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Note: if you’re coming back to this review long after the fact, just know that my feelings towards ‘Holy Hell’ have shifted down somewhat, and that the rating now would look like a 60/100 instead.
Amongst the black and white brush strokes of the kaleidoscopic artwork for ‘Holy Hell‘, an Ensō forms. An Ensō, from the Zen school of Buddhism, is an imperfect circle; one that is created in a vulnerable, open moment of meditation and results in the artist’s single brush stroke. Most importantly, you don’t come back to “fix” your Ensō. As it’s a reflection of you, your thought process, your strength, and your general emotional of being in that singular moment of creation. Much like how a band’s new record is a snapshot in time; a musical reflection of where their mental and artistic headspaces where at during the release’s writing and recording period. So it’s at least fitting then, for just as how an Ensō is imperfect, that this new Architects album is imperfect as well.
And you know what? ‘Holy Hell’ wasn’t trying to be perfect or trying to one-up its predecessor. This new LP is just trying to exist, just trying to simply be. Allowing a light at the end of the tunnel for the famed U.K. metalcore quintet to move past following the darkest, most painful point of their band’s history: the passing of guitarist and primary songwriter Tom Searle in 2016 after he sadly lost his battle with cancer. As you can safely assume, oceans of grief, depression, and even glimmering rays of hope have been poured into the creation of this new LP. What with the album grappling with multiple stages of grief; purging all they’ve been through over the last two years. From grieving and bargaining (‘Royal Beggars’, ‘Hereafter‘), to accepting death and that there is no infinity as all things must end (‘Holy Hell‘, ‘Mortal After All‘), to one’s depression and hopelessness (‘Modern Misery‘, ‘A Wasted Hymn’), and growing stronger from pain to hopefully create diamonds and learn more about ourselves (the faith-based sentiments and suicide ideations of ‘Dying To Heal’).
It’s an album full of lyrical imagery alluding to destruction, both personal and global. Of forest fires, dried up oceans, barren worlds, lost souls, self-revelation, salvation, and as the full-on ‘Damnation‘ lyrically references, how hope is still (and perhaps always will be) a prison. Yet here’s the thing: an imperfect circle – regardless of the statement itself or the pure intent behind it – is still imperfect.
The reason that I adored 2014’s ‘Lost Forever // Lost Together’ so much was because it was a near-perfect refinement on what 2012’s ‘Daybreaker’ had started; a massive level up and then some. Then, 2016’s ‘All Our Gods Have Abandoned Us’ – one of the very few records I’ve given a perfect score to here on KYS – pushed every aspect of that sound to an even greater extreme; driving it to the goddamned breaking point with mammoth, unforgettable tracks like ‘Gone With The Wind‘, ‘All Love Is Lost‘, ‘From The Wilderness‘ and, of course, ‘Memento Mori‘, among all of the other gems. It was the icing on the cake, the cherry on top.
Yet while this new LP isn’t really a regression or a stagnation for Architects, it also doesn’t push things much further either. Of late, Architects albums have struck that sweet spot between tech-metal, prog, djent, metalcore, and melody. It’s a stellar tightrope walk that made ‘Lost Forever//Lost Together’ and ‘All Our Gods…’ such downright incredible listens. It’s also a stunt that ‘Holy Hell‘ attempts, granted as it’s own height and at its own speed, except the same level of impact that those past actions contained just do not land the same here. I mean, there’s only so many times you can have melodic guitars and atmospherics flutter away behind your eighth-note chug-heavy breakdowns before the trick loses all cleverness and effectiveness.
Despite the solid moments, great performances and mostly competent structures, this new album feels like it’s caught in limbo between three different points. Trapped between them towing the “company line” of their expected anthemic metalcore sound; of Sylosis frontman Josh Middleton (who has put Sylosis on hold for this) joining as full-time guitarist alongside Adam Christianson and acting as a producer to fine-tune riffs rather than adding his own influence; and of drummer Dan Searle now debuting as this band’s core songwriter now.
Which all brings me to another point about ‘Holy Hell‘. Architects are undoubtedly protecting, honouring and continuing the sound that Tom helped to cultivate; the legacy that he’s left behind as not just a guitarist and songwriter, but as an artist and as a man too. Which is perfectly fine, noble even. No one would’ve blamed the band for ending or going on hiatus back in 2016, but they persisted, and that determination cannot be understated. He was one of the best songwriters modern heavy music had. And it’s clear that the band have also learnt so much from not just the songwriting Tom utilised, but from engineers Henrik Udd and Fredrik Nordström as well. As this album’s production – self-produced by Josh and the band – is as clean and as smooth as you’d expect from the English band. (Namely with Alex Dean’s bass tone being wickedly sharp, cutting harder than ever before and I’m so grateful for that; he’s an often over-looked musical contribution). But that’s also funny, as that’s what sums up ‘Holy Hell‘ completely: just expect the expected.
