Illusionaut – Snow Queen – Album Review
If you’ve checked out the recent episode of the SBS Podcast, you’ve already heard me ranting and raving about what’s to come from this band out of Little Rock Arkansas…let’s just say I’m more than a little excited about the upcoming release from Illusionaut and discovering another brilliant band in a genre I’m in love with pretty much unlike any other. You can call this four-piece band progressive, you can call them space-rock, you can skip all the labels and just assign them a tag of ‘pure-audio-awesomeness’ and leave it at that if you like, that’d be plenty fair and equally apt. Music like this explores atmospheric depth, immense creativity, and sonic textures that can reach out and grab you – and if you dig your alt-rock…if you dig bands that have influenced them like Jane’s Addiction, Mogwai, The Cure, and Failure – those mood-shifting masters of the musical universe…well…you’ll hear that Illusionaut fits right in there.
Or I suppose a shorter way of putting that is, if you’re looking for an album that’ll LAST – listen to this.
In a world that is truly only six-degrees from Kevin Bacon at all times, Illusionaut has also demonstrated just how close we really are through the distant sounds on their new album Snow Queen. If you tuned into the SBS Podcast, you heard me talk about the fact that none other than Ken Andrews of Failure mastered the music on Illusionaut’s album – and anyone that knows me, knows that’s one of the most prominent names on my playlist at all times. Aside from that awesome fact, is the more obvious point – that the lines between us connect deeper than we all think, and that sometimes just reaching out to one of your own heroes might end up resulting in some sort of creative collaboration between you, just like this became. But while I could go on & on about just how much I love Ken’s music and how well-suited he is for Illusionaut’s style – it’s also important to recognize that there are a whole bunch of steps that have to be taken successfully in the process before music ever even gets to the mastering stage. As impressive as this statistic of having Ken onboard really IS – it’s even more crucial to examine the merits in the music that brought them this far…that the efforts of Ryan Cook (Vocals), Jerry Cordova (Bass), Logan Kennedy (Drums), and Derek Reed (Guitar) don’t go unrecognized…because it’s their own ideas and execution, professionalism and performances, that have made this record so worthwhile. Ken’s there to add the finishing touches and final polish…to make sure no stone or dial has been left unturned…to add to the stunning job the band has done and build on the exceptional production path that Darian Stribling from Blue Chair began…to be that guiding force in the music-scene that points us in the direction of yet another sound out there that we all should hear. That’s what a hero like Ken does.
But make no mistake – when it comes to what makes you want to listen to this whole album, the root cause is the straight-up fact that Illusionaut writes, creates, & plays killer material to begin with.
Drifting in with the weather, the meaty sounds of Illusionaut’s music become clear as soon as their title-track starts the record. “Snow Queen” is a perfectly understated intro – the whole sound slowly creeps into place as the wind dissolves around them to reveal this band’s spectacular full-scope. Leaning on that combination of influences, it’s a Failure-like sound with notes of The Cure haunting the atmosphere and a Jane’s Addiction-esque sense of composition & structure – “Snow Queen” delivers an immediate hit of mystery & texture combined. That incredible rumble & tone of Jerry’s bass…the standout notes from Derek’s guitar…the way that Ryan bursts into the mix around the 1:30 mark…the highlight drums from Logan right as the track heads towards its final moments…it all adds up to a seriously satisfying gateway into this whole album. The brilliant use of space & atmosphere and the added mystique in the layers of depth in the Illusionaut sound give “Snow Queen” a deadly pace & flowing movement that completely captivates the mind & ears, signaling that we’re in for an album full of inventive ideas.
LISTEN to the way this band interacts and how these songs develop & evolve as they play on…because this is highly impressive stuff. That bass-riff starting “Take Me To The Edge” is killer…the guitar notes that soar through the air are a perfect fit…Ryan’s vocals start in that distantly-melodic vein and increase with intensity…and once they’re all locked into place, those amazing drums from Logan come in to add the punch that takes this whole song to that next level. Right around the 2:20-mark, that Jane’s A influence reveals itself even more through the vocals from Ryan as he rips into the mic with everything he’s got. “Take Me To The Edge” has incredible energy that runs through it, revealing that Illusionaut is more than capable of transitioning between a smooth atmospherically-based sound and a full-on space-rock extravaganza at any given time if they wanna turn up the heat. The sonic-elements and dynamics that drive this cut are seriously powerful – Illusionaut proves they’re a force to be reckoned with on “Take Me To The Edge” – and if you’re anything like me, in just two tracks you’ve already noticed that this band has given you countless audible reasons as to why you’d want to continue on listening. Illusionaut isn’t going for typical hooks of any kind when it comes right down to it, much like their listed influences, they’re clearly hear to make their music an experience that you won’t forget; so rather than burn us out with flashy & catchy sing-alongs, they’ve found their way into an entire sound that has its own orbit – and “Take Me To The Edge” is the song that’ll reveal the strengths of its gravitational pull.
