Album Review: Issues – “Headspace”

Alright, time for a bit of a retro review. Because I get the feeling that there’s going to be people who read Sunday’s article and who are wanting me to back up my statement on Issues potentially being one of the most important metal bands of our time, because I am hardly known for grand statements like that.

Well, ask and ye shall receive, because that’s what you’re getting and the best way to do that, in my eyes, is to discuss their most recent release, Headspace.

Before I start, though, I’m going to take a bit of time to fill everyone in on just who Issues are, because there’s quite an interesting story behind them. See, the band originally were formed by former Woe, Is Me (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them, they never charted outside of the US and they’ve been disbanded since 2013) members, clean vocalist Tyler Carter, harsh vocalist Michael Bohn, keyboardist Ben Ferris and bassist Cory Ferris, alongside guitarist Adrian Rebollo and drummer Case Snedecor. While some lineup issues did occur, by the time the band recorded their 2014 self-titled debut album, their lineup had stabilized with keyboardist Tyler Acord (that’s not ALL he did in the band, but I’m keeping the list short), bassist Skyler Acord and drummer Josh Manuel filling in the gaps left by the Ferris brothers and Snedecor since their founding (although Skyler was actually the band’s third official bassist: he replaced Jake Vintson in 2013). While Tyler Acord would leave the band while they were recording Headspace, he stayed on as a session musician for the record and co-produced the record (not to mention the fact that he worked with Tyler Carter on a solo song earlier this year), so there obviously has been no bad blood between them.

You’ll notice that I didn’t talk about the band’s sound in that last paragraph. That’s because their sound is one that the vast majority of people simply aren’t going to have a lot of appropriate references on, as it’s basically a fusion of metalcore, nu-metal and top 40 music. While fusing metalcore and nu-metal is nowadays not that uncommon and there are definitely metalcore and nu-metal bands who have done covers of top 40 music, Issues are one of the first bands to actually take all of those sounds and put them together as one inseparable sound and have that actually BE their core sound, not just occasional things they do for stuff like covers. It’s definitely a controversial sound, to say the least, as the sounds don’t really have a lot of overlap (while nu-metal and metalcore HAVE been part of top 40 music in the past, they definitely aren’t now!) and you’d have more luck finding a liquor bar in the middle of the desert than you would of finding a metal elitist who would be prepared to say anything remotely positive about them.

So, with that out of the way, let’s ask one key question: how does Headspace hold up? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, if I’m honest: when it hits, it does an excellent job, but, when it doesn’t, the results are generally just politely listenable rather than being the truly excellent material that Issues should be producing.

The band’s sound, as my earlier description might imply, is basically elements of pop (usually in the boy band/R&B vein of things), metalcore and nu-metal combined together into a sound that is so unique that one would have to look hard to find any similar bands (and the presence of country singer Jon Langston and violin on “Yung & Dum” shows that Issues aren’t out of ideas on this front!). The sound suffers from one core flaw in my eyes, as it doesn’t really all blend together properly (if a song has a strong focus on the harsh vocals in the verses, the swap over to Tyler’s clean vocals WILL feel a bit jarring), but I would be lying if I said that I disliked the band’s sound at all, in spite of my usually dim view on top 40 music and nu-metal.

The songwriting is really the main issue with this record in my eyes, because it simply doesn’t hold up as well as it should be. While the record starts out really well (although I will acknowledge that “Yung & Dum” took me a few listens before I stopped rolling my eyes at the lyrics, so that one might be a tough sell for most people), it loses steam at “COMA” (which isn’t BAD, but it’s pretty dull to me) and doesn’t completely recover from it. I also have to admit that some elements of the top 40 influences do tarnish the record in my personal eyes: I think the overly pop focus with how the songs are structured, while justified on one level when you consider that top 40s music isn’t exactly that deep to start with, does mean that the songs lack the depth to them that they are capable of, which means that the songs sometimes start to feel like missed opportunities to show how to do the sound in a way which could win over skeptics (not that I think that could actually happen, but hey, it’s a potential problem and I feel that failing to point it out would be failing to highlight a potential sticking point with the band). I also think that the decision to focus on the lyrics being like those of top 40 hits means that the lyrics tend to become rather predictable and lack anything that you haven’t heard before, which again results in several missed opportunities, albeit this time to explore topics which aren’t as well trodden (although “Someone Who Does” definitely tries to do that). That said, the first half of the record is pretty great (with “Home Soon” in particular being one of my favourite songs of the year so far) and I’d be lying if I said that it becomes unlistenable after “COMA” (“Rank Rider” is decent enough, with a pretty solid chorus to boot), so it’s hardly a major flop, it just loses something as it goes on.

