Elevn’s Digital Empire: An Identity Crisis [Review]

I’ve been reviewing albums for a number of years, ranging from brutal death metal to experimental hip-hop, and I must say that, with the exception of one album, this is likely the most difficulty I’ve had reviewing a record. To begin, I’d like to give my thanks to Digital Heavy records for graciously providing us with this album well in advance of its June 12 release date. I first noted the art of this album, a stunning piece depicting a colorful and disturbing cosmic nightmare. Art is extremely important in terms of total enjoyment of an album, especially in a scene like synthwave, in which many releases can sound the same, as it makes the album stand out, which Digital Empire certainly does.

The first third of this album begins with “Seven Trumpets”, an outstanding opening track, laden with atmosphere, disturbing samples, bells, and a group of synthetic chanting children. Immediately the track breaks into brooding guitars and fast paced drums, paired with a synth riff that is both catchy and chilling. The synth begins to crescendo, the guitars fade, and as the bells return, heightening the tension, the children resume their chant, and the song fades away. This may very well be one of the most impressive, well executed opening tracks I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. This excellent introduction is followed by “Empire”, a song with great production quality and solid technical aspects, including more guitar, and all around good synth work, but that comes together in a way that seems… confused. The track begins with vocals from Me and My Shadow, coupled with some licks on the guitar, and progressing into a very nice synth riff, but as the song continues, the vocals do too, overshadowing the rest of the instrumentals, and sung in a way that reminds me more so of metal than of any sort of electronic music, and, while I am well aware that this album is a hybrid of metal and synthwave, the vocals don’t quite mesh with the music very well, but instead pushes its way out in front of everything else, and clashes just enough to make it irritating. This is by no means a bad track, everything else is done well, polished to a shine, but the vocals are more a nuisance than anything else, and take away from the excellent instrumentals. As “Empire” ends, “Golem 13” starts with lilting notes, reminiscent of many other synthwave songs, but quickly morphs into a hard and heavy track that seems to take influence from dubstep of all things, which is not a negative thing. As the first drop in this song starts, its pounding bass and driving synth powering through the mix, it is evident that this song is, for lack of a better term, a banger. I’ve heard some heavy synthwave before, but this track truly succeeds in creating a dark and intense atmosphere, coupled with a pulsing dance worthy rhythm that is successful in its entirety. “Death Commando” comes next, closing out the first third of the album with what feels like a natural flow from the previous song. It sounds similar in tempo albeit more upbeat in comparison to “Golem 13”, and, much like it, “Death Commando” is a good song with decent complexity and solid synth work.

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The second third of the album begins with “Rise of The Leviathans”, and unfortunately, here is where we start to encounter problems, as well as what I consider to be this album’s main flaw, which I’ll get into later. “Rise of The Leviathans” is literally a Korn song, from the guitars, to the lyrics, to the ludicrous rap rock vocals. Unfortunately, in the course of writing this review, it was necessary to incur the displeasure of listening to this song many, many, MANY times. The more I listen to it the more upset I get at how anyone decided that this song was a good addition to an otherwise solid release. It’s sad that some of the more standout guitar work was poured into this song, by far the worst song on the album. “Rise of The Leviathans” legitimately almost made me want to stop listening to this album entirely, but fortunately, the following song, “Only Flesh”, was good enough to wash the taste of the prior abomination out of my mouth. “Only Flesh” continues the trend set in “Seven Trumpets” of being sinister, brooding, and heavy. The introductory chanting coupled with the fast-paced drums and twisted distorted synths slowly fading in made me think of a slowly awakening beast, one that begins to chase the listener after the guitars begin and never end. The sampling done here is of note, as well as the guitar harmonies later on in the track, enhancing the atmosphere a good bit and giving the song more gravitas. “Midnightmare” follows, in another attempt to incorporate vocals into the mix, and, while I appreciate the effort, the song is boring. Once again, instrumentally the song is sharply produced, sounds good, and clearly has effort put into it, but the vocals are so monotone and flat that that it drags the entire song down with it. It sounds as if someone created a very good synthwave song, and then a person with nigh any musical training found it, downloaded it, and then wrote vocals over it and put it on YouTube. The vocals do not belong in this song, this track is fine without them.

