For Fans Of
The ever-prolific Crystal Lake show no signs of slowing down, as just this month they’ve put out a new LP: ‘Helix‘. And as per usual, it’s a solid and slick metalcore full-length jammed with tight riffs, gleaming production, great tones, an aggro pace set to explode, as well as large breakdowns and even bigger choruses. Yet the Japanese metal crew’s latest is also a rather safe record at times. Before I get ahead of myself, let me go over the actual tracks to make my point.
First off, the good stuff that ‘Helix‘ gets oh so right.
From the vocoder intro of opener ‘Helix‘ – “I am the one above all/every living thing will spiral into dust/Helix” – second song ‘Aeon‘ kicks your front teeth right back down your throat. Seriously, this thing is insane! “Holy fucking shit” was all I could think upon first hearing it. Crystal Lake have never sounded this heavy before, and the end result is quite simply astonishing. ‘Prometheus‘ and ‘Omega‘ have got nothing on this bad boy. This is a whole new musical level for the Tokyo outfit, and it’s them putting them best foot forward for their latest record. It’s also them hitting a new thematic territory too: this piece curiously discussing the installation/birth of a futuristic digital world full of “coded prayers” and “emptied souls“, one that’s void of humanity in the wake of “plastic signs” and reprogrammed faiths. (I remember the first time I saw Ex_Machina and Blade Runner too.)
What works so well about ‘Aeon‘ is not only the sheer intensity of its hulking circuitry, but how each member of Crystal Lake is cohesively, constantly, matching one another’s musical output. The vocal, riff and drumming extremities grow wilder the longer that it gallops on ahead. The lower-than-hell drop tunings have so much bounce and spark to their lethal delivery. Relentless blast beats fire off like fully-loaded machine guns. And that gnarly, ethereal breakdown outro that’s inter-cut with robotic voices becomes leg-day for drummer Gaku Taura, as his double-kick work reaches a ludicrous level of sharp-attack that Meshuggah and Fear Factory would blush at. Vocalist Ryu Kinoshita has greatly improved his gutturals too, whilst also taking on some black metal influences; showing off frosty higher register screams during the song’s tremolo-riddled blast sections. An added vocal element that just leaves me rock hard, honestly. Ryu also comes out of nowhere with this brutal, wheezing guttural during the bridge, and it’s so immense. Also on vocals, AJ Rebollo from Issues actually guest features here between 1:40-2:03, and much like Crystal Lake’s own frontman, I didn’t know AJ could scream like this either.
As incredible as ‘Aeon‘ is, I cannot in good faith spend this review kissing it’s arse much longer. Because while it’s definitely the quality zenith of ‘Helix‘, there’s some other beauties here too. For instance, the melodic metal sounds of ‘Outgrow‘. Kicking off with it’s chorus, this track is coupled with some cool electro devices, rapped verses, cleaner guitar licks and even a Euro-metal guitar solo. Overall, it’s got this awesome push-and-pull occurring: this dynamic between the band’s hookier, melodic ideals, as well as their disgustingly heavier moments. It’s is an interesting dichotomy, and while it’s one that does admittedly show formulaic wear’n’tear come the record’s end, ‘Outgrow‘ nails it really well.
Well, right next to the emotive ‘Devilcry‘, of course. A melancholic expression of personal loss and a lack of closure, longing for a loved one to come back and having nothing to lose following their death, ‘Devilcry‘ sounds a long-lost ‘True North‘ cut. What with it’s cleaner, spacious guitar tones and surging melodic leads. Yet it’s no wimp either: it’s got some added balls and a real sense of urgency too. Case firmly in my point, the song’s mentally good rapped and staccato-heavy second verse that just jackhammers you right into the dirt. It’s an instant stand-out for ‘Helix‘, one that’s so well informed by what Crystal Lake have done and pulled off on their previous two albums, 2015’s ‘The Sign‘ and 2017’s ‘True North‘ LP. And I’m sure that the band themselves know it too. What a tune!
The heavily syncopated ‘Hail To The Fire‘ – which is precluded by the tribal, call-and-response interlude of ‘Ritual‘ – is punctuated by these Disturbed-like vocalisations, vocals that add so much aggressiveness to what is one of the bounciest, most belligerent and hostile songs of the whole lot. This thing is just a fuckin’ beast, and it’s pit-city outro is stupidly heavy. Remember when you first heard ‘Matrix‘ or the band’s super-charged hardcore cover of Beastie Boys‘ ‘Body Movin’‘ and those energy levels were just so infectious that you needed more? Well, ‘Hail To The Fire‘ re-captures that burning glory with a new spit-shine.
