“This is an album about happiness.” That’s the first thing you’ll hear in the teaser video for Unimagine, and the following two minutes tell a story about life, chasing dreams, and making those dreams reality, all set over melodic ambient synths and in Australian accents. On paper, it sounds like the sort of thing that could prove to be overly cliched and played out. In practice, it’s inspiring and mesmerizing. Combine the video with the fantastic debut Hands Like Houses released last year, and everything’s in place for the hype machine to build this new album up to the highest level. Luckily, the band follows through entirely, taking every criticism leveled against its debut and creating a record that shows true ability and progression.
From the first minute of “Developments,” two things are very clear: all of the musicianship shown on Ground Dweller is still present; and the band has learned how to display its abilities so that the instruments and vocals both have room to shine. There are plenty of great melodic guitar riffs, drum fills, and atmospheric synth bits, and the chorus brings all of it together with a powerful hook that drives Trenton Woodley’s always-impressive vocals home. The composition is extremely complex, but nothing gets lost; each part comes through clearly. Lead single “Introduced Species” continues forward with a massive, anthemic chorus and a flawless structure. Each part of the song is as memorable as the last, and the common complaints of indecipherable lyrics have no grounds anymore. That this was the first song released from the record is a no-brainer; it’s one of the best examples of how the band has improved in the past year. “Weight” features very strong lyricism throughout, and the interplay between drums and bass in the verses is executed flawlessly. The lines “I’ll write about what’s real to me when all I feel is make-believe, but I won’t say there’s nothing left, there’s everything, but just out of reach” embody the band’s philosophy expressed in the album teaser video, juxtaposing the desire to press on and pursue happiness, even while carrying “the weight of the world.” The song might not be the catchiest on the record, but it’s hard to argue with its overall message or the aggressive instrumental interlude that leads into the final chorus.
“Shapeshifters” continues the refined take on band’s sound, but it plays a bit too close to the formula to really stand out. As a single in isolation, it’s a powerful and driving song. There are plenty of positives, particularly in terms of the drumming, the breakdown, and the way that the guitar lines have a unique contour. In context of the rest of the album, the song falls a bit flat for want of something to switch the pace up. “The House You Built” comes as a refreshing change of texture, with interesting backing atmospheres augmented by harmonized vocals and more prominent synth parts and a bridge that uses acoustic guitars to create a completely different feel within the song. “A Tale Of Outer Suburbia” continues to add variety to the record’s layout, with its reserved verses providing needed space before giving way to a chorus that manages to be at once huge and restrained. The extended bridge builds up wonderfully before a well-placed drum fill kicks off a final chorus that manages to soar higher and carry more weight simply on the virtues of the lyricism that precedes it. It’s easy to see how this song could become a highly emotional staple in the band’s live show.
Drawing even further away from what the band has done previously, “Oceandust” is perhaps the strongest proof that Hands Like Houses is capable of more than the intricate and aggressive post-hardcore that made up Ground Dweller. Driven by piano and an extremely moving vocal performance, it’s an intimate song that serves as a sort of full-length interlude, with minimal lyrics and a brief guitar solo. Despite the song’s largely reserved instrumentation, Woodley allows the full power of his voice to shine through points, evoking intensity and passion in what might otherwise be an extremely low-key piece. When “No Parallels” opens with the lines “this is happiness, to be everything at once,” it releases the stress and concern of “Oceandust” with the sort of pure elation described in the album teaser and pulls the energy level back to level that the emotion demands. “Fountainhead” kicks that energy into overdrive with guitar and drum parts reminiscent of the rhythmic opening of Ground Dweller‘s “The Sower.” The way that the vocal melody in the second verse takes its own rhythmic progression is brilliant, and the song as a whole simply works, despite having a number of considerably different elements within its structure. This is the band nailing its sound down perfectly.
Dynamic and irresistible, “Wisteria” is on the fast track to becoming my favorite Hands Like Houses song. Full of fantastic guitar parts and the best chorus on the record, it’s expertly composed to ensure that each element shines through to its fullest potential. There are hints of Brendon Urie influences in the vocals, and the lyrics, though great throughout, reach the highest peak in the bridge: “But then September swept the overcast aside, dusting off the winter’s curse as she cut me through like knives. She whistled proudly her season’s song and showed me that I was alive all along.” I’ve tried to find something I don’t like about this song, but there is literally nothing to find. This song is that good. “A Fire On A Hill” closes out Unimagine on another high note, with its soaring chorus and cool, atmospheric verses. Though I was more a fan of the music video than the song on my first listen, the track makes considerably more sense in the context of the record. When the sweeping keys from the intro return to set up the expansive vocal harmonies in the last third of the song, the execution of that structure creates a huge release that allows the final chorus to flow and ring out in a way that truly feels complete. Unlike “Shapeshifters,” “A Fire On A Hill” is most certainly best heard in the context of the rest of the record.
The sophomore release always begs to be classified a “slump,” and a lot of follow-ups truly deserve that designation. However, Unimagine in no way belongs in such a category. The record takes a more focused approach on the band’s sound, without setting limits for how that sound can be applied. The second portion of the album in particular takes time to explore new territory, and it works tremendously; “Wisteria” and “Oceandust” and are two of the best songs the band has written to date, and both expand the sonic palette in different ways. At the same time, tracks like “Fountainhead” and “Developments” stay truer to the group’s core sound and are just as effective. The thing that really sticks out about Unimagine is the clarity present in each song. While I praised and still love the complexly dense and intricate atmospheric nature of Ground Dweller, I can understand how that record could get tiring and that the songs might run together if you aren’t paying attention. This time around, these guys have truly worked to ensure that each song on this album is unique and discrete, without losing sight of what made the band so appealing to begin with or failing to tie everything together. It’s not something that’s easy to do, but it’s executed masterfully on this record as the group grows both as musicians and as songwriters. In short, Unimagine proves that Hands Like Houses is not only already the best band on its label, but that they could potentially the best act in the entire genre.