One man’s versatile is another man’s jumbled, scattered, and head scratching. Unfortunately, that is the case for a majority of hard rock quintet Pop Evil’s sixth album, Versatile. The intention of the band is wildly clear from the name of the album, with the band approaching a very different direction only flirted with on past releases. For a large chunk of this album, the band goes all in on the Imagine Dragons pop rock anthem sound, with electronic beats serving as both the backbone and predominant driving force of two thirds of the record. Now this, by and large, is not a game breaking decision from a band, as long as it’s creative and done well. However, with the way the sounds are implemented, it comes off as forced, middle of the road, and about three or four years behind the times.
The album actually opens promisingly enough with 'Let the Chaos Reign', a song whose chugging riffs and pure nu-metal energy from lead vocalist Leigh Kakaty is pure fun, and instantly transports back to the early/mid 2000’s and brings to minds bands like Saliva. The guitar tone is sharp and crisp and the roiling riffs in both the intro and breakdown kick the record off on a high note. The same goes for third track 'Breathe Again', with its djenty, techy riffs and reverb drenched vocals being very much single worthy. Kakaty sounds great with a huge, soaring chorus, and with an overall powerful vocal sound that shows off his range and force. There’s nothing like a great anthem, and this song is one for sure.
But from here, the album falls right off the tracks for a huge section of the runtime. In fact, it’s difficult to recall much in terms of specifics about the next five tracks, 'Work', Inferno', 'Stronger (The Time Is Now)', 'Raise Your Flag', and 'Human Nature', They all feature those stomping, wubbing Imagine Dragons beats that bands were using years ago, but there are no memorable melodies to be found, and each song feels so non-descript and cliché. With lyrics about rising up and staying strong, each song feels like a Shinedown track, but not done as well and half-baked. Every single of these tracks feels like the band, once again, circling back to album title and tackling these sounds to show their “versatility.” But it’s a severe dip in quality and really is a death blow to the record as a whole.
The album does pick back up around track eight, “Survivor,” which has a Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque drum groove and feel. It’s still a lackluster track, but it’s a bit more interesting in its construction, especially with the female vocals that briefly make an appearance in the bridge. 'Worst In Me' sees more really good vocal work from Kakaty, with a really nice melodic construction. The difference in this song is that there are electronics, but they serve to accent and accentuate the song, not serve as its whole genetic makeup. There’s nice bouncing riffs here that mesh well with said electronics, and its in striking this balance that the band actually achieves its titular versatility.
'Same Blood' follows a similar path, but the message in this song is definitely more important and vital to our current world of social injustice, police violence, and widespread racism. Kakaty’s vocals are passionate and the riffs still keep the bounce and energy going, with electronics once again serving as a side dish rather than the main course. The record finishes, thankfully, on a high note with 'Fire Inside', a lyrically cliché, but vocally impassioned track that brings back the djenty guitar tone as well as the Shinedown vibes. However, this time the energy can definitely be felt from all band members and it translates in their performances on this track.
But it’s too little too late. The lackluster spirit and forced feeling sound of the middle third of this record is enough to sour the palate here. This is an album to pull certain songs from on iTunes or Spotify, but definitely one to avoid digesting as a whole. Like the cover art, it’s difficult to understand what the band was going for on this one, and though there are certainly good songs on this record, mostly on the front and back end, it’s a big step backward for a band already a bit lost in the shuffle of post-grunge and hard rock Octane radio groups that saturate the airwaves. Instead of separating themselves from the herd, Versatile pulls them further into it and leaves Pop Evil on the back foot, trying to play catch up.