If you’ve been around these parts lately, you might have caught us gushing over singles released by alt.. The Adelaide four piece have especially become a mainstay in my regular personal listening due to “nothingwithoutyou” that landed last month. The relative newcomers have their debut EP dysfunctional set for release this Friday, and I had hoped I’d be just as smitten with the entirety of it. Heck, that single is literally in my top 10 most streamed songs on Spotify this month.
But unfortunately, this empathy-driven reviewer found it tough to sink into dysfunctional. Instead of getting to dive into an immersive world of the seven songs, it felt like I was watching them play out on a TV screen. There was an element that just kept me at a distance, and I’m not entirely sure how to communicate what exactly it was. Because when it comes to production and sound, alt. have nailed it.
To talk more specifically, EP opener “insubordinate” was big and full of sound, and married an enticing pace with big rocky riffs before sinking into a slithery mysteriousness. Exploring a toxic connection, there were clear captures of dark and light, and a sense of regrouping and regaining strength before exacting revenge.
As shared by the song-title, it seeks to defy authority, and shares the sentiment with eerie atmosphere, occasional trap beats, and soaring authority. How “insubordinate” is structured is brilliant, and keeps focus with it’s shifts and turns of sound. The screams that fade out work well on the track, as well as the backing tones that drift in and out. Peaking at its bridge, the drum thuds and explosiveness of “You’re fucking better off dead” rules, and there’s something genuine there, and the vocals are stunning.
So I kind of feel a little petty when I say that I feel there’s something missing, specific to the lyrics/vocals. The chorus isn’t clearly enunciated, so despite many listens to date (and enjoying the song), I still have moments of “What’s he saying again?” and needing to look it up. In the sharing of the ‘story’ behind the song, I also get tripped up on the ideas driving it. I’d assumed a relationship dynamic of two people. So then a “we” that would avenge something showed up, it threw me into a bit of confusion and it distracted from the song, musically speaking. Even from a wider context, I felt stuck on the concept and my head was a giant question mark and it detracted from just being with the experience.
Regardless though, the sonic package is neatly tied up with a gritty and dirty trap ending, and despite my preferences to fully feel and understand, it’s clearly a sick song, and has a great video too.
Released earlier today, “pariah” is another huge and full-bodied song, but is also another that came across as cryptic to me. The centrepiece idea of there being someone lost – actually, two people lost; one that has passed away and another feeling lost in that aftermath? – was apparent, but I wanted to understand more.
Deciding to go by feel revealed mental imagery of someone lost in thought and a hazy fog of grief, while gut punches of riffs strike, reflecting pain or other difficult realisations. Echoing and distant, the question ‘What happens now?’ came to mind while I was listening and attempting to be in the protagonist’s shoes.
Defeated and perhaps on the edge of sanity, “pariah”‘s second verse reinforces their inability to see out of their fog of existence. While the chorus practically tosses them around, seeming to try to wake them up to the beauty around them while their monochromatic world hums neutrally on. A refusal akin to ‘Nope, I’m done’ was palpable, and “pariah” was beautifully sung and expressed, was strong musically, and had an easy structure to it.
But again some of the lyric phrasing didn’t make immediate sense to me and was therefore a little jarring. It had me feel like dysfunctional would be better shared with an introduction of description of each song, because with the song as it was, there was some kind of disconnect or similar that kept taking me out of the experience of it. Would this occur with more listens and more familiarity? I don’t know.
Moving onward, “s.a.d” proved to be contemplative and hazy, seeming pensive in its tones and gentle beats. Pretty and dreamy, I understood it as being reflective upon another, and it set a scene of being lost in memory and disconnected from reality. For me there was a vibe of ‘I can’t reach out to you anymore’, and I took this to be referring to a former lover.
In contrast to this dreaminess, the oomph and eerie high melody swirling around at the chorus was unexpected and great. Unsure what to focus on, it feels like it captures some overwhelm, and does a good job of doing so. I wondered if a second voice was added at the second verse, creating the ‘scene’ of a conversation where they speak about how things used to be.
