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Fightmilk: Contender - First Instincts Review

First Instincts is a series of reviews where I listen to an album for the first time ever, and note my initial thoughts as I listen. These are my unfiltered reactions upon hearing the project for the first time in full. No skips, no replays, just my first instincts.

Fightmilk are amazing. I've loved this band for years, and at long last, their second album Contender is here. It's been a long ride for the London-based legends, with the three years since debut Not With That Attitude bringing a new member (with Healey Becks joining the fold in 2019), solo projects (lead singer and guitarist Lily Rae has been busy with solo project Captain Handsome), and relentless touring. With last year's brilliant singles I'm Starting To Think You Don't Even Want To Go To Space and If You Had A Sister... teasing things to come, the new album is finally here.

Now that Contender has landed, I'm looking out for more of the emo pop goodness that Fightmilk do so well, with their consistently beautiful lyrics that can make me laugh and cry in equal measure. Let's go.

1. (contender)

The piano tone is beautiful here. Some hushed voices, a swell of feedback. It feels like an introduction to a live show. The faint electronics are beautiful. And then it's over. I'm full of anticipation.

2. Lucky Coin

Oooh, these guitars sound HUGE. Becks' bass sounds incredible on this track. This is a certified banger. Everything feels sharper than on their debut (which was an excellent record in its own right). This town is big enough for two, I'm building something new is a brilliant chorus. This is an excellent track. The coin metaphor is brilliant. This is as great an opening song as anything released this year and cements Fightmilk as being one of the best emo-pop artists about. More!

3. Hey Annabelle!

This was one of the singles, and that breakneck introduction sounds just as great as it did on my first listen. Yep, this is a keeper. The chorus is simple but infectious. The guitar tone is INCREDIBLE on this one, and it's going to go off live. The backing vocals are such a nice touch in the final chorus. An immediate contender (ha!) for my favourite Fightmilk track, I guarantee this will never leave your head. Short and sweet.

4. I'm Starting To Think You Don't Even Want To Go To Space

The lead single, released at the outset of lockdown, in what feels like a lifetime ago. The chorus to this is just straight up incredible. Kudos to being the only song I've ever heard to mention Interstellar. The layers to the lyrics in this one are phenomenal, but honestly, it's the guitar that wins this one for me, it's heavy as hell and really sinks its teeth in. This is another one that's going to cause a riot live. It works so well in the context of the album too - I've spent over a year with this song and it sounds just as fresh as it did on the first listen. What a fucking song. Three for three with the bangers so far.

5. The Absolute State of Me

This album has riffs for days. Not enough people talk about how great Fightmilk's riffs are. This one's another instant favourite, and immediately relatable. You make it look easy, I'm still feeling queasy is a perfect couplet. I'm trying hard to stop myself from belting along to this chorus. Yes! Oh, that guitar break is beautiful. The rhythm section is doing the absolute most on this song. Guitar solo! Yes! This is fucking phenomenal. The percussion sounds so great in the outro. My brain is on fire at how great that was.

6. Girls Don't Want To Have Fun

A gentler start to this one. The electronic drums are a nice touch. Rae's vocals are stunning here. Every stupid song he writes is just a catalogue of wrongs. Every single song so far has had a chorus that stands out as a favourite. Honestly, why aren't Fightmilk bigger than they are? Oh, the strings are just BEAUTIFUL. When you talk about dying, it feels like a pipe dream is my favourite lyric thus far. I'm going to stop mentioning how good each song is going to sound live, because honestly, I want to hear every track live. Brilliant.

7. Cool Cool Girl

Fun story, I supported Fightmilk a few years ago at the sweatiest gig I've every played. They were fucking class, absolutely lovely people and incredible performers. I remember hearing this song live and falling in love. I desperately wanted to hear it recorded. Here it is, and my God, it's brilliant. The chorus is unforgettable. Absolutely no hyperbole, this is such an amazing song. If you want to know what makes Fightmilk so special, just listen to this song. The psuedo-title track of the album does not disappoint. The twisting lyrics of the final verse are sheer genius. This song is pure musical electricity, a shot of energy and joy condensed into a four-minute banger. My only complaint is it doesn't last forever. One of the best songs of the year so far, easily.

8. (tender)

A breath of fresh air, similar in feel to the intro. The piano sounds beautiful, and the reprise melody is lovely.

9. Banger #4

That's a promising title. The intro sounds absolutely HUGE, it reminds me of Jimmy Eat World circa Clarity in the best way. There's more to life than getting it right is a lyric I'll always need to hear. The shouted vocals are giving me life right now. Why aren't Fightmilk massive? Honestly, they do emo better than almost any band around today. I can't write anything that sells this song better than just listening to it - it really is a banger. Fightmilk do life-affirming pop perfectly.

10. If You Had A Sister...

The second single, and similarly to I'm Starting To Think..., it sounds just as great as it did on the first listen. The track feels so different to anything from Not With That Attitude. This song is devastatingly sad. I don't want all of the power just the strength that you took away, and your apology's meaningless when you do it again and again and again. The slight lyric change in the last chorus completes the title's phrase. A stunning song.

11. You Are Not The Universe

Try to show some gratitude when people give their time to you is one hell of an opening line. The melodies to this one feel familiar in a way that feels instantly memorable. The lyrics are razor-sharp here - anyone who's spent any time at UK DIY rock shows will instantly understand. The dream is dead indeed. Every song on this album is full of energy, you can really tell that the band is giving their absolute all. The sludgy outro rips. The whole album is full of certified rippers.

12. Maybe

A gentler start after the riot that was You Are Not The Universe. The acoustic guitar sounds beautiful, and the imagery is striking. The lyrics here are some of my favourites across the whole album. It's frightening for a moment, then it's just like breathing. Songs like Maybe feel life-affirming and absolutely massive. This feels like the emotional heart of the album. The keys after the second chorus are heavenly. I'm moved by this song. God, the guitars that enter around the 3:25 mark sound like heaven. It's reminding me of early Bloc Party in the best possible way. This might be my favourite track from the album, I can't stress enough just how great this song is. A perfect song.

13. (bartender)

The final interlude of the album, closing the lyrical arc established in Cool Cool Girl. The faint percussion sounds gorgeous. A moment to let the incredible journey of Maybe to sink in before the finale. A swell of distortion, and then silence.

14. Overbite

This was another single but this is my first time hearing it. This feels immediately special. I'm still tender from listening to Maybe. This is such a joyous close to the album. The second verse lyrics are gorgeous, the allergies line made me laugh. You don't have to smile if you don't want to darling, you're perfect as you are. This song just cements what I already knew: that as soon as it's safe, you'll be able to see me with tears in my eyes at the front row of a Fightmilk concert. This is such a lovely song. There hasn't been a bad song on the album, but it's really worked it's way up to an incredible close. Don't shut yourself away this time. And then it's over.

Fightmilk have smashed it out of the park. Contender is one of the best albums of the year so far, full of life-affirming bangers. If there's any justice, this album should make them stars. Emo doesn't get better than this. If you like good music, listen to Contender. I hear it's what the cool cool kids are doing.

Highlight tracks: Maybe, Cool Cool Girl, Overbite, I'm Starting To Think You Don't Even Want To Go To Space

Key lyric: I'm into wrestling and I'm clever, and I'll always be a bartender.

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