Album review: Magnolia Park – Baku’s Revenge
Up-and-coming Florida pop-punks Magnolia Park deliver a masterclass in hooks – with a dark twist – on debut album…
“What we’ve got is alright, but we can do a lot more than what we’re doing now.” When Magnolia Park started out in 2019, they were – by their own admission – just your average pop-punk band. Keeping things simple with tunes plucked straight from the blink-182 playbook, the Orlando, Florida six-piece played fun songs that made for a good band, but one that looked unlikely to alter the landscape of alternative music in any significant way. Then, things changed.
“A couple of the guys came to the rest of us and said, ‘Hey, we’ve been working on some stuff that’s a little different and we want to know what you think,’” recalls softly-spoken frontman Joshua Roberts. “Up until that point we were just a little pop-punk band with no layers underneath the songs and nothing auxiliary in there to augment the music – it was real bare-bones stuff. But then we started doing something that was completely different to what other bands were doing at the time.”
2020 single Outside – an electro-infused emo number about the despairs of mental illness, written by guitarist Tristan Torres the day after he tried to take his own life – was the first song released by Magnolia Park after their sonic shift. And, despite being written in a moment of heart-wrenching anguish, it marked the beginning of a new chapter for a band who are now one of the most exciting voices in pop-punk. Since then, the sextet have swiftly built a reputation as a forward-thinking and inclusive outfit, and it’s something they’ll continue to celebrate with the release of new EP Heart Eater, due June 10 via Epitaph.
A vibrant collection of four modern pop-punk slammers, it’s a release that cements Magnolia Park – completed by guitarist Freddie Criales, bassist Jared Kay, drummer Joe Horsham and keyboardist Vincent Ernst – as the must-hear band of the summer. Drawing on their diverse past experiences (all six members have been in bands before, ranging from pop-punk and metalcore to deathcore and progressive post-hardcore) as well as a love of ’00s rock heavyweights Linkin Park, Paramore and Panic! At The Disco, they’re well on their way to mastering a brand of contemporary pop-punk that places them alongside the likes of Meet Me @ The Altar, Hot Milk and Stand Atlantic at the forefront of the genre’s continued rebirth.
There is, however, more to their current triumph than the music. Like the aforementioned trio of bands, Magnolia Park represent pop-punk’s ongoing pivot towards diversity and inclusivity. A band with members from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, representation has always been a part of what they do, something which, as Joshua explains, stems in part from their frustrations at the lack of diversity they witnessed in alternative music when they were younger.
“When I was growing up, the only band that represented our culture was Gym Class Heroes,” he remembers. “There probably were others, but in terms of bands that got the limelight, they felt like the only one to me. That was really frustrating. I get the fact that, in our culture, it’s not as common to do this style of music, but I still feel like there should have been more representation back in the day. I’m just glad that, now, there are people who are doing it for the kids like us of the future.
“It’s essential for us as a band to do our part,” Joshua continues. “There are minorities in Magnolia Park that weren’t represented in the scene or the world at large, so the fact that we’re now able to make music that resonates on that deeper level is very important to us. We all grew up with this music and we all have those songs that touch our hearts. Now, I want to create those songs for others.”
Magnolia Park’s desire to be a voice for those communities who are underrepresented in the alternative scene has helped Joshua and his bandmates foster a strong connection with a fanbase whose numbers are growing at pace. As well as being vocal about representation, they retain an active presence on social media, utilising platforms like TikTok and #PopPunkInColour to foster an ongoing conversation with their audience. Talking about important issues that matter to them, as well as dabbling in a little tomfoolery (the band have become notorious for memes about Harry Styles, and more recently spoofed their own version of Who’s That Pokèmon? to tease a collaboration with Mayday Parade vocalist Derek Sanders), Magnolia Park are using all means available to them to make sure fans feel in touch with what they’re doing. But, as Joshua explains, it’s more than just a marketing ploy.
