Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Album Review: The Men - Open Your Heart

Album Rating: B+
Truth be told, this year has thus far probably spawned as many disappointments as it has true successes, with even previously dependable sources proving prone to the odd blip. Hardcore stalwarts Ceremony are a prime example of such, with their new album Zoo joining the likes of Born To Die and Reign Of Terror among 2012's biggest let downs, and despite their stylistic differences, The Men's third LP draws plenty of parallels with that record. The key point of comparison is that both albums have seen the bands in question sacrifice much of the extremity which characterised their earlier work in favour of new, more accessible sounds, but while Zoo has had to bear the burnt of a mixed critical reception and sheer derision from fans, Open Your Heart sees The Men take strides which are as vital as they are bold, and should establish them as a force to be reckoned with in the modern punk scene.

Excellent previous records Immaculada and Leave Home had, of course, already marked the trio out as one of the genre's hottest prospects, and although their aural attack has been toned down, this latest release still places a similar emphasis on volume. There's nothing here that comes close to matching the sheer hostility of a track like 'Lotus,' yet each and every note is still drenched in a sea of distortion, feedback and reverb which goes some way towards maintaining the band's core appeal. Now though, that signature racket is complimented by a new found melodic streak, which not only renders their music far more approachable to outsiders but also more fun for those already on board. 'Going pop' can often come across as a little contrived, especially with a band departing from such a harsh corner of the musical spectrum, but in this case the transition sounds completely authentic and over the course of 10 tracks lacks nothing in substance. 

Although its influences are steeped throughout the history of punk rock, Open Your Heart seems to take particular inspiration from two of the genre's key phases. Curtain raiser 'Turn It Around' for instance is in debt to the late 70's and early 80's UK scene, with it's opening bars bearing resemblance to those of Stiff Little Fingers' 'Suspect Device,' though in a decidedly tasteful manner as opposed to outright plagiarism. The rest of the song largely follows suite, with a breakneck tempo and raw energetic kick that Belfast's finest would have been proud of, while the upbeat bubblegum melodies seemingly pay homage to contemporaries like The Buzzcocks. Such touchstones are apparent at various stages throughout the record, but there are also plenty of hints of late 80's America, with the serrated riffs on the likes of 'Animal' and 'Ex-Dreams' spreading strong whiffs of vintage Sonic Youth, while the variety brought about by the country tinge of  'Candy' recalls The Meat Puppets.

With such obvious odes to the past as well as the aforementioned switch in focus, it's perhaps a little curious that this is a record which still sounds distinctly like The Men. What it does demonstrate though, is that the breadth of their talents may be far wider than initially assumed, and while it does contain some fairly uninteresting passages, the skill with which they have incorporated these new sounds is mightily impressive. This ultimately is what separates them from hordes of other bands - including Ceremony - who have tried and failed to pull off a similar trick. They've stuck to their strengths diligently, but have also struck a perfect balance in adding pop hooks to that established formula. Consequently, Open Your Heart pulls off that rare feat of being a record that will be embraced by existing fans while also having the potential to draw in numerous new followers. You get the impression that their best days could still be ahead, but for now this considerable achievement is more than enough.


1. Turn It Around
2. Animal
3. Country Song
4. Oscillation
5. Please Don't Go Away
6. Open Your Heart
7. Candy
8. Cube
9. Presence
10. Ex-Dreams

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