When discussing and evaluating music, it’s nearly impossible to do so without holding to rigid definitions of “genre.” “Rock and Roll” inspires certain expectations, traditions that mold the thoughts we have about challenging new music. Enter Highly Suspect, a band whose third album, MCID, was released on Nov. 1. (MCID is said to stand for ‘My Crew Is Dope,’ a term of affinity used by the band to describe its close core of friends and supporters).
In a number of ways, this album exists as an affront to what most people might consider a “rock album,” and yet the band scored a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Modern Rock charts with “16,” a song that doesn’t feature any guitars.
Think about that for a minute. A song from a “rock band” with no guitars hits No. 1, something that hasn’t been done in decades according to a news release. The song, a deeply personal tale rife with angst and emotion from vocalist Johnny Stevens, is a head trip to experience:
Running parallel to a devastating experience Stevens had earlier in his life, the song and video portray his shock upon finding out — in the most dramatic way possible — that the baby his girlfriend was having was not, in fact, his.
“16” captures the essence of MCID in a few minutes, as throughout the album Stevens expresses some intense emotions, running the gamut from grief, regret and anger and learning a lot about himself in the process. There’s also charged political commentary, of course, delivered with as much emotion and energy as the self-reflective missives.
That song isn’t classifiable under what we like to call “the rules” of music. It’s fresh, and takes a lot of risks for a band that’s been nominated for three Grammy Awards in rock categories in the past.
MCID is an intense listening experience, carried out in unique fashion by Highly Suspect — as in addition to eschewing guitars on “16,” feature collaborations with rappers Young Thug and Tee Grizzley, as well as French metal band Gojira, in a genre-defying mix of eclectic voices and personalities that make the record vastly different from any you’ll hear at the moment.
There’s a short clip currently playing on the Octane channel of SiriusXM in which Stevens discusses the inspiration of “featuring” Gojira on a track. He notes that you commonly see this sort of thing on hip-hop records, but not so much rock albums — so he and the band specifically sought this arrangement out in order to try something new and push back a bit against the “rules” of the genre.
“@tddybear,” featuring Conor Mason of Nothing But Thieves, tackles addiction and the desire to help somebody who won’t accept it in one of the album’s most affecting tracks:
Naturally, some Highly Suspect fans have taken issue with the band adopting such a different overall approach for this album. And that makes sense — the group has been known for a dirty, bluesy rock-tinged alt/indie feel earlier in its career.
“Hello My Name is Human,” a prog-oriented song off 2016’s The Boy Who Died Wolf, was up for Best Rock Song at the Grammy Awards, after all.
That almost doesn’t sound like the same band that put MCID together — and that’s by design, of course. Stevens and the rest of the band clearly set out to do something fresh, and try new approaches that blur the lines between genres and expectations and challenge what it means to be a “rock band” in 2019,
Safe to say they’ve succeeded, thus far, especially given the chart success of “19” and the album’s reception. It’s definitely one of the most intriguing albums of the year, despite inevitably raising some eyebrows from the music community.
Isn’t that what being a band trying to say something with your music is all about, anyway?