Monday, November 28, 2016

album review: 'you can't kill us' by icon for hire

This will be a bit of a weird review - and not just because I have a history with this band, but also because hindsight is one of those things that can shift one's opinion on an act pretty dramatically. 

And as much as I don't like to admit it, Icon For Hire often falls into that camp for me, mostly because they can be a difficult band to really categorize. Many people thought when they signed to Tooth & Nail - a Christian label - that they'd fall into that disreputable subgenre of badly produced crap, but Icon For Hire actually rose a fair bit above their contemporaries to make some pretty solid alternative rock and metal, with a knack for solid writing, good hooks, and the tremendous talents of frontwoman Ariel. They infused a lot more pop and hip-hop elements into their self-titled - basically to satirize all of them - and I liked that record so much in 2013 that it ended up on my top 25 albums of that year. In retrospect... I'm not at all certain I could justify it on that list now, mostly because the production the label gave them was pretty flat. Their producer Mike Green had worked with Pierce The Veil and Paramore - which has been a comparison that has been made with Icon For Hire their entire careers and not exactly a promising one - but it did not help that record and it has aged pretty poorly.

And then everything went to shit. They ran into serious conflicts with their label - probably because they've always kept Christian subject matter at arm's length, which was probably smart - went independent, and dropped an EP back in 2015... that got some polarized reactions for 'Now You Know', which railed hard against music industry sexism. And yeah, I appreciate the bluntness of the message and the deeper attempts at subtext, but the delivery did not work - Ariel's less-melodic rapped delivery, the grating synths, the flat production, it did no service to an important message. And when you hear they funded their new album through Kickstarter, raising over a hundred thousand dollars to get Mike Green back and pull it together... look, deep down I still like this group, and they've written strong hooks and smart songs, I wanted to really like this. Did You Can't Kill Us deliver?

Honestly, going through this album... it was the sort of listen that connected in a way I absolutely dread: the album that makes me think that I might have been giving this band too much credit in the first place. I'll admit I probably overrated their self-titled record a bit - probably a little more enamored than I should have been with the thematic conceit if I'm being honest - but that's definitely not the case here, which doesn't nearly connect as well. That doesn't make it precisely bad, but the drop-off in quality is steep enough to raise some serious questions, and answers I guarantee won't satisfy anyone.

So what went wrong here? Well, the place we need to start is the themes and lyrics, most of which are laser-focused on Icon For Hire establishing its independence and asking the larger question of what the hell they do now. Now in principle, this could make for fascinating content - a band caught in serious strife with a predominantly Christian label, they could really delve into the deeper implications and hypocrisy that could have led to their exit, and the deeply uncertain state they're in now - that's a compelling story. And hell, Icon For Hire do take a few steps in this direction, including the very real question right out of the gate on 'Supposed to Be' if their angst and artistic creativity could survive that next step, or if their audience would follow. Now that was a theme Aesop Rock was exploring on The Impossible Kid this year, and there's real thematic punch to that. The unfortunate problem that arises is while Aesop Rock hit that thematic point through expanded subtext in his story-telling, delving into the deep-seated and complicated roots of his depression and isolation, Icon For Hire rely on the actual text almost entirely. Which would be fine if the stories actually went into detail, but there's no way around how garden-variety and basic the metaphors and lyrics really are. And I honestly can't see their label taking that much of an issue with any of this, even a nominally Christian one - sure, the insecurity and instability might run contrary to typical evangelical music, but that can make for compelling art, and even with that Icon For Hire are not particularly profane or even descriptive in their internal crises. At its most descriptive the manic-depression of 'Happy Hurts' or the embracing and acceptance of inner pain to write music on 'Get Well II' might be controversial, but frankly I doubt it, considering how much of the rest of the record plays to this broad, desperate struggle for survival where the stakes don't seem well-defined. Of course, the big exception to that is the song about cutting called 'Under The Knife', which talks about how elements of the emo community embrace self-harm in order to get 'cred' and instead how you should channel that pain into something else, like she did with music. A good message, sure, but the writing, like all of it on this record, is so painfully on the nose that it doesn't really stick for me in the same way. The smarter subtext that I really liked on the self-titled album seems to be gone, regressing back to the Scripted era of their writing - maybe even lower, because between the repeated words and stuttered syllables I feel like we're getting drafts of songs that could really use some tighter refinement.

