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Like synthesizers, guitars are electronic instruments. More rock fans should recognize this. Venerated for years as rock’s central instrument, they can play many more roles and appear in many more contexts, a strategy available to anyone who wants to get loud and messy. The four releases below honor the surprising forms guitar noise can take. If Machine Gun Kelly wants to refashion himself as a pop-punk wailer, why shouldn’t he? And if Rina Sawayama wants to add nu-metal to her recombinant pop cauldron, who’s to stop her?
Idles: Ultra Mono (Partisan)
Having become popular for their punchy, simplistic protest songs, and now facing critical backlash for the same songs, Idles roar and bellow with blunt force. On this album, the Bristol punk band embark on yet another round of preaching to the converted.
Although every Idles album has rocked, this one reaches a new level of abrasive density, as the band build their power chords and pummeling drums into an electronically bolstered wall of noise, beset by shrieking dissonance. Each song is equipped with a giant steamroller chorus, snarled by Joe Talbot through gritted teeth and mouthfuls of phlegm; his voice suggests that while he may be a benevolent liberal, he’d gladly brawl with fascists too.
According to critical authorities on British punk, this is the album where the politically outspoken band cross the line into empty propaganda: Talbot’s slogan-based songwriting has apparently lost touch with reality and devolved into nonsense. As a believer in the first rule of rock — better godawful than boring — I’m only disappointed that the album does not live up to this description. They occasionally achieve true gibberish, as if Talbot’s rage keeps him from writing coherently; these songs are far more rousing than the coherent ones.
On “Mr. Motivator,” Talbot recites aspirational images of celebrity that get increasingly and pointlessly bizarre (“Like Flavor Flav in the club riding on the back of John Wayne”), as the guitars scratch and howl; on the marvelously daft “Kill Them With Kindness,” a heartwarming sermon about positive thinking gets muddled by ostensibly allegorical nursery rhymes, as in “Arf arf arf arf arf, said the puppy to the snake” or “Wa wa wa woo woo woo, said the flower to the sun.”
Mostly, however, they articulate unsurprising progressive positions on various social issues: anxiety, consent, nationalism, and so on. Even the guitar noise is too neat: while thrashing and crackling about, their megariffs still respect the mechanical song structures and appear in all the proper places. The resulting album is a righteous one, but rarely says anything new. They should have written more lyrics like “Clack clack clacka clang clang! That’s the sound of the gun going bang bang” and fewer like “You only die once, you’ll never come back/You’re gone when you’re gone, so love what you can.” Striving valiantly for sane protest music, they really excel at transcendent chaos.
Stay Inside: Viewing (No Sleep)
As emo postpunks, Stay Inside combine two distinct traditions of melancholy: one expressionist and cathartic, the other stark and menacing. On their first album, the Brooklyn band immerse in mournful noise.
This album is simultaneously grand and quiet: the band’s miniature guitar symphonies erupt without warning, like lightning bolts or meteor showers, producing sudden bursts of natural beauty that crest and peal before receding into feedback again. The harshness of their booming power chords and jagged bass guitar is balanced by lighter, lustrous riffs letting in air, as the guitar stretches its range. While Bryn Nieboer and Chris Johns scream the choruses in their best emo wails, as often they murmur hushed messages to each other just out of earshot.
Thundering in the face of the apocalypse, tinged with the faint scent of mothballs and permeated with a suitably gothic sense of doom, the album should be intolerable as it accentuates the romanticism of an already hyper-romantic genre. Instead, it’s beautiful — the music’s grandeur only highlights the underlying emotional fragility expressed by their small and flat voices. Their disaffected quietude creates a sense of witnessing something great and terrible, like watching a storm from a window or looking on helplessly as the Atlantic swallows New York.
The fiercest moment comes when the singers’ voices blend on “Void,” which explodes into disarray after a softly plucked intro; the drums start pounding twice as fast, and Nieboer’s scream is interrupted by two voices, speaking in the rapid cadence of emergency news reporters, chattering across channels at each other. The song winds down after that, but there’s no calming their frayed nerves.
