Album Review | Aqueous' Burn It Down
Words by Thomas Rutherford
I’ll be honest, upon first listen, Aqueous’s new EP, Burn It Down, didn’t exactly blow me away. But, man, has it grown on me. I think that the EP didn’t initially fully resonate with me because it is quite different than any of the band’s previous studio efforts. For one, it’s incredibly short. In contrast with the band’s 2018 album, Color Wheel, which clocked in at right around an hour, the EP’s four songs amount to about fifteen minutes, about as long as some of the band’s singular songs. It also sees Aqueous embracing their more pop sensibilities. These are tightly written songs filled to the point of overflow with ideas that feature multi-instrumentalist/vocalist David Loss’s synth, bright, snappy riffs, and pulsing choruses meant to get the crowd moving. Aqueous has always worn their influences on their sleeve, taking cues from bands like Green Day, Queens of the Stone Age and blink-182 and melding them with jam. Here, these influences have never been more apparent and the whole vibe of the album almost sounds like blink if they came out in the mid-80’s. Thematically, the EP is also a bit of a departure. Earlier songs from Aqueous deal extensively with themes such as loss, confusion, uncertainty, the whole “mess we call life.” They deal a lot with coming to terms with what has come before in order to move forward. On Burn It Down, the band’s eyes are set firmly on the future, past be damned. And that’s the message of the album as a whole. Burn down the past to make way for the future, no more looking back. For Aqueous, that future is looking so very bright.
The EP opens with the eponymous “Burn It Down.” Beginning with sharp, poppy power chords courtesy of guitarist/ vocalist Mike Gantzer that are quickly accompanied by bassist Evan McPhaden rolling in, a pulsing dance beat from drummer Rob Houk, and Loss tying it all together on the synth, the song kicks off the EP with a head-bobbing, confident sense of joy. This is an anthem song, a smiling scream into the flames as they rise into the sky, taking with them all the shit that came before. The verses feature a call and response between Gantzer and Loss, that, while interesting, shows the first instance of what I feel to be the EP’s main detraction: it feels a little overproduced. Loss’s response is muffled, as if coming through a megaphone. With the call and response structure of the verses, I can understand the impetus to apply such an effect, but it comes off as unnecessary. This is a minor issue, however, as the song’s message and just overall determined sense of happiness take absolute precedence. When that chorus hits, everything else falls by the wayside. I can already see the crowd jumping on the balls of their feet, sending smiles shining upward as they light fires within themselves and burn it all down. It’s simple but so very effective with Houk switching to sixteenth notes on the high-hat, Gantzer sticking to the power chords, the bass amping up and Loss joining on guitar. The lyrics embody what the EP is trying to say. “Hey, now, let me out/ Set me free/ And burn it down/ It takes ahold of me.” This is the band finding freedom from what came before and celebrating it, holding it high and letting it shine in the firelight. After the second chorus, the band momentarily eschews the simplicity in favor of a funky, complex riff that I absolutely cannot wait to see live. It then builds into a powerful, soaring yet brief jam in which Gantzer seems to pull the notes right out of the guitar and Loss supports with traditional piano keys as opposed to the synth. This then leads into that chorus again and the song comes to a close.
Next comes my personal favorite song on the EP, the bluesy “Little Something to Me.” Beginning with a laid back, grooving blues riff that is swiftly joined by Loss’s synth, the song wastes no time grabbing attention. The verse starts quickly, this one featuring Loss on the vocals. The speed with which he sings coupled with that laconic riff, the steady bass, and solid, pounding drums create this cohesive dynamic that hits right there at the bottom of the neck and gets it moving. The verse features lyrics about not waiting for anything to happen but making it happen for yourself. Loss sings about the difficulties that this entails, the trips and falls, singing, “A little close to the edge/ But I’m feeling like a million anyway.” Making life happen the way you want it for yourself can never be easy but will always be worth it. There’s always the trials and tribulations, fires taking too long to start on cold nights. But if you’ve got good kindling, stick with that flint and tinder, man, and the fires will light. The verse, relatively short, leads into this massive, stadium sized pre-chorus featuring Gantzer and Loss working in tandem that sounds like it comes straight from a Queens of the Stone Age song that then gives way to the chorus. Following the monster lead in, the chorus is rather minimalistic, settling again into that laid-back groove from the verses. The chorus highlights the main theme of the song, keep those fires moving, do what needs to be done for you regardless of anyone else’s opinion. “It might not mean that much to you, but it means a little somethin’ to me.” It’s an important sentiment when dealing with the themes featured on this album. If you’re moving forward, you can’t let the perceptions or opinions of anyone else hold you back. Of all the songs on the EP, this one definitely feels the least produced but still features some added claps in the background throughout that, while definitely intended to influence some audience participation, again seem a little unnecessary. The chorus is followed by a short, but powerful solo before returning to the verse. The song then plays out much in the same way before coming to a close, ending as it began.
