Naomi Penn reviews the impressive Slam Dunk Festival, bringing a host of alternative artists to BirminghamWritten by Naomi Penn on 24th June 2018
Album Review: Amber Run – For A Moment, I Was Lost
Amber Run's new album isn't perfect but is occasionally exceptional, says Andrew Pollard
From the opening crash of piano, Amber Run make it clear that they are an inherently changed band. The first track, ‘Insomniac’, is so high energy that, when compared to the opener on their debut, it becomes almost comical. Where 5AM’s ‘I Found’ was confusingly stripped back and mellow, ‘Insomniac’ begins the record with a flash of refreshingly bright piano and striking percussion that remains impossible to ignore throughout the rest of the album without ever becoming overbearing, all set to a blistering tempo. This jarring shift in tone is deliberate and brilliant, instantly alleviating fears that the band would struggle to escape the mainstream, establishing a new voice that, at its best, feels far less derivative and wonderfully genuine.
‘No Answers’ follows, an obvious high point that begins with a glistening guitar lead over a thumping kick drum and a synth bassline that would fit comfortably into a Kavinsky track. As the drums build and Sperring’s own bass replaces the synth, we are treated to what can be considered Amber Run’s quintessential sound at this point: punchy, brooding, and genuinely exciting. This is far from all they have to offer, however, and Amber Run seem especially keen to establish this early on as, the moment the ‘No Answers’ starts to feel predictable, almost all the instrumentation drops out and the pace is cranked up, leaving only a single pounding drum and Keogh’s now wailing vocals. The raw aggression and urgency established in these moments provide all the setup to make the return of the guitars feel like a mid-sized bomb, and with this Amber Run achieves something not present in any of their previous work: they surprise.
“This is, sadly, not a spectacular record, but it is exceptional in places and one would be hard pressed not to call it a success
After this comes ‘Stranger’, a beautifully unnerving song with a lead guitar and keys that echo as in an abandoned building, and a fuzz-heavy bass that provides a sinister backdrop not dissimilar to some of the eerier cuts on Royal Blood’s last record. Having said that, it’s certainly one of the less dynamic tracks and, while it remains intensely chilling throughout, suffers for this somewhat, being the first track that feels longer than its runtime would suggest. Similarly atmospheric is ‘Fickle Game’, although it’s decidedly more sublime than it is haunting. Any lead guitar is absent for much of the song, barring a couple of reverberated interludes that harken back to the early days of Coldplay, and instead a heavier emphasis is given to Wyeth’s piano, which is at its prettiest here.
At the centre of the record we find ‘Haze’, which is perhaps the most baffling choice for a lead single Amber Run possibly could’ve made; a two-minute interlude made up entirely of Keogh’s layered voice lamenting about being lost in a ‘blue haze’. While the track is a bold idea and certainly makes more sense within the album’s themes of loss and confusion, the vocals simply aren’t interesting enough to make it compelling beyond the first few listens. It’s passable as an intermission but was such a poor choice for a single that when I first heard it back in April I honestly didn’t think it would make it onto FAMIWL at all.
“'White Lie' consciously sacrifices mainstream appeal, risking disappointing some listeners for the sake of artistic integrity
It’s a shame, then, that it’s after the triumph of ‘White Lie’ that the band seem to take their foot off the pedal from a songwriting standpoint, hoping to simply roll to the finish line. The next track, ‘Perfect’, is by no means a poorly constructed song, nor is it at all unpleasant to listen to; the explosive riffs from both guitars are almost impossible to not be warmed by and none of this instrumentation presents any glaring faults. The issue is that ‘Perfect’ just comes across as lazy. The verses contain nothing outstanding musically or lyrically, and the chorus and breakdown, while undeniably fun, overstep the mark when it comes their Royal Blood influences, and Amber Run begin to sound knowingly derivative.
‘Dark Bloom’ shoots for a brooding melancholy somewhere between ‘Stranger’ and ‘Fickle Game’ but the instrumentation just isn’t enticing enough to give the song any emotional punch for the most part. This song is memorable if only for the crushingly heavy breakdown in the latter half, which is intense to the point of being actively stressful as a screeching guitar rises over the band’s thunderous backing in a moment reminiscent of The Dark Knight (‘Always A Catch’ by Hans Zimmer). That said, this breakdown is as short as it is sweet and the song remains regrettably lacklustre on the whole.
Next up, ‘Machine’ is the least memorable song on the album and is, incidentally, the closest Amber Run come to their old material. It’s fairly barren instrumentally, with the vocals again given the limelight, and as such suffers from many of the same problems as ‘Haze’. Keogh is far from a bad singer but his voice is nothing groundbreaking and it’s not like they try to push any vocal or lyrical boundaries anyway, so the song flops. ‘Are You Home?’ doesn’t stray far from ‘Machine’s more slow, reflective tone, but it also doesn’t rest the entire song on Keogh’s shoulders, resulting in something far more palatable. The band still aren’t exactly stretching themselves creatively but the cyclical piano and anthemic repetition of ‘Are you home or not?’ are catchy enough to give the track a shelf life much greater than its two predecessors.
“It’s truly disappointing that, after the surprisingly quality and originality of the first six tracks, the album concludes on one of its weakest notes
If there’s any one thing to be taken from FAMIWL, it’s that Amber Run are only just getting started. At its best, this record proves that the band have an extremely solid alt-rock sound, and that they’re open to taking risks, even if they don’t always pay off. The album certainly falters in its second half, both due to some confusing decisions and what I can only assume was either a half-hearted attempt to cover all of their bases (we need a sad, slow song - ‘Machine’; we need an album closer - ‘Wastelands’) or just laziness. But honestly, a large part of why this album’s final act is so disappointing is because the setup was so phenomenal. On my first listen up to ‘Dark Bloom’ I was ready to call this one of my favourite records. Amber Run have the capability to be something truly special, but they haven’t reached that point yet. FAMIWL is a major improvement on their previous work, and I can’t wait to see them refine their sound further and, hopefully, blow me away in the future.