Illenium closes album trilogy with soaring third studio effort, ‘Ascend’ [LP Review]
When Illenium unearthed his debut album, 2016’s Ashes, it was unbeknownst to him at the time that the 10-track project would become part of a larger album trilogy. Joined by Awake the following year, the full-length efforts perfectly captured the feelings of the self-proclaimed “sadboi” producer during this point in his personal life and early career. Now that the Bay Area-bred, now Denver-based producer (aka Nick Miller) has signed on with Astralwerks, and catapulted himself to the top of the dance music charts, the chapter is finally reaching its endpoint.
Following months of anticipation, Illenium now unleashes his third full-length studio album, ASCEND. Boasting a whopping 17 tracks, the momentous effort represents the culmination of two years of work during a seminal time in Illenium’s career — when he crossed the threshold into electronic music stardom. The album is extremely personal, touching on the joys, the hardships, and the emotional highs and lows of working and living in the big business side of the music industry. Miller says the album came together at his home studio in Denver, Rock Mafia’s studio in Los Angeles, and at the studio at the iconic Capitol Records.
The project experienced instant success right out the gate, claiming a Top Five spots on both of iTunes’ Top Albums Chart and Top Electronic Albums Chart, and the No. 1 spot on their Top Dance Albums Chart. To celebrate the release, Miller even hosted a live album premiere on YouTube last night, where he was able to chat with fans as they listened to ASCEND in its entirety for the first time ever.
Of course, Miller has already dropped off a few tracks from the album in the months leading up to its wide release today. Those tracks, which have given only a glimpse into the wider picture of ASCEND, included “Pray” with Kameron Alexander, “Take You Down,” “Crashing” with Bahari, “Good Things Fall Apart” with Jon Bellion, “Takeaway” with The Chainsmokers and Lennon Stella, and “Blood” with Foy Vance. All highly emotional and highly moveable, the thematic staple linking the six tracks together is finding beauty in dark places.
The theme has been the same since day one for Miller, although his technical style is much more nuanced and evolved today than on his earlier honed works, “Make You Do,” The Pheonix,” and “I’ll Be Your Reason,” to name a few. Showcasing just how far his music has come since first splashing onto the scene in 2014, ASCEND projects Illenium’s immersive vision in widescreen. Not only does it musically traverse levels of electronic, alternative, indie, pop-punk, and dubstep, but it lyrically shares intimate and relatable stories inside of vibrant vignettes. Personal, poetic, and powerful, it represents the uncompromising ascension of an innovator.
This album is also extremely personal, depicting what it’s like growing up and some of the struggles that come along with coming of age in our chaotic world. Illenium opens up about falling in love, heartbreak, feeling helpless and broken, and his battle with heroin addiction. Miller was never intentionally trying to be emo, which is why his “sadboi” music is so thoughtfully honest. He says it’s just what came out. Now Miller is helming a “sadboi” movement in electronic music, alongside Porter Robinson, Said The Sky, and others, that is speaking to a whole audience cluster of people seeking escape from the pressures of life and using their music as a form of catharsis and therapy.
Without further ado, here’s a breakdown of the arrivals on Illenium’s ASCEND, out now on Astralwerks/Universal.
From the album’s launching point, the short intro track is highly cinematic, calling up an ODESZA influence. “I Care” is a beautiful, bittersweet dialogue between a man and a woman. “It’s unavoidable, just happens. When you grow up, your heart dies” she says. He asks, “Who cares? “I care,” she responds.
The 30-second intro leads into “Hold On,” melodic ballad featuring Georgia Ku. The track touches on the apprehension that comes with knowing it’s time to let go of someone, but not wanting to be alone. A song about about mustering up the courage to walk away, Ku’s vibrant vocals are layered over a constant, uplifting beat mixed in with some soft and slow drum snares that eventually pick up and beautifully transition into two arousing drops.
Another emotional, truly heartbreaking track is “That’s Why,” featuring GOLDN. The song touches on the difficulty of using instead of fighting to get clean. Highly personal and highly relatable, it seems what Miller is going for on the track is meeting people where they are, then healing through the music, and eventually inspiring them to change. This track begins slow and acoustic, underscored by emotionally raw lyrics, and then gradually picks up paced around each drop as Illenium fills the space with beautiful synths and immersive textures.
On “All Together,” Oekiin’s calming vocals help send an inspirational message about how people can only truly heal and save themselves. The lyrics are strewn across a beautiful drum line as Miller touches upon the need to look inward rather than outward for healing, especially in the dark and scary places, rather than searching for someone to do it for them. Taken with “Broken,” the songs are meant to speak to anyone who has ever felt broken in their life. Anna Clendening’s vocals flow perfectly over exquisite drum beats and calming constant synths, letting listeners know they aren’t alone.
Coming as a follow-up to “Afterlife” on 2016’s Ashes, Illenium and Echos join heads one again on “Every Piece of Me.” It’s a chilling piano ballad as Echos’ delicate vocals float effortlessly over subtle string arrangements. The track is somber yet uplifting, simple yet profound, and another reminder to the broken souls that the ones extending a hand to help are not the enemy.
“Sad Songs” arrives as the album’s twelfth track. It’s another wonderful follow-up with two of Illenium’d favorite collaborators, Annika Wells and Miller’s best friend, Trevor Christiansen of Said The Sky. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful tracks on the entire album, there’s an inherent chill beat and energy that we hope to see Illenium play more with in the future. Filled with beautiful melodies and dazzling bass drops, which Annika’s vocals flow perfectly over, the song isn’t really “sad” at all as it musters up strong feelings of happiness and euphoria. More so, it’s really a “meta” track about the entire album itself.
After exploring his older sounds and synth arrangements on “Pray” with Kameron Alexander, Illenium juxtaposes that nostalgia with a completely new sound alongside X Ambassadors. “In Your Arms” is a beautiful love song about feeling safe with someone. The captivating lyrics, which border on country-pop, are thrown over a beautiful piano arrangement and catchy snares, sending waves of peaceful and pleasant feelings over the body.
From this point, Illenium ventures into playing with new sounds on ASCEND that we haven’t yet heard from the producer. After playing with a subdued dubstep track with Blanke on “Gorgeous” and a tear-jerking monologue on “Angel (Lonely Prelude),” the album winds down with the Chandler Leighton-assisted track, “Lonely.” An elegant drumline is present beneath Chandler Leighton’s charming lyrics and Illenium builds cinematically over a robust string section that once again calls up ODESZA. It’s a bold move that Illenium has been itching to do since he describes them as a huge influence on his sound design.
The heartwarming and heartbreaking stories Illenium shares through this album are truly unmatched. Vulnerable and honest, Miller has shared a side of himself that he’s never shown before. Although all of his albums are perfectly crafted, ASCEND is the perfect bookend to his album trilogy for how it explores new styles and genres. Miller isn’t afraid to take risks and leaps of faith stylistically. Thematically, it’s the most personal album from Illenium to date. By writing an entire song as a thank you to his fans, sharing some of his most emotional tracks, and sharing a few of his biggest struggles in addition to his heroin addiction, Illenium really pulls back the cover.
Illenium is bringing the new music to life on his biggest headline run yet, The ASCEND Tour, which kicks off September 18 at Stage AE in Pittsburgh and includes a night at New York City’s famed Madison Square Garden, and The Staples Center in Los Angeles on December 7.
Photo Credit: Alexandra Gavillet. Additional words by Ryan Morse.
Lover of all things living and bass that makes ya vibrate.