I came so close to giving this a perfect score, SO close. But in the end, perfect is a heavy weight to carry and very few records truly reach that mark, that said, this comes very very close, and it's a truly magnificent achievement.
Terrafraid hail from the current creative hotbed of Dundee in Scotland, indeed members of this band are present in countless other acts from the city and are helping to spearhead a real golden generation of talent. This began as two friends, Gavin Ross and Sean Arnold, demoing their indie dream pop/punk creations as a side project, but they must have quickly realised they were onto something and the two-year labour of love that followed has resulted in this 15-track album that delves into the innermost workings of a mind dealing with mental health issues and trying to make sense of it all. Despondent has been utterly dominant on my playlist for the past weeks.
Beginning with a good 40-45 seconds of distortion, feedback and crashing drums, you'd be forgiven for doing a double take at the genre tag, but it just proves to be the first in a long line of master stokes thrown at you during this whole journey. When it gives way it leads us into opener, "Smooch," with its trademark bright guitars, dance-y drum patterns and the accomplished dual vocals, bristling with a warm but not overpowering Scot's brogue that will become a feature of so much of this record. Musically the influences are certainly '80s dream pop, '90s indie/emo and definitely some technical punk aspects in a lot of the drumming. The guitars are bright, the rhythm work is incredible and the harmonies are to die for -- you may feel slightly guilty for enjoying this so much, such is the pop element, but it's so well constructed it's just irresistible.
"Smooch" closes out with a beautiful bridge and sets the bar high from the outset. By the time you reach the chorus of the insanely catchy "Self Indulgent Spotlight" and are hit with the line -
"The worst that could happen is you fall for my charm," it's impossible to not already be won over by that very thing. More beautiful instrumentation (all instruments on the recording were played by either Sean or Gavin by the way) and vocal work continue on "The Obvious" which reminds me a bit of New Order, albeit New Order with gang vocals.
"And the obvious is sometimes what we've been trying to find
With all this time not being me to feel as if I'm too blind
To see what's on the inside"
I keep expecting the standard to drop but it never does. "What is Left of Life" again throws out so much melody and irresistible sing-a-long moments, "Is it Worth It" explores the virtues of a life touring as a musician and how much more at home an active mind is when it's allowed to express and create every night. None of these songs are heavy musically but some are definitely more "ballads" than others, "Where There's Warmth" offers up piano and acoustic guitars and literally brings an added warmth itself. Genuinely expressive and honest lyricism again draws you in and keeps your attention.
Heading into the second half of the record the standard of songs is still incredible. "As of Yet," "Words," "The Fall" and "Chasing Ghosts" are all huge highlights with so much going on I feel this review would never end if I were to go into them all, but try listening to "The Fall" and see how long it sticks in your head. "Chasing Ghosts" is a personal highlight for me due to the subject matter, and that's one of the beauties of this record, everyone will hear something within it that rings so true and reminds you of a time you probably felt the same. Such is the stigma surrounding mental health issues many people will struggle to talk about how it affects them, opening up hearts and minds through songwriting is an expressive and sometimes healing process, hearing these results is genuinely moving and it's been a while since a record made me feel how Despondent does.
The album finishes as strong as it's been throughout with "Control" expressing the crushing desire to be able to have that very thing, before the bright opening chords of the title track, my (current) favourite, ring out inviting you into the closing chapter of this absorbing journey. It's as close to a pure pop/punk song the record has, terrific drum patterns open up huge sing a longs.
"Expose my weakness when I least
expect it, as a crowd turn to look at
where I am now, & my head is to the ground.
I'm not a man who ever bets,
That's not to say I'm without regrets
at least I know I, recognise
That I need help sometimes
I guess there's two sides of me
and you are yet to meet the third voice
That's the cause of it all,
the reason for my downfall
into my closedness
the list is endless
I tried to find a reason for it
the truth is, I'm it."
Before an anthemic instrumental outro that staggers and slows till the last beat and leaves you breathless to reflect on what's just happened. One of the most accomplished, intelligent collections of songwriting that a Scottish act has ever produced, dark thematically, yes, but at the same time mindful of the promise that music can deliver such cathartic experiences that can in turn elevate struggling spirits.
So why not perfect? Well, the one criticism I have is one that will hopefully and rightfully should be remedied in time. To date this is just a digital release and something of this scale deserves backing and it deserves to be imprinted to a beautiful slab of wax. I know the guys have plans for a physical release and to be honest, the fact they have produced such outstanding quality on a shoestring budget is a remarkable achievement and we should just be happy it's out there. I certainly am.
Check it out here.