(after it took my last review of a thing about a week to get a single view, I’m approaching this next one with very cautious optimism)
These are my thoughts on Icon For Hire’s self-titled second album, Icon For Hire, released in October 2013, with reference to their first album, Scripted, released in August 2013. The albums can be listened to in full by clicking on their names, and I would recommend you give a few songs from each a listen if you intend to read this post in any meaningful sense, because reading a review about something you know absolutely nothing about is as futile as trying to recreate the Large Hadron Collider with a bagel and a few marbles; it just won’t work.
Overall, I must say that I don’t like Icon For Hire as much as I liked Scripted; I got into the band in Summer 2013, and so had Scripted to listen to, and the anticipation of a new album within a few months. And while their first album was aggressive – see the opening to Theatre – the general feeling of the second album is one of synth melodies, like those in Pop Culture.
The drums remain largely similar, and the bass parts are now largely audible and melodic, leading to much more variety between the songs, but the edge of Scripted is severely diminished: the energy comes from faster vocals in Sugar and Spice and effect-heavy drums in Nerves, but this does mean that the heavy and melodic guitar parts of Scripted are essentially gone.
And this really annoyed me about the album, that in a ‘rock’ band, guitars play a much smaller role than they did previously; I’m all for using the variety of keyboards and synths to twist songs in new directions and make them sound different to every other punk song ever, but this album seems largely to be built from effects and synthetic parts, instead of from unfiltered drum parts and guitar riffs. This leaves a lot of the songs fairly empty songs, like Sorry About Your Parents; although the repeated verse part has a guitar fill, the entire verse is built on distorted drums and the keyboard pattern from the opening.
This inversion is problematic, as it means the basis of the song is a lighter, synth part and the fills the run over the top are bigger, heavier guitar parts; look at Get Well from Scripted, a song with a structurally identical beginning to Sorry About Your Parents: instead of the guitar parts filling in every now and then, the verse is full of a strong rhythm part, with an overdriven synth over the top of it. The latter song is more melodic, but the combination of minor guitar parts and subdued drums (which only really work with an edgy kick with them) means it feels emptier.
I suppose I’m biased, as I’m coming to this from the Punk side of the spectrum; Scripted was an awesome amalgamation of punk riffs and keyboard melodies, and while I wanted the former to be extended, the latter was. And that’s reflected in the comments of the second album: people approve of the new ‘dubstep’ elements that come at the expense of more traditional guitar parts.
But this shift to melody and synths has not led to an increase in new keyboard sections; they simply replace the roles the guitars used to fill. Take Think I’m Sick, a processed and nice-sounding song where the bridge is Ariel singing over subdued instruments, rather than a keyboard part; it’s very like Fight from their first album in that sense, only now the aggression of the verses is gone, and there are no independent melodic bits to take their place.
This has also led to an overall slowing of the songs, as they all fit a very similar structure to those in Scripted (intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus) but each section is being slowed down and made lighter: look at the lengths of the albums: the 13-song Scripted is under 40 minutes, but the 12-song Icon For Hire is almost 43.
Regarding structure, I’m also disappointed that the breakdown in the second verse of Make a Move from the first album was not developed; the band is clearly incredibly creative, and adventurous in switching from punk with synths to electronic with guitars, but they still stick to formulaic structures in their songs; it’s no coincidence that my favourite song off Icon For Hire is Rock and Roll Thugs, which has a much more fluid structure. The group could look at Anavae’s first album, Into The Aether, which is frankly a masterclass in how to have inconsistent verses to great effect.
I did enjoy Cynics & Critics though; partly out of a love of the heavier guitar parts, but mostly because of Ariel’s strained, borderline screamed, vocals; this is their heaviest song across the two albums, and suggested a desire for a more aggressive sound from all parts of the band: drums, guitars and vocals – even the synths got in on the act, with that opening being appropriately subdued and dark, given the energy of the rest of the song. It all harkens back to the glory days of Call Me Alive.
I think I preferred the lyrics of Icon For Hire, and especially Cynics & Critics, but this decision often comes down to a choice between ‘Depression’s like a big fur coat / It’s made of dead things but it keeps me warm’ and ‘Sugar and spice and everything nice / I poured down the drain of my life last night’, so my stance is likely to vary on a daily basis. It was also nice to see less of the explicitly faith-based lyrics of The Grey; reading that those lyrics were influenced by the band’s Christian faith, and seemingly to me the agony of Purgatory, was one of those ‘cannot-unsee’ moments, and now I can’t read that song any other way.
But ultimately, my criticism of the album is one of personal preference: the second album is more melodic, and warps everything from drums to guitars to create an original sound that’s lyrically rooted in social unrest and is still pretty aggressive, despite the withdrawal from riffs we saw in the first album. Although the apparent inversion of the guitar and keyboard parts has led to some empty-versed songs, that undermine typically clever lyrics and turn potential greats into empty synth-fests, I still love the album, a stance that I’ve built up over the last two months of owning it and listening to almost every track when I hit shuffle.
Also, pink hair is sexy.