Tuesday 2 April 2024

WONDERboom - Hard Mode (2024)

Country: South Africa
Style: Funk Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 22 Mar 2024
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It's oddly hard to find an online discography of WONDERboom, given that they formed as far back as 1996 and have been active ever since, winning awards but releasing EPs and singles rather than full length studio albums. They celebrated their 25th anniversary in 2021 with WONDERboom 25, a set of re-recordings of favourite songs from their earlier releases, but this is a new studio album, potentially their fifth to follow on from 2017's Rising Sun, and it's a wildly versatile affair.

I saw them listed as funk rock, which is as good a description as any, I guess, but they refuse to be constrained by any one genre label, even if it's as high level as pop or rock, because they're happy to play both. There's a lot of rock here, much of it falling somewhere within alternative or arena rock, but there's lots of pop here too, from across the spectrum, trawling in ska, goth, punk, even R&B. As such, it's impossible to even attempt to identify high level influences. The band obviously listen to a broad range of music and let everything they hear filter into their own sound.

The heaviest song is probably the opener, My Name is Freedom, which is an earworm of a stomp, built as much on handclaps and audience participation as guitars and drums. It seems cheap for me to throw out John Kongos as an immediate comparison, given that he was also South African, but it's there and it's overt. However, one of the softest songs is Deadly, the pop song that has an unenviable task in following My Name is Freedom and approaches that by not doing anything at all similar. Apparently, when WONDERboom started out, so far back that they were still called the Electric Petal Groove Machine, they supported Simple Minds on a South African tour. That seems entirely appropriate listening to this song.

From one rock song and one pop song, the next four mix pop and rock in fascinating ways and that ends up being a far more common approach here. Most of my favourite songs here are both pop and rock without ever really being pop rock. Alive is a tasty mix of U2 and Nick Cave and the Cure. Overground (Subway Queen) ups the U2 proportion of that but adds a Japanese melodic theme. Avalon adds some Madness in its perky ska beat, funky piano and quietly cool attitude, though it goes elsewhere for its chorus. Similarly, Miss Demeanour is commercial punk in its verses, like an Iggy Pop song but with the incessant drive of Hawkwind, the lyrics spat in bars rather than sung, but then it all goes big and clean for its chorus.

Avalon counts as the midpoint, there being eleven songs on offer and all of them being of similar length, a radio friendly three minutes and change. I like the first half a lot, wherever it goes. I'm less fond of the second half, partly because it's more pop than rock, partly because its songs have less character to them and partly because one of them, very deliberately, sparks cringeworthy memories. However, the second half wraps up with Voodoo Doll, which is both pop and rock, has character to spare and is as catchy as anything else here, the earworm opener notwithstanding.

The cringy song is Hip, which is eighties hip, sometimes painfully so, even if the words talk about an earlier time. It's firmly pop but it goes all over the place, perhaps mostly to Michael Jackson but to plenty of others, including trends that I've tried to forget. It feels like the sonic equivalent of the sort of fashion catalogue that parents bought Christmas presents from that embarrassed everyone because the trends had moved on by the time the wrapping paper came off. There's an early white rapper feel to it and I'm not talking about Blondie's Rapture or Adam Ant's Ant Rap, but the folk who dressed in pastels and pretended to be black, the predecessors of Vanilla Ice.

The songs after it but before Voodoo Doll are mostly inconsequential compared to the rest of the material here. Prodigal Son is a logical follow-up to Hip but shifting in time from Michael Jackson to Prince. Pretty Things is quieter; it's pleasant enough and it sounds OK in isolation but its Cure-esque pop doesn't enforce itself. Rabbit Hole manages a little better, but it's another subtle pop song and I was having sinking feelings by this point in the album when Voodoo Doll shows up to be the saviour of the side, a Hallowe'en flavoured Adam Ant alt rock song that's all hook.

This is about as different as can be imagined to Toxic Carnage, but I do try to cover the spectrum here at Apocalypse Later and there are wonderful songs to be found on each of these albums. It's joyous to me to move from Thrashing Over Thirty to Alive. They're both rock songs, even if they're not alike in almost any other way, except maybe in how they nod back to the eighties. It's a great time to be alive, with so much varied music easily available to a global audience online. Enjoy it.

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