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I’ve said enough on the utter dumpster fire that was Tonight Alive’s ‘Limitless’ (2016) so much so that I don’t need to repeat myself here. Though, if you’d like me to, please just read my initial review. However, I’m quite happy to report that the band’s 4th LP, this month’s ‘Underworld’, is a strong return to form for the Sydney rock group, for a handful of reasons.
First of all, this new album mostly sees the band return to their rock roots and in a solid manner too, even with the clinically clean sonic production and the leftover remnants of their pop-rock origins still showing. Whether it’s because they as a band are self-aware of just how polarizing their last album was, merely wanted to do something somewhat different, or because they’re working with producer Dave Petrovic again – who produced ‘The Other Side‘ (2013) – I’m not entirely sure. Either way, I’m glad the rockier, guitar-driven sound is back as well as the fact that this record just delivers in the crucial department that ‘Limitless‘ was lacking in: actually having good songs to offer.
The darker tone, heavier sound and emotionally pained lyrics of ‘Crack My Heart’ feature not only one of Jenna McDougall’s best ever vocal takes but also the best breakdown you’ll hear from Tonight Alive (see: the 2:22 mark) for what is the heaviest section of music they’ve ever cut. The grungier, hard rock 90’s flavour of the deeply personal lead single ‘Temple‘ will take its fiendishly catchy choruses and worm its way right into your ears in no time flat. Album opener ‘Book Of Love‘ is as stadium rock as Tonight Alive could ever get but unlike their last attempt at it, they pull this one off very well. It’s like a bait-and-switch moment, almost fooling you into thinking that they’ve just continued the ill-advised direction of their last shameful record before these loud, meaty drum grooves hit and heavy guitar riffs slide right in. (But that slight auto-tune in the vocals can bugger right off).
Then there’s my personal favourite, ‘Disappear’, which legitimately sounds like a reimbursed PVRIS song from ‘All We Know Of Heaven, All We Need Of Hell’ (2017), what with its moody guitar chords, darker atmosphere, and sublime melodies. It seemed like the band wrote it with PVRIS in mind to as well, with the song actually guest featuring Lynn Gunn at various points throughout the track for some damned solid duets too. Now, a PVRIS + Tonight Alive collaboration? Yeah, that works and makes sense. But a Tonight Alive + Corey Taylor crossover? Now that’s far more unexpected! But it’s exactly what happens when the Slipknot and Stone Sour frontman/best source of clicks for large music websites second only to Dave Grohl joins in on the decent, half-acoustic half rock ballad, ‘My Underworld‘. In this rather surprising guest feature, McDougall and Taylor play off each other’s vocals nicely in this album closer, with the latter revealing a softer, more delicate side to his vocals that we don’t really see outside of the likes of ‘Through Glass‘, ‘Snuff‘, and ‘Vermillion Pt. 2‘. ‘Waiting For The End‘, which is also the name of a terrific Linkin Park song, is this massive, atmospheric and dynamic piece that shifts between the best of band’s heavier rock and lighter pop shades. But it fucking works. Elsewhere, ‘The Other‘ is this throttling, impassioned rock cut that sways and soars and ‘In My Dreams‘ is this rhythmic balancing act of light and dark musical tones and ever-changing, layered emotions.
Look, honestly, by the time I’d heard ‘Temple‘ way back before this record’s release, I knew this was going to best ‘Limitless‘ by a country mile and I do love it when I’m right. However, despite these many solid cuts throughout ‘Underworld‘, there’s also the odd song here that just makes me think “…why the fuck would you include this here?”
One of the most egregious examples of this is the mid-album song, ‘For You‘, which is this awfully sappy, skin-deep pop-ballad that would’ve just been better being left behind in their ‘Limitless‘ era. As it flies in the face of the tone and mood the band create here with songs like ‘Temple‘, ‘Disappear‘, and ‘Crack My Heart‘. A far better example of a ballad here would be the previously mentioned ‘My Underworld‘. Then there’s one of the later songs, ‘Last Light‘, whose overly sugary vocal hooks, placid instrumentals and uninspiring chord progressions are about as disposable and radio-friendly as these kinds of thread-bare acoustic pop songs go. Other songs, while nowhere near as terrible, just have very little staying power or lack any good reason to come back to; they fly in one ear and go right out of the other instantly. Like the staggeringly middle-of-the-road ‘Burning On‘ or the piano ballad of ‘Looking For Heaven‘. Even so, there is still nothing here that’s as godforsaken and as fuck-awful as ‘Drive’ was, praise be to Christ.
