Album Review: Banks Unveils Her Dark Soul on "The Altar"

Artwork for Banks’ album, The Altar. Harvest Records

Banks grew up creating songs in order to clear her mind of the flooding emotions of loss and loneliness. After years of dedication in her art, she was eventually signed to Good Years Recordings. Soon after, two extended plays (EPs) were released: Fall Over and London. In response to the positive reactions she received, Banks was prompted to put out her first record in 2014, entitled Goddess. As her fan base developed, so did her presence in the music industry. She was nominated for MTV’s Brand New Nominee and took home third place for BCC’s Sound of 2014. Banks spent the next two years developing and masterminding her next piece of work.

On September 30, 2016, Banks’ second studio album, The Altar was released worldwide. As a preexistent fan, I eagerly awaited this record and naturally, listened to it in its entirety within the hour that it was released. Three of the ten tracks were put out prior to the release date as singles. The songs, “Fuck with Myself”, “Gemini Feed”, and “Mind Games” were enough to keep me in anticipation for the remainder of the record. It was evident that Banks’ vocals had drastically grown stronger. Her range is unfathomable and her belting notes demand your full attention. Along with the development in her talent for singing, the production and quality of each track was remarkably more dynamic with the addition of piercing dissonances and tasteful vocal modulations, complemented by rich harmonies. Because the singles were so diverse and significantly grittier than any of her previous songs, I knew that the entire compilation would be nothing less than this. Expectedly, I was correct. The ten new tracks on the record surpassed any of my greatest expectations. Not only is each individual song its own masterpiece, but the set of songs as one whole entity is the most prominent statement. Maura Johnston from Rolling Stone Magazine notes that Banks’ “electro-pop diva’s second LP pairs her whisper-to-a-scream vocal range with jangled-nerve electronics”. The blend of bold textures and styles creates for a multidimensional album.

The record flows like a roller coaster. From song to song, you experience highs and lows, ups and downs. Every ounce of Banks’ heart and soul is spilled out and is exposed within the depths of her dark, poetic lyrics. It is beyond apparent that every song is specifically reflective of a vulnerable time in her life. The raw, intimate words capture their audience and draw them in through her complex perspective of a twisted fantasy. The listener can feel the despair of heartache and distress in songs like “Mother Earth” and “To The Hilt”. Other tracks, such as “Lovesick” and “This Is Not About Us”, bring the tempo up from the poignant slower songs. “Trainwreck” is a soaring firestorm of flowing synths, with Banks’ raging and angry vocals acting as the gasoline. “You try to compensate for thinking with your one brain, I should decapitate.” The mix of cadence and sentiment that plays out through the duration of The Altar are a testament to how musically diverse the record truly is. Every emotion residing inside your mind, to your deepest, most suppressed feelings will rise to the surface as each chord plays out.

Though each song is vastly unique, a constant theme runs throughout. The notion of empowerment, especially a focus on the confidence of women, is a clear connection stringing each song together. Banks spoke regarding this reoccurring aphorism to Refinery29.

“For years and years and years, people have been conditioned to want women to be pretty, very polite, very nurturing, and not take up too much space. I am a nurturing person, but you can be nurturing and powerful and fierce and big too—and you can take up so much space. This [record] for me is about taking up space and not being afraid to be big.”

This theme is not new to Banks’ music; however, the record strengthens and solidifies this concept.

Banks takes her daunting, dark-pop sound even further on The Altar. She holds true to her identity, while proving that she has grown as a songwriter and musician. Fans of her debut record, Goddess, will deeply enjoy the newest addition. For me, The Altar has proven itself to be immeasurably impactful to my life, and I know that anyone who is emotionally connected to music will be equally as compelled.

Banks' Official Website