June 22, 2010 - Fueled By Ramen
Being a female-fronted act in the contemporary punk/emo scene means that, without fail, your band will be compared to Paramore. (It doesn't hurt that VersaEmerge are labelmates with the Fueled By Ramen king-and-queenpins.) So let's get it out of the way up front: VersaEmerge don't sound like Paramore, and VE frontwoman Sierra Kusterbeck doesn't sound like Hayley Williams. These aren't the droids you're looking for. Move along.
Now, to the matter at hand: VersaEmerge's hotly anticipated full-length debut,Fixed At Zero. The Florida-based band--now whittled down to the trio of Kusterbeck, guitarist Blake Harnage and bassist Devin Ingelido--have taken what worked the best on 2009's self-titled EP and spun it out into a complex 11-song album that is loaded with ornate instrumentation but still decidedly rock in nature. Virtually every track features electronic flourishes, tasteful acoustic guitar parts or soaring string sections. It's rare to describe a band who spend their summers getting grimy on Warped Tour as "grandiose," but VersaEmerge are trying their best to earn that tag.
Fixed At Zero delivers from the get-go with the singsongy opener "Figure It Out," the hard-driving "Mind Reader" and the midtempo title track (probably the best individual song VE have written, with an intense, string-driven instrumental bridge). Producer/co-writer Dave Bassett (who has also worked with the Maine, Mayday Parade and the Spill Canvas) more than earns his paycheck here, making each song sound distinctive and not letting Kusterbeck's admittedly impressive voice overpower the rest of the surprisingly intricate and layered music.
The band aren't afraid to pull back, either; "You'll Never Know" reels it in for the piano-assisted verses before amping up the energy on the chorus, but it never gets too big for its britches. Even more importantly, Kusterbeck isn't concerned about being VE's sole voice; "Fire (Aim Your Arrows High)" opens with Harnage on breathy lead vocals before the band cranks it up and he turns the reins over to the frontwoman for the chorus. The vocal trade-off goes back and forth for the rest of the song and adds a nice dynamic that, unfortunately, isn't found on any other Fixed At Zero track (save an extremely quick appearance from Harnage on "Your Own Love").
"Lost Tree" is a perfect summation of Fixed At Zero; the seven-minute closing track begins soft and acoustic before exploding into an extended coda where Kusterbeck weaves in bits of lyrics from the rest of the album's songs (a similar technique was employed in 2005 on Somerset's "House Of Knives"). The immense power of this song helps wipe the slate clean of some of the album's more sterile moments (discounting what we said in the first paragraph, "Your Own Love" sounds a bit too close to Paramore for comfort; and "Up There" gets a bit too dreamy and lost in its own clouds) and preps the listener for another spin through the Wonderland this group of Mad Hatters have created.