Monday, August 13, 2018

album review: 'the great depression' by as it is

So I remember hearing some promising things about this pop punk band a few years back and while the production was perhaps a shade more polished and the lyrics a shade less interesting than I'd personally prefer, the hooks were pretty damn strong and that gave me hope for what could be next... and then I started digging through their next few projects and coming to the realization that it might be all they have...

Wait, didn't I already make this review for State Champs? Do you guys understand why I typically leave these bands for Jon over at ARTV if I can't tell most of their material apart? Now in fairness, As It Is did seem to have a slightly different formula, with the second singer and slightly more pop-centric production focus and slightly more emo lyrics... which seemingly came at the cost of good production and any sense of weight. Yeah, I hate to echo a lot of other critics here, but despite being a slightly more dynamic group, both As It Is records are a lot more uneven than I can really excuse and the hooks never quite had the same punch as Neck Deep or State Champs, to say nothing of the upper tier bands in this format - generally passable, but rarely better. And yet I was curious to give The Great Depression a full review - apparently the band had gotten darker and more ambitious in a dive towards more abrasive emo material, which is really the sort of edge that this group could desperately need, so I was definitely interested. So okay, what did we get with The Great Depression?

So here's the thing: this is probably As It Is' most distinctive and ambitious record to date, clearly aiming for a darker but still trendy emo-adjacent pop rock sound with a little bit more heft and gravitas. But note I said 'aiming for' and not 'achieved', because while this is probably the As It Is record I like the most, it's not a project that has resolved my longstanding issues with As It Is and the shift in sound only further highlights their weaknesses that in a different era of pop rock would brand them as a wannabe or also-ran. And when you factor in a larger element of lyrical metacommentary that I'm not sure the band can back up... well, it runs into frustrating territory.

Actually, let's start with this, because As It Is has framed The Great Depression as more of a concept release, with our central 'poet' character caught between his depression and self-destructive tendencies and a wholesome girl character who winds up becoming the solitary tether of our protagonist to emotional actualization and survival - hell, on 'The Two Tongues (Screaming Salvation)' she's quite literally the angel on the shoulder. We'll come back to this in particular, but what's more interesting to note is how, right from the start on 'The Great Depression', there's self-aware commentary about the system commodifying depression and grief and angst can ring as exploitative in the face of real emotions that poet might feel. Hell, if this record has a palpable enemy - and when it picks up the most teeth - is when it's targeting that system when it feeds and exacerbates mental health issues, egging them on when there's a profit to be had and on 'The Stigma (Boys Don't Cry)' forcing the poet to bottle them in at all other times. And like Deaf Havana before them, As It Is being self-aware about their artistic connection with the audience informs the feedback loop... but it's also where my compliments on the writing start coming to a close for two distinct reasons. The first ties back to that feminine presence that despite being on the cusp of being dumped on 'The Fire, The Dark' winds up caught in the push-pull of our protagonist's struggle... and yet the self-aware commentary on that side of things is a little more muted and shallow than it probably should be. Yes, you get moments like on the second verse of 'The Haunting' calling out artists who are manipulative and predatory and 'The Truth I'll Never Tell' tries to enforce distance so that our protagonist won't be perceived like that... but it doesn't quite get around songs like 'The Handwritten Letter' that could well fill the same purpose, which leads to muddy messaging that self-flagellating framing can only excuse so far. 

And that leads to the other thing: for as much as this record tries to spit against the system as an easy antagonist, it never really challenges it that hard, be it in the content or execution - yes, more of the struggle is internal, but it's jarring when this record wants to get meta in its framing but won't commit to a more detailed subversion and winds up cribbing lyrical and production cliches from My Chemical Romance circa 2005! And that's relevant, because if As It Is wanted to make comment on systemic issues within emo and alternative pop rock going back decades, maybe it's not the greatest idea to borrow heavily across the board from acts that perpetuated those issues and cliches! But what gets even more frustrating is that when it comes to those sonic recreations, they're arguably more tolerable than the original choices As It Is makes, because at least they're aping a formula that works. Or to put it another way, it's not exactly a good thing when you start your dark emo revival record hopping on a deliberately synthetic pop beat complete with snaps and fizzy effects that does nothing to highlight this band's persistent lack of good basslines! Yeah, the guitars might have decent crunch, but with an undercooked low-end, we're stuck with songs that clearly want to hit harder given the greater emphasis on drums but aren't willing to truly crank up nastier tones. For a quick comparison's sake - and it's a fair one, given the quasi-gothic lyrical style and samples they sneak in to tracks like 'The Two Tongues (Screaming Salvation) - look at My Chemical Romance. Yeah, they could crank the melodrama to eleven and the lyrics could definitely trend towards dicey territory in a modern context, but the band was truly willing to embrace uglier sounds, underappreciated grinding basslines, and guttural delivery to intensify their point. Whereas As It Is...

Well, it's the same complaint I'd make about their lyrics on this album: good ideas on the cusp of going somewhere, but completely underserved. For one, when you have a band with distinctive vocalists I have no idea why As It Is continues to flounder by not giving them unique roles within the album's narrative - this was an issue on okay. as well and it smacks of wasted potential. Then we have the badly mixed in pop concessions that don't need to be here - I get wanting a ballad with 'The Question, The Answer', but doubling down on the dreamy layers of reverb around the acoustic guitar and strings before we get the back beat and ugly mixing of the snap turns a quiet moment of contrast into an obvious play for crossover they don't need - same with 'The Hurt, The Hope', which might have worked if the percussion programming was remotely well mixed and the compression wasn't so blatant - and even then, you're getting tones from both instruments and vocals that actively clip the edges of the mix, even the better rock cuts. I took a look at the credits of producer Gene Freeman and wasn't all that impressed by what I saw, but the band looked to be just as active as co-producers so it looks like everyone shares some of the blame. And that's before you consider the blocky and warped pickups trying to split the difference between the big poppy hooks that remain As It Is' greatest strength and a pretty questionable Underoath influence - hell, they even got Aaron Gillesprie on this record! But songs that can split the difference effectively are rare, and more of this record hits a wonky, watered-down middle ground that proves increasingly unsatisfying, even if cuts like 'The Stigma (Boys Don't Cry)', 'The Two Tongues (Screaming Salvation)' and 'The Truth I'll Never Tell' mostly connect.

But at the end of the day, the biggest issue I have with The Great Depression is one that I've always had with As It Is: a promising group that scratches the surface of interesting ideas but cannot execute beyond the surface level, with sloppy production and underwhelming lyrics keeping them from rising to the upper tier of the genre. And it's very hard for me to recommend the band when we're in the midst of a pop punk and emo revival that is introducing real heavyweights to the conversation, so for me, this is getting an extremely light 6/10 and even that feels like I'm being generous. Not bad - there's enough good ideas, intentions, and hooks to keep this passable, but if As It Is doesn't get some serious polish, I'm not going to stay interested.

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