I:Scintilla Dying & Falling Review

Reposted from my Last.fm journal

I:Scintilla continue to push their genre defying sound in their latest full length, Dying & Falling, released on November 26. Before I get too far into this review, I do have to issue a disclaimer. I’ve been following I:Scintilla since 2004, when I stumbled across their MySpace page in search of new industrial-type bands. At the time, they were a young but promising band out of Urbana-Champaign, IL and what really set them apart from the other electronic bands I was encountering were the vocals, the emotion and the fusion of styles present in their early work. I:Scintilla have continued to gain momentum and international attention since signing with Alfa Matrix in 2006. I’ve watched I:Scintilla grow up as a band and feel in some ways like I’ve been on this journey with them, even though I’m just a passive listener.

As with most Alfa Matrix releases, Dying & Falling comes in two flavors – the 11-track, 1 disc regular edition and the 22-track, 2 disc limited edition box set. I have yet to be disappointed by one of Alfa Matrix’s 2-cd box sets and the box set is very well done. Singer Brittany Bindrim is also an artist and each page of the 12-page booklet for both editions contains her paintings along with full lyrics. Packaging for the 2 disc version also contains a poster, stickers, a postcard and of course, the bonus disc. Fans in North America can order either version direct from I:Scintilla’s site, where you’ll receive free shipping and can buy the album on it’s own or choose from various CD and merch combo packages.

If you’re outside North America, you can order direct from Alfa Matrix. They have some combo specials running that are worth checking out. In particular, you can order the 2 CD version of Dying & Falling and a 4 CD box set of your choice – one of the options is the excellent Vampire Freaks Fuck the Mainstream compilation, which is no longer available from Vampire Freaks and is becoming harder and harder to find. Get it while you can!

Swimmers Can Drown
The album opens with Swimmers Can Drown, which is a and sonic roller coaster. We’re greeted with a crunchy but quiet solo guitar and soon after, a thumping 4/4 bass line and synths quickly join before quieting down for the verse. Swimmers Can Drown certainly grabs your attention as an opener. Tension builds as the bass synth continues to thump in the background behind Britany Bindrim’s melodic vocals during the first two verses. Suddenly, the vocals turn angry for the pre-chorus, joined by distorted guitar and the whole bands lets ‘er rip for the chorus. The lyrics in the verses are very complex, even including and rhyming with the word “dogmatically”, but the poetic gymnastics in the verses don’t sound forced. The quick sonic changes provide a great introduction to the band’s diverse style.

Sharia Under a Beauty Curse
Crunchy, syncopated, stacatto, brooding, and distorted are all words that come to mind when describing Sharia Under a Beauty Curse. I:Scintilla continue to build energy and keep the intensity up with this second track. The subject matter is quite heavy yet the song manages to leave the listener with a feeling of empowerment, hope and overcoming adversity. These are recurring themes throughout the rest of the album.

Ammunition
The first two tracks on the album build on each other, increasing the tension and the album completely erupts once Ammunition kicks in. Ammunition was originally released on 2009’s Prey On You EP and is pure, raw anger personified. It is much, much heavier than anything we’d yet heard from I:Scintilla and the first time I heard this song in late 2009, it completely floored me. The mechanical drums and beats are relentless, even throughout the strobe-like breakdown. And while I like a good, growly set of vocals just as much as the next death metal fan, I also really appreciate when a band can convey the sort of emotion that comes out in Ammunition simply using clean vocals and dynamic range. That is a testament to I:Scintilla’s craft.

Worth the Wait
I heard Worth the Wait for the first time at a live show in Milwaukee this past July. I was immediately drawn to the song even though the sound wasn’t very good at the venue (the space doesn’t really facilitate an amazing sonic experience). The live mix was also a bit too bass heavy, which drowned out the vocals somewhat. Despite the sound challenges, this song’s chorus stuck with me well after the show was over.

It would be impossible to keep up the energy of the first three tracks after the explosion that is Ammunition and the listener gets a much needed rest with Worth the Wait. Worth the Wait starts out quiet with a minimal keyboard part before the heavily distorted guitars kick in with some punch. Along with the distorted guitars is a great bass synth that pulses and drives the song forward.

Despite the noisy entrance, I:Scintilla know when to scale back the sonic assault to highlight singer Brittany Bindrim’s vocals for maximum emphasis and effect. There’s some great lyrical imagery here with phrases like “Sun crawling up skin” and “History’s harsh waves crash and tear.” I have to say that this was the most surprising song on the album for me, even though I’d heard it live. There are a lot of subtleties that didn’t come across live at the Milwaukee show.

