Illenium alchemizes inner darkness into light through stunning third studio album, ‘ASCEND’ [Review/Interview]
2019 has been a year of Ascen-sion indeed, for Denver-based DJ/producer, Nick Miller. Not only did he further cement his Phoenix-adorned earmark to the apex of the electronic space, but he also successfully crossed over into mainstream global markets, doing so without surrendering his established aural identity. Miller, more popularly known as Illenium, while still on the up and up in his nascent career, has already sold out venues like Red Rocks Ampitheatre, and will make high-profile stops at hallowed music destinations like Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center ahead of his forthcoming tour in support of his third studio album, ASCEND.
Fans of Miller’s work know to expect a well-strategized creative angle from the producer’s narrative and sonic motifs in order to achieve a polarizing soundscape within his multi-track projects and individual tracks alike. Well-known for helping propel the future-bass and chill-step genres (both intrinsically woven to the fabric of his Ashes LP) to the top of the electronic agenda, Miller has found a way to branch into dance-pop and alternative territories without compromising his sound or straying away wholly from the stylistic or tonal approaches that fans have come to crave from the producer.
ASCEND is a 17-track sonic story that follow Miller’s first and second albums, Ashes (2016) and Awake (2017) respectively. Although the artist will be embarking upon a tour that sees him headlining 20,000-person venues, the album, while accessible, has only faint hints of commercialized approaches, which would have been expected ahead of such a high-stakes tour. That is not to say that the producer doesn’t enlist catchy vocals throughout, but he does so in a way that still lets his production shine through each of the releases as opposed to relying on a solid vocal line to carry each song to its conclusion.
High profile collaborators Miller enlisted for the album include The Chainsmokers, Jon Bellion, X Ambassadors, Bipolar Sunshine, and Said the Sky. He enlists an equally diverse roster of vocalists for the releases including Anna Clendening, Bahari, and Lennon Stella among many others.
Diving into his tour, Miller will be embarking on his largest headlining shows to date. The endeavor serves as the ultimate opportunity for him to showcase his music the way he wants to play it.
“I feel the most free to express myself during my own headline tours because the majority of people who go are already fans of the music and understand it,” Miller tells Dancing Astronaut. “There will be a community of ‘Illenials’ at these shows. It’s different than playing a festival or opening up for another artist where not everyone is a fan or even into the music that much.”
Longtime fans of Miller will recognize more than a few of the songs. Preemptively released singles from the album have become hallowed fixtures in Illenium sets across the board of recent memory, including “Take You Down,” “Crashing” featuring Bahari, “Pray” featuring Kameron Alexander, “Good Things Fall Apart” with Jon Bellion, “Takeaway” with The Chainsmokers featuring Lennon Stella, and “Blood” featuring Foy Vance.
Few artists reach their full album release with a combined 120 million streams on two of the singles from the collection alone, and Miller has already reached this milestone thanks to his joint effort with The Chainsmokers, “Takeaway,” and collaboration with Jon Bellion, “Good Things Fall Apart.” While those two singles will undoubtedly prove the most hungrily streamed singles from the full body of work, there is certainly an entire world to discover past the two breakout hits.
Those taking cues from the album’s ostensibly nihilistic introduction will likely be pleasantly surprised after consuming the length of what ASCEND has to offer. Although the album begins with a 33-second vocal intro, “When you grow up, your heart dies / Who cares?” ASCEND seems to harken the opposite affect, emotive to its very core. Past collaborators, Echos, previously heard on Ashes‘ “Afterlife,” reappear by Illenium’s side for what is likely the most poignant piece of the ASCEND puzzle, “Every Piece Of Me.” ASCEND is ultimately a romantic juxtaposition of dark and light, with the light ultimately prevailing, though packaged with pain, gleaned through Echo’s tracing of a dying relationship that still fills the narrator with feeling.
Illenium’s music doesn’t simply offer dramatic, tempestuous narrative for spectacle; Miller really did ASCEND from a seemingly hopeless state. Miller spoke to Dancing Astronaut about his influences for the album, and more specifically spoke to whether his past or present shapes his music more.
“It’s a combination of the two,” he explains. “A lot of my songs are emotional but also uplifting in a way. I’ve gone through some dark times that definitely influence my music, but it’s paralleled with a hopefulness and beauty that things will get better. That’s why I love the imagery of a Phoenix. It symbolizes rising from the ashes and how even the worst struggles can become opportunities for growth that make you stronger. That was my journey so I end up drawing pretty equally from both my past and present to reflect that.”
X Ambassadors collaboration “In Your Arms” sees Miller bring rock elements, hopeful imagery, and airy electronic production together, laying the framework for the vocals to really stay at the forefront of the release. While this is one of the more commercial-leaning tracks of the album, the whistling drop is bound to provide welcomed momentary respite for listeners within Miller’s live bass-driven performances of the album.
“That’s Why” featuring GOLDN is the quintessential ASCEND release. The track embodies the ethereal bass-laced sound that initially garnered the producer his cult-like following. The smooth guitar strums and tick-of-the-clock samples float delicately into the far-off-vocal-filled drop, making for a song that is subtly punchy and calming all at once.
The unmistakably danceable “Gorgeous,” featuring Bipolar Sunshine, seems to be created as the perfect crescendo piece in Illenium’s explosive live performances, with a glitchy dubstep drop that creeps up on the listener from behind pensive vocals and sweetly melodic chords, landing with authority. Bipolar Sunshine’s highly potent vocals clue the listener in that a heavy crux of the song may be yet to come, but a mellow interludes assuages the tension and leaves the listener at peace.
When asked which single track from the album Miller would choose to embody the entire compilation, should he have to choose, he delineated the voraciously streamed, “Take You Down,” known for its reverberating, almost flute-like vocal chop.
“I would choose ‘Take You Down’ because it’s such a personal track and represents the emotion I try to have in my music. I think it’s a song that people can relate to and identify with, and it’s indicative of what the rest of the album is like.”
Ultimately, ASCEND is an album, riddled with paradox and lyrical depth, that leaves a lot to be anticipated when it comes to the live tour that Miller will be embarking upon this fall. Those who have come to revel in Illenium’s glimmering melodicism and often heart-wrenching motifs doused in momentous bass, as well as those not yet acclimated to the electronic space simply looking for a potent dose of easily digestible dance music, would be remiss not to take in the rich crests and falls of ASCEND.
Photo credit: Rukes