Album Review: Banks-The Altar

Before we get into this review, I need to address that this entry is the first real music review I’ve done in a while. It may be a little faulty, so bear with me.
Let’s start with the artist herself. Jillian Banks, AKA Banks, is an electronic R&B and alternative artist from Los Angeles. Her first album, Goddess, garnered enough success to give her a pretty substantial name in the “popular underground” scene (I just coined that term myself. This scene features artists who have a loyal fanbase, critical claim to at least a degree, and maybe even some chart success, but are not overly massive names in modern music. Major examples of this include Alessia Cara, Melanie Martinez, Flume, Carly Rae Jepsen, etc.)
I discovered Banks upon the release of her first album. I remember falling in love with the single “Drowning,” then listening to the whole album.
There were a couple of exceptions, (why is “Fall Over” a thing?) but I liked the album a lot. I revisit its songs to this day.
On Goddess, Banks was trying to be empowering. On the title track, she warns a person that the lover they screwed over was a “goddess,” and not that Banks herself was one.
That was a good route to go, because saying “I’m a goddess” would be more vapid than anything, and it would borderline the purposeful narcissism in which brag rap is characterized.
However, that was the closest thing to self empowerment the album got.
In “Drowning,” she starts off by saying that a wrongdoing lover is going to “get some bad karma.” But in the hook and pre-chorus, she claims that she does things that he does not deserve the effort she’s putting into their relationship, and that she’s “drowning” for this guy.
This is not empowerment: this is an unhealthy relationship.
But my favorite song off of that album was “Someone New,” a tearful guitar ballad where she begs for her lover to stay faithful to her while she goes away.
The song ends with desperate cries of “I promise, baby one day I’ll come back for you.”
This song showcased Banks at her best: a girl in a seemingly healthy relationship who has to sacrifice it for her career.
When I heard about the release of her sophomore album, I was hoping that she would play on this theme more. An album that focused on balancing love life and the demands of being a singer would be unique.
Did she do this? No, not really.
But was The Altar still a strong record? Well…
A lot of people have been pointing out that The Altar shows a different side of Banks, a more confident side.
In “Gemini Feed,” arguably the lead single, Banks mocks a lover for thinking he could “get her to the altar.”
In “F*** With Myself,” she declares “I used to care what you think about me.”
In “Lovesick,” she admits that she is sexually and romantically frustrated, and that she “ain’t even ashamed” of that.
Many people have praised this new aspect of Banks’ message. I, for one, do not hate it. Not at all.
But as I said, my favorite Banks is the emotional, vulnerable one, and that part of her sound was conveyed in two songs.
First, there’s “Mother Earth,” another acoustic guitar ballad, much like “Someone New.”
In this song she comforts someone, maybe a lover, a friend, or a family member, assuring that every time they fall, she’ll be there.
Although this song is close to “Someone New,” when it comes to overall sound, it’s very different in multiple areas.
I remember seeing that Banks wrote this song for her newborn niece because she hated that she had to grow up in such a world where female discrimination is still very evident.
This song is beautiful because it’s not sad, but not necessarily happy, either. It’s somewhere in the middle. I love how Banks belts the chorus in a higher key than what she normally does. The violin solo in the chorus really makes this a special moment on the album. If it were up to me, I would take out the backing vocals, because they distract from the simplicity of the song.
But the closest track to “Someone New” when it comes to the message is “To the Hilt.” Although it’s a piano ballad, both of them deal with similar themes, and Banks’ delivery is full of sadness both times around.
But “Someone New” is by far better, because there are much more raw moments. In the bridge of that song, you could tell Banks was actually close to tears, but in “To the Hilt,” she was faking it. Also, the guitar in “Someone New” added a strange energy to the song, whereas “To the Hilt” used a very general piano melody.
Another song that stood out was “Judas,” not for the meaning, but for the tone. Oddly enough, this song bears a striking resemblance to “The Hills” by The Weeknd.
Okay, hear me out.
Both songs take on a dark, haunting tone. Both of them feature the artists’ lower range on the verses, and a more explosive presence on the chorus (The Weeknd more so than Banks). AutoTune is utilized well in both tracks, because it adds to the ominous, purposefully discomforting mood of the song.
Also, they dated each other a while back. I don’t know if that counts as good evidence, but it happened.
“Trainwreck” is another personal highlight. The song chronicles Banks in panic mode as she tries and fails to gather herself.
When I first heard it, I was not very impressed. The trip-hop production and her borderline rapping in the verses just didn’t sit well with me.
But the more I dissected the lyrics, the more I realized this was intentional. She’s supposed to be going off the rails, the song is called “Trainwreck,” after all.
The high-pitched synths, the increasingly faster tempo, and the shouting but not obnoxious delivery show Banks at her worst, very much different than her usual slinky coolness.
“27 Hours,” a powerful diva ballad, is also worth mentioning. Although Banks doesn’t have a big, powerful voice, per say, her straining added to the darker themes the song deals with. The most powerful thing here is the production, with a pre-chorus that builds up to an excellent beat drop full of her backing vocals, and eventually to one of the best vocal moments of the album on the bridge. As a closer, this is perfect.
Other standouts from the album include “This is Not About Us,” by far one of the most singable things she has ever released, “Lovesick,” in which Banks is honest about her desperation and manages to make it seem seductive, “Gemini Feed,” by far the catchiest song on the album, “F*** With Myself,” which resonated very deeply with me, someone who is her own biggest bully, “Poltergeist,” which features some fantastic production in the opening notes as well as in the staccato chorus, and “Mind Games,” which is, in my opinion, Banks’ biggest translation into a strong dominatrix, and the high quality of the production as well as Banks’ vocals are very convincing.
However, besides the aforementioned “To the Hilt,” The Altar had its duds as well. Clearly the weakest songs were “Haunt” and the aptly named “Weaker Girl.”
On “Weaker Girl,” Banks attempts to compensate the lack of lyrical content in the song by trailing off in her notes and repeating words multiple times (if I hear “bad motherf***er like me” one more, I may get whiplash). I like the overall message of the song, but it could have been executed much better.
“Haunt” tries its best to be a minimalistic, raw R&B track with a snapping beat and backing vocals throughout. However, it comes across as monotonous, and the lack of personality in Banks delivery certainly does not help.
As a whole, The Altar is a good album. I can definitely get behind this new Banks, but I will continue to miss that rawness that made me fall in love with her debut album.

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