The Boston-based metalcore band Ice Nine Kills has persevered through a series of stops and starts with replacement band members and record labels before finding a home in 2015 with Fearless Records. At the end of 2015, the band released their fourth full length album, Every Trick in the Book, a tight concept album structured without falter around pieces of literature as inspiration for each song. The result is a powerful melodic-metal album that focuses intently on gothic material and mirroring the duality of powerful clean vocals with intense screaming vocals as the nature of many of the characters’ dualities in the books (e.g. Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde). The concept execution is flawless, bordering on an idea that could easily become cliché or forced, but kept fresh and smart with percise lyrics and technical musical production. Metal fans surprised a band would take on such an inspired challenge should note the band’s name also has its origin in literature, from the substance ice-nine in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.
In an interview, front man Spencer Charnas explained that the album concept was in response to the positive feedback their first song of this type received, “Me, Myself & Hyde”, and decided to do a full album based around literature. In addition to metal influences, he described some of the more melodic and theatrical aspects of the songs drew inspiration from musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. When asked, Charnas stated his favorite of the tracks is the album opener, “The Nature of the Beast”, which is my favorite as well and is an excellent example of the theatrical and anthemic melodies on the record. The song, inspired by Orwell’s Animal Farm, opens with an intro to both the song and appropriately introducing the gothic and brutal nature of the album: “So come one, come all to the crumbling walls/of our city now painted with red/As the stench of defeat emanates through the streets/is the life we once dreamed of now dead?/But we won’t break, we will fight, we will storm through the night/enslaved to the king nevermore/With the locks on our cage broken off by the rage/now it’s time to settle the score.”
This intro to the album exemplifies the care and precision of the lyrics on the album where the rhyming and influence of the literature could easily have slid into cliché, but never does. The rhythmic pattern of the lyrics, intelligent vocabulary and smart rhyming work well with the orchestrations to produce engaging songs. A second level to the song writing is the use of both clean and screaming vocals, which the band is well known for. As mentioned above, they cleverly utilize the nature of their band to express the duality and conflict in most of the literature represented in the album. For “The Nature of the Beast”, the screaming represents the voice of the mob and the more violent aspects of the book. For “Communion of the Cursed” based on The Exorcist, I’d first thought the screaming vocals were the voice of the demon, but instead they are the dialogue between the demon and priest while the clean vocals are a narrator singing about the exorcism: “You spent your life in his light/Still faith can’t save you tonight/Yet evil stands the test of time”.
The clearest use of the duality in the vocals, as mentioned above, is the obvious one in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson, here as “Me, Myself & Hyde”. The screamed verses are Mr. Hyde (“Did you really think I would falter, my friend/I’ve destroyed you before I’ll destroy you again”) while the clean vocals for the chorus are Dr. Jekyl (“I’m waging war on myself/a Captive casualty/Traded a merciful heart for a murderer’s brain/But now I curse what’s in my head/Because I can’t stop seeing red”). In other cases, like the other major gothic-inspired song based on Stoker’s Dracula, “Bloodbath & Beyond” (seriously, best song title ever), the duality is reflective of the story and more what the song calls for. Here, the rhythmic verses lend themselves to the screaming: “Through the darkest of ages and blackest of plagues/I have fed off the blood of the land/Every girl that’s in sight knows she’s mine for the night/They’re all trapped in the palm of my hand.” Then the chorus is clean vocals, which are equally appropriate and some of the best visuals of the album as: “They’ll never take me alive because I’m already dead” and “You’re dripping from the ecstasy of one last crimson kiss”.
Not all of the songs are based on the gothic horror genre, but all have some sort of darker, death or criminal aspect to them. One standout track, “Star-Crossed Enemies” is based on Romeo and Juliet and is one of the two songs to feature only clean vocals. Here again, the precision in the band’s lyrical composition is illustrated as in the chorus: “So remember us the soon dearly departed/and how the war our fathers started/sealed the fate of star-crossed enemies/You and I both know that death won’t matter/Bring on the poison and the dagger/Set the stage for tragedy.” The last line here, as well as ones like “Our final curtain call is drawing near” also cleverly ties in the fact that this is a play as opposed to the other novel-based songs. Additionally, the melodic power of this song and Charnas’ soaring vocals are such that screaming would not have fit.
“The People in the Attic” is based on The Diary of Anne Frank, and it’s not the first song Ice Nine Kills has done about the Holocaust. While based on the diary here, it is also somewhat a sequel in title to “The People Under the Stairs” off their Safe Is Just A Shadow album. One of the heavier tracks on the album, the lyrics put aside the playful aspect of some of the other songs for this serious subject with lyrics like “I didn’t want to be a f**king martyr/But I can’t put my pen down” and the nuances in the lyrics again represented by the chorus with “I stare through the cracks of my life in slow motion” as also the cracks in the attic floorboards. Banging on a door sound effects and spoken word of officers arriving hammer home this subject.
A similarly dark concept is the band’s take on rape in “Tess-Timony” based on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. A solo piano opens this clean vocal-only song featuring some of Charnas’ best singing to date. Most impressive of the song composition for this concept album is their lyrical ability to capture the essence of each book. For Tess, verse 2 states: “When the purest soul is stained by sin/to the public eye where can she begin/She lost it all and it’s gone for good/And she may never beat the system/but she won’t rest until she’s turned the villain into the victim.” Similarly, the epilogue to “The Nature of the Beast” perfectly captures the message of Animal Farm with “Where is the end? What have we done?/We’re what we swore we’d not become/Despite intent a noble heart still bleeds/Time goes on and history repeats.”
While Every Trick In the Book was released at the end of 2015, it is fitting I only get to this review now as they just released a follow-up single, “Enjoy Your Slay” based on Stephen King’s The Shining, as a sort of finale to the album. Like the other ten songs, this one captures the essence of the book, although I find the melody somewhat similar to other songs. Lyrics again capture the essence - in this case chaos and insanity - of the book but also much more playful than some of the album tracks, with lines like "If you need help finding peace of mind don't hesitate to axe" and "They can see the vacancy so say goodbye to sanity." I like that they’re following up with more songs in this fashion, and there’s an unlimited amount of literature they can chose from. While “Enjoy Your Slay” is hailed as a finale, I’m guessing Ice Nine Kills have more tricks up their sleeve.