The Rocket Summer – ‘Shadowkasters’

By Fiachra Johnston

Texas native Bryce Avary has been in the game far longer than you think. With his debut record turning twenty this past February, Avary is no stranger to switching up styles as the years go on. Born from alt-rock punk and slowly embracing more alt-pop elements, it’s made for a collection of albums that feel both strangely contemporary, and a product of their era. Now, with seven full-length releases under his belt, the eighth record from solo project The Rocket Summer looks to change up things once more, embracing dancehall electronica and a deluge of 90s stylistic references into his arsenal of soundscapes in one of his most inventive, experimental records yet.

Those 90s influences are immediately clear through the grunge elements in the ethereal first track ‘M4U’, with thick, folk-sounding guitars that wouldn’t be out of place on an MTV Unplugged record taking center stage over Avary’s usual piano driven melodies. These chunky acoustic strings matched with a buzzing bassline will make a reappearance sporadically throughout the record, such as in the sensual low humming of ‘Aloha, Hello’, which pairs them with alien synths in an almost weird west, folk vibe. The western/country elements given off by them when paired with these electronic sections feel so out of place at first, but they pair surprisingly beautifully with Avary’s usual style, making for a jarring but incredible start to the album.

‘Eyes 2 Skies’ takes things from the dirt to the air, with electronic drumbeats and robotic synthline blaring out over Bryce’s. Similarly, ‘Sing At The Top’, which features shades of his more traditional piano work, features these eerie, stomping electronic elements. As always, the vocals shine through, with Avary jumping from airy highs to silky lows with impressive ease. Airy, echoey electric guitars and what sound like warped and twisted violin strings on ‘Stuck Inside your Light’ invoke shades of Snow Patrol as Avary’s style stretches into the 00s.

One thing that must be mentioned here is how cohesive this record comes across despite being described by Avary as a compilation album of tracks from the years during and just after the pandemic. Despite the breadth of time the album covers, nothing really feels misaligned or out of place. Even the more folk/country elements some of those acoustic guitars bring out in the record feel welcome. With all the constant experimentation it does mean some of the best elements on the record sometimes go underutilised, such as those wonderful aforementioned acoustic guitars, but Avary keeps it varied in style and content just enough throughout the record that there’s still plenty to get stuck into.

The electronica that brings this album together breaks through into the forefront as we progress into ‘Do You See Your Dreamscapes In Your Dreams Before The Dreams Escape When The Sun Beams.’ (a pop-punk worthy title length if ever we saw one). Skipping, stuttering alt-pop synths, fuzzy vocals and guitars blast through a hard hitting chorus a la Passion Pit, only to cut down by the sitar and acoustic strings in the almost NIN-industrial inspired ‘Hope Is A Treacherous Drug I’m Getting High On’.  Both tracks represent perhaps the best usages of those 90s influences, the one-two punch of shrill synths and pounding electronic bass really showcasing how far Bryce is willing to experiment with his soundscape. The production pushes some of those lower bass notes to the back, which is a shame as Avary sounds as much at home in the darker, moodier moments of the record that benefit from them as he does the lighter ones, ‘Hope Is A Trencharous Drug’ being the best example.

More familiar ground mixes with the new in ‘Disco In Circles’, as for the first time in the record, Avary lets the piano take the lead. Warped by bass and electronic whirrs and whines, this is almost dystopian in sound, like an alternate history version of his previous release ‘Sweet Shivers’. The short but twisted lullaby-sounding ‘Off The Hinge’ rolls into the fuzzy ‘Vanillanor Figby’, Avary’s whispering vocals matching well with the dreamy pop ambiance. The sitar weaving its way through this track, as well as multiple other tracks is such an usual choice of recurring instrumentation, but like those folk strings it makes for a pleasantly unique sound throughout. ‘I Say, I Say’ finishes out the record and, along with ‘Aloha, Hello’, finally lets those basslines shine in a frantic closer, with stressed violins and Avary’s upper range put to the test with fantastic results.

Compiling upwards to 3 years worth of wildly varied tracks into a cohesive, comprehendible album is no easy feat, moving away from genres and sounds you have spent decades familiarising yourself with, just as hard. Much of ‘Shadowkasters’ was made in a period of isolation, and in a way, it feels separate from so much of The Rocket Summer’s discography; an isolationist piece that tells Avary’s story through the last few years of world events. Yet, Avary’s indefatigable energy is still there. The expressive, distinct vocals are there. Even the weighty pianos that lead so many previous tracks still lie under the surface of the record, interwoven with some incredible use of electronica. This is still a Rocket Summer album through and through, and though the style has changed, nothing of what has made Bryce Avary one of alt-pop’s most underrated artists has been lost, while so much has been gained.

FIACHRA JOHNSTON

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