It was the release of the single “Chains” which introduced me to Louisiana based As Cities Burn. I learned then that they had resurfaced after a ten year hiatus, and returned to their roots (so to speak) with brothers Cody and TJ Bonnette working together for the first time since the band’s 2005 album Son, I Loved You At Your Darkest. Completed by Aaron Lunsford and Hunter Walls, the quartet of As Cities Burn released Scream Through the Walls on 7th June via Equal Vision Records. Though it’s the band’s fourth full length release, I’m coming in new and relatively unaware of the sound and workings of the band, which should be taken as my lens here.
Scream Through the Walls opens with “Live Convinced”; something that’s unlike anything I’ve heard in recent times. It’s more soundscape than any expected song and its structure, at least at first. Buried in vocal manipulations and layers, the song shares a curious combination of desperation and controlled/calm honesty. Raw vocals rage against cool facts in this song, with lines like “you’re not invincible” seeming to add compassion to the mix, while also vibing as a warning.
Instrumental downward stepping coupled with the desperation is somehow moving to me, with no idea why. It’s seeming to press the right buttons within me, especially with lyrics like this: “Hold your heart to the fire if you are awake / The exit sign is a liar, the answer is not escape”. I’m understanding the song to be a wake-up call to take a proverbial baptism by fire and learn from the experience. Following on from this, lyrical demands for MORE that come coupled with hugely satisfying riffs is so perfect. It is like “Come at me, life!”. Wild and open, this is how you begin an album!
With a wavering voice that’s still fierce in its promises, “Broadway” has my immediate attention. At the time of my review, I was sitting listening to this in the darkness, so literally couldn’t ‘look away’ from the song and couldn’t distract myself away from it. The confessor before me turned cold and blunt, and I wondered (as he coolly and softly says “Don’t mind me”) what I had got myself in for. Though I don’t know where the song is going, I’m hooked on the storyteller more than the story for now, and it’s going down easily. A caramel flavoured treat for the ears.
As the song continues, our storyteller charges up and veers into insanity or some other unstable state which renders him (and his movie soundtrack) wild. Though the entire song is a treat, the bridge in its echoing self with tamborine and guitar is delectable. I don’t know whether I’m in the best parts of The Verve‘s Urban Hymns or here in the present. With lines like “We’ve got enough spirits”, I’m not entirely sure what “Broadway” is about, and I don’t really mind.
Though it’s an upbeat song, “2020 AD” seems like it brings a doomsday-esque urgency to modern day society and the rush of passersby who don’t see one another. Head down to phones, this could be a snapshot of our society’s self-destruction, all without us noticing. The lyrical snapshots relating to disconnection and divide seem to hint at this, but this is just my impression.
With staticky and rough attempts to see one another, it’s a brilliant and furious wrestling to pull the attention of the inattentive. Interwoven voices and instrumental climbs make for a feeling of battle, and that static paints a picture of weak connections.
I was surprised how ‘normal’ “Hollowed Out” started out as, having thoroughly enjoyed the way the previous three songs had had unique quirks and effects littered through them. But around the 25 second mark, I happily inhale “Now I’m alone in my own head, ready for anything” and the way the thoughts speed up and zoom away; perfect for capturing the idea of nonsensical brain noise.
The drumming and overlapping vocals ooze tension and overwhelm to me, and I’m excited to see a reference to the album’s title in this song. As both a quest to be alone, and also an acceptance of others to isolate too, a pact is made to scream through the walls to communicate. Or at least, that’s my take. There’s something lovely about this: Acknowledging the internal unsettledness, wanting distance from it, allowing others to get distance too, and finding ways to support that. Alone, together.
“If you find you always do
Gravitate to isolation
Move into this empty room next to mine
And we’ll scream through the walls”
This, this is something special. You ever have a song that puts what’s in your soul into words and makes you cry and cry? “Maybe” did that to me. I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing with this song. The questions of where we were before landing into this life, and the idea of being thrust unwillingly into existence are so universal, yet so infrequently heard in song. But there’s so much more to this song. To feeling like you don’t belong here, to feeling like it makes no sense for you to have incarnated into the life you have.
So many of these existential questions get poked at by this song. “I want you to remind me” repeated just seemed to shed layers from me, and I’ve already returned to this one song again and again. Warm and floaty but also trepidacious instrumentals are just so apt to what’s being expressed that it makes for something stunning.
Its the chorus that kills me, as seeming to both reflect the discomfort of existing in a life you don’t feel like you would have chosen, while also celebrating your endurance. It’s beautiful to me how the unknowns and confusions are painted by this song by all parts of the band; the circular riffs, the desperation, the breathless acknowledgement of how hard it is, how ‘jumping ship’ would offer rest, how ‘timing out’ is imminent. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I also had an inkling in how “Maybe” shares threads with previous songs.
“What was I before?”
“Chains” takes the existing thread of needing to be awake and alive and facing things and pulls it into the idea of ‘The American Dream’. The track also ties into death and being insular instead of fearful. It also has the ‘alone, together’ vibe with the repeated “I’m in this too”. It’s tense and urgent, where people are unsettled by the people around them as well as media.
