[Review] PassCode – ZENITH
My thoughts on the latest album from PassCode.
Release Date: August 2nd 2017
1. Maze of mind
2. bite the bullet
3. all or nothing
4. ONE STEP BEYOND
5. Scarlet night
7. Same to you
9. rise in revolt
11. MISS UNLIMITED
It’s not much of a secret that while I would consider myself a PassCode fan, I haven’t exactly been all-in on the material that they’ve been releasing over the last 18 months or so. I think that’s important to say before anyone reads any further in this review. On the one hand, this album isn’t going to get an easy ride from me and on the other…well, I’m not going to be as forgiving as some other people might be. That’s of course assuming that anyone reading this even cares about my opinion and hasn’t just scrolled to the bottom to see the star rating and then left feeling either validated or having written me off as not knowing what I’m talking about.
Getting back on track, it’s very fair to say that PassCode have carved out a defined niche for themselves in the Idol marketplace. They do the Digital Hardcore stuff and they arguably do it very well. People who like that sort of stuff love them. which is great because lord knows it’s hard enough building a fanbase these days with the millions of other groups on the go. On the other hand, if you don’t like PassCode’s particular brand of Digital Hardcore then you don’t really have much to get excited about. I guess what I’m saying here is that they’ve found something that works and are now clinging to it for dear life.
With that said, I am sort of prejudging this album a little bit. I kind of expect a lot of similar sounding songs like on their last album “VIRTUAL” (review here) if I’m being honest. I’m hoping I’m wrong of course but that’s just where I’m at with PassCode currently. Between “VIRTUAL” and the past couple of singles (reviews here and here) it’s just a bit hard to see what new things can be done with what’s starting to feel like a pretty limited composition framework. The whole being the Idol version of Fear, and Loathing in Las Vegas is cool and all but even they diversified their sound eventually. Let’s see what PassCode are working with here.
The album opens with “Maze of mind”, which initially starts off sounding like a bit of a ballad. That doesn’t last for too long though and before we know it we’re slipping into familiar PassCode territory. They really do throw quite a lot of the usual tricks at us early here, there’s rapping, harsh vocals – pretty low growls actually, so that’s kinda new – and of course the vocoded “clean” singing. I actually quite like the main synthesizer melody on this one, but much of the rest of the instrumental is fairly repetitive drum machines and synthesizer noise. Despite that, it’s a fun song and a pretty decent opener.
Following on from “Maze of mind” we have PassCode’s second major single “bite the bullet”. I wrote a full length review of that particular single that you can read here if you have the time. For those of you who don’t, let’s do a quick recap. Basically I didn’t think the song was that bad, but it did feel like it was missing a hook or…something to really take it to the next level. Apart from that it’s the typical PassCode model I guess. I thought the harsh vocals and synthesizer work was pretty good but on the whole the song just felt a bit too derivative.
Does the opening synthesizer on “all or nothing” remind anyone else of a Megaman OST or is it just me? This song goes hard with the harsh vocals early on, in English too which I thought was interesting. Again they didn’t seem as high pitched as in the past which is hopefully a choice thing and not because Yuna has completely blown out the top end of her vocal range. Speaking of vocals, the clean stuff on this song is actually pretty darn catchy which if you know me then you know that’s something that scores a lot of points. There’s also a couple of nice guitar parts towards the end of the song which kind of acted as the other bookend to what was otherwise a fairly middling instrumental.
Next we take “ONE STEP BEYOND”, which is also one of the songs being used to promote this album to plebs like you and I. I’ll be honest, that opening instrumental isn’t exactly the most innovative thing in the world but it’s okay. We get a little bit of rapping and harsh vocals here and there but this one mainly features clean vocals that are once again fairly catchy I must admit. I guess it makes sense to go this route for a song being used to promote your album to a more casual audience. You want to ease them into the madness after all. One pretty cool highlight of the song is definitely the part where they used some of the vocals as a pseudo-synthesizer. That’s definitely not something you hear every day.
You know what, I was wrong about there not being any new things that PassCode could do with their style of music. I mean, to my ears “Scarlet Night” sounds pretty different to what we’ve heard up until this point. I’m also pretty sure most if not all of this song is sung in English so there’s that too. I don’t know how good the English is, but it’s a thing. This one is definitely a lot more Rock orientated than we’re used to, granted the synthesizers and vocoder are still very much in effect throughout. I almost wish I could hear what it sounds like without the vocoder though. The section with the harsh vocals also seemed a little out of place but on the whole this one is really good.
