February isn’t even over yet, and already we have an album to beat for best of the year.
Not that we should be surprised. Unimagine, the last Hands Like Houses record, was one of the most consistently good rock albums this decade. Even so, Dissonants follows up on that performance with an album that’s yet another perfect blend of fist-pumping energy, infectious melody, and intriguing lyricism.
Consistency is key here. There’s no obvious single that drastically out-performs the others. “New Romantics” stands out as having the strongest lead, and arguably the catchiest and among the most impressive vocals. But the mellow opening of “Stillwater” is compelling, and “Degrees of Separation” is a powerful track in its own right, building with crowd-echoing effects and a skillful blend of tenderness and pulsing energy. The only songs I can really say I’m less crazy about on the record are “Motion Sickness” and “Perspectives,” and even then they’re enjoyable songs; there’s just not a throwaway track on this record.
Granted, there are few if any points of notable departure from the sound of Unimagine. Even the fade-in of “I Am” is reminiscent of the previous album’s opener “Developments.” Lead singer Trenton Woodley has the same swaying, high-tone choruses, the guitars are still thick, true ballads still nonexistent. For fans like me who’ve worn out Unimagine by listening to it multiple times a week for the better part of a year straight, it’s good to have new variety of a tested formula. But for others, the formula admittedly could get old. For better or for worse, this is essentially ‘Unimagine Part 2.’
Be that as it may, what the Australian band doesn’t deliver in novel musicality it delivers in lyricism. The album has a flavor of philosophical morality to it, a sort of exploration of how truth impacts morality and change. “I Am” brings to light the heartbreak from a leader’s broken promises (“Your words are weary/Their hearts are strained/And idle vows find the deepest pains”), which is carried further in songs such as “New Romantics” and “Colourblind,” which draw sorts of identity crises from acknowledgement of moral gray areas, but not without expressing skepticism towards relativism, in the latter of those two especially: “Between the black and white/I’m aiming every shade of grey has left us colourblind/We are all for none and none for all/We are the sickness and the symptom and the cure”).
Certain songs almost have a flavor of social activism and controversy to it (as does the title itself, as a matter of fact), but taken holistically, the album works more in identity crisis than it does political crisis. As such, although many of the aforementioned songs work quite well in the context of principles applied to a greater view of both morality and personal decisions, it gets quite personal at times. This is at times a very positive thing. “Motion Sickness,” for instance, explores failures of a past relationship with emotional vigor. “Division Symbols,” on the other hand, stoops to the level of many an angst-ridden band, fueling the rage of betrayal and simplistic venting.
As a whole, however, it turns out to be a very positive thing, and the identity crisis of the speaker is, it seems, brought to a resolution in the final track, which is also the most thematically redemptive of the album, focusing on the future possibilities of a vice-ridden life: “If I’m the bastard child of best intentions/If I’m the bitter voice of discontent/If I’m the broken hope of indecision/At least my future’s in my hands”
In the end, there are only two negatives notes I have to sound on this record. The first is “Division Symbols,” which seems immature and juvenile given the overall stellar lyricism of the album. The second is “Perspectives,” which drops an f-bomb, the album’s only swear word. When taken holistically, however, the record is a deep and thought-provoking treatise on identity and morality that has an actual conclusion, set to a stellar combination of melody and energy, making it, as of now, the best rock album of 2016.
Consensus: 9/10. The songs “New Romantics” and “Bloodlines” are especially powerful, and the album’s lyrical depth, as well as its musicality, make it the album to beat in 2016.