Wednesday, October 16, 2013

album review: 'icon for hire' by icon for hire

A while back, I reviewed an album from the Christian rock act Skillet, mostly because I was curious to examine a genre that rarely gets touched by critics because of religious connotations and the justifiable belief that Christian rock sucks. As a Catholic myself, I've got my lengthy issues with Christian rock - particularly the groups that try to evangelize and start getting insufferable - but I wanted to see if the music was any good and the problem was the moralizing. 

I ended up coming to the following conclusion: Christian rock doesn't suck because of the Christian qualities - it sucks because the instrumentation, vocals, and especially the production tends to blow, with the Christian element just adding a whole new layer of moral superiority into the mix to completely alienate the majority of their audience. 

But, of course, there are exceptions everywhere and just because a band might be signed to a nominally Christian label doesn't mean their music is tainted by the moniker of Christian rock and thus is aggressively terrible. Hell, many people would argue Evanescence fit that role in their early years. But instead of talking about a band I hate (that would be Evanescence), let's talk about one that's actually pretty damn great: Icon For Hire, an alternative metal band signed to Tooth & Nail records who released their first album Scripted in 2011. And while the band shuns the label of Christian rock, I almost wish they adopted the genre - because thematically, this is what religious music should sound like. If Icon for Hire wanted to call themselves Christian rock, I don't think the genre would have nearly as bad of a reputation as it does, because man, this band is talented. Their debut is an album about exploring moral crises and emotional instability and the incredibly difficult decisions that come with them, all loaded with an edge of symphonic theatricality and emotional context that makes the album extremely compelling. Plus, unlike the majority of Christian rock, the production and instrumentation and great and the vocals courtesy of Ariel Bloomer did wonders for carrying the album. Yes, as with most debut albums, there are some shaky points and a certain lack of focus, but I really dug Scripted all the same and was anxious for their self-titled follow-up this year. Does it hold up to my expectations?

Well, yes. As much as I have a distaste for self-titled albums that aren’t the band’s first, Icon For Hire’s new album is actually pretty damn great, showing just how the band can maintain a distinctly modern sound and yet still have a lot of unique personality, both in instrumentation, lyrics, and theme. And while there are definitely flaws, for the most part they don’t detract from an album that’s both highly entertaining and still manages to be about something along the way.

Let’s start with the instrumentation and production, where you can definitely see that Icon For Hire’s alternative metal sound has taken a turn for the electronic (which some have already screamed is a sellout), with a lot of meaty backbeats and fuzz-saturated synths. Yet unlike most metal bands that take a turn for the electronic, they didn’t exactly get rid of organic drumming, and the balance that the band attempts to create between the drummer and drum machines is interesting, to say the least, relying on the backbeats for the primary beat and then using organic drums for additional percussion texture in the mix. Honestly, it’s a tactic that might serve as a solid model for bands going forward, because it proves surprisingly cohesive with the roaring, distinctly metal guitars. The instrumentation isn’t quite as solid with the synths, however – when driven by keyboard melodies, they’re compelling enough, but otherwise they often feel like peripheral clutter in the mix, which is unfortunate. On a better note, the production is smart enough to make most of the mixes not sound overstuffed (although one could wish it sounded a little more expansive to give the guitars some real swell), and the balance between metal and electronic rock is handled a lot better than one might expect. The lack of serious guitar solos is frustrating, sure, but then again, Icon For Hire has never been a band defined by their instrumentation.

No, Icon For Hire’s strongest element has always been frontwoman Ariel Bloomer, and unsurprisingly, she’s incredible here. The album pushes her emotional range to the limit, from scream-singing in a punk vein to more melodic vocals. Hell, there are even moments where she’s required to rap (seriously) on tracks like ‘Sugar and Spice’ and ‘Watch Me’, and not only does she deliver, her rhymes are more cohesive and competently delivered than some of the rappers I’ve reviewed this year! Ariel’s flow reminds me of Colette Carr when she’s at her best, and the fact that Ariel’s throwing everything and the kitchen sink into her material across her expansive range gives the tracks a ton of personality and variety. Some would complain that the use of autotune on her vocals at points is unneeded, but it supports the lyrics and theme, and it’s not overly grating, so I’ll give it a pass here.

