Taking a new, more politically aware direction and adopting a more pared-down sound, L.A. gothic-industrialists come up with mixed results.
Rivetheads of the world, unite! On Violent Acts of Beauty, London After Midnight deliver their most politically-themed album yet. While the group, led by vocalist/programmer/multi-instrument musician Sean Brennan, has dabbled lightly in social commentary on their previous releases dating back to 1990, this is the first time that an entire album is marked by political discourse.
Focusing less lyrically on gothic leanings and having evolved more towards a global consciousness, Brennan's lyrics deliver pointed, articulate commentary on the state of the world. Yet musically the band seems to have digressed. In place of the lush, swirling synth soundscapes made groove-catchy with industrial percussive punches on previous albums like Psycho Magnet and Oddities, London After Midnight has moved towards a much more Spartan sound. At times, this new direction works. At others, the synthesized whirring sounds that pop up on the disc sound more corny than ominous, not meshing very well with the otherwise heavily industrialized drum tracks that insulate the group's sound.
Although they still possess a recognizable sound, London After Midnight's newer direction is reminiscent of a cross between '80s club-goth and early, Portrait of an American Family-era Marilyn Manson. This similarity is particularly evident on "Nothing's Sacred", a track loaded with sound effects and samples. The difference lies with the much thinner voice of Sean Brennan employing some of Manson's old tricks and vocal style. While it’s certainly not devoid of passion, emotion, or even melody, there's something distractingly droning about Brennan's tone that doesn't pack the potent punch of his lyrics.
More comparisons abound on the seemingly '80s club goth-inspired sound of "Love You to Death". Trippy, winding, and haunting, the track reveals a London After Midnight reminiscent of Depeche Mode with a darker, more electrified edge.
London After Midnight's latest offering seems to be all about taking risks, sound-wise. At times, this new direction works, particularly on "Complex Messiah". One of the more outstanding pieces on Violent Acts of Beauty in terms of a concept realized both lyrically and musically, the track blends several different elements together to create a steady rhythm that clicks and chimes along, beating out a catchy melody. Brennan and company combine more of an organic, albeit electric guitar with synthesized beats. The group adopts a similar approach on "Fear", with an interesting configuration of actual instrumentation in addition to programming. However, the sing-songy lyrics sound juvenile and detract from the piece.
There are several instances on their latest disc where London After Midnight comes up short, thanks to a number of elements that wrongly detract focus on Violent Acts of Beauty. "The Beginning of the End" features a distracting countermelody throughout the bulk of the track. It finally kicks into high gear in the final moments of the song, filling out with more of the darker, winding sound that London After Midnight formerly favored, bursting with moaning guitars against eerie piano tinkling and an industrialized crunch.
An even grosser misdirection of creative energy appears on "America's a Fucking Disease", with the bizarre component of a trilling, Jethro Tull-esque flute chirping in against punishing electronica and industrial beats. An incongruous, seemingly random burst of sound, it trivializes and fails to reflect any anger or discontent in Brennan's droning vocals. While Brennan's words get to the point, calling out government and consumers behind "culture" on the reverberating effects of greed, it's a prime example of lyrics bordering on juvenile.
There are times throughout, however, when Brennan and London After Midnight perform a complete 180-degree turn. The beautiful, thoughtful verses on "Pure" are full of simple echoes that quietly ring against a bare, industrial soundscape. It hearkens back to London After Midnight's early style, with lyrics that beg to be interpreted in multitude of ways from various perspectives. The band is at their best with tortured brilliance on tracks like "The Pain Looks Good on You", with its beautiful, full sound, and the dark "Heaven Now". Built around spare piano chords compacted between thudding electronic crashes that sound like a pounding heartbeat, the track is vaguely '80s in its sound. Conversely, bridging the gap between the band's old and new styles, "Feeling Fascist?" is astonishingly catchy and one of the standout tracks on the disc.
The concept of a socially aware band making a conscientious effort is a rare and welcome thing in these strange times. However, London After Midnight is trying too hard to carve this new identity. There isn't much room for interpretation or universal application with many of the songs on their latest album. Granted, socio-political commentary is a stream of discourse best approached with passion. However, Violent Acts of Beauty could benefit from a dose of subtlety at times.