Nothing is ever quite as challenging as an artist than a first impression. Sending that initial track, or the way new listeners hear or had heard you, that is a moment that really impacts how that person perceives you. It’s something artists overthink, but fans underrate. So, when I saw Male Tears’ video for “Hit Me” on Static Realms’ Absynth show on September 3rd, with its low-quality footage like the lost VHS of an 80’s Goth band and a fantastic track alongside it, I was instantly hooked.
This solo project from James Edwards, now a duo with Frank Shark, has been a strange one but one I have been keen on waiting for a full release on. Going back into the back catalog, I was not particularly wowed with his brand of New Wave with some darker influences and lyrics, but “Embrace Death” right before “Hit Me” was a point where it slowly began to click for me. Still, in between this and the next single, James found himself on Starfield Music alongside Vandal Moon, a cited influence, with an album on deck. I normally would be nervous for any artist not named Alpha Chrome Yayo releasing more than one album in the same year, but if this single was any indication, it could be a lot better than the debut. So, what did we get with “Trauma Club”?
Well, if there is one thing for certain, it’s that Male Tears has improved significantly. This is an album that has the goal to get you onto the dancefloor, and it does that without a doubt. James tosses aside the gimmicks of past records in order to deliver a much more straightforward performance. The end result is trashy enough to make The Glitter Band jealous, but fun and dark enough to make it an irresistible recommendation.
So, let’s first talk about the sound, as this is probably the biggest point of improvement. We are no longer talking about a New Wave act here; this is full on Darkwave. Make Tears finally managed to pick up some darker and heavier grooves, and while some influences of Synthwave and New Wave are certainly there, they don’t undermine the dark grooves and often find their way to enhance the track. Going back to “Hit Me”, the groove almost rings of Dark Italo alongside the stab chords, while the haunting synth lead that gets bigger in the hook keeps the track’s atmosphere tense.
However, even alongside that track’s fine qualities, it feels like a side note to the fantastic sounds of tracks like “Belladonna”, “Model Citizen”, and “Cry… Forever”. These tracks really bring the bass lines to their tightest, and a variation of synth leads them into wild directions. “Belladonna” rides close to Black Celebration-era Depeche Mode, “Model Citizen” brings rave stabs alongside the Boy Harsher-esque bassline with a constant buildup and even a key change on the hook, while “Cry… Forever” stacks a soft Trance-esque lead on top of the Darkwave bass and the synth that matches it with a constant set of evolving melodies. Even if it’s the obvious production highlight, these tracks are really close in quality.
The instrumental closer “AM” also holds forward with the clanking percussion and the ethereal buildup, most likely a nod to the Cocteau Twins. It bookends fairly well alongside the opener and title track, “Trauma Club”, which builds upon its main melody throughout with a half-step beat and a whirling set of arps. Not as crazy as the rest of the album, but a nice, atmospheric setup before the rest of the album. Even the weakest track here, “No Reflection”, picks up a little with the arps and the subtle leads, though it doesn’t pick up enough throughout to hold my interest for almost 7 minutes.
The other massive improvement here is the vocals. Before I go into a new release, I always go back into that artist’s back catalog, to understand the artist I am getting into and to understand their progression artistically. My constant issue, no matter what it was, James resorted to these horrible vocal gimmicks and inflections that did no favors to him. This album rewrites James’ entire vocal range and proves him to be a much stronger vocalist, one with not just a ton of variation, but a lot of charisma. “Hit Me” pulls a solid Robert Smith impression without sounding like an outright clone, “Trauma Club” takes a more crooning vocal in the vein of The Frozen Autumn and The Crüxshadows, and “Belladonna” is somewhere between Ian Curtis and Robert Rowe. Where the vocals truly shine though is on “Model Citizen”, where the aforementioned charisma is turned up to 11 for an almost comical performance if the more subtle twists were not as apparent. This is much more menacing, akin to 90’s Goth classics like Bloodsucker and Allegedly Dancefloor Tragedy playing into more horror movie-esque roles, both contrasted by occasional suaveness and desperation in the hook. It’s more worth hearing than to read my writing about it.
Speaking of writing, the lowest point here and perhaps the least relevant goes to the lyrics. As I stated before, this is a very trashy album, almost in a sense a Pop album. This is meant to be played in clubs, to start parties, and as long as the grooves and maybe some hooks are there, it’s fine. It’s why “Cry… Forever” is a big highlight in spite of not having a lot of standout lines and a line or two that is very emo-leaning. “Trauma Club” is an obvious step above, as is the submissive focus on “Hit Me”. It almost plays itself a little too ridiculous with moments like the “Thank you, daddy” that stops the second verse, but it works in the vocal performance.
“Belladonna” plays more into the classic “Sad Goth Girl” trope I have seen in plenty of other Goth Rock and Darkwave songs, but the twists of lines like “At least I know she’ll never fade” and the frequent emphasis of “her eyes remain” leaves it a lot more twisted. This follows through with “Model Citizen”, where we get a model that gives herself to “a new delusion”, and we get a frequent switch between a panic and James’ twisted seduction. It’s intentionally silly when he declares “I will eat your soul, your pretty, pretty soul”, but for as much as you laugh, the twisted suave of the verses makes the claim a lot more real before it pulls away to the hook that claims that “the answer is the end”. While James claims that “if you think I’m tragic, you haven't seen me yet”, perhaps the most tragic aspect is how real the concept of the entertainment industry’s elites eating themselves alive to “look good when they fall” truly is.
Overall though, this was as good as I had hoped it would be. Compared to previous Male Tears records, James managed to comb through his best and worst elements, and curate them into a short but sweet Darkwave album that brings the sound to modern day. Solid 8 for me and a definite recommendation. For those getting into Darkwave and are more into genres like Synthwave, as I am sure plenty of Pop Art readers are, this is one of the best places to start in the more modern sound of Goth. I could even see this turning on new listeners into the genre. If nothing else, plenty of tracks from this album will fill up the Goth clubs, and if I find myself in one of them, I will happily be on the dancefloor.
Best Tracks: “Cry… Forever”, “Model Citizen”, “Belladonna”, “Hit Me”
Worst: “No Reflections”