To be fair, there are a couple of subtle differences to this LP compared to the previous three albums that have since defined Architects‘ career. For one, there’s a heavier emphasis on orchestral elements running throughout ‘Holy Hell’; indicated by those pre-release videos showing instrumental re-imaginings of ‘Doomsday‘ and ‘Memento Mori‘. For string arrangements appear on nearly every track, from sharp violins cutting above the metalcore fray of the title track (which even references ‘Broken Cross‘ with “Remember we were born to burn?“); to how soft strings float heavenly over electronic instrumentation in the intro of closer ‘A Wasted Hymn‘. Thankfully, they’re never distracting, always suitably additive for the songs.
Likewise, Architects have always done a great job at using the opening song of any given record to set the musical and emotional tone of the forthcoming tracks. Look no further than ‘Gravedigger’ and ‘Nihilist’ for their respective records; massive metalcore tracks laced with pure venom and blistering energy that are wrapped in rage and despair. In this case, ‘Death Is Not Defeat’ picks up right where ‘Memento Mori’ left off – acting as the second half of an unfinished conversation – and starts off with mourning strings, before electronic percussion and Sam’s clean singing pull the track forward. Showcasing the sounds that are yet to come on the remaining ten songs.
Speaking of, another subtle change-up is the added production to Sam’s vocal; from some phasing effects and modulation on his cleans, and some distortion layered onto his screaming performances. We even hear the frontman offer some backing vocal harmonies during the chorus of ‘Hereafter‘ as well. Sam is hands down one of the best vocalists in metalcore right now. As he has so much passion and power projected into his voice; all with some of the best pitched-screaming in the biz. For instance, when his screams break when he declares “death is not defeat” on the track of the same name just before its final chorus? It fucking moves you! And those growls during the mid-section of the title track? Utterly beastly!
Although, I don’t understand why he still drops in the odd “bleugh” vocalization (or similar sounds) if he and the band don’t care for them. Architects themselves have made social media posts over the years about how silly they think the comments and the memes are about it, yet they still include them. Why? That’s like saying you hate meat, but still chow down into the odd plate of bacon. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
So that’s about it for any noticeable and genuine changes. Cause this is Architects just doin’ Architects. And as I stated in my review of In Hearts Wake’s ‘Ark’ in 2017 and the nature of repetition and laurel-resting, if Architects returned with a record sticking too much within the sound of their previous two LPs, I knew that I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. And turns out, I was right.
Sam singing? The use of strings? Fluttering ambient electronics and backing atmos under-pinning certain sections? Their usual approach to breakdowns and riffs? All elements that have been used in Architects compositions many times over the years. Anyone who calls this album a bonafide evolution has either a short attention span or doesn’t know much about this band’s work or music in general. Even more so, the titles of these songs are nearly always stated in the lyrics themselves, whether during or right before a bridge or a breakdown or when a chorus enters. I’m aware this is a weird nitpick but it all further adds to the predictability of their current sound. Yet that current sound seems to be mightily predicated on one factor: where and how this band will later bring this material to life.
Over the last couple of years, Architects have played their biggest and best shows. Ain’t no one disputing that. There’s that (now hard-to-watch) scene in the One Hundred Days DVD where Tom speaks about how it was disheartening to see their peers shoot past them in success and popularity (A Day To Remember, Parkway Drive, Bring Me The Horizon) while they grinded but grew no bigger. Yet it was with LF//LT that they finally surpassed that ceiling, breaking into a new level of success. From there, they’ve gone from strength to strength with their tours and live shows. Their Alexandra Palace show from earlier in 2018 is undeniable proof of this. Which is why this material fits so deep into the mould of that ‘anthemic metalcore’ brand; Architects creating eerily similar songs to past pieces they’ve seen work wonders when performed live. Whether at headline shows or festival sets, anywhere around the world. Honestly, I can’t blame them for that. A lot of these songs seem meant to fill arenas and stadiums. And that’s where they’ll most likely shine best. For just as a mate said to me last week, “When Architects come back to Australia, they’ll be playing the Horden Pavillion, not The Metro“.
Yet on-record, some tracks just fall flat; they do nothing for me. They’re just more of the same old, with underwhelming forms that do not go anywhere. ‘Royal Beggars‘ and ‘Modern Misery‘ being the absolute worst offenders of this. It seriously doesn’t get any more vanilla or safer than this pair. Architects, across their whole career, have made me feel something with their music. From the mathy, tech-metalcore days of ‘Hollow Crown‘, the catchier and melodic post-hardcore sounds of ‘The Here And Now‘, to ‘Daybreaker‘ and onwards. But these two cuts, in particular, leave me hollow; totally indifferent. And maybe that’s worse than them being out-right bad? (With ‘Modern Misery‘ and it’s video, they apply their hyper-emotional state to this commentary of worldly issues in a vapid digital age, but it just feels so forced and preachy).
