I See Stars – Treehouse

treehouse
I See Stars produced one of the finest metalcore songs in “Ten Thousand Feet”. It was an astonishing achievement. While it wasn’t catchy, it had deep textures using Trap music, a dynamic but focused structure, a beautiful melody and a strong candidate for heaviest breakdown ever. If the song is about a plane crashing, the breakdown at the end is the aural equivalent. There’s a similar, brilliant breakdown here in “Mobbin’ Out”.

They can make good heavy music, but their reliance on heaviness was always their undoing. After transforming into an artistic Trancecore band, the guitars always drowned out the vocals. You kept waiting for a beautiful texture or for a bass drop only to have the guitarist chug all over it with the dude screaming nonsensical lyrics. One song like “Ten Thousand Feet” is enough, but when the dance section of “NZT48” is barely a minute long despite being the band’s finest hour, it’s clear they’re is holding themselves back.

The departure of the screaming vocalist and the guitarist was a blessing. No Trancecore band will benefit more from getting rid of their heavy side. I See Stars’ charm wasn’t in the contrasting between loud noises and electronics. It never was much of a contrast, and their aesthetic put them closer to Celldweller than Issues. Treehouse is an opportunity to expand on their electronic side, but it doesn’t really do that either. This is the band’s most accessible and artistic record. If it was made by another band, it would be acclaimed as Indie Rock’s clever take on Trancecore.

The roots of Trancecore are here, but the approach is completely different. Trancecore/Metalcore is party music. It’s about slamming, having a great chorus and screaming profanities. I See Stars were more sophisticated about this than others, but “Ten Thousand Feet” still relied on the fun of the heaviness. They don’t go full EDM on Treehouse. Rather, they become softer, focusing more on beauty and vulnerability. Considering “Murder Mitten” is one of their best songs, this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is to hear such tenderness over breakdowns and wobbles. “Break” is the album’s defining moment. The chugging riffs with the wobbles are ready for a DJ set, but the context is different. There’s something so pretty and cute about Devin singing “Did your heart let someone in?” over twinkling electronics. It’s almost like they’re moving towards Midwest Emo. When the guitars hit again, it’s not so much ready for partying as it is the sound of the song’s subject breaking.

Wobbles and dance beats appear, but the departure of the loudest members lets the band experiment with a new kind of electronic. The sounds more warmer, more fragile. It has more in common with Skrillex’s soft work. The album’s obligatory detour into pure electronic territory isn’t a club banger. “Walking on Gravestones” is a slow dance track with chopped vocals. It’s more gloomy than Skrillex’s soft tracks, tackling that sort of nostalgia you feel at the end of a great social event knowing you probably won’t see those people event.

There are some heavy moments here, but now the band is liberated they sound even better. “Mobbin’ Out” is the closest they come to their old style, but even that song is bizarre. It has the fragility of the album, with verses sung over beautiful soundscapes. It all builds up like an EDM track to two different breakdowns with bass wobbles. What’s bizarre is that between those breakdowns, you still get the emotional resonance. In a way, it’s a misstep. It’s too heavy and fun to be beautiful but too beautiful to be in a party playlist. Still, it’s fun enough. “All In” is inspired by Trap without actually containing any Trap beats. At first it’s too much of a tease, but hearing semi-rapping over breakdowns is pretty cool.

In their previous efforts I See Stars forgot about catchy hooks. Their melodies were pretty, but not immediate. This is the same story here, but that’s okay. The melodies may not be immediate but they’re beautiful, especially when Devin lets the gentle side of his voice out. Pretty much every song here has such a moment that sounds so cute – “Light in the Cave”, “White Lies”, “Calm Snow”. They return to the teen atmosphere of The End of the World Party, only now it’s wide-eyed but scared. If that album was about a party full of weird people, this is the aftermath – when relationships fall apart and you sometimes have to say goodbye

Treehouse is a beautiful rock album. For once, the band doesn’t just tease something. It’s no longer a good Metalcore record with some EDM interludes or soundscapes. The band has a different promise this time, and they deliver it. Breakdowns, for a change, aren’t just heavy but add weight to an album full of beautiful melodies and soundscapes. I See Stars aren’t a part of any scene now. They combined their influence with a specific vibe they want and made an original album that anyone who likes guitars will find something to enjoy here. If this was a debut album by a new band, it’d get massive hype.

