I’ve told about three or four people I bought this album on CD, and I got pretty much the same reaction from all of them. ‘You?’, they pointed at me with wide-eyed stares and grimaces; lips frothing with inconceivable betrayal, ‘Jacob? The kid with long hair and no shortage of 80s band shirts?’. And that’s, to be fair, understandable.
Heaven & Hell is the debut album of Albanian-American singer, Ava Max, and was released on the 18th September. Thus, it is new music, and therefore distanced from me like the plains of Mordor. Whilst I bucked that trend recently with The Killers’ new record, Ava Max has been likened to Lady Gaga or Sia; a young preacher of female empowerment; with sermons packed into catchy little, three-minute dance numbers. Often topping the charts, or at least the Top 10. And while that’s not normally my thing, I found myself, well, really liking this album. It’s punchy, with each song pretty much more-or-less packing a driving backbeat – and plenty of synth to invoke the inner ‘80s flashdancer in all of us.
It also makes use of theatrics; something I really value in music (Ahem, Ghost?). The album itself is split into two ‘sides’, Heaven, and Hell. With the angelic side featuring poppier, ‘lighter’ tracks, and Hell delving into the dark and sinister. This also comes across in the album’s lyrical content, largely centered around Max’s struggle with relationships, and ultimately getting over the guys that ruin them. If you’re not big into your independent anthems, Heaven & Hell is not for you.
Heaven’s gates open to ‘H.E.A.V.E.N.’, the kind of track that gets my inner nerd drooling at the braces. I am degenerate for those short opening tracks in music; prevalent in a lot of hard rock and metal. The track also packs as much in the way of excess; with the synth turned up to eleven and angelic choir. It’s a track solely designed with pumping the listener up in mind. And there it delivers.
But the real opener of the Heaven & Hell is the single, ‘Kings & Queens’. I don’t have much to say on this song in the way of complexity, or theme. It’s your standard feminist anthem – not to say that’s not noteworthy in itself, of course – but incredibly infectious, all the same. The song’s chorus is lifted directly from, rather fittingly, Bonnie Tyler’s 1986 hit, ‘If You Were A Woman (And I Was A Man)’ – which in turn was rewritten as Bon Jovi’s ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’. ‘Kings & Queens’ is a stomping opener, and executes perfectly setting the mood for the rest of the debut. Also, the image of a blade-wielding Ava Max standing proud at the gates to Heaven is a pretty powerful one. Whilst the track still has its clunky moments – the line about chess sounding a little out of place to me – they’re fairly rare. ‘To all of the queens who are fighting alone, baby you’re not dancing on your own’ is a flogged horse, but particularly potent.
Next is ‘Naked’. I saw someone comment once that the track was trying to replicate the album’s closer, ‘Sweet but Psycho’. But honestly, save being on the same record, the similarities stop there. Max really treads the line between flawless diamond and mainstream bronze of most music today here; somewhat forgettable, perhaps. But a good beat all the same. I get the feeling this is going to be a live favourite.
‘Tattoo’ took a while to grow on me. The synthesized opening bars come straight out of the early 2010’s, and barraged into something as generic as most of Katy Perry’s back catalogue (sorry, Katy). The song’s message – that Max’s former lover can’t forget about her so easily (thus being like a ‘tattoo’) – is strong, but falls down with how on-the-nose its metaphor is. ‘OMG What’s Happening’, meanwhile, packs a real Avicii vibe. It’s a strong contender in its half-Caribbean sound and bubblegum chorus. Certainly one of the more interesting songs on the album.
‘Call Me Tonight’ is one of Heaven & Hell’s weakest tracks. An anthem on encounters of the night and how it’s never too late to let them blossom, it’s not bad – the chorus is just pretty lackluster where it counts. But that theme refuses to fester with the album’s next track. I knew I recognized ‘Born to the Night’s chorus from somewhere. Bizarrely, it stems from the song, ‘Major Tom’ by German artist Peter Schilling – which itself was a kind of response to Bowie’s legendary ‘Space Oddity’. Schilling takes co-credits for this track, and it really compliments an already fleeting piece of pop perfection. A fitting closer to side Heaven. There’s something suitably cosmic in ‘Born to the Night’, and very ‘80s.
