Banks’ highly anticipated debut, Goddess, was one 2014’s most bewitching efforts, expertly blending brooding R&B with melancholic narratives of anguish, self-destruction and redemption. The record’s naked introspection established Banks as one of contemporary music’s rawest and most vulnerable songwriters, and her sonic ambition, emphasised by a sustained willingness to experiment with electronica and trip-hop, allowed her to carve a distinctive, personal space within a saturated musical genre. Her sophomore effort, The Altar, is even more tenacious, as the songstress continues to refine and expand upon the razor-sharp formula of her debut, incorporating a musical landscape that is substantially darker and richly diverse.
Thematically, Banks continues to dissect the origins of her unsuccessful relationships in the distinctive manner we have grown to expect. More prominent this time around, however, is a newfound self-assurance and unbending confidence in her lyricism, which is notably more confrontational and unfiltered. The formula is flipped on The Altar, as Banks’ transitions into a role of strength unseen in previous releases. “I think you need a weaker girl” she croons on Weaker Girl, a track which infuses 80s electro-funk beats with an orchestral backing, taunting her lover that he no longer meets her standards, “I’ma need a bad motherfucker like me”. The robotic Gemini Feed, a SOHN-produced metaphorical middle finger, is even more vicious, as she berates the emotionally manipulative tendencies of her ex-partner, “If you would’ve let me grow, you could’ve kept my love”. Tracks like Fuck With Myself, the sultry lead single for the record, ooze self-empowerment, as the songstress unapologetically affirms “I fuck with myself more than anybody else” over a witch-pop production.
The record’s formidable lyricism is complimented by the immediacy of its lavish production, which includes offerings from Goddess alumni Tim Anderson and Chris Taylor. The urban Trainwreck boasts an exhilaratingly swaggering pace, as Banks spews rage, with an almost rap-like delivery. The Altar is packed with tracks that indulge in their own sonic atmospheres, from the haunting pre-chorus of electro-alternative Poltergeist, to the theatrical 27 Hours, which contains a build-up of soft piano strokes that leads to a rush of bombastic synths over which the songstress belts “I killed everything we were, baby murder was a case”. Elsewhere, Judas, described by the singer as “jagged black and blue song”, is a fascinating detour, infusing hip-hop elements with light strings and backing vocals, while This Is Not About Us is one of the catchiest, commercial and immediately accessible tracks that Banks has released to date thanks to its up-tempo electro-infused production.
Banks finds herself at her most introspective on the record’s quieter moments. The alt-pop ballad, To The Hilt, finds her reminiscing about the man she used to be with before her fame with her signature poignant vocal delivery, “now I’m drained creatively, I miss you on my team”. Mother Earth is stripped back and deeply spiritual, as the songstress explores the depression she faced when she was younger, while the brooding Mind Games contains some of Banks’ finest lyricism.
From start to finish, The Altar, with its mix of tight white-knuckle electro-pop and scorching slow-burning passages, is a refreshingly unapologetic and passionate record that demonstrates Banks growth both artistically and personally. With a new found confidence, Banks has fully immersed herself in her ominous R&B aesthetic, and the end result is one of this year’s most compelling and convincing offerings.