This is then followed by the synth-heavy, ‘80’s-inspired “Come and Go.” The song intros with the synth building slow, and rather darkly before holding for a beat then kicking off, spurred by McPhaden’s bouncing, effect heavy bassline, which is, in turn, wonderfully accented by Houk’s easily grooving drums. More so than any of the other songs on the EP, the rhythm section really steals the show on this one. Houk and McPhaden hold the song together, keeping the sprawling synths in line and on track. As with the others, there are definitely some instances of doing too much in the studio, however, on this one, I found the overproduced elements to be the most warranted. This song reminds me of something along the lines of Depeche Mode, synth driven, ‘80’s pop music and the effects seem much more cohesive than they do on others. This is a song dealing with life, growing up, growing away from people, people growing away from you. The first lines sung are “There’s an innocence in the air/ Breathe it in.” It’s almost as if to say, breath it in while you can because it won’t last. This is just a hard fact of life, a truth reflected by the chorus. The chorus really feels big here and I believe it’s because of the synth glittering off the rhythm section, Houk now moving to straight sixteenth notes and that bass line keeping things steady and moving. Gantzer sings “People come and people go,” followed by a sighing, descending bit of vocalization, this repeating twice. The sigh sounds like a lament, but also it seems to say, “that’s life.” It’s accepting that life changes, life moves on, forward, and with that inherent fact, not everyone is going to be able to stay. As the band moves forward, stepping out into the great unknown, the fantastic new, sacrifices are inevitable. As sad a truth as that can be sometimes, it is something that must be accepted in order to continue to move forward. Following the second chorus, the song moves into a very interesting bridge with Houk and McPhaden switching to a more straightforward approach in order to highlight Gantzer’s lyrics. He sings “If there was a better way/ you know that I would take it,” which reinforces the lamentation from the chorus, that if there was any other way, a way to do it without people falling by the wayside, he would. But it is how it is. The bridge builds up into a soaring, if meandering and rather melancholy solo before launching back into the chorus. One more solo, this time a bit higher, a bit more assured and the song ends.
The album finishes out with the powerful “On the Edge.” This song is triumph. It encapsulates all of the EP’s previously introduced themes only to burn them down in order to allow the band to rise up towards the sky and its stars, free at last. The song begins with a heavy, ringing power chord coupled with the shining synth and big, stadium-sized drums. From this intro, I was expecting a stadium rock anthem, in the vein of bands like Triumph or even Def Leppard. But the song quickly shifts into a more pop-punk kind of approach, with Gantzer playing a building riff composed of sixteenth notes that then transitions into a steady, driving riff that is highlighted by the synth. Loss takes the vocals on this one and, in the verses, sings of the hard times. The verse opens with “Feels like I’m going off the rails now/ Not sure where my head’s been at/ Another few drinks couldn’t get me down/ Any lower than I’ve been, baby/ On the ground.” It reflects a sort of stagnancy and the darkness that can accompany such a feeling. Nothing’s changing, so you drink, do what you can try to escape, to trick yourself into believing that the situation is different. And this can work for a time, but ultimately ends up making things worse. And that’s a frustrating feeling, a confined one. How do you break out? This song is that release, though, that celebration of finally breaking the chains. It is not the lyrics alone that tells the listener this. It’s the cohesion of all the band’s elements coming together to form hope, fervent, yet intangible. No matter how fleeting, as long as there’s hope, there’s a way out, a way to slip through the spaces between the stars and find your own place up there. After the verse, Aqueous’s musicality takes over with a soaring synth that seems almost whimsical, laughing at the absurdity of it all, while still moving ever forward. This then launches into the chorus, pure striving hope, almost desperate yet staunchly celebratory. Loss sings, “I’m seeing stars again/ I’ll have to meet you there/ Don’t bet on the wrong one, baby/ You’ve got no time to spare.” The chorus then breaks down, giving way to Gantzer’s confident, powerful, triumphant chord playing that overflows with determination. Over this, Loss sings “I’m feeling different than I ever have before/ I’m feeling like I’m on the edge.” I find the lyrics so interesting here as, just reading them, it could go either way. “I’m seeing stars again,” can mean two things. On one hand, it reflects a dizziness, a disorientation, that while, not necessarily unexpected when dealing with issues spoken about on the EP and in this song, also reflects a lack of control. On the other hand, which I put more stock in, is actually being able to finally see the stars again, as if they had been blocked by impenetrable, perpetual clouds, hidden in the blackness, but now the clouds have been taken by a great gust, pushed by some great will, so that the stars may again shine on down and beckon to those that might join them. The same goes for the phrase “on the edge.” It could go two ways. One, on the edge of falling, of spiraling out of control, the other, meaning on the cusp, on the edge of a breakthrough. The musicality is so hopeful that I have to agree with the positive readings here. But this duality, sort of uncertainty, is indicative of one of Aqueous’s greatest strengths as a band: their ability to pair lyricism and musicality in order to elicit extremely complex emotions. Just glancing at the lyrics, I wouldn’t be sure, but when paired with the music, I know this to be a song of triumph, of rebirth, of breakthrough. Following the second chorus, the song moves into a riff in which I can’t help but hear some of blink’s happier stuff within before moving into a soaring, if still brief solo, and then closing again with that powerful chorus. Interestingly, the last lines of the EP are “you’ve got no time to spare,” meaning, make it happen now. Only you can push those clouds. Only you can bring the stars back out. Only you can burn it down. You just have to get it lit. And so comes to a close a brief, yet complex and enjoyable if flawed effort from one of the jam scene’s most important up and comers.