Icarus the Owl - Love Always, Leviathan
Record Label: Unsigned
Release Date: June 21, 2012
Before I begin, some background on the band. Icarus the Owl is from Portland, Oregon, and they play pop-punk/alternative songs that show off some tapping guitar riffs and many unusual time signatures. The band released a full length in 2008 called The Spotless Mind, then followed it up with the Qualia EP in 2010. Not too many people have heard of them, and it’s probably because of the technicality and the odd time signatures. How uncommon their style is and how difficult to truly take in it may be for a lot of listeners could be holding them back. And it’s a shame, because they truly are an incredible band.
So, that being said, I’m reviewing the brand new album from Icarus the Owl that is not set to be released for five more days. For those that preordered or pledged for a Kickstarter reward, they get the privilege of owning it already, like myself. And I must say, it was a worthwhile purchase. I highly recommend everyone that hasn’t ordered it do that now.
The first thing I noticed is that the band has reached a new level of maturity while still maintaining the great sound they’ve had from the start. There’s a better quality in production, the writing for each instrument is better suited to each song, and there’s just an overall improvement in style. In the first single “Nuclear Towns,” the song starts out with a chorus, then hits another one after the first verse. Instead of adding a third, they skip to a bridge section, then change the chorus and use it as part of the bridge. This new and unique quality of writing is just one example of the improved style the band shows.
As for improvement in the instrumental, first let’s focus on the drums. At first, I was disappointed because I knew that drummer Mark Haines, who appeared on every other ITO recording, was not playing on this album. I fell in love with Mark’s exceptional skill, technicality and style, and I figured the CD would immediately be taking a hit without him. However, hearing replacement Rob Bernknopf’s playing on the new album made me think a little bit. While it didn’t sound as impressive as Mark, I still realized that Rob’s drumming fits the new album like a glove. The drums accentuate on all the right things, making either the time signature, guitar, or vocals stand out, whatever is appropriate at the time. The drums also are not too overpowering, as Mark’s drumming gets so busy at times, you can’t even pay attention to anything else that's going on (think the end of “She Taught Me Minesweeper”). But even then, Rob’s drumming is still remarkably impressive and he shows as much talent as possible without compromising the songwriting quality at all.
Another improvement in the instrumental lies with the vocal and guitar work. Listening to the guitar parts no longer sounds like each riff was written out of nowhere and just given drums and vocals that match. It seems that a good idea for a song was actually thought of, and then parts that complemented the original were added afterwards, and the overall structure of each of their songs has become outstanding because of this.
Some negatives of the album only lie in the fact that the lyrics and use of time signatures are not always tasteful. Lyric writing has always been good half the time. The other half, you get lines like “the vanity of human heads will kill the world’s occupants” from the title track. Not necessarily a bad message, but there’s something awkward about the wording, and this isn’t too uncommon of a problem. However, in the same song, redemption is found a few lines later in “there are ashes now where people were/the greener grass is brown like dirt.”
There’s also a problem that lies in the use of time signatures. At times, it’s very well placed, like in the chorus of “Love Always, Leviathan,” where the long notes at the end of each chorus line’s melody are cut short, which just gives the song a better flow. The time changes to 4/4 later on, so the comparison can be made there. On the other hand, there are songs like “Tag! No Bases” where the time signatures aren’t necessary because they don’t do much to aid the songwriting (not that they take away from it either), and then there are songs like “What We Had Was Never Love” where in the chorus, the time signature seems like it was just changed to 11/16 for no good reason. It might as well be in 3/4 because the song would flow much more smoothly.
Despite small problems that can be easily overlooked, the album hits some very high points. The title track, reaching over seven and a half minutes, is almost an epic, flaunting a powerful ending unlike anything the band has ever done before. It starts with addictive pop-punk riffs with perfect time signatures to fit, then jumps to a very suspenseful buildup to the ending that will top anything you could have expected. It easily could be their best song, and it could be one of the greatest songs released this year.
The album is very well rounded in that each song has its own strengths, but they each hit different points. “Peppertree” is a fun pop punk song that shows off all the usual Icarus the Owl qualities. “What We Had Was Never Love” starts off like a ballad, hits a slightly darker verse with brilliant guitar work, then flows right back into the almost power ballad-like theme. Then there are even songs like “Chemicals and Flesh” that seem to experiment with changes in dynamics, more dark sounding guitar work, and unique structures and time signatures. The band is reaching new ground and absolutely thriving in every new endeavor they face. This album may not top the condensed masterpiece that is 2010’s “Qualia, but it is definitely a step toward maturity and refinement, and it is still definitely one to check out.