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Chords of Chaos—Ice Nine Kills: Band Review

The Intro

The early 2010s, an era famously dominated by the rise of EDM and electro-pop music, quietly produced an offshoot of the pop-punk/hardcore scene in the name of metalcore. A unique genre due to the simultaneous love and hate it received, metalcore is vastly different from either of its parent genres. Metalcore tied into the more emo feel of pop-punk, mixing it with intellectual lyrics, rather than blazing solos that metal was widely known for. Putting all of these bits and pieces together, metalcore was refreshing, especially in the modern music scene that was heavily influenced by rap, repetitive verses, and electro-synth pop.

 

Ice Nine Kills at The Showbox, Seattle, May 25th, 2019

 

In the niche of the considerably extensive genre of metalcore, operate Ice Nine Kills—a band formed in the year 2000. Their genre can broadly be defined as horror-based theatricore—essentially metalcore, but with a flair for the theatrics. So why this weirdly specific genre? Spencer Charnas, the lead vocalist and face of the band, had a deep affinity for carnage, death, and the concept of fear. He loved watching slasher-horror movies, obscure as they may be. The founding members of the band all shared this love for the morbid and the macabre, and ultimately decided that this would be the direction their band took. Although the band had initially experimented with ska-punk and other subcultures of rock and metal, they eventually settled on a more melodic, metalcore style.  While they did dabble into horror-infused songwriting in the early days, they stuck to the safer alternative of not screaming in every song. Despite that, most of their songs described a story of sorts—or were inspired by real-life events that were either ominous or eerie. A prime example of this is ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’, originally from their 2007 album ‘The Burning‘. The song has great lyrical variation, a coherent story to be told, and, perfectly alternating vocals between Charnas and Deblieck as they take sides in unreliable narration.

Heavy use of the djent style, overlaid with the usual shredding in quick exotic scale runs makes INK’s music instantly recognizable. This, coupled with the fact that it still appears to be melodic, despite having no constant rhythm spanning throughout the song, is what makes the music very attractive. INK also does offer some of the non-screaming songs to appeal to the milder palette of the listener. Spencer Charnas’s voice is piercing yet beautiful, and he can switch to the guttural growls in an instant. Deblieck’s screams can go from low and menacing to high pitched shrieking. The song can randomly switch into guitar solos, or go into a period of relative quiet. It is this unpredictability that adds to the fun of listening to the band.

The Riff

Ice Nine Kills, like most other metalcore bands, is not as famous on the scale that bands like Metallica are. For the most part, they were relatively unknown, playing small-town gigs or supporting other bands while touring, as they have done for Paramore, A Day to Remember, and As I Lay Dying. They released their first EP, The Burning, in 2007 with Red Blue Records, and followed it up with more touring. At this time, the band’s music was still unfiltered, and a bit rough around the edges. The vocalist duo was still experimenting with their style, and at times, lacked coordination. The actual recorded EP was of questionable audio quality because of financial restraints.

Founding member Jeremy Schwartz left the band the next year, and Charnas recruited members of a recently disbanded band to fill his place. This addition gave INK’s music a new flavour, moving them towards a more modern sound. This caught the attention of Ferret Records, which had previously signed Blessthefall and Killswitch Engage.

Over the course of the next decade, INK would cycle through a lot of guitarists and drummers, trying to find the perfect fit for their decidedly unique style of music. ‘The Burning‘, now faded into obscurity, had some of its songs incorporated into INK’s first full-length album—’Safe Is Just a Shadow’, which was released in 2010 with Ferret.

INK on tour in 2010 performing songs from ‘Safe Is Just A Shadow’

This album received praise for its distinctive style of combining dark lyrics with melodic singing, alternating it with intermittent screaming and heavy guitar riffs. This album would go on to give INK its identity in the core community and was hugely favoured by the band’s small, but loyal following. Despite not being the perfect breakthrough album, it did help INK carve out a niche for themselves, and the album was a critical success.

The Chorus

They followed this up with another EP, ‘The Predator‘, in which some of its songs were incorporated into the next album—’The Predator Becomes The Prey‘, released in 2014. At this time, the band was signed to the much bigger Outerloop Records. The album, while having incorporated a lot of screaming, retained the musical and lyrical influence of the previous album. In an era dominated by electropop music, this album did well by topping most rock music charts and becoming a critical success.

INK on the Warped Tour (Credits—Tattoo.com)

Their next album, probably their best—’Every Trick in the Book‘ was an album based on pieces of literature, mostly in the horror genre. In a time when the genre was shunned by metal purists for being deviant from the classic metal—even being labelled ‘repetitive and dull’, INK proved them wrong by introducing the world to their fresh and refreshing take. With this album, music videos also started featuring as an integral part of the Ice Nine Kills narrative.

