A lot of “isms” threaten to tear modern society apart at the seams: sexism, racism, extremism, radicalism, terrorism and more. In such an era of decay (moral, societal and otherwise), perhaps an apocalypse wouldn’t be such a bad idea – at least that’s how Andre Mistier sees it. The charismatic lead singer and songwriter for the New York-based quartet ism describes his band’s potent blend of rock and electronica as “music for the party at the end of the world.” After all, not all “isms” are bad: Altruism, activism and heroism could help make the next world a better place, and there’s no reason we can’t start practicing them right now.
Urgency, ism’s sophomore album on STM Records, poses unflinching questions about the human condition in songs equally as bold in construction. Smart, melodic and hypnotic, Urgency builds on the solid foundation of 2006’s critically acclaimed Monkey Underneath with 14 tracks produced by Joe Blaney (The Clash, Tom Waits, Prince).
Along with Mistier on guitar, ism’s other skilled members are the passionate Mike Higgins on drums, fret master Gerard Toriello on lead guitar, and effects wizard Leigh Battle on bass. Behind the scenes, legendary A&R guru Michael Caplan served as patriarch of the project, assembling an impressive production team that shaped the final recording.
On the road supporting Monkey Underneath, band members began to flip the script, taking their focus away from standard musical sensibilities. An industrial rumble and a resonant electronic soundscape gradually became the base of their live sets, with the more organic instruments (guitar, bass, drums) better integrated into the mix. That sensibility – and the many new songs that were honed on tour – became key as ism re-entered the studio for Urgency.
Mistier isn’t shy about kudos for his bandmates, who use his lyrics and basic song structures as jumping-off points for their own abilities. He credits Battle’s unique technique with much of Urgency’s atmosphere: “Leigh puts a bunch of different guitar-pedal effects on the bass, but then also does things where he can mute the bass signal itself, so you just hear the effects. They resonate differently on a bass than they do on guitars, so it ends up sounding like a lot of weird keyboard sounds.” Behind the drum kit, Higgins is the “heart” of ism, “a very powerful performer – the kind of drummer who stands up in the middle of things and sings along.” And Toriello, a not-so-secret ‘80s metalhead, proves time and again to be “a craftsman of the guitar – he has a great feel for taking an idea for a guitar line and making it go much further than it has before, to a place I never would have thought of.”
Put them together in the same studio, and Urgency practically crackles with energy. After the UFO-like takeoff “0:32” – one of the album’s three instrumental pieces – “Urgency” the title song has Toriello front and center, throwing out U2-like riffs. In a voice that mixes both dread and redemption, Mistier calls down the end of days: “If you wondered what you’re made of / Now’s the time to see / Bring on Apocalypse / And we will feel alive today / If we were standing on the edge / We just might find that we believe.”
“Give It Back” is a forceful, foot-stomping plea to reclaim the present, framed by a prisoner of the past and future who longs for escape. In “Animadversion,” club beats and eerie effects drive a fuzzed-out examination of how those without self-awareness (including a certain Oval Office occupant) are dragging us all down. ism dips into Radiohead territory with the simmering ballad “Fly,” which asks why society isn’t doing its job to uplift us. “Sacred Cows,” a call to arms for those stuck in autopilot, churns and roils over Higgins’s rock-steady drumming until it reaches a chaotic, all-in catharsis of noise. “The Only One,” its arrangement echoing Downward Spiral-era Nine Inch Nails, is about making connections when we are all truly alone inside our own heads. The album wraps up on a different note with “Resistance Lullaby”: A string section gives a quieter, lusher sound as it ponders the “real world” after college and urges young people to stay true to themselves.
Urgency’s themes of isolation, yearning and rising above ourselves are woven throughout the album– it’s a cohesive vision that you just can’t get from a single-song download on iTunes. That ism can wrap its philosophical musings around songs that can stick in your head and can make you dance … well, that’s versatility… dexterity. Not “isms” but in this case, we’ll make an exception.