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Twenty One Pilots – Trench Review

October 9, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Twenty One Pilots Trench
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Twenty One Pilots – Trench Review  

1. Jumpsuit
2. Levitate
3. Morph
4. My Blood
5. Chlorine
6. Smithereens
7. Neon Gravestones
8. The Hype
9. Nico And The Niners
10. Cut My Lip
11. Bandito
12. Pet Cheetah
13. Legend
14. Leave The City

Reports of the album’s demise may not be entirely exaggerated, but Twenty One Pilots reminded the world of the enduring importance of pop music’s longer, more classical form when their fourth LP, 2015’s Blurryface, catapulted the Ohio duo to superstardom. Seemingly overnight a legion of American teenagers had a muddy, anxious and wilfully underdog-ish artefact of adoration. The album struck a chord by blending personal insecurity with a determined swagger and a genre blurring, sonically inclusive, but outsider orientated palette.

Having reaped the rewards of their success with Hollywood cash-ins (“Heathens” from the Suicide Squad soundtrack) and two years of intensive touring, Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun retreated into isolation to craft Trench. For the first time in their career, Twenty One Pilots have the eyes of the world upon them. The successor to Blurryface is expected to both dominate the radio and satisfy a fanbase anticipating something both insular and thoughtful – a record to clutch close and immerse yourself within.

Fan service has been the name of the game from album’s inception. Trench has been foreshadowed slowly and subtly over time. Hidden within their official website were secret letters, codes and transmissions that both sketched out the loose narrative of, and began the act of world building for, a concept album. To cut a long story short, Tyler assumes the role of a man on the run, determined to escape a dystopian and oppressive city wearing his “Jumpsuit” (safety blanket) as he relays coded messages to form a trail of breadcrumbs to aid others in their desperate flight. Playing the fugitive he’s trailed, naturally enough, by his very own Tommy Lee Jones/pack of Ring Wraiths in the form of nine red bishops (“Nico And The Niners”).

Of course the entire artifice serves as a metaphor for repression, distance, isolation, anxiety, depression and opiate addled numbness. Truth be told, the world they create is no more or less interesting than any other reasonably well-constructed pop concept album. This is not an avenue for wild reinvention or sidestepping expectation, more a way to obfuscate meaning while transforming an internal struggle into an external narrative. How deeply the listener engages with the world is really a matter of personal taste. Some fans will certainly enjoy creating fan art and fiction respectively, but it is worth commending Trench for creating an avenue for teenagers in particular to discuss their psychologically and emotionally woes in an indirect fashion – this can be particularly helpful for struggling, but emotionally stand offish young men.

The sound of Trench is defined by both clever understated juxtaposition and bad taste, painfully over-earnest, bombastity. Whether Twenty One Pilots manage to carefully mould or clumsily ram their various influences together is largely irrelevant, the end result tends to be the same: an eerie, midtempo, dub laden, arena ready anthem. The album at its best best in its sweetest and most sorrowful moments. “Chlorine” is delightful as Tyler blends a cracking-at-the-seams crooned bridge with a buoyant, airy chorus full of eccentric asides (“the lead is terrible in flavor”). The finished article is something both murky and spritely, psychologically wrought, but charmingly euphoric. “Smithereens” might be even better still: a sweet, lilting love song about being beaten black and blue for the sake of the one you love. It saccharine and adolescent in the extreme, but all the better for it. There’s a wonderful moment when Tyler dreamily coos the word “feeling” and, as he does so, you can almost picture him flying backwards through the air with a bloody smile on his lips.

The sonic touchstones are certainly intriguing: acts as diverse as DJ Shadow and Sublime are folded into the doubt-riven world of Trench. “Morph” transmutes the sunny soul of Californian R&B into the empty factories and black tar heroin addicted streets of the rust belt. Unfortunately, some of the best arrangements are blighted by some frankly abysmal rap verses. Tyler can summon a genuine sense of urgency in his flows (and he does display a knack for alighting on a pleasingly unexpected turn of phrase), but more often than not he learns the wrong lessons from both Eminem and Macklemore, respectively. His verses are often choppy and obsessed with forced rhymes, while his drive to discuss his demons and further the album’s narrative leads to a smattering of bars that have the horrible air of an after school special. “Neon Gravestones” is so well crafted it can stomach a few duff verses, but “Levitate” and “Pet Cheetah” are brutalized beyond repair.

Twenty One Pilots deserve credit for experimentation and the way they so seamlessly incorporate such dissimilar sounds into Trench’s smeared and distorted landscape. The trouble is, for every luscious tub-thumping groove (“Jumpsuit”, “My Blood”) or sultry sun kissed saunter (“Legend”), there’s a cloth-eared companion piece. If “Legend” is low slung and effortless, then “The Hype” is a painfully obnoxious blend of 21stcentury arena uplift and peppy late 90s radio pop. No one on earth was crying out for the demonic offspring of Imagine Dragons, Len and Free Radicals to be unleashed – and that already inelegantly stitched together instrumental certainly didn’t need a cloying chorus stapled on top.

Still for all their bad taste missteps and embarrassing severity, it proves impossible to resist Tyler and Josh’s charms over the course of this hour-long listen. The grooves and rhythms hit home with alarming regularity. So even if the album does tend to get stuck in a muddy mid-tempo amble after an electric start, it’s worth taking it slow and seeing the distorted sights and sounds of Trench. At times it’s a touch too cohesive. It would be wonderful if the duo could follow in Paul McCartney’s footsteps and actively highlight the extreme variance in style and sound within each composition. Rather trying to subsume each influence under a grey-blue filter, they could let each genre shine: by choosing to tease out the less obvious ties that bind, switching tempos and tones with reckless abandon (alla Abbey Road). Regardless, Twenty One Pilots should be praised for so masterfully establishing their aesthetic and stamping their signature sound on the music world at large – even if loosening the reigns might make Trench an easy pill to swallow.

Still who’s to second-guess Tyler and Josh at this stage? During the final straight the band bring together all of their aforementioned worst excesses into one of their best and most cohesive tracks, “Bandito”. It shouldn’t work, but it does with soulful, sweeping, cinematic aplomb. Better still is “Leave The City”: a straightforward endnote that starts with a wonderfully solemn metaphor for persisting in heart-breaking isolation (“I’m tired of tending to this fire”) and ends with a wonderful moment of communal hope (“Though I’m far from home, in Trench I’m not alone”).

Our concept has come full circle as the protagonist’s journey ends, not alone in cold oppressive darkness, but surrounded by those who know and understand his pain, having followed in his footsteps. Equally, the artist’s struggles hidden behind the metaphor have found resolution: the pace of change that left Twenty One Pilots rudderless and unanchored has been overcome by a like minded and supportive community, not in one geographical point, but scattered like seeds across the globe – united, but unbroken by their isolation.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Mythos laden concept album Trench might struggle to consistently fire on all cylinders, but the good far out weighs the bad, making for a thoughtful and sonically daring experience that will send obsessives diving down the rabbit hole, while earning a measure of respect from the band’s curmudgeonly detractors.

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Twenty One Pilots, David Hayter