REVIEW: Cheat To Win

So I don’t know if I have officially announced this yet, but I’m working on a mini-project I’m referring to as “The Hit List”. The goal is to write at least one article about each band/artist playing at LeakyCon 2016, before LeakyCon actually happens. Will I make it? Let’s be real, probably not. I mean, it’s only week two of doing three articles a week, and it’s Sunday, and this is my second article this week. A-woops. Anyways, here’s a long-overdue review of Draco and the Malfoys’ Cheat To Win. Oh, and Trigger Warning that there will be some brief discussion of consent and the breaking thereof.

One of the interesting things about listening to a Draco and the Malfoys song is you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Sure, Harry and the Potters have varying levels of restraint when it comes to letting their punk flag fly, but there is a recognizable sound to the vast majority of their work. Similar thing with The Whomping Willows – you walk into the ice cream shop and you got two flavors: electric whompy or acoustic whompy, and both varieties have milk and ice and natural flavoring, so you’re not likely to be surprised either way. Heck, my love for Split Seven Ways is well established, but with the possible exception of the percussion on Valedictions, you know exactly what you’re walking into, down to the two or three synths you’re likely to hear.

But Brian Ross and Bradley Mehlenbacher are a little harder to pin down. Sure, after 10+ years we’ve probably heard all the different permutations of the DatM sound, but which sound you’re likely to hear changes with each song. Maybe it’s the classic DatM rocking-and-also-rolling sound. Maybe you’ve got those clean synths, possibly borrowed from Remus and the Lupins. Maybe it’s time for the bluegrass fetish train to roll on back into town. Or if you’re really lucky, it’ll sound like something off of Family, and by that I mean, it will be a song off of Family.

Cheat To Win starts us off with a driving rock song, beginning the album on an energizing note. The drums and guitars are fast, but it’s hard to ever classify Draco and the Malfoys has “hard-rocking”, mostly due to the lighter vocal work they usually employ. This isn’t a bad thing – one of their best assets is that they always, always sound like their having fun. In fact, this less-than-serious approach to vocals pays off with the almost-scatting breakdown that works so well I’m honestly surprised they hadn’t employed this sonic trick before. The lyrics in “Give Me It Back (My Wand)” are servicable, and some of the rhyming has a childlike sense of effortless enjoyment (“It’s pretty good / It’s made of wood”) but Brian and Bradley aren’t trying to say anything deep or meaningful about the character of Draco Malfoy here. They’re just trying to get you ready for the album, as well as knocking out one of the few canon character moments they hadn’t covered before.

After setting the mood, “I Like To Cry” brings on the nostalgia, with a synth sensibility that sounds like it was ripped straight from a Remus and the Lupins GarageBand file. Songs about Draco crying are nothing new, but it’s honestly something that DatM haven’t covered much before. And while it’s well-trodden ground, Brian and Bradley flip the script by having Draco explain that he’s well aware that he cries a lot, and it’s part of what makes him so freakin’ awesome. It’s a really great narrative trick, the song is catchy and nostalgic as hell, and it promotes the idea that being in touch with your emotions is not anathema to masculinity. Not that Draco was ever really a paragon of masculinity (if anything, the Weasley clan seems more steeped in toxic masculinity than anything else), but still.

“Who’s That Puffy Guy” also uses synths, but in a markedly different way. Whereas the previous song’s synths would have fit nicely in Born To Howl, this song’s synths feel more akin to something on Yo Gabba Gabba!  Appropriately, the song is catchy as hell, and quite amusing. It also contains a big They Might Be Giants quote, but after an hour of racking my brain (and iTunes library) I couldn’t figure out which one. So, if anyone could help me out and ease my suffering, that would be much appreciated. While not my very favorite song on the album, “Who’s That Puffy Guy” is definitely up there, and probably the catchiest, in that delightfully vapid, head-bobbing manner. It helps that this fun, poppy song is about one of the most intense moments in the series – when Draco decides not to rat Harry out to the Death Eaters – and recontextualizes it as a Marx Brothers-esque farce. The backing vocals on the chorus at the end are a particularly nice touch, and give me the mental image of a bunch of Death Eaters locking arms, Rockettes style, and swaying side to side, singing along.

