Wednesday, November 13, 2013

album review: 'vessel' by twenty one pilots (RETRO REVIEW)

Sometimes there are acts that just slip the net. They might be great bands deserving of a ton of critical acclaim and a lot of attention, but they come out in the wrong place at the wrong time and they just get missed or lost in the shuffle. It sucks, believe me, but it happens.

Now granted, there is a reason I didn't cover the major label debut of Twenty One Pilots when it came out - my blog was inactive because work was consuming all of my time and my music reviewing was on the backburner. So in this slow period of releases (I'm getting to MIA and The Flower Kings very soon, don't worry), I figured this is the best time of any to check out their debut album Vessel. And I'll be honest and say I know very, very little about this band, outside of them being a synth-driven alternative rock/hip-hop duo out of Columbus, Ohio. And this album... well, it appears to be another one of these put together with new songs and old ones, which means we're probably not going to get a lot of album consistency and coherency, which is disappointing but kind of expected with major label debuts in this day and age. 

They're also signed to Fueled By Ramen, which is a good sign for me because they're one of the labels that have a fair standard of quality when looking at mainstream pop rock acts, like Panic! At The Disco, Fall Out Boy (although they aren't on the label anymore), Gym Class Heroes, Cobra Starship, fun., and Paramore. In fact, these guys were the opening act for Fall Out Boy this year, so they're probably pretty solid, right?

Well, they definitely are. Make no mistake, Vessel by Twenty One Pilots is a very good album and one I enjoyed a great deal - but at the same time, it's also the sort of album where I'm completely unsurprised these guys didn't take off in the same way, because they are a marketer's nightmare. It's not that they're bad or even all that weird, but I could imagine sitting in meetings where the promotion teams exchange glances and exclaim, 'I give up'. They have a distinctly unique sound, and one I happen to like, but at the same time, they straddle two genres that don't often work well together and while I think Twenty One Pilots mostly pull it off with this album, the hangups I do have with this band do come from there.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, the latter of which is solid work by Greg Wells and is better than one might usually expect for a band in this vein. That's mostly because Twenty One Pilots are barely a rock band, as the closest things they have to guitars is a ukulele and a keytar. And the fact that Wells actually manages to make these instruments have some presence in the mix is really something, given that some of the melody lines are borderline chiptune at points. Of course, the big upside to Twenty One Pilots primarily being a keyboard-driven act is that we finally get some interesting melody lines, complete with stylistic shifts mid-song and tempo changes that suggest some serious instrumental songwriting chops, and yet with enough populism to keep the melodies simply and catchy. And yet for a band that's crying out to have dance beats crammed into their music, you don't really get that with Vessel, as the band might only have one or two songs with a heavy backbeat and mostly sticks with an organic drummer. That being said, for a band with as much of a theatrical edge as they do, it's a little frustrating they don't opt for more organic swell in their instrumentation, and I think the band is crying out for at least a bass guitarist at some point (they used to have one).

Now I mentioned Twenty One Pilots had a theatrical bent, or at least a desire to make music that carries dramatic weight - and really, the surprising thing is how well the band manages to pull it off - but if we're going to be looking for a weak point, it would be in Tyler Joseph. Now, let me make this clear, he's by no means bad - his singing is solid enough for the genre, his falsetto is quite good, and his screaming... well, it's better than some I've heard this year. The place where a lot of people will criticize him will be in his rapping - oh yeah, he raps on this album - but honestly, he has more coherent verses, rhyming, and punchlines on this album than most mainstream rappers who dropped albums this year! No, my issue is in his flow - analogous to Big Sean, it comes across as distinctly awkward and self-effacing, and that's not always the best fit for this sort of material. He comes across as younger than his age, and while he does have charisma, you can tell he's not hugely polished yet and doesn't quite have the vocal presence to truly anchor these tracks. But then again, that's a debut album issue, and I'm confident that'll go away with time.

So, what about the lyrics and songwriting? Well, as with The Neighbourhood, it's definitely in emo territory, but it's the good kind of emo songwriting that displays a lot more wit and solid songwriting talent than most - it speaks to teenage angst, but it does so with smart songwriting and nuance. In fact, if Twenty One Pilots has one big strength in their favour, it's their technical songwriting skills, because the well-composed and memorable rhymes on these tracks are shockingly good. For me, the rhyming cadence was distinctly reminiscent of My Chemical Romance, and while Twenty One Pilots doesn't quite have the lurid flair that band did, they make up for it with confessional and revealing songwriting. Most of the songs are focused on struggles with inner demons - paranoia, despair, how one deals with fame ('Screen') or collapsing relationships or even the extreme pain caused by migraine headaches (here's where the songwriting gets the most descriptive and lurid, and it's a real promising sign for the future) - but Twenty Pilots also have a knack for taking on larger issues, like the self-destructive and increasingly lethal manner some teenagers act out in 'Guns For Hands', one of the album standout tracks. It definitely helps matters that the band has a fair amount of self-awareness, with Tyler Joseph admitting that if he raps on a track, they're not going to get radio play in the same way - which is a real shame, because his punchlines here could put Big Sean or 2 Chainz to shame any day. Sure, there are melodramatic moments, but in this genre, that's to be expected, and to be fair, they do fit Tyler Joseph's delivery which adds enough authenticity to excuse them. The one notable dud on the album is 'House Of Gold' - it's just ridiculously dorky and doesn't work for the mood of the record.

In the end, I really enjoyed Vessel by Twenty One Pilots, and I definitely recommend it if you didn't check it out when it came out in January. Is it flawed and a bit of a genre-hopping mess? Well, a little, but it executes the fusion of hip-hop and emo surprisingly well and most of the issues I have with the band are likely linked to debut album problems. I still think they're crying out for stronger instrumentation, because with their relatively restrained beats and production (in comparison with the modern scene) will probably confine them to the status of curiosities, which is unfair, because I'm giving them an 8/10. If you're looking for an act that combines Big Sean, My Chemical Romance, some love of Devo, the Beatles, and Queen, plus a load of industrial-strength awkward, Twenty One Pilots is definitely the band for which you've been waiting. Everyone else... look, they're still a lot of fun and they're definitely worth your time. Check them out.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite album of the year! Rarely does songs make you dance involuntarily but still has something to say in it's lyrics. I enjoy the fusion of rock, hip hop, emo, punk and even some folk in the record. I just discovered this album a month or two ago but rest assured, I'll be one of the first ones to buy their next album.