Sound — 6
Taking form right before the turn of the millennium, Ill Niño would step into the music scene right as the nu-metal subgenre started to hit its stride in the early noughties. Though that subgenre was already occupied with brand names like Disturbed, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Mushroomhead, as well as being flooded with a plethora of one-hit wonders, Ill Niño would separate themselves from the pack by incorporating strong Latin music influences into their sound, coining the inclusive sub-sub-genre, Latin metal. Even when the tides were essentially turning against the band after they parted ways with Roadrunner Records (about the same time that nu-metal was starting to wane from its trendy status), Ill Niño would persevere, and after releasing their fourth album on the independent, Cement Shoes Records, they would end up getting a new lease on life by signing with Victory Records. Having already released two albums with the label since 2010, Ill Niño have now released their third album under Victory, and seventh album overall, "Till Death, La Familia."
In the previous album, "Epidemia," Ill Niño tried to harness a heavier sound in order to meet the standards set by the current trend of metalcore, though this investment was halfhearted, and by the second half of the album, Ill Niño had gone back to regular Ill Niño - this wishy-washiness was what earned the album generally lukewarm reception. In "Till Death, La Familia," however, Ill Niño have found a mix between the metalcore-inspired verses and friendlier alt-metal choruses that they're comfortable with. Though with the moments of sufficient heaviness in the album, from the breakdowns in "Are We So Innocent" and "World So Cold" to the brooding and brutal penultimate track, "Payaso," the album also has numerous moments: like the bubblegum metal moments in "Live Like There's No Tomorrow" and "My Bullet," the b-side blandness of "I'm Not the Enemy" and "Breaking the Rules," and the synth-rich "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," which doesn't show enough progression and intrigue to make it worth the almost-six-minutes it occupies on the album.
Along with the further investment in metalcore heaviness, Ill Niño put forth more sound elements in "Till Death, La Familia." There are the electronic elements, where synths play substantial roles in "Live Like There's No Tomorrow," "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," "Not Alive in My Nightmare," and "Dead Friends," which, while not being trailblazing or impressive, it's nonetheless a new element used by the band. More notably, though, is that Ill Niño bring back the joy of a guitar solo, which hasn't been heard by the band in quite some time, in "Are We So Innocent," "Pray I Don't Find You," "World So Cold," and most impressively in "Not Alive In My Nightmare," which helps invigorate the compositional integrity of Ill Niño the seventh time around. And of course, you'll find a whopping amount of Latin hand drums in the album, even protruding into a nuisance in "Dead Friends," but at this point, it seems Ill Niño are throwing them into nearly every track, not because it fits, but because as Ill Niño, they're obligated to, regardless of how stale they are.
Lyrics — 5
At the mark of Ill Niño's new record deal with Victory, frontman Christian Machado has added heavier substance in his lyrics - from the multiple cases of religious criticism in "Dead New World" to the even more religiously-centric "Epidemia," Machado is showing himself raising that bar. However, with "Till Death, La Familia," Machado regresses back to padding songs with formulaic statements of baseless bravado, from the hyper-aggro "Payaso," "Pray I Don't Find You," "World So Cold" and "Breaking the Rules," to the bumber-sticker-motivation song "Live Like There's No Tomorrow" - though he does take a couple sentimental breathers in "My Bullet" and "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," which also contains the most substantial usage of Spanish lyrics on the album, but the concept doesn't ring very distinct overall. "Are We So Innocent" also indulges in a brazenly confrontational demeanor, but also shows Machado being piercingly self-aware about the hate Ill Niño has received over the years and being unrepentant in the wake of it, and even takes a moment to feed into the racial slurs addressed at him.
The topic of societal racism is the realest issue Machado takes aim at in "Till Death, La Familia," an issue that seems perfect for Ill Niño to tackle. This resonates the strongest in "I'm Not the Enemy," where Machado articulates the reality of authorities discriminating against minorities, following in a similar vein as when classic hip-hop would address this type of systemic racism in order to bring it to light. But in the other cases where he lightly brushes on the issue by commenting on being personally undermined by racial slurs in "Not Alive in My Nightmare" ("I'm not just any f--king spic") and "Are We So Innocent" ("I'm just another outcast, wetback/piece of sh-t from way back"), it comes off more like a basic bone to pick rather than a principled stance against racism - if Machado chose to unfold the issue in a more focused and significant way, "Till Death, La Familia" could have wielded strong poignancy. In the words of a bona fide politically-outspoken frontman, Zack de la Rocha, "anger is a gift," but it also requires direction in order to be productive, and Machado doesn't show enough direction.
Overall Impression — 6
To get the glass-half-empty take out of the way first, "Till Death, La Familia" isn't going to win any awards or top any "Best of 2014" lists. In the world of metal today, the compositions displayed on the album place somewhere in the vast between of the remarkably good and remarkably bad. On the other hand, "Till Death, La Familia" is proof that Ill Niño still have some fight in them. Although still fulfilling the niche that they had since their beginning (which at this point, is tired), this album shows Ill Niño adapting to the heaviness wars and also reinvesting in other aspects that they haven't in the past few albums, such as the synth usage and re-establishing their art of the guitar solo. It may not win over people that have already signed off on the notion that, like any and all nu-metal, Ill Niño is played out, but "Till Death, La Familia" is an uptick in the band's discography.