THE ALTAR by Banks
Genre: Alternative R&B, Electropop
Favorites: “Gemini Feed,” “Mind Games,” “Trainwreck,” “Mother Earth,” “To The Hilt”
Some artists don’t feel like the conscious creation of themselves. Instead, they are the spontaneously formed combination of trends or other popular artists. Avril Lavigne was the angst-filled “rock” of post-grunge, the same way that Nickelback reflected the teen pop sheen of Britney Spears, Muse were the electronically experimental, arena rock fusion of Radiohead and Queen, and Banks is the natural progression of The Weeknd and Lana Del Rey. She borrows The Weeknd’s dark, moody, atmosphere-driven R&B that can mistake boring and flat for sexy, and Rey’s pop that attempts to be more thoughtful, character-driven, and intimate but occasionally becomes way too focused on image over content.
Her first record, GODDESS, had flashes of brilliance in the almost apocalyptic “Waiting Game,” the towering, haunting, and catchy “Beggin for Thread” and the heartbreaking acoustic number “Someone New.” But such flashes were obscured by the album’s almost one-hour run time that the songs could not support. It faced the same problems that many other alternative R&B artists do; the album becomes way too easy to tune out because songs just fade in and out with no direction and an over-reliance on a moody atmosphere that was often unearned, turning into “sex background” music that has no use outside of the bedroom and parties where the partygoers are too high to dance.
THE ALTAR seems to take cues from some of the poppier material off of BEAUTY BEHIND THE MADNESS like “Can’t Feel My Face.” It’s just as cavernous and sinister in aesthetic as its predecessor but places more emphasis on melody, bounce, and swing. Songs feel more structured and don’t throw their hands in the air in defeat and flatline into directionless electronic fizz. Banks and her producers also figured out how to cut down, as the songs are much shorter and don’t overstay their welcome like so many of the tracks on GODDESS did. Banks has much more charisma and swagger in her delivery as well, and when she calls herself “a bad motherfucker” listeners will believe it.
The first track, “Gemini Feed,” has a fantastic chorus that sticks to you like a Metroid, fleeting stabs of synths and a bouncy hip hop beat that manage to be both urgent and moody. It vividly describes a toxic relationship where her partner has manipulated her into thinking no else cares for her. The title refers to the two of them feeding off each other’s misery and sinking further into their own emotional abysses, and Banks finally sees how foolish she is at thinking it will ever improve. It does what a great album opener should do: It grabs your attention and indicates the general sound and themes you can expect for the next 40 minutes.
“Trainwreck” has a hard-hitting, driving beat that matches Banks’ frantic anger and her quasi-rap cadence as she realizes how much she has tried to help her lover and how little difference it has actually accomplished. Banks’ usual weak-willed cooing (which is so fragile that it would break if a fly touched it) has become much more strained and powerful, allowing her to sell lines like “I had to get away, I had to get away, I had to get away,” and make the listener believe she is running as fast as she can rather than walking in slow-motion. “Mind Games” is another righteous cut, with each repetition of “Do you-oh-oh, see me now?” mirror her heightening shock at how many times she can snap her fingers in her lover’s face while still not drawing their attention.
When THE ALTAR is not angry, it’s desperate, and kicking itself for being crazy in love with those who don’t deserve it. Tracks like “Haunt” feature Banks at her lowest and most lustful; singing, “You make me wait, dangling on a string / Begging for you to come back to the ring / ‘Til I’m salivating for attention that you won’t bring.” The Rihanna-esque tropical tone of the percussion feels a little out of place, but Banks’ anguished background vocals and the angry, blaring guitar chord that signals the pre-chorus make up for it. “Judas” sounds like “The Hills” almost to the point of plagiarism, but lines about being “Too numb to feel the knife in my back” and the haunting choir and chorus give the song enough apocalyptic weight to justify the Biblical references and allow Banks to ride the song’s melody more effectively than The Weeknd did.
Despite Banks’ much improved and varied vocals, the second half of THE ALTAR is far less consistent than the first. The acoustic number “Mother Earth” is comforting and warm, but “Poltergeist” has an awful harmony that sounds like the noise you make when you have eaten too much, layered on top of itself and laced with digital fuzz. Despite how much swagger she has, Banks cannot save the far too repetitive “Weaker Girl,” and the album ending with two piano driven alt-pop ballads was a mistake because one is naturally going to outshine the other. While “24 Hours” has an effective build-up and soaring background vocals, the percussions are mixed far too loud and is weirdly skippy — like it can’t decide what the tempo should be. Of the two, “To the Hilt” is more effective, partially because it is less gaudy and more instrumentally stripped down. Banks describes a lover who supported her when she began her music career, but who took off when she finally hit it big. She sings that “You were my muse for so long / Now I’m drained creatively,” and wonders if she can continue her musical pursuit alone.
If THE ALTAR is any indication, the creative juices have not been fully squeezed out yet. It removes all the ‘fat’ from GODDESS and remembers that atmosphere and mood don’t make up for a lack of personality or engaging lyrics. Banks delivers a catchier and more personal album, with more forceful beats and a stronger persona that allows for the anger, lust, sadness, and posturing to flow convincingly from the same mouth. While there are moments when THE ALTAR relapses back to the flatlining and emptiness from GODDESS, the album has mostly avoided the delusions that it can support an hour-long run time. Banks has not escaped the stigma of being a combination of trends, but she shines bright enough to pierce through the ambience of her music and reveal more about herself — as if she was confessing to us at THE ALTAR.