As Matt Skiba takes a break from his fellow compatriots in Alkaline Trio, he finds himself in the midst of a genuine solo effort - something he's technically never done before - with split EPs, a solo demo and several side-projects. Anyone who's familiar with Skiba's past work wouldn't begrudge him the tag of being a man who puts the effort in. However with 7 AT albums under his belt, over 15 years of experience and ageing vocal chords, his sound has become so recognisable and distinct, that it sounds like he's had his time in the albeit subtle, limelight. Lyrics have largely been worthy of appraisal throughout his music career as has the emotion he delivers in live performances, but there are only so many chords to string together in sets of three that work, let alone melodies to go alongside. 'Babylon' is all Skiba, taking and updating tracks from 'Demo's', filling a ten song slot. His appearance in the band 'Matt Skiba & The Sekrets' is far too gimmicky for my liking though - a feathered headdress atop a leather/tribal outfit designed by Limb Bizkit guitarist dresser-upper, Wes Borland (who manages to pull it off). Fans of Skiba may be 50-50 on the new look but as for me, well I'd take a slightly balding, vain pumping forehead and 5 o'clock shadow over make up and costumes any day. Not that 'Babylon' or the band should be judged on appearances, but there is a strong (the) 'Cure' vibe about it all, one of the strongest influences for Skiba. It could certainly be deemed as 'just a phase' even for a 36 year old.
Thumping bass and shaking cymbal introduce the beginnings of the albums lead single 'Voices'. "All alone with the voices in your head. Skin & bones, hell knows all the poison that you've been fed." is just as melodic and catchy as ever really, although the use of synth makes one draw comparisons with songs from the 2010 Alkaline Trio album 'This Addiction'. The lyrics also divulge into the albums title during a short interlude. Frankly, its the kind of song that could easily have featured on a Trio record, clearly a Skiba solo piece but with Dan Andriano & Derek Grant providing the subsidiary instrumental work. Its full of guitar slides, snappy percussion and ever faithful fast tempo, making it the sing along track and safest bet as a single release (one to check out). 'All Fall Down' takes a more solemn tone, slowing the rhythm a smidgen and packed with palm muted guitar lines. The slowly sang chorus makes a change to the usual mouthful from Skiba, which is a bit refreshing, but overal, the verses are hollow and the latter stages of guitar sounds vaguely of (already covered) The Damned's 'Wait for the blackout'. Praying that no.3 'Luciferian Blues' bared no relation to 'Demos' haggardly boring 'Razorblade Blues', my prayers did not fall on deafened ears, a new song it is and a the shortest at a second under 3 minutes. Unfortunately the only highlight is the mentioning of the title. "Cast me out, set me free. I left with my doubts and my dignity. No Devil to shout at, no angels it's true, bittersweet Luciferian Blues" seems to be the only redeemable quality of the song until a rocking guitar riff plays under the 2nd repeat of the chorus.
'Haven't You' having appeared on the album before ('Demos') was a familiar sound, no longer a quiet solo acoustic recording, but a clean, electric, proud number. The heartfelt chorus of "I thought I lost it all the day that I lost you. It's taken me until just now to find the truth.. You've always been here haven't you?" packs just as much punch as before except with a backing vocal. This time with more keyboard weirdness and a heavier, fuller sound throughout, it makes for a more accomplished song. Although the final line is no longer delivered with the intensity as before, the whole song gaining full instrumentation is a nice recognition of how worthy a track it is. 'The End Of Joy' sounds as you'd imagine, a dreary and depressing dirge. The guitar, accompanied by a twinkling piano piece makes it feel so dark from the get go. Fans may see it as an upset version of 'Agony & Irony's 'Help Me', with its 2 note lead and structure. If you can't tell, this song doesn't really stir up much feeling at all for me. Track 6 'You' is well placed enough to bring you back around though, still using the keyboards and frowning sound, until a beautifully simplistic chorus again is the greatest part. "You, I watched you dancing, You, out of the ashes, you. dreams of demons kissing in the fire so deeply." stars heavenly female choir like backing up the title word. Verses may be unsatisfying initially but towards the end they pick up and shine with an upbeat tone despite the final note being grissly one. Another track from 'Demos' makes a heroic appearance in the form of 'Olivia' (a.k.a Nausea 'Cruel and Usual'). Without question the strongest song from the previous effort, it takes a second shot changing the one lyric of a feeling into a woman (which was better off left alone in my opinion). Boasting a brilliant chorus bound to put a smile on anyone's face "Th-th-th-th-th-think I'll be leaving now, with Josephine into the light, sick of dreary town. A city of endless night, I'm leaving now I've had my fill with killing time. Tired of falling down, had it with this cruel and usual life." While the chorus vocals are a slightly personal and incoherent jumble, the guitar work scales all over the shop in a delightful manner. Skiba also harmonises with himself rather well with "Olivia, I'll never forget the night we met, no. Olivia I still feel you in my bones". Once again, easily my pick of the bunch.
