Japanese rock music, or j-rock, has gained a substantial following among Western audiences. During the 1990 and early ‘00s, bands such as L’Arc~en~Ciel, Maximum the Hormone, Dir en Grey, and Balzac gained a surge of followers outside of their home country. This could be correlated with the popularity of anime reaching a similar peak among American and European audiences during the same era, though more likely due to the Internet’s opening of creative channels across the globe. Today, j-rock is highly respected in the western music community, with rock duo B’z being inducted in Hollywood’s RockWalk, L’Arc~en~Ciel headlining Madison Square Garden, and a number of groups being signed to American labels – such as the aforementioned Balzac on Jerry Only’s own Misfits Records.
One such band quickly rising in popularity among Western listeners in the US is Tokyo-based Crystal Lake. Formed as early as 2002, during the beginning of metalcore’s mainstream rise in popularity, Crystal Lake saw success with western audiences early on. The band’s first album Dimension, released in Japan in 2006, established their sound as reminiscent of New York hardcore and crossover thrash blended with post-punk experimentalism, and served with the demonic aggression and technicality expected from the metalcore genre.
Their latest release, True North, showcases the band’s continued sonic growth, openly stepping beyond the confines of metalcore to play even further on the fringes of ambient and post-punk territory, only to yank listeners back inside at just the right times. Opening with the deceptively soothing “Alpha,” which seems to make its home somewhere between a Daft Punk b-side and surrealist film score, the album quickly takes a turn for the extreme with the following track aptly titled “Omega.” Yet the two act as sort of bedfellows, one’s yin to the other’s yang, with the former beginning soft and incorporating madness gradually and the latter diving straight into violent riffs only to pause and become gentle and reflective as it progresses. If the recording were simply an Alpha/Omega two track EP, it would still stand as a solid release.
The following song, “Hatred,” is standard metalcore fare, though still groovy enough to pogo along with. However, the fourth track, “Metro,” makes a radical departure from the prior three. Combining an almost vaporwave-esque opening the song glides into strange ground somewhere between post-punk and thrash, yet never feels jarring or out of place with the rest of the album. In fact, it serves as a fine opening for the surprisingly anthemic “True North” following.
“Breathe Deep” takes yet another unexpected turn. Beginning on an ‘80s-style guitar riff ala The Smiths, we are treated with a tender pop rock ballad which then segways perfectly into the still gentle (yet nonetheless hardcore) track aptly named “Black and Blue.” This trend of sonic duality found throughout the album, with many tracks mirroring each other in either a comparable or contrasting way, adds to the listening experience. It is almost as though the band is taking us by the hand and guiding our ears through the musical landscape they’ve created.
Like “Hatred,” “Six Feet Under” mostly exhibits common metalcore tropes, sticking to a fairly strict formula…though their positions as third and sixth track further showcases the duality theme (whether intentional or not) found on the album as a whole. However, the closing songs “Walk on Water” and “Waves” feel like swimming through a river of human emotions, a liquid swirl of rage and malaise and even something akin to contentment. These close the album perfectly, bringing its musical arch to its most logical resolution.
Overall, True North is not groundbreaking. It does not push metalcore into completely unexplored territory. However, and this is important, it does act as a refreshing deviation from the norm in a somewhat stale genre. More so, it gives us a glimpse at what the band is capable of achieving even within their genre’s restrictions, as well as their willingness to break away from them when needed. The recording shows the potential in Crystal Lake. They are honing their sound, flexing the muscles they’re exercising for bigger things ahead. If not now, then I predict we’ll see game-changing things in this band’s future work. Keep an ear out for these guys. They’re destined for big things!
True North drops on December 2nd in the US and Europe via Artery Records.