“Keep Running” is an exceptional tune and a fantastic follow-up to “Take Me To The Edge” to keep the album on-track and vibrantly interesting to listen to. Tracks like this fascinate me, they truly do. “Keep Running” is an amazing example of slow-burning intensity; the movement is almost in a sleepy-groove of sorts, but notice how the power & precision play a role here. Notes might be spread out, the space might be distant between the layers, but LISTEN to how much passion and punch everything you hear has…even in a slowed-down & more chilled environment like “Keep Running” has for its majority, these guys are clearly playing like their lives depend on it if you’re listening close. That MATTERS in a song with that mid-tempo pace & ideas in timing/space that “Keep Running” includes – it’s exactly where 99% of the bands out there that attempt stuff like this begin to falter, and exactly where Illusionaut rises to the occasion instead. The highlights that “Keep Running” soars to are incredibly satisfying to listen to – full-marks to Ryan’s incredible vocals soaring to unbelievable heights on this cut and the way that Logan continually adds to the writing & structures of Illusionaut’s sound by not just keeping the beat, but really contributing to the way their songs move & impact us as listeners with his impressive fills & strong hits.
Good lord though…I wish all music had the definition that Illusionaut’s music has. Listening to “Tell Tale” really makes me appreciate just how stunning the low-end of this band’s sound comes through. If I had to explain all the times I end up listening to music with no muscle in it…that distinct LACK of low-end presence…if I did that in every review I wrote, it’d probably blow most of your minds with how frequently I’d mention it. And I suppose I get it to some degree…that’s where those bass-player jokes come in right? So many bands hide their bass in the mix overall…Illusionaut’s got all the right influences musically however, and they’ve used that as an advantage in directing their own sound to similarly impressive results. Jerry stands out brilliantly on “Tell Tale” as such as essential part of the Illusionaut sound…and it’s because he’s so reliable back there in the rhythm section with Logan that it allows a player like Derek to get even more inventive, finding innovative ways to contribute to the song without having to be the dominant factor all the time. In my experience, taking that pressure off a guitar player can lead to some of the most incredible music you’ll ever hear – and that magic is certainly working its way into Illusionaut on “Tell Tale.” I love the update on the entire post-punk sound that exists within the layers of the music they create, how they combine it with progressive tendencies in their writing & structures, and how seemingly fearless they are when it comes to how they take these ambitious ideas on. I think “Tell Tale” is another solid example of how to make a song compelling & interesting to listen to in a way you’d want to repeat it through the meaty hooks of songwriting that lasts; everything moves at a pace where you can catch every second with brilliant clarity…there’s no single part or aspect of the song that stands-out so much as the entire song does as a whole, you feel me?
Now to solve a mystery for ya…why did I select “Glue Trap” as the song to introduce you to Illusionaut with when I played it on the SBS Podcast last episode? I could certainly have justified playing just about any song on this record – but I don’t know how many ears out there can resist the way they rip into this cut as it begins. Accessibility-wise…I’m probably guilty of steering you towards a song from this record with a few more entry-points for most listeners with the more tangible hooks that run through “Glue Trap” – but don’t get me wrong, they haven’t sold-out or gone commercial on ya here. Noticeably, the hooks in the sound have plenty of strengths of their own when it comes to what catches our attention on “Glue Trap” but the overall balance on this cut between the vocals & music here is what really makes this a gripping track to listen to. Jerry is crushing it once again with a killer-riff outside of the vocals in the instrumentation on “Glue Trap” and Derek is proving that point I made earlier about finding those innovative ways to contribute as a guitarist with the ability to roam with more creative freedom. I also think that, while in the thick of the mix, Ryan still continually stands out as a powerful force that bursts throughout the music with multiple highlights each time we hear him. What I love about the way an album like this is mixed, is that this band GETS IT…they understand that Ryan IS going to rise to the occasion and reveal that power…and that when he does, it’ll come through crystal clear. It’s because of that, that they know they can leave their individual parts turned right up and put him more on the inside of the mix, allowing the music to sound absolutely MASSIVE and still knowing that he’ll always be able to breakthrough to the top whenever the moment suits the music with nothing that could hold him back. You might not always catch every word Ryan’s singing…but you wouldn’t with Perry Farrell either – and music like this, it’s never really about that…it’s about creating an entire vibe that sticks right with you. “Glue Trap” does that without hesitation – right from the drop, it’s engaging & enticing & stays that way.