To me, this is ultimately a song about deciding to make a change in your life, being patient and following through amidst challenges and sacrifice to create a new beginning for yourself and follow your dreams by designing your own fate. The theme is very similar to one of my favorite songs, “Not Coming Down,” by the now defunct Milwaukee band You’re Pretty. I’m a sucker for dark yet positive or empowering songs that aren’t preachy and there are quite a few on Dying & Falling.

Mothership
Mothership is a straight up 4/4 rocker with resulting sound a little bit Republica, a little bit Garbage and a little bit Curve. No new ground is tread here musically, but Mothership is a fun, solid track and one that I’d expect to translate very well live.

Dying & Falling
The album’s title track is one of my favorites. There’s a great, grooving bassline that is in some ways reminiscent of the early 90s Susan Vega hit, Tom’s Diner. Bindrim’s vocals float beautifully over the grooves and electronic noises and convey a message of hope through the chaos and ugliness that constantly surrounds us.

The song is fairly melancholic. My brain conjures up images someone walking alone on the streets of Chicago and at Navy Pier on a cold, dark and cloudy November day. I:Scintilla generally don’t do a lot of vocal processing in their work, but they use vocal processing here to great effect in concert with lyrical repetition to add emphasis to various phrases. Despite the melancholy, there’s an uplifting message repeated throughout best described by the following lines:

“We are dying
We are falling
But there’s no reason why we can’t rise
While we’re here”

Bindrim and Cookas discussed this song in depth when I interviewed them for Aztalan Turf Podcast. The lyrics were written as Bindrim was coming to terms with her religious beliefs, but the ultimate message is that whatever you believe in, stand up for it and follow that path, even if it’s not the popular path.

Face the KillAfter a bit of a breather with Dying & Falling, the intensity is once again cranked up a notch for Face the Kill. Though the track isn’t very memorable for me, it’s certainly not what I’d call a throwaway track and I look forward to hearing it live.

The Shake
Hello strings! And I don’t mean guitars. We have real-life cello on an electronic rock album, folks. The Shake is easily the most raw we’ve seen I:Scintilla. The song begins with just a cello or two, piano and vocals. This is a big risk for an electronic rock band and if there’s any song your stereotypical “old school” fans are going to pick on, it’s going to be this one because it is so stripped down. But it’s definitely still I:Scintilla and it’s definitely a beautiful and powerful piece.

They show restraint and maturity throughout much of the song by letting the simple instrumentation and Bindrim’s very honest vocals work their magic on this very exposed and personal song. They do add some elaborate symphonic soundscapes near the middle and I think scaling the layers and soundscapes back a bit may have been more effective. You can hear an acoustic version of The Shake from their set at Dragon*CON on YouTube. There’s also an alternate version of The Shake on the bonus disc in the limited edition version. So while I do think The Shake is a very good song, I prefer the acoustic version and the Volatile Night Version on the second disc to the cut on the regular release.

Prey on You
Prey on You was the title track of the band’s 2009 EP. The sound, in particular during the chorus, is very classic I:Scintilla with some very nice, ethereal sounds behind an upbeat and danceable synth line and Bindrim’s lovely floating vocals. It also takes the classic I:Scintilla sound heard on Optics and pushes things a bit farther with some cool modulation (i.e. key changes for the non-music theory geeks) and is even more danceable than songs like Ultravioletfly and Cursive Eve. Though the song is quite long clocking at 6:32, it doesn’t drag. Prey on You is very fun musically, yet still contains numerous layers with lyrics discussing the topics of religion, faith and religious guilt.

Shattered
The trancey, danceable, Prey on You gives way to the pounding military drum corps-esque beats of Shattered. The snare marches this song forward relentlessly, working with the crunchy guitars, ethereal synths and powerful vocals to create a rich and full sonic assault. Wake up your neighbors with this one because it absolutely must be played at high volume.

Omen
Omen rounds out the album. The lengthy breakdown beginning at about 2:10 through the end of the song serves as a great ending to the album as the fast-paced verses dissipate into a slow and ethereal closing.

The Bonus Disc
The 2-CD version is worth it just for I:Scintilla’s cover of I Want It All by Depeche Mode, but there are lots of other goodies on the disc, as well. I’m not typically that excited about remixes, but the remixes here are all solid. My favorites are the Volatile Night Version of The Shake and the Neurobash Mix of Worth the Wait. Each remix adds a new take on the original without losing the original version’s soul.

Overall
Dying & Falling really showcases the band’s range without losing focus or energy. If you’re new to I:Scintilla, they are definitely a band to watch. Often, the biggest fans are the harshest critics and if I didn’t honestly believe this album was phenomenal, I wouldn’t have spent so much time listening to the songs on repeat in order to write this glowing review.

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