It’s been a few years since BANKS hit the scene with Goddess. Its haunting, minimalist R&B was a surprise hit, reaching the upper ranks of the Billboard charts and generating ample buzz for her and her music across the internet. As such, it makes sense that she would follow it up with something very close to home. The Altar is a very similar beast, with the haunting tone and dark lyricism remaining intact, but with a few improvements on top in an ultimately successful attempt to improve upon the preexisting formula.
The Altar pulls out everything it’s got to make a strong first impression. The ridiculously infectious second single Gemini Feed opens the album, keeping a distinct BANKS flair with its depressive lyricism focusing on a failing relationship but taking on an almost cheerful style with its instrumental through its funky chorus, which contrasts the deep edited vocals and sombre mood of the verses. It’s a fitting intro to the album at large, as the edited vocals and continued use of her minimal R&B sound flow throughout the entire collection, though the upbeat mood predictably falters quite a lot at the same time.
As solid as the R&B style is, however, the album’s strongest songs are the ones that play around with it, or forego it entirely. Lovesick focuses much more on an arrangement that feels closer to alternative rock than electronic R&B, often relying on nothing more than the thrum of a bassline and a minimal beat as layers of vocals compete against each other to create a strangely romantic track, rather than destructive. Weaker Girl falls back into the R&B style, but shines as violins begin to soar later in the track and the hiccup of a bass and riff of a guitar pop up throughout the track, all offering a sense of fragility and grandiose that’s in contrast to the song’s lyrics—I’ma need a bad motherfucker like me.
Even better is when she follows this up with Mother Earth, a completely natural track that focuses entirely on acoustic guitar and flourishing violins that slowly pick up in power throughout the song. It’s the ultimate contrast to the dark R&B style she’s known for, with lyrics about battling depression rather than giving in, and feeling like a ray of light in an otherwise largely dark album. That’s not to say that the album ever really becomes engulfed in its angst or unenjoyable in its darkness, however; the only times it manages to fumble are on the almost too upbeat Trainwreck and the predictable R&B style of Judas, which even then manage to be enjoyable even if they’re noticeably weaker than their accompanying songs.
The Altar is, in its entirety, a direct follow-up to Goddess stylistically. BANKS hasn’t abandoned her old style in the pursuit of something new, but improved upon it in little ways that make her music stand out and feel fresh even as she covers old territory once again. The outlying moments of the album, especially Mother Earth, continue to show a more varied side that still works in tandem with what we already know of her. There’s a lot to love about The Altar, even as it enters into its darker moments, and it’s safe to say that sticking to her guns has completely paid off for her.