Taking a big, bold step into the unknown is the main theme of the new Crown The Empire album, Retrograde. For the band, this means a major change of direction. For the fans, this means uncertainty.
Depending on how the average listener of Crown The Empire’s past albums decides to look at Retrograde‘s departure from primarily, a heavily ‘core-driven sound, the change will either make total sense or confuse the living shit out of them. If you’ve paid attention to Crown The Empire they’ve suggested influences the likes of broadway musicals, Slipknot, and Plain White T’s, so it’s safe to say variety is a key ingredient to the band’s overall sound.
With that specific viewpoint in mind, Retrograde leaps forth with an airy, poppy forefront and a hugely ambient and at times, unsettling background. It’s this description that makes the record feel like a trip through outerspace. Crown The Empire have lots of room to play with now that they are drawing from their own tastes and not strictly what the current music trends deem popular.
One could argue though, this foray into the alternative and upbeat from the aggressive and bouncy is determined by popular trends in the post-hardcore scene as of late. As always, this isn’t necessarily wrong, but to limit Crown The Empire by comparing them to their contemporaries certainly is. After all, CTE have gotten this far off their ambition alone, something that escalates their status of being a cut above their peers.
The main aspect that sets this record apart is how clearly the concern about the future of the band is imbued in both the lyrics and the delivery. While the record is pseudo-conceptual involving the exploration of space and the pitch-perfect flow of it reflects that, there isn’t a song on the album that can’t be interpreted as a message of uncertainty and even, fear. I suppose that’s obvious once the listener reads the title alone of the song “Are You Coming With Me?”, a suggestive request made towards the listener to embrace change. So maybe it’s not such a subtle message, but it is a powerful one. There’s no way this big of a change is easy for the band to collectively initiate. The honesty with which it is both delivered and written is the highlight of the record. If you’re prepared for catchy, big songs and unexpected theatrics, this is going to be the album of the year for you.
Speaking of the flow, it really is fantastic. Normally it isn’t easy to break an album up into sections, but with Retrograde it’s possible. The first three tracks “SK-68”, “Are You Coming With Me”, and “Zero” all give off a huge, open feel, indicating the first steps of the journey. The next two “Aftermath” and “Hologram” are more developed with bigger hooks and indicate that something more is coming. That’s where “The Fear Is Real” comes in, offering a change of tone. This track acts as an interlude. With its industrial electronics and creepy samples, it feels like the soundtrack to an impending horror movie and indicates some major Nine Inch Nails influence. The darkness falls with “Lucky Us”, the album’s heaviest track that places an emphasis on distortion and transitions between grunge-esque quiet and heavy parts. Then the album shifts to a more care-free and upbeat motif with “Weight of The World” before a somber tone surrounds both “Signs of Life” and “Oxygen”, the album’s softest moments which hint at Incubus influences. Of course, to wrap it all up, a triumphant and dynamic closer is necessary which is where “Kaleidoscope” comes in and leaves off. Similar to the feeling one receives after watching a good movie, it’s going to be hard for the listener to feel like Retrograde isn’t a solid overall presentation.
As an extra treat, there are two bonus tracks with certain retail versions of the record that are worth seeking out. These two tracks, “For Days” and “Mercury”, respectively feel like the end credits and after-credits scene if Retrograde is being compared to a movie. “For Days” in particular makes this version worth seeking out as it bares an incredible resemblance to what a “Lead Me Out of The Dark” (the hidden track off Limitless) follow-up could feel like. This is also one of the hugest moments on the record with a Hans Zimmer-esque symphonic intro and a 30 Seconds To Mars vibe throughout. Interestingly, this track features only Andy Velasquez on vocals, possibly an indication of why this is a bonus track and not on the full album. As for “Mercury” it is comparable to “Zero”, as in it’s a heavier track with vocal trade-offs and harmonies in the chorus. It’s worth mentioning however, that guitarists Brandon Hoover and Dave Escamilla have some cool riffs in this song.
Though the musical shift in direction may polarize and confuse some fans, Retrograde is the best representation to-date of Crown The Empire as musicians. Every member of the band is at top performance, especially bassist Hayden Tree, whose bass lines sound huge and substantial. It must be cited that Andy Velasquez and Dave Escamilla’s chemistry as the vocalists in the band is precisely what makes Crown The Empire who they are. They offer, quite frankly, a unique take on the idea of a dual vocalist set-up, often trading off lines with each other in the choruses and even switching it up in the verses. Both can now sing AND scream. They make for an ever-interesting and creative pair, and make what was once a cliche in their genre an innovative setup. Specifically, “Aftermath” in particular showcases that they have never sounded better than they do this time around.
Overall, it’s appropriate that Retrograde released in the month of July. Comparable to the hugest of Summer blockbusters, it shows Crown The Empire shifting their songwriting and presentation to a far more palatable and massive approach. No moment is wasted. This is altogether CTE’s best release to-date and will offer them greater opportunities and merits as a result. The fans may groan and grumble at the idea of one of their favorite heavy bands now utilizing pop song structures, indie influences and focusing on making big songs, but if Linkin Park could create both Hybrid Theory and Minutes to Midnight, I don’t see why Crown The Empire can’t release this record after doing The Fallout. Retrograde is certainly a new beginning for what can only be described as a space-age group of artists.