Illenium’s newest album, Ascend, honestly feels like an incredible accomplishment for the young producer.
Throughout the last five years, Nick Miller — Illenium’s given name — built himself up in ways that hearken back to the beginning days of Panic! At the Disco and Fall Out Boy. This type of path places a high emphasis on word-of-mouth buzz, accompanied by steady stream of quality singles, albums, and unique collaborations.
Add those together with stunning shows with ever-increasing production and consistent exposure to bigger audiences, and you honestly have a truly impactful body of work.
Illenium’s widespread appeal primarily stems from in his uncanny ability to present modern dubstep and bass music with deep melodies, that grab you instantly by the heart strings. Granted, there are other talented artists also producing similar music, but with Miller, he seems to continue to create beats that resonate organically and sincerely.
While Miller has honestly helped shape the future bass genre, Ascend proves his ability to transcend genres and appeal to a wide fanbase, no matter what musical genre you may enjoy.
This is a challenging road at bestm that is becoming an increasing difficult path to navigate as a producer. In this day and age, electronic fan bases are growing more and more fragmented, as the industry as a whole continues to commercialize.
In this third album, the themes of his tracks are both personal, yet universally relatable. If that sounds like your definition of “emo music”, you are probably right — it’s just been cleverly elevated with better technology and custom jerseys to wear while you cry and smudge your midnight colored eyeliner. In our opinion — Illenium’s Ascend is a “sad boi” album for the ages.
In order to recognize the impact of this album, we have to realize the clear progression from the 12 tracks on his debut album, Ashes, to the 13 featured on his second album, Awake. Ascend features a whopping 17 tracks, something rather indicative of the vastness of the story Miller has to share with the world.
The phoenix has become the aesthetically iconic when it comes to Illenium, and with his album titles — Ashes, Awake, Ascend — it seems as if he is following the literal reincarnation of the beautiful, mythical creature itself. With such an uplifting title and progression, it would be an obvious assumption that the theme of this album would be ethereal and overwhelmingly positive. But in true rocker fashion, this album’s focuses are rather shocking as it primarily deals with pain, affliction, and rising from the metaphorical ashes of your own mental struggles.
Most of Illenium’s tracks begin with a melodic, floating guitar riff, quickly gaining traction with vocals and heavy-hitting drums to a bigger instrumental drop. The majority of songs in this album tend to follow this pattern, with variations of volume and intensity.
This always results in the gorgeous, gripping, and beautiful-sounding tracks Miller has always been able to produce. However, this type of arrangement also places a ton of focus on the vocalists to give each song a unique identity.
When this comes full circle and truly creates magic, it results in something like arguably one of the best tracks on the album, Good Things Fall Apart. Jon Bellion’s crooning communicates instant heartbreak and pain. That’s emphasized by the fact that it features a chorus sans a traditional drop. At least for us, this honestly has to be one of Illenium’s best, most iconic tracks yet.
On the other hand, moving down the album to Gorgeous, this track sounds almost menacing in its beginnings. Bipolar Sunshine’s vocals immediately plunge the listeners into a classic emo vibe that can only cause us cling to the story that he paints, and sharing a story that we have to commit to being strong enough to handle.
The dark cloud is lifted slightly when the bridge hits, as the guitar chimes in, alongside like a shimmering, glimmer of hope represented by a tempo change. Then, the drop plunges you right back into darkness.
There are also other punk-ish sounding records that run this dark theme throughout, such as Blood and the Good Charlotte-esque All Together Now, which we are hard-pressed not to call the new emo EDM anthem of the year.
Other moments that are almost shockingly opposite of the depth of despair, where Miller introduces pop ballads. Collaborations with the Chainsmokers, Take Away, and Crashing featuring Bahari lend to breaking up the disparity.
In addition to these, Sad Songs, a collaboration with longtime Illenium partner in both song and in friendship, Said the Sky, rounds out the album with a mostly acoustic number, with ever-hopeful vocals by Annika Wells. The end of the track finds balance with a beautiful, light-hearted drop.
Ascend honestly has a lot going on throughout the album. We can report that in our opinion, Miller does come out ahead of it all, but there is a definite sense of the bigness that it evokes.
There are so many special guests, more songs than ever before, and there’s even a Robin Williams snippet from Good Will Hunting that truthfully threatens to outshine even the album itself.
Much like any body of work, the interpretation is left up to the audience to determine it’s relevance, but it does spark further questions. Can Illenium one up his biggest work to date in the future? And where can he go from here to continue to create original material?
With an upcoming tour that is set to be bigger than ever, a three-night show at Red Rocks, and a stop scheduled that includes a set at the renowned Madison Square Garden, we can only look forward to his two shows (including a special throwback set night) at WaMu in Seattle, with the hope that his ascension will only continue in the future.
You can listen to the album yourself and arrive at your own opinions and conclusions about this release below:
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