I See Stars – Treehouse

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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

Asking Alexandria – The Black

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Rock musicians are terrible people, aren’t they?

The Black is an appropriate title. A black cloud hung over this album from the start. The band had problems with Worsnop. Make Me Famous (An underrated and better band) had problem with Denis. One asshole gets kicked out, another one takes his place. How long will this version of Alexandria will last?

The band wasn’t satisfied with their previous album. Worsnop got into drugs and other rock star troubles. Denis, his replacement, was a complete asshole to his previous band. The record sounds like it. Despite the noise and the screaming and the heaviness, something about it feels off. It’s not that the band doesn’t want to play this kind of music. The darkness in it prevents it from working.

Metalcore, especially the contemporary variant isn’t about emotions. It’s about slamming. When Worsnop dissed a girl for having sex (Why do musicians diss girls for having sex? Aren’t groupies the reason you start a band in the first place?) in “Not the American Average” it sounded like the most logical thing to do with metalcore. All these silly bands spitting serious poetry over breakdowns and here comes a band that rocks hard. an sings about partying hard. Breakdowns don’t sound deep and neither are the anthemic chorus.

This is the glory of Trancecore. It injected fun to a genre that was built for it. The band didn’t become Killswitch Engage, but they lost their sense of fun. It’s apparent already from the opening track. There’s distress in the repetition of the title “Let It Sleep”. The song is some diss track towards an ex-wife, and there’s bittenress all over it. The song has no structure or direction.¬†The band moves from section to section, just trying to pound away their frustration.

The same thing applies to the title-track, which is pretty brilliant. It kicks off with an intense, downtuned riffs and screaming the crowd can’t join in. The lyrics have the same distress the opener has, with no sense of humor or fun. They need to cut Worsnop off, they want him to speak to them. It all climaxes in hushed singing and piano. Like the opener, there’s a lack of the stability to the track. Metalcore’s poor song structures now sound good – the band sounds too worried, too angry to care about coherency.

Carrying an album based on emotionally-rich Metalcore is hard. Killswitch Engage have been failing at it miserably for a while. Alexandria aren’t talented enough for this sound. “Let It Sleep” is a one-off. Multiple its messiness and all you’re left with is noise. No other track is as weird as the title-track. Alexandria abandoned the Electronic elements for some reason.

The band falls into the trap that many weird rock bands fall to later. Just like Disturbed and, to a lesser extent, Slipknot, Alexandria normalizes their sound. There’s nothing unique here. There are a few tracks that rely more on melody, but the biggest departure is a piano ballad. Doesn’t every band with loud guitars have a piano ballad?

Even Denis lost all of his charisma. He fronted Make Me Famous. They were one of the best Trancecore bands. Back then, Denis came off as a cocky, sure frontman who always broke up the Metalcore noise with Electronic interludes or beautiful melodies. Even if the band didn’t mix every genre in the world, they sure sounded like it. On The Black, Denis sounds like he lives in a world where the only music in existence is Metalcore.

There’s talent in the band. “Circled By the Wolves” comes at the end to bring the same intensity of the opener. It’s a roaring, messy song with no structure that just slams. In context, it sounds like another burst of noise. You can’t bludgeon the listener with the same sound. The heaviest bands were always more than loud and always had more than one genre. Slipknot’s debut is one of the most intense records ever, and they took cues from Industrial and Hip-Hop. Heavy music is like shock value – use the same trick too many times and the effect loses it.

The band still has potential. Every song sounds worse in context but the album is a stand-out in the genre. It has more emotional weight than anyone else, and that makes “Let It Sleep”, “The Black” and “Here I Am” worth a few spins. I doubt they’ll re-capture this though. Such emotional distress is lightning in a bottle. If they couldn’t milk the issues with Worsnop while it’s fresh, the opportunity¬†is missed. Hopefully their next album will be more fun.

2.5 blacks out of 5