Around about this point of the review, I noted that I felt like the album was already something that I wanted to have in my life on a regular basis; specifically as a compassionate friend for the sense of isolation, for the confusion at what we do to each other, how we’re supposed to make sense of this incarnation, and how “it’s seeing with your eyes that makes you stumble”. The end of “Chains” is so satisfying, seeming drunken on chaos and somehow hopeful in understanding.
“Love is the end
Love is the means”
Bright White Light
Though my review got derailed by life, I insisted on returning only when it could get my full focus. “Chains” had left question marks in the air, of how perspectives might change and how it would look or feel to shed some of the old ideas about success. “Bright White Light” comes with panic and urgency, feeling like an escape plan woven by gritty riffs and noisy vocals.
A trajectory of escape has its brakes hit, where it’s realised that the direction we were headed in was all wrong. I fucking love how this is so brilliantly expressed by As Cities Burn, almost seeming as though the band didn’t know where this was going and the song created itself.
Subtle at first, a hidden concern and alert becomes more and more obvious when a different way is recognised. This concern continues into the bridge (“it’s raining, it’s raining”), where truth other than what was known reveals itself. Fierce guitar rears up like a settling down into a rebellion/revolution. Very aptly lightening of sound as the song comes to its end, there’s a twanging and steadiness that fades out.
“Blind Spots” begins, rumbling and ominous. I note that even at track eight of ten that As Cities Burn have kept each song fresh and individually interesting throughout. “Blind Spots” has us thoughtful and in the dark, surrendering and giving one’s purpose over to another.
After setting a thematic scene with the intro, an otherworldly altered state is audibly revealed. Static and noise join manipulated voices in harmony before dropping down into a dreamy electronic beat. I may have been watching too much Netflix, but this song could be a marriage between Beats and Black Mirror in terms of it’s experimental sample heavy sound and futuristic vibe. Slips of time and heavily altered vocals are immersed in a multilayered picture with this song. Courtesy of a subtle melody at the outro, the song has me feeling really hopeful, despite containing lines like “For all I care, sedate me forever”.
With headphones, As Cities Burn have me dizzy with the circular sounds that rush by my ears in “Venture”. “Until you venture out / From the center / You won’t know you’re spinning” is brought to life, and I’m loving that the sounds are so entrenched in the lyrical story, not just words on top of something that sounds good instrumentally.
This song comes across as an ‘Oh fuck’ realisation of being in a situation you never saw coming. But it’s more than that, where we’re grabbed by the lapels and demanded to face it instead of ‘playing dead’ until we die. Chaotic instrumentation and gang calls of “Hey” pull us into the thick of it. I’m in love with the guitars and drums of this song. It’s all such a strong and direct sonic statement: “YOU ARE LIVING”. So what are you going to do with your life?! It’s a pigeon pair with “Maybe” for me. You’re here, alive… so what now?
Here we are at the end with the final song “Die Contrary”. I wondered how this story of life and living could finish? How could As Cities Burn ever top what’s already heard? Feeling wild and erratic, the track seems to sum up the experience and potently makes links with other songs of the band.
With a audio sample, there seems to be some kind of link to Jesus/religion that I don’t fully understand, not having that understanding or upbringing. [It was also only after this that I learned that the band’s previous albums had been via Capitol Christian Music Group.] The reference to brightness, lightness, and shining on as ‘the only sun’ could fit into the view of religious belief and learnings also, as could many many other phrases used by the band lyrically, such as referring to the ‘righteous’ and ‘wicked’.
Religion aside, the fear and unsettledness (created palpably by the band’s wildness via guitar and voice in particular) with going toward a bright white light is something that makes sense to all. As does the urging to not die yet, and the (incredibly stunning, musically) to shine bright and ‘white out what’s dark’.
I’m loving the link between “Live Convinced” and “Die Contrary” in terms of titles, but with repeat listens to these songs, it’s dawned on me how many other connections there are, such as a link between “Hollowed Out” and “Venture”. The links have Scream Through the Walls feel like a full and complete release, more than separate songs. The album feels like it’s all intended as a story, each song a chapter of it, including birth and death (or the refusal of it).
There’s something special about these songs to me, that feel like they’re lyrically and musically written as they go; where there’s not necessarily a straight line through them, but a thread that curves, turns, twists, tangles. I found that my curiosity on what the band were sharing kept my focus to the story, the emotion, and the words more than having me cast a critical ear upon sound, and yet every element of this ever-changing story felt thoroughly supported and enhanced by the instrumental agreement of mood and tone.
Even with relatively simple wording, these lyrics do a powerful job of hitting home their capture of the story’s protagonist and his or her confusions and questions, their changes of mind, their moments of apathy, and moments of determination.
I feel like this entire album operates as a comfort of sorts, a reminder to hang in there and follow what you feel is right (from the heart), and even if you feel alone, there’ll be others like you on their own similar path. And even if you can’t physically connect, that your penchant for isolation will be honoured, and you can scream through the walls and find another who is feeling the same – even in this head-down, self-focused society.
Captivating from end to end. As Cities Burn were able to share an ongoing story of what it's like to be alive throughout their ten tracks, while keeping every song fresh and individual of sound. I'm in love with this album; how its sound softens and rages, how it is moving and wild, and its beautiful attempts to keep others afloat along with it. A masterpiece with huge Album Of The Year potential.