Sydney-based rockers Gang of Youths make music that feels massive. The band’s live shows have drawn comparisons to U2. Their records are always sweeping endeavors, layer after layer of carefully-positioned sound coming together in satisfying fullness. That’s truer than ever on the new album Angel in Realtime, where power ballads and dirges alike are immaculately produced and loaded with the group’s natural energy. The album’s beating heart, though, is something far more singular: the very human vulnerability inextricable from its lyrical themes.
Angel in Realtime came together in the wake of lead singer-songwriter David Le’aupepe’s father’s 2018 death, a moment that led to not only mourning but a series of bewildering revelations. Le’aupepe processes his grief and earth-shattering new knowledge of his father’s past, at least in part, through music and lyrics alike. As he pieces together newfound roots and long-lost family ties, represented in word and through meaningful sound juxtaposed against Gang of Youths’ creatively crowd-pleasing rock, Angel in Realtime emerges, a complete and thoughtful package of catharsis and reflection via expansive sound.
The story that unfolds is compelling on multiple levels. Le’aupepe lets his audience witness his deeply personal emotional processes from the start. The opening track “You in Everything” is a stellar example. It’s a solemn, string-laced track that effectively dedicates the album to Le’aupepe’s goal of honoring (“The places you have walked / I consider holy ground”) and understanding (“I will pour through every piece of you / Till none of you is left”) his now-departed father. “In the Wake of Your Leave” follows, building momentum quickly through potent power chords and contributions from the Auckland Gospel Choir and members of Cook Islander folk group Anuanua Drummers. These are the first of many ways that Gang of Youths sonically signifies Le’aupepe’s father’s connections to Māori and Pasifika cultures.
In fact, contributions from performers throughout the Oceanic region are a particularly potent element of Angel in Realtime’s soundscape, setting it apart from other well-crafted rock albums. Contemporary artists from the area and archival recordings by ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe (all used in careful consultation with relevant community members) are interwoven with catchy hooks and near-symphonic arrangements, communicating on levels beyond the textual. That’s incredibly impactful as Le’aupepe puts himself in his father’s shoes on tracks like “Tend the Garden” and “The Kingdom Is Within You”, both songs in which he imagines his father’s fraught life paths through Samoa, New Zealand, and Australia.
Traditional Māori taonga pūoro, samples of Tongan mouth harp music, and spoken word recordings blend, and it’s poignant in the mix of drums, keys, strings, and guitars of the former track. Against this dramatic backdrop, Le’aupepe narrates a story that puts his father’s secrets into perspective. “The Kingdom is Within You” further explores the exploitative labor conditions his father would have faced, energized by the industrial sounds of sharp garage beats and jubilant Cook Islander vocal recordings.
At the end of the album, raw emotion finds soothing balm in a final pair of tracks that invoke Le’aupepe’s father’s favorite sporting moment. “Hand of God”, in which Le’aupepe sings and plays piano with the gentle support of the Auckland Gospel Choir, leads seamlessly into “Goal of the Century”, a resplendent and ecstatic meditation on moving forward. It all ends with Le’aupepe winding down over soft piano chords and holding his father’s memory close for the future: “In a way, it’ll feel like / You were an angel in real-time.”
Gang of Youths produce skillful, well-polished, thick sounds with a cinematic atmosphere. The amount of thought put into each moment, especially in light of the subject matter at hand, is even more impressive. With Angel in Realtime, Gang of Youths have elevated their work to new echelons of arena rock potential. Listening to it from start to finish is something genuinely satisfying.