Thursday, May 1, 2014

album review: 'shatter me' by lindsey stirling

I wasn't planning on covering this album.

See, the last time I talked about dubstep was with Skrillex, and since I haven't had as much of a chance to familiarize myself with that musical subgenre since that review, I felt as though tackling more reviews of it might be a misstep. And since I also tend to be a music critic with more of a focus on lyrics, primarily instrumental albums leave me feeling simultaneously lacking material and out-of-my-depth. I tend to focus on lyrics more than most because I'm a writer and my expertise is stronger in that sort of analysis - but while I have a fair amount of musical knowledge, I'm by no means classically trained outside of several years of piano and a few years of theory. 

And with all of that, I was feeling a little intimidated to talk about Lindsey Stirling's newest orchestral-dubstep album Shatter Me. A critically beloved YouTube musician who built a huge following through covers and fusing her amazing violin skills with electronica, she's got more musical talent and creativity than I'll ever have. But that being said, I was curious all the same and I figured the more exposure I get to these sorts of eclectic fusions, the better it'll be for me in the long run anyways. So I bought Shatter Me by Lindsey Stirling and hoped for the best - did I get it?

Well, for the most part, I did. At the same time, though, this review will likely be pretty short, as if you're a fan of Lindsey Stirling and have been watching her material on YouTube for some time, you know exactly what you're getting. For those of you not familiar, it's a very good album, but not quite a great one, arguably lacking more songs with distinguishing character to make it really stand out for me.

So to explain this, let's get the lyrics and vocals out of the way quickly. On the two songs with full lyrics, the title track is the clearly superior song. As much as Stirling says she doesn't have a lot of experience writing songs, there's vulnerability and well-articulated poetry in the song that's delivered with a lot of character and passion from both the violin and guest vocalist Lzzy Hale. The other track with full vocals is 'We Are Giants' from Dia Frampton, and it mostly falls into generic self-esteem anthem territory - not bad, but not especially memorable, both in lyrics and presentation.

Now, thematically this is an album about breaking free from established conventions and old habits, and when Lindsey Stirling does this on this album, she gets better results more often than not. Take 'Heist' for example, which goes for an edgier, darker feel with the thicker, grimier synth balancing against the lower tones from the violin and never overwhelming its melody. And then we have 'Roundtable Rival', easily my favourite track on the album with the explosive, chugging percussion, the guitar riff balancing against the lo-fi violin pickup, and a heaviness that wouldn't be out of place on a symphonic metal track. Both of these tracks highlight something important and what I like most about Lindsey Stirling's composition and production at its best: the violin melody placed front and center, driving the track, and then the electronic elements placed above and below it in the mix, supporting the melody but never really driving it.

And thus when that balance gets skewed, the album does falter. The prime examples are when the dubstep elements try to drive more of the melody instead of the violin, like on 'Night Visions'. Instead of allowing the violin to drive the melody and pace, it feels hemmed in by the gurgling beat, only allowing a few glorious moments of crescendo before getting dragged back. 'Mirror Haus' has a similar problem to a lesser extent, as it tries to have a counterbalance melody in the backing vocals and keyboard and instead of blending with the violin, it begins to overwhelm it. And then there's the song 'Swag', which tries to fuse a much busier synth line with the violin melody, and despite Stirling's usual skittering tendency to ride the dubstep, the track feels a little too cluttered for the rollicking tone Stirling takes. 

But I think the biggest issues I have with this album come from the choice of electronica to support the violin - on songs like 'Ascendence', the electronic tones are very clean and spacious and airy - which does fit the thematic progression, but the tone Stirling most uses on her violin is a little more rough and ragged and her playing style is more experimental and more willing to leap into sharp, staccato sequences to bounce off of the electronica. That's why despite my usual aversion to this brand of shallower dubstep, I don't mind it here when Stirling's violin takes control of the melody. But at the same time, I don't feel the electronic elements are as rich and textured as they could be to really compliment the violin line and build to a more potent sound. And really, the first place this could have been improved was in the percussion - the beats often feel a little underweight here, and could have done with a thicker presence to add some balance across the mix. 

That said, when she did go for an edgier and rougher sound, she tended to score more hits than misses, which means I can confidently recommend this album. Yes, it's still very much inside her wheelhouse and if you're a fan of that you'll like this, but at the same time, there are moments of more progressive experimentation on this album I did appreciate, and as long as the production remembers to keep Lindsey Stirling front and center, she scores a lot of hits here. With that, I'm inclined to give this album a 7/10 and a recommendation. It's always nice to see fellow YouTubers succeed, and with this album, Lindsey Stirling continues to show she deserves her success.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a person with adequate knowledge of music, but what I do I just listen to people's suggestions n try to give credits where it is due. N recently I just come across Lindsey from my friend, n become immediate fan of her music n talents. A very gifted woman yet with humble persona. So here, I like the way u gave review about the album, n how u voice out your opinion with less critical n self-absorbed manner. Unbiased. Goodjob mate