Happy 2023 from all us here at rrramble! After a well deserved break, what better way to start the year than with the second album of the Bristol-based punk star that is Billy Nomates.
After their self titled debut was named a 6 Music Album of the Year, with Billy tipped as 'one to watch' by the Guardian, their latest offering CACTI has been hotly anticipated. Recorded at their flat and Invada Studios, they've said “I do try to lean into the biggest feelings that I have at the time of creating stuff and I think I felt very vulnerable creating CACTI.” Has it lived up to the hype, or fallen short of their incredible potential? We asked three of our writers to tune in and find out...
I can feel the vulnerability that Billy Nomates mentioned in an NME interview about the album. It is honest, and it oozes vulnerability. The spiky (haha get it) lyrics, driving bass, synths and production allow meaning to flow from this album.
You can see this, particularly in ’saboteur forcefield’, where she explores self-defeating behaviours. This line made my heart perk up to attention: "Things are going well and so I better put a stop to it". It's such a recognisable line that really leapt out at me. There is something about how casual it is that captures how easy it can be to follow those thoughts in our minds and start to pull apart something we wanted. She asks herself,
“When I felt everything so sincerely
Why've I gotta tear it into little pieces?”
It speaks to those circles we find ourselves in, wondering why we act the way we do. Why, why, why. You can feel 'why' questions throughout this album, and you can sometimes feel grasps for meaning in these struggles.
Then after ’saboteur forcefield’ we are thrown into the haunting ’roundabout sadness’. Its sound that leaps out from the acoustic character of the rest of the album, feeling less produced, looser, and less polished, almost like a live recording. It feels unsettling and crashes through you.
It was at this point that I found it hard to connect to this album. I think my brain kept trying to pin this down but, whilst the tracks do feel connected and somehow cohesive, they are all different and that's how it's meant to be. This isn't an album you start and immediately know what you will get the whole way through. That can, especially in the case of ’roundabout sadness’ feel uncomfortable, but it's meant to be.
I think this album follows the current pattern of vulnerability and casting oneself as the sometimes-villain, or simply just as someone who isn't breezing through life and being honest about that struggle. These feelings aren't neat. It would be so easy to simply wait until all of the feelings are pulled together, neat, understood and in the past. But there is something unsettled and messy here, and I love it and appreciate hearing it. This album feels in the middle of it all; it feels present and it feels real.
I feel like, at least in the music echo chamber Spotify puts me in, long gone are the polished pop stars from when I was a kid (unless I need a nostalgia hit). In the current stream of music, we are getting more of something else right now. This album is mostly self-produced, with Billy playing most of what we hear. Which I think speaks to her overall message as an artist. The process of creating her music, her views on the industry, are inherently connected with the honesty of her approach and her words.
Billy Nomates also said in the NME interview, “You have to just lean into the truth of how you feel, and so I did”. And I really think she was successful in doing this. That is how this album feels. Is it always enjoyable? Not always, especially not the first time you hear it. Especially when you maybe notice some of your struggles in it. Just as she injected vulnerability into the creation of this, it asks you to be open to vulnerability whilst listening to it. Which can be tricky, but it's necessary and I want to hear more.
NME Quotes from here - https://www.nme.com/features/music-interviews/billy-nomates-interview-2023-cacti-3377120
It is impressive that Billy Nomates’ terrific CACTI is able to create such a clarified visual spectacle through sound. So close to sitting among the greatest albums of all time – only without a tune that contrasts the rest, or one which truly reinvents punk – this record is dizzyingly good. It is frantic, searching for answers and balance. It is a dark march to the soul and back, likely to prompt a flurry of head nods and eyes closing.
Nomates does the work, dancing through these tracks’ videos (sincerely, check them out) while playing most instruments herself. A celebrating loner, her opening track ‘balance is gone’ succeeds as it so perfectly sets up the later introspections, all the while being the most disco track in this anthology. “I just go round and round”, Billy repeats, so much so it disorientates. Each of these songs subtly adds to the painting of a maze where this artist is lost. The odes which follow, about mistakes and self-determinism, are quests for resolve, or ruminations on the rough that comes with life’s smooth. It’s an addictively mystifying journey, and the running in circles loops nicely on ‘roundabout sadness’.
