‘Defiance’ wraps darkness, angst in beautiful package

Don’t let the energetic and catchy music fool you, Assemblage 23’s 2002 album, Defiance, matches those two qualities with just as much darkness and anger.

Whereas the last album I reviewed, Skinny Puppy’s Last Rights, was abrasive and challenging, Defiance is almost catchy and danceable. Assemblage 23, unlike Skinny Puppy, uses traditional song structure. Their verses are built around a certain number of syllables which build up to a chorus as opposed to Skinny Puppy’s anti-lyrical treatises that happen to be done to music.

The albums couldn’t be anymore different, but they both fit under the wider umbrella of “industrial music.” Whereas Skinny Puppy dares you to listen, punishing the listener with unpleasantry, Assemblage 23 sucks them in with hypnotic sounds and rave like energy.

But this isn’t a rave. Defiance, lyrically, lives up to its title. While the album might not be a challenge to listen to musically, Assemblage 23 challenges the listener to absorb the album’s anger and angst then join them in taking on the world around them.

At least that’s what I got out of the lyrics as well as the cover art, which is naked man looking up — what may be defiantly — at several gray rectangular buildings. I’m guessing the buildings represent our society in its monotonous and giant conformity, but I can’t say definitively because I’m neither the artist or band.

Assemblage 23 is essentially Tom Shear, who writes the music and lyrics. He also handles the vocals which are clean and understandable, but still maintain that processed industrial edge. That’s not to say he sounds like he’s using Auto Tune, instead his use of electronics to process vocals give his voice a rather ethereal quality, not quite human, not quite machine.

The songs

Defiance kicks off with the high-energy “Opened” which sounds like something you’d hear at a rave, people with hair dyed neon colors twirling glow sticks and all. A similar vibe can be found in “Document,” which is notable for its memorable chorus and “Light,” which is probably the fastest song on the album, and arguably the most aggressive.

The standout tracks take a harder edge with “Blindhammer.” “Blindhammer” sees Shear and the music take a different tone. It’s heavy and hard beat that fits some rather mournful lyrics with nice synth melodies sprinkled throughout.

Another standout is “Horizon,” which again uses a slow, but hard beat, to drive things forward. Assemblage 23 really showcases their use of tone here, which is, to me, one of the things that best identifies them.

The last standout is “Lullaby.” This song is almost minimalist with its piano sound, slow beat and the “drop” sound. It’s a very beautiful sounding song and probably has more emotional resonance than anything you’ll find by the overly polished and synthetic sounds that you find in the Top 40.

Not everything is hard hitting. The second song, “Drive,” contrasts nicely with “Opened.” “Cocoon” is a pretty song and paints a picture with Shear’s lyrics and use of echos.

The verdict

Defiance is a solid album from a solid performer. Assemblage 23 does well in distinguishing the majority of the songs on the album from each other, though there are a few instances where parts of songs get close to sounding like each other. Aside from a song on a Metropolis Records compilation, I haven’t heard anything else by them. While I may not run out and buy Defiance, it definitely makes me want to check out what else Assemblage 23 has to offer.

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