For Fans Of
If you saw the title of this review and said, “Better who? Better what now?”, here’s some context for ya.
Melbourne’s Better Half arrived in 2015, starting as a recording project between ex-Set The Score member/Thornhill guitarist Matt Van Dupen and engineer/producer Christopher Vernon on vocals, who you’ll also find angrily bashing his guitar around in our beloved Belle Haven. Since these origins, the Australian band have placed a handful of live shows under their belts, expanding to a full line-up of bassist Ben Guenther, drummer Adam Pinzone (also from Set The Score), and fellow guitarist Joel Adams.
Finally pulling their finger out, earlier this year they signed to the Graham Nixon household – Resist Records. Through the Australian record label that homegrown powerhouses like Parkway Drive and Polaris call home, Better Half released their debut EP last month, a solid five-track effort entitled ‘Maybe I Was Wrong‘. Cool, now we’re all caught up!
Recorded and engineered in Christopher’s home studio, Better Half’s sound fits nicely yet safely into the familiar alternative rock/emo/pop-punk territory of groups like Basement, The Story So Far, Turnover, and Title Fight. Seriously, songs like throttling opener ‘Fixate’, ‘Rest Your Head’ and closer ‘Reasons To Leave‘ prove that these dudes sweated the ever-loving fuck out of records like ‘I Wish I Could Stay Here‘. So while the band don’t push the boat out for this style at all, Better Half more importantly do this sound well-enough and with a hint of variety; concocting solid riffs, memorable hooks, good melodies, all with a warm and bolstering production sheen over the top too. They also do a great job of flowing and building up songs from humble beginnings to louder emotional expressions as these mighty choruses pass by, ensuring nothing ever musically stagnates.
Getting right down to it, and to harp on one particular song, easily the best moment of this new EP is ‘Rest Your Head‘.
I firmly believe that any band – big or small – has “their” song, a track that defines them and becomes their set staple. Y’know, the kind of song that people get the lyrics tattooed on their bods; the kind of song that the band will always open or conclude their live sets with. Concisely, that instance for Better Half is without a doubt ‘Rest Your Head‘.
This fourth track was the lead single for the EP and during it’s crashing 3:33 runtime, we find all of Better Half’s best elements converge at their most potent; Christopher’s distinct vocals, the catchy choruses, the bitter and remorseful lyrics, well-done song structures, Matt and Joel’s urgent riff output, as well as the group’s great instrumental chemistry and strong performance synchronicity. It’s the most effective piece the Melbourne outfit has to their name; their purest standout and something that’s indicative of just what they can achieve together. By comparison, other songs here like ‘Fixate‘ and ‘Reasons To Leave‘ – while not bad – just cannot compete, really.
To move beyond the banger that is ‘Rest Your Head‘, elsewhere we get more dynamic sections and some highly catchy alternative-emo sounds with third track, ‘North‘. We also see Better Half really letting loose on second track ‘Stop‘, what with its hardcore-orientated guitar riffs, faster tempo, louder instrumentals, chord progressions, and Christopher’s heavier usage of screaming vocals. Sadly, that heavier element to the frontman’s voice is underused across this EP, and to a real detriment. As his screaming just provides the music with so much more drive and energy. While he may wish to forgo these screams as that’s what he predominantly does in Belle Haven vocally, he’s quite good at it and should embrace it further. Hopefully, said parts become an integral part of Better Half’s sound moving forward. For the band not to do so would be a shame; a disservice to the kind of solid music that they make.
Unlike Thomas Brand’s thoughts in his 4/10 Hysteria review, I just don’t agree that the lyrics here are some awful game-breaker. While not perfect, and while Christopher’s lyrics do sit between brutally bitter honesty and having their proper context never quite fully revealed – having their punches ever so slightly pulled – they’re still a gripping aspect of Better Half’s output. (Though I absolutely get what Thomas means when he says that the vocals somewhat slip between American and Australian accents; something that should stop as their singer becomes more comfortable in his role).
Lyrically, this EP is extremely telling that Christopher’s been holding a lot of shit close to his chest for many years now. In Belle Haven, the lyrical focus is all on his brother, David, but Better Half is Christopher’s show first and foremost, and that’s revealed in the lyric writing. So to say that this is a personal release for the Better Half band leader would be a ludicrous understatement. Hell, this EP is called ‘Maybe I Was Wrong‘, and unless you’re a life-long friend, a close relative or either one of his three brothers, these lyrics will definitely offer a deeper insight into the emotional trajectory of his younger years and his life since.
As someone who’s known Christopher for a couple years now (full disclosure), this release really is a pulling back of the curtain to some his past. And honestly, I actually feel like I know him much better now because of this EP.
For instance, on ‘Fixate’, the vocalist self-reflects about a certain past relationship that this EP heavily focuses on, singing, “I travelled the country and realised where I went wrong“. In referring to what I assume is his touring with Belle Haven, him stepping back and understanding the mistakes he’s made is amazing maturity. Delivered better yet in the song with his actual vocal delivery and the accompanying tight instrumentals too. He also sings about he was never the confident man he is today, that loneliness really changed him; all giving you a real sense of openness to the piece that goes beyond mere teen angst. (Well, even though the chorus sees Christopher singing about wanting a woman back, you get my point).
