The Pop Group's follow up to their 2015 comeback album steers away from classic post-punk and into odd new territory.
With 2015’s Citizen Zombie the Pop Group returned triumphantly from a 35-year hiatus. The album succeeded in translating their original, quirky, noisy sound to the modern age and updating it with new elements. Citizen Zombie had driving grooves and strange glitchy accents that made for an enjoyable listen. The songwriting was predictably cynical and politically charged, addressing new concepts but serving the same purpose the band’s music served in the late '70s. It was an impressive comeback album, and when the news came that the band was recording another new album, it was a welcome announcement.
But with Honeymoon on Mars, the modernization of the sound is a bit forced. The approach veers more towards the experimental but isn’t grounded in the dark, driving core, so it tends to fly off in odd directions. The bass-heavy “City of Eyes” perhaps comes closest to maintaining the feeling the group has achieved in the past, but even that breaks apart in the middle into a confusing mix of repetitive slide-guitar, clap-along drums, unintelligible guitar lines, and synth effects. It sounds unintentional, like an impromptu jam session the band would have in rehearsal. They seem to be having fun, but it’s too disjointed to keep anyone else’s attention.
The same is true of the album’s lead single “Zipperface". The song has engaging roots: a synthy, disco tempo that fully embraces darker songwriting and plenty of unsettling vocal and instrumental stings. What detracts from the song’s appeal is that Mark Stewart’s vocals are so loud in the mix that they overpower all of the wonderful boldness in the instrumental. Stewart, throughout the album, wails and squeals above the instruments and it is intended to be a bit strange and a bit loose with the tuning, but the unsettling quality frequently devolves into a grating sound and quickly becomes unlistenable. “Pure Ones” for example is a fine, if over-reverbed, track without Stewart’s singing. But each time he howls, “Step away my friend!” it becomes harder and harder not to skip to the next track.
And where, with Citizen Zombie, the band displayed a skill for modernizing their sound, here, the mixture is rushed and laborious. Gone is the effortless synthesis of old and new. Instead, EDM snare builds and trap-beats are shoehorned clumsily into songs alongside funky guitar chords and deep gothic synths. “Heaven?” is a massively confused and confusing track that sounds like a mishmash of scraps from the album’s unused takes, and the opener “Instant Halo” sounds like the intro to a track, but the track never starts. It’s just a spoken word piece laid over a four-minute-long build with no payoff.
Honeymoon on Mars clearly started from an interesting, inspired place. The industrial percussion on “War Inc.” is thrilling and “Little Town” contains a brilliant bassline that perfectly frames Stewart’s Nick Cave-esque delivery. There are a lot of good ideas and great elements, but it’s overproduced and too complicated. The album sounds rushed and not thoroughly thought out. Certain moments have you wondering whether the take they used was the best they could get or if they just didn’t want to take the time to do it again. The Pop Group’s name has always been a bit ironic, but strangely enough, a more focused, fine-tuned, pop sensibility is what they needed here to make this album a more accessible type of strange.