A Road To Damascus

In Retrospect

Written by: TL on 21/08/2014 19:32:10

While the newest album from Copenhagen group A Road To Damascus clearly aims to wake up the world at large to the band's existence, the Rockfreaks.net staff has been aware of the band almost from the very beginning, having gotten to know the lads as some of the most thoroughly ambitious young musicians in our home scene. We've liked their debut EP, their first album and their energetic, extroverted live shows, applauding the band for both bringing pop-punk and emo-rock elements to a country where such are all but unheard of, and for retaining their own take on them, rather than merely copying directly from foreign influences. With the second full length "In Retrospect" coming out on Monday however, all signals have already been flashed from the band's side: Things are about to change, because being a niche band in the small Danish scene is not enough, and singing angry tunes was growing tiresome for a band with anger as a very small component in their songwriting and attitude. Big changes equal big risks however, and for those who actually loved the band's impressively well-executed debut "A Road To Damascus", it has been hard not to wonder uneasily: Are our boys changing for the better or the worse?

The verdict is going to be subjective of course, but the changes are clear: The backing screams previously contributed generously by guitarist and main songwriter Mads Peter Møller have been retired completely, and the overall tone and tempo of the music has shifted gradually from the dramatic to the anthemic, with the band enlisting help from Swedish producer Dino Medanhodzic to create a big, glossy sound, of the kind which is basically unheard from bands on these shores. Effectively they now sound more like British pop-rock projects like Kids In Glass Houses or Blitz Kids, or American counterparts There For Tomorrow, where the previous record felt more akin to Silverstein or The Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Short as it may be, the untitled intro offers thirty seconds of ambiance that point directly to the change right off the bat, gradually blooming up and transitioning to the sample-backed riff of first single "All Said And Done". The song is urgent, yet always bright and polished, and while the guitars do flex some muscle in the background, all emphasis is on the progression of singer Mikkel Raavig's vocal melodies, building up to the catchy chorus. As a single it's a well-written track, and you can tell that the band is careful as always when it comes to keeping the details in check, making sure to mix things up a bit in the bridge and penning a small outro to prevent the ending from dropping off too flatly.

Fair enough; but the important takeaway here is that the band has focused on the three C's of songwriting: "Chorus, Chorus and Chorus". The result of this concentration is that you can once again hear that efforts pay off for A Road To Damascus when they put their minds to something, because the leaping refrains that rule "In Retrospect" are unfailingly catchy and immediately singalongable. In this category at least, the band mostly finds the international level they're aiming for, as is plainly heard across the likes of "Different Eyes", "The Only Way" and "Trash What's Broken". My question however - as we begin to get to the case - is if this could not have been achieved without so aggressively shaving away what gave their sound personality in the first place? What made "A Road To Damascus" such a startlingly impressive debut was how well the band managed to juggle their various influences and ideas in compositions that made sense and never got boring - And I'm not necessarily talking about screaming, because if you listen to the first album today, it's clear that Møller would have had to strengthen his screams to appear competent next to the screamers on the records of today. I'm talking about the darker nuances that added depth to the hopeful ones, the compelling (and not always predictable) tempo changes, and the song or two that dared to mess up the formula and make it feel like you were listening to a diverse album.

"A Road To Damascus" felt like it wanted to prove somebody wrong - like it wanted to show us that it had mixed oil and water in the songwriting process and come away feeling rightfully proud of the achievement. It defied the listener's expectations and did the hard thing by proving that the band did in fact know better. "In Retrospect" has no such ambitions. It is an album all about rising to and embracing the expectations of the widest possible audience, and the sacrifice is that while the band has talked about preserving the weight of their expression, it's preserved like a lion in a zoo. It's there, but it's restricted from ever getting dangerous, and oddly, the same can be said of the many sampled elements the band has added in production. They give the album a feeling of grandeur and magnitude alright, but outside of the backing they give to the chorus in "All Said And Done", they're pretty much assigned to a role as superficial background noise that never really engages with the rest of the sound. You sense that someone has looked to the cinematics of Thirty Seconds To Mars for inspiration, yet failed to do anything out of the ordinary with the orchestral element, prompting you to wonder how much they actually improve what was already there.

This facilitates the record's main weakness, and that is that for all its catchiness, it is a severely one-dimensional listen, in which tempo plays a big role for both better and worse. The urgent drive of "All Said And Done" makes it worthwhile, while the slow paced "Different Eyes" and "Home Is Where My Heart Was" have you waiting for action with moods so domesticated that you're almost tempted to wonder if the band has ambitions in the Eurovision or on Denmark's conservative pop radio P4. Conversely a song like "Turn Of The Story" seems a much more rewarding acquaintance, for while it may not have the best refrain on the record, the rollicking tempo change between pre-chorus and chorus is exactly what the overall release needs more of. Meanwhile the title track is also a pretty worthwhile takeaway, with Yashin singer Harry Radford guesting in a small but effective role that helps boost what is perhaps the most infectious refrain of all the ones aligned.

Stepping back for a conclusion though, "In Retrospect" actually strikes me as a record that is less than the sum of its parts, partly because the parts feel so alike. It feels like an album of highly similar singles, and as such its essense is that you're highly likely to like some and skip others depending on temperament. And that's not bad, but it will leave me sitting here - granted, somewhat high-minded - worrying if the connection the band wants to establish with people isn't going to end up a bit shallow. As for whether they'll still turn a considerable amount of heads out there other than mine though, that can still happen. After all, for many casual music fans out there, what rules the day is still "Chorus, Chorus and Chorus".


Download: All Said And Done, In Retrospect, Turn Of The Story
For The Fans Of: Kids In Glass Houses, Blitz Kids, There For Tomorrow
Listen: facebook.com/aroadtodamascus

Release date 25.08.2014
Mighty Music

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