• Ryan Hope

'Scaled and Icy' by twenty one pilots: A Heartbreaking Disappointment

'Scaled and Icy’ is the alt-rock turned reggae-fusion band twenty one pilot’s sixth studio LP, and is a peculiar dive into frontman Tyler Joseph’s psyche as it manifested itself throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The record serves as a creative rebellion against the desire to be critical and negative during these trialing times, instead - the scaled back and isolated life that Tyler led throughout the pandemic sees him write the bands most optimistic record to date. Despite this newfound hopeful attitude, production on the majority of these tracks feel pale and washed out, which is a considerable downturn from the duo’s usual rich and unique production that was bountifully present on their previous record, ‘Trench’. The powerful synth leads that took centre stage before have vanished to be replaced by laughably basic ones, which are all too often wrapped up in an 80’s style brit-pop piano progression that serves no purpose than to bore the listener into ignoring the poor execution of this albums core ideas.

The opening track illuminates the new tonal direction but also warms us up to the myriad of issues that plaque this record. “Something coming to life” Tyler describes the intro of ‘Good Day’, with curious whizzing and whirring sound effects evoking a sense of old machinery kicking into gear - ironic, as the Ohio-based band are certainly not. If the awful production choices don’t cement this enough, Tyler’s songwriting should do. The subtlety of the band’s writing is notably gone, “lost my job, my wife and child” is gleefully sung over bouncy piano chords in a profoundly absurd way. This kind of dissonance between the song’s production and lyrics is something the band does extraordinarily well on their previous work, but here it’s so obnoxiously apparent that it defeats the purpose of creating that contrast in the first place. It’s comedic, perhaps intentionally, but fails to deliver any real emotional takeaway as the contrast is severely over applied.

Leading into the second song, ‘Choker’ feels like a welcome love letter to fans of the duo’s previous work on ‘Vessel’. The rap section’s awkward but still enjoyable flow feels like a direct callback to a similar writing style seen before throughout the band’s earlier output. Lyrically, it almost reads as a sequel to a song from the duo’s catalogue, namely Taxi Cab from the self-titled album. The nostalgia for longtime fans will be certainly welcomed, though personally I am fond of the vocals featured on this track, and despite it being melodically plain overall, certain sections stand out: the vibrato technique used at “I need to move right now” is emotive and seriously impressive.

If Tyler didn’t shy away from making the entire album thematically consistent with the album’s initial single, ‘Shy Away’, then perhaps I wouldn’t have been so sorely disappointed with the majority of the following tracks. The retro synth and rock fusion is a commendable swerve outside the lane twenty one pilots typically occupy. The production is cheesy but likeable, the vocals are impressive, notably the layered scream the backs the chorus in the later part of the track, and the small breakdown section where the vocal cracks add a lot of emotional depth. This, however, is where the album takes a serious downturn in quality.

One song genuinely had me laughing at its absurdly awful intro, The Outside, where it is almost as if Tyler opened up the default setting for the arpeggio function in his DAW, held down a few notes, and left it as is. It seriously reminded of the beats that ten year olds make with GarageBand in school. The melodic switch up during the rap section would make the track slightly more bearable if it wasn’t for the awful lyrics such as “I am a megeladon, I am megatron”.

The playful production featured on ‘Saturday’ is a minor highlight, despite being a lyrical letdown overall. However the following track ‘Mulberry Street' sees Tyler take an absurdly out-of-character take on what appears to be medication for mental health. The lyrics read as if to outcast those who use prescribed antidepressants as weak. Tyler gladly vocalises his desire to ostracise those people with lines like “everyone relies on synthetic highs”, as if antidepressants should be considered in this negative light. “Move out the way, keep your pills”, Tyler’s too good for that. A popular excuse for this song reads as ‘this album is based on propaganda’, relating to a fictional organisation in the twenty one pilots lore, but that doesn’t make it any less of a struggle to listen through. It’s tone deaf.

In an interview with Zane Lowe, Tyler speaks of their previous records being about breaking rules, but with Scaled and Icy it was more about creating music within the confines of them. This would-be interesting concept for an album however is entirely squandered by lazy production pinned together with boring lyrics.

This album becomes entirely heartbreaking for me within the last leg of the album, as the last three tracks demonstrate the potential of the vision Tyler clearly had for this record. ‘Bounce Man’ seems to be one of the only successful bouts of story telling that Tyler wanted to string these songs together with, the only other example being the follow up track ‘No Chances’. The production is loud and anxiety-inducing, the two-faced nature really helps characterise the mysterious DEMA organisation featured throughout the lore of the records. The comedic but clever “run away, run away” line quietly sung behind the misleadingly mellow chorus cements this idea of something malicious looming, and is an example of excellent songwriting elevated by unique production choices.

Redecorate is the only song where everything truly comes together. The production is finally inspired and fleshed-out, and the lyrics reignite that line-treading subtlety lost on all other tracks. It’s a powerful song and metaphor, and a bitter-sweet way to end the record. If this track is direction the band intends to take, I remain hopeful for the future of their musical output.

I find Tyler’s desire to swerve between the lanes inspiringly brave as a now relatively mainstream artist, and respect the artistic risk the duo took with this project. However this album is an upbeat collection of misses. The large majority of tracks on this album are not worth your time, and the one that are worth a listen are inconveniently so far down the track list that it becomes a bore when listening to the album fully. Scaled and Icy fails spectacularly to match the viscerally masterful Trench. Perhaps it’s time for the duo to scale-back their expectation to prove themselves musical chameleons, and instead focus on delivering a more refined and unique sound. 80’s synth-pop is not it.