By Greg Maki
I don’t know why or how, but somehow Ice Nine Kills had eluded me for years. Certainly, I had heard the name and saw it growing in prominence over time. I took note of the horror influences and thought to myself, “That looks fun. Maybe I should check it out.” Surprisingly, the band never showed up on any tours or festivals I attended, and pre-COVID, I went to a lot of shows and festivals. (Apparently, I picked the wrong years to go to the Warped Tour.) To borrow a line from one of this year’s hit singles, maybe Ice Nine Kills was just “a little too scene for me.”
Everything changed in late 2020, when for the first time I became the owner of a vehicle equipped with SiriusXM radio, started listening to Octane and heard “IT is the End,” INK’s devilishly fun ode to Georgie and Pennywise from Stephen King’s “It.” Then, finally, I took the initiative to dive into the band’s discography, starting with 2018’s “The Silver Scream” and gradually working my way back to the beginning, a place that hardly even resembles where we are now.
The origins of one of 2021’s hottest metal bands go back to the early 2000s, when high school friends Spencer Charnas and Jeremy Schwartz put together a band and named it after a Kurt Vonnegut reference. The band’s self-released 2006 debut, “Last Chance to Make Amends,” is very much an early Warped Tour kind of a record, with heavy pop-punk and emo influences and the kind of thin, nasally vocals that tend to dominate that style of music. It does, however, offer hints of what was to come in the heavier rhythms and screams that punctuate “Last Words,” the piano-driven “Chapter Two” and the “American Psycho” reference of “Murders and Acquisitions.” Mostly, though, the album stays within the narrow pop-punk confines, and had I, a metalhead, heard it at the time, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
About a year and a half later, now signed to Red Blue Records, INK returned with the EP “The Burning,” which displays a tremendous amount of growth for such a short period of time. Kicking off with “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which remains a fan favorite to this day, the recording comes with a heavier sound accented by a much more intense vocal attack. Pop-punk remnants are present, but overall the EP hews closer to the metalcore stylings the band would embrace more and more over the years. While the debut feels like the product of a different band and a relic from another era, “The Burning” is recognizably Ice Nine Kills—a young, raw version of Ice Nine Kills, but it’s not a stretch to imagine one of these songs finding its way into a current set list. (Somewhat curiously, the EP ends with a new version of “Last Words,” the first song from “Last Chance to Make Amends.”)
The next INK full-length didn’t arrive until 2010, preceded by the departure of co-founder Jeremy Schwartz, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist, already leaving Charnas as the band’s only original member. “Safe Is Just a Shadow” fully moves INK into metalcore, with the hardcore portion of that equation arguably represented more here than at any other point in the band’s discography. At the same time, keyboards are starting to feature more in the mix, adding a more dynamic nature to the songs. This is easily INK’s best sounding album and strongest collection of songs to this point, but there is one notable flaw to my ears. Vocalist Dave Sieling, in his only INK recording appearance, adds a high-pitched tone that feels a little like the band not wanting to completely let go of its pop-punk/emo origins—something that would be rectified in the future; more on that in a bit.
Just as it did with its first album, INK followed “Safe Is Just a Shadow” with an EP. “The Predator” (2013), however, serves as a direct preamble to LP number three, with two of its songs showing up again on the next record. The five-song recording continues in the heavier, metalcore vein, and with Sieling no longer on board—Charnas shares lead vocals with guitarist Justin “JD” DeBlieck—this feels like the real beginning of the Ice Nine Kills we know today. “What I Never Learned in Study Hall” (featuring now former Issues vocalist Tyler Carter) is the last entry in the “Study Hall” series of songs, and while it’s plugged in, as opposed to the earlier acoustic songs, it feels like a goodbye to the previous era of the band. A rocked-up cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You” closes the EP. INK has recorded quite a few covers over the years, though normally as one-offs or for compilation albums, and we always can count on the band for a unique take on the songs it chooses to tackle.
