Album Review by Mark Bayross
The second album from Assemblage 23 – American Tom Shear – achieves the not inconsiderable feat of improving on the debut CONTEMPT. Across his sophomore album’s ten tracks, Shear has allowed the sound to expand into an enthralling array of killer beats and addictively melodic hooks.
Assemblage 23 has often been compared to VNV Nation, and while there are similarities (dance-friendly EBM, largely untreated vocals, truckloads of melody), the melodic warmth is offset by cold synth work that recalls De/Vision or early Depeche Mode. It’s an icily beautiful combination.
While opening track NAKED could easily have come off CONTEMPT, it is followed by I AM THE RAIN, and a thumping beat and chunky distorted bassline suddenly become very welcome additions. HOUSE ON FIRE seems softer, with what sounds like live drumming over some insistent, retro electronics, but this lightness of touch belies some damning lyrical introspection, while TRIED is more straightforward, with its stabs of strings punctuated by a spectacular vocodered chorus.
It doesn’t take long to realise that this album is an intensely personal one. The CD booklet even contains a dedication to Tom’s father, who committed suicide in 1999. With this in mind, DISAPPOINT is almost unbearably tragic – a hauntingly beautiful lament in which Tom asks: “Can you forgive me? / I never knew / the pain you carried / deep inside of you” over one of the most astonishing melodies I have ever heard. When it ends with “Though you are gone / I am still your son / and while your pain is over / mine has just begun”, it’s like a knife through my heart every time I hear it.
After DISAPPOINT, the mood is elevated, in rhythm if not in subject, by DIVIDE, which fuses a bubbly electro backing to (as with so much else on this album) a supremely catchy chorus. LONGEVITY follows, with a lurching rhythm courtesy of some ebbing electronics and snare-heavy drums, then SILENCE, which adds chaotic elements to the mix – heavily distorted verses and explosive drumming – before Tom unleashes yet another superbly melodic chorus: “Don’t let my silence bother you / I’m only seething, don’t misconstrue / Silence as safety, as security / There’s an explosion inside of me”.
AWAKE then tumbles out of the speakers, mixing some seriously danceable EBM with yet more intelligent, incisive lyrics and catchy as hell. The album closes with KING OF INSECTS, a piano-led comedown piece, wrapped in monumental washes of minor chords…very creepy. And how’s this for a closing couplet: “Burrow deep now, escape the light / heaven forbid you have to face the ones you slight”.
The variety and depth here is astonishing, and Tom Shear has managed to craft a work that moves you on every level – at turns wonderfully haunting, intensely sad and magnificently uplifting.
If ever an album was mis-titled, it would be this one. FAILURE is a stunning success.