Tom Shear's latest outing under Assemblage 23 pulls off a neat hat trick. Usually when an artist tries to make the genre they do "accessible", it doesn't sound that interesting. "Accessible" is too often synonymous with "bland" - not here. The near-impossible hat trick he pulls off here is taking industrial + EBM --- music often known for overly distorted, bass-heavy slam-fests - and blending that raw fury with a backdrop that is melodic, uplifting and sprightly - even as the subjects in the lyrics are quite dark indeed.
Opener "Crosstalk" sneaks into view with some idle background chatter that gives way to a pounding synth line that hammers hard even as the melody and synthetic orchestral swirls scream "pop". And lest you think your ears are about to be hit with a torrent of sparkle, the lyrics nix that notion rather quickly (for example "Words like orphans lost among the crosstalk / meaning torn from truth's decrepit hands"). The album almost falls apart here - not because the rest of it is bad - more because every track after suffers from the "hard act to follow" curse.
"The Last Mistake" with hyper-possessive musings of "If I can't have you then nobody can" chills even as a second later Shear pleads "I hope you understand." Dark, but wrapped in a plea for sympathy even so. It's one of the weaker tracks on the disc - not for the message really, but it shows what can happen when the synth+bass-slam mix that typifies EBM doesn't work quite right - it just feels "messy" musically speaking. Coming off this messy composition, "Over And Out" hits the goldilocks notes - the just right mix of insistent thuds, nearly-organic sounding drums mixed in alongside, and everything else coming together perfectly.
The aforementioned track starts to slow the first half down a bit until "Darkflow" amps things up again. It is an insistent, thud-heavy rumination on confusion - more of that mix of dark lyrics and uplifting music that Shear pulls off so effortlessly. Immediately following this gleaming jewel is another of the semi-mis-steps on this disc. "Automaton" is musically classic EBM/Industrial pop hits, but the whole thing sung in (appropriately) robot-voice-altered sounds - gets a bit jarring after a short while.
Elsewhere, "Talk Me Down" joins a long list of songs just like it. It's true one can only write so many songs about so many subjects, but this one is a fine entry in the "Man on a ledge ready to end it all who desperately wants to be saved" category of songs - songs that many artists have written, and will continue to keep writing, for the rest of time.
"Otherness" veers off into ballad territory - not somewhere EBM artists usually dare to tread - and the soft, lullaby-like chimes echoing atop Shear's spare beat paint a chillingly beautiful picture - it's a fine way to close the disc. As the words go "it isn't weakness / it isn't frailty / it's being human" - couldn't have said it better, really.