Now, ‘Underworld‘ is also at times an incredibly personal record for Jenna McDougall; it carries a sense of heart and soul that was really missing from their last record. In fact, for most of these new songs, this release is a deep self-examination of those low points of one’s life and of issues mental health. Shit, this record might as well have been called “Hell” for all of the personal battles, conflicting emotions and intimate lyrical content it contains.
For instance, ‘Temple‘ is this anthem about self-love and in trying to pull yourself out of the deep throes of depression, no matter how bad it hurts or how many tries it may take to get a better place. (The first line of this song is literally “I’m intoxicated by my depression“). The hard-hitting ‘Crack My Heart‘ is about going through those genuinely heart-breaking moments at the hands of another and trying to recuperate once the painful dust settles. The driving alt-pop of ‘Just For Now’, while not the best track on the record, is about the shallow, swipe-right-swipe-left BS of modern dating, and deals with a half-assed relationship with someone who is frustratingly not willing to commit. ‘Disappear‘ is about the inner escapist that resides in all of us and how it just needs to be set free at some points in our life in order for us to stay sane. Whereas ‘The Other‘ is a self-conscious comparison of oneself to other women – something that happens far too often in the music industry sadly – and is about accepting yourself and owning whatever it is you are. And that’s only the themes of just five songs here.
Quite clearly, this is easily the most personal Tonight Alive album to date and both the record and the band are all the better for it. Because unlike their third album, this feels and sounds both real and legitimate in every sense. Plus, judging by this album’s music videos and the other information surrounding it, as well as just the general feeling I get from it, ‘Underworld’ feels like a proud creation that the band will genuinely believe in and care about in the long run.
But heartfelt songwriting, lyrical honesty and this solid new album overall aside, one thing does still bug me about Tonight Alive.
See, McDougall loves to give speeches about not taking “what’s been prescribed”, about how society fucks us all, about critical and free thinking, on not swallowing media lies, blah blah blah. (See this video from this year’s Unify as an example of such speeches). Yet their music itself is basically barren of those moral and ethical topics – not here in ‘Underworld‘, at least. Sure, you could maybe mention ‘Listening?‘ as a rebuttal but by and large, Tonight Alive are not a political band whatsoever. Which is totally fine: ‘Underworld‘ is a strong piece of art because of how introspective and personal it can be. Stay with me while I get to my point but adding to this, longtime guitarist Whakaio Taahi made his final recorded appearance with the band on ‘Underworld‘. (The dude really goes out on a high with some of the best riffs, chord voicing and lead work he’s written for the band yet, with ‘Burning On‘ (even though its still not that great of a track), ‘Just For Now‘, ‘Disappear‘, and ‘Crack My Heart‘, among others). Taahi was also for all intents and purposes, the “pop-guy” within the band. So, with him out of the equation now, I do have hope that something angrier, heavier and more political and outspoken is actually on the cards for future music from Tonight Alive; something that fully musically backs up what McDougall discusses between songs when they perform live. For I think that would be the most potent Tonight Alive yet.
Tonight Alive’s ‘Underworld’ is not perfect but goddamn is it a real far cry from the utter shite that was and still is ‘Limitless’. (A mate once labelled that previous record as being “audible Zika virus”. Yikes). This album reasserts the band’s once stumbled position and it rekindles what they lost due to their last album’s grave missteps. Basically, this new record is Tonight Alive, for better or for worse. And ‘Underworld’ is clearly not a record that producers, outside parties, managers and major label suits and ties with vested, more cynical interests had a hand in fucking with. Funny how much of a difference that can make, huh?
Book Of Love
In My Dreams
Crack The Heart
Just For Now
Waiting For The End
Looking For Heaven
‘Underworld’ is out now via UNFD & Hopeless Records.