When Pop Rocks: Bring Me The Horizon's 'Sempiternal'

Oliver Sykes on one of the POP albums of 2013...

Clash has been going potty for pop lately – you might have noticed that our current issue is a pop special (full information here), and that this site has seen a plethora of chart-savvy sorts staring at you from its pages: from Gary Barlow and Take That to Boy George via Lorde and Pharrell Williams

That activity, combined with the crunching of Clash’s Best Albums Of 2013 countdown (coming in December), got me thinking about my own pop record of the year. And what I landed on perhaps isn’t the most obvious of choices. Indeed, to the ears of many it’s not pop at all: Bring Me The Horizon’s fourth album, ‘Sempiternal’ won in the Best Album category at the 2013 Kerrang! Awards, and the aggressive vocals of frontman Oliver Sykes aren’t entirely synonymous with what’s hot on any hit parade.

Yet, the album was a pop success on its release in April – it charted at three in the UK (going to number one on the domestic rock chart), and topped the pile in Australia. It also performed excellently in the US, making 11 on the Billboard 200. But it’s not only a pop hit in the sense that it’s popular – speak to its makers about the album’s creation, and it becomes clear that the Sheffield outfit’s intention was to deliver a record of far greater accessibility than anything that’d come before it.

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Bring Me The Horizon, ‘Go To Hell, For Heaven’s Sake’, from ‘Sempiternal’

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When I call Sykes to tell him that ‘Sempiternal’ is my personal pop album of 2013, I’m expecting a confused response. Yet, he readily acknowledges how the record can be heard that way.

“In a way, I hope that people do hear ‘Sempiternal’ as a pop record,” he says, “as while it’s a metal album at heart, it’s a metal album inspired by everything but metal, if you get what I mean. It was inspired by popular music a great deal, actually.”

I can certainly hear that inspiration: compared to its predecessor, 2010’s ‘There Is A Hell…’, ‘Sempiternal’ strikes an immediate connection with a listener schooled in both hardcore and pop styles. I explained to doubting friends of mine that the record, to me, is like a kind of catnip: I know the structures aren’t rocket science, and I know the lyrics aren’t as deep as those of other, perhaps more credible rock acts. I know plenty who’ll consider it a hollow interpretation of their favourite musical form(s).

Yet everything on ‘Sempiternal’ is so perfectly polished, so exquisitely placed, that the constituents combine to form a release that ranks amongst my most-played of 2013 with ease. Indeed, it probably is my most-played album of the year. (And if that’s not a sign of its pop qualities, I don’t know what is.) Its punches consistently connect, Sykes’ lyricism containing couplets that sing with a wide appeal. We’ve all been down these same dark alleys, and we’ve all bitten our lips instead of letting it out. Sykes lets it out, and some.

He tells me that he quite deliberately set out to make this collection an instant-click experience, the sort of album that’d engage fans immediately and also creep into the conscious of those who might attempt to resist its charms through studied design and sublime execution.

“I looked into the writing side of pop in some detail,” says the singer – and he is a singer, these days, having had lessons leading up to the recording of ‘Sempiternal’. “I looked at the small details in melodies, those details that can make a song so incredibly catchy. I read a feature about the 50 catchiest songs ever – I think a track by Queen topped the list – which explored what made the songs so popular. I studied that for ages, and thought: it’s all well and good learning to sing properly, but that won’t count for anything unless the melodies connect.

“So, I got into the details. I looked at how people use ‘we’ in their lyrics, to engage with an audience. I saw how a lot of these songs were structured almost like nursery rhymes. I saw what qualities in a melody can give the listener goosebumps – you know, when that little shift in tempo happens. All of these small details combine to make the best pop songs as big as they are. So I can certainly appreciate if someone listens to our album and thinks that it’s pop.”

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Bring Me The Horizon, ‘Sleepwalking’, from ‘Sempiternal’

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Think of pop lyrics and you can easily land on conversations regarding disposability, of fluffy poetry over thought-provoking prose. But, as it happens, Skyes’ own writing process for the ‘Sempiternal’ album began with, as he puts it, a bunch of “bullshit” lyrics. But then circumstances conspired to lend relevance to these early phrases.