Lost in a sea of destructive elements, they convey a visceral terror.
Rina Sawayama: Sawayama (Dirty Hit)
Rina Sawyama takes early ’00s nostalgia to a new level, not just for teenpop and hip-hop but for nu-metal, symphonic goth, and any number of now-forgotten rap-rock hybrids. Encompassing all these influences and more, the British singer’s first album sounds like no other music on the planet.
Although micro-targeted references abound on this album (fans will surely relish tracing which Britney Spears songs she’s referring to in different places) her synthesis is so dense it registers mainly as a vicious onslaught of noise. Synthbeats morph into screams, metal riffs resolve into bubblegum hooks, and a panoply of sound effects — bleeps, triangle clicks, spinning coins — decorates the songs so adeptly you hardly notice them.
Where Poppy, say, orchestrates her pop-metal fusion to emphasize the distance between various components, the music crawling with dynamic contrasts and jump-scare transitions, Sawayama fashions such messy elements into an improbably polished groove: remarkably, the album works as pop. This music evokes an efficient machine, smoothly cycling through its many modular parts; the modules just happen to include contorted guitars and bloodcurdling shrieks. The album’s coherence implies a triumph over chaos; Sawayama’s lyrics, which ponder notions of home, heritage, and self-definition, suggest the chaos is internal: she’s putting pieces of herself together.
The first half rocks with greater abandon: “STFU” counterposes her silliest arena riff with her most menacing pop chorus (“Shut the fuck up,” she whispers sweetly over strummed guitars), while “XS” conjures a shimmering R&B confection, interrupted occasionally by hammering power chords to keep you perpetually on edge. The second half, where her metal side mostly recedes, nonetheless goes gloriously overboard; on “Bad Friend” and “Chosen Family,” she sings the praises of her friends as if haunted by memories of karaoke bars past, because only vocal overkill can do them justice.
The album peaks with her squishiest new-wave ballad, “Tokyo Love Hotel,” a conflicted love letter to the city; as she wonders if she belongs, she forlornly concludes after each verse, “I guess this is just another song about Tokyo.” But during the fadeout, as the beats sparkle and ache, the synthesizers sound like the city lights.
An expert pop singer, Sawayama approaches music like a fan. If you hear yourself in a song, that song is now yours.
Machine Gun Kelly: Tickets to My Downfall (Bad Boy/Interscope)
Machine Gun Kelly was the past decade’s official generic white rapper, shrewdly keeping up with trends from trap to SoundCloud rap without quite distinguishing himself. This is his rock album, an apparently random but enthusiastic embrace of the pop-punk tunecraft that brings him joy.
Since Kelly’s most recent style of emo-rap already basked in pop-punk’s shadow, the transition is simple: he just picks up a guitar, plugs in, and starts howling. Both genres share themes — depression, drugs, failed romances, emotional overstatement hiding real pain — but by switching to a genre that emphasizes speed and energy, he escapes contemporary hip-hop’s morose languor.
He has a talent for loud, obnoxious, catchy melodies in the style of Blink-182 (whose drummer, Travis Barker, plays on the album); in the best pop-punk tradition, the anthemic guitar roar takes the edge off his desperation. He blasts through the songs quickly and gleefully, yelling choruses over Barker’s pummeling beat with an enthusiastic vigor his rapping never approached.
Although rappers have a long history of making self-conscious rock moves, the album I’m most reminded of is Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy — not musically but spiritually, as these performers find their groove and let out a deep breath after years of trying to fit roles that didn’t suit them. As with Tyler, the thrill of reinvention induces Kelly to belabor tropes, just to prove that he’s a rock star now. His perfunctory, ham-handed allusions to drugs and mental illness function as window dressing; similarly, he adopts the pop-punk whine with exaggerated nasality.
While he rarely departs from the template, more complex songs add variety, such as the Halsey duet “Forget Me Too,” on which both singers shriek with cutting hysteria, and “Concert for Aliens,” whose premise is so absurd one can only pump one’s fist and sing along.
This album establishes new territory for Kelly. The depth will come later.