Sound — 8
Tonight Alive formed in Sydney, Australia a couple years back (Tonight Alive is made up of frontwoman Jenna McDougall, guitarists Whakaio Taahi and Jake Hardy, bassist Cam Adler, and drummer Matt Best), and they became pretty well known down-under for having some great live shows. They released their first EP, "All Shapes And Disguises" back in 2010, which I personally thought was great. Shortly after this, their EP landed on the desk of producer Mark Trombino (of Blink-182 fame, who was pretty stoked and produced their debut album "What Are You So Scared Of?" in February 2012. Their debut is pretty standard pop-punk, flecked with moments inspired by other genres (Matt Best's occasional foray into double-kick drumming being a case in point), but overall there's nothing ground-breaking about it. From the first track 'til the last, "What Are You So Scared Of?" offers up a catchy, fun, varied and memorable, if not particularly original mix of songs that will definitely hold a place near the top of your pop-punk collection. 01. "Eject! Eject! Eject!": This is a pretty cool instrumental opening, complete with strings and a slightly modified riff from the album's second track that leads into an epic orchestral opening which in turn morphs into the next song. It fits together seamlessly - very fitting opening. 02. "Breaking & Entering": This was the first song I heard off the album. Very cool, standard clean verse-distorted chorus pop-punk offering with some typically eclectic drumming from Matt. The chorus is crazily catchy, and this entire song seems designed to make you humiliate yourself by singing along whilst air-guitaring on the bus. Not that I ever did that... 03. "Starlight": If memory serves, this was the first single off the album. Again, standard pop-punk offering about being content with your significant other and life in general despite being broke. Very catchy pre-chorus with some cool gang-vocals scattered throughout. The bridge was a great contrast. Great song, an album highlight for most. 04. "Sure As Hell": One of my favourite songs, a great song about 'sure as hell meaning all of it'. Generic song topic, but some pretty original lyrics. Again, very catchy, great song. 04. "Let It Land": I love this song, it's possibly my favourite song on the album. It describes sitting and waiting, unable to lift your mood. Some excellent lyrics - "So keep your mind open, but always keep your mouth shut, and hide it if you're broken, but always keep your chin up". The chorus has some nice 16th-high hats and the 2nd verse has some crazy syncopation from Matt Best. There's a great outro with some harmonized 'oooh whoahs' from Whakaio, Cam, and Jenna. Great chorus, great bridge, just a flawless song. 05. "Fake It": For those who like their songs a bit heavier, "Fake It" is a bit more up-tempo and minor feel to it. Matt has very tasteful double-kicks in the verses which fits the mood very nicely. The breakdown is great too, some heavy(ish) guitars with a nicely contrasting disco beat from Matt. The bridge has a distinctly Paramore feel to it. Good song, wasn't outstanding for me, but that's personal taste. Very well executed. 06. "Listening": Continuing the trend, "Listening" kicks off with a pretty heavy riff that leads into a great verse. The chorus makes good use of Jenna's vocal range, pulling out some nice high notes. The bridge and breakdown follow on nicely. Again, a great song from Tonight Alive. 07. "Reason To Sing": This song kicks off with some pretty standard pop-punk riffing, but for me the chorus stands out as one of the better ones off the album. There's a great key change about halfway through. Matt's drumming shines through for me in this track. 08. "Safe & Sound": This is the token ballad, but it's been brilliantly executed! It kicks off with some acoustic guitar and strings, before drums and bass kick in. Beautiful lyrics "... My heart you know I'll wear it on my sleeve, so everyone will know that I am yours and you belong to me". I found the chorus a bit of a let-down after the intricacy of the verses, but it picks up energy as it goes through. Very memorable vocals from Jenna. Expect this to become the song your girlfriend wants you to sing to her on Valentine's day. More great drums from Matt, and I love the guitar work in the verses. The strings fit in wonderfully. Top ballad. 10. "Thank You & Goodnight": Awesome song, very memorable opening riff, catchy chorus. The verse is very reminiscent of Blink-182, which is fitting because Mark Hoppus performs guest vocals from the 2nd verse onwards. There are some quirky and fun lyrics that dismiss an interested young suitor with "you're not my type, no hard feelings, thank you and goodnight". Great song, lots of fun to sing. It will be stuck in your head for ages. 11. "Amelia": Another ballad about a friend of Jenna's who died as a teenager. It's a very emotional song, lovely harmonies and chorus that is both haunting and memorable. This song probably had some of my favourite riffs in it - Tonight Alive is much more the power-chord-in-drop-d-with-a-little-lick-over-the-top band, but this one had some slick, if pretty simple riffing scattered throughout. Again, some nice strings, tasteful drum fills, and powerful guitars. The lyrics on this are outstanding. 12. "In The First Place": Pretty standard song for Tonight Alive, I have nothing much to say about this one, just catchy chorus, and great lyrics. Very good song though, I loved the bridge. 13. "To Die For": Great song, again, stock TA offering. Wonderful drumming from Matt, and just great tunes from Jenna. I loved this song. Cool lyrics too - "she is dressed to kill and he is to die for". The gang vocals are tastefully placed and give a nice touch. Very catchy riffs. The bridge has a great little clean harmony on the guitars into a nice build up. 14. "What Are You Scared Of?": The title track didn't stand out to me as the best track on the album, but nonetheless it's a great song, with perhaps the most complicated arrangement on the album. Cool intro riff, into a very catchy verse with clean guitars and eclectic drumming. Nice chorus, didn't stand out to me in a big way. Still, the pre-chorus has some slick guitar in it, and there are some truly catchy riffs sprinkled throughout. There's some great drumming in the particularly memorable bridge along with some nice organ. I loved the outro too. 15. "Welcome": Very catchy intro, I loved the lyrics, which speak of being alienated from your home. There are a few decent lead riffs in this song too. Nothing outstanding for me, but a very solid way to close the album. All in all, there isn't a single weak song on the album, but those who like their songs more diversely arranged may be disappointed by the formulaic songwriting. It almost feels like any song you pick out of the hat have the same structure of catchy intro, clean verse, chorus, amped-up verse, chorus, clean bridge, distorted bridge, chorus. Still, it's slick, smooth, and catchy, packed full with great beats, sing-a-long melodies and quirky, fun, emotional, and rebellious lyrics everything you want from a pop-punk album. An exceptional debut from Tonight Alive.