However, still on ‘Fixate‘, I do think that Christopher will regret penning the lyric ““She’s only 16, she’s not what you need”“. Sure, this particular line is in reference to advice friends gave him many years ago after a break-up and is shortly followed up with, “Now she’s 20 and I still can’t let her go“; openly admitting he was still recently battling with this old love loss. Yet as a man in his 20’s now singing that lyric about a once 16-year-old girl – even if it’s a memory – it’s kinda creepy.
Catch me not singing along to that part when I see the band play live next.
Stepping from teen romance to seemingly one of family, ‘North‘ sees the frontman at his most lyrically low, addressing a divorce or a family member leaving and thus damaging his sense of self; all making him yearn to leave, to “take my things and head north“, as it were. (Leaving, in one sense or another, is also a massive part of this EP’s theme as you’ll soon notice when listening). To hear Christopher bluntly admit the tears he’s shed over this situation and this family relative can’t be an easy thing to put out into the world for friends and strangers alike to pick apart, but it’s absolutely commendable the level of honesty he’s put into these songs.
During the bridge of ‘North‘, the frontman drops all pretence and drily sings to us, “You used me/you’re so shallow/she was wrong though“. While such non-direct references to people in his personal life can be kinda frustrating from an outsider view of understanding what and who the song is about, it’s laced with enough anger of someone taking their family for granted that it has the real impact to hit home. A burning sentiment that’s further reflected in the music here as Better Half build up the vocal and instrumental rage of this section to a near-fever pitch, providing ‘North‘ with a weighty send-off.
Pulling away from family matters and back to those of the heart, we have the aforementioned barn-burner of ‘Rest Your Head‘. (Yeah, look, I’ll take any fucking excuse to talk more about this track. Deal with it). Its resonating chorus of “everything withers & everything dies” exemplifies the song’s late-night musings about the finality of all things. Whether it’s someone’s life, a band, or a relationship. And the way the song’s careening outro has those harmonised shouted/spoken vocals of “I need to feel something/Just make me feel something” pushed back into the mix behind massive walls of guitar melodies nails the doubt and pain of someone about to make a huge decision; like you’re shouting underwater just to be heard.
In short, this song fuckin’ rules, listen to it!
Despite all of the great moments on ‘Maybe I Was Wrong‘, ‘Stop‘ seems to be a bit of a missed-opportunity lyrically. While I really dig the music, the words brought forward ditch the most interesting aspect (Christopher’s supposed hospitalization and physical/mental health struggles) in favour of calling out a girl – whether friend or lover, it’s not clear – for screwing around and how she should just cut it out. Ah yes, that’ll show her! Sure, it’s angry words matched with angry sonics but this EP has more than enough pissed-off content about relationships. So much so that the frontman peeling back experiences of his health issues would’ve made for better emotional palpability. At least from a listener’s perspective.
I’m also half-half on the inclusion of ‘Reasons To Leave‘ here too.
I’m down with it being included as it’s not a bad song, it doesn’t stick out poorly, and because it lyrically ties a bow on the EP. See, where ‘Fixate‘ opened the EP with the line, “smoke of light between your fingers/”did you know that’s bad for you?”, she smirked“, ‘Reasons To Leave‘ ends the release with the final lyric being “…sitting in the window chair with a cigarette, I’m thinking about leaving“. Which is the kind of thematic consistency that I love in my art, goddamnit.
But here’s the other thing: it’s not a new track. This cut is merely a slightly shorter version and an updated mix of the band’s original debut 2015 song. And, look, I totally get why it’s here. It’s the band’s first ever milestone (their debut track) being apart of their latest milestone (their debut EP, released nearly three years to the date of that first song dropping no less). While these songs might be just as old as ‘Reasons To Leave‘, here, it’s taking up time and space away from what could’ve been a brand new tune from Better Half; keeping the fresh pace of the EP up and allowing Christopher to flesh more of his lyrics out.
Which is another little grievance I have: just as ‘Maybe I Was Wrong‘ gets going, it suddenly ends and you’re back to square one. Simply a matter of it being a short five-track release? Of course! But it feels too open-ended, almost like there’s a second part meant to come right afterwards. And while that just might be the case for Better Half later this year or come 2019, as it now stands currently, the EP is somewhat weaker for the lack of closure. But hey, maybe that was the whole point.
As per their debut EP’s title, what exactly was Better Half’s Christopher Vernon wrong about? While it’s not explicitly outlined in the music, was it that Christopher was wrong to think he could fully move on from an old lover? Was he wrong to believe that just because you love someone – friend, family, or partner – that means they’ll always be there for you, no matter what? Was he wrong to not understand earlier that all things come to an end? Was he wrong to not handle past traumas in better ways? Was he wrong to not “leave” sooner? Well, my takeaway is that he feels he was wrong about all of these things; that the EP tackles all of these subjects via his vulnerable lyricism.
Whether you personally unearth nuggets of wisdom from ‘Maybe I Was Wrong’ will depend on how you reflect on your own mistakes and your past. Self-crit or not, however, this is no doubt a solid effort from Better Half. Though, whether Christopher and Matt can find time between their other, albeit bigger bands will be the deciding factor on just how long Better Half can exist and how large they grow. But my fingers are crossed that the band won’t put on the back-burner anytime soon.
- Rest Your Head
- Reasons To Leave
‘Maybe I Was Wrong’ is out now via Resist Records. Have a listen or two below: