I love writing positive reviews. Sometimes I’ll hear an album that just absolutely fills my thoughts for the next while, around which my world revolves before I get distracted by something else. And then reviewing it is easy, and fun, because I can just let my unbridled enthusiasm spill out into the void. On the flip side, I also enjoy writing negative reviews, though I normally choose for these not to get published – firstly, no one cares why I personally didn’t like the album, and secondly, I’ve always been an advocate for ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’.
Sons of Alpha Centauri’s new album, Push, was tricky to write about – I think it’s been one of the hardest reviews I’ve written so far. What made it difficult is that I absolutely loved so much of what I heard on Push – the vibe of the whole album is wonderfully dark, a little bit angsty, and somehow empowering – but I have my issues with it, too. If you’re expecting more of what Sons of Alpha Centauri did on 2018’s Continuum, you will be surprised (hopefully in a good way). I found their change from the post-rock Isis worship to the chunkier, fatter riffs of Push very welcome.
But as it so often is in life, every step forward comes with a compromise. While Push is much more innovative and captivating in its writing, Sons of Alpha Centauri weren’t content with that being the only change in their direction. On Push, SOAC feature a vocalist for the first time, something that is likely to shock many long-standing fans. I’m not a long-standing fan, and it shocked the fuck out of me when I first listened to album opener “Get the Guns”. There’s only a split second of a delightfully disgusting guitar chord and a bit of synth sparkle before the vocals come in – gotta give it to SOAC, they’re not fucking around when it comes to announcing their change in direction.
I was reminded in a roundabout way of Apocalyptica’s 2015 release Shadowmaker, the first (and, to date, only) of their albums that has one dedicated vocalist all the way through – Franky Perez. Even as a die-hard instrumental Apocalyptica fan, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the vocals added a deeper emotional intensity, as well as a freshness to the overall sound.
To me though, the vocals on Push feel a bit neither-here-nor-there. Singer Jonah Matranga is a perfectly good vocalist with great tone, and at many points I find myself really enjoying what he’s putting down (notably the bridge/ending of “Get the Guns”, during which he lets the smokiness in his voice break up his screams), but unfortunately there are also many times on the album where the vocals are just a miss for me. After the husky, restrained half-spoken delivery during the intro of “Get the Guns”, I felt I would enjoy this album – yet by the chorus I was out. The double-tracked clean singing feels kind of cheesy, like the lyrics and melody have been thrown in there to spell out the emotional intention of the music, but this just isn’t necessary; the intensity of the instrumentation and chords chosen is already doing fine on its own.
So what made me keep listening? If I had such an adverse reaction to this chorus, why didn’t I just turn it off and spare you all my ramblings? Honestly, I’m not sure, but something about the opening tracks of Push made me want to keep going, to dig deeper. Perhaps it was the fantastically rich guitar tones, offset beautifully by the occasionally Tool-esque, crystalline bass lines; perhaps it was the simple but perfectly executed flow of the songs; perhaps the occasional sour, noise rock dissonances. One thing is certain: SOAC sure know how to write a bangin’ song. On the whole, I really enjoy this album, so much so that I’m always just a little disappointed when it ends.
When I allow myself to look past my personal issues with the vocals, Push becomes really great: the alluring, contrast-rich “Saturn”, which floats somewhere between post-metal and the chunky might of nu-metal; the soul-splitting, pleading honesty of “Listen”, screaming, searing, serrated; the sour madness and self-loathing of the verses of “The Enemy”, in contrast to its almost resigned choruses. The whole Isis-meets-Deftones feel of Push is really cool – it creates a firm, huge sound, and it’s definitely an enjoyable listen, over and over again. The title track in particular is filled with grit and anxiety, probably one of my favourite things. There’s a bit more energy to this one, with the vocals becoming integral, a Kurt-Cobain-Chino-Moreno-hybrid that’s, in this case, strengthened by the double tracking. Like everything on this album, “Push” is straight to the point, never boring, and well-constructed. Bitter guitar tones meld with noisy chords and the smoky yellings of Matranga.
The penultimate track, “Dark Night”, while not being a standout to me, it still an absolute bop, in a grungier sort of way: simpler guitar lines and bass playing, to-the-point drumming, more space for the vocals to actually fit in. I feel this is the song on which Matranga’s vocals feel most at home, most appropriate. The slightly post-hardcore breakdown that forms the song’s climax injects a bit more grit and interest to the track as a whole. It’s still straightforward, but just what’s needed. After that, the dreary closing track “Own” feels somewhat jarring – it’s heartwrenching, somewhere between Porcupine Tree’s “A Smart Kid” and, strangely, Doubtfire’s “Debt”. Sure, it borders on La Dispute-style angsty cringe, but hey, it gives me goosebumps every time, and that’s gotta count for something. I do feel that there’s a track missing between “Dark Night” and “Own”; I find myself surprised again and again by how short the album is – I think another track would’ve done it good.
Songs like “Buried Under” illustrate that SOAC still definitely hold their beginnings in dust-swept desert rock close to their hearts – those stoner tendencies don’t just disappear. Push certainly is a departure album, not a destination, but I am keen to see where the band choose to go from here. Push has, at times painstakingly, pried open the door for SOAC, and now, who’s to say what they’ll find on the other side? They have all the options in the world, and I can only wait in anticipation to see what happens next.