Album Review: Donnie Willow

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Photograph: Matthew Bunting, Moon Unit Productions

Unsigned Glasgow three-piece Donnie Willow have released their first full album into the bleak wilderness of the internet, proclaiming it to be the golden results of their seven year existence and asking us to join them in celebration. But is Inhale. Exhale. really worth celebrating? I may be Scottish, and I may love Glasgow, but I promise to remain impartial here. Let’s have a wee look then…

The album begins with the track ‘Inhale’ and ends with the track ‘Exhale’. I think this is worth talking about first because, potentially, this is a really interesting structural idea for an album. The guys do utilise it to some degree, ending ‘Inhale’ with laboured breathing smeared with grungy post-production vocal effects, that gets the tone of their Alternative Rock vibe across to the listener quite succinctly.

However, overall it’s let down a bit by a few key elements.

Firstly, some observations about the description of their album on their Bandcamp page – apparently the lyrics were written by Arthur Piddington, one of the three core members. Now what I find interesting about this is the term “lyrics written by”. You see (and I do not understand why this is the case), vocals in heavy rock songs these days tend to be so excruciatingly buried in the mix in lieu of creating an instrumental atmosphere that it beggars the question: why even bother having lyrics in the first place? You would be more suited to just humming or singing extended vowels to fill the gaps, because when you cannot hear what the vocals are actually singing they just become melodic additions or pure harmonies at that point.

This is a problem with Inhale. Exhale., and I have no idea if it was the engineer’s choice at the stage of mixing or Donnie Willow’s original intention, but the vocals are impossible to make out for the vast majority of the LP. Crikey, even when it’s just the vocalist being heard in the mix it’s hard to make out what’s being sung or screamed; in the first three seconds of ‘Exhale’ the vocalist screams a garbled bunch of words that I welcome any challenger to try and decipher. In other tracks like ‘I Eat Flies’ and ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’, I just want to grab the singer while he’s screaming into the microphone and yell into his face: “INUNCIATE, YOU CRETIN!”

It is just ridiculously unclear, and it is such a shame because lyrics can tell a story, just like the music can, and together they can accentuate certain narrative beats. But for whatever reason a lot of bands and sound engineers insist on taking the effort put into writing vocals and obscuring it for the sake of bland general loudness.

Okay, sometimes this can work when the instrumentation of a song is stellar. However, in this case (and I must preface this by saying the general musicianship in Donnie Willow appears to be very strong), the arrangements for the whole LP feel pretty monotonous; repetitive even. I do not feel particularly hooked by anything, and that’s the second point I have in regard to Inhale. Exhale.: it isn’t visceral enough. For an album named with such physicality in mind, the songs do not convey the feeling of urgency that you would generally expect. In ‘Inhale’ the entire song is built on a build-up of the same repeated phrase and, by the time it finishes and you are only three minutes into a 30 minute album, you are bored. It is rescued slightly by the second track ‘Jagged Teeth’, showcasing some interesting phrases and an enjoyable, foot-tapping chorus, but it falls a bit flat creatively until we reach track 5 entitled ‘Little Brother’.

This song is gentler than the rest, dealing with a subject matter that feels very personal and relatable. The addition of harmonics in the guitar and audible vocals makes this a touching little tune that showcases the concerns of growing up and the need to look out for your own, even in the face of your own insecurities. And there’s one element that it does not have that the other tracks do, and it is the final main issue I have with this LP: the constant, random slowing down for a random, emotionally ambient section.

I mean… why? Why keep doing this, again and again? Seriously, with the possible exception of ‘Little Brother’ – which starts off and develops as an emotionally ambient song anyway, therefore not randomly resorting to this trope – each song has a moment where everything calms down for a bit of emo-esque contemplation. ‘Inhale’ starts like that and then slowly builds to a big rocky finish; just over a minute into ‘Jagged Teeth’ everything grinds to a halt and there’s something about a “summer breeze” and whatnot- I don’t know, don’t ask me; then just over two minutes into ‘I Eat Flies’ we get the same thing happening again; ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ does it around halfway between minutes one and two (which funnily enough is the exact same as ‘Fairytale) and in ‘Exhale’ it literally takes about 30 seconds before the song decides it needs to be all introspective and stuff in between layered guitars that are louder than the randy new couple you’ve  got to listen to through the wall every night.

The tracks have problems, and the lacking employment of the inhale/exhale terminology and physicality detracts from the overall album. Despite all of this, I have to point out and reiterate an earlier, smaller note I made: the musicianship of the band is strong. I have seen these guys live and, in terms of what you hear on the record, they sound exactly like their recorded work. They’re extremely energetic and put on a good show, and I understand that with these songs I might not be in possession of the correct blend of tastes to find it as enjoyable as I know others do, but I have to be honest when I say that nothing particularly grabs me here. Out of seven tracks only two or three really piqued my interest, and not enough to make me love this LP.

At the end of the day I would say that for all fans of early Biffy Clyro, Donnie Willow are the up-and-coming youngsters for you.

Check Inhale. Exhale. out on their Bandcamp now: https://donniewillow.bandcamp.com/album/inhale-exhale 6/10