“My first lyrics, they took on meanings during the writing process, so at the end I couldn’t change them. The way I wrote them was to get the melodies in place first, just with some bullshit in place, and then go back to the words, to work on them. Like, I’d be singing about pork pies or something.

“But then we had ‘Can You Feel My Heart’, and the key line to that was a throwaway one at first. But as the song developed, with all of these lines about contradictions, when the title line was arrived at it seemed so much darker than it’d initially seemed. And that happened so many times across the making of the album – we’d have words that found meaning and purpose after they’d been laid down. I think there’s something to that – when you don’t overthink things, and let stuff out. People can connect to that. We all have these primitive connections, that can be stirred by a trigger word, or a certain phrasing.

“Also, I wanted the lyrics that I write to actually stick in peoples’ heads. I could write the best words in the world, but without the right melody to imprint them into memories, they get lost. That’s one thing I noticed on the last album’s touring – we didn’t have that many people singing every word. And I wanted everyone singing back.”

The commercial success of ‘Sempiternal’ – it went 10 places higher than ‘There Is A Hell…’ managed – was never a given, despite the band’s increased profile. “We didn’t think: ‘We need to get bigger’. But, obviously, we did want to take that next step,” says Sykes. “We did want to express ourselves in a different way, which is why I started singing properly for the first time, and why we started using more electronics in the arrangements.”

Internal turbulence – guitarist Jona Weinhofen left either before the album’s recording, or during it, depending on whose version of events you read – and an early leak of the album could have derailed its chances of charting. But, with a fanbase as passionate as BMTH’s, ‘Sempiternal’ was always going to do okay. Right?

“There was a tragic period of events, so we were quite prepared for the album to not chart at all,” counters Sykes. “I mean, in this day and age, people don’t buy CDs anyway, especially not if the album has leaked two months before its release. And I can’t blame them. So the fact that it worked out well… We were never expecting top 10, so when we did it was just: ‘What the f*ck?

“When we charted at three, it didn’t sink in at the time – and now, looking back, the moment’s passed. But it’s big, isn’t it? Going to three here, and to number one in Australia, it’s actually mental.”

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Bring Me The Horizon, ‘Can You Feel My Heart’, from ‘Sempiternal’

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Sykes’ personal pop preferences find space for AlunaGeorge – “I can see them becoming as big as, I dunno, Katy Perry maybe. They’ve definitely got the pop qualities in there, but I think they’ve more substance than most” – but he’s concerned about some would-be artists’ priorities.

“Kids today just want to be famous, don’t they? That’s what they say: simply that they want to be famous, not that they specifically want to be a singer. When I was a kid, I didn’t see anyone saying that; all I saw was people wanting to be in bands, or wanting to be actors. Nobody was all about the fame. But now, you see The X Factor and people are in tears because their dreams of being famous get shot down – that’s their only goal in life, to be famous. They see pop as a route to fame. I think that side of pop is as bad as it’s ever been.

“But at the same time, you look at an artist like Lorde, and you can see how much you can do yourself as an artist. You don’t need to be aesthetically perfect, or conform to any stereotypical look. People can get out there and do it – and I think a lot of people are, and in doing so they’re not tuning into the bullshit. I can hear a lot more substance to some pop today – there are chart songs that you can really get your teeth into.

“Elsewhere, though… You hear the same melodies, the same vocal lines. You hear people ripping off songs from just five years ago, like it’s suddenly okay to do that. So it is getting worse in some ways. That’s how I see it. I think aspirations need to change, alongside priorities.”

Pop can be anything it wants to. It moves with trends, with technology. It’s brave and bold – anything that looks too far into the past for inspiration will always come unstuck. BMTH are not a pop band, per se – but by embracing evolution against type and swotting up on the stylistic traits common in the most enduring chart successes, they’ve delivered this writer’s standout pop album of 2013. It’s bubblegum served in barbed wire, candyfloss with a corrosive bite. It rocks and pops, quite brilliantly.

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Words: Mike Diver

‘Sempiternal’ is out now on RCA – listen to it in full via Deezer, below. Find Bring Me The Horizon online here

Clash’s Pop Issue is out now, you know. Find more information on it here

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