The final third begins with “From Beyond”, a fantastic song, once more coupling good guitar work with solid, atmospheric synths. There are little notes of effort scattered all over this song, many of which I didn’t even catch on my first few listens, and the vocalizations resembling middle eastern singing further enhance the atmosphere and engage the listener. There is a wonderful synth riff that a lot of this song is centered around that had me humming it like mad in my car, paired with accompanying guitar which, as always, is competent and appreciated. While being one of the more upbeat songs on this album, it still retains a feeling of stressfulness and urgency, and is one of the better songs on this album. “Digital Asylum” is up next, starting strong with an eerie sample from Supernatural, leading into a bevy of things that Elevn does best, lilting bells, chanting, droning bass, and finally a funky beat that offsets the tone of the more psychedelic instrumentals that accompany it. After a long buildup the guitars start, and the song continues. This is where Elevn shines in making music that is both eerie and groovy, that can be a great track for driving or for telling scary stories. As the guitars once more appear they are paired with and ascending and descending synth that, while simple, is effective, and the song is better for it. And just as suddenly as it begins, it ends. As I read that the next song, “Mayday”, contained a feature, I was dreading another monotone romp through mediocrity, but what I got was a powerful combination of excellent outrun style synthwave and interesting, nuanced vocals, courtesy of 2Grump, a French musician, that absolutely kills this song. Normally I’m not a fan of synthwave with heavy vocals, but this is a song that absolutely breaks the mold, and surprises the hell out of me. This is an amazing song, and it’s very difficult to not recommend it to anyone that enjoys this style of synthwave. Digital Empire closes with “Gates of Hell”, a song with a very long and effectively spooky intro that leads into staccato synths and a groovy drum beat, bass changing pitch every now and again, and gradually building into a very eerie latticework song that vaguely reminds me of “Satanic Rites” by Perturbator before breaking into guitar and creepy synths reminiscent of old alien invasion flicks. Of course these two mesh perfectly and proceed to batter the listener about the head with heaviness. The best guitarwork on the album is present on this song, complex chords swiftly take over the show and Elevn lets it rip. The drums build. The break is intense, truly this feels like one is traversing the torments of the netherworld. There is no more hiding it, this is a song in which evil has won, in which the goodwill of humans has been trampled by forces that we cannot understand, but that are indeed malevolent. This track makes me want to chase someone down just for the hell of it. Despite being seven minutes long, “Gates of Hell” passes swiftly, its bitcrushed outro playing far too soon, leaving me lusting for more.

Remember that main flaw that I mentioned before “Rise of The Leviathans”? That main flaw is schizophrenia. The first third of this album is disjointed, and despite the relatively solid performance, does not feel cohesive. “Seven Trumpets” is the strongest introductory song I’ve heard in a long time, but “Empire” feels like a VNV Nation song, “Golem 13” feels like synthwave played by Skrillex, and “Death Commando” feels like an average synthwave song. This is exacerbated almost to the point of hyperbole in the second third, as every single song feels as if it was meant to be pulled in a different direction, save for “Only Flesh”, which feels directly connected to “Seven Trumpets”. While the ever-present guitar can be seen as a connecting factor, it cannot alone bring an album together. The final third of this album contains some of the most well put together, well thought out, and hauntingly sinister synthwave I’ve ever heard, and “Gates of Hell” and “Mayday” are definitely going in my summer playlists this year, but the lack of connections between all three thirds hinders this album. That being said, I truly only had problems with three of the songs on this album, and, save for “Death Commando”, which is competent, but not quite great, the rest of these songs are great, and I will likely be revisiting them in the future. Elevn needs to trim the fat and lean up. They need to focus on their strong suits and continue the trend of terrifying and sinister synthwave with a distinguishing metal twist. I do very much enjoy this album, do not let my criticism fool you, I highly recommend this piece, but there are flaws that need to be addressed. Elevn is capable of great things, I know it. The final third of this album proves that there is a magnum opus hidden in their cosmos somewhere waiting to come out. I eagerly await more.

Once again a thank you to Digital Heavy Records for giving us this album to review.

You can find this album on Elevn’s official Bandcamp.

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