Dom Reviews: “Scaled and Icy” (2021)

“Scaled And Icy” Album Cover courtesy of theartsdesk.com

Twenty One Pilots are the genre-bending, Ohio-based duo that have taken the world by storm – primarily thanks to their record-breaking 2015 album Blurryface. It became the first album to have every song certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It’s the album that propelled the boys from their modest but consistent following to an equally cult-like fanbase on a worldwide scale. Today, they are arguably the biggest band on the planet. 

Twenty One Pilots is my favorite band. I’ve been listening to their music since the Blurryface era and have fallen in love with their entire discography since. Their refusal to be boxed into one genre combined with refreshing songwriting, deep lyricism, and creative worldbuilding have kept me coming back from more. 2018’s Trench might be my favorite album of all time. It was a masterclass in songwriting, production, sticky hooks, and concept albums in general. 

The fictional narrative that was fleshed out on Trench is continued here on Scaled And Icy, the band’s 5th studio album if you include their elusive self-titled record. To summarize the concept of this album, Scaled And Icy was marketed to be “propaganda” created by the evil corporation known as DEMA, a group introduced on Trench. This information was revealed in some hidden images that fans dug up before the album was even announced officially. DEMA itself is a tyrannical cult of sorts led by nine bishops and is a metaphor for our deepest insecurities and mental health struggles. 

From an outsider’s perspective, this added exposition may seem silly. However, the vibrancy and interactivity that the band creates between the music and the fans are what set Twenty One Pilots apart from so many other acts. When they drop a new album, it almost feels as if they’re opening up a new world for fans to explore.

Scaled And Icy brandishes the band’s brightest and most carefree sound to date to back up the propaganda narrative it strives for. In keeping with the band’s tradition, Scaled And Icy has many dark and hidden messages beneath its shiny exterior.

My expectations were high going into this record. While I wasn’t confident that they would top the impeccable Trench, I was hopeful that the band wouldn’t let me down with this release. I walked away from Scaled And Icy mostly satisfied. 

Track by Track

“Good Day” is a great scene-setter for the album. It sounds like something straight out of a 90’s

Photo of Twenty One Pilots courtesy of twentyonepilots.com
Photo of Twenty One Pilots courtesy of twentyonepilots.com

sitcom, which perfectly encapsulates the sunshiny propaganda vibe they’re shooting for. It’s got a bouncy piano riff, some drum hits to break up the rhythm, and soaring lead vocals from Tyler Joseph. The bridge is also really well done when things get toned down for just a moment. Here you’ll find a more somber vocal performance and a ukulele that complements it just as well. The track is a moment of pure joy on casual listens. That is, until you read the lyrics and discover that it’s a song about Joseph merely pretending that everything is alright in the midst of hypothetically losing his wife and child among other hardships. It’s this juxtaposition that makes their music feel multi-layered and dynamic and reveals a sinister underbelly.

“Choker” sees Joseph getting extremely vulnerable as he sings about how, since his birth, he has always been one to choke under pressure and that nobody is coming to help him. The message that “nobody is coming for me” can also be connected to the DEMA narrative in that Joseph feels that he will forever be under the clutches of the DEMA bishops. While the chorus is grand and well-performed with its deep bass and beautifully layered vocals, I have a few gripes with this song that I feel hold it back from being great. The repeated “hmm-mmm” gets old extremely quickly as it permeates most of the song. I find Joseph’s vocal delivery on the verses to be extremely weak to the point where it’s a bit hard to get through. He sounds extremely wimpy and uninterested at times. Although this complements the message of the song to some extent, it doesn’t make it any more appealing to listen to. I’m also disappointed that they chose to keep the drums across the first verse muffled. I would have preferred to see them brought out like they are on the second verse. The song ends with a rap verse that takes me back to old-school Twenty One Pilots and gives you a reason to stick around until the end. It’s far from the best rap verse on the album, though.

“Shy Away” was the lead single for this album and it’s just as much of a smash as it was when it

Photo courtesy of spin.com
Photo courtesy of spin.com

dropped. It’s fast, fun, energetic, provides a great sing-along moment, and is catchy as all hell. Standing as one of the best songs on the album, “Shy Away” is a track reminiscent of bands such as The 1975 and The Strokes through its heavy focus on driving guitars and synths combined with a throwback feel. Josh Dun’s drumming on this track is relentless and keeps the track moving at a mile a minute. The chorus has this almost cinematic feel as it introduces these really effective background vocals and almost eerie synths that you have to really listen to in order to pick up. The bouncy keys that remain for most of the track also work to keep up the infectious, danceable energy. Because this extremely uplifting song came out at such a crucial time for me during the pandemic, “Shy Away” holds a special place in my heart. 

“The Outside”, by contrast, is a bumping, electronic, hip-hop inspired tune that isn’t in a rush to get a solid groove going. Lyrically, it doesn’t seem to say much on the surface. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a song that’s meant to “hypnotize” listeners into conforming to the whims of the DEMA corporation with lyrics urging you to nod your head “up and down” and to “join the club.” I’m a big fan of the arpeggiated synths and guitar flourishes that the band combines on this track. Furthermore, the deeply layered and almost robotic vocals work really well for a bass-heavy chorus. However, I find Joseph’s singing on the first and second verse to be a bit overly dull. If you’re a fan of Daft Punk (like me), you’ll probably love this song. 

