Kasabian, The Alchemist’s Euphoria ★★★★☆
Kasabian have always been a misfit group, caught between art and populism, the past and the future, standing among the stars but looking at the gutter. Their sound – conceived by multi-instrumentalist songwriter Serge Pizzorno – offered a super-modern take on rock dynamics, mixing heavy guitars with electro, techno, dubstep, hip hop and all kinds of synthetic digital pop distortion. This sci-fi attack was fused with singalong melodies and nonsensical lyrics that already sounded like a retro throwback to Britpop by the time Kasabian released their debut album in 2004. They came across with all the subtlety of Oasis in a shouting match with the Prodigy.
Huge in the UK, Kasabian never really got a purchase elsewhere in the world, and I have sometimes wondered how much this had to do with frontman Tom Meighan stamping all over their more progressive qualities. Then in 2020, Meighan carried his belligerent machismo too far, and was sacked by his former Leicester school mates when he pled guilty to assaulting his fiancée (albeit the couple have since married).
Instead of recruiting a stand-in, bandleader Pizzorno has stepped up to the microphone for Kasabian’s seventh album. It is certainly not a like-for-like swap. Pizzorno has the bearing of a scrawny aesthete next to Meighan’s testosterone-fuelled bruiser. Nor is their vocal tone similar. Meighan had limited range but lots of power. Pizzorno’s voice is more tuneful yet fragile. The difference is most evident on the punchiest tracks from The Alchemist’s Euphoria, where Kasabian charge into the mosh pit as if to demonstrate it is aggro as usual.
The looped guitar riff and hip hop snap of Rocket Fuel is tremendously exciting yet Pizzorno’s breathily shouty rap seems posturing rather than commanding. The storming Alygatyr comes across like T-Rex in outer space but really calls out for someone to boss the vocal. You can’t fault the thrilling and inventive backing tracks, however, full of deeply satisfying synth noises and sudden rhythmic twists. Pizzorno explores his trippiest instrumental instincts with a long, central song sequence referred to as “the space suite”, channelling Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream-style cosmic electronica.
Bookended by acoustic ballads, this is by far the least frenetic set Kasabian have ever concocted. Writing for Meighan, Pizzorno was a little too fond of cut-and-paste phrase-making that sounded clever but rendered meaning opaque. Singing his own songs seems to have pushed him to try and make sense of his role. From the despair and confusion of opening track The Alchemist, through the stoicism of central soft-rock anthem The Wall to the redemptive charge of clipped belter Chemicals and philosophical surrender of closing campfire lullaby Letting Go, the connecting tissue of The Alchemist’s Euphoria is a search for meaning. It would be a stretch to describe it as profound, but it is certainly sincere, with a vulnerability alien to Kasabian of yore.
Bands have thrived by promoting from within before, most notably Genesis, who became even more successful with singing drummer Phil Collins than with charismatic leading man Peter Gabriel. What Kasabian have lost in aggression they have gained in depth and sensitivity, and the result is a vivid, adventurous album set at the outer limits of rock and techno. What their rowdy fanbase will make of it remains to be seen, but to these ears Kasabian 2.0 are an improvement on the original. Neil McCormick
Panda Bear & Sonic Boom, Reset ★★★★★
For those not versed in indie history, Panda Bear and Sonic Boom are two established legends, albeit inhabitants of its lunatic fringe: back in the ’80s, Boom, aka Pete Kember, led the shoegaze-pioneering, Rugby-born rock band Spacemen 3, until his cohort, Jason Pierce, split off to enjoy greater success with the lavishly orchestrated Spiritualized.
Kember, by contrast, drifted towards increasingly experimental synth-pop, before withdrawing into production work for admirers such as MGMT and Animal Collective’s Panda Bear (real name: Noah Lennox), whose predilection for updating 1960’s psychedelia clearly chimed with his own.
Kember soon followed Lennox in relocating to Lisbon, and that deepening association coupled with the pandemic’s geographical imperatives led to this first collaborative album under equal billing.
As is far from uncommon with albums released this year, Reset is a case of extraordinary ingenuity under restrictive conditions, both its title and core creative conceit arising from COVID’s moment of off-road reflection. Its nine tracks were mostly born out of looped-up intros from vintage seven-inch singles from the ’50s and ’60’s, whose drama and majesty Kember had been savouring at home.
Most recognisably, opener Gettin’ To The Point rides on the rattling acoustic riff to Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps To Heaven, as a platform for Lennox’s soaring Beach Boys-y song about going back to basics. Other artists similarly sampled include The Troggs, the Everly Brothers and doo-wop stars Randy & the Rainbows, and it’s surely fair to deduce that the intended ‘reset’ is all about returning pop to its early years’ sense of wonder, both sonically and emotionally.
