“Michael Jackson, Limp Bizkit and Meshuggah meet in the studio for a jam session…”
If the above statement sounds like the start of a cruel joke lampooning music genres, it’s probably time to forget all of your preconceptions and listen to Issues’ latest album, Headspace.
Those already familiar with the Atlanta based six-piece will be well aware of their genre-bending abilities. Bursting onto the scene in 2012 with their Black Diamonds EP, Issues revealed their pop-laden metalcore to the world. It was a refreshing sound amongst an ever-stagnant genre, and was followed up by an eagerly anticipated self-titled record which made it to number 9 on the Billboard 200 in its first week. The catchiness of singles ‘Mad At Myself’ or ‘Late’, which could be imagined blaring out in a stereotypical nightclub setting, may easily dissuade purists of hardcore and metal music, yet Tyler Carter’s soulfully-tinged vocals are the perfect relief from the band’s riff-heavy ferocity.
This debut record displayed Issues’ diverse influences, though at times these were shown separately in certain songs; the purely brutal ‘The Settlement’ and sample-laden interlude ‘Old Dena’ for example. However, with their sophomore effort, Issues have managed to channel all elements of their songwriting abilities – slap bass licks, DJ scratching, djent grooves, jazz chords and pop choruses – into each track to create one of most eclectic yet consistent records in recent years. In a way, they have become the progenitors of R&B-core.
Should this even exist? If it’s crafted in a similar way to Issues then most certainly. Their melding of starkly contradictory musical styles is somehow uncontrived, the tracks appealing to anyone that wish to either lose their shit at a metal gig, or struggle to belt out Carter’s catchy-as-hell hooks in front of the mirror like an 11 year old ‘Belieber’. Please forgive me. With producer Kris Crummett having worked continuously with similarly niche post-hardcore outfit Dance Gavin Dance (a shameless namedrop; I’m a huge fan), the band were onto a winner, with the album’s four pre-release songs identifying the band’s desire to make each song completely different from the last.
“Catchy, heavy and downright original”
In true Issues style, first single The Realest (also the opening track to Headspace), plunges the listener into a world of rapped vocals, jazzy chord progressions and even a funk bass-inspired breakdown. Standard. COMA, a more straightforward mainstream track, polarised keyboard warriors – “Seriously Issues? You’re just not heavy anymore. I’m done.” – but was followed by the crushing Blue Wall, featuring screams courtesy of guitarist AJ Rebollo and an atmospheric verse that almost makes it a second instalment to ‘The Langdon House’. There really is something to please everyone, with Slow Me Down displaying Issues’ most emotional vocals to date, followed by some of Ty Acord’s haunting synth work alongside disgustingly beautiful down-tuned guitar chugs. In other news, its chorus is HUGE.
Tyler Carter’s vocals on this record could easily fit a chart-topping pop anthem, yet they are soulfully measured enough to eliminate any cheesiness that could endanger Issues’ sound. His influences from soul, R&B and hip-hop are obvious; he mimics the King of Pop himself with a trademark ‘Jackson hiccup’ in COMA and his rapped verses on Someone Who Does successfully craft a story of a broken home alongside unclean vocals from Michael Bohn, whose screams on this album are more subdued than previous efforts. Instead, he provides some effective sung vocals on a few tracks, a particular highlight being Hero. Some chuckling was had at the spoken word part of Flojo, which at first seemed too reminiscent of LFO’s horrendous 90s hit ‘Summer Girls’, but considering it was amongst one of the album’s highlight tracks, this fact can pass.
Lyrically, the album is varied in its success. I couldn’t help but wince at ‘Throw your hands in the air / Go stupid like you just don’t care’. Even if it is used ironically in the comically named Yung & Dum, it seems fairly clichéd in a song that is anything but; a song that includes vocals from country singer Jon Langston. Country-$wag-core? Only Issues could find a way to make that work. So too the vocal hook ‘Ain’t nobody got time for that’ in Rank Rider. It is both catchy and hilarious, perhaps a cute reference to their Atlanta roots. Nevertheless, the aforementioned Someone Who Does deals with the seriousness of familial disintegration, and is passionately delivered. The same goes for the lyrics to Blue Wall, which deals with the problem of police brutality against ethnic minorities, a subject that is close to the heart of bassist Skyler Acord who took to Twitter to vent his thoughts on the subject (check out both parts of ‘Badge and a Bullet’ by Stray From the Path for their thoughts on the same issue).
The musicality of this album really does set it apart from other ‘Rise-core’ bands; AJ Rebollo and Sky Acord’s guitar and bass work is phenomenal. The verses of Hero showcase a walking bassline perfectly complimenting Rebollo’s jazz chords and occasional noodling, and the chord progression of Rank Rider‘s outro sounds akin to the work of progressive metal masterminds Periphery, which truly highlights the development of Issues’ lone guitarist. Josh Manuel’s drumming is tight with some original flourishes sprinkled here and there, and Ty Acord’s work on the turntables manages to avoid the scratching technique’s cringe-worthy connotations of early nü-metal and substantiates the band’s heavier moments. In particular, the groove of Flojo is exquisite and surely a favourite for head-bobbers everywhere.
With Headspace, Issues have clearly carved out their own distinct path in the scene and are fully comfortable with their unique sound. This album’s anthemic numbers will become staples in any live set, and the tracks which at first don’t grab the listener’s attention will each infect the mind and repeat themselves for weeks on end. Catchy, heavy and downright original, the next release will no doubt have to throw in some real curveballs even to rival Headspace. A Tyler Carter and Ashanti collaboration? We can only hope.
Image: Rise Records 2016