After a strong opening, Cheat To Win takes a downturn at this point, starting with a couple covers masquerading as parodies. “Voldemort Arise” is a straight up cover of “Sun Arise” (specifically the Alice Cooper version), but with “sun arise” replaced with “Voldemort”. Aaaaaand… that’s about it. While there’s some humour to be gleaned from lyrics originally praising the life-giving mass of incandescent gas plasma being repurposed to describe the Dark Lord, it’s the kind of song that works a lot better in a live experience. While it does pad out the album and adds a bit of sonic depth, if you’re at home, you’re better off just listening to the Alice Cooper. More successful is their parody of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” – “I Know Every Spell”. Along with “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and “American Pie”, this is one of those songs where parodying it is not a road to making a song – it’s a lyrical high-wire stunt act, and a stunt that is pulled off pretty well. While far from the first parody of this particular Cash song, spells are kind of the perfect fit to replace America’s multi-syllabic city names, and they are all rapidly spit in succession. However, this is another song that would be a lot more effecting and enjoyable in a live performance. It’s not a bad track, but I’m more likely to skip it than most of the other songs on the album.

“That’s Not Cool” is the song on this album that I am most divided on. Musically, it’s no masterpiece, but it’s weird and silly, complete with a synth organ breakdown, so it’s no surprise that I end up firmly in the “like” camp. The whole song also has a droning, rhythmic, almost hypnotic quality to it that lends a lot more listenability than it probably deserves. However, the lyrics are where I start to have qualms. I absolutely adore and respect what Brian and Bradley tried to do here – write a pro-consent song from the POV of Draco Malfoy – but it doesn’t quite come together in practice. My main complaint is with the title itself, the mantra repeated throughout the song – “That’s Not Cool”. This is a song about consent, and while I may be off base, given that this album was released in the summer of 2014, it feels like a direct response to the revelations earlier that year, that some high-profile members of the wrock community had abused their positions and engaged in emotional and sexual abuse. And I’m sorry, but “that’s not cool” doesn’t cut it as a response. If anything, it forcibly reminds me of the 2005 made-for-TV movie, “Spring Break Shark Attack”, where the Bad Teen roofies the Naive Main Character Teen, and the Blonde Been Around The Block Teen tells the Bad Teen “God, you are such a loser.” He is not a “loser” – he is a rapist. To be fair, I’m pretty sure he ends up getting eaten by a shark, but still – that lame response has always stuck in my mind.

It’s possible that the “That’s Not Cool” is supposed to be weak and anemic as a response – after all, this is coming from Draco Malfoy, plus the song actually refers to itself as “this dumb song”. But if that’s the case, scant months after the revelations came out was not the correct time to deploy this song. I want to make it clear that I think there was nothing but good intent behind the making of this song, and I’m inclined to cut any song that rhymes “Blaise Zabini” and “shows his weenie”, but the song ends up missing its mark, which is really too bad. And it doesn’t help that the spirit of the next song runs somewhat counter to this one.

The title track, “Cheat To Win” showcases Draco and the Malfoys at their most comfortable – triumphantly singing a mid-tempo, catchy rock song with braggadocious attitude about something ethically sketchy. Instead of rejoicing in someone else’s dead parents, this song is just generally about, well, cheating. Normally I would be all about a DatM song about the moral grays and how, “when faced with two choices – to die or to sin / you know that we’d all cheat to win”. That’s a really great angle, especially for this late-series/post-series Draco they’ve been singing as for the past couple albums, and it sets up a promise that really pays off farther down the album. But for now, there just is a bit of cognitive dissonance going from one song about following the prescribed rules of society (the explicitly spoken ones, we can get into how the patriarchy subtly incentivizes rape culture at a different juncture), to how sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and the ends justify the means, etc. Of course, the kind of cheating being sung about in this song is simply cheating to gain an advantage, not sexual assault. But putting theses two songs right next to each other invites some awkward comparisons, and tarnishes and otherwise really fun, really great song, reminiscent of the best stuff off of It’s A Slytherin World!

