're a walking contradiction in a MAGA-hat
It's where I wanna be, God bless the land of the free
So who are you to tell us where we do and don't belong?
And who are you to tell us who to love and who to not?"
Conor Mason is definitely the highlight of this record. His voice soars and rages when it needs to as well as offering a subtle and unsettling whisper to build tension, perfectly in line with record's main theme. Several of the weakest songs here would be straight-up "bad" in my book if it wasn't for his performance.
Sadly even Mason's voice can't save every song as Free If We Want is a very generic, chill, Pop-Rock song that doesn't really go anywhere exciting, the production sounds very flat even when the track builds in volume. Impossible might as well be a Mason solo song for how little input and impact the rest of the band has on this track, Real Love Song only avoids my Least Favs section because the main synth melodies and drums that push the song forward.
This is my main complaint with this album, while the band are experimenting with some new sounds, it has somehow led to them writing their most generic melodies and riffs to date. In fact i'd say only a couple of my favourites even measure up the their previous records.
I did still enjoy this project and i am glad the band are trying to push forward, rather than sticking with what's safe and known to them. However, when they were poised to make something amazing, possibly create the kind of Rock album that would give the genre some fresh blood and a real boost, they fell flat on their faces. This record isn't the failure that several other Rock artists have put out in recent years, but is the most disappointing album i've heard this year.
Favourites: Is Everybody Going Crazy?, Moral Panic, Phobia, This Feels Like the End, There Was Sun, Can You Afford to Be an Individual?
Least Favs: Free if We Want, Impossible