And this lack of subtlety unfortunately slips everywhere else, and that includes Ariel herself. The rap-shout-singing she does... I'm not sure if its an issue of vocal production, which doesn't really place Ariel into the mix so much as on top of it, or how she's amped up her delivery to the point where every word she spits or sings seems to be the most important ever and it can really come across as campy, obnoxious and overdone - especially when she dips into that baby voice or piles on the overdubs - but it doesn't work nearly as well as it has in the past. A larger part is that her choice of vocal tone carries a lot less melody, but I'm a little baffled why she's even bothering with the rapping. She's not bad at it, but wasn't the point of it on the self-titled album for self-aware mocking of the modern pop formula? Here, it's all played straight, and the clash of styles does not flatter her.

And yeah, I'd say that about the instrumentation and production too. And this might be me having given the self-titled album way too much credit back in 2013, because it's not like the sound has evolved or shifted that much beyond getting louder and heavier, but again, I was under the impression the pop and hip-hop touches were stylistic for the point of satire... and yet here with none of that, that excuse doesn't really fly. Hell, maybe it never did, but it also means the flaws here are a lot more glaring. For one, nearly every synth feels imported from 2013 at best, crammed to the brim with entirely too many grinding textures and squealing, siren-like tones - and combined with very blocky percussion right at the front of the mix, it makes for an overstuffed and blaring listen, that doesn't have the dynamics or depth to hold together. Yes, I do like that the electric guitars finally pick up more grind and weight if not a lot of melody - we'll come back to this - but take 'Demons' for example: the chintzy synth melody opening that song doesn't match at all with the tempo or the groove of the riff, one of the few grooves this record even has. Or how Ariel's vocals translate to an ugly buzzing synth line after the hook on 'Here We Are' - there's melody, which unfortunately doesn't show up enough beyond the overdubbed vocals which does a disservice to all of these hooks, but it's a grating one. It's better on the hook of 'Pulse', which gets rid of that gummy synth that runs through the verses and a percussion line half-ripped from 'We Will Rock You', and picks up a decent crescendo by pulling back and letting the groove accelerate. Similar case for 'Too Loud' which lets the deeper synths and stuttering percussion build a bit more stomping groove off the guitar - although for a song about getting too loud I'm baffled why they felt the need to muffle Ariel's vocals on the hook - or the heavier grind of 'Get Well II', which sadly isn't nearly as catchy as the original. That's not counting the flat tap of the beat on 'The Magic' with too much flattened buzz and vocal filters, or the ugly gurgling chunks of 'You Were Wrong' that throw in odd tinkling effects that aren't remotely needed. Songs like 'Supposed To Be', 'Happy Hurts', and the title track work because despite being overmixed they've got a little more atmosphere and actually modulate - hell, 'War' and 'Under The Knife' are still flatter than I'd prefer with the awkwardly mixed vocals and percussion and the painfully cheap production, but at least they carry more melody thanks to the piano.

But at the end of the day... look, I want to go easy on Icon For Hire, I really did love their sophomore album and their debut is still pretty damn good. But this... the production is either cheap, overdone, or sloppy, the melodic hooks are very hit-and-miss, and the overdone vocals only highlight writing that feels increasingly empty. Now there are good lyrical ideas here, and the hooks that do work have some stomping presence that I sincerely hope stick with me, and Ariel is a powerful frontwoman - but I can't overlook the serious flaws here, and really how none of these songs measure up to the original 'Get Well', or 'Pop Culture', or 'Counting On Hearts'. For me, it's a extremely light 6/10, and that's being generous. I appreciate how hard it is to go independent, and I can appreciate making that 'comeback' album full of anthems. But the transition only gave us a decent record at best, and I sincerely hope Icon For Hire are ready to start pushing the gauntlet again.

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