We take another trip down memory lane with our next song. “TRACE” originally featured on PassCode’s first major single “MISS UNLIMITED”. I also wrote a more in-depth review of that single which you can once again check out if you have the time. The short of it is that this is your garden variety PassCode song but it’s a pretty darn good PassCode song. Well, I’m still not sure about that effect they used about a minute in. It still sounds like my headphones are dying but whatever I guess. This one is also a lot less synth heavy than most recent PassCode efforts, so if you haven’t exactly been feeling all of that stuff then this is a good reminder that it wasn’t always like this. Great song, more like this please.
The second half of the album leads off with “Same to you”, which is kind of interesting for a number of reasons. I guess the main one would be how the song flows. There’s a lot of very intense moments throughout the song but they’re mirrored with a number of mellow sections to create a pretty neat contrast. I’m not sure if it’s just me but I also felt like there was a bit more focus on the guitars here, or maybe I’m just starting to tune out the wall of synth noise. On the whole, this one does play out more like a ballad I guess, although I’m sure there’s people who would disagree with that analysis. A decent album track.
We’re back to previously released material for the next track. “Catharsis” featured as a b-side on the “bite the bullet” single which once again I wrote a much more in-depth review of that you can read by clicking here. This was an interesting song at the time because it was pretty tame by PassCode standards. There was one instance of harsh vocals on the whole song I believe and it was pretty much right at the end. If you want to talk about ballads then this song is very much one of those. You definitely have to say that it’s different, especially coming from PassCode. If you’re a fan of them because of their heavier stuff though, then you probably didn’t enjoy this one that much. I thought it was pretty good though.
“rise in revolt” starts out with a pretty mellow instrumental, which had me thinking we might have another lighter song on our hands. That thought was momentary though, with Yuna delivering what might be her most guttural vocal performance thus far. I mean seriously, some of the harsh vocals on this track are just filthy. The clean vocals are alright I guess, for me I think a lot of it was just vocoded to way too high of a pitch. Maybe they were trying to really contrast between the two styles but there was a few times when I just couldn’t even make out what was being sung. The star of the show here is obviously Yuna’s vocal performance so if the song was constructed to showcase that then that’s fine. Otherwise, there’s a few things I would have done differently.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I see a song title like “insanity” there’s a certain set of expectations that come along with it. I expect some kind of crazy high tempo instrumental maybe and probably vocals that are so all over the place and wacky that you can barely make them out. What I didn’t expect to get was some chugging guitar chords and thick bass lines. Maybe coming close to doing a normal Rock song is insanity for PassCode. I say coming close because of course there’s still a bit of rapping and vocoder going on in there but compared to a lot of their songs, this one is pretty…normal. I honestly wouldn’t mind if they started doing more songs in this kind of style. Some of the vocals were quite catchy too.
“ZENITH”‘s penultimate track is another previously released song. “MISS UNLIMITED” was, as previously mentioned, PassCode’s first major single and also as previously mentioned you can go and read my full review of said single by clicking right here. I thought this song was a bit weird at the time because it had this sort of Chiptune thing going on which wasn’t something I had ever really associated with PassCode. Apart from that though, their new record label didn’t really seem to rock the boat too much which was a little surprising. I did kind of feel like the song was missing a hook though but it was still solid enough without one. I also think everything should have a hook or two so maybe I’m not the best judge.
“Voice” closes the show with what is easily the biggest ballad on the whole album. There’s a modest amount of relatively unaltered vocals on this song but of course it wouldn’t be a PassCode song with out some vocoder…I guess. The synthesizer part at the start of the song was very enjoyable to me and there was some pretty interesting guitar work too. On the vocal side of things, there was some good performances from what I could make out although it’s not really the most exciting song to listen to. It definitely provided a very interesting conclusion to the album though. Not something I’d listen to often but a pretty decent song.
Trying to sum up my thoughts on this album is proving to be a little difficult. So on the one hand, PassCode definitely did some new things, and they were pretty cool so that’s great in my book. On the other hand, a lot of the synths sounded really generic and in some cases got in the way of more interesting things like vocals or guitar parts. Speaking of vocals, man can we turn the vocoder down from an 11 to like maybe a 7 or something? Maybe I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t mind hearing these girls actually sing regularly for a change.
On the whole, “ZENITH” is pretty middle of the road for me. There’s a few fun songs in there for sure, but a lot of the time I found myself picking out parts of songs that I enjoyed instead of enjoying the song as a complete package. I think part of it is the feeling of having heard a lot of the synth melodies before, and I’m not really sure what PassCode can do to make me feel differently about that given their current trajectory. That’s just my view, I’m sure plenty of people are going to absolutely love this album.