Attention to Songwriting Detail Powers We Are Scientists on 'Megaplex'
After a half-dozen albums, We Are Scientists are far from running out of hooks, but these days they seem to deploy those hooks better when they are stretching themselves.
We Are Scientists
27 April 2018
It's been interesting to hear We Are Scientists' general musical progression over the course of their career. Fundamentally they haven't changed too much since their early days. They still write catchy power pop songs and use mostly guitar, bass, and drums. But their first major album, With Love and Squalor, was full of hard driving songs that barely ever slowed down enough to be called mid-tempo. And then drummer Michael Tapper left, and their next album, Brain Thrust Mastery, was much less in a hurry and found the band, now officially a duo, incorporating some synths, too. Since then the band has gradually figured out how to merge the fast and punchy rock and the slower synthpop into one coherent power pop stew.
Megaplex continues that formula and does it a bit better than 2016's spotty Helter Seltzer. The mid-tempo "One in, One Out" begins the album with a catchy, simple synth figure before singer-guitarist Keith Murray comes in, followed by slow, reverbed guitar in the background and a simple rhythm section accompaniment. The song has a hugely singable chorus, "That's why I stopped right where I stood / When I saw you," and the song is wisely built around it, with variations including a guitar solo, synth solo, and a brief rhythm section break. Second song "Notes in a Bottle" is similarly mid-tempo, with fewer synths and more interesting drums, but a less catchy chorus. Without that strong earworm of a refrain, it's simply a less successful song.
"Heart is a Weapon" is full-on '80s-style synthpop, complete with a popping, watery bass tone, slick and clean electric guitar, and shimmering synths. When Murray croons enthusiastically over this, it really works well, and the song, at under three minutes, doesn't wear out its welcome. The hard-rocking "Your Light Has Changed" finds the guitar and bass all fuzzed out and the drums pounding hard through the chorus. But it's more effective at the brief moments when Murray and bassist Chris Cain drop the distortion and let the verse melody come through. The chorus itself is decent here, but not enough to overcome the feeling that the fuzz is not helping the song.
At Megaplex's halfway point comes "KIT", the one song where the band genuinely tries something different on this album. It's a slow ballad featuring a wonderful vocal melody from Murray and completely unexpected fretless bass guitar from Cain. Synths, guitar, and drums, all subtly push the song forward in a lightly rolling method. It's the album's musical highlight even if it isn't the catchiest song here.
The second half of the record goes back to the band's usual songwriting styles. "No Wait at Five Leaves" has a soaring, strong chorus that makes up for verses that are just okay. "Not Another Word" returns to the '80s synthpop style and does it quite successfully with a quick tempo, shiny guitars and keyboards, and a wordy but catchy refrain. "I know that you think you're testing me / But I've already learned my lesson here / So, baby, not another word / There's no need to make a mess of this / But you only can mix your messages / So baby, not another word" is a lot to sing but it's also a lot of fun.
"Now or Never" crunches the guitars up again, but does it as a power ballad that also incorporates acoustic guitar and quieter moments, which makes it more sonically interesting. Speaking of interesting, the album's penultimate song, "You Failed", turns a typical positive message on its head. A relaxed all-synth backing (including, it sounds like, the drums) finds Murray singing a chorus where he repeats "The test of a lifetime" several times, while a synth-cloaked voice quietly responds "You failed" each time. The chorus and synth instrumentation is compelling enough that the verse lyrics are almost irrelevant as Murray rambles on about red wine and secrets.
Megaplex wraps up with the sunny but slight "Properties of Perception", which has a lighter touch than most of the rest of the songs on the record. It's an upbeat way to finish the album after "You Failed," but it's better at setting a mood than being a song. After a half-dozen albums, We Are Scientists are far from running out of hooks, but these days they seem to deploy those hooks better when they are stretching themselves. This is the second album in a row where the harder they rock, the less inspired the songs are. When they go mid-tempo and slower and add synths and other textures to their hooks, the songs sound better. Since they aren't a punk band they can't get by on pure energy anymore, so the more detail work they do on their songs these days, the better they sound.