Cane Hill‘s debut album Smile opens with a bang. An explosion of anger in the form of MGGDA, or “My good god damn America”. It’s a blatant ‘screw you’ to the vapid American Dream ideal. Whilst it’s passionate, it’s not as fast and frenzied as previous Cane Hill music. This continues throughout the album – make no mistake, this is a heavy and technical release, but it’s a far more melodic offering than anything the band have given us before.
Moving into the premiere single (The New) Jesus, it’s familiar ground. The creepy, doll-like vocal intro is unsettling and a dichotomy to Elijah Witt’s growling vocals. A paced drum beat keeps the track rolling like a freight train, with the vocals chanting along to match. It’s a headbanger with some indulgent guitar riffs. The nu-metal influences that have always been present in Cane Hill are still here, but it feels like the band are holding back slightly. There’s an tangible tension throughout the album that the music is about to spill over into the breakdown of the century, but it never quite happens. Smile is full of competent tracks, but when you’re listening to songs like True Love and St. Veronica, a bit more drive would set them apart a great deal.
Smile comprises many songs of a similar structure. Beginning with a muted vocal section before cresting into a mini breakdown, with this similar pattern occuring a few times within the songs, a short scream kicking off another instrumental section.
Cream Pie is a heavy, heavy song. A rocking bass-line stomps along with the drums whilst Witt growls and screams his way through his lines. Another common commodity on Smile is muted, almost whispered vocals. The vocals are also quite low within the album mix, and are often lost alongside heavy instrumental sections. Nevertheless, Cream Pie is a pleasing song verging on beatdown hardcore in some places. Some seemingly sexual noises to close the song build the disturbing atmosphere permeating the album. Cane Hill aren’t out to produce a happy album, and they don’t want you to be comfortable on your ride through Smile.
You’re So Wonderful is an odd change of pace for Cane Hill, the closest thing to a ballad they’ve ever written. It’s an adulation set against the pain of the protagonist, burning in the perfection of his paramour. Ugly Idol Mannequin continues the skewed sexual theme running through Smile. The album, whilst cryptic, seems to critique modern sexualization. Screwtape is a song Cane Hill first released on their self-titled EP in 2015, and it’s a faster track in the style of that release, though the unnerving, nigh-psychotic vocals fit right in on Smile. It’s as much a pleasure now as it was then, and fits flawlessly into this album.
Expecting Cane Hill to go out with a bang? Wrong. Smile is out to upset your preconceptions of the average metal album. Unfortunately, it misses the mark because of that mentality, in this case. Sometimes the tried and tested formula works for a reason. Album closer Strange Candy is a slow waltz to the finish, and it feels weak by comparison to other highlights of the album. It’s hard to see what Cane Hill are trying to achieve with this song, aside from a few neat guitar riffs. It’s not displeasing, but definitely a misplacement within the tracklist.
In all, Smile is an album that has a lot of potential, but needed more force to really excel. There are some exceptional songs on the album, such as (The New) Jesus and Cream Pie; but it’s not the heavy, angry record that the intro track MGGDA would lead you to believe. An admirable that Cane Hill haven’t simply tried to recreate the excellence of their debut EP, but they would have done better to retain more of the energy captured in that release.