Album Review: Hollywood Burns – Invaders

Tight execution, solid sound production, and an exciting twist on the classic darksynth sound make Invaders a compelling creation. The album’s respectable running time is filled with worthwhile experimentation and unique stylistic choices, and Hollywood Burns delivers several riveting moments through the lens of vintage science fiction. Unfortunately, the album is oversaturated with symphonic compositions and deliberately cliched sound effects, causing the songs to blur together and suffer under the weight of their own theatrics. Despite the album’s showmanship and conceptual pizzazz, its entertainment value is fleeting, and attempting to hold onto the songs or remember them once the recording has stopped is like photographing a flying saucer: the result is always blurry and indistinct.

In music, as in all art forms, it is possible to accomplish a lot with very little. Hollywood Burns’ full-length album sometimes feels like the opposite. In the face of sweeping orchestral scores, densely composed instrumentation, and dramatic crescendos, it’s surprisingly easy to feel apathetic about it all. The recording is like an elaborate window display with mostly mundane items for sale, or a jewel-encrusted keepsake box with nothing but old newspaper clippings inside. Observing from a distance, it’s easy to feel drawn to the album and remark on its attractive character, yet the longer the album is examined, the more that initial sense of wonder slips away.

At its heart, Invaders leans on an established approach to darksynth that is closely reminiscent of early Carpenter Brut releases and Dan Terminus’ The Wrath of Code. Picture Carpenter Brut’s trilogy of EPs being invaded by rubber-faced aliens in flying saucers and you’ll be in the ballpark, though a straight comparison to other artists would be a disservice to Hollywood Burns. At its best, Invaders is more complex and frequently more rewarding than similar creations, and it has a different flavor thanks to the influence of science fiction films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, represented by dramatic orchestral sections and the prominent use of a theremin to generate the effect of hovering UFOs. The result is an exaggeratedly cinematic creation that feels bold, bright, and instantly engaging, at least when it first kicks into motion.

The album begins with “Opening Titles,” a brief intro that is purely symphonic in its design and calls to mind black and white images of men waddling through wooden sets in cheap rubber monster suits. The imminent alien invasion is declaratively signaled by the theremin, setting the stage for the first full song, “Black Saucers.”

Fans of Hollywood Burns’ First Contact EP from 2016 will be more than familiar with “Black Saucers,” though it’s arguably the finest entry on Invasion and deserves its spot upfront on the tracklist, even as a rehash. “Black Saucers” is an intricate and exciting piece that wastes no time leaping into a gritty, uptempo composition accented by phaser blasts and hovering UFOs. The classic darksynth foundation of the song is satisfying in its own right, and the many accents around it work commendably to build a stimulating piece that improves with consecutive listens. Shifting from full-bore instrumentation to quieter moments bordering on synthetic lounge music with groovy basslines and light piano notes, Hollywood Burns expertly crafts a piece that remains compelling for its duration. As a standalone track and the intro to Invaders, it’s just about perfect.

“Scherzo No. 5 in Death Minor” follows with a more strongly symphonic piece, offering another homage to vintage movie scores before opening up into Hollywood Burns’ endearingly odd brand of dark synthwave. Violin notes skip along the coarse rhythm while the theremin soars through the soundscape, conspicuously seeking out victims to capture and return to the mothership. Again, the immense level of detail in the piece makes it an engaging creation with many worthwhile moments, though a listener might be surprised to feel the first twinge of flavor fatigue as its dramatic string section roars its way to the conclusion. It won’t be the last.

A brief cooldown arrives in “Carnal Encounters of the Third Kind,” followed by a stretch of uptempo pieces stuffed with gritty synth bass, shimmering orchestral surges, and all too often, the whirring theremin hovering above it all. By the time the album hits “Bazaar of the Damned,” Hollywood Burns’ unique style has abruptly turned stale, and the track’s distinctly Middle Eastern flavor does little to mitigate the overexposure of the rest of the songwriting style.

Listening to Invaders begins to feel like a pizza eating contest: regardless of how appetizing the prospect seems at the outset, powering through six pounds of it causes a warm sensation to wash over a person’s face at the thought of another slice. The relentlessly lush compositions and interminable theremin begin to feel exhausting, a problem compounded by the distinctly less memorable and exciting songwriting decisions that represent later entries on the album.

As “Came to Annihilate” shifts into “Revenge of the Black Saucers,” it becomes difficult to find any meaning or significance among it all, and it’s soon hard to tell where one piece ends and another begins. Listening to three or four songs at a time is enjoyable enough, though the 11-track recording wears itself out with overly similar tracks that rely on alien sound effects for personality in their otherwise unremarkable compositions. Sitting through the complete album in a single listen becomes a feat of endurance rather than a joyful indulgence, as entries like “L’era Delle Ceneri” and “Came to Annihilate” are too straightforward to generate the same level of interest commanded by “Black Saucers,” and they never linger long in the memory.

The most memorable aspect of the recording is the prevalent use of the theremin, yet its inherently gimmicky nature and extraordinary overuse turn it from a unique and enticing creative accent into a burden on the album’s overall listening enjoyment. Same again for the rampant symphonic elements, leaving the spirited darksynth heart of the music to be swallowed up in the chimes and the strings and the relentless blasting of the death rays. It’s the carnival sideshow of darksynth music, and each trip through the funhouse mirrors and tilted floors makes it a little less charming.

The best way to enjoy Invaders’ remarkable nature is to pull out a handful of favorite tracks and listen to them sparingly, in which case the music has plenty to offer. The densely woven instrumentation, top-tier production, and signature use of vintage sci-fi film scores lends the album a singular musical identity that couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. It’s a frequently beautiful and impressive creation, one that is commendable for its unique approach to darksynth music. Yet behind its many bells and whistles — in this case almost literally — the music encourages escape just as much as embrace. It’s easy to love what Hollywood Burns has created, just not all at once.

Rating: 78 / 100 (Good)

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