Thus we enter purgatory. A singular abyss populated by ‘Torn’ – one bound to be a fan favourite. It’s a non-stop, chugging track with infectious chorus and familiar lyrics to all. A short rest, but welcome nonetheless. And so we descend further now; into the depths of Hell.
Hell is probably my favourite side of the album, and its opener is all I need to confirm tahat. ‘Take You To Hell’ is a swing-beat track painting Max as the archetypal devil’s mistress. It’s a role she conquers with absolute power. A simple pop symphony dripping with casual vitriol. Every poisoned word is wrung with complete indifference; akin to a modern day ‘Death on Two Legs (Dedicated To…)’ from Queen’s A Night at the Opera.
The album progresses with ‘Who’s Laughing Now’; whose synth-punctuated chorus is to die for. Max refuses to shrug off her nonchalant hatred from the last track and it pays off. The childlike ‘Ha-ha-ha-ha’s only add to the petty bitterness of it all. At this point in her debut, we’re witnessing a lover who has simply had enough. She’s snapped. The natural response to this probably shouldn’t be recording an entire album. But thank God it was in this instance.
‘Belladonna’ is possibly my favourite of Heaven & Hell. It perfectly captures that dark, synthwave feel of the ‘80s, and bolsters Max’s reputation of a Stevie-Nicks style nightshade. ‘Belladonna’ is the ultimate ‘Scorpion and the Frog’ anthem – if the scorpion was painfully upfront. The next track is ‘Rumors’; sadly not a re-recording of the entire 1977 album; though still worth a complete listen. Whilst ‘Rumors’ isn’t the most memorable on the album, it’s tap-worthy nonetheless. And features a stomping chorus bound to frequent dancefloors regularly. That sentence is also exactly why I don’t go to nightclubs.
‘So Am I’ tries to capture that same, grandiose scope of the album’s closer, ‘Sweet but Psycho’. And, whilst not quite as good, it’s a pretty reliable formula to stick to, and thus a more-than-mediocre track. It would probably benefit from not being stuck two songs before its rival, however. Still, the song’s message is inspiring to somebody somewhere. If you didn’t love yourself anyway – or strive for it – you will after the metaphorical battering ram Max smashes into your face over 44 minutes. A catchy battering ram, though.
I’m a sucker for strings and it really brings out the sinister tone of ‘Salt’, Heaven & Hell’s penultimate piece. ‘Salt’ sounds like a surefire Eurovision winner; with air-pumping chorus, explosive high points, Max’s vocalizing and empowering theme. I originally presumed the song was likening a former flame to being a demon, and thus protecting herself from him – using salt to ward off evil. But it turns out Max has simply cried so much that she none left in her ducts. Which seems a bit out of place given its position on the album. Then again she does insist she will cry no more; and provides a more human taste to this cocktail. Or powder keg, to be more accurate.
And now we’re at the end. Naturally my first taste of this album, and Ava Max as a whole. ‘Sweet but Psycho’ gained some controversy over Max’s use of the word ‘psycho’, but regardless, it’s catchy as all Hell. Which is fitting, I suppose. Inching ever closer to the undefinable mainstream, it gets stuck in your head like the song’s protagonist. I don’t know if ‘…Pyscho’ is meant to be from a cynical boyfriend’s point of view; or really just about an abusive girlfriend (because let’s be fair, she is). Either way, it’s a musical potion I’ll take more than advised. As with ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘…Pyscho’ proves a colossal moment, and worthy climax to this heartline roll of emotion.
At fourteen full-length tracks, Heaven & Hell is a remarkably strong debut; and taciturn enough to stand aside from the rest of its chart rivals. Ava Max has proved herself in the battlefield with Heaven & Hell; co-penning some of the most sorrowful anthems in delectable, bite-sized, dance-pop form. She may blend into the same, star-studded persona of Lady Gaga, but Max is her own artist. She sits on the throne beside her; not in the woman’s shadow. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for whatever city Max lays siege to next.