On that level, its nine tracks resoundingly succeed. For both parties, it’s a welcome return to flat-out pop tunes: Edge of the Edge is particularly irresistible for its descending cascade of melody, Lennox’s exquisite tenor forever evoking Brian Wilson, while Kember’s wacko synths and luminous production rival the chief Beach Boy for sheer barefoot-in-the-sandpit-wearing-a-fireman’s-helmet otherness. All told: a frazzled singalong treat for late summer. Andrew Perry
Megan Thee Stallion, Traumazine ★★★★☆
Megan Pete, performing under the name Megan Thee Stallion, is one of rap’s greatest living technicians. A complete master of the form. The 27-year-old Houston rapper bends syllables to her will like a dominatrix with a whip, each word she spits feels like a welt on impact.
“They take all the hate that they got for me and they market it/When they shit ain’t poppin’, they usin’ Megan for marketing,” she raps on her album Traumazine’s opener NDA, with equal measures of percussion and poeticism.
With all the meta-narrative surrounding her abruptly released sophomore album Traumazine – the rapper is currently embroiled in courtroom drama with her label 1501 Certified Entertainment – it feels important to simply remember the sheer magnitude of her talent.
While she made her come-up performing acapella freestyles, putting her studiously researched flow on display, that technicality has since been disguised – and sometimes obscured – by poppy and meme-ready production. While Good News, Megan’s 2020 debut album, felt overdiluted, on Traumazine, she successfully pulls from both pockets. This is highly advanced rap filtered through easily digestible hooks and musical choices.
The beat variety on display is exquisite. Almost every shade of Megan Thee Stallion is here: from the menacing trap of Ungrateful and the Goosebumps-like horrorcore of Gift & A Curse through to the breezy poppiness of Star and the goofy –wait, is that yodelling?! – playfulness of Anxiety. Traumazine is the Megan Thee Stallion album her most loyal fans have been waiting on.
There is also a noticeable dialling back of sexuality. Sex as a discussion on powerplay was once the rapper’s M.O – “I ain’t even gotta f__k him he just love how I talk” she boasted on 2019’s Money Good. Traumazine sounds less like foreplay and more like straight up castration, reaction to to the misogynoir culture that has violently cast her outside the lines of sympathy. “I'm on my f__k you sh_t, bitch, I'm done bein' nice,” she snarls on Not Nice. On standout track Who Me she compares herself to Biggie Smalls: “I feel like Biggie, who shot you? Everybody knows who shot me,” she answers back, revealing the contradictory reception between male and female rappers; a scarcity model of sympathy. Emma Madden
Pale Waves, Unwanted ★★★☆☆
Whether by design or happy accident, this female-fronted quartet from Manchester have become one of the country’s biggest pop-punk bands through stealth: in an era when few guitar bands break through, their debut album, 2018’s My Mind Makes Noises, followed a synthy ’80s blueprint, before their influences gradually shifted towards ’90s grunge, and bankable alt-artists like Avril Lavigne, Sum 41, Paramore and, at a push, Green Day.
After last year’s Who Am I? hit the Top Three at home via the same label as The 1975 and Wolf Alice, this briskly executed follow-up duly secured the production services of LA hotshot Zakk Cervini, who cut his teeth with big Stateside acts like Blink 182 and Limp Bizkit, as well as British goth-pop chart-topper Yungblud.
Pale Waves are hardly the first band to offer themselves as a conduit for those teens and early-twentysomethings who feel alienated from their peers, and society in general, but Unwanted sees them go after that demographic with a vengeance, with a timely LBGTQ+ twist: 27-year-old singer Heather Baron-Gracie has explained how, for the first time, its songs arose from her exploration of relationships with women, while also reflecting drummer Ciára Doran’s recent transitioning.
With Cervini and LA gun-for-hire Sam de Jong co-writing throughout, however, the album is anything but a radical feminist blast à la Bikini Kill, more along the lines of one of Courtney Love’s air-brushed, songwriter-assisted solo outings, with all guns blazing for radio-friendliness.
While its inspiration by gender issues is doubtless genuine, these seem discreetly buried in the lyrics, far from the choruses, where more universal gripes prevail. For this listener, Unwanted calls to mind a Jacqueline Wilson novel transposed into an LP format, its 12 songs relentlessly circling over “difficult emotions” – awkwardness, rejection, and, yes, it’s okay to express your anger. And these, of course, are well-worn teen-pop topics already. Andrew Perry