Favorite Track: "Telling Stories" Least Favorite Track: "Quarry"
Few albums have been deeply seared into the fabric of my brain like Neck Deep’s Life's Not Out To Get You. The Welsh band’s 2015 pop punk opus left me completely shell-shocked, redefinining what music meant to me. Not because of the album itself, or the relentlessly catchy songwriting, or even the positive and creative messaging, but because it introduced me to the excitement of falling in love with an album: a feeling I’ve chased ever since. Five years later and Life’s Not Out to Get You still holds a very special place in my heart and it has only gotten better with time. It easily stands out as one of the most innovative, creative, and well-written albums of the 2010’s pop punk revival.
The band followed up their masterpiece with 2017’s The Peace And The Panic, a solid release but an obvious step down in quality from their sophomore effort. In 2020, Neck Deep has unfortunately continued this downward trend with their fourth studio album entitled All Distortions Are Intentional. This new LP effectively squashes everything that once made Neck Deep’s sound so original and fun. Their previously established and impressive ability to write raging hook after raging hook has almost entirely vanished, and what originally set apart Ben Barlow as a vocalist falls to the waistline. The result is a bland record void of personality that feels like an impersonation of everything that Neck Deep was trying to originally combat. Instead of their usual take on the repetitive genre they inhabit, they have conformed to the standards set forth by un-original contemporaries, they lose their edge and everything that once set them apart in the process.
Massively to the album’s detriment, All Distortions Are Intentional is easily Ben Barlow’s weakest vocal performance thus far into his career. Instead of gradually maturing with his vocal range he seems to be reaching for something unattainable. In 2015 his premature, nasally, falsetto shined above the band's instrumental tendencies; however, his 2020 tone seems to be a poor attempt to recreate an imperative attribute of his past. He’s grown up, and his voice has too. All throughout this album the band turns a blind eye to this, attempting to make up for it with awkward auto-cruning that does anything but solve the problem. On older cuts like “I Hope This Comes Back To Haunt You”, Barlow’s vocals sit comfortably above the band's wall of punk noise, here they instead hide beneath the mix in an effort to conceal what cannot be resolved.
On an instrumental front, All Distortions Are Intentional is painfully generic, pulling from the choices that made every other pop punk revival band’s sound so off-putting. Guitars drenched in overdrive and fuzz plague nearly every track here, consistently sounding indistinguishable from what came before. Drummer Dani Washington still remains the powerhouse of the band’s sound, but on All Distortions Are Intentional he resorts to slushy hi-hat grooves and monster fills that are admirable but not enough to save this album’s clear lack of ideas.
You wouldn’t be able to tell without some research, but All Distortions Are Intentional is supposed to be a concept album. It follows the thematic journey of two lovers named Jett and Alice, and their romantic trials and tribulations through a place dubbed “Sonderland”. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It's the same boring, re-hashed, lyrical content that you can find on any other generic pop punk release, and while All Distortions Are International is packaged as a cohesive story, the result is far less interesting than previous Neck Deep projects.
While being the setting, “Sonderland” also doubles as the title of the project’s first track. It is an early sign of things to come. The overdriven guitars, cringey auto-tuned vocals, and crushing drums appear on nearly every one of this album’s twelve tracks. There is virtually nothing that sets this cut apart from what follows it. Track two’s, “Fall”, has an instrumental that’s almost identical. The lead melody trades power chords for a picked groove, but besides that the two are hard to tell apart. The hook here could not be further from what Neck Deep wrote five years ago on, Life’s Not Out to Get You, it’s borderline annoying. Barlow’s extended stachatto chants of the word “Life” are a far cry from the band’s roots.
One of the only redeemable songs on this project is “Telling Stories”. It is the closest that Neck Deep gets to re-creating the magic of their previous work. It also is one of the only times that All Distortions Are Intentional presents a hook that isn’t forgettable. Honestly, the instrumental here isn’t even too far from the rest of All Distortions Are Intentional but when given a substantive hook to provide for it feels a little more bearable.
The original appeal of Neck Deep was their refreshing take on a dead sound. On All Distortions Are Intentional they replace this dynamic with a forgettable conform to everything they once combatted. The album’s twelve pop punk tracks could have easily been on a release from All Time Low or State Champs, a sad reality given the momentum that Neck Deep once held, and their massive potential to bring this sound back into the mainstream. At the end of the day, I still love Neck Deep, they changed more about me than almost any other band has. However, if I want a rush of nostalgia I’ll bypass this record, and I’ll return to 2015’s Life’s Not Out to Get You. I don’t say this with a smile on my face, but Neck Deep has run out of ideas.