For all of my criticisms here, ‘Holy Hell‘ still works; it’s still got some great songs. For one, ‘Hereafter’ is a wicked track, a brilliant first glimpse into this album as a lead single. Even if it’s a generic song for what Architects can do. Across the record, the band’s low-tuned drop riffs are still fuckin’ monstrous, with Adam riffing hard and Josh’s main input being a crunchier, “metal” tone as opposed to a ‘metalcore’ one. And this does make the melodic-metal lead work on ‘Mortal After All‘, ‘Dying To Heal‘, and ‘Death Is Not Defeat‘ hit that much harder. Plus, the rhythmic flow guided by Dan behind the kit is not only air-tight but angular too, creating real momentum as a result. Clearly evident by ‘Damnation‘, ‘Dying To Heal‘, and the titular ‘Holy Hell‘ – all solid tunes.
‘A Wasted Hymn’ properly feels like the final step for the album’s pacing, like the curtain call has finally been given and bows must be taken. It has one clear message to share in the band’s moment of pain: “all is not lost”. A final call for hope and love to pervade. This is also one of the finest Architects songs of the lot; showing the pure power and raw emotion that I yearned from other moments on this record. The smoothed-out, reverberant melodic guitars, the powerful undercurrent of chugging bass and affected guitar loops, along with Sam’s heart-wrenching singing make it so goddamn palpable. Just like ‘Memento Mori’ and ‘Unbeliever’, this is one of the best closing songs Architects have ever written; an awe-inspiring comment on impermanence, mortality, sin and preservation. This final hymn was absolutely not wasted in its expression nor its creation! (This is also where the name of the band’s doco, Holy Ghost, derives its title from; an incredible watch, by the way).
Then we have what I feel is easily the best track: ‘The Seventh Circle’. This is the shortest, riffiest, and heaviest songs of the entire bloody record. At barely two-minutes long, Architects hold nothing back in terms of energy, dialling the hardcore intensity all the way up to create a harrowing atmosphere. The song is basically like mainlining adrenaline for the most part, using Dante’s depiction of the seventh circle of Hell from the Divine Comedy to relate violence, war, suicide, and debauchery back to the very suffering of our existence. Yet what makes it so effective is where it’s placed within the track listing; sandwiched between the suicidal and religious connotations of ‘Dying To Heal’ and ‘Doomsday’.
See, whereas ‘The Seventh Circle’ jumps off from the depression of ‘Dying…‘ and drags you down into the tense, suffocating depths of hell, decrying “I don’t want to dream anymore”, ‘Doomsday’ lifts you back up with melodic wonder and compositional grandeur. A genuinely epic song about overcoming death and whose video showed stunning visuals of heavenly ascension; of death, life, depression, and hope becoming one where oceans finally meet. ‘Doomsday’ is still one of the strongest songs to don the Architects name thus far. That was true back when it first dropped in September 2017, and it’s still true now just over a year on. Whatever I can say about it or add to the discussion of this song (either version of it) has already been stated, so I won’t regurgitate older-penned thoughts. But know that it’s songs like ‘The Seventh Circle‘ and ‘Doomsday‘ that show Architects at their best; an esteemed level that sadly wasn’t quite matched across the remainder of this record.
‘Holy Hell’ is, and I cannot stress this enough, a good record. It’s a fine record. It’s not a bad album. However, it’s most certainly not the sheer peak that Architects’ last two records were and still are. Lyrically and thematically speaking, for the most part, this will be the most important Architects record due to the context of where this band now finds themselves in their career following Tom Searle’s death. However, musically speaking and in terms of their songwriting formula, there’s nothing all that fresh here; just more of the same with most songs working quite well but a couple falling damned short. Holding things back as a result. And that pains me to say that as a fan – I even edited this review while wearing my white-floral Architects shirt too. This is all absolutely a transitional state for the band, and that’s totally understandable. Yet, in my mind, the sad thing is that simply because of what this band went through and because of their name now in metalcore and heavy music, this album will be heralded as AOTY by scores of reviewers and fans. And that’s fine, people are allowed to think whatever they want; we all have that right. But let’s not kid ourselves and let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? For this is just more Architects. Lighting rarely ever strikes twice in music, but a third time was never going to happen.
- Death is Not Defeat
- Mortal After All
- Holy Hell
- Royal Beggars
- Modern Misery
- Dying To Heal
- The Seventh Circle
- A Wasted Hymn
‘Holy Hell’ is out now.