I’d like to see if I can get through this review without using the phrase “Hot Topic”.
OK, maybe that was it. I’ll move on. After all, the infamous mall store’s name is not only lazy shorthand for easy-to-find cultural “rebellion”, but also a slur used by the non-freaky to dismiss all the “freakier” people by which they feel annoyed/threatened. The sort of people who are the likely fanbase for The Birthday Massacre, as it turns out. It was to this loyal fanbase that the band turned to fund their fourth Metropolis-released LP through a PledgeMusic campaign. I’m assuming the investors got what they were looking for in Superstition, though I also doubt anybody was surprised by it either.
All the elements of the previous records are present: spooky, jingling synth pirouetting about beneath ambient atmospherics and crushing walls of guitar. Lead singer Chibi’s high, girly la-la vocals skipping through it all with the lyrical flourishes of the dark-fantasy obsessed and romantically troubled. Birthday Massacre always put me in mind of a gothy orphan girl, all pigtails and striped stockings with a knife hidden in the stuffing protruding from the torn fur of her teddy bear. On the last couple of albums, 2012’s Hide and Seek and 2010’s Pins and Needles, there was an occasional satisfying sense of rage that meant each effort felt like the knife was being brandished enough to balance the sweetness and polish. On Superstition, however, it feels like they lost the knife almost entirely and the album is weaker for it.
Firstly, the ubiquitous synthesizers seem to have lost their spooky. There is a poppy lilt to them that has removed the sort of evil music box quality that leant their earlier work its sense of childlike menace. The beats (when not mired in gloomy balladeering) are imminently danceable. There are only very few moments of vocal aggression or nastiness, Chibi preferring instead an almost overwhelmingly monotonous sweetness in her delivery. If one looks beneath the trappings of darkness, it becomes clear that Birthday Massacre has become not an Orgy-like “new wave revival” band as they’ve been painted in the past. Indeed, without the guitars and with a change of lyrics, they could be performing in front of Cinnabon with Stacy Q or Debbie Gibson. Pull away the Edward Gorey print curtains and what we’re really looking at here is Mall-Pop Goth.
And yet, I can’t say I actually dislike Superstition. It’s lovely and polished and there are a couple of tracks that have grown on me with repeated listens. Album opener “Divide” is a good indicator of what’s to come for the nine tracks that follow. The synth is a smiley homage to late ’80s Top 40, lending energy to a track which is otherwise a pretty standard Birthday Massacre song. It must be noted however that the chorus sounds distractingly like that of Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know” and if you didn’t notice it before, good luck not hearing it now.
The middle of the album features its strongest offerings. “Destroyer”, while not as brutal as the name might indicate, is nonetheless one of the heaviest tracks of the record with prominent EBM-like electronics and a welcome flash of the knife in the form of a brief appearance of Chibi’s “evil voice”. Following two songs later is “Oceania”, probably the high point of Superstition and also it’s cheesiest, most anthemic piece. The drumming is pure esprit-sweater dance pop and the chorus (“These dreams of blood and devotion follow us here / These tears run into the ocean as we disappear”) could happily soar over the end credits of Krull or the like. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I mean that as a high compliment. Penultimate track “The Other Side”(yeah, I know) is also notable for its awesomely heavy stutter-step guitars and much-needed air of ominous darkness.
The rest of the album is largely bland but inoffensive, with mellow drones like the title track or ballads like “Rain”, the keyboards of which are damn near Vangelian in their corniness. And then there’s the obnoxious “Beyond”, which makes me feel like heading back over to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels until it’s Tiffany’s turn to take the stage.
Twelve years in, Birthday Massacre doesn’t seem to be changing or growing much. Superstition isn’t bad, it’s just kind of more of the same for them, and that’s a shame because it seems like they have enough talent and ability to produce more creative records. They have enough of a fan base that they can successfully crowdfund their albums and that’s great, but they’re not really going to grow that base if they don’t challenge themselves. And it’s going to require taking some creative risks if they want to go from reliable underground veterans to being a truly hot topic.