London four-piece Fresh have blazed back into the UK-pop-punk-consciousness with their third album, Raise Hell. The Mic's Hal Hewlett gives his thoughts
Up until now, I’ve been pretty middling on Fresh. This London-based, pop-punk quartet have been playing in this musical sphere since their debut album in 2017, and have released two albums since - 2019’s Withdraw, and their new release, Raise Hell. Coming into this album, I identified Fresh as a band that had solid, catchy songwriting and clear musical talent, but might not always get past the pitfalls that can make modern alternative music sound a little boilerplate. Their new album, however, is a great achievement for the band and a very strong sign of their continued success - carving out a place in the modern UK alternative landscape all for themselves.
Before we get into a song-by-song breakdown of Raise Hell, it has to be stated - the vocal performances on this record are very, very good. It’s evident from the first track to the last. Kathryn Woods brings a brilliant energy to every single track, going from wistfully smooth to brutally terse whenever the mood of the song calls for it, a quality that is especially important in a record where so many songs are so intensely personal - I don’t see songs like Babyface, Our Love and Fuck-up working as well without a strong vocal lead to tie them together, so it’s a very good thing that Fresh have one.
"Fresh make it very clear that while it’s good to get emotional, you can’t stay in your own head about it, you need to put it out there and, if necessary, raise some hell."
The album’s two main drawing factors - Woods’ talent, as well as the band’s commitment to a more varied sound that goes beyond simple alt trends - is apparent from the album’s opener, Our Love. The song blends distorted, crunchy bass and instrumentals with spacey synths and backing vocals in a way that is honestly very impressive, tied together by Woods’ performance. It’s a very strong opener that forecasts all the energy and fun that is to be expected from this project as a whole. Morgan and Joanne, the lead single from the album, is a pretty catchy pop-punk tune, with some lovely sparkling guitar tones, that make for a short and upbeat lead, even if they're nothing groundbreaking. Babyface continues on this trend: a slower and more reflective song that relies maybe too heavily on its refrain and doesn’t give enough time to the skilled instrumental work on the back-end of the track. While Babyface is a fine song, it lacks some of the energy and kick that I’ve come to associate with Fresh’s best hits - perhaps a classic case of “fine, but not for me”.
Babyface does bring to the fore the second of the album’s two tones - some songs are spiteful, and some are wistful. The band does both justice, but I’ve always found Fresh to be at their best when they’re adding some irreverence to their emotionality, giving the song a bit of an edge. While Babyface might not hit the mark for me when it comes to Fresh’s more reflective and mellow cuts, it’s clear at other points on this album that they’re able to apply their style and some level of sonic uniqueness to those tracks too - Deer in the Headlights stands as a great example of Fresh’s energy and moxie working well on a song that might not immediately feel as though it demands any. And that’s certainly the word that I feel characterises the best successes on both this project, and Fresh’s previous ones; moxie, the sense that behind an emotional song there’s some real strength and nerve, a punk attitude that persists even when the song’s thematics venture out of that attitude’s usual stomping ground. As mentioned before, the album is filled with personal songs, all about “I” or “you”, songs that demand that level of emotionality that could end up at odds with Fresh’s irreverent attitude, but get along like a house on fire in the tracks on Raise Hell. This companionship between sadness and scorn is staring you in the face from the album’s very cover - a crying face, with the words RAISE HELL in black and red all caps right above it - Fresh make it very clear that while it’s good to get emotional, you can’t stay in your own head about it, you need to put it out there and, if necessary, raise some hell.
As far as Fresh’s more tonally subdued songs, Sleepover is certainly the most clear, a mellow, plucked tune about feeling better after a period of feeling down. It doesn’t have much to offer in the way of musical virtuosity or uniqueness, but it’s a nice mid-point song that gives its theme room to breathe, whilst throwing in some slightly more eclectic instrumentation choices. It feels nice, an affirmation that not everything Fresh does has to be in accordance with some kind of pop-punk mantra. The band keeps this feeling going for the next few songs; Fuck-up, Deer in the Headlights and the brief interlude of Pls Don’t Cry, all of which maintain this same atmosphere with differing approaches. The central riff of Fuck-up is a great base for the song’s instrumental flourishes and, as ever, Woods’ strong vocal performance makes for a song that reinforces its softness and vulnerability with genuine strength. Deer in the Headlights is definitely the best of this small trio of songs - although initially I thought that the big, grinding synth that crops up intermittently felt a little out of place, but it really fleshes out the song and adds some catchiness to the hook that I feel that Fresh have missed on in other songs. It’s a little simple, and mileage may vary, but even if it doesn’t strike you as it did me, the desire from Fresh to make sure there’s something distinctive is admirable.
"...you can almost hear the ear-to-ear grins through your headphones."
We All Know (Blondie) is a late cut that adds backing vocals behind all of Woods’ lines, which provides a great dimensionality to the track, and elevates it beyond its slightly simple structure and lyrical refrains. It’s indicative of the project as a whole that, even at points like this that might feel like the lowlights on lesser records, Fresh are committed to providing something different and something new rather than allow these points on the album to sort of blend together into obscurity. It, and its successor, I Know I’m Just a Phase to You, are both solid tracks that elevate themselves thanks to some experimentation with duet vocals from the band, a choice that’s heightened further by the differences in register due to a male/female vocal duo, adding a great timbre to these two tracks on the back end of the record.
The album ends with a very good closer, Why Do I, an upbeat and ear-catching song, featuring Woods reflecting on how better off she is after some failed connection. Under her victorious vocal refrains runs a rhythm of light backing vocals and shining lead guitar lines that provide a robust stage for Woods to stand on. The entire song vibrates with the aforementioned energy that characterises Fresh’s best work; even in a song that is essentially self-reflective, you can almost hear the ear-to-ear grins through your headphones. It’s irreverent, fun, so much so that they even mixed in the band cheering before the chorus. If there had to be one song to convince you of Fresh’s promise in the modern UK alternative scene, this would be it.
In all, Raise Hell represents a great achievement for the band - what it lacks in raw wildness it makes up for (and then some) in a deliberate energy that casts it as likely the band’s best work yet, a hopeful album that I can only hope attains the respect it deserves. Fresh stick to their roots while making sure to evolve sonically in a way that is charming and promising for their future. 2022 has been shaping up as an excellent year for pop-punk and emo so far, and even among strong competition, Raise Hell is a breath of Fresh air.
Edited by: Caradoc Gayer
In article and cover images courtesy of Fresh via Facebook. In article video courtesy of Fresh Punks via Youtube.