It’s been a long three years since the Bedford outfit’s debut LP Priorities. I always saw Don Broco as a solid yet unspectacular and slightly generic group, following the groundwork laid by pop punk stalwarts You Me at Six with a slightly heavier sound. They had some great songs on the album, but nothing was that good.
2013 saw the release of critically acclaimed You Wanna Know, an absolute banger of a track that, for the first time, made the band stand out to me. The chorus was possibly the catchiest of the year, with both lead vocalist Rob Damiani and drummer/vocalist Matt Donnelly showing significant improvement. The band had improved substantially, and seemed to be moving further away from the post-hardcore sound they had originally crafted for themselves. With Damiani proclaiming he wanted to significantly change the musical output of the band, the band look to be moving to a much more accessible sound.
The most noticeable aspect of Automatic is the R&B, funk and pop influence throughout the album. Opener Superlove starts with a quick 80s-style riff, going straight into typical Don Broco verses. The chorus is where the true changes in style become apparent: the falsetto vocals from Donnelly; the slap bass; the lyrics imploring you to ‘levitate’; and the stuttering instrumentation towards the end all give off a retro-pop vibe. The band do it very well, and the style suits their lyrics – but this will undoubtedly split their existing fan base.
New bassist Tom Doyle has obviously had a huge part of the song writing process this time around. Their previous bassist was by no means bad, but on this album it truly jumps out and grabs your attention. Funk-infused title track Automatic is crammed with slap bass, whilst the self-indulgent falsettos and simple (but extremely effective and catchy) chorus make this what is probably the best song they’ve ever written. Guitarist Simon Delaney admirably keeps up, providing some great funk, rock and R&B riffs in songs like What You Do to Me, I Got Sick and Let You Get Away.
The real stand-out, though, is the vocal work. As noted earlier, both vocalists have upped their game, and have been allowed to indulge themselves and flourish within the new genres they have experimented with. There’s still a post-hardcore element in the vocal arrangements in the chorus, with a standard call and response technique used a fair amount throughout the record, and with the production differentiating the vocals generically. Damiani’s low, smooth and sometimes sleazy tones work and contrast really well with the more standard style of singing (in British pop punk) from Donnelly.
The record is fairly consistent in quality throughout, though it does falter in some respects – some songs simply aren’t that good. Fire sounds too much like a One Direction song, and both Keep on Pushing and I Got Sick stick out like sore thumbs by simply not being particularly interesting. The lyrics are also very hit and miss, with the standard Don Broco approach bordering between sarcasm and sleaze. They’re never going to win any awards for sophisticated lyricism, although their style of music doesn’t really call for complex writing. It’s the lack of development that’s the issue: they’re still singing about the same things they were an album ago, and it gets a bit boring. The constant reliance on repetition to create the core of each song vocally would be fine if it was used slightly more sparingly, but almost every song does it; it’s starting to get old.
Overall, Automatic is still a really good album. The band took a big risk changing their direction this way – they could alienate long-time fans with this record. It errs very strongly on the side of radio pop rock, flaunting just enough heavy guitar on some tracks to stay within the realms of pop punk. Whilst the end result of Automatic is fine from a quality standpoint, the band need to put some serious thought into their identity – do they want to move to the mainstream or go back to what they know best?