Following Birds of Tokyo’s channel ten sports-montage-anthem ‘Lanterns’, to say the band had fully embraced pop-rock success would have been a fair assessment. Rarely does a band make a record like ‘March Fires’ and then emerge two years later with something entirely different. During the ‘Lanterns’ era, many would not have guessed the next Birds of Tokyo album would be hell-bent on channelling anger, disillusionment and general vitriol at the state of the modern world.
This band isn’t merely flirting with alienating their base audience, they almost seem to be encouraging it. I will admit this is one of my major attractions to the album; it’s hard to resist a pop band who suddenly chooses to turn its nose up at what is considered palatable by the masses. In Rock and Roll circles, especially in the sub genre of Punk, this makes you a sort of hero. There’s something delightfully empowering about this, as fans of heavy music are often ignored by the mainstream, despite being one of the strongest independent scenes in Australia.
‘Brace’ is an album made for stadium-sized performances. It demands pyrotechnics and light shows insane enough to make Matt Bellamy watch his back. The production on this record is enormous in scale. Drums are packed with enough reverberation and punch to make you believe they were recorded in an aircraft hangar, while every bassline sounds as though it is being spewed out by a big muff pedal. Across the album, Birds of Tokyo use string sections, synthesisers and choirs in conjunction with more classical rock instruments, which is a surefire way to ensure ‘epicness.’
Musically, these songs succeed due to an acute awareness of dynamics and an ear for rhythmic displacement. Title track ‘Brace’s most important weapon is the sudden, loud re-introduction of fuzz bass in its chorus, which follows a tension filled pre-chorus driven by syncopated toms. Mid album slow burner ‘Pilot’ stretches to five and a half minutes with barely any song apparent, save a few synth lines and a simple, pounding drum beat. ‘Brace’ is not an album trying for complexity in the slightest, it simply employs these songwriting techniques to deliver songs that feel simply immense.
In a funny way, the formula of simple lines and epic production that makes this album so compelling is also what holds it back. At times the music borders on too simple, which means the album can only go through so many listens before it begins to sound tired out. However, this flaw is not enough to seriously undercut the album’s quality.
Against this backdrop of hugeness, front man Ian Kenny delivers lines that overflow with emotion in all the right places. While occasionally these are written in a way that can feel overwrought and heavy handed, Kenny’s expert delivery of them is such that it isn’t a problem for the listening experience.
The lyrics of ‘Gods’, “It was our choice not to listen/the warning signs were so clear all along,” drips with venom, while ‘Crown’ tells us that “chances are we’re already dead and we’re lying to ourselves again.” The words across this album can be surmised as such: “God has abandoned us. The world is bleak. There’s not much we can do about it.” Ian Kenny’s great skill is making us enjoy hearing that. Perhaps this is because the music that accompanies it is so well written. Perhaps it is because what he has to say strikes as something true.
Why then, it must be asked, was a song like ‘Empire’ included on this album? An attempted call to arms anthem, the song is as bland as it is unconvincing. It sits amidst a nihilistic tracklist that does not once otherwise attempt the hopeful tone delivered here, which makes the song sound completely uninspiring. Especially when an exasperated Kenny asks “hope/why’s it always hope?” just a few tracks later.
From a broader perspective, a radio friendly song like this seems to go against the whole concept of the album. If the aim was to make an album that couldn’t be gently played in the background of your next family barbeque, why are they so determined to get played on triple J here?
One stray track in a family of nine other brilliant ones is not enough to tarnish the album as a whole though, especially when one of those is album highlight ‘Discoloured’, which sees the Jezabel’s Hayley Mary guest on a synth dominated, mid tempo delight. A heavy song without truly being a rock song, it sees Birds embrace their electronica tendencies the most, for something that is the most unique cut from the album.
If nothing else, this album is to be commended for the risks it takes in sound and lyrical tone. Most of the songs work extremely well, while Kenny’s vocals tie the whole project together nicely. It’s an entertaining, exhilarating disc, well worth a close listen and commitment, despite a few niggling flaws.