Lyrics — 7
The first thing that sets this album apart from the pop-punk crowd is the presence of frontwoman Jenna McDougall. Having a woman fronting the band has garnered many comparisons to pop-punk giants Paramore, but in reality, the voices of Haley Williams and Jenna McDougall are quite different to each other. McDougall's voice extends to the same low alto range as Williams, but has a smooth top-end tacked on top long after Paramore's red-haired pocket rocket runs out of steam. Not showcased on this album was Jenna's falsetto, which I missed after its appearance on their "All Shapes & Disguises" EP, but nonetheless this album showcases some great vocals from Jenna McDougall. Her voice stands out to me for the sheer amount of power she can throw behind it, as well as how tame, soft, and controlled she can sound. The album also showcases a lot of harmonies and layered vocals from Jenna, which I suspected they couldn't pull off live (until I saw them and realized that Whakaio and Cam sing the backing vocals live, usually in falsetto). Vocal highlights for me were "Listening", "Safe & Sound", "Let It Land" and "Reason To Sing". Lyrically this album doesn't have *many* original song topics, singing about alienation, love and love lost, being scared, a dead friend, being broke, the happiness of life, being content, and struggling to shake a bad mood. It's refreshing to have the vast, vast majority of the songs in major keys regardless of the topic, and yet somehow Jenna manages to sculpt her melodies to be varied and fitting to the lyrics. I found that although the topics are pretty bog standard, the actual lyrics that Jenna applied to them managed to stop the album from feeling unoriginal and boring. Some lyrical gems are "So I've been thinking lately that we should try to grow up, maybe start to get up on time, but let's get real here baby, it's not the way that we work, so why waste the sunshine?" and "we're trying to make ends meet, but I'm starting to think that this is all I need and more" ("Starlight"), "So keep your mind open, but always keep your mouth shut, and hide it if you're broken, but always keep your chin up" ("Let It Land"), "... My heart, you know I'll wear it on my sleeve, so everyone will know that I am yours and you belong to me" ("Safe & Sound"), "you're not my type, no hard feelings, thank you and goodnight" ("Thank You & Goodnight"), and "she is dressed to kill and he is to die for" ("To Die For"). I thought the lyrics were quirky, fun, and meaningful. Lyrical highlights for me were "Thank You & Goodnight", "Let It Land", "Starlight", "Reason To Sing" and "Safe & Sound".
Overall Impression — 9
As a fan of a myriad music genres from Blues to Orchestral to Blackened Death Metal, pop-punk can and does stand out as a genre that takes up residence up the top of my music collection every summer, with the catchy songs, f--k you attitude, youthful energy, endless bombast, catchy riffs and glib smarta-sery that plasters a smile the size of China onto your face, and Tonight Alive's debut is no different. I've made this point repeatedly throughout my review Tonight Alive is not a ground-breaking, cutting-edge, experimental band, they're a pretty standard pop-punk band, and they're damn good at it. My 2 favourite things about the band are the vocals and the drums the guitar is there, but it almost feels like an extension of the bass for the most part. The guitar is pop-punk standard in that it relies on clean verses, power chords for the intro, chorus, and bridge, and the predictably syncopated chordal chugs in the second verse. I did enjoy Whakaio Taahi's lead riffs that are scattered throughout the album. They tend to be centered around either the open E-string or the 12th fret position and provide a nice contrast to the tight synchronization of the rest of the band, although they can be quite quiet relative to the rest of the mix. Instrumentally, the stand out for me was the energetic beats man, Matt Best. Jenna McDougall has said in interviews that Tonight Alive has been influenced by the Australian Hardcore/Metal scene, which shines through in Matt's drumming. At times it comes across traditionally punk-rock, at others Travis Barker's influence shines through in his fills, and often he throws in eclectic beats that mesh nicely with the guitar and change the feel of the entire song. I found Matt's drumming most impressive on "Fake It", which has some tasteful double-kicks in the verses, "Reason To Sing" which had some great fills, and "Let It Land". He's not the world's fastest or most technical drummer, but I find him varied and also powerful. Cam Adler is a very good bassist, but there aren't really any opportunities for either him or rhythm guitarist Jake Hardy to showcase their talents. This album is one of my pop-punk favourites. They combine poppy melodies with tons of attitude and balls, catchy songs that stick in your head and memorable lyrics from an even more memorable frontwoman. Great band, and great album.