Conversely, I think they’ve put one of their most involved ideas right after their most potentially accessible cut on the record. I’ve got no doubt whatsoever that “Illusion” will likely take a few listens for most people to come around to…certainly still a strong song, but one that strays further towards the artistic-side of their sound, with more of a twist on the vocals that may/may-not work for everyone when it comes to how they’ve approached the verse. As far as the chorus is concerned, “Illusion” has got to have one of the best on the entire record…I think the lyrics are exceptional, the way Ryan sings it is straight-up hypnotic and darkly-beautiful…that part is so ready-to-go and easy for our ears to accept. As far as the verse goes, I know that I dig it personally but I can get that they’re reaching a bit beyond what most people can grasp quickly on “Illusion” – it’s the kind of cut that will have to fight for attention harder on those first spins than some of the surrounding tunes, but also the exact kind of strength & interesting sound that an album needs at the mid-point to keep us continually coming back. “Illusion” is the song that you’re going to end up realizing you loved a lot more than you thought you did at first.
“Spinning Inside” is a wicked highlight in the album’s second-half…what an incredible fusion of all-things-awesome! I dig the near whisper that Ryan sings the beginning of this tune with, I love the bold bass-groove from Jerry that almost has a delicate jazzy nature to the sound, right before the entire song detonates into an explosive force you likely won’t see or hear coming. From a structural standpoint, I can understand the looser-constraints of this cut are probably going to challenge a few people – but if you’re anything like the audiophile I am, this whole song completely delivers. Sonically, it’s just freakin’ rad – I love the searing & soaring guitar notes from Derek floating through the atmosphere, the crisp beats from Logan, and the way that this song can turn on a dime and launch itself into the stratosphere. An excellent example of contrasting energies in music to your advantage, Illusionaut takes you from the smooth to the gritty without a solitary flinch while the rest of us, as listeners, brace for impact. “Spinning Inside” cleverly gives you just a glimpse of the heights it’ll reach before the first two-minutes are up, but doesn’t fully let that power flow until nearly thirty-seconds later…at which point, this whole game is fully on and we’re right in the thick of the album’s second-longest tune and another incredible adventure in sound that brings us through multiple dimensions of their own style & capabilities.
Sound-wise, the largest departure you’ll find on Snow Queen is in the late stages of the record, on “To Start New” – and I’d certainly encourage this kind of exploration in this band to continue. From a purely atmospheric & artistic standpoint, “To Start New” has so much to offer…I’ve enjoyed myself every time from beginning to end in listening to this record, but every time this song came around it was such a welcome sound to my ears. Stunningly different from the rest of the album, “To Start New” brings in all kinds of like…saxophone sounds? I’m pretty sure that’s what we’ve got going on here…I’m not entirely sure where they came from or how they got in here, but man am I thankful that they did somehow. Straight-up, I found this entire song incredibly dreamy, hazy, hypnotic, stunning, and completely fascinating to listen to…the kind of song so unique from the rest that you feel like you could write an entire essay on it after listening, because it’s so damn interesting all the way through that you hang on every single second as it plays. A perfect mix of subtle charm, hauntingly melodic sound, and purely captivating ideas…I dunno…”To Start New” might very well be different than a lot of what you’ll hear from Illusionaut, but it definitely still fits cohesively on this record and really gives us a glimpse for just how incredibly diverse and versatile their music can really be. It’s an absolutely brilliant track and a real stand-out on this whole album as far as my ears are concerned.
Circling the wagons back towards the sounds that brought us here, Illusionaut ends their album on the strengths of “Hypnotise” in the slow-burning intensity & glow of their final track. Ryan makes a verifiable impact on this last cut, mixing it up with a clever & complex role to play on this track, working from one set of his extremes to the other from the low-to-high notes and finding exceptional ways to bring the intensity to the mic while the music remains fairly chilled out all around him. Dude’s got like, the power of the reverend Maynard James K in the most spectacular moments of “The Grudge” when it comes right down to it – it’s always been about just how much of it he wants to dole-out to us in these songs on Snow Queen. SOMEHOW…here on what appears to be a somewhat relaxed vibe on “Hypnotise” – he goes on to unleash some of his most massive moments in what can only be described as expertly understated and completely complementary to the music. You wouldn’t expect him to flip the switch here in a vibe like this, but that’s exactly what happens, making “Hypnotise” one of the most surprising tracks on the album and an absolutely memorable way to exit the entire experience.
This whole BAND is stocked full of reasons to listen…and everything I’ve read and researched about them indicates that Illusionaut is fully invested in taking themselves to that next level & beyond. Snow Queen has been exquisite to listen to from performance to production and in my opinion, Illusionaut has created a record that’s seriously going to last. It’s being released officially on April 20th – do yourselves a favor and make sure to circle that date on your calendars…you wanna make sure you get some of this.
Make sure to stay informed, find music & more on Illusionaut by visiting their main website at: http://www.illusionaut.net
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