Set It Off showcases a diverse discography, from emo to pop rock and some strange mixes in between, yet it all flows together quite well. Their 2014 album Duality displayed the four-piece moving from their dramatic style (notably seen in their 2012 album Cinematics) to a more radio-friendly, upbeat pop rock tone. So where does their latest release Upside Down lead these musical chameleons?
Well, this new LP exhibits their poppiest work to date. And it’s not terribly a bad thing. Older fans who still cling to the fiery, gothic orchestral influences seen in Cinematics might not find themselves enjoying this new timbre, unless they are fans of pop music. Duality seemed to balance pop and rock outstandingly well, but Upside Down takes the pop side a step farther and the rock a step back.
The first taste we got of this new album was the lead single “Uncontainable.” “Uncontainable” brings all the vigor and energy we would expect from this lively group, but also introduces some new ideas, like a horn section. Horns were included in Upside Down‘s predecessor but now seem to be expanded upon all throughout this record. To say the least, in terms of style and lyricism, “Uncontainable” comes on as a knock-off Walmart brand version of Fall Out Boy’s “Irresistible.” It does bring its own flavor, though the similarities are undeniable.
The next single was “Something New,” which is also the opening track on the album. And rightfully so. The lyrics of this song detail SIO’s new approach and that they are moving towards a different sound. It does provide some cohesion between records, transitioning from the perfectly equitable pop rock of Duality to the poppier rock of Upside Down. Vocalist Cody Carson sings, “If there’s one thing in my life, That I’ve been fighting day and night, Well it’s the fear of changing nothing,” which depicts his struggle of doing the same style of music over and over. And fans can’t blame him. 8 years of emo pop rock can be fairly monotonous. However, does Upside Down prove to be any sort of improvement or step in the right direction?
As the record goes on, the poppy dance track “Life Afraid” really introduces a new trend with the tropical house inflections and buoyant bass lines. It also features the horns again to add a classy touch. However, after “Life Afraid,” which was the third single, the album starts going downhill. The remainder of the album can be summed up in one word: disappointing. Just when you think you might be getting to the good stuff, it simply lets the listener down. “Upside Down” tries to be a fun, sunshiney track, but comes across as a snooze-fest. There’s nothing monumental to point out or focus on. “Want” is a generic track with practically no true emotion, and the repetition of the word “want” starts to make it not sound like a real word at all. The song tries to be mysterious and edgy, but it’s ultimately forgettable. The guitar line of the chorus is excruciatingly plain with not much to dig into. There are slight flares of string instrumentation, but it’s not worth listening through the song just to hear SIO utilizing one of their trademark styles. The verses feel overly barren, and this statement also goes for the next track, “Diamond Girl.” … There’s not much else to say about this track other than it’s simplistically transparent and slightly ’80s inspired. Up next on the tracklist is “Tug of War,” which is actually an interesting tune to listen to. The percussion and actual use of guitars does offer some sprightliness in the middle of this catnap record.
And now back to the doze. “Admit It” sounds like a b-side from Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/American Psycho, and the left-field rap sequence, half-hearted lyricism, and lazy guitar work doesn’t make it any better. “Hypnotized” attempts to pack a punch, but the verses are still musically parched and the out-of-place rapping doesn’t exactly hit it home.
Opening up with a spirited guitar melody, “Never Know” actually stands out as one of the only deep cuts on this record. Arguably the least poppy piece, “Never Know” exhibits a dynamic chorus that truly grabs your attention, unlike the disheveled lullabies before it. “Crutch” follows in that vein, however, and is a bore to make it through. There’s really nothing to pick out about it. “Me w/o Us” tries to suffice as the album’s heartfelt ballad, but it’s just another impassive performance that doesn’t end the LP on any kind of high note.
Overall, Upside Down isn’t a completely terrible record, but it also isn’t a good one, especially in terms of Set It Off standards. These guys have proven on past projects that they truly have musical ability, but this latest release doesn’t expand those talents or push any boundaries. Yes, Set It Off did “something new” by incorporating elements of pop, but there’s nothing groundbreaking or even interesting about it. There’s very little life after the first three tracks, with the exception of the rare deep cuts buried under the monotonous snores of this slumber party. The lyrics seem void of any true feeling, and Cody Carson’s delivery doesn’t do it any justice either. Carson’s performance at times seems over-accentuated, like he was trying too hard to show off his skill, but it just doesn’t match up with the blandness of the topics. Ultimately, Upside Down scores a 5.5/10. As a long-time Set It Off fan, I am quite personally disappointed, but from the perspective of an outside, first-time listener who enjoys pop, this album wouldn’t be entirely reprehensible. For me, I’ll keep spinning Duality over this any day.
- Best songs: “Never Know,” “Tug of War,” “Life Afraid,” “Something New”
- Worst songs: All the other ones