Yes, I know I’m late to talking about this one. I also know that if I wanted to I could have voted to cover this record earlier, and I didn’t – it got to the top of the schedule organically, and that’s fine. And if any of this sounds like I’m not looking forward to covering this, I wouldn’t quite say that’s accurate – more that I’ve got a swathe of records that attracted a lot more interest, and… okay, might as well deal with this now: I don’t review a lot of pop punk, as you probably all know at this point. I don’t mind the genre fusion, it’s definitely catchy and can bring a certain verve and energy to spice up my schedule, but it’s not something I actively seek out the same way I will indie country or indie rock or black metal or certain strains of hip-hop. Most of this is because while pop punk at its best captures the electricity and firepower of both its component genres, there’s a whole lot of material that I just find okay without being truly interesting. And yes, a big part of this is songwriting, which can feel near-permanently adolescent, but another factor is that when the band does get older or wants to experiment towards power pop or indie rock or emo or just plain punk rock, the sound often gets more diverse and interesting – I’ve heard a lot of pop punk, don’t get me wrong, but a factor of that is a lot of the mid-tier bands really start to run together for me.
So what about Neck Deep, a Welsh group that broke out in the 2010s with some reasonably well-received EPs before signing to Hopeless for two albums? Well, I’d probably classify them as a prime example of what I’m talking about: a decent enough band that occasionally took some chances in composition, but the writing never really grabbed me beyond isolated moments of cleverness and they definitely wore their influences strongly, like Blink-182 and especially A Day To Remember – which makes sense, given the frontman of that group produced their 2015 album.
But shortly after that album was released their founding guitarist Lloyd Roberts left the band on ugly terms – replaced by Sam Bowden, a hardcore guitarist formerly of Blood Youth – and they connected with producer Mike Green, who you might recognize from behind All Time Low, Pierce The Veil, and a few of the poppier-leaning bands in this genre. Not a bad thing, and the band took a little more time to iron out the kinks, so this could be worthwhile, so what did I get from The Peace And The Panic?
Honestly, it’s pretty damn solid. Not exceptional or all that revolutionary in the genre of pop punk, but The Peace And The Panic has enough strong tunes and balanced subject matter to have a strong core and the experiments it does try mostly stick the landing. In other words, it’s the sort of record where I’m honestly thinking I’ll struggle to say much about it: if you’re familiar with the sound of good pop punk, you’ll know and recognize this.
But okay, since there are great songs on the album and there’s a noticeable gap between the best and worst, where could Neck Deep really step it up? Well, if you take a look at the instrumentation, there honestly isn’t a tremendous amount of room to change things up, at least on a compositional level: solid power chords, a rhythm section that can feel a little overweight on some songs like ‘Motion Sickness’ but for the most part compliments the melodies well, and frontman Ben Barlow showing off a familiar vocal tone that hits the mark between bratty and genuine earnestness, helped along by his choice to dip into a lower register that I honestly think he could use more often. And if you were worried about Sam Bowden stepping up to lead guitar… well, don’t, because when he gets room to shred or even just take melodic lead he really does deliver, with my personal favourite moment coming through in those trilling tones in the richer atmosphere behind ’19 Seventy Somethin’, a good enough song for me to ignore how the title was cribbed from a Mark Wills song from the 90s. And of course the band’s got a knack for a well-timed key change, which takes that slight warp around the noisier groove of ‘Happy Judgement Day’ into a major key and a killer final chorus. Now this inevitably raises the specter of producer interference from Mike Green… but honestly, it’s mostly minor, mostly with tracks like ‘Critical Mistake’ reaching Bowling For Soup levels of over-polish, or the drum machines slotted in for the hook on ‘Where Do We Go When We Go’ that were just unnecessary. But really, the blend of acoustic and electric tones does pay a solid dividend on ‘Wish You Were Here’, and the more jangling riffs of ’19 Seventy Somethin” and ‘Parachute’ definitely connect.
This takes us to content, and where I actually think Neck Deep probably hit their mark the most consistently, and it has to do with a sense of real maturity… well, as much as you could expect in pop punk, but it is here. In the space between records multiple members of the band lost their fathers, and that loss of a stabilizing force places the band in increasingly uncertain positions, only egged on by an increasingly deceptive political system at which Neck Deep take effective but rather shallow potshots. The greater story of this record is coming to grips with that instability between inner peace and real angst and grief, and while the strokes it paints are broad, they are effective. I like how ‘In Bloom’ has the frank realization that the relationship isn’t going to work until he can put the time to fix his own life, and as much as ‘Critical Mistake’ goes right to the line of Offspring-level obnoxiousness, it’s more exasperated at a relationship where he overcommitted to someone who doesn’t give in the same way, and it’s an acknowledgement he needs to hold himself accountable. And while ‘Heavy Lies’ definitely plays too basic for its own good on that hook – along with lines like ‘you’re better off with me’, the crux of this record comes with ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ’19 Seventy Somethin”, the first a lonely wish to recapture memories and reconcile real grief even as he rejects paltry assurances of it was ‘meant to be’ or that ‘he’s in a better place’, the second telling that life story and showing him step up to comfort his mother and celebrate that life, which is all he can be sure of in the end. And yes, ‘Where Do We Go When We Go’ might hit that point a little too obviously – the subtlety in the writing on this project can feel a bit spotty – but the heart and underlying maturity to look forward has real weight for me in a way that some pop punk doesn’t, all without tilting inwards into overwrought emo.
So yeah, I like this – straightforward with good hooks, solid performances, diverse without being messy, and with a solid thematic core that showcases an act that has real potential going forward, especially if they tighten up their writing to cut a little deeper. Again, I’m not sure I would put it among the best pop punk records, as there are a few moments that can feel a bit like filler and some lyrical and production choices could have a little more refinement, but for me, it’s a light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, especially if this sort of sound is up your alley. For me… acts like Neck Deep have their place, and they’re definitely a cut above average, so yeah, give this a look – solid stuff.