Willow trees have a storied history since their documented cultivation—earliest documented in 500 B.C. by none other than Hippocrates himself. The genus Salix—especially Salix cinerea and alba—were known earliest as practical remedies for fever and malaise. In fact, Aspirin, the archetypical non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is a derivative of willow bark (Salix bark creates salicylic acid, which is the “salicylate” part of aminosalicylic acid, which is aspirin). However, in the 700s and 800s, Salix bark was also noted to be a largely flavorless additive to teas and herbal beverages in Japan which, in high amounts, would cause severe gastrointestinal upset, vomiting, disorientation and—in some cases—death. In this way, willow wood has been a beautiful decorative agent, a medication and a poison; beautiful, curative and destructive all in one, making it the perfect name for the comeback release by progressive metalcore masterminds Reflections. Crushing, yet beautiful from start to finish while breathing fresh air into metalcore in the process, Willow is every bit its namesake, brilliantly blending technicality, atmosphere and aggression into a backbone of brutalizing metalcore that transcends the band’s previous releases to bring something new, barbaric and mesmerizing in its beauty, all in one experience.
If I’m being totally honest, The Color Clear was the record that made me fall in love with Reflections; not only was it stunningly atmospheric, it was abrasive where needed and catchy elsewhere. The Color Clear saw Reflections baring their collective soul, exposing their emotional inner-workings. With that being said, if you’re looking for The Color Clear 2.0 in Willow, you won’t find it. Willow doesn’t hit the same way that The Color Clear does because it doesn’t try to—instead, it tips the scales in another direction, taking the emotionally intense, dark and brooding content that Reflections won over the hearts and minds of thousands with and putting them against an instrumental backdrop that can be simply described as ignorant technicality. Willow is one of the most oppressively heavy records that progressive metalcore has ever seen. From the onset of “Synthetics,” Reflections are absolutely ruthless, with explosive percussion that blends beautifully with gritty, groovy bass. This continues on tracks like “Isolation” and “Help,” both of which see a version of Reflections heavier than the listener has seen to date. Then, there are songs like “Seven Stages” or “Ghost,” where Reflections maintain the cannon-like, crushing percussion and splice in flashy fretwork and catchy, grisly grooves from a guitar that, frankly, sounds like it’s strung with steel shipping cable. “Seven Stages” and lead single “From Nothing” display Reflections’ striking middle ground between ignorant aggression and immaculate technicality best, with unpredictable percussion and booming bass paving the way for guitar that is spastic one moment and dominating, dissonant and devastating the next. Without appealing to the extremes, or using fanatical language, I don’t believe it would be a stretch to postulate that Willow is one of the heaviest progressive metalcore records ever penned, not only due to segments of particular aggression, but due to a cunning use of atmosphere and the sheer constant density of every disastrously immolating portion the record presents. Where there are few (see: “Samsara”) songs like “Amulet” or “Translucence” to be had on Willow, there remains abundant atmosphere and ethereality throughout moments of Reflections’ masterful comeback that the listener doesn’t outright miss them. This dynamic—beautiful, yet bitter and brooding—makes Willow stand out among Reflections’ discography and among the band’s contemporaries.
Perhaps the most ruthless component of Reflections’ riveting display of aggression that is Willow comes from the band’s vocal element. Frontman and figurehead Jake Wolf dominates the lion’s share of Willow with a raw, deep bellow, channeling the band’s earlier efforts more so than the more emotional and existential material abundant on The Color Clear. As it happens, Wolf’s vocals—while they might take a little getting used to—are the perfect complement to Willow’s incessant brutality. Even where he uses a higher register (“Marionette” and “Synthetics” especially), his lower range serves as amazing contrast, lending even more density to the ten-ton breakdowns that define the record. While the band’s vocal element is much darker and grittier, the lyrical content serves as a foil to the low bellows and growls throughout Willow. Take “Seven Stages,” or “Isolation” for example. While these songs are instrumental juggernauts and abundant with Wolf’s relentless low screams, the lyrical content is soul-shredding in its emotional honesty. This contrast—while not as textbook as a “heavy/soft” or a “scream/sing”—is among the most beautiful parts of Willow. Reflections—Wolf especially—create a contrast between beauty and boorish brutality that, while abstract in nature, is concrete in how impactful it manages to be, as Wolf’s grating low screams deliver syllable after syllable of emotional honesty that hits hard enough to slack the listener’s jaw.
Throughout this article, I’ve drawn a lot of comparisons—especially to Reflections’ critically acclaimed The Color Clear. This isn’t because Willow needs to be compared to the band’s previous works, but it’s more that when a band crafts one of the most unanimously loved records in the last decade of heavy music, it’s hard not to draw comparisons—because everyone will. However, if the listener is able to start Reflections’ latest effort with minimal comparison to their previous works, they’ll find that Reflections have expanded their sound immensely, just to new depths. The record is polarizing—people bent on the abundance of melody and serenity on the band’s mid-decade hit may find themselves let down in the dissonance and aggression abundant here. With that in mind, Willow is an incredible follow-up and next step in Reflections’ discography. Instead of trying to “one-up” The Color Clear, they decided to do something totally different—to take that same passion, anger, heartbreak and introspection and create something just as captivating yet so different from what anyone would have expected or thought up. Does this mean that those who were won over by The Color Clear are doomed to hate Willow? No—because I was one of those individuals—and while Willow is different, it is just as passionate and just as intense. Some of this intensity runs the risk of monotony; and during some portions during the middle stretch of Willow, one could make an argument that Reflections get close to that pitfall, but ultimately, given the intimate lyrical content, varied vocal delivery and creative use of atmosphere, each song is given the ability to shine on its own as well as part of a comprehensive record. Hearing a band so expertly infuse emotion into aggression is nothing short of breath taking—especially when one considers just how heavy Willow is. In short, Reflections continue to amaze and inspire, creating another record that pushes the boundaries of metalcore—albeit, in a totally different and new direction.
For Fans Of: Oceano, VCTMS, Zealot, Delta, Ovtlaw, Yuth Forever, Barrier, Visionaries
By: Connor Welsh