December 5, 2023 - Reviews

TRACK & MUSIC VIDEO REVIEWS: Echo Strike – Rabbit Hole, Not Going to Follow, Hit or Miss, Infection & Running on Empty

SECOND DRAFT written on: December 3rd 2023 by Matthew Bailey

For the first time on my blog, I’ll be reviewing a literal handful of promotional singles and their accompanying visuals for an upcoming studio album. The album in question is “Wonderland” from international pop rock / alt indie pop band Echo Strike, a follow-up to their breakup-themed record – and one of my favorite albums of 2022 – “Can’t Do Anything Right”. As you may have guessed, “Wonderland” is inspired by the beloved children’s novel “Alice in Wonderland” and like its predecessor, a concept album of sorts.

Based off the tones and sounds presented on these five singles, in addition to the final moments of my album breakdown of “Can’t Do Anything Right” with Echo Strike’s lead vocalist Randy Van Gelder from last year, I can report that “Wonderland” will be a substantially upbeat record. And though it will undoubtedly explore similar themes of love, heartbreak and moving forward from said heartbreak, the vibe will be mostly, if not entirely, dancefloor-oriented thanks to the electro-pop sounds utilized by Echo Strike on this album.

Expanding on the “visual album” approach of “Can’t Do Anything Right” where a majority of tracks were given distinct visual treatments, these five music videos play out like narrative short films. Two of them are practically experimental films, which is funny since they’re both animated. For me, the incorporation of animation into the promotion of this album proves that Echo Strike’s music video for “Never Too Late” off the “Can’t Do Anything Right” record wasn’t a one-and-done attempt at using animation to articulate their lyrics and themes. And with the exception of one video, the Echo Strike band members appear in some shape or form in this anthology / visual EP of sorts.

I’ll kick things off with “Rabbit Hole”, the first of the two animated videos and the beginning of this journey into Echo Strike’s Wonderland. Like Alice’s descent into the rabbit hole led by the White Rabbit, this song involves the protagonist (portrayed as a lonely young man in the video) exiting his humdrum reality through a literal leap of faith. The song’s piano-driven electronica beat and expressive lyrics (“Come now, heart is pumping / Blinding lights, get jumpin’ / This place, got to know / Call it the Rabbit Hole”) help convey the sense of excitement and euphoria the protagonist feels along the way and upon arrival at this mysterious, extraordinary world.

Given the cyberpunk aesthetic of the music video, you can picture Randy on the track as this Morpheus-like character – who just so happens to do gigs at this nightclub which serves as the centerpiece of the video – beckoning the protagonist and the listener to take that life-altering plunge. On the subject of Randy, the AI technology used to craft this genuinely stunning video is so impressive, I assumed upon first viewing that the shots of Echo Strike performing were REAL! And speaking of “The Matrix”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of, yes, the nightclub scene from that film but also the premise of “Kid’s Story”, a standout segment from the “Animatrix” animated anthology film. Of all these videos, “Rabbit Hole” exhibits the perfect blend of sound, tone and visual in the sense that the video looks exactly the way the song sounds and feels like! Already, this is one of my favorite tracks off the record and I imagine it’ll be the same for many people who hear this song and watch its video.

In addition to one’s escape from reality, another theme established on “Wonderland” is resilience against the harshness of one’s environment. The live-action music video “Not Going to Follow” delivers a delightfully colorful take on rebelling against the external forces meant to destroy our individualities. In a dull, sepia-colored town, one of its citizens, played by a flamboyantly-dressed Randy, leaves his home and magically spreads color to the lives of his fellow townspeople. The end result is a joyous outdoor celebration that perfectly matches the song’s vibrant, sunny instrumental. The lyrics to this song are appropriately self-empowering as they encourage us to follow our own life paths and reject the man-made ones that go against our values and beliefs.

During my first listen and viewing, I admittedly felt a sense of thematic dissonance hearing these lyrics and seeing Randy’s Pied Piper-like character working his magic. But if you dig deeper into the video and song, you realize that Randy ISN’T a Pied Piper at all. Like Neo in “The Matrix”, Randy’s character broke out of his mental and emotional prisons and influences the townspeople to do the same. Of course, not everyone will understand, let alone take that leap, and that’s where you get a climactic moment in the video involving a bearded man resisting Randy’s magical charms via a hilarious dance-off. In short, the video is irresistibly fun but the lyrics, which I suspect will relate to a particular moment or song earlier in the tracklist, demand a little extra focus.

Sticking with live-action a bit longer, we have “Hit or Miss” which, from a production standpoint, is a continuation of Echo Strike’s occasional dabbles into decade-defined genres and sounds, like the disco throwback “1978” off their “Dirty Clean Sexy Mean” record. In this case, we’re treated to a gleefully retro synth pop anthem that, if it was recorded in the 1980s, would’ve fit nicely over an energetic film montage like the “Scarface” sequence set to Paul Engemann’s timeless “Push it to the Limit” for example (the sonic influence of which I couldn’t help but notice – as a huge “Scarface” fan – on this track).

