Uproar sounds like a band one album away from reaching their fullest potential.
There was a time where the name of the Portland’s beat-centric band Hustle & Drone actually seemed to fit them. It wasn’t even that long ago: in 2014, the duo released HOLYLAND, which invoked the same spirit of grime and quasi-harshness that their name conjures. There’s still plenty of poppiness on that record – “Evaporated” is a club banger in an alternate dimension, if there’s any justice in the multiverse – but the sound was far from sleek, the mix a thick stew, and while it was a good album, it does a lot to push the listener away.
It has been five years since HOLYLAND, which was created in the wake of frontperson Ryan Neighbors with parting ways with the ever-ascending Portland-based behemoth Portugal. The Man, but they’ve been anything but silent since. Neighbors, along with his songwriting partner Andy Black, spent that downtime writing, recording, polishing and scrapping dozens of songs, all of which culminated in this year’s What an Uproar. Time (and the band’s relationship with producer Sonny DiPerri) changed a lot of things about their aesthetic, and the reinvention was likely the best thing for them.
What an Uproar ditches the lo-fi dance music for something else entirely: the beats here are pristine, and Neighbors – whose voice was buried in the mix on HOLYLAND, has come back with a voice that sounds startlingly close to that of Trent Reznor, but it lacks the same evocative growl. It arrives just in time for the seasons to shift and settle into darkness and cold, further cementing the need for good beats to accompany every season. It also possesses a lot of warmth, its beats largely disinterested in playing for the rafters of a basketball arena, though you can picture them on a midsize club’s stage, playing opener “Dark Star” while dressed all in black, surrounded by thick fog and white strobes.
Uproar charts an interesting trajectory, often sticking to moments that seem like they were designed to be inviting, even if they land in the territory of broodiness. “Shadow Fly” sounds like it could be a TV on the Radio song but more maudlin, its skittering beats playing a great balance to Neighbor’s sad croon. Likewise, on “What an Uproar,” they channel the energy of their debut but give their former aesthetic a full remaster, with Neighbors gently singing “I hit the bottom/ I hit the bottom again/ I hit the bottom/ It’s a long way down” as dour-yet-busy beats swirl around him. Elsewhere, “Raw as the Sun” sounds like it belongs on the album of a band bringing their A-game while also shamelessly jocking Pretty Hate Machine, which Neighbors sells by even adding in a dash of Reznor’s snarl.
What stands out most is the moments of beauty: “Stuck Inside of the Rain” is a surprising moment midway through the album, in which everything falls away outside of Neighbors, a minimalist piano line, and almost unnoticeable synth warbles in the background; it’s the kind of thing you would totally miss if you weren’t listening on headphones. The same goes for “Borrowed Time,” which adds a few more layers than “Stuck Inside,” but still does impressive work to stay as intimate as possible.
But, then, it’s not all about that, and just one song after “Stuck Inside,” they entirely unmake the sense of calm created with “Fame,” which sounds like it could be the album’s hit single, but one used to look inwards at the machinations of the song’s titular force: “You’re never gonna live on a microphone just singing away/ And watching it go to the shitter/ But every time I get on a microphone/ I don’t even know what I’m singing,” he sings atop shiny, choppy beats.
Uproar sounds like a band one album away from reaching their fullest potential, but that still leaves plenty of room for error. At times, Neighbors’ lack of vocal force undersells songs, leading to songs like “Fame,” where he sings “I can’t feel my face anymore/ I can’t feel my heart anymore” without any real punch – meaning that even in a song that’s meant to document his troubled relationship with fame, he fails to sell his own anguish. It also has “Chambers,” a brief song that sounds like a left-behind scrap the team found too pretty to toss out entirely. And then there’s closer “Never Sleep Alone,” which makes itself seem like it’s going to burst at any moment, but instead simply envelops Neighbors with noise, which feels shockingly unsatisfying. This all feels like a trifle, though, as What an Uproar ends up being a truly exciting return, and one that leaves you hoping it doesn’t take them another five years – and a stylistic shift – to make their next record.