It’s the beginning of a new chapter for a lot of artists and this summer’s setlist is going to be a spectacular one. With his fourth studio album, Nick Miller (professionally known as Illenium) embarks on a new chapter of his career with his recent release “Fallen Embers”. I have been a longstanding fan of Illenium as he remains my all-time favourite electronic dance music (EDM) artist and producer. What places Illenium apart from that of other EDM producers is the surprisingly emotional aspect of his music. Although his music can follow the clichés of EDM, his compositions showcase a more raw and passionate expression that is a little darker and more dynamic in style.
His previous album “Ascend” was revolutionary in its format and delivery, each song transitioning flawlessly into one another so that it was no longer an album but an experience. I love an album that has intros, interludes, preludes, epilogues etc., and as our digitised days continue to progress, we no longer feel obliged to hear a whole album from cover to cover. This, however, insists that a listener goes through the release track by track thus enhancing the way we listen to new music. It’s a brilliant format for an immersive involvement that connects you deeper to the artist, and this is something that Illenium executes impeccably.
Furtherly, while “Fallen Embers” does not explicitly contain the ‘intro’ and ‘outro’ structure, there is still something about this album that makes it one of Illenium’s best to date. Following on from “Ashes”, “Awake” and “Ascend”, this next chapter of the phoenix is one of healing – a common theme amongst the industry given the pandemic. Originally a trilogy, the albums preceded to symbolise the rise, growth and rebirth in the phoenix’s (Miller’s) journey. The glorious phoenix that stands in for the ‘N’ in Illenium is there as a symbol of Miller’s addiction in which he has risen from the ashes, awoken and ascended. By then releasing his newest album on July 16th, Miller has symbolised the restorative powers that the phoenix possesses in what creates this new phase of “Fallen Embers”.
First up on the track list is “Blame Myself” featuring Grammy-winning singer Tori Kelly. Illenium wastes no time accessing our emotions as he kicks off with a gentle guitar and power piano chords. Kelly’s voice fits seamlessly with the instrumentation underneath as she sings lyrics such as “Lie to me, it would help. Just lie to me, say you found someone else, so I don’t blame myself.” Written by Emily Warren, the tune shares a level of vulnerability about the painful ending of a relationship and the drop blends everything that Illenium is about and what I love most about his records. It’s quite a good competitor to “Reverie” which was released in 2016 and is a great start to the album.
Leading on from that is “Heavenly Side” featuring Matt Maeson that opts for whimsical keys, vibrant percussion, and melancholic riffs. I thought that Maeson was a good pick for this track, the instrumentation adding perfect texture to his vocals. The song is much more progressive as the entire first half is much softer, the climax not until the last chorus. When the drop does come, it’s a heavy guitar that furtherly emphasises the percussion in creating a more thundering sound. When referring to the lyrics like “You can let go if you want/ ‘Cause I’ll love you all the same”, Illenium expressed how ‘they are just so clever and honest and I love it”. Clearly this track is loved by Illenium listeners it was the last to be promoted prior to the release of “Fallen Embers”, yet it still has over five million global streams.
Next up is “Fragments” featuring Natalie Taylor and this is one of the most interesting productions Illenium has created. Originally, I thought this song was going to be a reinvention of his song “Fractures” that was featured on the “Awake” album, instead I was taken further back. The song itself features a rather heart-warming synth that reminded me of the “Ashes” album. The nostalgia’s intensity is a definite plus to the song’s magnetism. Very melodically driven, Natalie Taylor brings in relevant lyrics like “Our world stopped before we could figure it out/ Left it all undone and now I’m wonderin’ how…Now I’m wishing we’d never met/ But I would do it over again.”
Following on is, “Sideways” featuring DJ Nurko and singer Valerie Broussard, this track in my top three favourites of the album. I’m already quite familiar with Nurko, his remix of Halsey’s “Without You” also featuring Illenium something I must recommend. You just know that when these two come together, it’s going to be an amazing track. With “Sideways” the drop might be the most captivating breaks created and the trance sounds gifted from Nurko makes it the hardest hitting track on the album. The anticipation is on point, and you can literally feel the build of the chorus. You just know this song is festival ready. My favourite type of drop is those that feature changes in the second chorus by removing every other instrument except for one singular trill of synth before it drops again. It’s just euphoric and I can’t wait to see what this track is like live.
As for “First Time” featuring American rapper, Iann Dior, this song is the most radio-ready. It almost ditches the traditional dance techniques, replacing it with authentic band instruments. This leads to a more rock-oriented tone that blends with Dior’s rasped vocals, thus making it a punk-rock vibe with a hip-hop style beat. This narrative is more spirited as the lyrics delve into the love at first sight trope – “I don’t know your name, but I recognise your energy.” With an intense guitar shred to conclude, it smooths over perfectly for indie artist Sasha Sloan to pick up with track six, “U & Me”. I already have most of Sloan’s music downloaded into my library, so I was excited about this track. Thankfully, this was possibly the coolest sounding track of the compilation as it included a few vocal chops that allow the smooth verses to build for the drop. The lyrics depict two people trying to find their place together in the world and is a feel-good experience that makes you want to drive down the highway with the windows down and take on the world.
