REVIEW: Billy Nomates – CACTI

After my first listen to the second album by Billy Nomates, I messaged some of my fellow Picky Bastards to say ‘I hope this thing is a grower.’ A few weeks down the line from that, I think I am now able to easily identify what led me to feel let down by CACTI when I first played it all the way through. Tor Maries has always been very clear about how she operates the Billy Nomates project. It’s so DIY, so much a one-person band, that she even performs her live shows with nothing other than a laptop and a microphone accompanying her on stage. I think that led to me believing that the scope for her growth was minimal, that each album was likely to sound a lot like the last one, and that I would be happy with that if each album came with the same spiky, punky, politically lost approach as the self-titled debut. I’d prepared myself for more of the same and was excited by the prospect.

But despite that supposedly limited scope, Tor hasn’t come back with a slightly evolved copycat of her previous work. While CACTI is still identifiably the same artist, it is definitely a different version of her. Gentler at times. Poppier. Catchier. And in terms of the lyrics and the messages within the songs, it is also much more introspective and focused on its performer rather than a set of caricatures. The whole thing doesn’t play for laughs in the way that the first album did. ‘blue bones (deathwish)’ is one of the songs that makes this alteration clearest, as Tor wrestles with some very real and personal feelings of loneliness and past mental health issues that she has found some ways of finding a way through: ‘death don’t turn me on like it used to.’

Rolling with these changes didn’t take me long, and it was only a few listens after that first one that I began to realise that different didn’t mean worse. In fact, the poppier/gentler side that I’ve already mentioned does make this a more instant and accessible album in some ways. I can see it winning new fans. The instrumentation on a song like ‘saboteur forcefield’, for example, is so welcoming and calming that it could be easy to miss the tale about a protagonist who tends to mess up nearly every good opportunity that comes to them. Closer ‘blackout signal’ also gives us something more instantly inviting in its sounds, even if the content still has that dark edge. And while Tor leant towards an angry spoken word styling previously, these songs (and others) are a clear demonstration of her singing ability.

That’s not to say that CACTI is without its spiky moments, though – and, for me at least, these are still some of the strongest parts. ‘spite’ is the album’s absolute peak as angry Tor resurfaces to tell us she didn’t come to make friends, but rather to assert her dominance and show whoever the song is aimed at that she’s doing fine thank you very much. It’s a blistering little track and I love it. ‘same gun’ is funky, pointed, and adamant. Opener ‘balance is gone’ kicks us off with a bang. And so it is a different album, and that is definitely a good thing – an artist who makes music in this way could definitely limit themselves, and Tor hasn’t. But she has kept the personality that made the debut so enthralling, only this time she offers it to us through a slightly different lens.

Words by Fran Slater

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