Artist: Polychrome Album: Polychrome Year: 2018 Grade: B
In Brief: A strong start for a promising synthpop act, in a genre where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out. Their reliance on vocal samples, bright pop hooks, and occasional more eerie/atmospheric passages to serve as a contrast, showcases diversity across this playful set of songs. But it also becomes apparent toward the end that there’s a bit of filler here – all pleasant ambient and instrumental stuff, but a bit lighter on the big, bright pop songs than I might have preferred.
In Brief: A powerhouse synthpop/electronic rock album that knows when to ham it up and when to peel back the layers a bit for more of an organic performance. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, something different happens. This is my kind of band for sure.
Artist: Lo Moon Album: Lo Moon Year: 2018 Grade: C+
In Brief: While Lo Moon’s synthesis of 80s pop and shoegaze aesthetics and their attention to background detail are commendable, there’s not enough interesting stuff in the foreground (hooks, riffs, variance in tempo and intensity, etc.) to make the album listening experience a particularly eventful one.
Artist: Kevin Max Album: AWOL Year: 2018 Grade: B+
In Brief: KMax once again proves himself to be more of a musical chameleon than a profound poet or a true innovator… but he obviously had a lot of fun taking a trip down memory lane on this heavily 80s-influenced album, and that makes the music quite infectious, even if it might not be terribly original.
There are certain bands whose recorded material I’m absolutely over the moon for, and yet who I feel hesitant about seeing live. Chvrches was one of those bands, right up until a friend decided to get tickets to their Love Is Dead tour when it rolled through Los Angeles. They are absolute wizards of synthpop in the studio, and all three members of the band are capable of playing multiple instruments. Yet when a band plays a style of music that is sufficiently programmed, I often wonder if it’s worth showing up just to watch them press buttons on laptops. As it turns out, that’s not at all a fair characterization of Chvrches’ live shows, where really all that comes pre-recorded is the background effects and loops – the synths, bass, whatever guitar parts their songs might occasionally feature, and most obviously the vocals, are all performed live. For their latest tour, they’ve also added a live drummer. This type of music can get me really excited when delivered with a sufficient amount of live energy, and I should have known better than to doubt Chvrches in this regard. Their three studio albums thus far have been about as close to uniformly excellent as the discography of any band in my collection, so of course their setlist was going to be packed with wall-to-wall favorites, almost no matter what they chose to play. This might have been a little more expensive of a show, with a slightly bigger crowd, than I’m used to when I go to concerts these days, but at no point in the evening did I doubt that this would be 100% worth it.
Artist: Owl City Album: Cinematic Year: 2018 Grade: C
In Brief: Somewhere within this hodgepodge of bland personal anecdotes and ill-advised bits of genre-hopping, are a small handful of truly imaginative synthpop songs that remind me of why I once risked the scorn of fellow critics to proclaim that I actually liked Owl City. While sifting through 15 songs (and 3 alternate versions!) to find those rare gems is generally not a delightful experience, this album might still be a step up from Mobile Orchestra.
Artist: Chvrches Album: Love Is Dead Year: 2018 Grade: A-
In Brief: For a band that had such a fully realized synthpop sound from the get-go, it makes sense that change should come only in small increments. Chvrches once again keeps what works for them intact, and while there are a few small surprises in the song structures and instrumentation, the bigger surprise on Love Is Dead is how hard a lot of the lyrics hit. Without being preachy or overtly political, the trio clearly feels a responsibility to address the turbulent times we’re all living in. It’s refreshing and vital, and ultimately that’s what makes this record yet another home run for Chvrches.