Cartel – Cycles

  • Bobby Gorman posted
  • Reviews


Cycles - Wind-Up Records

Back when Cartel first blew up on the pop-punk circuit with the release of their debut full-length, Chroma, no one could escape the buzz.  Even I got caught up in the craze and listened the heck out ofChroma.  It didn’t strike me as the most amazing album in the world, but like contemporaries AnberlinCartel is one of the few alt-based pop-punk groups to produce catchy, radio friendly melodies without coming across whinny or grating.  But then came their sophomore self-titled release.  Fans gave the band’s attempted reinvention luke-warm feedback at best, and in my case, I had simply moved past their initial fifteen minutes of fame.

So time passed, and I had all but forgotten about the Atlanta quintet.  But life has a tendency to come full circle, and sure enough I now find myself in the position of reviewing Cartel’s latest (and very appropriately titled) release, Cycles.  Not only has Cartel by chance showed up at my doorstep after years of neglect, but the band has also returned to the straightforward pop sound that initially won over legions of fans.  In fact, the opening verse finds vocalist Will Pugh pleading, “let me reintroduce myself… I’ve had a lot of time to think… and I’ve got so much left to do, but I’ll start with this song,” after which point the band launches into an bouncy, upbeat chorus chanting “Let’s go, Everybody, Tell everybody… Stand up with me.”

From here Cartel digs in deep, putting it all out there.  The next two tracks, “The Perfect Mistake” and “Faster Ride,” focus on big hooks and tight choruses.  It’s simple head bobbing pop-punk fronted by one of the few vocalists who can sing on the high side, but who also isn’t afraid to venture lower in the interest of balance.  In particular, “Faster Ride” boasts harmonies built from meticulously layered vocals absolutely key for building up explosive choral lead-ins – a very reassuring start indeed.

Furthermore, for a straightforward pop act, Cartel plays with tempo changes quite regularly.  Sometimes, like in “Deep South,” such instances feel forced, and after peeling back the bouncy tempo reveal the genre’s often-formulaic overtone.  At a slower mid-tempo pace Cartel feels far less genuine.  Thankfully tracks like “Only You” disguise the generic tone with acoustic contributions – although thanks to some borderline depressing lyrics I’m sure even those would start feeling tiresome should they become the norm.

But rest assured, the remainder of Cycles thrives on pure energy.  “27 Steps” stands out as a clear album highlight, aspiring to the apex of anthemic radio pop, elevated all the higher from an arsenal of gang vocals, backing “woahs,” and harmonizing vocalists.  They even recover from those first few gloomy moments with snarky, “if you could see me now” comments.

Cartel isn’t particularly unique among today’s staple pop-punkers.  But what they lack in originality they more than make up for in enthusiasm.  And now armed with the wisdom of their strengths, Cartel once again stands perched at the start of a promising career path.