Last week Imagine Dragons unveiled their second studio album ‘Smoke + Mirrors’, which serves as the follow up to 2012’s ’Night Visions’ and hit singles ‘Radioactive’ and ‘Demons’. With a string of awards under their belt including a Grammy for best rock performance, Imagine Dragons appeal to a wide audience with their genre mashing-vibes and influences from Mumford & Sons to Coldplay. Mix that with some typical rousing melodies and at times contrived electric guitar solos, and you seem to have yourself an alt-rock recipe for success.

Lead single ‘I Bet My Life’ follows this textbook approach and delivers their trademark euphoric pop hook. Employing a Mumford & Sons country vibe throughout, you can’t help but clap along and soak up the energy in all its glory. ‘Shots’ opens the album with a surprising 80’s synth groove you’d expect to hear from Chvrches or Years and Years. The ‘viby’ synths serves up a welcome change and showcases the group's versatility. Lead singer Dan Reynolds showcases his engaging falsetto vocals, which becomes a prominent feature throughout the album. ‘Gold’, one of the strongest tracks on the album, delivers an intense song with heavy synths, pulsing bass, gritty vocals and a Muse worthy electric guitar solo. The defiant chorus certainly strikes a chord and amps up the intensity.

Production at the beginning brings Kanye’s ‘Black Skinhead’ to mind, further highlighting the groups’ willingness to break away from this typical alt-rock ‘textbook’ approach and start to mix things up - even if they’re only flourishes. ‘Polaroid’ highlights the group's song-writing ability, which focuses on the defined rhythms and layered accompaniment. With each new layer of percussion and vocal added, the track is almost being written as you listen - a deconstructed pop song of sorts. While certain tracks live up to this winning formula, tracks such as ‘The Fall’ and ‘Second Chance’ fail to impress.

Smoke + Mirrors offers an eclectic mix of genre mashing, which gives the album a bit more depth and scope. ‘Friction’ for example, offers up an eruption of styles and sounds, merging some ‘angsty’ rock with middle-eastern vibes. Not your typical mash-up, but one that strangely works. Electronic elements also work their way through many of the songs giving the production that extra edge, from the vinyl scratching samples of ‘Summer’, to the skittering beats of ‘The Unknown’. If only these elements were infused more throughout.

The album's use of instrumentation is also quite varied. Strings are introduced in ‘Dream’, ‘The Fall’ and ‘Warriors’, with the latter defiantly living up to its name. The addition of strings here adds weight to the track alongside its hard-hitting beats and gritty vocals. However, some of the instrumentation used throughout Smoke + Mirrors are not as effective. ‘Hopeless Opus’ infuses elements of woodwind/panpipes, which are just unpleasant more than anything and don’t blend as expected. While the group utilise instrumentation to the fullest, they also know how to strip things back letting the lyrical content speak for itself. ‘Release’, features on the deluxe album and offers a deeply personal ballad with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. The repetitive vocals ‘Is there nothing good in me’ and ‘I’ve let me down’ further impacts this raw and emotive nature, making reference to Reynolds and his personal battle with depression.

Dynamics are a pivotal part of Smoke + Mirrors. The title track itself plays up to its name with a sense of illusion and deception. While the verse offers a serene state of mind, the chorus is amped up to deliver a rip roaring intro with gritty vocals and crashing drums, before alternating dynamics infuse Smoke + Mirrors with a perfect balance of light and shade. ‘Dream’ also employs the power of dynamics, opening with mellow piano accompaniment and raw emotive vocals, before the chorus is heightened with intense vocals, stirring strings and choral accompaniment. Imagine Dragons instil passion and energy into their music. ‘I’m So Sorry’ delivers a colossal sounding track with bags of energy and compulsory head banging. With its blues style vocals and hard-hitting beats, the track continues to gain momentum, closing with a fearless guitar solo.

Influences from Mumford & Sons to Coldplay are scattered throughout Smoke + Mirrors. ‘It Comes Back To You’ just screams Coldplay with its melodic chorus and choral ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’. The chilled synths and echoed guitar riffs are a nice addition, however any chorus that has to resort to ‘Do Do Do’ is outright cheesy and a bit of a cop-out. ‘Trouble’ immediately conjures up a Mumford style track with its up-tempo rhythms, fast paced guitar strumming and redemptive lyrics ‘Pray for me brother, I need redemption”. The rousing number is just begging for handclaps!

While the influences heard throughout Smoke + Mirrors are appealing to a wider audience and have greatly contributed to their global success, one can only hope Imagine Dragons will continue to develop their own sound and not have to rely on other influences to sell records. We want to hear an album that’s distinctively Imagine Dragons. Their breakout single ‘Radioactive’ for example, really gave us clear understanding of who they were as a group and what their sound was. Despite ‘Gold’ ‘I Bet My Life’ and a handful of other tracks, much of Smoke + Mirrors is a reflection of a group who are still trying to find their sound, while dabbling with different styles and genres along the way.

While these flourishes are exciting at times and provide nice moments of creativity, we’re looking for an album as a whole from a band that can deliver their sound with conviction. Their trademark formulas can only take them so far. This textbook approach to song writing can be contrived at times, with some tracks following the suit of “place rousing chorus here” and “include electrifying guitar solo here”. Having self-produced most of the album, their next challenge is to deliver a release with further creative outlook and deliver a sound that’s positively unique and distinct.

- Roisin Deady

Released: Tue 17th Feb 2015