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Mixed feelings always arise for me when an artist is scooped up by a major label (or as major a label gets when it comes to the metal scene). There are mingled feelings of happiness and derision; the former due to the band getting the budget and attention it (in theory) deserves, the latter out of accusations of selling out and, more importantly, a fear in a drop of quality on the part of a band that no longer particularly needs to struggle for their paychecks. While we can pretend all we like that such paranoia results in a better signal-to-noise ratio than normal, the fact is it generally does nothing more than breed resentment against various self-described factions of the metal community that does nothing but heighten the superiority complexes of everyone involved. For this reason, I try to reserve judgement for an artist who has made the leap to major label until I have heard their work.
So it is with some mild trepidation that I approach Despised Icon's second LP, 'The Healing Process'. After the release of 2002's 'Consumed By Your Poison' on Galy Records, Despised Icon floated around for a while before being picked up by Century Media just in time to release their second LP. I'd imagine there were some grumblings around the Quebecois metal scene when they jumped ship in that matter; the movement from a label with a fairly high level of intra-scene credibility such as Galy to Century Media, which could in many not inaccurate ways be called the Wal-Mart of metal today. Philosophical masochism aside, though, it was a no-brainer on the part of the deathcore artists to make a move. Perhaps their exposure resulted more in their success than any change in sound; they were finally able to tap the niche that they had sought all along, which resulted in rapid dissemination through the metal and hardcore scenes, making the sound more acceptable to the majority.
With Alexandre Erian and Alex Pelletier now firmly cemented in the Despised Icon lineup after their split release with Bodies In The Gears Of The Apparatus, this LP was released merely 3 months after that split. There is clearly another distinct change from the earlier material present on this release, which can be pinned on a number of factors, from the departure of miss Marie-Hélène Landry, the movement of Alexandre Erian to vocals, and perhaps a pinch of something that was once known as 'natural evolution'. The music on this LP is certainly a bit closer to archtypical deathcore, and has lost most of the grindcore influence that one would notice on their debut release. However, this does not mean that Despised Icon has gone the Gothencore route with their sound. Instead, what we have here is essentialy a more refined, orderly Despised Icon, with a renewed sense of focus towards their musical goals.
With the aformentioned loss of grind influence, one could say that 'The Healing Process' is somewhat less blistering, but more measured and calculated overall. Gone are the one-minute tracks of the previous LP (and gone is the excruciatingly short running time) and here are longer, more complex and developed tracks overall. Song structure is more organized, and the transitions between various movements, while still somewhat conceptually stilted, flow together technically in a much better way. 'Smooth' would be an appropriate word to describe the album, at least in relation to their earlier works; while others thrived off the energy of constant shifting in directions that they themselves seemed confused by, 'The Healing Process' seems to possess a more logical, traditional method of structuring that is at once more pleasing to the ear and more pleasing to the artist in each of us.
Kicking off with the track 'Bulletproof Scales', one can see that all of the past hasn't been lost: Despised Icon still has that rapidly changing spectrum of sounds, but now the sway to their breakdowns is less one of unsteadiness and more one of resolute headbanging, at least before the band tears into another ripping tremolo section. This track seems to have an introductory feel to it, with it's cool, drifting chords at the end of palm-muted chug sequences that seem to reflect a band that is much more in control of its sound than it ever has before. This is not merely due to experience, but also a matter of the improved technical skill of the band: everything is much faster and more layered overall, particularly in the guitars. While 'Consumed By Your Poison' possessed interesting guitarwork in the way rhythms and techniques were changed based off narrative theme, this idea has expanded manyfold in this installment, with strings that stop on dimes and glide smoothly yet percussively across the fretboard.
The second track, 'Silver Plated Advocate' is one of the highlights of the album. This shows Despised Icon completely and utterly in control not only of their performances, but of the listeners as well. This might be the most memorable track on the disk, with it's exquisite shifts into particularly dark breakdown segments and trademark Despised Icon drum experimentation (fans of the band will immediately recognize the absence of a snare drum during the breakdown portions, one of DI's signature moves), along with excellently unfolding and demonstrative vocal patterns. However, such patterns do pose a problem on certain parts of this album, such as on 'The Sunset Will Never Charm Us', a frequent joke between myself and friends over its awkward trade-offs and overly manipulated pronunciation and rhythm. At times, the album seems to be too vocal-driven for its own good, with lyrics that are at times haphazardly jammed in and instrumentation that seems to be more a background for the vocals to complete their narrative before cutting out at the end of that track's story. This is not a deathblow, but it is a highly noticeable aspect.
Lyrically, the departure of Marie-Hélène Landry has excised essentialy all of the French portions of Despised Icon's music. Reflecting the goal of the new album, the lyrics also seem more organized, with specific narratives present as opposed to the generalized criticisms of government or society or media that composed most of the words on 'Consumed By Your Poison'. Now, personal struggles are expressed through understatement and a more deep-seated odium towards individuals (who often represent the human race as a whole) than was present on the previous LP. The lyrics can compare to those on the debut in their structure (essentialy death metal writing within a metalcore framework), and there is a certain familiarity to the dragged out lists of moderately related metaphors all appealing to a higher general concept (frequently better illuminated by the title of a song rather than the lyrics). The vocal patterns, while somewhat clumsy, have improved in certain dimensions when it comes to delivering lyrics, such as on closer 'End This Day' with its anthemic riot shouts that seem befitting of a more developed band.
Production is generally similar to that on the first LP, though obviously somewhat less brackish and more balanced overall. Vocals are somewhat louder than the instruments, which mostly operate similarly in volume, including what is at times a fairly noticable and enjoyable bass. Probably the strongest criticism that one could make about 'The Healing Process' is that it still lacks full definition between songs, though there is a definite improvement in this regard when compared to the first LP. Unfortunately, the tracks still require a rather hefty amount of listening to fully differentiate, as the riffing patterns for many of the songs are so similar on a superficial level. However, I will say that there is little genuine recycling on this release, which is a pleasant change from many of Despised Icon's contemporaries.
Despised Icon always seems to be a band grasping at possible brilliance but just barely falling short each time. 'The Healing Process', while still not achieving that peak, is most certainly a step closer to that eventual goal. I genuinely believe that they will achieve such a level within their next few releases, and I for one am greatful for a band that for once seems to be going uphill.