There are three attempts at grafting something new, starting with the atmospheric ‘saboteur forcefield’. Sensitively pensive, often frank, Nomates suggests and deconstructs their penchant for interrupting, even sabotaging the good that comes their way, as “we can’t have anything nice”. If one of the rocker’s strengths is to piece together a jigsaw of images, so precisely too, then ‘forcefield’ is a fine example – the little film served up sublimely blurs between a fencing match and the woods. Sublime.
Sticking with cinematic action scenes, ‘vertigo’ is another tentpole piece, this one honestly vibing, like one big exercise in free running and jumping. All the while Nomates is seemingly embracing her feelings of displacement and feeling like an old soul, as she asks, “living in a modern world, what’s the difference?” The world of CACTI is cosmic and always bending, thanks to the guitars and the many other orchestral parts that join in. Where other fragments of the collection march outwards, ‘vertigo’ travels upwards, and that idea of heightening is glorious stuff.
Then there’s ‘spite’, sitting halfway, a clever owning of autonomy and kicking choices past, present and future in the shins. What sends this from a great to, again, near-classic, is the inference I got that Nomates is pitching their spite in multiple realities. Maybe that interpretation is helped by the music video again, as who am I to resist another form of media to read into, especially when it comes to such a fascinating artist as this Bristol-born creator?
The hard-fought and won almost-masterpiece that CACTI amounts to is a spirited psychological battle, oozing with nuance, and certainly worth your ears.
Having listened to ‘blue bones (deathwish)’ a lot over the past six months I was a little apprehensive as to whether this album could meet the bar Billy Nomates had set. I didn’t know if CACTI would see Billy Nomates hitting her stride, or mark a failed experiment of a second album. What I never expected was just how deep a connection I felt to this album. Listening to it was like meeting someone for the first time and instantly knowing you're going to be close friends.
This album is funky and postpunky with a tasty hint of new wave: right from the beginning with ‘balance is gone’ you get Tor Maries’s outstanding vocals, delicious bass, aethereal synth, everything! It’s such a rich listening experience that perfectly captures the feel of the album: the sense of being sad and confused and a little bit numb, but knowing I’m, like, too strong and way too cool for that to hold me back. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, but CACTI manages to process serious feelings of sadness, isolation, and anxiety, and also be so much fun to listen to.
There are definitely a couple of tracks that don’t quite stick the landing; these are the slower tracks that feel a bit more miserable, like ‘black curtains in the bag’, or ‘roundabout sadness’ in particular. Not only was the tempo slower and the lyrics more morose, but the instrumentals on these tracks didn’t fit together cleanly, so I ended up feeling both bummed out and disconnected from the music.
But I can forgive these faults because the bummer tracks are immediately followed by a track like ‘spite’ which comes in swinging with a hit of empowering anger right when I need it, lifting me up until I feel unstoppable in the face of adversity. Or Maries turns around with a tune like ‘blue bones (deathwish)’ that I can dance to with my friends or sing along to one my own, and either way feel resilient and feel seen.
Even something like ‘fawner’, which definitely verges on the ‘bummer’ category I criticised before, has the power to be deeply affective. Stripping back the synth and switching to acoustic guitar redirects attention to Maries’s lyricism; although it’s sad, the track also feels comforting, like coming back down to earth after a bad night. Instrumentally, it is very different to the rest of the album, but the lyrics and vocals bind the album together with a consistent feel, so it doesn’t seem out of place.
Ultimately this is the album’s biggest strength. Billy Nomates is not afraid to experiment and push her sound in different directions, but still strikes a distinctive tone that ties the album together. I can pick any track and it feels like Billy Nomates, and I can trust that Billy Nomates will make me feel something. This album has its flaws, but its willingness to experiment and emotional authenticity makes CACTI resonate with me. It came along at just the right time in my life and filled the perfect niche in my tastes. I feel like I’ve found a kindred spirit in this post-punk symphony, and that makes it euphoric to listen to.
Edited by Harriet