Porridge Radio Take a Leap of Faith on Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky
On the Brighton four-piece’s excellent new record, they expand their massive sound in new and surprising waysMusic Reviews Porridge Radio
For Brighton four-piece Porridge Radio, the fate of their sophomore album, Every Bad, was uncertain upon release. Just look at its March 13, 2020, street date and it’s obvious why one would worry about it being lost amidst the social upheaval. Fortunately, Every Bad was an album remarkable enough to break through the noise with some noise of its own: It established Porridge Radio as a deeply gifted band on the come-up. Led by Dana Margolin and composed of Georgie Stott, Sam Yardley and Maddie Ryall, they went from making a soft, subtle Bandcamp indie to building massive, vociferous slacker-rock songs. Their music is frenetic and unpredictable, melodic despite its cacophonous arrangements. Margolin’s voice, dark and powerful, is more often than not being pushed to the edges of its range, strained as though she’s trying to get every last drop of emotion out of each word she screams. As the record played and each song ended with growing chaos and incendiary performances, one could only speculate what power the next track would hold. It’s fair to wonder the same about a follow-up. When you come out swinging like Porridge Radio had, how long before you run out of steam? Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky, the band’s third album, sees them sidestep the trap that question contains. Waterslide is a masterpiece, finding Porridge Radio, and Margolin especially, in an elevated state. They’re eager to embrace uncertainty, leveling up in every regard, sacrificing none of the intensity that made them stand out.
Part of what makes Waterslide so captivating is that it reminds you what genuine progress looks like: So much of it feels like it would have been unachievable for the band we met two years ago. On songs like “Flowers” and “Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky,” they shed their fierce appearance, exposing their soft side. On the former, Margolin croons over piano chords about a relationship that just won’t end, no matter how much it needs to. The heavy reliance on piano and violin lets the song find a balance between The Fray-style adult contemporary and the artful expressionism of Fiona Apple. You get the sense they’d succeed even if they tilted more towards just one of those extremes. The record’s title track is the smallest thing they’ve made in years; quiet strums of the acoustic guitar close out this wild and unpredictable record, and Margolin walks us through each of the three components of its name. The waterslide symbolizes joy and the diving board fear. The last part, the ladder to the sky, is a metaphor for endlessness. The three together convey an album that wrestles with the good, the bad, and the vastness of our lives.
If Margolin sounds overwhelmed, it’s only natural. The band doesn’t just try their hand at making downcast songs, though: Several moments find them reimagining the ways they can craft something upbeat and loud. Single “The Rip” is the closest they’ve ever come to a pop hit, with the band admitting to some Charli XCX influence on it. Its refrain of “and now my heart aches” is plain-spoken and works perfectly as a hook. While it starts as a pulsating proto-pop song, it turns on a dime into slow, writhing psych-rock. It would sound made up on the spot if it weren’t so meticulous. On “Trying,” the group make something that, were it not for their signature frayed edges and guitar feedback, could have been written by anyone from Big Thief to Fleetwood Mac to Florence + The Machine. Its arcane lyrics that touch on themes of forbidden knowledge aren’t new for the band, who often seem to sing in riddles—what is new here is the more traditional rock song structure. “Trying” sways back and forth, its melody almost hypnotizing you to do the same. It’s some of the easiest listening Porridge Radio have ever offered up.
While Porridge Radio’s lyrics are often rife with cryptic metaphors, keeping you guessing until you reach some illuminating insight, one of their most impressive skills is their use of simple repetition. Several tracks on Waterslide take a line and use it repeatedly, laying into you like the pricking needle of a tattoo gun as the constant impressions make something bigger, something beautiful. The stellar “Birthday Party” contains some of the band’s finest writing; lyrics like “Invite me to your birthday party / Watch me cry across the room” and “Panic sweats you wake up crying / Always feeling kind of sick” unfold like devastating vignettes. However, it is the repeated “I don’t want to be loved” that sells the song. Margolin says it so many times in a row that you both stop believing the message, and watch as it fills gaps in the rest of the track’s narrative. It reveals that the quiet pain and fear of abandonment previously teased stem from insecurity and a belief that our narrator is herself unlovable. Margolin is known for her volatile, moving performance, and her voice here reaches such a fever pitch that each word at the end of the song feels like glass shattering as you receive it.
The band employ repetition again on “U Can Be Happy If U Want To.” They tether the song to a whiny, hovering synth line as it tries to keep its parts from their inevitable drifting out into disorder. Much of the lyricism is concerned with willfully obtuse phrases like, “My voice is stuck to your voice / So everything I say belongs to you,” so the narrative it paints is as jumbled and abstract as a Picasso. Several lines are visceral, but never upsetting—“My skin is tied to your skin / So everything you touch, I touch.” The repetition here comes at the song’s end as Margolin chants “Back, and back, and back” enough times that her voice becomes something more like a drum pattern, lost in a torrent the band have whipped up.
When a band share an album as maximal, raw and enticing as Porridge Radio did with the release of Every Bad, it can feel like dialing things up further is an insurmountable task. There’s an inherent risk of pushing things too far and falling from too great a height. While moments on Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky build on the band’s massive sound, the band find success in embracing their own fears and taking leaps of faith. They show they don’t need to burn down what they’ve built and start over—they can grow outward, not just upward. These songs are some of the best and most inventive they’ve done, and they prove that Porridge Radio, while always burning brightly, are no mere flash in the pan.
Eric Bennett is a music critic with bylines at Post-Trash, The Grey Estates and The Alternative. They are also a co-host of Endless Scroll, a weekly podcast covering the intersection of music and internet culture. You can follow them on Twitter at @violet_by_hole.