The title of London grungers Whales in Cubicles’ debut, Death in the Evening, would seem off-puttingly bleak to some. And, although it’s true that, lyrically and sonically, the album’s ten tracks lean towards the darker end of the spectrum (see the video for ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ for further verification), it’s not a purely black canvas; amongst the lo-fi laments lurk more poppy sensibilities. However, what’s tragic is that the album is a mixed bag, not only in the types of songs on offer, but even the quality and originality of the songs.
Obviously, to expect every song to be a ground-breaking masterpiece would be utterly unreasonable, and, for the most part, the band manage to craft an identity without tumbling head over heels into cliche. The opening track, ‘Yesterday’s News’, is a prime example of a band wearing their influences on their sleeves, and yet managing to live up to the standards set by these heroes. Instantly, Gish-era Smashing Pumpkins leap to mind; producer Simon Barnicott’s rough-yet-polished touch yields raw-sounding drums juxtaposed with a sweeping guitar swell. Furthermore, the band has a formidable weapon in frontman Stef Bernardi’s voice; imagine if Billy Corgan had grown up in South London, losing none of the understated intensity from his slacker drone, but hopefully forgetting to cultivate his all-conquering ego. Bernardi’s voice complements the band’s rapid loud/quiet shuffling perfectly, before it culminates in a squalling guitar solo reminiscent of the likes of ‘Geek USA’. For further evidence of his talent, look later in the album, particularly to later track, ‘I Knew It’; it’s here that his versatility most shines as he alternates between a lethargic groan in a hauntingly sparse verse and stratospheric, otherwordly cries in the chorus, showing an impressive vocal range. This impressive opening salvo is followed up by the band’s debut single, ‘We Never Win’, instantly, any misgivings we may have had about the band’s inability to move out of their heroes’ shadows are dispelled; the musicianship of the drums’ odd-time workout provides the backbone of a simmering build-up culminating in a blistering outpouring of lyrical rage. It is here, more than anywhere (although the cavernous depth of closer Find Your Way comes a close second) that the individual sound of Whales in Cubicles shines through. What’s more, as a harrowing lament of the loss of innocence, ‘All the Pretty Flowers’ blows the likes of the Offspring’s ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’ into well-deserved obsolescence.
However, this is not to say that the album’s majority of hits aren’t accompanied by a minority of total misses. It is particularly in the album’s troubled midsection that Bernardi allows his pop sensibilities to overcome him, skidding somewhat into the pitfall of sugary radio fodder. The two songs particularly guilty of being disappointingly predictable are ‘Across America’, which features a self-consciously ‘hooky’ chorus you see could coming a mile off, and current single ‘Disappear’, which, frankly, in the hands of a different producer, would sound like New Found Glory at their most wince-inducing. However, it would be colossally unfair to dismiss this album purely on the back of these; just listen to the likes of ‘Nowhere Flag’ to witness the band’s potential for marrying their darker tendencies with simply being catchy; the vocal refrain is nothing short of an earworm, while maintain a distinct desolation. Therefore, the album is definitely recommended, and it will be interesting to see which direction they take in the future; hopefully one which shakes off any perception of ‘what makes a pop song’.