All INK songs have an air of theatricality about them and the video to ‘Nature of the Beast‘ is the perfect example of this. The song, based on George Orwell’s Animal Farm has received widespread critical acclaim for both its lyrical composition and the accompanying music video. ‘People In The Attic‘—based on Anne Frank’s journals, captures the panic of her situation, while ‘Bloodbath and Beyond‘, based on The Dracula by Bram Stoker, which is in equal parts seductively smooth and bloody, much like the character, are also good examples of masterful composition.

Much of the praise for the album was centred around the band’s effort to put educated thought into their songs and videos—unlike the arena-rock style that most core bands are attributed to. INK, while churning out a number of impressive projects, also wove stories with their music, thus making them intellectually appealing. The lyrical creativity and variation, with most of the songs having longer, more descriptive verses, was a welcome change.
These lines from ‘The Nature of the Beast‘ capture this style very well:

Though what good is it to find the same sad solution?
Another power-hungry biased f***ing institution
We took the fort, we stormed the gates
But what kind of crooked paradox did we create?
We took the fort, we stormed the gates
But became the very thing that we hate

Another example of great lyrical complexity is this verse from ‘Me, Myself and Hyde:’

Did you really think you could Hyde from me, doctor?
Have you not seen the legacy I’ve carved into the flesh of this city?
Even Van Gogh would call it a bloody good impression
An artist of infection and you’re just another piece in my collection
A mirror image of perfection
Who’s time has f***ing come

Despite its minor flaws, this album really made INK stand out in the mosh pit that is—the metalcore scene.

The Breakdown

Riding by this success, INK released their latest album, ‘The Silver Scream‘, in 2018. The album was their biggest project ever, an exhilarating exploration of just what metal can be. INK repeated the story arc format of the last album, but instead of loosely connected videos, they chose to make a more cinematic piece, with proper continuity, centered on frontman Spencer Charnas. This story runs its course over six songs, each one based on a cult horror movie. The story follows Spencer’s life, suffering from nightmares that mirror real-life murders, which in turn are based on said horror movies.

A grab from an INK music video from ‘The Silver Scream saga’

The album also forayed into softer, more melodic music. The band focused on more instrumental and vocal variety, in both timbre and complexity. Lyrically though, this album was widely considered not as good as the last, with a few songs prescribing to modern trends of repetitive choruses. The songs based on stalwart horror movies, the ones with a sense of history about them, had good lyrical variation, much like their predecessors. Overall, the album was widely praised, for both the musical variation and the cinematic representation, being described as—”The Silver Scream is more than just music, it is an event” by Wall of Sound.

A critical success, this album was a major breakthrough for the band, who despite having a cult following of their own, were yet to taste the mainstream success afforded to bands such as Imagine Dragons in the rock scene.  According to Charnas, the band has been thankful for the slow rise in popularity. 

I think honestly, the steady build that we’ve had I think has been very helpful for us building a cult following and not necessarily just kind of a flavor of the week. Like, “Oh, this band and song is cool, let’s go see them.” And then you know, a year later, you lose touch with that band. I think we’ve managed to build a real strong core following over the last 10 or so years of touring.” Charnas said, in an interview with The Noise.

Instrumental in their success has been their business intellect. Over the last two years, INK have built a brand. They released an app, allowing their following to interact with them and fellow ‘psychos’ online, and have a catalog of everything Ice Nine Kills. Charnas is affiliated with Kleaver Klothing, a horror-themed merch store. They performed at The Stanley Hotel (The Overlook from The Shining) in a packed venue. Slowly, but surely, they have ingrained themselves into horror lore, establishing themselves as stalwarts in the genre, and setting themselves up for the years to come.

Masks and props from iconic horror movies are a staple of INK concerts (Credits— @iceninekills Twitter)

The Outro

With INK headlining more tours, they have greatly improved their stage act in the process. They dress up in elaborate horror-movie inspired costumes and act out the part of famous ‘psychos‘ on stage. While big-ticket shows are coming in fast, Charnas, on Reddit, says that they still love playing smaller stages, where they get to interact with the crowd. In doing all of this, the band has forged a stronger connection with their fans, which has always been the endgame.

Ice Nine Kills have suffered through a long, hard journey, finally tasting success after nearly a decade of coming together. Of the founding trio, Spencer Charnas is the only member left and with Justin Deblieck, is the only member to have worked on an INK album. The band, now a six-piece, has four new entrants. What effect this new batch of musicians has on the band’s taste and style remains to be seen, but their future does hold a lot of promise.

Watch closely, because you never know what might make you scream.

Featured Image credits: Worcester Magazine