A lot can happen in three years. One new presidency, seven new iPhones and thirty-eight days that the US government was shut down, for example. For FIDLAR, the days that have passed since 2015’s ‘Too’ have been some of their wildest. The Californian skate-punk group have had an impressive rise since their 2013 self-titled debut kicked off their open invite party. However the success of ‘Too’ found them charting in the Billboard 200 (124) and in the UK charts (45). For a band in their genre, this was unpredictable success. Not least for a band with an acronym for its name of: Fuck It Dog, Life’s A Risk.
The forty months that have passed since FIDLAR last released an album have been monumental. They have become one of the hottest festival bands, ripping up notable appearances at Coachella. Behind the scenes, personal lives have taken their toll. Singer and guitarist Zac Carper has embraced sobriety while dealing with break-ups, and this is reflected consistently throughout album three, ‘Almost Free’. Referencing their personal lives and the Trumpian society, FIDLAR’s latest is, in many ways, a varied and mature (so to speak) album. The drugs certainly have not left their systems – or minds – and ‘Almost Free’ is very much that: almost.
‘Almost Free’ is what would happen if r/politics made a skate punk record: messy, unproductive and very confused. Like an open discourse on social media, this is a mixed bag – there is some good, some bad and a whole lot of questions raised. So, the good: the four years spent on the sidelines have helped FIDLAR immeasurably improve their musicianship and maturity. Across the thirteen tracks, FIDLAR explore new subgenres and styles, all the while flexing their apparent musical chops. Be it the punk blast of ‘Nuke’ or the acoustic ballad ‘Called You Twice’, the Los Angeles group have made an effort to prove a point.
FIDLAR’s third album is by far their most intense listening experience. Much like the cheap beer they hold so dear, this will either make you spit it out in disgust or it will just about do. Their talent is more prominent on record here, unlike previous albums where the organised chaos was the selling point. Instead tracks like ‘Thought. Mouth.’ or the genuinely brilliant instrumental title track maintain a level of interest.
One point of interest is that FIDLAR have seemingly spent their absence focusing on cleaning up their act. The sound is more polished, the themes are less drug-centred (not entirely) and yet they are having a blast. ‘By Myself’ is a strong contender for FIDLAR’s best song. It is ridiculous and silly, with lyrics based around self-destruction and isolation. Led by a silky groove and wholly unnecessary cat samples, Zac Carper sings about “cracking one open with the boys by myself”. It is the most retrospective and self-critical cut the band have released, also remaining really likeable.
Elsewhere ‘Flake’ is a Black Keys-esque number, equipped with a constant fuzzy guitar and a satisfying solo. It never reaches the pulsating heights of the first two records, nor does it aim to. ‘Alcohol’, however, does. As the name suggests, it is the bratty brand of skate-punk that the band know so well. It is back to basics for FIDLAR. Neal Avron mixes the drums to raise a sense of intensity.
It isn’t all fun and games. This is a FIDLAR release and so as expected, there is a sizable amount of intolerable pettiness. Carper remains frustratingly unlikable. His approach to lyricism, as highlighted in an interview with Genius, is weak: “I purposely didn’t spend that much time on lyrics, because I didn’t want to obsess over it.” It shows.
On ‘Too Real’, the meatiest of tracks, Carper attempts to portray himself as the know-it-all maestro but comes across as ignorant and wildly unfocused. “You’ve gone so far to the left you ended up on the right, You’ve gone so far to the right you don’t care if you’re right”, he mutters. It is simply a stupid remark. He makes a valid point about how everyone is offended and this culture can be crazy but offers no logical alternative.
Opener ‘Get Off My Rock’ is a sour start. It is Beastie Boys without the humour, Beck without the charm. Confronting gentrification, especially in Hawaii, it subverts expectations but is an uneasy introduction. ‘Can’t You See’ finds Carper proving yet again that lyrics aren’t his forte – “Oh gluten-free, it’s killin’ me.” ‘Scam Likely’ finds FIDLAR loosely impersonating The Clash, horns and all, and almost excite but again, the lyrics are blunt and ineffective.
The last two tracks do keep you on board just enough to keep you invested. ‘Good Times Are Over’ is a fitting closer, showing that FIDLAR are willing to lend a hand to a friend in need. The key gradually progresses as Carper’s vocals become more strained. ‘Thought. Mouth’ is a structural disaster for the best; it is chirpy, playful and upbeat. An emotional relief of sorts, it proves that as the album goes on, the band are in a clearer mindset.
No, this album is not good. But FIDLAR do just enough to prevent the album from being bad. For many, this could be a one-and-done album where multiple listens are not required and you would not be to blame. Sure this isn’t terrible but it is bloody frustrating at times. They spend half the album talking about getting high, and half the time talking about politics, and make both sound incredibly unappetising. With some time spent on lyrics and personality, FIDLAR could push themselves into spearheading the skate-punk revival. Instead they sound bogged down in their old ways, desperate to escape the past. Then again this is FIDLAR, what did you really expect? Maybe it is for the best to just embrace and enjoy it for what it is: a bit of fun.