Funny enough, the song and video actually owe a lot to classic, pop-driven combat sports films of the 80s, the three most notable being “The Karate Kid”, “Rocky III” and “Rocky IV” (Sorry, “Raging Bull” doesn’t count! I said POP-DRIVEN!). The video, filmed entirely in Argentina, begins with a prizefighter bribed to take a dive in his upcoming match by a gangster played by a Marsellus Wallace-channeling (sans the bald head) Randy Van Gelder. And like Bruce Willis’ character in “Pulp Fiction”, our hero ignores the bribe and focuses on the match and the pride his loved ones will feel if he wins it.

Lyrically, Randy (not the gangster) is facing an opponent of his own: the insecurity he feels over losing his recent love interest. Driven by the song’s warbly synths and throbbing percussion, he gets into training montage mode on the pre-hook (“I gotta run, run, run / Gotta catch the sun / So I light the fire, to take it higher”) and, adopting the courage and focus exhibited by many a boxer in the squared circle, makes a valiant effort to reclaim this girl’s love on the RIDICULOUSLY CATCHY chorus! The second verse adds an extra layer of depth to what could’ve been a simple ‘give love a try again’ song. Randy recalls his first bout with regret at the age of 5 and how, over the years, he learned to cope with regret through confidence and determination to do and be better. And thanks to the message of the aforementioned “Not Going to Follow”, the hook on “Hit or Miss” takes on a more self-affirmative meaning.

Which leads to the BEST live-action video in this package, “Infection”. If “Hit or Miss” involves a second chance at love, “Infection” deals with the enamored feeling that, depending on how you deal with heartbreak (more on that in a bit), may spur someone to try again – or try at all – at the game of love. Using a zombie-creating virus as the driving theme of the video and song is PURE GENIUS! As the title states, Randy’s INFECTED by this woman, and not only is he incapable of shaking her off his mind, but he’s changing into someone completely different. In zombie terms, swap the word “brain” with “heart” and you’ll know exactly what this song is getting at!

Randy wisely keeps the intent of this lovesick man open-ended, as we’re left to ponder whether his attraction towards this potential love interest is healthy or not. This is reflected in the subtly salacious tone of Randy’s songwriting and vocal delivery, particularly in the song’s bridge where he sounds rather……hungry for this woman. But despite the ‘undead’ imagery woven into the lyrics, the song’s main theme of infatuation is universally relatable, which in turn adds to the magnetic appeal this song has and will continue to garner. As I stated, “Infection” boasts the best live-action music video in this collection, and that’s due to the loving homage to the zombie genre it delivers from start to finish. From the IMPRESSIVE zombie makeup and simplistic, post-apocalyptic setting (think of the events leading up to “The Walking Dead” or “The Last of Us”) to the references to memorable zombie moments in film, like the iconic “Thriller” dance to the zombie/human love story presented in the 2010 zom-rom-com “Warm Bodies” (take note of the final shot before the end credit / blooper reel sequence). And you can tell that everybody, zombie and human, had a BLAST on-set and it shows in this delightful, witty and entertaining-as-hell video!

And last but not least, we have my top favorite song and music video of the five: “Running on Empty”. This is where this brief journey into and across Wonderland veers into the dark territory of heartbreak. Over an airy, immersive, vaporwave-esque beat, Randy sings from the perspective of a man who unapologetically turns his back on his ex after a frustrating roadblock in their relationship. The verses are delivered in this low register, consisting of brief phrases meant to sound like indifferent responses during a heated argument (“Tough shit, you’re mad / It’s rough, I ain’t sad”, “Now you need to know / What it’s like to sleep on the floor”). The key to truly understanding this song comes in the form of the melancholic vibe hovering over the hook. Yes, he sings “You, you’re running on empty / You gotta be lonely without me”, but you can tell that through all the nose-turning and chest-puffing he does on the verses, he’s actually concerned for his ex’s emotional stability. And despite the ‘toxic’ nature of the lyrics, the song itself isn’t about who’s right or wrong but how we feel, post-breakup, about the other person even if we were wronged in some way.

The animated visuals for “Running on Empty”, presented in a side-scroller video game style, are masterful in their simplicity and effectiveness. Throughout the video’s runtime, we follow a white, cardboard cutout-looking character wearing red shoes running through a series of brightly-colored landscapes. During the second verse where Randy mentions “sleeping on the floor”, the character runs into one of its kind lying on the ground, ignorant at how tired our lead is feeling at this point. After a transitional wipe, it continues running – all alone with no endpoint in sight. And while I won’t spoil what happens to it during the video’s final moments, it’s one of the most emotional and unforgettable conclusions you’ll see to a music video all year!

And to think this collection of songs and videos is but a taste of what’s in store with “Wonderland”. Sonically and visually, these five chapters of Echo Strike’s fantastical journey into electro-pop left me highly entertained and genuinely excited for their upcoming album. Like “Can’t Do Anything Right”, I won’t be surprised if we get more versatile visuals for some, if not the rest, of the other tracks. But for now, these delightful and enjoyable singles and videos should keep us satisfied until the final product drops!

“Rabbit Hole”, “Infection” and “Running on Empty” are now available on Spotify and YouTube. “Not Going to Follow” and “Hit or Miss” are scheduled for release on both platforms.

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