Feedback-laden '90s touchstones are in full effect here. Too bad strong songwriting is in shorter supply.
Menace Beach’s debut album, Ratworld, is full of ‘90s alternative rock touchstones synthesized into a short and sloppy 32-minute blast. It would be a lot of fun if their songwriting were better. As it is, there are a few highlights here and the rest of the record is at least short and relatively painless.
The song “Elastic” is probably the most overt reference to a single ‘90s band. It can’t be a coincidence that this crunchy and catchy track contains a prominent guitar riff with a tone pulled straight from ‘90s English band Elastica. Elsewhere, opener “Come on Give Up” begins with a relatively hooky melody in the verse and follows it with a ho-hum chorus. But more importantly, the song is constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed by feedback-laden guitars that undercut the hooks. This would be a clever musical move if Menace Beach were writing sugary sweet melodies that needed toughening up, but these melodies aren’t that catchy. Instead the effect all that feedback has is to dilute the middling hooks into a soupy mess. It doesn’t help that singer Ryan Needham mostly sings through filters that distort his voice just enough to plunge it directly into the sonic mess.
On the other hand, the one time this auditory haze works for the band is when they slow it down, drop the drums completely, and go full shoegaze on the song “Blue Eye”. At almost four minutes, it’s the longest track on the album. This gives the song time to build as more layers of squalling, droning guitars gradually join the mix. What really makes the song click, though, is Liza Violet’s pretty, cooing vocals. Unlike her counterpart Needham, her singing is pure and clear and that contrast gives the song a good sense of melody even if it isn’t a particularly catchy one.
“Tastes Like Medicine” works because the band has a pair of strong melodies and lets them stand on their own. The simple and catchy verses, with their lightly strummed guitars and shimmering keyboard chords, could be vintage the Cure. They follow this up with a crunchy but bright chorus that allows unfiltered Needham to harmonize with Violet and make both singers sound better in the process. The short and sweet “Pick Out the Pieces” is another track with no drums and layers of guitar drones, but its anchored by more harmonized vocals and a good chorus that gives the song a recognizable center amongst the noise.
But that’s three, maybe four good songs out of 12. Everywhere else, the listener is left picking out individual bits of tracks to focus on amongst the piles of guitars and mediocre riffs and hooks. “Ratworld” has a prominent, interesting snare drum beat running through it, but not much else. “Dig It Up” has a cool distorted organ sound but the song is otherwise completely unremarkable. Closer “Fortune Teller” attempts to bring many of these elements back for a big finish that uses big drums and prominent organ above fuzzed-out bass and guitar. But the only bit of the song that really works is in the verse where Violet repeats the word “away” in a descending melodic pattern. Everything else is just more of the same sonic mess. The handful of tracks that work on Ratworld demonstrate that Menace Beach has potential. But the rest of the album shows clearly that while the group has a distinctive sound, they just aren’t there yet from a songwriting perspective.