Album Review: Celldweller – “End of an Empire”

Album Review: Celldweller – “End of an Empire”

Album: End of an Empire
Artist: Celldweller
Location: Detroit, Michigan, USA
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Genre: Electronic metal, industrial metal, drum and bass
Reviewer: Sam
For Fans Of: Pendulum, Blue Stahli, Zardonic

Track Listing:
1. Faction 01 – 1:30
2. New Elysium – 6:52
3. End of an Empire – 7:32
4. Heart On – 6:37
5. Just Like You – 5:03
6. Last In Time – 7:24
7. Faction 06 – 2:33
8. Good L_ck (Yo_’re F_cked) – 3:36
9. Jericho – 5:18
10. Faction 13 – 1:28
11. Breakout (feat. Scandroid) – 4:11
12. Down to Earth – 6:56
13. Precious One – 6:50
14. Jericho (Circle of Dust Remix) – 5:38
15. G4M3 0V3R – 2:40

This review has taken two attempts. The first draft was just a transcript of me screaming in excitement.

After taking nine long years to release his second album, Celldweller has released his third in three (technically two, considering he started releasing material from it in September 2014). My most highly anticipated release of both 2014 and 2015 did not disappoint in the slightest. And I’m writing this paragraph before I even listen to it, that’s how confident I am in its quality. [Note from future me: past me was correct.]

Klayton, the man behind the project, lives to work. Between his last album, Wish Upon a Blackstar, and End of an Empire, he’s released (deep breath): a single, a cover of The Imperial March from Star Wars, four EP’s, four instrumental albums, a 10th Anniversary Edition of his debut album, a live album, an album of old demos, and remixes for countless other bands. Plus instrumentals for all of the above. In three years. No wonder he has no documented wife or children; he’s married to his recording studio.

Have I mentioned that he also owns his own record label, produces the work of every other artist on his label, runs a very active YouTube channel, scored a movie, and owns his own line of overpriced designer clothing? He uses a lot of robots in his imagery, and I think that’s because he relates to them on a personal level. He must never sleep!

The Deluxe Edition of End of an Empire runs for 33 tracks- that’s two hours of music. Lucky for you guys, I’ve only been given the non-Deluxe version to review, just the first 15 tracks, which is a much more manageable hour and fifteen minutes. What an hour and fifteen minutes it is.

“Faction 01” sets the scene and the tone of this album: it will be much darker than Wish Upon a Blackstar, and there will be lyrics about space. “The Outland Industries Solaris has safely docked,” a metallic male voice assures over ambient synths after wind, a swelling alarm, and Star Trek sound effects cease. “Be advised that the planetary environment may be hostile, so be sure to check enviro-suit seals and O2 levels. Please follow safety instructions and keep our Planet Security Team in sight at all times, as they will guide you to the Deltar city limits. Thank you for flying Outland Industries. Enjoy your stay- and welcome to Atiria.” I don’t know about you, but this album has my attention already.

And then I realized that my iTunes library was on shuffle, explaining why the subsequent track was Judas Priest’s “One Shot At Glory”. So I lost some of the immersion there.

Once the album was playing in sequential order, I was thrust into “New Elysium”. The first of many seven-minute epics on this record, we’re shown immediately that Celldweller is willing to break boundaries not reached on his previous attempt. Primarily based around a dark trance groove, it takes several opportunities to break into beautifully brutal dubstep-metalcore breakdowns. As the lead single off of Chapter 04: Death, the lyrics are melancholy at its happiest, meanwhile demonstrating leaps and bounds of improvement over Wish Upon a Blackstar when it comes to lyrical integrity. Celldweller has freed himself of conventional song setup on this track, throwing in verses and choruses and breakdowns wherever he damn well pleases, which adds to the overall tone of the track. After all, facing certain death is rather chaotic, isn’t it?