The kickass chorus and subsequent unexpected wildness at the bridge rules. Unexpected, the noise and distortion is followed by a slick riff and screams, before drifting into a foggy landscape again with tenderness. Beautiful, it had me really picture and feel a full and real relationship – not a made-up one for a song. It’s never as simple as ‘we’re over’ and being permanently pissed off, right? There’s always moments of softening and remembering the good things in between hating them and knowing what happened was damaging, and that’s what I take from this. The noisy and chaotic chorus inspired me to feel more turbulent and uncomfortable.
Dark of mood and circular of mind courtesy of riffs, the dense “chasing safety” booms heavily from the outset. The vocals have a quality of being hard to grasp, like shadows, and I feel that this is deliberate. I understand the song as coming from a friend who’s wanting more for the person who is in “chains”.
With heart-quickening pace at times, the track also features grand and broad choruses where the difficult but necessary climb out of the relationship is called for, with the friend as their guide. The influence of Zachary Britt is most clearly heard at the chorus and bridge, and how both are vocally expressed.
Concern grows at the second verse with further force, and dark assertion leads to a blistering yell of “I just want you to feel safe”, while a circular riff oozes alarm and urgency. These elements of character, the layers as well as the paring back of them do a lot to endear me to “chasing safety”. I’m completely unphased by orchestral elements positioned close by a trap beat outro. It’s sick.
And speaking of endearing, “nothingwithoutyou” takes the cake. As already mentioned, I’ve thrashed this perfect song. I fell for its really honest capture of a relationship where murky waters of deception and inadequacy form the eggshell carpet below them. It should be noted that even adoring this song, it took some time to get my head around it. It was only after reading a quote from the band about the inspiration behind it that it hit home in meaning as well as sound.
Cleanly and clearly, we matter of factly hear how someone has been manipulated and abused by someone, and the confusion that this has left them in. Unclear whether it’s capturing the moment as it happened or replaying the incident in their mind on a loop, I enjoy the substance “nothingwithoutyou” seems to have, in all of its horrifying and unsettling nuances, or spoken and unspoken moments. But as another case of needing more enunciation, I also still had to look up the “I was yours” part to clarify the lyrics.
Frustratingly, “smoke signals” didn’t evoke much from within me, and came across as a relatively middling song. I appreciated its vocal rhythms as well as the “You put me out like a cigarette” line, and the metaphor of smoke and fire. I was desperate to understand what this was about.
With more relistens, I noticed the chiming and downward sense of dread, wondering where they might be headed. With nothing left, it seems that the protagonist is looking toward someone that ruined them to fill their emotional cup. Blasting choruses encase the smouldering shell of a human being who is reaching out for something solid.
It’s tough, right? Because music is a personal creation, with someone putting their experience to sound in a way that makes sense to them. It’s tough to even ‘assess it’ or critique it at all, with purely my subjective experience to navigate me through. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter if only the lyricist understands what the song is about, but it sure enhances my experience of a song if I’m right their beside the creator and feeling what they were feeling at the time, and there were many missed opportunities of that here.
Final track “affinity” goes a way toward saving dysfunctional in terms of emotion though, with haunting promise carried in its lightness. I found it pretty with its harmonies and floating ethereal vibe, and what seemed to be remembering of sweeter times. I felt the solid ballad, and its drums added to the internal messiness. Climbing and hitting impressive emotional peaks, “affinity” is well placed in its furious refusal to let someone go at the end of the EP.
While my high hopes for dysfunctional aren’t anywhere close to being dashed, they might be a little bruised due to the points I’ve mentioned about understanding and feeling. It’s not a bad thing that this isn’t an EP of “nothingwithoutyou”‘s on repeat though, because this debut showcases quite a range of sounds, styles, and energies from the four piece. There’s undeniable talent here, and the production behind the EP is great (to my ears anyway), and I don’t think it’d take much to have this solid EP be an absolute knockout release that’d put alt. deservingly on the map.
Wowing of sound, production, and instrumentation, this is an incredible debut release. alt. feel unlimited in what they could do next.
I'd have loved to feel and understand far more of what's being shared through 'dysfunctional'.