Thursday, November 14, 2019

Idle Hands - Mana


I've been sitting on this one since May.  This was a big deal when it was released back then, and it felt like everybody needed to have a hot take on it, but honestly I just couldn't bring myself to do it in good faith.  The reason is simple: I had no idea how I felt about it.  On first listen, I fell in love within the first few minutes, but by the time the fourth track had rolled around I had done a complete 180 and didn't want to finish it, only for the cycle to repeat several times during the forty minute runtime.  I've listened to this a few times a month in the ensuing six months and I've gone through this same ordeal several times.  It's rare that I don't have my feelings more or less sorted out by the end of the first listen of something, and each subsequent listens are spent merely dissecting and analyzing it slightly further.  You'd figure that means the album in question must be rather thought provoking and engaging since I'm, ya know, thinking about and engaging with it so often, but that's not really the case here.  Each new listen felt like the first listen again, like Mana was constantly being memory holed and rediscovered.  It's only been recently that I've been able to truly speechify what it is that I feel about it and why. 

This might be hard to believe, but I'm not being needlessly contrarian when I say that Idle Hands's debut, Mana, the album that has taken the metal world by storm and will surely find itself topping dozens of Best Of lists at the end of the year, actually fucking sucks, and the reason why is blindingly obvious now that I've finally put my finger on it.  It's a confused and thematically incoherent pop album with surface metal aesthetics (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, mind you, keep in mind I think Ghost is essentially the same thing but at least Meliora is pretty good) that structures itself around its weakest element.

In order for the first point to make sense, the second point needs to be explained.  On the broadest possible level, Mana is all about hooks over other typical metal tropes like aggression or riffs, with a strong second-tier focus on dark atmosphere.  I think the album's atmosphere is actually pretty good and consistently gloomy and gothy, that's not my problem.  My problem is that the hooks themselves are delivered via the clear weak link in the band.  The entire musical section of the band is competent and tight, and they may not be particularly rhythmically creative, but they all do their job pretty well for what they are.  The bass tends to just follow the rhythm guitar and the drums play simple rock beats with tragically rare bursts of speedy double bass, and the lead guitar lines are almost exclusively presented as clean arpeggios that rarely stop playing even during the loud moments.  The problem is that... none of those deliver the hooks that the album revolves around.  The arpeggios are more or less just background flourishes, and the rhythm section is a total joke in that department.  The songwriting creativity itself seems to revolved entirely around the novelty of mixing goth rock with heavy metal, but even then it pales in comparison bands like In Solitude and Tribulation who have tread similar ground in recent years, and falling light years behind the pack when it comes to actually metal and goth rock bands.  So what we get is a lowest common denominator worst-of-both-worlds scenario where the actual riffs are brain dead simple. 

Take "Nightfall" for example.  Let's get something clear, I like "Nightfall", and in fact I can pretty easily call it my favorite song on the album, but let's be fuckin' real it sounds like the actual band was a total afterthought in the writing process.  The track starts with five echo-y clean notes, a quarter second slide down the fretboard, and then, count 'em with me, a hundred and twenty eight straight palm muted open notes.  Eight fucking bars of sixteenth notes comprising of a whopping one god damned note.  I'm sorry are you kidding me?  I don't have a problem with simplicity but this is day zero level guitar playing.  The actual musical instruments are a total non-entity when it comes to Mana, and keep in mind I'm talking about the best fucking song on the album.  The rest of the tracks show a little more dexterity but not much, they're clearly meant to be a backing band here.

And that leads me to my main point here, those hooks I've been alluding to are delivered entirely via the vocals, and as you should've put together by now, the vocals are no bueno.  Gabriel Franco is the star of the show here and he is excessively mediocre.  His vocal style lands somewhere between overprojected melodrama (think a deeper and gothier Warrel Dane, for a metal parallel) and just kinda talking really loudly.  He has like a seven note range that he rarely wanders out of and utilizes this incredibly silly inflection that sounds like me reading my niece a bedtime story.  This is the biggest problem with the album and I feel like I can barely talk about it because I already covered everything there is to cover.  Obviously goth rock is a much bigger influence than metal on both the music and the vocals but with .01% of Andrew Eldritch's charisma.  It comes off straddling the line between laughably weak and pathetically hokey.  This is the exact same problem that Phil Collins of all people constantly struggles with.  Both the King of Pop for Divorced Dads and Idle Hands tend to craft songs with extremely sparse instrumentals.  Artists that do this usually do so to leave room for an incredible vocalist to wow you with a stunning performance, but Collins has the charisma of a biscuit with two shits inside of it and Franco sounds a theater kid with an ego five times the size of his singing ability.  He sounds so weepy and confident at the same time but his confidence betrays his actual ability to convey the emotion he's so clearly trying to convey.  His voice subtly cracks every now and again but it sounds so fucking phony, I hate it.  Even the occasional grunts feel forced as fuck.  Look at "Nightfall" again, those random shouts of OOUGH and the superliminal DO IT are pretty cool and fit with the song very well, but nearly every other time they appear it just feels like a shitty ad lib and fits less and less with each successive song.  It's like they realized oh shit we've got some dead space here quick do the Celtic Frost thing!

