A band changing their sound always incites intense reactions from long-time fans. Some recent examples include the reactions to the softer, more serious tone Bring Me The Horizon struck on 2015’s “That’s The Spirit” and the more mainstream pop direction Fall Out Boy’s 2015 release “American Beauty/American Psycho” went in.
Set It Off has also changed as they’ve mostly departed from the angrier, darker themes explored on 2014’s “Duality”. On 2016’s “Upside Down”, they’ve gone in a more upbeat, pop-influenced direction, but fans need not fear the change. “Upside Down” is a fun, exuberant album that is true to its title as it really does flip the band’s sound upside down.
This is a great thing because not only has the band found their sound, but everyone in the band also got to revel in their specific talents. There’s also ample experimentation with things such as rapping, different guitar tones, adding more piano in and new ways to use vocals.
Fans will get a taste of the band’s newfound exuberance on the first track, “Something New”, which was co-written with All Time Low’s Alex Gaskarth. As the title suggests, the lyrics are all about forcing yourself to do something out of your norm: “I've been stuck in my head wondering/what's it gonna take to break the mold/I'm searching for something/like fire, like lightning/I used to think was uncontainable…” which eventually leads into the pre-chorus/chorus: “so let me show you/something new/I need/a little revolution/this could be/like a revelation/make you see/that a change is overdue/and I'll show you something new…”
Musically, the song starts with a build-up and then a joyful “ba-da-ba-ba-da” that leads into the main vocals. Maxx Danziger’s drums shine on this song as well, as the powerful, tight sound echoes the sentiment found in the lyrics.
“Uncontainable” is undeniably the anthem of “Upside Down” with its horns and Carson’s soaring vocals opening the song. It was destined to be used as a sports theme and, in fact, has been covered on the music section of ESPN’s website. The chorus especially lends itself to sports: “we’re taking the crown/we’re taking it now, yeah/he-ay-ay/ we never look back/we’re uncontainable…”. The song isn’t all about sports, though (although the members of Set It Off are wrestling fans). The song was also written about the members realizing that the only thing holding them back was themselves and then overcoming that.
“Life Afraid” is another celebratory song in both lyrics and music. It leads off with two quick bursts from a violin and then launches into a lively beat that’s impossible not to dance to. The backing vocals and the horns are also a nice touch, as they only add to the atmosphere of the record.
The lyrics are just as positive. Take the opening verse: “I/I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired/and letting all these negative thoughts collide/why/betray my mind/when I know the control is mine./Got no time to sit on the sidelines and watch ‘em play…” and then the chorus “I’m alive/I’m breathing today/I’m alive/just dying to make/a good vibe/I’m still in the game/and I won’t live my life afraid, hey!” and it’s impossible to feel down after listening to this song.
The band first played “Life Afraid” live at the 2016 Vans Warped Tour. There’s a part of the song that has both male and female vocalizing clearly meant for crowd participation. Set It Off did exactly that with that section during their Warped Tour sets and got an enthusiastic response back. This song is one of this writer’s favorites because of its celebratory, fun and positive nature.
Nowhere is the new direction more obvious than on track four, “Upside Down”. The lyrics are literally about turning a frown upside down and seeing the bright side of things even if they aren’t going well. It would be easy to dismiss this song on the basis of the almost obnoxiously happy piano running through it but the lyrics, again, come in and connect everything.
Set It Off is a band that’s had to overcome a lot in their eight years of existence and would have every reason to continue the dark direction their previous albums took, but they challenge this notion and themselves on this song in particular. There was subtle use of horns on “Duality”, but “Upside Down” goes for that sound full-force as there’s a prominent horn section toward the end.
“Want” is this writer’s least favorite song on the album, mostly because of the way the chorus is sung and because it feels out-of-place after “Life Afraid”. This one is about rushing into a relationship with another person and then realizing that it’s not what you want and saying you can’t commit right then instead of later, when deeper feelings are involved. There are some gorgeous vocal notes when Carson sings “to you…” toward the end of the song that need to be listened to at least once, but preferably more than once.
“Diamond Girl” – One of the best things about Set It Off’s music is their ability to tell stories in every one of their songs, not just one or two. This one starts off with a tale of cheating and ends in a sweet story of the narrator waiting to show the girl she can trust him and saying he doesn’t understand how the other guy let this “diamond girl” go. The understated instrumentation and horn flourishes allow Carson to both showcase and experiment with his vocals.
“Tug of War” music-wise is like the sound of “Cinematics” and “Duality” had a baby. The main guitar riff sounds how a tug-of-war feels. It’s about the same person or situation that “Swan Song”, off 2012’s “Cinematics”, was about as it references the song in “Tug of War”: “I’ll be damned if I sing another ‘Swan Song’”.
The lyrics tell a story of a woman who thinks it’s okay to come into the narrator’s life, leave with no explanation for an extended period of time, and then come back as if nothing changed. The narrator decides he’s sick of her playing with his mind so he, as the lyrics say, decides to let her go for good.
The rhythmic “ah-ah-ah-ah’ in “Admit It” adds such a haunting vibe to the song. The song is about when you know someone is being ridiculous in an argument or other type of conflict and you wish they could see it too. You can feel the pain in Carson’s vocals, especially that last clean but held “free”.
“Hypnotized” is as close to “Duality”-era Set It Off as the band gets on “Upside Down”. When a song is angrier than one of Set It Off’s angriest songs in recent memory, “Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing” (off “Duality”), you know you’re in for a wild ride.
This song is about someone who constantly lies and tries to take things that don’t belong to him or her and playing the victim while doing it. Carson succeeds in experimenting with rapping in the first verse as this writer got a major “The Real Slim Shady” vibe while listening to these lyrics specifically: “I’m sorry, did I just make you feel upset?/Wanna add a habit and light about 30 cigarettes? (You should)/You’re only mad about the fact that I put a light to you/Basically tracing paper when all we see is right through you!”
This is where the band’s talent for wordplay and lyric writing comes in: “and now you’re headed for the derail/liar, liar/cover up your tracks again/we’re all aboard and it’s a scorcher/fire, fire/burnin’ up your back, your sin’s your torture…”
The contrast between the high and low notes of the piano also keep a foreboding feeling going throughout the song. For anyone who’s turned on by songs with a lot of emotion or just straight up angry songs, you’ll enjoy this one.
“Never Know” is another song signifying the new uplifting direction: it’s a song that basically tells listeners “don’t listen to those people who doubt you or tell you your dreams are stupid, they have no idea what they’re talking about”. There needs to be more of that in the world and less “you know that’ll never work”. The tone of the song is set by guitarists Dan Clermont and Zach DeWall as well as commanding drums from Danziger. The backing vocals round out the song and make it a song that’s destined to become a summer jam.
“Crutch” is highly relatable as it’s about being used as an emotional crutch and how horrible that feels. That feeling is even worse if you care about the person and you know they don’t care about you– you’re just an object to them. The song follows the struggle between knowing this “relationship” needs to end but also wanting to enjoy the “high” that comes along with it.
“Me W/O Us” was this writer’s instant favorite. The instrumentation alone, from the main guitar riff to the understated drums, is enough to lure the listener in. The song is Carson talking to his girlfriend, detailing the difficulties in dating a touring musician. Lines like “they’ll try to drag my name through the dirt/but if you don’t mind a little mud/no one gets hurt...” give depth to the song. The sultry vocals, especially on the section “show you who is your man”, bring home the seductive nature of the lyrics and may even have you fanning yourself a bit.
Stream immediately: “Me W/O Us”, “Hypnotized”, “Admit It”, “Uncontainable” and “Life Afraid”.