'Falling Like Rain' sounds fresh out of the 80s thanks to its synth work and effects that drive it forward. It isn't until the bridges and chorus bear their all too familiar heads that seasoned Skiba listeners will brush it off as a medley of both 'Eating Me Alive' & 'P*ss & Vinegar' from 'This Addiction'. True the echoing verses are brand new, but they don't really shine much compared to the recycled melody and chord progression. The 3rd song lifted from 'Demos' 'How the Hell did we get Here' is louder and prouder in a spruced up version that makes use of all the other musical options (the original used a synthetic loop and lone guitar in the chorus). The bouncy keyboard notes a pretty funky but as with the majority of the album, the chorus is the obvious point of interest "Now I gotta level with you baby, I am lost and alone. At the end of this hallway maybe, this house of leaves is a home". It bears some resemblance to 'Lost & Rendered' at times too. Can't forget the whimsical words of "Quiet as cathedral mice.. On Lithium!" either. To my disbelief, 'Angel Of Deaf' made its way to 'Babylon' and even more shocking, it closes the album. The demo version starred vocals that grated with a harsh effect and contrasting poor quality guitar and smooth orchestral strings. Now sang at double the pace, it is a much more enjoyable experience, with crystal clear singing and magical instrument integration. "I can't hear a Goddamn thing, above all the screaming/the anger's deafening. Not a word that you're saying to me" is pretty decent and the dirty guitar solo that follows works superbly. The recording lasts over 7 minutes thanks to a dreading last note spanning an extra unnecessary 4 minutes, meaning not one song on the record goes over 4 minutes.
While its filler tracks are actually tolerable compared to 'Demos', it still isn't quite up to scratch as a solo effort and begs the question: Is Matt Skiba capable of writing anything as grand as/without his Alkaline bandmates? The prime example here is the lesser known 'Hurricane Season' by Dan Andriano (bassist/vocalist of AT) whose solo debut stands a good few feet taller in stature and maturity. Skiba & The Sekrets first show, Matt's hometown in Chicago at The Metro, has been labelled a train wreck. Supposedly spotted heavily drinking before the show, Skiba fluffed his lines royally. Twitter, YouTube and Review sources all claim the same disastrous things. They couldn't finish lead singe 'Voices' for Matt's struggling voice (they tried again later on), the use of a lyric sheet (which floated to the floor a few times) showing Skiba's own unfamiliarity with his own songs, scrappy guitar playing, singing out of key.. not even managing to perform an acoustic Alkaline Trio song, no doubt played hundreds of times before, as an encore. An isolated incident maybe? Not if his backlog of gigs is something to go by - the Trio were renown for drinking heavily in earlier years and still managed to put on fantastic shows, mistakes and all. Could it be that he's just not used to playing with a large group of musicians instead of being part of the 3 musketeers? Or is it possibly drug related, dwindling personal life or even a midlife crisis? I sincerely hope it's the former.