Redefining your sound as a band or an artist is never an easy pursuit. And that gets especially difficult when a global pandemic puts just about the whole music industry on hold and engulfs everyone in a state of sorrow and dread. But if there is one band that has never shied away from grand endeavours, it’s Twenty One Pilots. In a world where everything feels scaled back and isolated (pun intended), the band’s latest hypnotic release ‘Scaled And Icy’ proves to be everything but.
Known and especially loved for by their enormously dedicated fanbase the Clique, Twenty One Pilots have made a name for themselves not just for their outstandingly well-crafted musical outings, but also for their knack for creating stories and packing more than just one hidden meaning into their albums and songs. And while being bound to a fictional storyline would put restrictions on most bands, it has according to the Columbus duo only given them even more freedom and set them loose from any limits. What was once started in 2015 with their stellar album ‘Blurryface’ and then taken on and expanded in their high-concept record ‘Trench’, has now found its new home in their newest release ‘Scaled And Icy’, and, looking at the surprisingly brightly pink and blue coloured exterior, also put on a few new shades. As an anagram for “Clancy is dead”, a character that was introduced in ‘Trench’ – as well as the world of Dema and its dark, devilish rulers, the Bishops, and the tireless group of fighters, the Banditos (also considered as the fanbase) – ‘SAI’ is dripping with lore and new details of a story that has kept TØP’s fans on their toes for years and is only waiting to be unpacked.
At a first glance, the Ohio-based duo’s sixth full-length venture looks and sounds unlike anything the band has ever released into the world before. Bursting with gleeful guitar lines, happy beats from drumming powerhouse Josh Dun, sweet ukulele strokes and singer Tyler Joseph’s sugary, haunting vocals trailing every track like a sleek snake, ‘Scaled And Icy’ takes a leap from the group’s previous releases. Gone are the days of darkness, anxiety and emotional distress, while a new era full of summery vibes and fun times has taken their place. At least that is what it seems like. But just like the album’s cover star, the mega-dragon Trash, ‘Scaled And Icy’ has a lot more to tell than what first meets the eyes and ears.
While the record might sound lofty and bright at first, its opener, the bouncy ‘Good Day’ takes it on itself to prove everyone wrong within the first three minutes of the album’s runtime. Unsurprisingly, the track embodies what Twenty One Pilots have expertly mastered over the years – blissful instrumentals layered over dark, deeply personal lyrics. Written from within a headspace in which singer Tyler, who solely penned every song on the album and produced most of them in his home studio in Columbus, imagined himself losing his wife Jenna, his one-year-old daughter Rosie as well as his job – “Lost my job, my wife and child / Homie just sued me / Shoot my life in shoot-em-up style”. With birds singing in the background, the nightmare dressed as a fairy tale in disguise, represents a stage of grief the artist could see himself get stuck in – one where he keeps telling himself and everyone around him that he is fine, that everything happens for a reason, clearly being in denial of how he is falling into pieces on the inside.
What follows are the two previously released singles ‘Choker’ and ‘Shy Away’, which take a step back in time and give a nod to the band’s first label outing ‘Vessel’ and their earliest record ‘Regional At Best’. Dripping with striking electronic guitars (a first for the duo, as Tyler taught himself to play the guitar over the summer in 2020) and racing through a meticulous mix of sounds and genres while drummer Josh hits the beats in just the right ways, both songs serve as anthems of this new, poppy era. But it’s not until after that, that Twenty One Pilots finally show what material their latest record is truly made of with the otherworldly refreshing ‘The Outside’, which stuns with vibey, indie-inspired guitars and lands the ultimate hit once we get to Joseph’s cool rap that takes the track to new heights.
We continue on to the equally playful ‘Saturday’, which once again shows how personal and raw Twenty One Pilots like to get. Featuring a phone call with wife Jenna, the ecstatic piece is rumoured to be dedicated to the couple’s wedding day, while it has also been noted by the fans that with mentions of time standing still – “Lose my sense a time or two / Weeks feel like days” and “Life moves slow on the ocean floor / I can’t feel the waves anymore / Did the tide forget to move?” – and substance abuse – “Medicate in the afternoon / And I just want to know / Have you lost your footing, too?” – the loving hit might not be as positive and shiny as it sounds.
The biggest surprise of the album – and it might be seen as the grainy, guitar-based black sheep – comes with the track number six, titled ‘Never Take It’, which could land the one or other stuttered shock from even the most proficient clikkie. Rocky and gritty in all its cracks and dents, with incredibly addictive riffs, Joseph’s trademark emo-screams and even a fully charged guitar solo, the political track touches on the polarisation of the media and governments around the world and in the US and actively fights against just that – “They’re trying hard to weaponize / You and I / We’ll never take it”. Taking it back to the universe of Dema, the rapturous rollercoaster ride serves as a hymn for the fight against the Bishops and their malevolent reign of vialism and celebration of suicide and has already been rightfully coined as one of the brightest highlights of ‘SAI’.
