‘And my heart goes beat, beat, beat to the music of this sad, same song – it’s quite depressing,’ declares Banks on the verse of the Rhianna-like ‘Trainwreck’. This is a phrase that pretty much sums up her second album, The Altar. The LA-based singer with a penchant for morose and monochrome alt-R&B has made a follow-up to her somewhat disappointing and heavily hyped 2014 debut, Goddess. This is more of the same, certainly, but frequently harder hitting with its message of misery; Banks went through a bad break since her last record and is not in the least bit interested in holding back on the details here.
The Altar starts strongly with both ‘Gemini Feed‘ and ‘Fuck with Myself‘, songs available well before the album’s release, bursting with venom and vitriol toward the unfortunate individual who thought it best to walk away.
Banks manipulates her voice and phrasing in ways that reinforce her anger and distress and heightens the tension but without comprising the coolness of the standoffish, staccato rhythms. These songs and their arrangements are more confident than before and more interesting sonically – ‘Fuck with Myself’ has an arresting and spindly Mandarin signature – and potentially positions Banks as an artist with a compelling signature sound.
Moving through its first half, ‘Lovesick’ is the album’s only song that makes use of a languid but consistent 4/4 dance beat, which is a perfect, seductive companion for Banks’ cry that she’s ‘hard up for some time in the sheets’.
The brightest moment of The Altar is when the tumbling pinball beats of ‘This is Not about Us’ flicker and click into sharp focus. The aforementioned ‘Trainwreck’ is contemporary and grinding, skin-of-your-teeth R&B which is the embodiment of The Weeknd’s slurred and white-gold depravity. ‘Mind Games’ is a slow song, electronic and parched, which dispenses with the emotional poker-face with Banks’ chilling voice repeatedly demanding, ‘Do you see me now?’
This eclectic and grabbing energy unfortunately cannot sustain itself once the album gets into its frustratingly downbeat second half. After the pretty but pointless orchestral coda at the end of ballad ‘Weaker Girl’, Banks offers up the acoustic and dour ‘Mother Earth’ – another ballad, that just by song title alone belongs on a completely different album from the one we’ve been just listening to.
The pretty straightforward (musically and lyrically) ‘To the Hilt’ has a raw power, yes, and ‘Judas’ is an intriguing, greyed-out reinvention of R&B’s millennial renaissance, but everything else is underwritten and dreary.
Banks has made some her best music with The Altar but it’s a record that doesn’t feel complete. It lays down its trump cards all in one go and far too early on.