I appreciate I’m a little late to the party here. ALASKALASKA’s first album, The Dots, was released a month ago now so this isn’t exactly fresh. I just had to review it though – because it’s probably the best debut album I’ve heard in years.
I was regrettably oblivious of the genre-blending ALASKALASKA until I heard their single, Meateater, in a River Island which, ironically, isn’t the most fashionable way to find new music (though it happens more often than you’d imagine – clothes retail marketing teams clearly know what they’re doing).
Anyway, The Dots was released on the 3rd of May this year and I’m sad that I haven’t already had a month to enjoy this album. You know that feeling you get when you hear something and you instantly know you’re going to be listening to it for months? I got that with The Dots.
I’ll start by introducing the band. ALASKALASKA are a British six-piece formed in South London in 2016. The question of what kind of music they make is where it gets tricky; I’ve rarely heard an artist blend their influences and styles so effectively into something truly unique. If I had to describe it, I’d say their style is rock-ish experimental synth-jazz-pop. Their lineup is mostly conventional, with vocals, guitar, bass, drums and synth – but they’ve also got a sax player.
In fact, ALASKALASKA’s debut transcends genre so patently that I’m going to set myself a challenge: to get to the end of this review without mentioning a single genre past this point. Here goes:
You enter the ALASKALASKA world with the title track, The Dots. A darting arpeggiated synth is gradually sent offbeat by the non-4/4 timings (which are a something of a rarity here). The first thing that struck me is how well-produced this record is. The production was handled by bassist and vocalist Fraser Rieley whose work here is outstanding. The second striking feature is the silky, ethereal vocal of Lucinda Duarte-Holman that packs a surprising punch in other parts of the record.
But what I find most endearing is the band’s style, which manages to be energetic, fresh and incisive (Meateater, Tough Love), and at the same time serene and intimate (Sweat, Heaven). After the title track, the album makes its way through the emphatic and sax-heavy Bees, the buccaneering Moon, the psychedelic Arrows and the aggressive swagger of Tough Love, to Sweat, a candid and honest song about intimacy that swaps sax for sex (sorry). Following this you get Meateater – probably the best track on the album and definitely the most dynamic. Tight, catchy verses hooked by an infectious bassline turn into cavernous choruses with sax swells. Normally I’m not a fan of saxophone, but how it’s used here – and how smoothly it blends with the other instruments – lets it steal the show a lot of the time (there’s a fantastic sax solo in Meateater, for example). There’s also an irresistible vocal chant throughout – “You’re shuffling your feet / for a beat / you can eat.”
Meateater is the centre of the album and the dynamic peak, but that doesn’t mean The Dots goes downhill from there in terms of quality. Monster starts timid and builds to an engrossing crescendo, Happyface is an unnerving and dispirited analysis of personal happiness that feels a little too close to the bone, and Heaven is appropriately named – a serene and poised trip led by a punchy rhythm section and charming synth plucks and is that a pan-pipe solo? Final track, Skin, is a retro synth-led calm and dissonant finale to The Dots, which saves its most challenging track for the end.
It’s genuinely astounding how seamlessly all of the instruments blend together; and yet you can hear each one. The synths are like velvet and the bass (which has some great tones) sticks to the drums like glue to form a tight and powerful rhythm section that drives tracks like Heaven. The sax is well-placed, mostly as a lead instrument like in Bees and Moon, but also to add to the rich textures of choruses like Meateater. It’s difficult to include saxophone in tracks without it being overwhelming but this whole album is an example of how to do so. There are experimental sounds on pretty much the whole record – a Daft Punk-style vocoder in Happyface for example – yet none of them feel out of place and that’s through innovative and smart production.
The lyrics are great too, mostly formed of honest self-awareness and cynical contemplation of a discordant society, like this from Tough Love:
Who gives a shit about my opinions?
Who gives a shit about my point of view?
Who gives a shit about anything lately?
So glad to meet you
Hard to communicate my emotions
Hard to communicate anything new
Hard to communicate but I won’t give it up
Well, good luck if you’ve had enough of tough love
Elsewhere on The Dots though, there are candid and intimate lines such as in Sweat: “Sweat, baby / salt never tasted so good” where Duarte-Holman’s vocals swap confidence for vulnerability. Her performances, as well as those of the rest of the band, are excellent throughout.
As an album, The Dots is hard evidence (to me at least) that ALASKALASKA are a band who are going places. After I listened to the album for the first time, I looked the band up online, assuming they must already have a huge fanbase – so imagine my shock when I learned they have 2600 likes on Facebook and 500 followers on Twitter. I hope and believe that number will grow because, based on what I have listened to (over and over again) on The Dots, ALASKALASKA are a band with a huge amount going for them in terms of talent and even more so in pure individuality and style.
It doesn’t get much better than this for a debut, and it’s exciting to hear something that makes you forget that genre even exists.
(I managed to not mention a single genre).