With shiny diamonds and tarnished gold comes bittersweet emotions…
I got into Idle Hands around the release of their debut album Mana back in 2019 via the traits of the almighty YouTube algorithm. Having no prior bias to this band certainly helped in becoming an immediate follower to their cult right after listening to the first two singles because if I had taken the time to do some research before spending valuable time on them, the mixed opinions concerning their “metalness” might have had an influence on my clicking behavior.
Seriously, I really don’t give much of crap whether this band is leaning more towards this or that – this is still gothic music to the core, exactly how I want it – the production sounding ocean-deep and crystal clear, so clear in fact, that you can actually hear the tears running down your make-up smeared skin while you’re questioning the futility of your very existence. Yes, the lyrics are still kind of angsty and let’s say – extremely adequate for the genre that they’re playing, but the way that Gabe Franco is letting you know about your imminent demise continues to be very fruitful.
Fruitful enough to deem autotune software unnecessary, right? Well, no, not according to Unto Others (aka Idle Hands – they were forced to change their name in 2020) because the modern plague of studio optimization had to hit them as well. The moments where the software is used in excess are also the worst of the album (the chorus of “Little Bird” remains quite hard to stomach, even after many listens) and could have been avoided altogether. Yes indeed, for all the critics out there, Gabe doesn’t have a super-dynamic range and he will probably never be Freddy Mercury (get over it!) but the unique timbre in his singing voice and the rough, commanding barks are this band’s trademark by now and literally nobody needs to hear his vowels stretched into artificial heights where they don’t belong.
While Silva’s guitar work and its effect-driven, sparkly dimension remain a constant attraction, the lack of more advanced and longer soloing that was most present and pleasant on their debut EP hurts a bit, especially since quite a few of the compositions do leave enough room for additional adventurous explorations.
Strength has different…strengths, though. The amount of variation between songs has been expanded noticeably; the opening track “Heroin” is probably the heaviest banger this band has ever recorded both in terms of pummeling rhythms, forceful riffage plus comparatively aggressive vocals (probably Gabe’s crowning achievement so far) and its three follow up tracks are all fantastic and no slouches when it comes to gain either, staying mostly in the heavy metal corner of the genre while never neglecting their dazzling sense for memorable hooks and intense harmonies, even within a thrash-oriented context. The middle of the album then drops the intensity quite a bit and tries to approach the listener from a more 80s-goth rock perspective with the last third of Strength basically operating as a mixture of both stylings. The lack of steam and the slightly vacuous compositions in this midway of Strength do bring it down a bit, as “Destiny”, “Little Bird” and “Why” don’t ever come close to jumping over the high bar that Unto Others have set for themselves in recent years, with “Why” being the least impressive song they have ever made. I still can’t remember most of it after 20+ listens, despite it being the shortest track on any of their two full-lengths. Pure filler – something they haven’t had before.
The turnaround ironically happens with the most unorthodox offering, the Pat Benatar cover of “Hell is for Children”. I know this one is being discussed a lot, whether it should be here or not…but to me, this is an extraordinary rendition of an early 80s classic that goes beyond just honoring the original. Starting off as a stripped-down doom power-ballad highlighting Gabe’s eccentric croons, it later morphs into quite a fast-paced gothic hard rock anthem with both his powerful singing and Silva’s restrained, but soulful fretboard wizardry fighting for their place in the spotlight.
From here on, it’s all plain sailing – Strength remains a highly enjoyable record with “Summer Lightning” and the title track sharing the crown for the finest song on the latter half of the CD, albeit for different reasons; the former is a lesson in melodic, post-punk-driven songwriting, as it’s highly accessible and emotionally gripping without introducing all-too-obvious pop-formulae, despite using Gabe’s most gentle delivery in a power ballad format. The title track does very well in representing a summarizing melting pot of all ingredients offered on this record, since it features the dramatic soundscapes of the more restrained elements of the album’s center without wasting the potency of well-written lead guitar tacklings and heftier vocal barks, with additional doublebass attacks to further accentuate the range of dynamics on Strength.
In the end, Strength did not hit me quite as hard as Mana did when it came out. Mind you, the superior, multi-layered production floored me from the start but most of the songs didn’t quite reach for my black heart as much as I had hoped. But with larger amounts of reruns comes greater pleasure as this one definitely takes a little more time to fully blossom. I guarantee that your patience will be rewarded though, as some of these album tracks are among the best material this band has ever written, it’s just a bit distressing that it also contains a few of their worst. With all that said, Idle Hands/Unto Others remain the finest outfit in this current gothic rock/metal climate.
The score: 87 out of 100.
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