Ithaca – ‘THEY FEAR US’

By Ian Kenworthy

“Nothing stays the same,” bellows Djamila Azzouz barely four minutes into Ithaca’s new record, acknowledging, right there, a universal truth – the world has changed since their 2018 debut ‘The Language Of Injury’. Aware they have a lot to live up to, the five Londoners are meeting the challenge head on; grappling with expectations, their own creative voice, and embracing change to make a statement of who they are now. The title says it all, ‘They Fear Us’.

Press play – it’s metallic hardcore. Barked vocals, riffs, thunderous drums, but this isn’t a rerun of their previous work. Despite sharing ground with the sound established on their 2015 ‘Trespassers’ EP, it’s also more thoughtful, doused with clean singing and even sounding a touch restrained, but let’s be clear, it’s awesome.

It’s not a total transformation, but is a much more mature offering. While it’s a mistake to say that maturity can’t be expressed as something intense, heavy or noisy, you quickly discover how it’s expressed depends on the situation. It’s a theme running through the album, and instead of pummelling you to within an inch your life, it stirs up an emotional response with a great big metal-plated spoon. And then it pummels you to within an inch of your life.

Oh, it can be heavy; you still get a huge body-slamming from the rhythm section but the guitars also thread in wicked little riffs like on ‘The Future Says Thank You’ just to make sure you’re still paying attention. The overall effect is like cramming a gobstopper into your mouth only to discover it’s a glitter-filled grenade.

Every song is doing something different, so when you find brief sections where all they are doing is battering you with riffs and barked vocals like on ‘Cremation Party’, it serves as a reminder to what they’re not doing, making it an essential part of the whole.

The new-found maturity puts them alongside Employed to Serve, Rolo Tomassi and even Spiritbox, particularly on the title track and ‘Camera Eats First’ where ethereal singing and guttural screeching provide a sharp contrast. It’s hostile territory, because it invites comparison, but it’s exactly where they want to be. Call it calculated, but once you’ve earned the title of one of the genre’s most exciting bands, you literally have to do something exciting, and when they pull it off this gracefully it really isn’t a bad thing.

The band’s previous work leaned heavily on discordance with the guitars screeching like the brakes on a speeding train. Such a distinctive sound is difficult to use well, after all, one screech is similar to another, but here it’s notably absent, except for a couple of half-hearted squeals on ‘In The Way’. This is fascinating as it puts the song actively in conversation with their past. It’s literally saying ‘we’re tired of this, but look what else we can offer’ before unloading a series of assured riffs, making sure there’s always something going on, be it the strange guitar sounds on ‘Number Five’ or the shifting structure of ‘You Should Have Gone Back’. The whole experience is wildly creative, so yes, it’s a gamble, but one that really pays off.

The recording was shepherded by genre favourite Lewis Johns at The Ranch Production House, which explains a lot of these sonic choices and their placement. Importantly, it sees the return of the top-heavy, highly snappy drum sound, which makes James Lewis’ drumming seem energetic and almost chaotic. It feels like a flow of shifting time signatures and gives the entire album the kind of spine you’d find on H. R Geiger painting; solid, knotty and absolutely terrifying.

Even the relatively straightforward ‘Fluorescent’ hides a wealth of ideas behind its big vocal assault, reminding you that intensity has many faces. It also cleverly marks the transition to the record’s closing run, and this is where the band’s creativity becomes most obvious. While not explicitly a narrative arc, the music flows in a way that evokes structure, and although it doesn’t play like a concept record, the album has a clear and thoughtful path. It creates an undeniable sense of purpose and a strong emotional journey. Seeds are sown during the first track and the album flows effortlessly toward its conclusion using ‘You Should Have Gone Back’ as a precursor to its greatest WTF moment ‘Hold, Be Held’ which channels an 80’s power ballad, bringing the album to a triumphant close. You’ll find yourself looping back to the first track, and once reframed, it becomes majestic.

In the past, Azzouz primarily used songs as catharsis, and while that is still the case, there is a marked shift in tone. Her work here is more accessible but equally as intense, if not more so. By leaning back on a clean singing, she also gives the songs an extra dimension. To be clear, these aren’t huge soaring choruses, it’s a more measured and careful use of her voice for maximum impact. You’ll notice it on single ‘Camera Eats First’ where her voice tussles with the music, creating a swirl of emotions that is easy to lose yourself in.

Whether interrogating the ageing process or slinging slick insults such as “Why would I stab you in the back when you have so many faces to choose from?” she offers insight and passion. Though most comfortable with the barked yells on ‘Cremation Party’. Azzouz changes her voice to suit the song, and it’s almost comical to think she’s never used her singing voice before. On ‘Hold, To Be Held’, additional vocals from Yansé Cooper bolster her voice, allowing the song to hit notes otherwise out of reach, a wise and effective creative choice.

It’s also important to mention the album artwork; set in a baroque manor with Azzouz presented as a queen in billowing orange surrounded by pawns in collared white, it’s absolutely striking. As quoted from the band’s Twitter account, their “intention is to challenge how heavy bands present themselves & open up space for more queer feminist weirdos”. With seemingly every band making similar claims of inclusivity and failing to back it up in their art, it’s gratifying to see them actively doing this in both their music and its visual component.

‘They Fear Us’ is an aurally and visually striking record, redefining who the band are and what they are capable of. Raising a middle finger to your expectations, Ithaca have produced a record that’s spellbinding, brazen and absolutely essential.

IAN KENWORTHY

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