Metal, post-hardcore genre limitations shattered in ‘Issues’

MusicReview_KHAlbum: “Issues”
Artist: Issues
Genre: Nu-metal, metalcore, post-hardcore
Label: Rise Records
Release Date: Feb. 18, 2014
4/5 stars

 

What happens when a pop R&B singer gets together with an unclean vocalist? Add a turntable, synthesizers and a choir, and the result is “Issues” — something the Rise record label hasn’t seen in a long time, if ever. This self-titled debut LP defies traditional genre categorization, and its sound embodies what the alternative corners of the hardcore and metalcore genres have spent years trying to articulate.

Clean vocalist Tyler Carter and unclean vocalist Michael Bohn, both formerly of metalcore band Woe, Is Me, take the metal sound and push it to its limits by adding elements of other genres. Catchy hooks and bridges replace the expected hard breakdowns. These melodies work together with vulnerable lyrics to curb the often-deterring harshness of metal.

Issues certainly isn’t the first band to attempt an unconventional fusion. Vocalist Johnny Craig is famous for injecting elements of soul into post-hardcore. Hip-hop and metal came together in the nu-metal genre, giving rise to industry hits like Korn and Limp Bizkit. And far less successfully, the crunkcore genre attempted a similar marriage of pop and screamo, with the band BrokeNCYDE being its most laughable headliner.

While all of these sounds are nothing new to the mid-2000s generation of Hot Topic shoppers, most attempts to mix metalcore and R&B-leaning pop across the years have been nothing more than caricatures of pop forcibly tacked onto metal song structure. Instead of cooperating, the sounds pinball against each other in an aggressive back-and-forth fight for the ear’s attention.

“Issues,” on the other hand, is meticulously put together in terms of lyrical theme and instrumental motif. Each element is balanced and works together to make meaningful contribution to the band’s pioneering signature sound. Three people of color contribute to the band, including Tyler “Scout” Acord on turntables, and the hip-hop elements in each song sound authenticated rather than appropriated.

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The first track, “Sad Ghost,” embodies everything a single from a band’s first LP should sound like. Each musical element of the album is sampled first here, so listeners know what to expect in the coming tracks.

“Sad Ghost” is theatrical, beginning with the eerie orchestral combination of rolling snare, timpani, low strings, tubular bells and a warbling vibraphone. Then Bohn rips through the setup to establish the metalcore influence of the band. Bohn and Carter trade vocal bars with each other, balancing pop melody with harsh noise. The turntable and plucky, pronounced bass line introduce the listener to styles that will reappear later in the album.

The supernatural spook of the song’s minor tonality is woven through the album and reappears most prominently in “Cult of Personality” and “Langdon House,” the latter featuring Bohn’s vocals grating against the dark atmosphere of the track.

Carter’s voice is stellar, and he masterfully utilizes its fullest range. His Michael Jackson-inspired motifs in “Mad at Myself” may not be the strongest, but the risk is well-appreciated. His gentle falsetto in “Tears on the Runway” pairs nicely with featured artist Nylo’s soaring soprano.

Though vulnerability is often something to be shied away from in metal, Carter freely expresses fear, weakness and loneliness in addition to the more feminine sound of his vocal parts. “Never Lose Your Flames” is an encouraging, heavily pop-oriented track that reaches out to the misfits and rejects. “We are all misunderstood,” Carter sings. “Everybody own your name, I wish you would.”

Despite this, the lyrics are the primary problem of the album. Some of them are unclever, but this is to be expected when a primary influence is Top 40 music. But beyond this, there is a glaring hypocrisy concerning outsiders and women.

Even though “we are all misunderstood,” tracks often compare women to objects and pit them against each other in superficial comparisons. “Life of a Nine” describes a woman who, on a scale of one to 10, is a “five,” but lives her life as if she were a “nine.” An average woman perceiving herself in a positive light isn’t celebrated here — it’s criticized. The result is casual misogyny littered throughout the album. These lines only add to the alienation of women in the metalcore scene.

Issues took a risk with this album with complex song structure, unconventional sounds and an unusual vulnerability. Despite its lyrical shortcomings, it remains a breakthrough release as one of the most successful fusion albums to date, and for t