Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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Level 2.0: Armageddon

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Artist: Level 2.0 (@)
Title: Armageddon
Format: CD
Label: Nilaihah Records (@)
Rated: *****
Level 2.0 are a Long Island, New York EBM/electro-industrial band consisting of Mike Hoffman (vocals) and Matt Clennan (synth/programming). They've been around for about five years, released a couple of full albums and an EP, all of which I haven't heard. I would assume their latest, 'Armageddon,' is their best since it was strong enough for Nilaihah to release. I find myself feeling really ambivalent about this album. On the one hand, the programming is solid, the songs are mostly pretty good and the vocals are intelligible, which is often a rarity in this type of music. On the other hand, there seemed to be something lacking that I couldn't put my finger on at first but became clearer the more I listened to 'Armageddon'. To begin with, Hoffman isn't that strong of a vocalist; for the most part, the quality of his voice just doesn't seem to measure up to the drama and power of the material overall. There are moments, but I'm not hearing enough of them.

The most noticeable evidence of this is on the choruses. Hoffman's snakey voice works fine for the verses, but is not enough to push the payoff of the choruses on a number of the songs. This is something that could have been solved in production. Let me use another band in comparison ' Front Line Assembly. Bill Leeb has never been known as an outstanding vocalist, yet the vocals always manage to have certain strength to them. When it comes to the choruses of FLA's music, the vocals are like a wall of sound; they punch through in a dramatic way that rockets the track into the stratosphere. (And Front Line Assembly is a band where the vocals support the programming, and not visa versa.). That is largely production technique, multitracking, some harmonizing and effects. It could have been done here by Level 2.0, but if it was, it wasn't enough. The consequence of this is that on tracks with potentially strong hooks like 'Rising,' 'Invincible,' 'Closer,' and 'Darkness' there is a lack of presence and power that doesn't effectively sell the songs. One exception is the title track, 'Armageddon'. The tasteful addition of vocoder helps make this the strongest track on the album. Still, I think it could have been more.

As for the electronic and rhythm programming, Matt Clennan provides a solid and serviceable, although not particularly innovative skillset for this type of music. 'Armageddon' still posseses a fair amount of power and drama in the music as well as aggressive beats; club-potential abounds throughout many of the tracks. One misstep though is on 'Stolen Kiss,' a downtempo number where Hoffman is vocally emoting his heart out and the mood is sabotaged by a 4-on-the-floor beat and rigidly programmed hat rhythm that gives the song sound a plodding tap-dance feel. On the plus side, dialogue samples (you know how I loathe them generally) are mostly kept to a minimum throughout, even subdued in places.

The first 7 tracks were mastered by Ted Phelps of Imperative Reaction, and the other 5 by Nemesys Music and Jason Barbero, and it shows. Ted's mastering generally sounds stronger. Actually, by the time I get to the 8th track, I am already ear-weary. It just isn't compelling enough, or as compelling as it could be.

The way I see it, 'Armageddon' is an album that is ripe for remixing. There is lots that could be done with it ' beef up the choruses; add more vocals; change up the beats and insert industrial loops, beatbeats, and other interesting percussive elements; replace some of the standard synth sounds with a more adventurous sound palette; and totally replace that rhythm track in 'Stolen Kiss' with something more free and less obtrusive to allow it to breathe and give it the atmosphere it really needs to come alive. This wouldn't be a case of remixing just to streamline the songs and make them more dance-addictive (as so often happens on remix projects); it would be a matter of turbo-charging what is a good album and making it a GREAT album. I believe Level 2.0 have a lot of potential, but it is not fully realized on 'Armageddon'.


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