Review Summary: Returning the balance of heaviness and catchiness to a 50-50 split.
Taking a leaf out of the Mayan's book and prophesizing that the end of the world was near, synth-core outfit I See Stars decided to throw a party... on the moon! 2011 album ('The End of the World Party') ruffled a few feathers with its poppier approach, and it therefore comes as no surprise that the band's third LP 'Digital Renegade' arrives barely a year later, returning the balance of heaviness and catchiness to a 50-50 split. Subtlety will never be an intrinsic ingredient of I See Stars or their chosen genre, with opener 'Gnars Attacks' showcasing all of their components within the first two minutes alone. A symphonic intro leads into Zach Johnson's aggressive screams and Devin Oliver's high-pitched melodic clean vocals, while musically your standard breakdown segues into trancey synth and a programmed beat. It really is a preview for the entire album, even if the transitions here are more erratic and forced than what is to come later.
Wisely, if not always successfully, the Michigan sextet often mix and match the order of the aforementioned components in an attempt to give the impression of variety. Despite a totally unnecessary cameo from Asking Alexandria's Danny Worsnop, a track such as 'Endless Sky' does a decent job of disguising what is essentially the same track over and over again. Unfortunately, this patchwork can only last so long, with a late album cut such as 'Summer Died in Connersville' coming off as redundant. The blame for this can mostly be put down to the musicianship and production, since it is rare for the music to technically impress... And even when it does, it either has to compete with other instruments or moves on too promptly. While it is crying out for a catchier refrain, energetic closer 'Filth Friends Unite' is the most musically striking tune here, with the lead single containing solid riffs, a nice melodic guitar lead and the album's best drumming.
While it pops up from time to time, the mind-numbing pitch correction technology that ran rampant on its predecessor, is thankfully not as prevalent on 'Digital Renegade'. It is wisely used to bring some diversity to Devin Oliver's divisive falsetto; a voice so high-pitched that one has to do a double-take during 'Electric Forest' in order to determine if it is Oliver singing, or Hey Monday's female vocalist Cassadee Pope! While solid enough, this penultimate track is far from the album's poppiest, with the catchy title track and 'Underneath Every Smile' contending for that honor... Even if neither is as infectious as the title track from 'The End of the World Party'. On the flip-side, those listeners favoring the heavier end of the musical spectrum will at the very least be satisfied with Johnson's more prominent role here, a task he relishes with admirable improvement.
To give credit where it is due, there is a sense of such improvement, refinement and progression apparent throughout 'Digital Renegade'. Ultimately, however, the way one views this relatively consistent album will depend on a combination of what they have thought of the band's past two LPs, and the ceiling which they place on the genre as a whole. As is once more proven here, the balance of seamless transitions and imaginative song structures is practically impossible to achieve, with anything bordering on conventional seeming well beyond the capabilities of I See Stars. Take, for example, moody electro-ballad 'iBelieve', which has next to no redeeming qualities whatsoever! Maybe a left-field producer would help to flesh out their sound, or could it be better lyrics that will send the band to the next level? It really is difficult to tell, but we may just have to come to the conclusion that this is as good as I See Stars and synth-core will get.
Recommended Tracks: Filth Friends Unite, Digital Renegade & Underneath Every Smile.