The band name The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die has two big proclamations in it, and they both rang true in the band’s desperately scrappy yet vital early releases. With each subsequent one, though, those statements seem to be becoming harder to believe as absolute truths. That comes to a head on the band’s latest, Illusory Walls, an album recorded in the fiery crucible that was 2020 on the planet Earth.
The pandemic meant that, for the first time, the famously tight collective had to write and record separately. This allowed them to spend weeks, months even, adding more sounds and melodies – including string arrangements and a lot more guitars – to their already-dense sound. And, combined with the horrors of last year, it all adds up to make Illusory Walls by far TWIABP’s most emphatic and vicious album to date. Illusory Walls may be a title borrowed from the video game Dark Souls, but it has a very real connotation: that of the invisible barriers that block people in everyday life, whether that be related to finance, race, gender or otherwise – TWIABP attack them all here.
It’s therefore not surprising that Illusory Walls doesn’t get off to the most optimistic of beginnings. On the opener, the band subvert their name to create “Afraid To Die”; a song that depicts cowering families finding a nest in which they’ll spend the rest of their cold days. Yet, despite the hopelessness of the words, the rise toward a string-filled finale suggests there is hope still burning in their hearts.
It’s this flicker of human belief amidst oppressive forces that TWIABP have long harnessed, but on Illusory Walls the world is even more pernicious – which just means they have to fight it even more fiercely. This is evidenced in second track “Queen Sophie For President”, which finds Katie Dvorak channeling her frustrations into a deadly bite, furnished with one of the band’s most aerodynamic and melodious tracks to date – but one that still barrels with the force of a freight train.
Illusory Walls also finds main lyricist and vocalist David Bello entering different mindsets to really get under the skin of the unthinkable acts that occur on a day to day basis in the modern world. Twin tracks “Blank // Drone” and “Blank // Worker” slow down the album’s furious pace, but it only means more space for his tales of woe from the heart of a low-income worker. “Blank // Drone” functions as a hymn from an anonymous worker in an enormous hive, wondering “How the hell will we survive with $100 give or take?” as elegiac strings rise to emphasise the direness of the situation. “Blank // Worker” is similarly pious, but this time the wishes are projected towards pharmaceuticals, with the protagonists asking the impossible question of whether to bankrupt themselves to pay for treatment that might save their mother.
Of course, there are also straight-up protest songs, with TWIABP aiming at everything that capitalism breeds – and their newly rugged, metal-adjacent sound makes the words cut even deeper. “Invading the World of the Guilty as a Spirit of Vengeance” is a screed against consumerist culture (“I crave more luxury disposables, a beautiful gym to have a heart attack in”) and “Trouble” takes us curb-side as the homeless protagonist ruminates on the city’s promises of cleaning up the streets.
However, it’s album centrepoint “Died In The Prison of the Holy Office” where the fire of dissatisfaction blazes brightest. Across seven minutes, the song ruminates on the protagonist’s decade of discontent and all their failed methods to try to reclaim some vestige of positivity (nihilism, drugs, the church). What makes “Died In The Prison…” even more piercing is its sonic construction, as it finds the band starting in muted mire, building steadily in volume and freneticism until they reach a point of pure combustion – guitars loping over thunderous drumming while Bello’s voice reaches a peak of desperation. After a brief recession to catch their breath, TWIABP come thundering back – this time accompanied by a drizzle of cinemtaic strings that could soundtrack the end times – as Bello repeats “Away with god, away with love / Our hands are tied and stepped on.” It’s by far the most grandiose thing they’ve ever done.
That is, until we reach the final two tracks of Illusory Walls, “Infinite Josh” and “Fewer Afraid”, which, in combination, add up to half of the album’s 70 minutes. While both epics still contain a significant amount of angst, they are not as angry or outward-lashing as the first half of the record – instead they look to humanity’s soul for peace and hope.
David Bello’s past and future is the subject of “Infinite Josh”, and it finds TWIABP dialling back the guitar scorching and bringing their melodic elements to the fore in a sparkling song that’s tinged with nostalgia. Here, Bello looks back on his former aspirations and accepts “You can’t go home again / Our dreams get drowned in a river of present needs,” as he ponders his uncle’s dementia and accepts that his fate may be the same. Combatting the despair, TWIABP take his mortal fear and enshroud it in a blanket of warm instrumentation. As the guitars and strings ascend in the grandiose latter half, it feels like he’s gazing into the stars, accepting that life is unstoppable and that you have to make the most of now.
The crumbling conclusion to “Infinite Josh” gives way to “Fewer Afraid”. The 20-minute album closer is a summation of everything TWIABP have achieved in their career, with plenty of call-backs – both melodic and lyrical – arranged into a grandiose sweep. Even though Bello returns to several more shocking reflections of modern existence – violence, exhaustion, depression, racism, and so much more – the overall message and tone of “Fewer Afraid” is one of unity. TWIABP look beyond the horror and reinforce their amazement at humankind’s strength and ability to just keep going.
To cap the 20-minute deluge, and round out Illusory Walls, they deliver their rebuttal to my opening remarks about their band name. “The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way / Whenever you find home, we’ll make it more than just a shelter,” they sing in unison. “If everyone belongs there, it will hold us all together. If you’re afraid to die, then so am I.”
It’s a perfect way to underline an album so overloaded with emotion and sheer sonic weight that you sometimes wonder how they manage to keep it chugging so frictionlessly. But the answer is right there: they hold themselves together through shared understanding and trust. As such, Illusory Walls is a definitive document of the power of their combined ability and belief.