Review: Assemblage 23 – Compass

Assemblage 23 have been on an interesting journey, one that oddly parallels rivals VNV Nation. Once a minimalist, stripped down electronic band with clear industrial and EBM influences, they (by which we mean Tom Shear, another of the legion of elecrtronic “bands” that are basically one person [see: Maps one post down]) have been increasingly moving to a more melodic, dare we say pop-based ethic. We saw this take a big step on 2007’s Meta, but Compass has taken the notion even further. How much you enjoy this album will depend much on how you feel about this increasing departure from the roots of the band (an almost identical journey we’ve seen from VNV Nation culminating in their most own most melodic, pop-EBM hybrid 2009 album, Of Faith, Power And Glory.

Does it work for Shear? Well he’s helped by the fact that he does this stuff better than almost anyone on the planet. It’s a pretty good foundation from which to work. Lyrically, it’s very much along the same lines we’ve seen before: the world is a place of despair (Smoke on the horizon/Can the flames be far behind?/We run for cover, but it’s too late/We are engulfed, we are/The smoke on the horizon: “Smoke”). But you play to your strengths.

That said we’re seeing new directions even lyrically from Shear on this album. “Alive”, perhaps the best song on the album (and one that infuses pop themes quite blatantly), sees Shear musing, in the middle of a traditional Shearian depressathon, the chorus, I never felt/so alive (is it ironic, black humour or reveling in the darkness?). It’s almost playful.

Vocally Shear has never been in better form. Once reluctant to sing at all he’s grown stronger with each album but now we hear him attempting entirely new things vocally. At the opening strains of “The Cruelest Year” those familiar with Shear’s voice might be surprised to hear the tone and key he achieves. It makes a sad song downright pretty. (The cruelest year/Tore loves apart/Its greedy fingers/Rending blameless hearts/This empty space/Where once loved dwelled/Razed to foundations/Left an empty shell – that’s some sad stuff but it just floats along on his newfound vocal strength.)

The electronics are standard Assemblage 23 fare, strong, consistent, perhaps predictable, but we start to see a dancefloor ethos poking up through the dirt on tracks like “Angels & Demons”, “Impermanence” and especially “Leave All This Behind” (to which Mrs. Softsynth, no lover of anything remotely EBM, industrial or for that matter anything that could be considered “dark”, exclaimed, “Oh, I like this. Really catchy.” And hell froze over…). That’s new and surprisingly, most welcome. One might think it wouldn’t work but it does. It makes for a very accessible, and a very enjoyable album. In many ways lacking the punch and power of previous work (Softsynth harks back to the gut punch of songs like “Raw” and “Truth” from Meta), but in other ways the most fully realized and purely listenable Assemblage 23 album, Shear has triumphed as he pushes himself to grow. It’s a keeper and a welcome addition to an already strong stable of 2009 electronic releases…

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3 Responses to “Review: Assemblage 23 – Compass”

  1. Completely agree, this is Shear’s best album in a long time, perhaps the best Assemblage 23 album ever.

  2. b.r.o.o.d.y. Says:

    This album is an absolute tour de force. I’m at a loss of words to say how great it is, but thankfully your review does it excellently.

    Just wanted to mention I love the song “Greed”, which may not be the most cutting edge piece on Compass and most people skip mentioning it altogether in their reviews, but I hope A23’s message isn’t lost and that people will reflect on it a bit.

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