“We know how important that side of things is,” he nods. “We love our fans – without them, we wouldn’t get to do this – so we’ll often spend all day going through thousands of messages and comments, and DM people back or answer questions. It’s important to us that if people reach out they don’t feel like no-one is listening.”
When it comes to conversations via music, honesty is integral to Magnolia Park’s approach. The band have long written about their experiences with mental health; it’s a subject at the centre of their most popular songs like 10 For 10, Sick Of It All and 2009, while it’s integral to what they’ve done with Heart Eater. Recent single Feel Something – a cathartic dose of soul-searching pop-punk – finds Joshua singing, ‘Don’t say it’s ok to not be ok / Do you think I like it when I get this way? / I’m sorry I’m angry at myself / I’m sorry I haven’t asked for help.’
His words speak to the nuance with which Magnolia Park approach the subject of mental health, and how they’re looking to push the conversation away from the dangerous ‘sad boi’ trope which trivialises what are very real and serious experiences.
“We try our best to be as honest as possible when it comes to talking about mental health,” guitarist Freddie explains. “Sometimes, I feel like I hear songs that are selling mental health and depression, and glorifying it – that’s the last thing we’d ever want to do, because it’s a very serious thing. Everyone in this band knows someone who’s died because of mental illness, so our approach will always stem from a pure and honest place, but it’ll be one that tries to offer a little light, too. Mental health can sometimes feel like this big dark hole you can get sucked into, and sometimes you need to talk about it in that way, but we always look to offer the hope and the insight so people know that things will get better.”
The duality that exists between the very real, dark experiences of mental illness and the hope which stems from overcoming those moments is present throughout Magnolia Park’s back-catalogue. Freddie points to the band’s song Tonight – a collaboration with fellow pop-punker Lil Lotus – as a good example of Magnolia Park’s approach. A dramatic, over-the-top proclamation of love in the context of a world that feels unfair and hopeless, it shows how the band are willing to go to some pretty dark places (‘No point in saying goodbye / It feels like suicide / I don’t fucking care if I die tonight’) while retaining a sense of sincerity and levity in the music.
“You have to be sincere when you’re talking about this stuff, because it’s no joke,” Freddie says. “We have songs that go over the top, like Tonight, which is about driving a car off a cliff, but then when the lyrics are placed in the full context of the track, you see how it’s a song about love and it’s playing up to those intense feelings. We have lots of songs that talk about anxiety, depression, grief and sadness because those are important things that are worthy of discussion, but it’s not a trend. No-one wants to feel this way.”
Magnolia Park’s lyrical approach is similar when covering subjects away from mental health. Another recurring theme of the band’s music is financial hardship. Their biggest song, 10 For 10, finds Joshua singing about the stresses of an empty bank account and a broken down car, while Feel Something sees him lament how, ‘My credit card is two months overdue / I’ve got to choose between gas or food.’
Like mental health, money worries are another universal life experience that’s affected the members of Magnolia Park. Choosing to write about that hardship is, Joshua says, a message to their fans that the band are often going through the exact same things they are, while Freddie is keen to point out how writing about such subjects is demonstrative of the belief that their music should “always be about real life and real issues”.
“We’ve struggled in that [financial] sense, and it’s important to let people know,” Joshua says. “We’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops and sacrifice a lot to get this band going. It’s been gruelling, quitting our jobs and everything, and yeah, we’re kinda broke, but money isn’t everything – we believe in Magnolia Park so much, and we’re doing it for us and for the people that believe in the band, too.”
“The effects of COVID mean a lot of people are struggling financially,” Freddie adds. “So it’s definitely a relatable thing that makes sense for us to be talking about. No-one associated with this band is rich, put it that way!”
