Joe Appleford – ‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’

By Sean Reid

Croydon trio Bad Sign were very much in that group of UK alt-rock bands that should’ve been bigger, yet they succumbed to the trials and tribulations that any independent band goes through. For frontman Joe Appleford, Bad Sign’s end took it’s toll on the 28-year-old to the point he no longer wanted to play music. Thankfully, his grandma gave Joe some words of encouragement, spurring him to reignite his passion for music.

Fast-forward to the present day, and we now have ‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’, Appleford’s debut full-length. Interweaving personal issues, the record is described as a concept album based on the “juxtapositions of modern life”. While stylistically, Appleford could have gone down the tried and tested singer-songwriter route, he leans on a cinematic-sized alt-rock sound.

From the outset, the semi-title track ‘Dystopian Dreams’ embraces a bigger-is-better template with a subtle groove. Its gradual build captures Appleford’s muscular voice, swirling guitars, and bombastic drum work courtesy of Static Dress’ Sam Ogden. It brilliantly sets the tone, stylistic scope, and ambition Appleford is aiming for.

‘Silver Lining’ is a rousing, riff-laden number that gallops along nicely. Backed by a catchy chorus, Appleford quickly shows his melodic chops while addressing the issue of selfish people, throwing in a fuzzy solo for good measure. It’s an energetic number that gives ‘Leech’ plenty of momentum. The recent single rumbles with a subtle grittiness, threatening to eventually become unhinged.

Whereas ‘Aeonian Fever’ showcases one of the album’s best choruses; Ogden pounds away, Appleford takes control with a soaring melody. The driving number captures the lyrical paranoia that he explores as he sings “Will you love me in the morning, I don’t believe a word that you’re saying.”

The theme of difficult relationships is threaded throughout. ‘Green’ sees Appleford address the need to lean on others, no matter how toxic, troubling or a waste of time they are. Although he realises his position, he can’t help but go back to them – “it’s you, I turn back to, I make the same mistakes”. Later on, ‘Sweet Teeth’ touches on a similar theme, yet he’s more resistant to give in. Supported by an explosive chorus, Appleford’s delivery is defiant.

Much like his former band, Appleford tends to embrace the almighty guitar riff throughout ‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’. Take ‘The Escapist’ for example; beyond its cosmic bridge, it’s fuelled by a stirring solo.

For all the momentum and energetic execution Appleford shows, he does have a proneness to follow the same template. Sharp introductory riffs, groove-ridden verses, soaring choruses and swelling guitar solos are characteristics relied on in songs such as ‘The Fugitive’, and ‘Love and War’. Nevertheless, they maintain the impetus of Appleford’s soaring, alt-rock style. The latter is fuelled with socio-political angst, calling for racial and LGBTQ+ equality and respect.

‘Last Orders’ is Appleford considerably at his most open. Addressing his alcohol abuse and sobriety, it sees him reign in the tempo, taking a soothing, balladic route allowing him to emphasise the outpouring of emotion he gives.

While on paper, ‘Dystopian Dreams, Utopian Nightmares’ looks to address the “juxtapositions of modern life”, it’s clear that writing music again has been therapeutic for Appleford, allowing him to be reflective yet optimistic. This is exemplified in ‘Mountebank Blues’ as he addresses his worth and selfishness; “I take, take, take, take and never give anything away.” It’s backed by sprawling, twisting instrumentation that seemingly never ends.

By the time ‘Utopian Nightmares’ closes the album, Appleford’s tone is resolute, offering a caring hand of hope through a heavy dose of honesty. Vocally, this is Appleford at his strongest, serving as an emotional release off his broad shoulders. Ultimately, it ends the record on a defiant note.

Attempting a concept record on your first outing is a bold move, yet through his internal and external observations Joe Appleford, along with producer Neil Kennedy, have crafted a record that is compelling in its execution. While it’s somewhat spoiled by reliable formulas, Appleford’s renewed vigour and confidence shine throughout. It results in a groove-laden, riff-filled record with an abundance of memorable hooks. Musically, it picks up where his former band left off, yet with plans to release a record a year, don’t be surprised if Appleford’s musical ambitions and explorations grow. A certified one to watch.

SÊAN REID

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