“The Predator” works effectively as an appetizer for INK’s third full-length, “The Predator Becomes the Prey,” released about a year later in January 2014 via Fearless Records (INK’s label home to this day). With the band fully settled into and committed to its heavier direction at this point, it feels like Charnas and the rest are more comfortable being themselves, allowing their love of macabre imagery and dark humor to come through in songs such as “Let’s Bury the Hatchet … in Your Head” and “The Fastest Way to a Girl’s Heart Is Through Her Ribcage.” DeBlieck also asserts himself more as a lead player, adding another dynamic to some of the songs. It’s no surprise that in recent years, the band hasn’t gone further back than this album when compiling set lists for live shows. The two aforementioned songs and the very hardcore-leaning “Connect the Cuts” in particular stand up well to the best of the band’s output throughout its career.
Rather than an EP, INK went straight to its fourth LP for its next release, 2015’s “Every Trick in the Book,” an excellent album in its own right and perhaps even more notable for planting the seeds of the direction the band would follow in the years to come. The origins of the name Ice Nine Kills suggest Charnas and/or Schwartz are well-read individuals, and this record, with each of its 10 songs based on a different piece of literature confirms it. Inspiration comes from a wide range of sources, including George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (“The Nature of the Beast”), Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (“Star-Crossed Enemies”) and Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” (“The People in the Attic”). And, oh yeah, horror. The standout tracks here draw from some of the genre’s best known works—William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” (“Communion of the Cursed”), Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (“Bloodbath & Beyond”), Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“Me, Myself & Hide”) and Stephen King’s “Carrie” (“Hell in the Hallways”). A newfound theatricality, complete with orchestration, makes everything more dynamic and dramatic, separating the band from a crowded metalcore scene. Not to discount any of its previous work, but this is where everything fell into place and the INK identity, as we know it today, was born.
Before continuing forward, however, INK turned its sights backward, releasing a new version of its second album, titled “Safe Is Just a Shadow (Re-Shadowed & Re-Recorded),” in 2017. With better production and Sieling no longer on board to share vocal responsibilities, it virtually renders the original version inessential in the INK catalog.
This brings us to 2018 and the record that changed everything for Ice Nine Kills, “The Silver Scream.” As title implies, the band draws inspiration from movies this time around, with each song based on a different horror—or horror adjacent, in a couple cases—movie, including all-time classics “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (“The American Nightmare”), “Friday the 13th” (“Thank God It’s Friday”), “Halloween” (“Stabbing in the Dark”), “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (“Savages”) and “Jaws” (“Rocking the Boat”), as well as more recent offerings such as “Saw” (“The Jig Is Up”) and “It” (“IT is the End”). The songwriting across the 13 tracks here is nothing short of transcendent, mixing brutal heaviness, soaring melodic choruses, keyboards and orchestration, and razor sharp musicianship. Each song perfectly fits the mood of its inspiration and takes the listener on a real journey. There isn’t a second of filler here; the band’s love for and desire to do justice to each of these movies shines through. This album is an absolute classic.
“The Silver Scream (The Final Cut)”—adding a song based on “Scream” (“Your Number’s Up”), a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and acoustic versions of songs from the original album—followed a year later, and the band continued to ride the record into the pandemic, releasing the EP “Undead & Unplugged: Live from the Overlook Hotel” in June 2020 and the live album “I Heard They Kill Live” in October 2020. The concert recording accompanied the band’s streaming event, appropriately titled “The Silver Stream.”
Following this breakthrough success would seem to be a tall order, but with four songs now released from “The Silver Scream 2: Welcome to Horrorwood,” due Oct. 15, 2021, Ice Nine Kills appears to be more than up to the challenge. The band has found its niche and is running with it. The fan base, which seems to be growing by the day, is eating it all up with a hunger I haven’t seen in a long time. And I’m right there with them.
RATINGS (out of 10):
“Last Chance to Make Amends” (2006) – 5.5
“The Burning” (2007) – 7
“Safe Is Just a Shadow” (2010) – 7
“The Predator” (2013) – 8
“The Predator Becomes the Prey” (2014) – 8
“Every Trick in the Book” (2015) – 8.5
“Safe Is Just a Shadow (Re-Shadowed & Re-Recorded)” (2017) – 7.5
“The Silver Scream” (2018) – 10