Here comes the title track, and the first single to be released, “End of an Empire”. The term “epic” was invented for this song, both in the traditional and slang meanings of the word. Effectively bridging the gap between the style of the two albums, it’s a seven and a half minute summary of Celldweller’s material. At different points in the song it is driven by electronics, guitars, or strings, but it’s most effective when merging the three. Klayton’s trademark high screams serve as excellent accents throughout the song, complimenting both the ferocity of the beat and the delicate cleans present throughout. It’s a damn good song, but I can’t help but wonder if the runtime could’ve been cut down to five minutes or so.

It’s followed by the delicious double-entendre, “Heart On”. “I’ve pinned my heart to my sleeve so that the whole world can see I have a heart on for you,” Klayton declares. That’s kinda creepy Klayton, seriously. No one wants to see your heart on, put that thing away. You’re going to want to hear this song, though; have you ever thought of merging house with metalcore? Neither have I, but he’s done it here and he’s done it well. Mainly carried by a heart-pounding house rhythm complemented by riffing guitars, the three-minute mark brings an incredible ethereal breakdown-chorus-thing. It’s fucking cool, so much so that I wish it lasted longer. Instead, we are returned to a much more guitar-centric interpretation of the earlier verses, which confuses me. Do I dance or do I mosh? Well, I’m white and uncoordinated, moshing is more my thing, but this song could really go either way.

“Just Like You” is the first softer song of the album, sequenced unusually early for most layouts. ¾ times lyricless vocalizations drive this song forward, and this song is really a testament to the power of ambience. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, but it never feels overwhelming. Even when it eventually picks up with chugging guitars and plodding drums it’s immediately returned to a powerful acoustic composition, accenting pianos, and a delicate orchestral section. At five minutes, this track does not overstay its welcome; in fact, it feels like it ends too soon.

“Lost in Time” carries itself with a funky beat reminiscent of a 2070’s disco, but takes time out to remind you of some serious Lamb of God riffs. Female-sounding backing vocals in the chorus (it’s actually Klayton somehow) don’t seem to fit as well as Klayton’s heavily processed vocals; seriously, there isn’t a point in this song where his voice isn’t being run through some sort of filter. It’s Autotuned in some places, takes the form of wubs in others. Really, he’s turned his vocals into another instrument on this track. Even at its chuggiest, this song never loses its funkiness. Like the title track, though, this really could’ve been shortened to five or so minutes and retained all of its awesome elements. It was pointed out during Wish Upon a Blackstar, and it shall be brought up again here: Klayton is yet to learn that sometimes less equals more.

“Faction 06” features dialogue from two vocoded robots, detailing more of the album’s plot, interspersed with dark dubstep and some seriously aggressive breakdowns. Deathcore ain’t got shit on how metalstep makes you want to move. Even if the robots sound a little cringeworthy, all is forgiven when you start a mosh pit in your room or on the train or wherever you’re listening to this. Until the song ends and you realize you’ve trashed the place. Then reality sets in, and your thought process goes a little like this next song.

“Good L_ck (Yo_’re F_cked)” takes its confusing name from the song’s chorus, which states that this aforementioned event is “Like a losing game of Hangman, the letter we need is U!” Suddenly the title becomes really clever. Although cyberpunk is primarily a genre in film and literature, that’s exactly what this track is. It’s a supremely fun, straightforward industrial pogo through a pledge of making someone’s life hell. It’s also the longest punk song ever, clocking in at just over three and a half minutes. But hey, if we’ve learned anything from this album so far, it’s that Klayton has no concept of time. He knows how to have a good time, though, and that’s exactly what this track is.

“Jericho” had me holding my breath, since it was the first song not previewed in the pre-release Chapters. It strikes me somewhere between light and menacing, the musical equivalent of an evil smile. It carries itself with a confident yet bellicose swagger; perhaps this could be the only song that would be appropriate in the soundtracks of both The Matrix and Lord of the Rings. A fully electronic and orchestral track, the first fully devoid of guitars, it takes a hint from the Deftones playbook of soaring vocals and dark instrumentation. War drums and synths sounding like pitch-shifted sirens ring out in unison through the moderately paced track. It’s not reminiscent of an army in battle; this is an army in planning. In short, it kicks ass and it’s easily the catchiest track on the album.