They may be “kinda broke”, but in terms of the barometers of success that matter (having great music and making a genuine connection with their audience), Magnolia Park are onto a winner. And, as the release of Heart Eater approaches, their ambitions are still growing. Their current successes are all well and good, but Joshua, Freddie and co. want more. As they prepare for the biggest moment of their career, Magnolia Park are intent on storming the UK, building a world all of their own and unseating the biggest band in the modern rock scene…
Heart Eater was recorded during an intense, whirlwind week in California with the help of producers Matt Malpass (YUNGBLUD, Machine Gun Kelly), Andy Karpovck and Andrew Wade (Wage War, Trash Boat). An EP conceived very much in the moment, Magnolia Park knocked out nine songs and then eventually reduced them down to four. Adding to the intensity that comes with creating a full EP in just seven days, the band set themselves the unenviable task of ensuring that, in their own words, “every song is a banger”.
“We’ve got to come out with a hit,” is how Joshua describes their working mantra.
Hits, bangers… however it is you want to label the merits of an undeniable pop-punk anthem, Heart Eater delivers. Opening track Feel Something offers one of the biggest pop-punk choruses of the year, while Tokyo is Magnolia Park’s bid for a crossover hit, as they aim to transcend the pop-punk scene by taking influence from The Weeknd and Joy Division, throwing saxophone melodies and electro beats aplenty into their musical melting pot.
Living up to the promise to write music that reflects real life, mental trauma, hardship, betrayal and heartbreak all rear their head on Heart Eater. The biting pop-punk of Gravedigger – which was largely freestyled in the studio – is Magnolia Park’s take on a bitter break-up song, and a track where Joshua admits to being more than a little “salty” about a recent relationship that turned sour.
“That song is probably going to get me in trouble with some people, but that’s okay…” he chuckles.
Heart Eater is packed with stories of the trials and tribulations that life brings, but Magnolia Park continually present their tales in a way that ensures the positive vibes linger. The band’s love of anime, particularly the work of Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, is a big influence throughout, and something that speaks to the loftier ambitions Magnolia Park have when it comes to the world-building and lore around the band.
“We’re setting up a whole universe with Magnolia Park,” Freddie explains. “We have multiple characters, like Baku who’s in the Feel Something video, and if you buy the vinyl or the CD you can open it up and see them all in our world. There’s going to be a story that unfolds over time and takes things deeper, and the ultimate ambition in that regard is to do our own anime. I won’t say anything else, because we want there to be a little mystery around it and for the fans to come up with their own lore.”
Magnolia Park’s world building will likely continue when the band release the full-length album they’re currently working on – a project that they tell Kerrang! is due “relatively soon” – but there’s plenty for them to accomplish before then. At the start of June, they head over to the UK for the first time to play Slam Dunk Festival, with a short run of co-headline shows alongside Lil Lotus also taking place. Naturally, the band are stoked, with Joshua promising “bangers, high energy and a real feeling of community” from the gigs, while he also declares that Slam Dunk will see Magnolia Park and their peers from pop-punk’s new breed “make history together”.
Given the momentum behind them right now, you wouldn’t bet against Magnolia Park living up to every word of Joshua’s hype, but the belief he and Freddie have doesn’t stop with conquering the UK. Push the pair on their broader ambitions, and the goal is simple: become the biggest modern rock band in the world.
“As far as pure band aims go, we want to be at the level of Bring Me The Horizon,” Freddie states. “We want to get to that point and then surpass it.”
“Get there, collaborate with them, get past them,” Joshua nods.
Success purely for themselves, though, isn’t what Magnolia Park has ever been about. Yes, they want to be massive, but it’s not about the status, the streams and the shows getting bigger. Bringing our conversation to a close, Freddie affirms that the ultimate ambition for Magnolia Park is to make a positive change in the world.
“Creating quality music is one thing, but once we get bigger and have more pull, we want to do more to champion the causes that are important to us,” Freddie concludes. “Mental health is the biggest one, but whether it’s that, homelessness or the further spreading of inclusivity and acceptance, getting those messages out there is the main thing. The big vision for Magnolia Park has always been to create positive change.”
Magnolia Park’s EP Heart Eater is out June 10 via Epitaph. The band play Slam Dunk Festival and tour the UK in June.
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