Album: Letters to No One
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who like surprises, and those who don’t. It isn’t terribly often that you hear someone say “eh, I mean, I guess surprises are okay…” Myself? Well, I love surprises—especially when it comes to music. There are few things I take as much solace in as the unexpected pleasure of firing up an album by a band I know relatively little about only to find myself positively glued to it—immersed in my discovery of previously unknown pleasures. This, of course, is where Washingtonian wonder boys Illuminator come into play, with their latest release, Letters to No One. Like igniting magnesium in a dark room, Illuminator cast a bold and unstoppable light into the dirging depths of aggressive, dissonant metalcore in a manner that will catch the listener completely off guard. Built upon blinding, remarkable musicianship and sense-numbing, soul-crushing heaviness, Letters to No One is a shining diamond in a haystack of look-a-like, sound-a-like approaches to bitter, down-tempo metalcore that will surely be brightening many people’s most-played albums of 2014.
Darkness. Pitch, fathomless, emptiness. Void. It seems to continue without end, meaning or purpose—drowning the onlooker in pure, punishing sorrow. Illuminator begin by wrapping the listener in this tangible, dense darkness and tying it tightly, cutting off the circulation to their limbs and repressing their movement; this is done with superior instrumental syncope and surreal, sinister angst and anguish. Gyrating, winding grooves like those found on “Wrath” loop around the listener’s limbs, expertly tracing every crevice of every joint—only to be cinched tight with ruthless efficacy by moments of raw, driving power like those found on “The Blacklisted” or “Ouroboros.” The dynamic expertise of guitarists James Cox and Gabe Mooney make this possible, as their skills range from brilliant, shred-tinted grooves and driving, catchy riffs to sheer, blistering brutality. From the very beginning of “Saudade,” this is clear—as the track rapidly rampages from thrash-tinted riffing to crushing, chug-laden heaviness that is sure to liquefy the listener’s brain and slice the skin from their bones. “Ouroboros” in particular makes exceptional use of Mooney and Cox’s furious fretwork, showcasing a broad array of styles and effects, ranging from some of the most technically trying and devastating moments of the album, to purest and most down-right destructive snippets as well. These cycles of sensational shred and unstoppable crush continue, sprawling outward without end—much like the darkness that Illuminator are so keen to enlighten.
All of the sudden, a flash—a spray of liquid luminosity out upon the canvas of pure black. Driven by energetic percussion and visceral, intense vocals, these elements act as the antithesis to Cox and Mooney’s reign of diminutive, dark terror. Fighting in circles with the wonderfully written and expertly executed fretwork, Joey Landin lashes out with splashy, light and fill-friendly percussion that blares and blasts along at a speed so impressive it seems impossible to follow. “Decay,” as well as “Cavity” are among the best examples of Landin’s expertise—not to forget the aforementioned “Ouroboros.” Luminous, flashy cymbals cast lashes of light throughout Letters to No One, while booming, earthy bass—courtesy of Kane Recardo—keeps the percussion grounded, bound to the firmament Illuminator have worked so hard to create. Tracks like “Pale Skin” especially showcase the instrumental dialectic that creates such an immersive, enrapturing atmosphere. Fretwork skirmishes against punchy percussion and booming bass in an attempt to win over the listener’s attention span—while the vocals roar like angst-laden jet engines over top. Letters to No One is an experience, written and read aloud by the visceral vocals of Michael Dees, who may be responsible for ensuring Illuminator a spot in metalcore stardom.
Slowly, the light takes shape—no longer just fragments of white ink on a black canvas, formless and confusing. Instead, it spreads, growing and organizing into the words and syllables shouted by Dees, who strikes out with a mastered version of every pitch and tone in the metalcore arsenal. “The Brightest Lights Seem Dim” and “The Blacklisted” make punctual use of his Barrier-esque shrill, high shout, while “Ouroboros” and “Wrath” are low, bitter and punishing—but that’s not all. “Gray Skies//Sun Breaks” is an immensely personal track which uses half-spoken screams (for fans of La Dispute and Hotel Books) that relentlessly cram emotion and feeling down the listener’s throat and into their ears. On top of it all, Dees is backed by a wide array of guest vocalists—those of Prestige and Extortionist especially—that add variety, even when none is needed. In fact, the only moments where Letters to No One falters are those where a slight sense of vocal monotony is established. As the instruments are constantly pulling at the listener’s hair, stretching their sanity paper-thin, the defining moments rely on the vocals—so when the end of “Cavity,” and the duration of “Collinsville” seem to suffer from otherwise uninspired vocal efforts, the album seems to drag. This issue is remedied by the one-two punch found within “Pale Skin” and “Ouroboros,” however, as they work in perfect harmony as an exemplary way to end an otherwise masterful album.
Neither pitch black, nor completely illuminated, the battle between darkness and light struggles on—and it does so through the enigmatic masterpiece that is Letters to No One. Illuminator create a back-drop of beautiful music and a foreground of furious, flustered vocals to define one of the most unreal experiences 2014 has given the listener so far. In a state of bleak darkness, Illuminator reach out to the listener and give them light and hope—as well as a surprise album of the year contender.
For Fans Of: Barrier, Sworn In, Kingmaker, Villains, Gift Giver, Widow
By: Connor Welsh