REVIEW BY DYLAN WILLIAMSON
If you’ve heard of VRSTY by now, I imagine they were introduced to you the way they were introduced to me. “They sound like The Weeknd, but heavy.” VRSTY are riding the wave of heavy bands borrowing from genres that dominated the 90s and 2000s charts. I can’t help but compare this movement to the way that pop and electronic music muscled into the scene twenty odd years ago. The bands who first tried this did it awkwardly—the most visceral example in my mind is Brokencyde, who were, at best, divisive during their heyday. VRSTY are part of an emerging shift in the genre looking to hip-hop and R&B influences and moving away from pop. I find this interesting in and of itself. The genres creeping into hardcore are precisely the ones that inspired the now thirty-something scene kids to rebel in the first place.
Deez Nuts have been wildly successful bringing hip-hop into hardcore since the late 2000s, but more recently I’ve found hip-hop influences popping up in acts like DVSR, The Weight Of Silence, Corpse and even Bring Me The Horizon. I’d say VRSTY are in good company. Their new EP Cloud City is their first signed to Spinefarm Records and is accompanied by a well made music video for lead single Shameless. The video clip itself blends the genres that VRSTY are themselves trying to mash together: some scenes are filmed in familiar hardcore territory, an empty warehouse, cut between a lingerie model writhing in a pink-lit hotel room. The question for me is whether VRSTY are the next Brokencyde, or if can they make something greater than the sum of its parts with their genre mashup.
The first hurdle with blending these two wildly distant genres is to do it in a way that doesn’t feel forced or tacked together. When pop was finding its way into hardcore there were some examples that were absolute jarring. Go back and listen to early A Day To Remember, Breathe Carolina and Asking Alexandria. Pop and hardcore are in a much happier marriage now than back then. VRSTY, thankfully, do not come off like an experimental project. I think they do this by staying away from death growls and blast beats, which are now familiar to generic heavy music, preferring to keep to hardcore yells and breakdowns. R&B and hardcore share a lot of similar themes and hearing them layered on top of each other feels natural in VRSTY’s capable hands. It also helps that the production and the vocal performances are fantastic. Cloud City feels like a product that’s been touched by a lot of talented people and I suspect it has.
VRSTY’s target audience is interesting. A huge proportion of the heavy music scene are turned off merely by the presence of clean vocals, but I suspect that VRSTY will keep these die hards happy with their use of recognisable hardcore elements throughout the EP. From the other angle, how many mainstream radio listeners will stick around after stumbling across VRSTY’s china cymbals and screams? The fact that the opening track is the heaviest on the EP suggests that this is not their target audience, but it’s hard not to put myself in the shoes of my normie friends and consider how they’d respond. A common response to hearing heavier music for the first time is “I like the music, but I can’t handle the screaming.” Cloud City is almost exclusively clean vocals and the heavy elements are blended so as to sound familiar to hardened emos like me, but to sound more like a rock backing to the poppier ear. The heaviest sections on the EP are similar enough to superstar acts like Linkin Park that the average pop fan wouldn’t feel turned off by it. In my view, they’ve successfully walked a tightrope that many a band before has fallen from.
I think the secret ingredient is that VRSTY are occupying the crossover area between R&B and hardcore. It’s one thing to scream in an R&B song, and another to have produced electronic verses in a hardcore song, but it’s another thing entirely to find common ground between such wildly different genres. Lead single Shameless has this lyric at the beginning that shows what I mean: “but I can’t take any more / convulsing like a vein on the floor / she says I’m the one / but this isn’t fun / she fooled me once / now she’s coming for blood / bury me”. The themes and the lyrics on this EP would be suited to a generic hardcore record as well as a radio friendly R&B release. VRSTY aren’t just introducing R&B to hardcore, they’re playing in the terrain covered by both genres, which must be the secret to their success with Cloud City. Cloud City isn’t a hardcore record with R&B influences, it’s actually both.
VRSTY have a few major obstacles ahead of them now and I don’t envy them in trying to find solutions. The first is to avoid being compared to acts like Sleeping With Sirens, various Punk Goes Pop albums and other early scene bands who also heavily featured talented clean vocalists. I suspect the answer to this is to lean heavier into their R&B influences to distinguish themselves more, but this comes at the risk of stripping away too much of their heavier sound and alienating one of the less tolerant music scenes. The other will be working out how to evolve their sound at all. By constraining themselves to the area covered by both R&B and hardcore, they’ve made it difficult to innovate in a way that will connect with a listener. Their sound works so well because their R&B and hardcore both sound recognisable and familiar. Necessarily, to evolve either of these sounds will be to introduce something unfamiliar and experimental, This will be tricky to do in a way that’s satisfying to anyone. They might succeed by bringing in hip-hop or pop, but eventually they’ll have to innovate something somewhere.
VRSTY join a growing stable of bands blending hardcore with the genres that defined the charts of the 90s and 2000s. They might be helped by a growing shift in the scene towards finally pulling its head out of its own ass after years of exclusionary, purist sentiment towards change and innovation. Up until recently, metalcore was a laughably stagnant genre, changing almost not at all in two decades. Someone found an old Korn CD while cleaning out their car so we’ve finally seen a bit of innovation in the last few years, but otherwise VRSTY are swimming against the tide to bring R&B to heavy music. I think it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded. There are more than a handful of grown adults, myself included, who have by no means grown out of heavy music but whose partners certainly have: I suspect Cloud City will perform admirably on car rides as a compromise that will keep everyone happy. Cloud City is certainly better than a mere compromise, but this ability to bridge music tastes should see VRSTY’s new EP earn them plenty of new fans.
Will I pick this up on vinyl? Well, so far there’s no vinyl release, but I’m not sure I would. VRSTY have released a banger EP, but it’s not suited to my personal tastes. That said, it’s entirely likely I’ll find a copy among my wife’s collection if it is ever pressed.
What would I add to my playlist? The two singles, Shameless and Massive, but to be honest all the tracks on Cloud City are playlist friendly.
I give Cloud City by VRSTY four stars.