So, what about those lyrics and themes? Well, Icon For Hire, like many bands, is one obsessed with their own story and personal neuroses, and the line between this being compelling and obnoxious is a thin one indeed, particularly when you factor in the primary focus of the lyrics is the band’s relationship with fame and their artistic credibility. On their debut album Scripted, Icon For Hire juxtaposed this inner turmoil with questions of emotional and mental stability, which led to an incendiary album, but one that ultimately felt unfocused. This metaphor returns on Icon For Hire, but the band uses it mostly to add sharper emotional stakes to the material, instead focusing more on what the band’s relationship with their music and its message. This materializes in potshots taken at the music industry with ‘Cynics & Critics’, the public at large in 'Nerves' and 'Watch Me', their own insecurities in 'Sugar And Spice' and 'Think I'm Sick', and even the church in 'Rock & Roll Thugs' (which, if anything can be used to distance Icon For Hire from the 'Christian rock' brand, it's this). 

And while at points the lyrics can be a bit clumsy on a technical level, like with Savages Icon For Hire goes for blunt, raw poetry that connects far more than it misses, and all of this is interspersed with moments of reflexive meta-commentary on the music itself all throughout the album, with concerns about the message's legitimacy or the fact that many will ignore it or take it out of context or that it'll ultimately ring hollow. Many of Icon For Hire's songs are about the music itself, both its creation and its performance, a constant stream of self-examination with uncompromising honesty. So while plenty of critics will scream that Icon For Hire 'sold out' towards a more pop sound, Icon For Hire has already noticed that and thrown themselves under the knife for it. Really, they are their own harshest critics, and the fact that they are able to make that sort of critical introspection compelling and emotionally resonant is all the more striking.

So yes, all of this does sound more than a little pretentious and up its own ass, but Icon For Hire does a number of important things to redeem themselves here and make it compelling. Firstly, the band is not afraid at all to frame themselves as part of the ‘problem’, which adds emotional context as Ariel really sells the torment behind ‘selling out’ with heartbreaking honesty (it’s also what makes the autotune acceptable – it fits the metanarrative Icon For Hire built). Secondly, the band doesn’t completely subsume to their own personal narrative and forget to write the punk-inspired songs with enough attitude and force to justify that commentary. Songs like ‘Pop Culture’ and 'Hope Of Morning' and 'Sorry About Your Parents' target shallow self-obsession, prescription/pharmacy culture, and the cavalier contempt most have for musicians with a message. Icon For Hire definitely don't pull any punches here, and what makes it all the more impacting is that the band doesn't shy away from placing their own damaged insecurities and fears on the table, even on songs where it appears they're attacking someone - by exposing those human frailties, they add flavours of nuance that humanize the performances. Slower ballads like 'Fix Me' and 'Slow Down' show a level of vulnerability and intimacy that lends some humanity to this album that at points sounds overloaded with fire and brimstone. Finally, and most importantly, the band ends the record with the explosive 'Counting On Hearts', a song where they acknowledge that their message might be unheard or ignored, but that as long as they can reach or move somebody, their message has served a powerful purpose, and they're counting on their fans to wake up and get it - it's a level of faith in one's audience you don't often see, but that makes a lot of sense and really worked for me.

So look: I know the inclination from most will be to shun this album like the plague. I mean, an electronic-rock inspired alternative metal album with punk-tinged lyrics and occasional rap segments, all done with over-the-top theatricality and unwavering sincerity from a band signed to a Christian rock label? And yeah, it's all of that - and it's also one of the best albums of the year. Icon For Hire's self-titled album is gripping, intelligent, incendiary, and at many points genuinely moving, and you all need to check it out yesterday. Honestly, if the guitars were a little bit softer, the band wouldn't be far removed from Imagine Dragons with a female vocalist and way better lyrics, and Imagine Dragons was one of the biggest mainstream successes of the year. Folks, the self-titled album by Icon For Hire is goddamn awesome and earns a 9/10 from me. Their debut may have been strong, but this album is even better - check it out, you won't regret it.

1 comment:

  1. Well, I wrote a long comment and tried to publish, but it blanked out without posting. To summarize what I said, LOVE this album from a band that I have never heard of before. For reference my fave is female-fronted in all forms (leaning to hard). I don't listen to music for the depth of the lyrics - just want to turn it up and listen over and over. Favorite bands are Garbage, The Birthday Massacre, Nightwish, Sleigh Bells, Tegan and Sara, I:Scintilla, Shiny Toy Guns, Ting Tings, Vienna Teng, recently Lorde, and now Icon for Hire!