Billboard review by Chris Payne
On their first new album since the duo’s shocking mainstream takeover, Twenty One Pilots have steadfastly refused to give up their eccentric core tenants.
In the three-plus years since releasing the concept album Blurryface — a deceptively pop-friendly exploration of frontman Tyler Joseph’s personal demons — the Ohio pair sent three tracks to the Billboard Hot 100’s top five and moved more than 1.6 million units of the breakthrough album (according to Nielsen Music). It was enough to make them bankable household names, as befuddled critics and industry gatekeepers finally had to admit these suburban misfits into pop’s commercial elite. They won a Grammy, then stripped to their underwear on the national telecast. Five months later, drummer Josh Dun accepted a trophy at the Alternative Press Music Awards by speaking cryptically about the new fictional universe that would host their then-unannounced Blurryface follow-up.
Arguably 2018’s most widely anticipated rock album, Trench revels in the confounding genre-blurring and cavernous conceptualism that has defined Twenty One Pilots over their nearly decade-long existence. If anything, it’s weirder than its predecessor, and even more self-assured in its pursuit of a cohesive concept, which again centers on Joseph’s inner-turmoil.
On Blurryface, the titular character represented the frontman’s insecurities in writing and performing; on Trench, similar forces of anxiety and depression are manifested in DEMA (a fictional city Dun mentioned in that APMAs speech) and a band of enforcers called Nico & The Nine, whom Joseph, Dun and their allies, the Banditos, are perpetually trying to evade. If that seems like a lot (it is), this new universe was at least detailed in the pair of singles that introduced the Trench cycle back in July. The bizarro reggae of “Nico and the Niners” outlined the adversaries, and the vicious, bass-driven hardcore of “Jumpsuit” explained Joseph’s getaway tactics: special garments that make them invisible to their pursuers. The latter spent three weeks in the Hot 100 and quickly shot to No. 1 on Alternative Songs, flexing Twenty One Pilots’ streaming and alt-radio muscle despite near-impenetrable oddness.
“Jumpsuit” is Trench’s opening track, and Joseph ends it by screaming its chorus amid an air-raid bass breakdown. The album never again approaches such brutality, despite the unusually strong case it makes for Twenty One Pilots-gone-hardcore. Instead, Joseph and Dun re-maneuver familiar Blurryface touchstones — perky reggae textures, ukulele beds, paranoid backpack rap — alongside jarring new developments. The menacing slow-burner “Chlorine” slinks by with menacing, Zaytoven-esque piano twinkle before descending into complete darkness. Back-to-back Side A highlights “Levitate” and “Morph” deploy rapid-fire breakbeats and jarring left turns that recall the Prodigy and DJ Shadow, suggesting what a virtuoso percussionist Dun has become. Electric guitar has little (if any) presence on the album, yet “The Hype” and “Legend,” both jubilant, crowd-ready panoramas, carry a good deal of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in their DNA.
Perhaps that’s why these two are just about the only previously unheard Trench tracks that sound like potential singles (“My Blood,” its most radio-friendly song, recently broke into the Alternative Songs top 10). Joseph’s shrill falsetto does recall a litany of commercial alt-poppers from “Pumped Up Kicks” to “Feel It Still” (and countless also-rans in between), and its frequent appearances occasionally grow grating. It’s awfully difficult to keep an album this sprawling and freewheeling cohesive at the same time, but outstanding sequencing and production continuity meet the challenge over Trench’s 14 tracks. Twenty One Pilots employed a handful of producers on Blurryface, but this time, that cohort is down to Joseph and new collaborator Paul Meany, frontman of intrepid alt-rock veterans Mutemath. Again, there are no features. This is a band that’s defiantly productive when it’s furthest down its own weird wavelength.
It’s no coincidence they’re awfully good at pissing off rock traditionalists too. We’re talking about the sort who prefer their songs siloed off into familiar scenes like punk, metal and alt-folk and are often older than Twenty One Pilots’ legion of streaming generation devotees. But there’s meaning in the madness. Against preposterous odds, Trench is simultaneously ambitious and cohesive and ought to convert some outsiders. As for a repeat pop takeover, it has so far failed to find footing on the Hot 100 and, massive fanbase not withstanding, the crossover door could be closing for now. What’s certain, though, is that the massive fanbase isn’t going anywhere. Trench matches the stakes of Blurryface and all its demon-conquering, genre-blurring catharsis, while raising it one on the sonic universe holding it all together.