“Originality, I give up” screams Dawson Scholz on “The Print.” After two years since their last album, all band members leaving except for him, The Ongoing Concept returns with new members (Andy Crateau – guitar, vocals; Cody Rhodes – drums; Ian Nelson – bass) and their third full-length.
I have an unpopular opinion to confess: I didn’t like Handmade all that much. Sure, it was beyond impressive that the band made their own instruments, and songs like “Amends” and “Unwanted” are very catchy, but I don’t find myself returning to the majority of songs. Saloon is quite a different story, perhaps showcasing The Ongoing Concept at their most aggressive, whereas Handmade was a bit more tame. You might be inclined to think that I’m about to suggest that Places is the perfect synthesis of melodic and heavy elements taken from their past two LPs; this, however, would be mistaken. In a time when too many press releases in the hard music world echo that a new album is “both the band’s heaviest and most melodic,” The Ongoing Concept deviate and make their first true rock record.
And yet, there’s enough familiar here so as to not alienate long time fans. Like their other LP track listings, Places includes an intro (“Places”), an especially melodic song (“Bargain”), and a total length of less than 40 minutes. “Bargain” is a highlight, with its Bon Iver vocals at times and its soft radio rock catchiness. The screams are still there on just about every song, but they’re used more sparingly. Former vocalist Kyle Scholz even makes an appearance on “Spirit Lake,” one of the standout tracks from Places.
Musically, I think the most pronounced differences can be found in the vocals and the overall catchiness. Kyle was responsible for a majority of the screamed vocals on their past albums, but on Places, it’s mostly Dawson along with Crateau. Both hold their own pretty well, but neither of them are quite as good as Kyle, in my opinion. Kyle knew how to sound passionate and hit his notes at the same time, not to mention he made use of his vocal range. Sometimes Dawson’s high screams verge on the bizarre (50 seconds into “The Print,” for instance). Crateau’s vocals are stoically hardcore, and though lacking emotion, consistently adequate. All this being said, I generally liked the screamed vocals on Places, but it’s Dawson’s singing that really shines.
This is arguably The Ongoing Concept’s catchiest record. “Domesticated” is the best example of this, with its pop chorus and brass swagger. There’s something about every song here that is bound to get stuck in your head. “Shake It” reminds the listener of how to play a guitar solo, a lost art that has mostly been abandoned by studio musicians and sloppily left to amateurs at Guitar Center. “Off the Cuff,” a driving alternative rock number, is another standout. All of the musicians compliment each other really well throughout the album, and so, it’s difficult to elaborate on any instrument in isolation. I think that’s the secret to a superb band – when the mix of instruments sounds natural.
Even though the album finds the band at their catchiest, Places might also be The Ongoing Concept’s most serious work lyrically. The album has the simple yet clever writings of many of their past songs, though this time around it’s a bit more introspective and focused, allotting a fair share of attention to Dawson’s experience of losing his band members and making sense of this in the aftermath. From the tortured screaming of “I will never, ever leave you” (“Places”) to the depressed musings of “can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t do anything” (“Off the Cuff”), there is some warranted melancholy to be found. Not all hope is lost though, and this is most pronounced in “You Will Go”: “The places you have been make you who you are. You can make a difference now.” As well, Easter eggs are still in the repertoire.
Places completes The Ongoing Concept’s trilogy of full-lengths and it’s a great addition. It capitalizes on the rock oriented direction of Handmade but it’s catchier and better executed. The Ongoing Concept have successfully mixed pop, post-hardcore, and rock without becoming a “popcore” gimmick or something kitschy like that. While I noted earlier some disenchantment over the vocals, these complaints are so minor that I feel indebted to give this a 5/5; Places is hands down the best album I have heard this year. I suppose the best way to actually be original is to deny that you are original? It sure worked for this band.