Australian act Tonight Alive released Limitless, their third full-length album earlier this month. The Sydney-based band built their reputation playing high-energy pop-punk and touring non-stop, bringing their excellent live show to Australian audiences as well as abroad. Limitless sees the band moving into a definitively pop-based sound.
Tonight Alive enter new territory for Limitless
Tonight Alive’s 2013 effort The Other Side was their darkest and most intense work yet. The hallmarks of the band’s established sound were loud, aggressive drums, the twin guitar attack of Whakaio Taahi and Jake Hardy and Jenna McDougall’s powerful, emotive vocals. Only one of these factors remains on Limitless: Jenna’s vocals, and even they sound quite different. In the place of big riffs are synths, the drums now play a supporting role and Jenna’s vocals has been given the full pop treatment. The group is signed to Sony and have been slowly moving away from pop-punk for some time, so perhaps it was only a matter of time. As a fan I was very disappointed the first time I heard the album. Judging by fan comments on social media, I’m not the only one. I soldiered through and after repeated listens I’ve gained an appreciation for the album, although I think it is somewhat uneven in the quality of the material.
Jenna front and centre on new album
Jenna has always been the star of the band, at least in the eyes of many fans. She has a big personality that shines through her music and live show and has one of the best voices in rock. Her prominence in Tonight Alive is greater on Limitless than ever before. Her vocals, along with the synthesizers, are mixed very loudly while the other instruments play simple figures designed to support her parts. Producer David Bendeth has layered on the reverb, compression and other effects to her voice. The band claims no Auto-Tune or any other pitch correction was used on the album, although I find that extremely hard to believe. Album opener To Be Free is a prime example of the heavy-handed approach the producer has taken to Jenna’s vocals. I’ve seen the band play several times and Jenna’s live vocals are as close to perfect as I’ve ever heard, so it seems bizarre to me that they would want to mess with such a naturally amazing voice. Perhaps other listeners will be less concerned by these production elements though, so onto the songs.
First single hits the mark
First single Human Interaction is one of the finest cuts on the album. It opens with moody synths and drums as Jenna sings a mournful refrain. After a minimalist verse, the band moves into a chorus carried by Jenna’s soulful vocals and affecting lyrics. Rhythmic overdriven guitars introduce the bridge and build the song to its dramatic finish. If this is the new Tonight Alive, sign me up. Unfortunately it’s immediately followed by Drive, the album’s third single. It’s an forgettable pop tune. The cheesy vocal hook in the chorus (“yeah yeah yeah, no no no”) doesn’t help matters. I’ve rarely been more thankful for the skip button.
I Defy is the only real rocker on the album, and it’s a killer song too. It’s driven by high-tempo drums. Rather than adding the typical big guitar sound to match, the band filled out the instrumentation with brooding synths and clean guitars in the verses. Jenna is in fine form, spitting out defiant lyrics. She performs with just the right touch of attitude and vulnerability. Towards the end of the track she lets loose with a bizarre wail that sounds almost out of key, yet is the perfect climax to the song.
Guitarists explore new playing style
Taahi and Hardy have completely revamped their playing style for the album. Fans will probably be most familiar with their set-up of a pair of humbuckered ESP Les Paul-body guitars sent through Marshall or Orange half-stacks. It’s a safe bet that those high-output ESPs spent most of the album recording in storage. For much of the album the guitarists favoured acoustic guitars instead. Jenna was listed as the first writer on every song on the album, so perhaps her arrangements on acoustic moved over into the final cuts played by Taahi and Hardy. When playing electric, the duo are content to play simple, groovy rhythm figures or strumming/picking out clean guitar parts. The guitar tone sounds like it owes more to Vox’s AC30 than a Marshall. For the benefit of non-guitarists, that means a thinner sound with lighter distortion and less compression. When they aren’t being overpowered by the synths, the tones are nice and suit the album’s material quite well.
Tonight Alive’s Limitless has some great moments, including upbeat tracks like Everywhere and How Does It Feel as well as ballads We Are and The Greatest. The chart-chasing pop tracks do bring the album down somewhat. There’s a certain art to writing a great pop album and Tonight Alive haven’t hit that sweet spot. Tracks like Oxygen, To Be Free and Drive play out a modern pop formula without adding much to inspire repeat listens. The album is still worth a spin for the more unique numbers. Tonight Alive are incredibly talented writers and musicians so regardless of the style they produce some great songs.
Tonight Alive are currently in the middle of a US tour, after which they will head to Japan to play two dates at Punkspring festival. The show listings are available here. The band put on one hell of a live show so if they are coming by your town it would be well worth checking out.