Songs for the Soul-sick | Posted October 18, 2013
Two years ago, Tooth & Nail discovery Icon For Hire exploded into the rock-and-roll audiences' awareness with their debut album, Scripted. Their pop-flavored hard rock laced with attitude and earnestness quickly propelled them to the rank of highest-selling first week of any debut in Tooth & Nail history.
The group, fronted by dynamic frontwoman Ariel and backed by guitarist Shawn Jump and drummer Adam Kronshagen, has not wasted a second of the momentum gained by Scripted, using it to fuel their tireless touring treks to connect with fans nationwide. Their unique sound, infectious passion and genuine dedication to their growing fanbase (known as the Icon Army) has made their self-titled sophomore release one of the most heavily-hyped rock releases of fall 2013.
The album begins with lead single "Cynics & Critics." From the first echo of electronically-altered vocals, this song sets the tone with a sharp lyrical bite. The track emphasizes the dull-eyed, disinterested misery of a generation marked by the lyric, "we like our thrills dirt cheap and our irony thick." Shawn Jump's guitars rumble below the rushing vocals with characteristic intensity. "Nerves" follows, kicking in with a cleverly borderline obnoxious hook in the vein of a derisive playground chant: "I have a heart that gets on everybody's nerves / they don't want the truth / they just want the words." This song displays the way that this album is less slick in its melody structures and production than Scripted was, suitably emphasizing grungier elements of the band's style to match the more abrasive tone of the lyrics.
"Sugar and Spice" begins with a syrupy-sweet electronic introduction. Ariel quickly gets a chance to showcase her phenomenal rapping abilities, balanced perfectly by some haunting melodic singing in the pre-chorus. Here the phrase "sugar and spice" is used as a metaphor for the praise of others (especially the media) as the song recognizes the seductive draw of trying to say and do the right things to earn approval.
A change of lyrical direction marks "Hope of Morning," a vulnerable song of desperation and refusal to bow to your own soul-sickness. This song provides a healthy balance with the tracks calling others out, showing that any finger-pointing includes the writers themselves. Drummer Adam Kronshagen's steady beats serve to ground the more fluid flow of this track.
"Sorry About Your Parents" provides the most sarcastic moment on the album, serving as a scathing statement against wallowing in self-pity and feeding a victim mentality instead of choosing to stand up and move on. The pacing is tight, and the blend of electronic and edgy rock sensibilities is dead-on. Despite its sarcastic veneer, the song also carries a serious warning and call to action: "You'll never succeed if you're so convinced you're defeated / if you're obsessed with your yesterday then you're destined to repeat it."
Synth-infused "Pop Culture" follows, employing a mesmerizing monotone to mimic the marketing-driven hypnosis described by the song. The track's beat is almost reminiscent of the addictive pop culture it admits that we're all far too hooked on—whether or not we admit it. "Watch Me" bears the heaviest rap influence, lead singer Ariel spitting harsh verses to propel the song into a blistering chorus. Every line dripping with attitude, the song expresses frustration with the play-it-safe paralytics who spend their time criticizing others' attempts at changing the world instead of moving out of the safe zone to try to make a difference themselves. The accusations climax in the second verse, where the band chooses to imply rather than enunciate some strong language to punctuate their point.
"Slow Down" contrasts sharply with its precursors. The ballad-style piece emphasizes the deep sense of gratitude and calm that comes in recognizing what really matters and letting go of the rest. Choral-style sampling in the background vocals adds to the hazy, dreamlike feel of this selection. Moody rock masterpiece "Rock and Roll Thugs" is one of the album's stand-out tracks. This song tells the story of anyone who grew up surrounded by the well-intentioned but often blind notion that rock and roll is the "devil's music," nothing more than a vehicle for bad behavior. The song's passionate chorus gives voice to the cry of many who have found hope and a piece of who they are in music: "Bury all the records in the backyard / when you're not looking I'll go dig them back up. / You can bury my body in the backyard / when you're not looking I'll go dig myself up."
Carried by a thumping bass line and more crushing honesty, "Think I'm Sick" is a rapcore-reminiscent track that easily puts Icon For Hire in the tradition of Linkin Park, a notion strengthened by the dark reflections on inner turmoil and the concept that we are often our own worst enemy. "Fix Me" serves as a sequel with piano-driven instrumentation stripped back to the most vulnerable necessities. The lyrics, voiced by beautifully clear vocals with just enough trembling to mark them heartfelt and raw, recognize that the only way the endless cycle of self-examination and self-medication (both themes consistent throughout all the previous tracks) can be broken is through reaching to something or Someone outside of yourself. This is a song of helpless surrender, beautifully captured in the bridge's quiet promise of hope: "every scar one day will heal / every tear one day will dry."
"Counting on Hearts" wraps the album up with a call to the band's fans, establishing a deep reliance on them as fuel for the band's mission. This song is stylistically similar to the opening track, lending musical resolution. This is Icon For Hire's request to fans to keep challenging them, to keep inspiring them, to keep giving them a reason to stay on the road: "some things are worth fighting for / all we need are hearts like yours."
This album fits in the rare class of projects that can only be born from brutal honesty—both with your audience and with yourself as an artist. Icon For Hire did not spare themselves in writing this album, never settling for anything less than excellence and truth with all its grit and complex, bleeding-heart beauty. The blood, sweat and tears more than pay off for the sophomore rockers.
Musically, this is an edgy masterpiece in the tradition of Nine Inch Nails or Linkin Park, but with the unusual asset of rock-solid female vocals. Lyrically, they take some of the trademark accusatory angst of their genre and turn it first towards admitting their own hearts as contributors to the disease and then sparking hope as an answer more enduring than soul-sick self-destruction.
Ultimately, the album's strength largely lies in the delicate balance between honesty about the reality of current internal brokenness and hope that declares no one has to stay in that shadow forever. Icon For Hire is a milestone moment, both for the band and for their genre as a whole. Although some of the lyrics might be uncomfortably abrasive for some listeners, there is the sense that that is exactly as the band intended it. The album is worth picking up if you like rock, or even if you don't— this band just might change your mind.
Song to Download Now:
"Rock and Roll Thugs" (Get it on iTunes here