Elsewhere, ‘Apollo‘ has one of the most uplifting and endearing choruses the band’s cut since ‘Mercury‘ and ‘Black and Blue‘; “you will never take me under” being delivered with such heart and gusto. It’s also got one of the toughest breakdowns of the entire album save for ‘Aeon‘ and ‘Hail To The Fire‘, with that ridiculous “open the sky” line slamming down with booming subs and low guitars; a drop so hard that even your future children will feel it in their bones. Whilst more of the same, closer ‘Sanctuary‘ does a good job of tying a neat little bow over what Crystal Lake have done on this new effort sonically.
And now, the things that ‘Helix‘ doesn’t get as right.
Firstly, of all the egotistical “we’re the shit, fuck you” songs that Crystal Lake have written in their time, ‘+81‘ is the least cringe. It still ain’t great, mind you. This Crystal Lake-worldwide, tough-guy attitude seems to come from the obnoxious nu-metal bands that the band love, as well as the rap and hip-hop that’s clearly an influence on Ryu’s vocal phrasing and approach. And that’s fine. But my god, it all sounds so silly when you step back from this track’s gritty bass tones and rockin’ guitars; when you really outline what’s being said and the lame-ass ethos behind it. At least it’s not as bad as ‘Hatred‘ or as meat-headed as ‘Six Feet Under‘, I guess. Annoyingly enough, for all of the personal and serious topics Crystal Lake address on this album, songs like this just feel sorely out of place.
‘Agony‘ follows a similar structure to ‘Aeon‘, racing through low chugs and brutal deathcore drumming. Simultaneously, however, it plays harder into the band’s melodic elements; pitched-screams, synths, higher octave guitars, that “breathe in/breathe out” sing-along section, and so it. It’s a safe, melodic metalcore-ballad, for the most part. Harmless and fine, but still safe. It’s also another example of this band’s core dynamic I was talking about before, something that defines ‘Helix‘ to the very T. This dynamic and safety occurs just two songs later on ‘Lost In Forever‘. Even with the faster, busier drum patterns and occasional breakdown and binary chug, it retains a melodic under-current throughout. It does enter into a knuckle-dragging breakdown towards the end, as Daniel and Tyler from Gideon guest feature before a more uplifting, ethereal closing passage – an approach that this band really does love these days. At first, that heavier part basically just becomes a Gideon two-step section, and to be frank, I don’t listen to Crystal Lake so that I can hear them copy Gideon (who are already coping Bury Your Dead’s ‘Beauty and the Breakdown‘.) No, I listen to Crystal Lake because they’ve shown they’re one of the most energetic, bounciest and more creative bands in this ever-crowded genre right now.
Lastly, ‘Just Confusing‘ is just that. It starts out with this irritating phone vibration; a sample so authentic I thought my own phone was ringing the first time it came on. It then sees Crystal Lake’s full metamorphosis into the rap and hip-hop realm. Gone are the drop-tuned guitars and hectic breakdowns, but the pitched vocals, screams and rapping remain, now fitting into a bassy, trap-hop arrangement. It’s an… odd one. I don’t actively dislike ‘Just Confusing‘, but I also don’t like it either. But hey, if you’ve ever wanted a rap/hip-hop side-project from Ryu, then this is the closest that you’re gonna get, my friends.
A mate of mine once said that most albums should’ve just been an EP instead, and I honestly feel that rings true of Crystal Lake’s latest. Trimming the fat off, you’d have a lean, mean, fighting metalcore machine, built up with some of the best ideas from other musical landscapes. Yet there’s just one or two tracks and ideas present that get in the way, alongside some overly safe moves. Plus, there’s also the odd missed opportunity. Like how the cybernetic ‘Aeon’ is centred around this really interesting concept of “machine as god”, contrasting religion and technology, yet that only defines said song; a deeper, intriguing theme could’ve been expanded further into the rest of the LP, but was shelved so the band could move onto other topics. For better (‘Apollo’, ‘Devilcry’) and for worse (‘+81’).
Metalcore absolutely needs bands like Crystal Lake, and not just in terms of their output, but in terms of their successes too. However, when a record like ‘Helix’ doesn’t quite live up to the hype, and manages to both be different and creative yet also rather safe and expected, it’s best to be honest and not see how blindly loyal one can be. Although, the good present here truly outweighs the lacking and the bad, so please don’t skip over this one.
- Lost In Forever
- Hail to the Fire
- Just Confusing
‘Helix’ is out now!