Then comes “Nightlight” written by and featuring Annika Wells, this one of the most popular tracks with over 150 million global streams. This is one of the most thundering tracks despite the opening lullaby-esque synth that makes the song literally feels like your own nightlight. The drop is led by an electric guitar that is unforgettable and successfully hypes you for the final drop when you hear it build in the pre-chorus. This song perfectly showcases what Illenium is all about as he is one of the few EDM artists who manages to rebuild the anticipation about three times over. Once the first drop is over, he’s able to then bring it back down and rise it again. It’s such a rollercoaster of adrenaline and emotion and is exactly what gets you high on his music. Not a lot of artists can nail one good drop, let alone rehash it twice over with the same effect. I can personally say that every track Illenium has done with Annika Wells, this his third collab, has been sensational and always lives up to expectations.
Next is the faultless follow up “Hearts on Fire”, another of my favourite tracks that features Canadian artists, Dabin and Lights. The focal point of this song is the acoustic guitar that Dabin plays while Lights vocals combine effortlessly to give the song its power. As for the drop, I would not be able to do it justice, especially the final descent that drags out a note that makes you feel weightless for a moment – I genuinely got goosebumps. You just know that this track will have an entire crowd chanting in unison. Similarly, “Lay It Down” was a highly anticipated track as it featured Slander and sister duo Krewella who are prominent names in EDM. For those familiar with this artist, listeners will most likely recognise the Krewella vibe with the extra twill of notes over the loud synth. The lyricism and the vocal adlibs and chops are what makes the song another distinguishable collaboration.
However, “Losing Patience” remains an anomaly to the tracklist. Teaming up with American rapper and singer, Nothing, Nowhere, this song brings out a new side to Illenium with a drop that’s different to his previous works. Nevertheless, the chemistry between artists shines and Nothing, Nowhere’s voice evokes nothing but raw emotion with a sombre mindset. With punk-rock instrumentation, like “First Time”, and the electronic synth, lyrics like “Losing patience, I’ve been waiting for something to stop all this pain” give listeners quite the emotive feeling.
Nonetheless, HALIENE too delivers a deeply emotional performance in collaboration with Excision and Illenium in “In My Mind”. As the longest track on the album, the tune takes unexpected twists and turns with subtle violin instrumentals and crushing bass. Showcasing the sound of Illenium in the first drop, the sweet aggression of Excision comes in during that second drop, the song a spectacular representation of yin and yang – two producers with juxtaposing sounds that just fit well together.
Then, with “Paper Thin”, I hadn’t looked at the collaboration for this one close enough but the second the vocals joined the guitar I asked myself ‘is this Blink 182?’ – it was indeed former member Tom DeLonge, now lead vocalist and guitarist of rock band Angels & Airwaves. As another unique creation that showcases Illenium’s shift in style, the song focuses on the vocal chops with power synths, the music video the best depiction of the meaning behind “Fallen Embers”. Furtherly, keeping up the pattern of collaborations with rock artists, “Crazy Times” collabs with Rock Mafia. While the instrumentation is slighter barer with few piano chords and a lack of anticipation, the song is the perfect prelude to the conclusion. Saying “it’s so hard to find peace of mind in these crazy times”, this song is one that everyone can relate to. With lead singer James’s unmatched falsetto combined with the magic of an Illenium and SAID THE SKY drop, this is a good way to start the closure of this chapter – because is it really an Illenium album without a SAID THE SKY collab?
Finally, the phrase “save the best for last” will be applied here as Illenium leaves the most moving song till the end. Written by Illenium and singer Emma Grace, “Brave Soul” has no-frills and is driven entirely by Grace’s distinct alto voice. The story here is an agonising one of loss, Grace writing this as a tribute to her brother who lost his life to addiction – “here’s to your brave soul. You fought but you lost hold.” This track was written as a way to heal from this loss, but you can quite literally feel that pain and honestly no words can describe the aching beauty of this track. It deserves to be listened to with undivided attention, especially as the first and last drop comes in. I believed the “Angel” and “Lonely” conclusion in “Ascend” could never be beaten yet his song is pretty much on par.
Overall, to use the world ‘album’ seems misleading as this compilation was yet another immersive experience for the Illenium listeners. It offers moments of happiness and healing by also diving into intense subject matters. It explores all aspects of the spectrum and best highlights the emotions that make us human – emotions we sometimes might not make enough room for. I find a lot of EDM artists are overlooked when it comes to this aspect of their music and don’t receive the recognition they deserve in mainstream media when in comparison to more popular singers. Often a stamp of recognition is gifted to those who vocalise tracks, but the sound is just as important as the voice. Those behind the sound are what give a track its grounding and a synth can hit just as hard as a human voice can. In conclusion, just from Illenium’s parts alone listeners can hear the transition into the next phase of his life, and it’s captured in the most beautiful way imagined. It’s entirely hypnotising, and while “Ascend” still remains one of my all-time favourite albums, “Fallen Embers” is Illenium’s best project to date.