That thematic incoherence I mentioned comes into play here.  Most longtime readers of mine will probably notice that I almost never touch on lyrics (not because I think they don't matter, but because they're not the part of metal that I tend to care about so I usually don't pay too much attention), but I feel like I'm forced to here since there's so little else of interest.  The vocals are obviously the focus of the album, so they must have something to say.  But like... they don't?  The themes are all over the fuckin' place despite the consistently gloomy atmosphere.  "Nightfall" seems to be about ritualistic sacrifice, "Cosmic Overdrive" is about... actually driving?  "Don't Waste Your Time" is about... I dunno, somebody on their deathbed while the narrator is really smug about their religion or something?  "Dragon, Why Do You Cry?" I guess could be about childhood innocence leaving as you grow up but it could also be about a literal dragon that lives in the forest for all I know.  "Mana" seems to be the only track where there's any real emotional weight, touching on a parent grieving after their child's fatal heroin overdose... I think.  The rest of it is just straight up sophomoric angst.  Seriously this shit is so on the nose and at the same time vague and meaningless that it sounds like poetry I wrote when I was fifteen.  "Double Negative" is the least subtle and least poetic take on suicide I've heard since Sinergy's "Written in Stone", with the lyrics almost point blank painting deep emotions like "would you suffer without me?" and "I'm tired of living" with deeply personal lines like "would you suffer without me?" and "I'm tired of living".  "Jackie" and "A Single Solemn Rose" sound like unironic love songs, and if one of the characters is supposed to be dead or a vampire or something then fuck I had no idea, they sure as hell didn't make it clear in the lyrics about how much they love the anonymous person the song is about and how sad they are that they don't love them back.  I think the reason I'm so confused is paradoxically because everything is so blunt and direct, and I just can't fathom that a grown ass man is really writing about a regular ass breakup from the perspective of a 17 year old.  This is straight up r/im14andthisisdeep shit.

And can we talk about "Jackie" for a second?  I see this singled out as one of the better tracks fairly often and... y'all know this song blows, right?  I feel like Mugatu here being the only one who sees how nakedly obvious the song's flaws are, but here we are.  It's this shitty, sappy goth rock love song with a weak hook and childish lyrics.  Even if the lyrics are supposed to be darkly ironic, which I genuinely don't think they are, it comes off so fucking limp and lifeless that I genuinely don't understand how this song is even supposed to work.  So much of this album sounds like it was written in an afternoon (even the handful of good songs like "Give Me to the Night" and "Mana") and "Jackie" just epitomizes the lazy autopilot the album runs on.  This chorus sounds like a first draft and even Franco sounds bored as hell delivering his own lines.  Even on my first listen, before the flaws of the album became obvious to me, I still hated it on first listen.

I don't want to listen to this shit anymore, and it's wild to me that this became such a clear frontrunner on the year for so many people.  It's a weak, cliche goth rock album loaded with lame ballads and lamer lyrics and even lamerer musical qualities.  I barely understand goth rock myself and even I can understand that this is babby's first goth rock cliche 101 incarnate.  Simply not being a driving metal album in itself isn't a flaw.  I don't care that this is light, I care that it's wimpy and lifeless and all but like three hooks completely whiff.  Even the good songs (the ever present "Nightfall", "Give Me to the Night", "Blade of the Will", and the title track) kinda suck thanks to the shitty vocals and nonexistent backing band.  If they could expand on the actual blend of metal and goth like those songs do, Idle Hands would probably be at least decent and listenable, but they spend the lion's share of Mana trying to do pure hooky goth rock and they frankly fuckin' suck at it.