4 portals out of 5

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Issues – Headspace

Issues_Headspace
So far, the Nu Metal revival was great but a little disappointing. We got bands that mined the genre for emotional. It sounds impossible, but there’s beauty in Islander’s “The Sadness of Graves” or Of Mice & Men’s “Another You” that no other band in the style had. Others just knew how to rock. What the revival didn’t have was a band that captured the original weirdness.

Nu Metal was, at its heart, a weird genre. The reason critics and True Metalheads whined about it was because they couldn’t keep up. Bands switched vocal styles and genres but still kept it simple. You don’t hear a song like Slipknot’s “Only One” anymore – a mish-mash of three genres that’s accessible enough to play Tekken to. Issues finally deliver what the revival needed – an album that’s as bizarre as it is catchy.

It was so easy to go the other route. It was so easy to feed the mosh kids what they want, play 100 more breakdowns with the occasional R&B break. Instead we get “The Released”, which explodes with a funky riff, rapped vocals and then towards R&B singing all backed by Djent guitars. The second single “COMA” sounds even more like Periphery remixing a Justin Bieber song. Previous Trancecore band still had some aggression in their vocals, but Carter forgets he’s in a rock band. If I were a Slayer fanboy, I’d be offended.

The problem with mixing genres is getting the balance. Some bands merely add elements – a rap verse here or a bass drop there. The most frustrating ones add so much you can’t ignore, but never enough to break out of their subgenre. In their beginning, Issues’ R&B elements were hard to ignore but were also not enough. “Stringray Affliction” may be brilliant, but it’s a Metalcore song spliced with an R&B outro.

Headspace isn’t completely genreless, but it’s diverse enough to make it only fit ‘Rock’ or ‘Nu Metal’. It’s not even that the band isolates the styles, playing a Djent song and then a Pop song. The songs don’t even switch sections. It’s the methodĀ of picking small elements, mixing them and creating a whole song. “The Realest” is the best example of this. Despite mixing Funk, R&B, Djent and Hip-Hop it still sounds like a whole song rather than hopping from one thing to another. What’s more impressive is that these outside influence aren’t filtered. The rapping in “Blue Wall” and “Someone Who Does” is convincing. The two vocalist can produce a Rap record and no one would guess they have a Rock background. It’s also no surprise Carter released a solo record, because he never sounds like a Rock singer imitating Craig David.

As exciting as the sound is, there’s also disappointment. Issues never go full weird. There’s nothing like “Kobrakai” or “Nobody’s Listening”. While the band managed to distill their influence into a coherent sound, they’re afraid of expanding on it. The songs never differ too much from another. “Blue Wall” is feels like the most radical departure here, only because it commits itself fully to brutal slamming. None of the song commits itself to anything, but the band merely plays variations on a sound.

They got hook to back it up, though. The sound isn’t the only attraction here. Issues use their sound to dress up already great hooks. In fact, the album is ridiculosly consistent. The only missteps are, perhaps, “Yung & Dum” which feels too redundant in going on and on about how fun it is to be young. It’s easy to forget there were singles when the songs remain catchy all the way through. They also borrow Periphery’s songcraft. While still relying on choruses, the verses are often different and the songs conclude (“Lost-n-Found” gang vocals are an album highlight). The band doesn’t just wants to have a gimmick or hit singles. They produce actual songs.

Anyone who’s moderately interested in music should hear this. People who like heavy music can use this as a gateway to beautiful melodies. People who love hooks and clean singing can use this as a gateway to harsh vocals. Many will still dislike it. The typical criticism of ‘they have no direction’ and ‘they’re gimmicky’ will surface, but these are just Slayer fans being stupid or Indie fans not knowing how to have fun. It’s the Blue Lines of Rock – an album that mixes genres seamlessly, creating a consistent sound and plenty of great songs.

4 wastes of headspace out of 5

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

Sorrows
What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5