Going back to the road of delight, the charming ‘Mulberry Street’ comes around as a fun, almost theatrical musical performance that celebrates being different and staying true to yourself – and might also just be one of the most addictive songs of the record (try not to move with this one, we dare you). Lyrics-wise, the piano-led star once again lends itself to the themes of substance abuse and false happiness – “Ain’t no sunny skies ’til you finally realize / That everybody relies on synthetic highs / They find someone to prescribe / Keep your bliss, there’s nothing wrong with this” – and is reportedly inspired by the time the band first visited New York and frontman Joseph felt out of place unlike he had ever done before – a feeling the singer wanted to replicate with this starry number.
Staying firmly grounded in the sphere of soothing vocals and catchy drum bounces, the following ‘Formidable’ is filled to the brim with sugary love. First written on the ukulele and then transformed into a sweet acoustic guitar-led ode, it has been rumoured that the song is dedicated to band member and second half Josh, while some fans noted that it might even be meant for the fanbase itself, seeing as the lyrics would coincide with the time songwriter Tyler first started making and releasing music. On the other end of the spectrum, the cheery ‘Bounce Man’ may live in the same space as its predecessor, but with lyrics that even the biggest fans haven’t been able to fully decipher yet, it has named itself as the most exuberant question mark on the record.
It is at that moment that the album makes a complete 180 degrees turn with the haunting ‘No Chances’, arguably one of the most outstanding zeniths on ‘Scaled And Icy’, which opens with a creepy chant by the Bishops – “We come for you / No chances” – and quickly follows with stirring electro-tinged beats from Dun, who solely engineered most of the drums on the 11-track production, and Joseph’s softly sweet vocals. As the boldest nod to the mythology of Dema and the fight going on within it, the eerie track is meant as a message to the Banditos who are stuck in the city and trying to escape, as roared by Joseph – “We got people on the way / We want you home in one piece now (Run away, run away)” and “We spent some weekends on the grind / Surveillances outside, we see when you arrive” – while the Bishops on the other end are making it very clear that there will never be a way out, which was also reinforced during the duo’s phenomenal livestream concert. Heavily featuring the low voice of the character Blurryface, first introduced in the titular record as the dark side of band member Tyler’s mind, the song certainly stands out amongst all the brightness of ‘Scaled And Icy’ and has already turned into an absolute fan-favourite.
Putting the album to a close, the final musical outing ‘Redecorate’ serves as the crowning moment of a stellar new era for the talented group. With deep beats leading the way and slight lo-fi moments weaving themselves through the song, it not only sonically but also lyrically serves as one of the most complex ventures on the record. Written from the perspective of Joseph’s friends after the tremendous loss of their child and inspired by their utter uncertainty about whether to keep the child’s room in the same state or redecorate it – “I don’t want to leave like this / ‘Cause the last thing I want to do is / Make my people make decisions, wonderin’ what to do / Should they keep it on display / Or redecorate?” –, the track features the POVs from both the parents and the child, while it successfully twists the knife into our hearts, just to stay there forever. On the other hand, in terms of the Dema universe, fans have already identified the song as a final goodbye from the character Clancy, who, according to letters that were found on the band’s DMA website, had been captured by the Bishops. Opening with a line from one of the letters that had previously been discovered by fans, the record’s closer also gives a last nod to the anagram of “Clancy is dead”, featuring the album-titling lyrics “scaled back and isolated”.
It’s not often that an album gets perceived as propaganda by fans and is first met with suspicion and uncertainty. Highlighted by drip-feed mentions of Dema and even the word “destroy” hidden in the wing of cover star dragon Trash, Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Scaled And Icy’ not only manages to feed into the meticulously crafted world of TØP and Dema, but also serves as a new era for the Ohio duo that invites both the Clique and casual listeners on a rollercoaster ride of sunny days and multicoloured adventures. Staying true to the band’s emotional rawness and not losing touch with the group’s lyrical depth they have become known and loved for, the record doesn’t fail to surprise even the most experienced fans and proofs that Twenty One Pilots are most comfortable away from melodic restraints and genre-limits. Produced during lockdown and through endless long-distance Zoom calls between Joseph and Dun, ‘SAI’ takes a bow to Twenty One Pilots’ DIY-induced past, while it once again sees the support from long-time collaborators Paul Meany and Mike Elizondo as well as Greg Kurstin and even features vocals from Tyler’s brother Jay. Sonically complex and packed with surprises and secrets waiting to be uncovered around every corner, Twenty One Pilots’ sixth full-length musical master ride sees the band grow and expand in ways nobody would have ever expected and proofs that brilliance can sometimes be best found in letting loose.
Twenty One Pilots’ sixth album ‘Scaled And Icy’ is out now everywhere via Fueled by Ramen and Elektra.
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Written by Laura Weingrill // photography by Ashley Osborn and Mason Castillo // Scaled And Icy cover by Brandon Rike and TNSN DVSN