Review Summary: Growing pains.
Where Ithaca fit into the modern metalcore scene at large—a genre currently bursting at the seams with young, raw talent and a diverse collection of methods—feels somewhat uncertain. This has nothing to do with their ability as musicians and everything to do with their own individuality; anticipated sophomore record They Fear Us
is finally here, five-month-plus rollout be damned, and it’s a noted separation from where the U.K. collective left off. Seeking change in a category that is currently accepting everything from nu-metal-influenced romps to Frontierer’s wacky laser effects is unsurprising, yet a turn towards restrained, melodic numbers wasn’t in the foundation. Surrounded by the likes of Palm Reader, Rolo Tomassi, and Conjurer, The Language of Injury
managed to carve out its personal niche that cared more for technical, ever-shifting riffs, endless bass-fronted grooves, and ceaseless, filthy aggression. It was confrontational, mean as hell, and loved every second of its modulating innards. These cornerstones endure in some capacity, but the entirety of the band’s second work is defined more by polished textures and a blunting of harsher edges. Panic not! Ithaca have a knack for catchy songwriting that translates admirably to this route. In fact, the majority of They Fear Us
is capable of providing entertaining earworms that display confidence in this adjusted direction. When those tracks lag or fail to meet preconceived expectations, however, it’s hard to ignore what sounds like some growing pains accrued in transition.
The greatest asset in Ithaca’s toolbox is undoubtedly the improved vocal performance. Djamila Azzouz commands the proceedings of They Fear Us
from the start, demanding attention with her wider range of screams and usage of resonating clean singing. Album highlight “The Future Says Thank You” is a perfect encapsulation of Ithaca’s approach in 2022, in no small part due to Azzouz’s contribution; her soaring alto notes emerge with commendable force, adding a palpable sense of passion that ordinarily would be absent. Her equally vicious harsh vocals carry the verses, fueling the brutality of the tune’s diverse guitar riffing. It’s an ideal exposition of how to balance outbursts of melodic tones alongside violent passages, eventually culminating in a resonating finale that gradually ramps up the tension, utilizing subtle electronics to buttress the climax. The subsequent title track features intense rage in its contents, sporting brutal rhythms that allow the bass to work its magic, its growl prowling underneath a spidery central riff and backing dissonance. Azzouz is again able to balance her styles brilliantly, transitioning effortlessly from piercing screams to the mellow refrain that defines the emotions of the tune. Further headbanging goodies come courtesy of the one-two punch delivered by “Cremation Party” and “Number Five.” Both entries dismiss aesthetic leanings in favor of unrelenting force, with the former thriving off of its bouncy guitar groove and the latter crafting unease with an eerie melody. These are the areas where Ithaca now shines—when the quintet can captivate a listener by mesmerizing heaviness, melodic timbres, and alluring vocal lines.
This established formula isn’t always as robust as hoped, particularly when the melodic elements fail to gel with the harsher framework of the group. The opening portion of “You Should Have Come Back,” even in the context of a record that leans into softer soundscapes, sounds unlike anything else the band concocts, creating a contrast that ironically becomes too conflicting to where it breaks immersion—the metalcore toughness that follows being an even more awkward complement. It’s an issue replicated by closing number “Hold, Be Held,” a dreamy, indie-pop-esque tune with little to add outside of affirming a refined production job that, over time, robs the crew of their potential rather than bolsters it. Consider how clinical a track a la “Camera Eats First” employs its breakdown to catch the difference; that lovable static crunch of metalcore is absent, leaving far too much empty space in the rhythms the band creates. It’s a reoccurring woe: songs occasionally sacrifice the rawness of The Language of Injury
, inserting instead streamlined structuring that is much more familiar to the mainstream school of the genre. Technicality is never a requirement, but an absence of it deprives songs of possible engagement due to an overreliance on simplicity.
All of these concerns generate an output that ultimately becomes too polished to reliably enjoy as heavy music, what with its tunes redirected to serve graceful refrains and their associated melodies. In doing so, the eventual payoff of a song is absent of staying power, be it because of a comparably less impactful bass or generally restrained guitar work. In the context of prior works, it’s hard to shake off the notion that something
is lost in Ithaca’s transformation. When the elegant textures of the instrumentals manage to maintain their ebb and flow between chaos and order, flaws are subverted— “Fluorescent” specifically wields its bright chords impressively well. Complaints aside, the production itself is perfectly suited for its objective, permitting the various shining string notes to flourish in its glowing sheen. Any refrain is giving an almost gaze-like feel, drifting gracefully into proceedings to forge an ideal dichotomy—an aspect that opening tune “In The Way” displays excellently. Along the way, though, there are obstacles in the way of fully embracing what They Fear Us
While undeniably far from being a disappointment, Ithaca’s latest is somewhat of an identity crisis in the making. Whether or not the collective desires to traverse further into the dreamy ambiance that populates the disc is an open question, and when firing on all cylinders, the answer is fairly obvious. It’s that uncanny cleanliness that inserts doubt, inevitably leaving an album that isn’t sure if it wants to sway in an autumn breeze or tear down the local hardcore venue. Perhaps there’s hope in the two motives cooperating—wave hello to “Fluorescent” again for good measure—but the grit that has been surgically expunged from They Fear Is
is certainly missed. The incredibly varied vocals of Djamila Azzouz possess enough charisma to carry several LPs based on her ability alone, with her thrilling screams the necessary edge to give this sophomore effort personality. Instead of the instrumental factors, it’s often her echoing alto singing or harsh utterances that supplies the weight to tracks. That recipe in its present state can offer plenty of addicting numbers to any given listening audience craving accessibly heavy music, yet it comes with the tradeoff of requiring tracks to be elevated consistently, as their original songwriting idiosyncrasies are reigned in for wider acceptance. If one were to toss some dirt on the production and fine-tune what already clicks, there’s a darkened beauty that can be revealed inside They Fear Us
. There are delicious melodies abound, but what could have been
is too obscured by the consequences of their dominance.