Within about a minute of the first track it becomes abundantly clear that Locus, the debut album by Badlands, is something special. Rich with textured ambience and layers of sonic intricacies, "Ballady" acts as the perfect gateway to the surreal and serene soundscape that the album presents you with. It is clear that synthwave is one of the primary genres at work throughout the album, but much of what is here doesn't have a reference point of comparable artists. If I were to come up with a "for fans of…" type of recommendation for this album, I would be at a loss. Think of it as Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden gone synthwave. Genre identification aside, this is the best album released so far in 2016.
The album works extremely well as an entire work, and is difficult to discuss in a track-by-track basis. As mentioned, "Ballady" works as something of an indication of what to expect, but the album takes several interesting turns where it reapplies the same musical characteristics in different ways. It is all very distinctly Badlands, but in very different ways. The opener is an expansive and sweeping mood piece with pretty melodies and catchy moments littered throughout, where the best song on the album, "Caramisou", inverts a lot of the same qualities. The pretty melodies and catchy elements are the main focus of the song, but the moodiness and melancholy of the opener is still clearly present. In many ways, the song is not as expansive and open-ended as "Ballady", but at the same time it is longer, while also being more focused. It's refreshing to see an artist that not only is aware of what the individual components are that make her her, but also who is able to rearrange and re-contextualize those elements in a way that is still at one with a core identity in the album. Put simply: No two songs sound the same, but all of the songs sound like Badlands.
If there are criticisms to be found here, they would be at the individual level. While I personally love the ways in which this album is not beat-oriented, instead focusing on mood and atmosphere, another listener may find the music to be too sleepy, or find that the beats don't hit hard enough. While I believe the beats have the exact sound required for the dreamy quality the music makes, and that the production of the album reinforces just how different this is from all other synthwave releases, all of that would be a valid criticism if that isn't what you come to this music for. Locus is music for introspection, not dancing. While the songs on the album are long, with most clocking above four minutes in length, the album only has eight tracks. Coupling that with the fact that there was only one track I ever found myself wanting to skip on repeated listens ("You Have Taught Me So Much"), left me wishing the album had one or two more songs.
What is perhaps most impressive about this album is the ease at which you can forget this is a debut. A sense of confidence permeates each song, and they have enough moving and catchy parts that different lessons can reveal different melodies. "Echo" is one of the best tracks to demonstrate this. At just about any given moment in the song, you can latch on to a different instrument or melody, but there will also be one or two other melodies happening concurrently. It will be interesting to see how the NRW community reacts to this album. There is a strangeness that is undeniable, but it's present in several catchy and dreamy songs.
Locus comes out April 15th. If you would like to read an interview with Badlands, click here.