- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Aussie rockers Gang of Youths have released their third studio album. We examine how 'angel in realtime' blends the maximalism of stadium rock with the intimacies of personal storytelling.
All genre labels are, in their own way, a little unhelpful – more guidelines than definitive categories. Indie rock today means something different to what it did 15 years ago, and pop-punk went from the domain of angsty white men in their 30s to Olivia Rodrigo’s kingdom in the time it takes for “Jesus of Suburbia” to end. Few genres, though, are more amorphous in their definition than ‘arena rock’ or ‘stadium rock’, a term that’s ubiquitous but also really, really vague.
By definition, stadium rock is rock music fit for a stadium, but that’s a somewhat broad church. The Beatles melted down stadiums in the mid-1960s, as did Nirvana in the early 90s. Though it might make some orthodox rock fans cringe to hear it, Ed Sheeran has practically sold out Wembley Stadium several times over, and he’s… well, rock-adjacent at least. If you had to put a pin in it, though, it would be easier to gravitate towards the mid-to-late 20th century as the heyday of stadium rock.
Again, being a bit tautologous, it’s rock music that fills the biggest room possible, that demands maximum attention, that’s all sound and fury and elaborate instrumentation set to give you an experience that’s the most. Big emotions, big sound – big everything. Acts like Bruce Springsteen or U2, for example. There’s an earnestness inherent in stadium rock, an unvarnished desire to reach as many people as possible, and therefore to be as universal as can be. Especially in these irony-soaked times, it can be very, very easy to define stadium rock as just a little bit uncool: pop that’s shorn of any edge or specificity in order to get as many people tapping their feet as possible.
It’s fascinating, then, that the Australian band Gang of Youths have angled so consistently for a position as heirs to the stadium rock legacy, even if they don’t always admit it. Across their first two albums, the band built a reputation for maximalist bangers that were as sentimental as they were verbose, spilling over six-minute-plus runtimes on the regular. Song titles like “Say Yes to Life” and “The Heart is a Muscle” marked their second album, ‘Go Farther in Lightness’. In their native Australia, they’ve filled out the legacy easily, becoming one of the nation’s biggest acts and racking up ARIAs by the handful. Outside Oceania, the going has been a little tougher. The band has built a committed fandom across continents, to be sure, but a somewhat niche one, and one still tethered to home. On some of their recent UK tours, jokes abounded on social media that their gigs would bring the entirety of London’s Australian community to the venue.
A tempting choice from there might be to go ever-broader: embrace the ‘stadium rock’ label and craft rock music with the greatest possible mass appeal in a bid to conquer the world. Alternatively, the band could have doubled down on the specificity of their appeal, rejecting commercial sensibilities entirely to create music that isn’t meant to be sung along with at all. They were both viable options, and it’s likely they would have produced great follow-up albums. Yet what’s really impressive about Gang of Youths’ third studio album, released last Friday, is that it does both at the same time, without collapsing into contradiction.
In “angel in realtime”, Gang of Youths manage to conduct themselves like the biggest band on Earth who routinely play gigs to an audience of a hundred or less. Partly, that’s accomplished by the band’s willingness to turn down the volume and turn inward for long periods, such as in the balladic “brothers”, a tune so simple it practically plays as a spoken-word poem with minimal music accompaniment, or in “hand of god”, a track which accepts its place as prelude to the big closer with aplomb. It’s not just tonal variation which makes “angel in realtime” such a nimble take on stadium rock, though. Instead, it’s how the band’s varying sensibilities sit right alongside each other in the album’s biggest tunes.
A huge part of Gang of Youths’ appeal from the off is that they’re willing to embrace grandeur whilst being able to laugh at themselves. It’s a reflection of the relentless self-deprecation of uber-likeable frontman Dave Le’aupepe, who has spent much of the “angel in realtime” press tour excoriating his past work. That’s an aspect taken even further in “angel”, where the self-awareness often reaches lacerating levels. In the album’s opening track, Le’aupepe is already bemoaning how he’s spent “the better part of my twenties/Doing self-indulgent bullshit on repeat”. Describing his sister in “brothers”, he matter-of-factly states that “She also sings better than me”. He’s also willing to keep it pretty simple, describing his younger self in ‘forbearance’ as “a troublesome young kid [and] a big piece of shit”. If stadium rock is all about puffing yourself up, Gang of Youths relentlessly take the obvious approach.
The self-deprecation is familiar. What’s truly new to “angel in realtime” is the specificity and cohesiveness of its storytelling. Previous Gang of Youths works have touched on Le’aupepe’s personal struggles often, but rarely on a larger scale than vignette form – if there’s a critique to be levied at the brilliant ‘Go Farther in Lightness’, it’s that the songs skew more towards generalities than personal stories. Conversely, “angel in realtime” is deadly consistent in its storytelling, circling round and around the passing of Le’aupepe’s father Teluso in 2018, and his son’s cycle of grieving and personal revelation in its wake. It’s a theme foregrounded in almost every song, and even when Le’aupepe writes about other subjects such as his wife, his greater awareness of mortality is a consistent, ghostlike presence.
Thanks to this sense of focus, the album is able to build up a cumulative impact that extends way beyond the singular bangers the band released as singles in the build-up. “tend the garden” was an intriguing sonic change of pace when Gang of Youths put it out in November, but its first-person approach to exploring Teluso’s mistakes is made all the more powerful when “brothers” ruminates on the emotional impact that his choices had on his wider family. Meanwhile, “the man himself” meditates on what Le’aupepe might do in the hypothetical scenario of having children, and that loop is closed when he expresses his firm intent to think about the decision with his wife in the closing track “goal of the century”. The album rewards patience and repeat listens to pull through all its internal conversation, and the emotional impact at the end is legitimately startling, its directness and specificity far removed from any platitudes.
All that makes it sound a little staid and arty, so it can’t be emphasised enough that this is capital S, capital R stadium rock. True, the album is quieter at times than previous efforts, but it’s more than willing to climb to the dizzy heights of the band’s biggest tunes. The lead single “the angel of 8th ave.” is an excellent Springsteen-ish straight rock banger, “the man himself” carries a thumping scream-it-out chorus and “spirit boy” heads through so many dips and rises in mood that it’s practically a miniature rock opera. The band never forget that, even as they circle through the intense emotions of grief and loss the album chronicles, that rock music is supposed to be fun.
Perhaps Gang of Youths are ready to find mainstream, global success in their own way. Well before “angel in realtime”, they signed up with mainstream label Warner Records, a clear sign of industry backing that’s clearly given them a bigger promotional platform than ever. Their hard work touring through the lengthy between-albums hiatus has built an enthusiastic fandom – they’re set to play O2 Academy Brixton, where indie big hitters like Phoebe Bridgers and Foals are also visiting this year, as part of the album tour in a few weeks, and they’re nudging two million monthly listeners on Spotify. What’s genuinely impressive about this rise is that it’s been achieved without an ounce of compromise on the band’s part. They’ve remained themselves all the way through – unquestionably sincere, slightly apologetic, always thoughtful and committed to producing music that you feel with your whole body. That’s the kind of stadium rock that’ll stand the test of time.