Friday, February 14, 2014

album review: '†††' (crosses)' by ††† (crosses)

Let's briefly talk about nu metal. Born in the early 90s but exploding in the latter half of that decade, it was a genre I only happened to listen to in retrospect years after its popularity crashed, taking its rock-bottom reputation with it. Widely considered by metal purists to be a mainstream sell-out branch of 'real' metal, it's a genre that tends to inspire a lot of negative comparisons - and while there is some material of quality if you look for it, there isn't much. And while I tend to be more forgiving of nu metal than some critics, the lack of authenticity and texture in their instrumentation combined with atrociously whiny lyrics and a meatheaded attitude tended to set my teeth on edge. At least when hair metal or crunk got sleazy and borderline misogynist it sounded attractive and fun, while nu metal was content to wallow in misery - and since I never had an 'angry white boy' phase, I can't take it remotely seriously.

And the depressing fact is that I think it might be coming back. Though I didn't review Of Mice And Men's most recent album Restoring Force (I didn't feel I knew enough metalcore to give the band an objective opinion, but overall I was meh on it), I definitely heard plenty of the hallmarks of nu metal on that album. And combined with new acts like Emmure and Hollywood Undead, and the popular revival of acts like Korn and Staind and Limp Bizkit (God help us all), I get the unpleasant feeling we haven't seen the last of this genre.

But here's the somewhat ironic fact: nu metal's worst critics tend to be former nu metal artists, and this takes us to Deftones and lead singer Chino Moreno. Deftones has a better reputation than most nu metal acts, mostly because they were a bit more abstract in their lyrics and they jumped off the bandwagon faster towards the alternative metal/post-metal scene. I've never really been a Deftones fan, but the critical acclaim the band has received was enough to get me to look into the debut album from Chino Moreno's side project Crosses, with promises that it was melodic and thoughtful in comparison to his work with Deftones, leaning instead towards electronic rock. Did those promises follow through?

Well, sort of, but not in the way I was expecting. But then again, I'm not sure I could have ever expected this hybrid, which has one foot in gothic darkwave and the other in NIne Inch Nails-esque industrial arena-rock. On the one hand, it's a decidedly unique album that has enough moments to justify the project's existence - but on the other hand, it's also a weird tonal mishmash that doesn't quite come together or take the strengths from its forebears, and I can't quite say I found it all that effective.

For starters, I will say that the seeds of a great album are here. The production is solid, keeping the menacing tone of darkwave and letting the guitars seethe enough in the background to produce a lot of meaty force, and the two instrumental tracks 'Cross' and 'Death Bell' have very solid atmosphere. The drums and drum machines have presence and texture, and there are some interesting progressions that remind me of mid-period Depeche Mode in a good way. And there are some great guitar textures on this album, both on the crunchy, sizzling electric end in 'Thholyghst' and the more melancholy acoustic direction, the latter of which works way better than expected thanks to alt-rock/emo act Far's guitarist Shaun Lopez. And while there are some gothic musical flourishes that I did appreciate (although whoever thought the occasional addition of gang vocals or crowd shouts was a good idea... well, it wasn't), a problem begins to arise when you look at the melody lines - because while they aren't nonexistent, they aren't exactly great either. I'm reminded a bit of weaker Muse tracks that are content to rely on vocal gymnastics and guitar roar rather than good melody lines, and considering Crosses is nowhere near as tight musically as Depeche Mode or Bauhaus or The Cure, nor as explosive as mid-period Nine Inch Nails or Sisters of Mercy, the band doesn't quite have the musical sticking power of those earlier acts. And while there are some darker tracks, at about the halfway point of this album the tone gets lighter and it doesn't really help the atmosphere.

Part of this might be Chino Moreno's delivery. Don't get me wrong, he's a pretty damn good singer, able to deliver a lot of emotion and not really come across as aggressively annoying or insufferable (although some of the nu metal whinging does come through on the weaker tracks - more on this in a bit). He seems to be playing more towards Dave Gahan's cool disaffection rather than Trent Reznor's self-loathing or aggression - but at the same time, his more emotional, 'human' delivery doesn't exactly help him here. This is where the musical tone is decidedly odd and one of the places where I'm not sure the genre fusion works. Simply put, I never get the feeling Moreno has completely bought into the darker atmosphere he's creating, and when the musical tone gets lighter, his delivery doesn't exactly lend the songs a lot of dignity or force. At points,  it's hard not to see the emo edge creeping in, and it doesn't really fit the instrumental tone.

Of course, the lyrics help him a bit here, which takes us to writing and themes. Now Crosses was an album combined of two remastered EPs plus five more tracks, so I wasn't expecting albums themes or greater overarching coherency. I will say the tracks flow together better than I expected, and the technical songwriting is actually pretty good. Better still, we don't get a lot of the melodrama that cursed chunks of Nine Inch Nails' discography or huge tracts of nu metal. There's some of it on tracks like 'Blk Stallion' (which is annoying, to say the least), but it seems like Crosses was looking towards gothic subject matter: religion, depression, and sex.

And therein lines the biggest problem with this album: as much as the band is trying to emulate that darker subgenre, the lyrics never take that additional step to make that material fresh or all that interesting. If you've been listening to goth rock or dark wave or post-punk at all in the past thirty-five years, nothing on this album lyrically will be remotely revolutionary to you. The one step Crosses takes towards something marginally 'new' would be in the tone they present their hook-up tracks, which is decidedly weird. Imagine a blend between emo melancholy and 'arena goth' player, where there is some decent descriptive poetry but a strange undercurrent that's it's all being said to engineer the midnight hookup. And yet bizarrely the sexuality is downplayed in the lyrics, and I don't know how seriously I'm expected to consider Moreno's advances. 

Now granted, I know that it's intentionally more abstract in comparison with Reznor or Gahan, but it ends up becoming a weakness because it sucks some of the weight from this album. And when you have songs like 'This Is A Trick' and 'Bitches Brew', which have this air of cattiness and bitterness that doesn't match the tone at all, it leads to the more abstract writing to come across as disingenuous. And combined with the strange feeling that Moreno is never quite committing wholeheartedly to the atmosphere and underlying emotions, plus the lack of truly killer hooks, I can't help but feel distant and not gripped by this record. And while Moreno is clearly trying and conveying emotion, it rings a little hollow to me, even on the songs I find pretty solid, like 'Telepathy', 'Trophy', and 'The Epilogue'. 

To summarize, Crosses is a band that has been criticized by some in the 'witch house' genre (basically occult-themed modern dark wave with a heavier electronic bent) as co-opting the imagery and aesthetics without it coming across in their music - and I can't help but agree with that. To me, Crosses feels like a side project, where Moreno can stick his toes into the genre but never fully embrace it - and it's that tentative hesitation, that inability to commit musically that leaves this album stuck between dark wave and gothic arena-rock and not really possessing the best traits of either. And yet strangely, I don't dislike this album - yeah, it's not great, but it's decent gothic-flavoured music and there are elements and songs I did like. So for me, it's a light 6/10 and a tentative recommendation, especially if you find the genre combination intriguing. If you compare Crosses to the titans of goth rock and metal, the band falls short in a big way, and they're not going to start another wave of popularity for the movement in the way The Cure, Depeche Mode, or Nine Inch Nails did, but if you're curious, they're worth a listen.

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