Bringing influences of alternative rock, indie and post-hardcore over the years into their already unique and well-established foundation of spoken-word, HOTEL BOOKS once again continue to push their sound even further within their latest release, Equivalency. Feeling like a true culmination of the band’s growth, the album displays a refinement of the HOTEL BOOKS formula, a well-executed mix of styles that makes this their most impactful, emotive release so far. Serving as the platform once more for vocalist Cam Smith’s honest and authentic expressions of love, loss, heartbreak and self-discovery, his poetic lyricism hits as hard as ever, making it difficult to endure the 32-minute runtime without two teary eyes.
While early albums placed Smith’s poetic musings solely within the limelight with only minimal ambient backing, the band’s more recent releases, especially that of previous album Run Wild, Stay Alive, have instead shown a much greater focus on accompanying instrumentation. Using this development to truly benefit the band’s musical output, injecting added depth and weight to Smith’s already powerful lyrics, this change has ultimately led to a bigger, better and more inventive HOTEL BOOKS, and Equivalency’s collection of 10 tracks are a testament to this claim. Successfully blending influences both new and old to create the most varied and inspired release of their career, it’s an album that, despite its many facets, still maintains the band’s core identity throughout, placing poetic delivery and genuine emotion front-and-centre.
Primarily focused on telling a deeply honest story of a troubled relationship, the album immediately begins on a sombre note, opening with a heartfelt monologue from Smith’s former lover before making way for hypnotic vocal delivery and a slow-building crescendo. Kick-starting the album’s running narrative with stunning poetic flow, From Porterville is without a doubt a strong opener that immediately sets a high standard for the rest of the album – a standard that’s firmly maintained. Transitioning quickly into the second track, Van Nuys, it’s here where HOTEL BOOKS demonstrate the true breadth of their current sound, beautifully marrying straight poetry with vocal melody and a powerful instrumental underbelly. As it builds towards an anthemic climax, it’s impossible to escape a sudden rush of goosebumps as the song explodes into one last flurry of high emotion. Repeating a similar achievement elsewhere within the album on Fears We Create, guest vocalist Chase Huglin lends his powerful vocals to create an utterly colossal chorus that hits hard with unforgettable, spine-chilling impact. Bringing with it such a rich atmosphere that’s even more arresting in contrast to the song’s minimalist verses, it’s not just an overall album highlight, but a definite career highlight, too.
Continuing to incorporate these elements of melody and present yet another prime example of the band’s development, Violent Smile is another compelling offering that, once more, effortlessly blends infectious vocal hooks and richly-textured instrumentals alongside Smith’s mighty poetic flow. Meanwhile, Take Very Little featuring Chris Bernstorf acts as a welcome reminder of the band’s roots, resurrecting the stripped-back, thick ambient atmosphere reminiscent of the earliest HOTEL BOOKS records. Digging deep and confronting himself, this poem presents Smith at his most vulnerable, providing easily one of the most heartfelt deliveries found on the album and one that proves utterly captivating throughout. Following on directly and maintaining the same pensive mood, Smith’s vocals turn into anguished screams through much of Where I Am, bolstering the track’s raw edge and resulting in a truly heartbreaking performance.
In what is a complete contrast to these moments of sincerity, Celebration is the boldest track offering found within Equivalency, one that purposefully plays heavily with convention to reinforce its satirical chorus. Deliberately framed within the style of a radio-friendly rock song, it explores the way in which musicians may sacrifice their art for a chance at success, a topic that perhaps reflects Smith’s own thoughts on some of his own material. Touching also on how outside pressures can begin to influence a musical career, the recurring lyric: “I hope you’re happy, Mom, I wrote a happy song” injects a spot of humour amongst the album’s outpour of deep, emotional thought.
Continuing to explore the territory that sits back alongside the album’s story of emotional turmoil, the album’s latter offerings concentrate heavier on the themes of self-discovery and growth. I Knew Better, But Did Nothing, for example, is a piece set about reflection, with Smith looking at himself as a musician and the events leading him there. Touching on his regrets and accomplishments from over the years, it’s once again a vivid and honest statement, but one that maintains a sense of hopefulness with its punchy acoustic-led instrumentation. Rounding off this journey within the final full-length track, I’m Almost Happy Here is one of the strongest tracks on the album, supplying closure to the album’s running story. Assessing his current situation and finally achieving some form of optimism for the future, the song makes for a logical, almost-upbeat conclusion to Smith’s chronicle of heartbreak, one that cleverly weaves references to the band’s previous releases as it gradually builds towards one more tear-jerking climax.
As the album comes to a close, one final monologue (With Love) brings an end to the album’s running narrative, concluding on a poignant-yet-hopeful note. Coming away from this final track and the record as a whole, it’s hard to feel untouched by the journey presented across Equivalency’s 10-track delivery. Confidently fusing various musical influences around their core sound and successfully using it to carry the weight of the band’s remarkable lyricism, the album maintains a laser-focus on the real heart of HOTEL BOOKS: Cam Smith’s sensational poetic ability, a fixation that became somewhat skewed within their previous album. Truly outdoing themselves with this release, however, Equivalency is without a doubt the definitive HOTEL BOOKS experience, and a superb achievement that once again cements the band within a league of their own.
Equivalency is out now via Hassle Records.
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