“Saturday” is the band’s most overtly pop-sounding song to date. Many fans seemed to reject this song for that reason, but I can’t complain when the song sounds as amazing as it does production-wise. It’s got an irresistible drum and guitar groove that screams disco. The organ keys on the verses are silky smooth and the chorus is catchy as hell. The mixing on this track is fantastic and every instrument is crystal clear. It’s begging to be played on the radio. Once again, the lyrics aren’t particularly thought-provoking as it is primarily about letting loose and having a good time. However, the verses get more personal as Tyler Joseph discusses some of the feelings he’s had over the course of the pandemic. I’m also not a huge fan of spoken word sections in music, but I really like the bridge of this song when Joseph’s wife urges him to finish the song

Photo courtesy of nme.com
Photo courtesy of nme.com

he’s working on if he’s feeling inspired. Immediately after, Joseph treats us to an impressive high note. Nothing about this song is particularly mind-blowing, but I can’t stay mad at it either. By this point in the album, it’s clear it won’t be as lyrically dense as Trench. It’s disappointing, but not a deal breaker.

“Never Take It” is a throwback rock anthem bolstered by the way its lead melody and vocal harmonies on the chorus sound. I really enjoy the chunky guitars that pop up on the chorus and the second verse’s piano that both help to fill out the sound. The bass guitar on this track has the perfect amount of grime on it and Joseph’s vocals are strong and confident. I also like how crispy the drums are on this track. However, the bridge sees Joseph return to that wimpy tone that I don’t find compelling in the slightest like on “Choker.” Additionally, the song is over before you even know it. The extremely weak guitar solo before the final chorus isn’t enough to save the song from being forgettable despite it being a new idea for the band. The “oohs” and clapping before each verse also feel like an awkward addition. “Never Take It” simply doesn’t match the energy and creativity of the previous tracks.

“Mulberry Street” is an Elton John-inspired, bouncy, piano-driven tune that is a delight to the ears from beginning to end. Another favorite of mine, this song always manages to put a smile on my face. It feels like a stroll down a friendly neighborhood on a sunny day. A great vocal performance and playful piano tones are what shine on this track. The lyricism is so simple yet effective on this one. I love the refrain “Keep your bliss, there’s nothing wrong with this” and the idea of “pushing sideways” through the hardships of life. Like “Shy Away”, “Mulberry Street” is an instant pick me up and is always great for a sing-along. 

The following two tracks, “Formidable” and “Bounce Man”, are the two tracks that are so clearly holding this album back from being great. The former is a pretty generic sounding indie-rock song with questionable drum mixing, uninspired lyrics, weak melodies, and nothing that really makes it stand out from the rest of the tracks. It’s not bad by any means, it just feels like Twenty One Pilots punching far below their weight. It’s the band’s weakest love song. “Bounce Man”, is easily the worst song on the album with a hook that is painfully childish and repetitive. Instead of creating a Twenty One Pilots song, it felt like Joseph was trying to create a song that he can sing with his newborn daughter. This sounds nice in concept, but it’s hard to sit through in execution. The vocals on this track are also pretty ugly in parts, particularly in the beginning and the chorus. One thing I do like about this track are the sinister undertones hidden in the lyrics as the speaker tries to coax someone on the run to return home for “one more song” before saying “so long.” This works well with the propaganda theme. Sonically, it just isn’t compelling at all. 

Thankfully, the final two tracks close out this album very strongly. “No Chances” is a headbanger

Photo courtesy of nme.com
Photo courtesy of nme.com

of a song with a heavy trap beat that you won’t see coming after the previous tracks. The refrain is genuinely spooky as it is sung by a male choir of what I assume are the bishops of the DEMA corporation. They chant “We come for you/No chances” as the beat drops, making the listener feel like they are being chased. Then, Joseph comes at you with a rap verse that is delivered with such a swagger that still makes me marvel at his range. His cadence and tone are extremely effective and satisfying to hear. Lyrically, it’s about not being able to escape DEMA, a dark message bolstered by the song’s dark synth bass that weighs on the listener’s shoulders. It’s an intimidating song with intimidating lyrics that show the shiny exterior of DEMA beginning to crack as the evil seeps through. The chorus sees DEMA trying to make up for the fact that their facade is cracking, urging defectors that DEMA wants them “home in one piece now.”

TW: Suicide

“Redecorate” is perhaps one of the band’s most emotional and hard-hitting cuts to date. Lyrically, the track mulls over the idea about what one’s friends and family should do to their room if they were to pass away or take their own life: “Should they keep it on display/Or redecorate?” It fits really well into the storyline as well as I imagine a citizen of DEMA feeling guilty about leaving the city. The song features a compelling and powerful performance from Joseph that features both rapping and singing. The beat has a lo-fi feel to it, but the chorus hits really hard thanks to some absolutely haunting vocal processing and swelling, cinematic synths. It’s a dark yet beautiful way to close the album. It genuinely feels like someone is being ripped away from their life. The outro sees everything slowly get more and more stripped back until the rattling lo-fi beat takes us out. It’s the perfect end to a song that leaves you with a lot to think about.

 

Final Verdict

“Scaled And Icy” is far from the band’s best work. At times, the band simply isn’t doing enough to push the envelope, especially after the sharp and daring work they’ve done on previous albums. The best cuts on “Scaled And Icy” can either be fun or emotionally striking, but the worst cuts are straight up forgettable and disappointing. I can’t help but expect more from the band at this point. It’s a short and satisfying listen minus a track or two and continues the band’s streak of creating intriguing concept albums nonetheless.

 

Rating Scale:

0 – 4 = Ranges from “utter garbage” to “generally disliked it”

5 = Indifference

6 – 10 = Ranges from “generally liked it” to “masterpiece”

Final Rating = 7.0/10