Braille may surprise longtime fans.
Through a self-titled EP and a pair of albums, Nottingham, England-based Palm Reader played a brand of hardcore that laid colorful, frantic and buzzing leads over its own version of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Hulk-smash mathcore. It was as close to unique as you can get, and that’s despite Josh McKeown’s rabid dog vocals resembling TDEP’s Greg Puciato. Yet to his credit, no one in extreme music screams “Fuck!” quite like McKeown. Even as it dipped its toes into melodic songwriting on 2015’s Beside the Ones We Love, the quintet—rounded out by guitarists Andy Gillan and Sam Rondeau-Smith, bassist Josh Redrup and drummer Dan Olds—essentially stayed in their lane, and were as effective as any like-minded band. Palm Reader has been the soundtrack to oppressed fury as McKeown covers the mic in scream spittle quasi-philosophizing, “We’re drowning coins in that wishing well/ We put our faith in sunken wealth.” So the group’s latest offering, Braille, may surprise longtime fans.
The album plays as if Palm Reader suddenly decided that the “if it ain’t broke” approach was no longer valid and that the remedy was to tinker with their sound. The result is a transitional album–which isn’t necessarily bad. However, the problematic transition at play is that of teenager growing out of their awkward phase in real time.
Apparently, it arrived without warning. The fantastic stand-alone single from last year, “Always Darkest,” was as dangerous and chaotic as anything in the band’s catalogue. Equally stunning is the lead single and album opener, “Swarm,” featuring the band’s catchiest chorus and a brilliantly unhinged ending. Yet in context, they become red herrings, a way for the band to bleed dry the last remaining lizard-brain rage in its system while still holding onto fans of their earlier work.
It’s a shame, really. After a strong four-song start, things go downhill. “The Turn” and “A Lover, A Shadow” are marred by uninspired songwriting and the questionable decision to channel U2. Meanwhile, “Clockwork,” its attempt at emo, is stilted and clumsy, only saved by a concrete-splitting heaviness in the final third that comes off like it was tacked on purely for that reason. Furthermore, two Radioheadesque instrumental interludes are pretty but unnecessary.
It all adds up to a frustrating listen, and that includes the equally hit-or-miss lyrics. For every line that shows hints of intelligence (“The days resemble a spiral when they’ve been spent on avoidance/ Time turns feeling to a fact and it’s giving my cold blood some heat”), there’s another one that cancels it out (“I’ve never been so stuck inside me/ Internal winter/ The cold world within us”). About midway through the album, McKeown wonders, “Are we making the right choices?/ Or are we showing our sensibilities the door?” He’s may not intend this question for the band, but given the inconsistencies of the disappointing Braille, he may as well be.