Queen of earth rumbling basslines returns with her second LP.
Electronic DJ Alison Wonderland has fought through her own life crumbling down only to emerge stronger and ready to fight - second LP Awake takes us into the battlefield and onto the victory parade
We know by now that multi-talented Australian electronic dance music DJ, producer and singer Alison Wonderland - real name Alexandra Sholler - ain’t such a fan of the conventional: not only was her debut album Run wall-to-wall of distorted, broken bangers, its launch parties were primarily at strip clubs; her quasi-mantra - printed on some of her merch - is ‘Fuck me up on a spiritual level’ (often abbreviated to FMUOASL for ease); she recently revealed on Twitter that she used to dress up as a banana when playing back-to-back sets with her manager Garth Crane, collectively known as ‘The Fruit Hunters’. Fortunately, the unconventional levels have been cranked up a few notches for new album Awake but not in the way anyone - perhaps not even Sholler herself - expected.
One of the many ways in which the listener is delivered a curveball soon becomes apparent on opener ‘Good Enough’. The song opens with an electronically-infused spiralling scale, being at such a tone and pace it’s unnerving in a typically ‘Alison Wonderland’ manner. Before too long, though, it’s joined by a simple but strong repetitive hit on the grandest of pianos and, surprisingly, a smattering of sweeping, elegant strings. Wonderland is letting her classical training have its day, accompanied by a level of refinement and production not seen before. This sanctity and comfort is brushed aside with ease as her trademark frenetic vocals begin to beg “Is it good enough?”.
Though the listener is quick to witness (and enjoy?) Wonderland’s frenzied-style singing that so permeated throughout Run, it becomes clear that, with Awake, she has the confidence to lean on her vocals for talent just as much as she does her beloved synthesiser. ‘No’ is much lighter in tone with Wonderland herself taking centre stage. The bass notes of the chorus are fit for high summer whilst the lyrics - “They will always tell you yes, but I'll tell you no, forever” - allude to a resilience and attitude that are perhaps not so cheery or quick to forget.
In ‘Okay’, this never-say-die spirit is apparent in not only the delivery of the vocals, but also the subject matter which they raise. Towards the latter stages of the song, Wonderland edges towards screaming, spitting, urging her words out, and yet it is their contents that are so much more worthy of our attention. Wonderland admits “I want to be okay”, whilst on follow-up ‘Easy’ she comments that “I know myself and this isn’t who I am”. A probably cliched, catch-all assessment of the EDM scene would suggest a large part of it is popping bottles, bouncing crowds and ludicrous pay cheques; get a little closer to the bone and one might be accurate in saying that there aren’t many - if any - who would be brave enough to paint the kind of picture Sholler illustrates in parts of Awake. Whilst the leg-breaking bass of ‘Okay’ might protest, at some points the magnificence of the musical talent on show has to make way for the rawness on display, the sentiment and mission put forward taking centre stage and the applaud with it.
On ‘High’, meanwhile, it is rapper and singer Trippie Red that’s centre of attention. His auto-tuned, powerful vocals ask the listener to “Come get high with me, baby” and, more sinisterly, “Would you die for me, little baby?” as they are accompanied by dream-like synths and drums big enough to move mountains. It is clear they are building towards something but, in yet, another bid to keep the listener on their toes, the song’s culmination is far from what might be expected. The song’s drop is disjointed and sparse; it offers very little and yet sounds enormous in scale. Alas, the song ends before it really gets going, positioning the piece as more of an obscure interlude than the epic number the earlier stages promised it would be.
‘Here 4 U’ showcases the numerous, varied talents of both Alison Wonderland and enigma Blessus. On occasion the male vocal telling us “Just know that I’m here for you” is stretched and edited to the point it isn’t far off the roar of a lion, whilst the song evolves from the distorted bass-and-snare combination we’ve come to expect from Wonderland into a set of a more controlled synths that wouldn’t be out of place in deadmau5’s later work.
The surprises continue in the form of ‘Church’ in that it is fairly normal, certainly by Alison Wonderland’s standards; “normal” in that it has a fairly typical song structure (it has verses and a chorus) and, in what might represent a first for the artist, can be sung along to without looking like a maniac. Telling that it is the LP’s lead single - perhaps she, her label and manager are aiming for worldwide domination? The evident pop star class suggests she’s more than ready for it.
Just as ‘Church’ throws up the complication of the listener gayly singing along to Wonderland telling them about how an unnamed friend or foe doesn’t have faith in her does ‘Cry’ present a similar awkward contrast. Sholler telling us how she “just want[s] to make a grown man cry” and “let you know you’re mine” represents sentiment that could seemingly only be accompanied by a solitary piano ready to offer a proverbial shoulder to cry on; alas, the steel drums and afrobeat care not for this stereotype, the dance-worthy backing beats and sorrowful vocals providing a compelling, if not confusing, combination.
Frustratingly the album takes somewhat of a downturn towards the latter stages. Many would agree that at this point Wonderland has made the disjointed-yet-structured trap beat her signature, and has rightfully amassed an army of fans in the process. It appears she neglected the craft necessary to convert disorder into sanctity on ‘Happy Place’, a blow that’s only accentuated given it is one of the most lyrically honest pieces on the album. Try as he might, rapper Chief Keef’s presence on ‘Dreamy Dragon’ can’t prevent the song from being a bit part player. From some angles, the piece is intimate being about love and loyalty, whilst in others, it attempts to be rousing with its synth-led chorus - it ends up being ungainly between the two and, ultimately, neither here nor there. Perhaps it is due to the rest of the album’s strength but ‘Sometimes Love’ - featuring duo Slumberjack - feels largely nondescript.
With its drum and bass-inspired beat and dubstep-oriented bassline, ‘Good Girls Bad Boys’ has the listener on the dancefloor once again, whilst rousing vocals will have them shouting from the rooftop alongside Sholler. All well and good, though it is the titular song up next that presents the album’s strongest point. Described by Sholler as “probably the most ballad-type song [she’s] ever written”, it’s her vocals that drive the piece and understandably so - they are tender, authentic and consequently commanding. It is fitting the song brings the album to a close - the song is an apt representation of where the artist was emotionally, and where she is musically. Whilst some pieces don’t quite deliver on their potential, there is no denying Alison Wonderland has, in her own words, “released her diary to the world". She was an architect of chaos; she is now a pioneer for our times.