Album Review: Amber Run - For A Moment, I Was Lost | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

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

It’s been a strange couple of years for Amber Run. After seeing runaway success with their debut in 2014, 5AM, the Nottingham boys’ reward was being dropped from their record label (RCA/Sony Music) and seeing their drummer, Felix Archer, leave the band for undisclosed reasons. In addition, while 5AM had garnered a reputation among listeners, reviews hadn’t been outstanding, with many critics stating that the band shone in their moments of originality, but that a drive towards mainstream appeal had hampered their creativity overall. Going into their sophomore album a man down, with a new label and pressure to discover their own sound, I found myself praying (figuratively) that Amber Run could pull off something spectacular, for their sake as much as mine. For A Moment, I Was Lost is, sadly, not a spectacular record, but it is exceptional in places and one would be hard pressed not to call it a success.

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
Following FAMIWL’s (I know that acronym is terrible but shortening it to FML kind of detracts from title) unexpectedly explosive start, the next three tracks are mercifully understated, but each exudes a confidence that really makes it feel like Amber Run are making music for the love of music, rather than to appeal to any demographic. ‘Island’ is a more sleek and contemplative track that remains engaging by virtue of a satisfyingly thick bass groove. It’s also notable for featuring the album’s title in the line ‘I forget where I was / and for a moment I was lost’, a line that epitomises the troubled feelings of confusion that the band must have been feeling going into this project, and that emphasises how impressive it is that the resultant record sounds so self-assured.

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
‘Haze’ may have been a risk that doesn’t pay off in any spectacular fashion but it’s hardly a death sentence for the album, and the chances taken in the track that follows, ‘White Lie’, feel far more calculated and result in probably the record’s greatest moment. The instrumentation builds throughout the song’s run, with Keogh taking the role of a depressive in an unhappy relationship who appears to be on the verge of taking action (‘I don’t wanna be like you / I don’t wanna be like you’). This catharsis never comes though. The anticipated crescendo is instead swapped out for a quiet anti-climax that brings the song to swift end, and this bathos is supported by the complete capitulation of the voice of the narrative, who now repeats ‘I’m a failure / I’m a disaster’. Here, Amber Run consciously sacrifice mainstream appeal, risking disappointing some listeners for the sake of artistic integrity, a move that highlights the leap in maturity that the band has achieved in the last two years, as well as showing off a newfound prowess for musical storytelling and a willingness to subvert expectations.

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
It’s truly disappointing that, after the surprisingly quality and originality of the first six tracks (excluding the intermission), FAMIWL concludes on one of its weakest notes.Wastelands’ is the most predictable song on the entire record. It’s an album closer that feels built from the ground up to be an album closer, from its lyrical themes of acceptance and moving forward in life to a faux-epic finale that only comes across as melodramatic. Bizarrely, this finale is also the only time Amber Run’s production becomes noticeably poor, as the soft, dulcet vocals are mixed louder than the rest of the band combined, who at that point appear to be hammering at their instruments with all the force they can muster. Finishing with ‘Wastelands’ honestly does a disservice to a generally solid record, and it leaves the listener with a sour taste in their mouth.

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.



Published

16th February 2017 at 1:09 pm



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