RATING: 3.5 / 5
was first introduced to a wider audience when her song "Before I Ever Met You" was played on BBC Radio 1. She immediately won fans over with her deeply honest portrayal of a destructive relationship, and her hauntingly beautiful voice. The Orange County based singer then linked up with other pop-tinged dark R&B maestro The Weeknd, and opened for him on his 2013 tour. In 2014 she released her debut commercial LP, Goddess,
which received mixed reviews for its lack of focus and for how Banks often was eclipsed by the lush beats of the album. Her sophomore album The Altar
is a continuation of this. It's also a deeply personal album about broken, destructive relationships.
is a concept album in in puzzle form, jumping from event to event in the timeline of a failed relationship. Banks details a breakup that's more like a prison break. It goes through the phases of escape from a relationship that only serves to destroy those within it. She builds a gloomy world with only two inhabitants, her and her unnamed paramour, in which the two of them feed on each other's worst tendencies. In "Gemini Feed," "Mind Games," "Judas," and "Weaker," she explains how her partner constantly drove down her power and self worth in order to make her dependent on him, explicitly stating on "Gemini Feed," "but admit it, you just wanted me smaller."
As they both become more depressive and controlling, they drive each other down and down, into a destructive spiral. But Banks is not content to just wallow in this relationship, and instead details the ways to escape it, explaining in "Fuck With Myself," "Weaker Girl" and "Mother Earth," that it requires self-esteem, personal growth, and a uniquely feminine conception of strength to break out of a constricting relationship. She sings on "Fuck With Myself," "I fuck with myself more than anybody else"
and on "Weaker Girl," "I'ma need a bad motherfucker like me."
She emits an icy aura, a dark confidence.
Sonically, the album shines best when it remains in the depths of the dark, murky R&B that Banks is known for. Throughout, dark echoey 808 drum kicks compliment Banks' light vocals and create hypnotic rhythms that draw the listeners down into the depths of her black and white world. These sparse beats often feature layered vocals from Banks, which together bring attention to the raw emotions expressed by her. The album does have a bad habit of breaking into glitzier more crowded pop choruses. Although this works for some of the more triumphant songs, in many they do not match the rest of the song, and stick out as an appeal to commercial tastes. Banks stays within her lane for most of the music, and it serves her well. When she does deviates from her norm it's done with purpose, like with the acoustic guitar sounds used in the ballad to feminine strength "Mother Earth," where it's used to bring a natural sound that compliment the message of the power of natural strength.
has it's faults, with repetitive tracks that often cover the same ground thematically and musically, and songs that break into pop choruses without justification, but it hits the listener with an earnestness and honesty that is palpable. One cannot deny its ability to communicate a universal experience, and in doing so it creates a soundtrack for the countless people who have experienced such feelings. It carries a truth, the messy reality of what it feels to love someone who is truly terrible for you, and that's what great art does.