One definition of the world “subtle” is “delicately complex and understated.” Cane Hill‘s debut album, Smile, is the exact opposite of that. There is not a single moment on this album that can be described as “delicate” or “understated.” For that matter, there’s very little on this album that can be described as anything short of maniacal… and that’s exactly how Cane Hill want it.
Smile positions Cane Hill to be our generation’s newest shock-rockers, as they gleefully pay tribute to Marilyn Manson, Slipknot, Korn, and other nu-metal pioneers throughout. While the sound is very familiar, they do manage to fit the pieces together in a way not only wholly their own, but just as good as the bands they emulate. Guitarist James Barnett switches easily between meaty riffs and creepy sound effects, drummer Devin Clark wails with abandon, and bassist Ryan Henriquez provides a chunky, hooky backbone for many of these tunes (seriously, he gets as many lead riffs as Barnett does). The band’s secret weapon, though, is vocalist Elijah Witt. With a lesser vocalist, Smile would be a fun but far less memorable homage to the more metal side of nu-metal. With him, though, these songs become weapons. The vocals are unbelievable: his screams effortlessly match genre titans like Corey Taylor, Jonathan Davis, and Oli Sykes, and while he frequently dips into a moaning, muttering speaking cadence for mood, he can also hit an arena-sized melodic chorus when he wants to. He does sound a LOT like his influences (especially Corey Taylor and Jonathan Davis, enough so that some people may be put off), but he still has his own distinct twist, and the amount of different screaming styles he adopts over the course of ten songs is absolutely incredible.
“MGGDA” (an abbreviation for My Good God Damn American) opens up with an inhaled sigh and muttered intro leading into a ferocious scream, and the band backs him up with an equally overcharged snaky, bass-led riff that never slows down even when it veers away from the original riff. There has not been an intro track this incendiary since People = Shit. Lead single “(The New) Jesus” adopts a vibe like glam-era Marilyn Manson (all the way down to the sampled cheerleaders in the intro and uncomfortably shrill haunted-house keyboard squeals in the chorus), but dialed into an even more sinister vibe. The guitars squeal like an old radio trying to catch a distant signal in between murky chugs, Witt’s roars are far more evil sounding than Manson ever managed, the bass is once again front-and-center, and despite all this the song is a fun, fist-pumping singalong and easily the most blasphemous tune to hit the radio since Ghost first got airplay. Somehow, follow-up single and next track “True Love” is even better, coming in on just drums and a moaned vocal, before bursting into a HUGE headbanging riff straight from the Korn playbook (era 1995). The minimalist verses are also indebted to Korn, with Elijah Witt adopting an awkward diction and rhythm, half-singing and half-talking his way to the chorus, which comes in on the back of the intro riff and hits even harder with vocals added. In fact, the chorus to True Love is probably the best chorus of any song so far this year.
“St. Veronica” comes next and slows things down a little, but still maintains the same freak show vibe of the rest of the album. The drums are slower, but thunder relentlessly, and the graveyard drone of the keys blend with the swirling, wall-of-noise guitars to form a drifting soundscape for Witt’s unusual, quivering vocal delivery (think Jonathan Davis mixed with Billy Corgan). “Fountain Of Youth” is another party anthem, equally blending the aggressive (and very percussive) stomp of early Slipknot with the glam-rock of peak Manson. It’s not very original, but it’s done to perfection; there is no denying this riff, and the repetitions of “I’ve always heard that the good die young, but if I die young what will you think about me?” are catchy as hell. Next is “Cream Pie” and yes, it’s about exactly what you think it is (the opening cackle of “It’s only dirty if you make it” puts any doubts to rest). While previous songs had prominent bass, the verse riff to this one is strictly bass, with the other instruments just providing discordant noise to accompany it. To be even more over-the-top, near the end of the song they splice in sound clips from porn to drive home the point (as well as a flushing toilet and distorted chewing noises?). It’s repetitive and short, but that works to keep it from outlasting its welcome. “You’re So Wonderful” is another single, and the most melodic song on the record, with Witt providing a dark, haunted performance, although he occasionally hops into a higher register clean occasionally just to switch things up. It’s hard to describe what makes this song work (like many songs on the album, the pieces are all familiar), but it does work, incredibly well.
“Ugly Model Mannequin” has another huge riff with a rhythmic shout-along chorus that is even more moshable than any riff preceding it on the album. “Screwtape” is a re-recording of a song from their debut EP, but sounds infinitely better here, benefiting from a far beefier mix that lets the bass pummel the listener and the vocals to breathe, especially on the chorus, where Witt goes for his clearest, most radio-friendly singing yet. The only downside to this song is that if I heard it on the radio without knowing it was Cane Hill, I’d assume Slipknot had put out a new single. Closing track “Strange Candy” is deliberately dense, layered with a suffocating array of unsettling, off-kilter licks and assorted sounds covered in honeyed, almost sultry clean vocals.
Smile’s reliance on shock value may turn off some listeners. “True Love” was one of the most sexually explicit songs I had ever heard, with a music video one friend described as “what [his]nightmares look like”, and “Cream Pie” tops it with ease, while “(The New) Jesus” is a straight up rallying cry for hedonism and blasphemy. Likewise, some listeners may just not care for nu-metal as a genre, or may feel that Cane Hill borrows too liberally from their influences. Both of these are valid viewpoints, but they are also unfortunate, because while “Smile” may be derivative, and it may be a little too in-your-face, it’s also one of the best hard rock albums in recent memory. In fact, had this album come out in 1996 instead of 2016, Cane Hill likely would have been just as big as their heroes. Who knows, if they can keep writing albums like this, they just might anyway.