The performances on the record are very interesting, involving some surprisingly complicated rhythms that are very unconventional for this style of music which help to make up for the fact that a lot of the performances in general aren’t that technically complex in their own right. It’s not quite into polyrhythm territory (let alone Meshuggah levels), but you can tell that the musicians are far more capable than a lot of their contemporaries through this and it helps them to stand out far more than might be expected. The percussion and drums are pretty solid, occasionally having to handle some rather unusual parts that involve some rapid start-stopping drumming that is more akin to math rock than typical metalcore/nu-metal drumming (in fact, put that down as a general note for pretty much all of the instrumental performances on here) and it is to Manuel’s credit that he pulls it all off very well. I’m not sure if he would be able to handle actually progressive material, as his drumming techniques don’t tend to push towards anything particularly in that territory, but he definitely has a good sense of rhythm and the fact that he isn’t just doing the same basic thing throughout the whole record like a lot of drummers end up doing makes his performance actually pretty interesting to listen to. The bass playing is generally just following the guitars across the record, so there’s not a huge amount to mention here with regards to Skyler Acord’s bass playing. It’s not really a bad thing in its own right, considering the material is a step up in complexity from the average metalcore band, but you could be forgiven for not even realising he is on here if you’re listening through poor quality headphones. The guitar playing involves a lot of somewhat complex rhythms, but none of the actual techniques are all that complex, so it’s a case that feels like dressing up rather simplistic performances with some complexity to offer a somewhat different vibe to it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my book, as it keeps things interesting, but I think that the lack of any real complexity once you get past the rhythms leaves a very valid question as to whether Rebollo is as good a guitarist as he first seems, a question which is made more valid once you realise that there aren’t any guitar solos on the record (granted, this is the norm for nu-metal and top 40 music) and the few attempts at lead guitar work doesn’t really add much to the record. None of this is to take anything away from Rebollo’s guitar playing, as he still does a solid job, but I would certainly raise an eyebrow if he was being proclaimed a modern day guitar hero anywhere, because there’s nothing here to indicate that he is really worthy of that status. Tyler Acord is probably the real surprise on the record, as he leaves a pretty noteworthy presence on the record through his use of turntables and keyboards and, while his performances aren’t going to impress a lot of people on a purely technical level, I couldn’t see this record working without him at all, which I’d argue says a lot more than his technical skills do.

The vocal performances the record are basically split between Tyler Carter’s and Bohn’s vocals (although it is worth noting that Rebollo and Tyler Acord also contribute harsh vocals to the record, Rebollo on “Blue Wall” and Acord on “Flojo”, to say nothing about Jonathan Langston’s guest appearance on the record). Carter provides clean vocals and rapping across the record and, while I will say that his rapping isn’t really my kind of thing, his clean vocals are pretty solid for what the band requires of him (which is to provide poppy vocals that help to reinforce the top 40 influence) and I would struggle to argue that he is a bad vocalist at all, just maybe not a typical vocalist for this style of music. Bohn provides harsh vocals and clean vocals (as well as some vocals that lean towards rap on “The Realest”) and I’d say that his strength is his harsh vocals, as he can do them rather well (for metalcore standards: he’s not trying to sound like Lord Worm or Chris Barnes here!), but his clean vocals…need a bit of work. He isn’t exactly a BAD clean vocalist, but he is pretty easily outclassed by Carter and I definitely couldn’t see him leading a band on his own as a clean vocalist very well. I can see him getting better on future records, but, at least on here, he doesn’t really contribute much of any real benefit to the record and the few occasions when he sings cleanly don’t really add up to enough to really make a huge impact upon the record.

The production on the record is your usual very clean mainstream metal production, so you can probably guess what I’m going to say on this if you’ve read more than a few site reviews before now: the sound is very obviously a digital production that is VERY polished, to the extent that the material loses a lot of the potential harshness necessary to give it a little bit more edge to it, the mastering is rather loud and definitely not recommended to blare directly into your ears at maximum volume and the bass mix is quieter than I’d like it to be (though I will acknowledge that it is a step up from usual, so credit there). I honestly don’t get why people seem to think this production style works for metalcore-influenced records, because the two genres which it is strongly influenced by are hardcore punk and metal subgenres that fall under the extreme metal umbrella (usually death and thrash metal, although some black metal influenced metalcore bands do exist), neither of which are genres which really suit a very polished production. Still, those issues aside, it’s hardly a BAD production job, since it is well mixed (bass issue aside) and it sounds professionally handled. I can’t fault the people who handled the production side of this too much, but I do find it rather frustrating that this production style seems to be the default style for mainstream metal, because it doesn’t really work all that well for the genre. It’s better for very clean styles with a strong melodic side to them (like glam and power metal), but the harsher styles…not really, no.

So, overall, Headspace is a record with a lot of songwriting problems that drag it down and which hamper its potential. That said, I still feel that this record deserves more of a place in people’s record collections than the average metalcore record for what it represents as a whole (a truly impressive combination of metalcore, nu-metal and top 40 music into a form which works surprisingly well) and would urge interested people to at least try to give it a go with an open mind. It’s not a flawless release by any measure (and I imagine that Amaranthe’s upcoming fourth record will blow this one out of the water in terms of quality), but the stuff it does right is truly worth hearing (and I’m saying this as someone who you would expect to hate this record with a passion) and I think it has a lot of potential to it which, if built upon properly when the band’s next record comes around, could show that metal is not only not dead, but it still has a few surprises up its sleeves.

Headspace was released on the 20th of May by Rise Records.