Monday, October 7, 2013

Album Review: Signals Midwest - Light on the Lake

Album Rating: B
A wonderful little record popped up in my inbox last month from Tiny Engines, a label I’ve always enjoyed, and for weeks now, it has served as a perfect introduction to a band I believe could be the newest potential Orgcore poster boys: Signals Midwest. After earning a slew of positive reviews from their 2012 effort, Latitudes and Longitudes, the band is back with a new full length, and this time around, these Cleveland, Ohio boys have chosen to take on far more, with Light on the Lake exploring everything from new genres to significantly more complex lyrics.  It's an ambitious effort, with almost all positive results.

At their core, Signals Midwest is a pop punk band, but don’t let that fool you, because there are certain (often unwelcomed) modern connotations associated with the genre that don’t necessary apply to the band. In fact, it may be a bit more accurate to define Signals Midwest as a “multi-generational” pop punk band—one whose music spans the waves and trends of decades worth of material released by countless different bands, all of which is conveniently grouped under the umbrella of our favorite nebulous label: pop punk.

The band reminds me of Rufio, at times, with their quick guitar harmonies which sneak into the verses and choruses, but of course, this shredding and riffage on Light on the Lake doesn’t really seek to rival anything that Rufio ever released. It’s merely just another aspect of Signals Midwest’s consistently surprising style. Elements of Listen and Forgive-era Transit pop up, like in “Caricature,” with well-placed hammer ons and pull offs, and the conclusion of “Lowercase” sounds like something straight off of a Dear Landlord record. I hear some Saves the Day influence in the heavy, indie chords bookending “In the Pauses,” and the ridiculously catchy conclusion to “St. Vincent Charity” recalls some of the finest moments of 2000s pop punk glory. To put it simply, absolutely any fan of alternative punk music in the past 20 years will find something to like on this record.

Interestingly, where Signals Midwest sounds most like their own band is on the more experimental tracks, like acoustic offering "Greater Plains." While yes, vocalist Max Stern's lyrics are deeply personal throughout the album, they resonate the most when the songs aren’t extremely comparable to other bands. “An Echo, A Strain” is an unlikely star, beginning with a lone guitar and tired voice that laments leaving a party because he “couldn't keep it together.” The track slowly swells for three minutes until it erupts into a huge, powerful section of gang vocals and heavy drumming. The interesting repetition of lyrical themes, such as the closing lines of Light on the Lake, "Are we reflections, the next in succession," also works to set the band apart from their many peers.

Moving forward, the biggest hurdle facing Signals Midwest will be their lack of a clear identity, which is something they are still developing. It’s nearly impossible to talk about the band without discussing the oceans of other artists from whom their sound derives, and most of these other bands played their respective styles a bit better back in the day than Signals Midwest does now. That’s not because these Cleveland boys aren’t talented, but rather, because they attempt to perform so many different incarnations of pop punk within a 40-minute time frame, they don’t ever really exceed or excel in any of them. The lack of focus results in a pretty good output of many different things, as opposed to a strong output from one cohesive specialty. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed this record greatly, but I don’t think Signals Midwest has quite reached their peak yet with Light on the Lake. A large appeal of this band is their well-intentioned combinations of genres and styles, but in the end, all I really wanted them to do was pick one sound and excel with it. This band will certainly be the next in succession in punk rock, but I think they can be far more than just a reflection.


1. 308
2. In the Pauses
3. A Room Once Called Yours
4. St. Vincent Charity
5. The Desert to Denver
6. An Echo, A Strain
7. Lowercase
8. San Anselmo
9. Caricature
10. Greater Plains
11. The Things that Keep Us Whole
12. A Glowing Light, An Impending Dawn


  1. I feel like this review does not do the album or the band justice. I mean, if you try really hard you can come up with bands who have done things in the same way for EVERY album that has been released in the past 10-20 years, but does that really take anything away from the way you listen to and enjoy the album right now? I for one don't sit here listening to an album trying to find parts that I might have already heard in a similar way from other bands.
    In my opinion Signals Midwest clearly have an identity on their own and have crafted a wonderful album that effortly flows as a whole, not just a collection of great songs.

  2. Sir Mesi, I don't listen to this album, or any album for that matter, with the intent of picking out similarities to other artists. It comes to stick out to me more and more, though, when there is very little to differentiate one band from its many predecessors, and, for me, this does take away from my enjoyment of a record. I like bands that push boundaries. I don't think Signals Midwest sounds like something new. I think their songs combine a lot of well-established styles just as they are, without really expanding on them. They did a good job, but I don't think anyone deserves a perfect score for doing something well that has already been done well countless times.

    I'm glad you like the album and it's cool that you'll defend it, but you should realize I like it too. I gave Light on the Lake a "B" and listened to it a ton (if you read carefully, you would've also noticed me refer to it as "wonderful"), so, I believe I doled out plenty of justice.