By The Hostiles
'Always Looking Forward' is a hit and miss affair; the times when The Hostiles' riotous blend of ska, punk and cartoonish vocals doesn't quite fit together right, easily outnumber the times when it does. However, in that respect it's a promising debut: an imperfect snap-shot of a band who are moving in the right direction, but aren't quite there yet.
Album highlight is 'Bad Day For Shorts,' which recently featured on TNS Records' 'Mainstream Music Is Shit' compilation. For those who had their interest piqued by 'Bad Day For Shorts' - be aware that this is as good as it gets. The verses are a party of surf-infused guitar lines, crashing brass instruments and cartoonish vocals. The Hostiles' charisma is somewhat akin to that of Bowling For Soup; even the storm sound effects play into their likeable, carefree vibe, when by all rights they should sound hopelessly cheesy. But it's with the chorus that The Hostiles pull out all the stops, with tooting horns, bristly guitars and massive "whoa-oh" vocal lines combining in a pop-infused headrush.
Despite an opening section that has 'goodtimes ska' written all over it, 'Bad Day For Shorts' turns out to be a song of two halves. The second half is pummelling, gang-vocal-drenched deathcore, with only subtle brass accents bridging the gap between the first half of the song and the second. To say it's a shock to the system is an understatement, but once you've finished doing a double-take, that end-section is brawny, Bring Me The Horizon deathcore of the highest calibre. 'Bad Day For Shorts' is, rather surprisingly, not just a bit of fun: it also packs one hell of a punch.
It's the curse of the genre, that one ska-punk band pretty much sounds like every other ska-punk band, but The Hostiles do have a rare edge, and that's a three-pronged vocal attack that is, more often than not, wrenched into cartoonish, exaggerated extremes. That might irritate some but, chances are that if you're partial to a bit of chirpy ska-punk (and if you aren't, there's no point listening to this album) then you're also partial to some silly vocals. And 'Always Looking Forward' has them in spades.
The most effective songs on this album, are the ones that make the most of these unusual vocals, namely 'I Hope You Know' 'Ashley' 'Conclusion' and 'True Or False.'
'Conclusion' and 'Ashley' are the songs that benefit the most from those distinctive vocals. 'Conclusion' is an atypical-ska blend of scratching chords and honking brass instruments, while 'Ashley' is a little more distinctive, with an opening fanfare of build-up drumbeats and hooting brass, and tongue-in-cheek lyrics that'll put you in mind of BFS hit 'Girl All The Bad Guys Want.' Both would be pretty unremarkable, if it wasn't for those jagged vocals. Even when religiously ploughing the ska-punk line, The Hostiles still manage to be original and entertaining, thanks to their three-pronged vocal shenanigans.
'I Hope You Know' has a more rock-orientated slant, opening with a combination of ticking drumbeats and wonderfully self-indulgent, hard-rock slide guitar, before launching into a simple-but-skankable song, against a backdrop of hard-rock riffs. By not overcomplicating things, The Hostiles expose every cartoonish inflection and kooky angle of those always-entertaining vocals. Taking care not to drown out the vocals, also means we can hear the enthusiasm of all three vocal contributors. They really do sound like they're having the time of their lives and, ultimately, that makes 'I Hope You Know' irresistible.
'True Or False' ricochets between verses of jittery, supercharged oompa-oompa ska verses and snarly punk choruses. Restricting the meatier riffs to the choruses is a wise move, giving us a chance to fully appreciate the cartoonish vocals during the verses, before The Hostiles take a deep breath and belt out the big vocal lines, ensuring their voices are heard during the noisier choruses.
However, The Hostiles don't always get that balance right. A handful of songs go heavy on the riffs and the jazzy flourishes, at the expense of the vocals.
Rabble-raising title track 'Always Looking Forward' has a backdrop of scratching, rattling chords and clucking percussion that demands a particularly exaggerated, spasmodic form of skanking. But, although 'Always Looking Forward' is guaranteed to slap a silly smirk on your face, the vocals get lost in the mix. This is a shame, as the few lines that break through have a manic glint in their eye as they ricochet from one comical extreme to the other, and they could have potentially added a lot more to the song.
'Where Are You?' veers on the punkier side of things, dropping The Hostiles' usual vocal style for riotous gang vocals. It may ensure The Hostiles' collective voices are heard above the racket, but the sloppy gang vocals aren't as engaging. You can't help feeling cheated, when you know The Hostiles have something superior up their sleeves.
'Where Are You?' and 'It's All Casual' are two songs where the music, rather than the vocals, don't work. 'Where Are You?' is a jet-propelled punk song that tumbles headfirst into unexpected ska spasms. 'It's All Casual,' meanwhile, gets off to a promising start, with a rumbling, drum-led first verse, and separate blasts of skank-friendly, twitching chords spiked with brass notes. Then, for some reason, The Hostiles throw random drum rolls into this cautiously-balanced melting pot and completely destroy the flow of the song.
The album's jazziest offering 'Examinable Torture' and the slick 'Seen Not Heard' are both something a little bit different. Although the extended instrumental interlude of 'Examinable Torture' is a little overlong for such a simple ska tune, it's a bit of welcome light-relief on an album that does have a tendency towards overcomplicating things.
'Seen Not Heard' is underpinned by a neat bass shimmy, and the brass instruments are restricted to occasional, blunted outbursts. Song highlight is a bridge section of surprisingly downbeat horns and a flurry of raspy punk riffs. 'Seen Not Heard' is one of the more straight-faced, and intriguing, interpretations of ska you're likely to hear.
'Always Looking Forward' offers a clutch of fun, straightforward ska tunes that aim to do nothing more complicated than get you up and dancing like an idiot. Musically, it isn't particularly original, but if you're a fan of the genre, then this won't bother you in the slightest. The vocals add an interesting extra dimension to 'Always Looking Forward,' although The Hostiles haven't mastered presenting them properly yet, with a worrying percentage ending up lost amongst the horns, trombones and punk-rock riffing. A promising debut album, hopefully The Hostiles will be able to rectify the teething problems, and come back with something even better next time.