I don’t have too much to say about the next two songs (hey, homonym hat trick!), but for different reasons. “(I’m Givin’ You) All The Magic I Got” is one of those wizard rock love songs that are lacking in any specifics – and that is not in an of itself a bad thing, but I tend to find those a little more on the boring side. It doesn’t help that the song is low-tempo and not that interesting musically for most of its run time. Honestly, it feels like a song written more for the author’s intent than for the audience – and that’s okay! Artists should make art for themselves as well as for their consumers, and hey – I love The Giant Squidstravaganza, so I can’t exactly say I hate all forms of self-indulgence. This one just didn’t speak to me much. “NHNA” is a song about how Hufflepuffs suck. It could be the worst sounding song in all of human history and I would still love it. Ha-ha, Hufflepuffs. Laaaaaaaaaaaame.

Cheat To Win starts strong with three super solid songs, and then it dips into a lull for the meat of the album – never bad, but a lull nonetheless. Fortunately, the album ends up mirroring itself, ending with three very solid songs. “Hand of Glory” is hands down my favorite track on the album, and one of the best songs Draco and the Malfoys have ever done. While the Rossbacher’s love of bluegrass shone through a bit in “I Know Every Spell”, they really let it all hang out here, and it is glorious. Done in the style of one of those folk-songs-turned-hymns (you know, like “Simple Gifts”/”Lord of the Dance”, “Star of the County Down”/”Canticle of the Turning”, “Nettleton”/”Come Thou Fount”, “Wild Mountain Thyme”/”Holy Is Your Name”, and many, many more), “Hand of Glory” is a beautiful, stirring song about a shriveled hand-candle favored by thieves. Nice. “Voldemort Arise” tried to do pull off dissonance with its lyrics, but it works so much better here, with the instantly recognizable folk-hymn style used to usher along lyrics like “They make a candle out of the fat of a man who hanged for murder / Then the fuse it to the hand and it gives off light, so Dobby can make me a burger”. Everything about this song is delightful, and I’m saying, right here, right now, if this isn’t played during the DatM set at LeakyCon in a couple weeks, I will riot. And by “riot” I mean “be slightly disappointed but otherwise enjoy myself”. After all, I have rioted every time I see Whompy play and he stubbornly refuses to do “Fang, Stop Peeing On My Trunk”.

“Cheat To Win” was worse off for coming right after “That’s Not Cool”, but “BS” is better for the song it follows. “Hand of Glory” is a song about a lot of things – presents, midnight snacks, slave labor, alternative tallow sources – but underneath it all, it’s a song about Draco’s dad. It’s about how Lucius, for all his faults, always did seem to care for his son (even if he cared for his own life slightly more), and while he wasn’t the nicest dad around, he did try to financially provide for his son. Draco wanted a creepy hand candle  – handle? Wait not, that’s already a thing. Fine, hand candle. Draco wanted a creepy hand candle, Lucius didn’t want to buy him a creepy hand candle, but knew it would make his son happy, and he did anyway. Hell, Draco and the Malfoys did an entire album about how, despite their personal faults, the Malfoys are a family, that they were there for each other.

And “BS” is the song where Draco turns from all of that. In a lot of ways, it feels like this is a turning point that Draco and the Malfoys have been slowly and subtly leading to for the past couple albums – possibly ever since Family. This isn’t an explicit through line, but songs like “That’s Not Cool” and “Scale It Back” have shown glimmers of progress here and there. The change in the Rossbacher’s version of Draco is a lot like this song – slowly, and then all at once. The song begins with a very classic DatM drum kit and a low-tempo groovy bass line. It adds some musical complexity, as the lyrics come more and more into focus on the racist culture Draco was brought up and saturated in. Then the voicework changes to be less lilting and introspective, it becomes harsher, and the anger is directed outwards… and then it all collapses into a pile of distorted guitars, drums, and of course, bullshit.