The short “Faction 13” provides greater exposition through mechanical sound effects and channel surfing through an intergalactic radio broadcast. Apparently an anti-android political figure has come to power and a breakout occurred at a maximum-security prison on Helion, wherever that is. A group of Aterian cyborgs, jailed for protesting “cybernetic inequality,” have escaped. An alarm goes off, a vocoded voice states “Well that didn’t take long,” and I have a feeling that the next track will address these breaking developments.

“Breakout” features Scandroid, one of Celldweller’s many side projects, which deals in 80’s new wave revival. It’s another track that was not featured on a Chapter. As predicted, the lyrics describe the aforementioned cybernetic breakout in a “We’re Not Gonna Take It” manner of singing. The guitars, serving rhythm duty here, are used more as a subtle accent to the more traditional-sounding synths and typical synthpop cannon-shot toms. It’s a natural progression of post-punk new wave if it had never fizzled out, very Combichrist meets Big Audio Dynamite. The more metal-centric fans of Celldweller might not enjoy this track as much, but I love it.

“Down to Earth” is a total switch-up of pacing, utilizing the most abrasive electronics on the album until the guitars kick in. Then surprisingly melodic wubs achieve synthesis with guitars through alternating “Lost in Time” bouts of funk and rudimentary metalcore breakdowns. It took a long time for Klayton to hop on the core train, and he’s a quick learner in most places, but it just barely falls flat here. On this track he favors fast-paced Bullet For My Valentine-type riffs, which is a great idea in theory, but when compared to the other cuts on this album, less so in execution. Once again, at seven minutes, it overstays its welcome a bit.

This brings us to the sheer creepiness of “Precious One”. It took me a long time to appreciate this song’s genius, because there are so many parts and feelings that combine into this seven-minute track. It begins with an atmospheric, electronic funeral dirge showing shades of electronic stadium rock; then cue intense breakbeats and harsh screams juxtaposed with soaring chorus. Repeat. If “New Elysium” discussed certain death, this song discusses the transition into the great beyond. It’s similarly chaotic in nature, which makes perfect sense when evaluated through the scope of the lyrics.

Next comes a remix of “Jericho” handled by Circle of Dust. It’s a name familiar to die-hard Celldweller fans- that was the mid-90’s semi-Christian industrial metal band that Klayton fronted before he formed Celldweller. It seems that he’s resurrected the nameplate as another of his many side projects. It begins with a creepy sample of movie dialogue: “I’m gonna kill every one of you,” one character promises. Another rebukes, “This time, make sure they’re all dead before you leave.” I didn’t think it was possible for “Jericho” to get any darker, but here’s proof I was wrong. It’s much more gritty, rhythmic and complicated. More samples: “In a grim new age of warfare, today’s fighting men must be taught survival on an atomic battlefield!” He then takes a page out of the Live Upon a Blackstar remix of “Ursa Minor”, counting down from ten. This is dark, industrial shit. “I don’t want to hurt you,” a man says. “But you try something and I’ll- I’ll rip your face off!” a woman responds. “You don’t frighten me!” I understand why it’s included as a main track rather than a bonus remix, because “Jericho” and this remix might as well be two totally different songs. Although I like the remix, I do feel a little disappointed. The return of Circle of Dust, in my mind, meant heavy guitars and pulsating beats, not gritty electronica. Maybe I’ll never see a return to Celldweller circa 2003, when he was more industrial than electronic. But I’ll be damned if I don’t enjoy what he’s putting out now.

“G4M3 0V3R”, as one might expect, starts out with a cacophony of retro video game bleeps. If you listen closely, you can hear riffs from every song on this album mashed up and a fast and hectic effort. It’s purely instrumental except for the severely Autotuned Pinocchio that briefly sings the refrain from “Heart On”. It’s positively thrashing, real boss battle music, and an absolutely genius undertaking. Let me re-pose the purpose of this track: every song on the album is sampled, made into the same key and tempo, and mashed together. That takes some serious skill. End of An Empire ends with a bang.

My first reaction upon finishing this album is simply, “Holy shit.” What a great fucking album. I’m sorry for using so much profanity, but I can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed listening to this.

