How to explain Violens? Since their eponymous teaser EP in late 2008, The New York quartet have been hailed as everything from the spawn of ’60s psychedelia, to the illicit sons of new wave – a complex genealogy encompassing all from The Zombies to Depeche Mode, by way of Orange Juice and New Order. Their long-gestated debut album, Amoral, does little to narrow the potential heritage, but does offer a glimpse of their inheritance: the proto-emo, synth-fed bombast of the mid-’80s English indie regency. It’s a lineage of great riches, but is this a new generation’s proud first born, or the runt of an illegitimate litter?
Along with fellow east-coasters Yeasayer and The Drums, the Big Apple’s output has, in recent months, made more than a few nods to mid-’80s England. But unlike Violens, their peers haven’t sought to recreate the era – they’ve fished artfully in its pools, landing the warmth and drama of its electronics and plaintive vocals, but also casting the net wider both to world music and the more recent, local noise of The Strokes et al. Amoral is more beholden to its forebears. But this is a record that pays homage with a plucky insouciance – with a cocksure twist that suggests Violens are more than happy to step forwards as unabashed throwbacks.
The most accomplished moments show why. The band’s first single, Acid Reign, strides in with a hammered bass riff, potent and haughty, a loose jangle of guitar flecked at the edges, before giving way to Jorge Elbrecht’s smooth-cut vocal – a Haircut 100-esque sheen that post-punk devotees will cream their skinny jeans over. It’s a track with the dark emotion of New Order’s Blue Monday, but leaning upbeat – all held tight by that inch-perfect Nick Heyward-like croon. This is the standout track, and little else has its edge – though others have their strengths. It Couldn’t Be Perceived keeps the pace, and throws in twinkling guitar riffs and duelling synth counterpoints that capture the more epic moments of Simple Minds. And there’s more than a little of Jim Kerr in the slow-burn of Until It’s Unlit – a lascivious writhe of a track that evokes the mix of grandstand and gloom of the Scot’s own best moments.
But while Elbrecht and co are convincing in bursts, Amoral can seem too polished. The sound is pristine where it should be dirty, bright where there should be shadow. The opening tracks are catchy but hollowed out, at times sitting unconvincingly between Prefab Sprout and The Lightning Seeds. Violent Sensation Descends is a Hammond-organ slip into pyschedelia – thankfully anomalous with its stuttering mix of Beach Boys and The Monkees.
Violens are more than capable of a bolder sound – Another Strike Restrained is superb, echoing the arching despondency of Depeche Mode’s Precious, but ramping it up with layers of frenetic bass and desperate synth. But there are too many moments where they seem a soft touch. While Violens draw from strong influences, they capture their potency only fleetingly. Amoral is a worthwhile listen, with stand out tracks that hold much promise. As yet, though, there’s too much that leaves you, like that promise, unfulfilled.