Draco has lived through a lot, seen a lot, and he’s hit his breaking point. He can no longer keep at bay the tides of reality that have slowly swallowed up the hatred he was steeped in as a child. That doesn’t excuse what he did when he was younger, and he will always have a large amount of Pureblood privilege (not to mention being a wealthy white man), but he can be an ally. He can use his position to amplify the voices of others, he will “be here calling you on your bullshit“. The song is not a breath of fresh air, it’s like taking a breath after being submerged for 20+ years. It’s angry, it’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s just about the perfect version of the song it’s trying to be. It’s the climax of the album, thus while it would be good as a closer, it’s even better as the penultimate song. But for such a revelation and a sea change, Brian and Bradley need one hell of a denouement to pull off the narrative fireworks they just threw down.

And they knock it out of the park with “Pépère Lucius”, a song I shall refer to by name only once, so I don’t have to fuck around with copypasta’ing those fiddly e’s every time (and I thought I had it bad with Pokémon). It’s a song that sounds unlike any other in an album filled with interesting musical ideas and tangents – an acoustic guitar showcase piece. This song is made from just three instruments – acoustic, voice, and familial responsibility. We jump forward a few years from “BS”, to an era of Draco’s life that DatM haven’t explored at all (except technically for “Epilogue”), and an era that really is prime more mining – especially after the release of Cursed Child. It’s a song from Draco to his son Scorpius (reinforcing that theme of fatherhood established in “Hand of Glory”), preparing him for a trip to Grandma and Granddad’s. For anyone who’ve had awkward family dinners with their racist relatives, this song is both poignant and hilarious. It’s not the catchiest song on the album, it’s not brimming with sonic quality, it’s not a song that’s gonna make a crowd go crazy – and it’s pretty much perfect. It’s quiet, sweet, and intimate. It’s a dad trying to make for a better life for his son, teaching him lessons he wished he’d learned long, long ago.

But at the end of the day… they are still family. And there are certain duties you just are obligated to attend to. For nearly 20 years, thousands and thousands of people have been writing about Lucius and Draco’s relationship. The scene of their inevitable confrontation has been written so many times it’s practically ingrained in the source code of LiveJournal. And the fallout of Draco’s turn to the light has as many versions as it has authors – and I’ve read a bunch of ’em. But for all of the many I’ve read (which usually have Draco and Hermione banging each other in their shared Head Boy/Girl suite bathroom directly afterward), Brian and Bradley might have hit upon the best version, the most true to life. It’s honestly unlikely that Malfoy would ever truly walk away from his family name, and while Lucius would be furious, he would never completely disown his only heir. Sure, writing about huge dynasty-killing family blowouts is fun, but I’m honestly saddened by all of the awkward Malfoy family dinners I never knew I desperately wanted to read about.

Cheat To Win is two fantastic (albeit very short) EPs wrapped around a mediocre album. The chewy center of Cheat To Win doesn’t hold up to the promise of the first couple songs, but it also does not take away from the album’s fantastic ending. It’s been a long time since I ever used letter grades, and I don’t even really rate albums any more on whether or not they’re worth your money – you’re not exactly spoiled for choice these days if you want to buy new wizard rock, and pretty much anyone these days making new wrock deserves your money and attention for sheer dedication, if nothing else. But I will still say that yes, you should buy this album. It’s right over here. It’s good! Man, I could have just said those last three sentences and saved us all a buuuuuunch of time.

It may not be Family, but it’s best stuff is better than the best of It’s A Slytherin World! It may go down in quality in the middle, but none of the songs are truly bad – it’s just a mediocre sandwich in between two truly phenomenal slices of bread. The musical style is constantly shifting gears – not as insanely as I would probably tolerate, but still more than enough to keep me interested – and the lyrics range from competent to truly memorable. The backing vocal work in this album is particularly on point – even in the songs I didn’t like as much, like “(I’m Givin’ You) All The Magic I Got”, whichever brother was doing backup vocals always added a lot to the production. It’s not an album I can say is a masterpiece, but I can say, without any reservations, that you should definitely, definitely consider owning Cheat To Win.

Wrock Snob out.

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