Playing With Fireworks (PWF) is the moniker of Luke Underhill. The Chicago, IL native is here with a new sound, shedding his singer songwriter roots for something a bit more lush and expressive. The result of this new identity is a fresh, new EP, Runaway, a four-song offering layered full of synth explosions, powerful blasts of guitar, an epic drum presence, and Underhill’s passionately gravely vocal presence. The songs have a distinctive 1980s flair without ever sounding dated, taking the best aspect of that decade and injecting it into the contextual oeuvre of 2023’s indie rock. Here’s a bit about how the EP came to life from Luke himself:
“This EP was conceived and written on long train rides in and out of the city. Watching the world fly by, waving at strangers when they board, it was a lot of time to think and write. I hope the music reflects that.”
Album opener “Saturday’s Masquerade” certainly has that very specific longing/nostalgic feel that might come from staring out the window on a rainy train ride. “Masquerade” is a fantastic way to start the album – with it’s beautiful, watery piano intro to the reverbed-out snare that kicks off the song’s first burst of energy, Underhill introduces the instrumental backbone of the project perfectly. Big, heartfelt melodies; flowery lyrics (sometimes quite literally); and a chord progression that tugs at your heart power this one forward, constantly pulling at your ears as an electronic bass pulses into your brain. While this would sound great next to a Simple Minds or Tears for Fears track on any iconic 1980s movie soundtrack, it would also work alongside The Naked and Famous or CHVRCHES, too.
Track two, “Hurts & Burns Like All Hell,” slaps with even more 80s-influenced fervor. “Hell” has a similarly epic sound – there’s a bit of the overblown guitar tones (in a good way!) that you might expect from an arena rock act, but the tastiest part here is the squiggly synth lead that pops in mid song. It zigs and zags into your ear drums with a tone that falls somewhere between a saxophone and a spicy vintage Moog patch. Underhill keeps up the lyrical drama going here too, doubling down on a sing-along of the song’s title with that oh-so-passionate delivery of his.
For those looking for a ballad, the title-track “Runaway” knocks it out of the park. With a hint of Bryan Adams in him, Underhill’s voice soars in the chorus to goosebumps-inducing levels. Staccato strings bump far off in the background while guitars slam with thick and crunchy distortion. “Runaway” highlights something I love about the EP as a whole – there’s lots to dive into here with big guitar parts, spicy keyboard solos, and Underhill’s undeniable presence, but these songs never feel cluttered or cheesy. Instead, these are delightfully boiled down to a digestible song structure and simple-but-effective chord patterns that leave room for other, exciting elements to breathe. It keeps the EP interesting and fun and has me looking forward to PWF’s promising future.