The production is impeccable. The mixing is crisp and very clear. The drums, although programmed, are technical without feeling infeasible. Celldweller’s signature guitar tone is once again present: electric and slightly distorted but lacking fuzz, probably run through a synth before an amp, but versatile and perfect for what Klayton wants to achieve. The bass is replaced by the various electronics, so we don’t have to worry about that.

The electronics, though…I’m not an EDM connoisseur, I can’t compare them to any other artist, but they’re well programmed and achieve exactly the right sound for the situation they’re needed in. All of Klayton’s practice with the “Transmissions” releases has helped him nail the abundance of ambience used. At every point on this record, if you listen hard enough, you will find another layer to the atmospherics that was not immediately apparent. Rather than sounding busy and overwhelming, it comes across more as a work of art.

Compared to Wish Upon a Blackstar, Klayton’s songwriting is far superior. He’s not bound by rigid structure or the work he’s done before; he’s pushing limits and trying new things, experimenting (usually successfully) with new concepts and ideas. Lyrically, End of an Empire is in another league. I’m sorry for being so blunt, but the lyrics in Wish Upon a Blackstar were utter shit. It’s always been Klayton’s Achilles heel, and on this album he’s moved from “bloody awful” to “pretty decent”.

Keep in mind, End of an Empire is a concept album, complete with a story. Like most concept albums, the story is a little hard to grasp at first, but the inclusion of the Faction tracks tied the story together, hinting at what the other songs could be about. Of course, if I were Klayton, considering his unique lyrical situation, a concept album would not be high on my to-do list. The story itself is not profound or thought-provoking; it’s science fiction, it’s fun, it does its job.

Klayton takes his sound into two directions simultaneously here. Unlike the last album, these songs are driven much more by electronics. However, the guitar work is faster, heavier, and much more brutal. Rather than sticking to the alternative metal playing of years past, he fully embraces the core sentiment seen throughout modern metal. Metalstep and electronicore exist, but this is neither; nowhere else can you see a song be fully electronic, then fully metal, then striking the perfect balance between the two. That’s what makes Celldweller unique.

I also applaud Klayton for trying so many new things on this album. You see trance, house, punk, groove metal, new wave, motherfucking disco, none of which we have seen from him before. There’s something for everyone on this album, even if it’s only for a song or even part of a song. It’s one of those rare genre-bending records that brings fans of opposing genres together rather than requiring you to like both to appreciate it.

There really is no album like End of an Empire, in the best possible way. Even when it has flaws, and there aren’t many of them, it’s so much fun to listen to that you flat-out ignore them. It’s a rollercoaster ride of a record, encompassing all sorts of emotions and styles, and it nails every one of them. End of an Empire is a damn great record, possibly the best Celldweller has ever put out. If you don’t believe that Celldweller belongs in the upper echelon of industrial and electronic rock artists, you’re wrong. End of an Empire marks the apex of another.

Clean Vocals: 9/10
Screamed Vocals: 9/10
Guitars: 8/10
Programming: 10/10
Production: 10/10
Lyrics: 6/10
Songwriting: 9/10
Overall IPHYB Rating: 9/10
Personal Enjoyment: 10/10

Album Review: Celldweller – “End of an Empire”
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  • Jason Martino

    Hey Sam, the review is great! Just one thing: in Lost In Time there’s no “female” backing vox in the chorus — it’s all sung by Klayton himself 😉

    • Sam

      Then who or what is going “Iiiiiiiiiiii” in the background while Klayton sings “I / Feel lost in time”? Certainly doesn’t sound like Klayton to me.

      • Jason Martino

        I hear you there, many people were wondering about that as well, but Klayton made it clear when he responded to the very same question in one of his “Ask Celldweller” episodes! It’s just his voice, processed in some way 🙂

        • Sam

          Could you link the Ask Celldweller episode where he says that? If that’s the truth, the review will be updated accordingly.

  • charlesbronson

    Great music, very good vocals, powerful sound, weak lyrics (yet much better than “wish upon a black star” which sounded like written by 12 yo choir boy