MISSIO – EP Review: “Skeletons: Part III”

In case it hasn’t been apparent to frequent readers of this blog, I’m a massive fan of MISSIO. On the strength of their phenomenal music catalog, as well as their honesty and openness with their fans and followers, in the space of a few years the Austin, Texas based duo have earned a place among my favorite music acts of all time. With the combined talents of singer-songwriter and producer Matthew Brue and songwriter/producer and instrumentalist David Butler, their edgy, thoroughly original sound is an eclectic mix of gritty alternative electronic rock, hip hop and dreamy emo vibes. Then there’s Matthew’s beautiful vocals that register in the higher octaves just below a falsetto, giving them a distinctive sound unlike any other singer, and making their music instantly identifiable as only MISSIO’s.

They exploded onto the music scene in 2017 with their outstanding debut album Loner, featuring the great singles “Middle Fingers”, “Bottom of the Deep Blue Sea” and “Everybody Gets High”. They quickly followed with two EPs, Skeletons: Part I and Skeletons: Part II, both featuring stripped-down, more meditative versions of tracks from Loner, plus a few new songs. In April 2019, they released their magnificent second album The Darker the Weather // The Better the Man, which I called a masterpiece and the best album of 2019 in my review. The album includes my favorite MISSIO song “I See You” (which I also named my #1 song of 2019), as well as “Rad Drugz”, “Temple Priest” and “Underground”. Since then, the duo have continued to put out a tremendous amount of new music. In March 2020, they released a beautiful and cinematic mostly instrumental soundtrack album for their documentary film Love Me Whole, a collaboration with videographer Jeff Ray about their struggles of what it means to be artists in America. That October, they followed with their brilliant fourth album Can You Feel The Sun. The gorgeous title track spent several weeks atop my Weekly Top 30 earlier this year.

On April 23, they returned with Skeletons: Part III, the third in their series of stripped-down versions of previously released tracks. Only this time, they decided to give them a more classical feel through the addition of strings and other orchestral instrumental touches. The guys explained their approach on their social media: “It’s been a dream of ours to be able to create music alongside a real string quartet, and we finally had the chance on this project. These re-imagined versions of our songs speak a bit more direct to the soul. It won’t be as good as sex however, with the right headphones/speakers it will get you close.”

Well, I have to say they’re absolutely right, because Skeletons: Part III is a 15-minute-long eargasm. Listening to its five tracks is an immersive experience, transporting you to a dreamy faraway place through breathtaking atmospheric soundscapes. Four of the tracks are from Can You Feel The Sun, along with one new track “Do You Realize??” The guys produced and arranged these re-imagined versions with the assistance of composer/arranger Fiona Brice, and with lush strings performed by the Tosca String Quartet. I love classical music and luxurious orchestral arrangements, so it’s no surprise that I’d love this EP. The tracks were mixed by their long-time collaborator Dwight Baker, and flawlessly mastered by Dave McNair.

They also produced stunning, artful videos for each of the tracks with footage filmed in and around Joshua Tree National Park, which is located about an hour from where I live in the Coachella Valley, in the Southern California desert. With its starkly beautiful landscapes and spiritual aura, Joshua Tree has long been a popular location for shooting music videos.

Vagabond (Stripped)” is probably the most-changed of the four re-imagined tracks from its original version, which features a hard-driving dubstep beat, grungy and distorted industrial synths, and verses sung by rapper Esoteric of the hip hop group Czarface. The stripped-down version is darkly beautiful and contemplative, with eerie, echoed synths coupled with mournful strings, strummed guitar, and exquisite keyboards that gradually soar to a dramatic crescendo. Matthew’s strongly emotive vocals keep pace with the intensity of the music as he sings the lyrics that were inspired by David and his wife Amanda’s relationship, specifically, his feeling like he’d disappointed her by failing to live up to his promises due to the excessive time he spent touring with MISSIO, which kept him away from her: “I once made you a simple promise, that I would share my dreams with you. Maybe this all became a big mess when everything I dreamed came true. Hurting people, hurt people, it’s hard to understand. There’s a million ways to fix us, screaming like a broken man. Vagabond, is that what you want? I’m a vagabond, is that what you want?

The second track “Losing My Mind (Stripped)” shaves a minute off the original, which features a bold, beat-driven melody and dramatic otherworldly synths. The new stripped-down version is more atmospheric and dreamy, with lovely plucked guitar notes and strings. Yet it still retains some of the dark overtones of the original, this time beautifully expressed through cinematic synth bass and melancholy piano keys. The spare lyrics speak from the viewpoint of someone losing their grip on reality, thinking back on happier times: “On dreary days, I like to think about the joy that I had as a young and reckless kid. On dreary days, I used to drown it out. A sociopath ’cause I had nothing left to give.” Matthew’s vocals in the chorus are electronically altered to the point where they sound like horns, making the lyrics barely recognizable: “I’m losing, I’m losing, I’m losing my mind. I’m fighting, I’m fighting, I’m fighting for more time.”

My favorite track on the EP is “Roman Empire (Stripped)“, both for its stunning arrangement and biting lyrics. The somber piano and strings are utterly captivating, accompanied by throbbing ethereal synths, all of which create a hauntingly beautiful soundscape. The lyrics are a scathing denunciation of powerful corporate interests and corrupt government leaders with authoritarian tendencies (Trump administration anyone?), equating them with the ill-fated Roman Empire: “You’re building cities on the backs of all the people working hard to build a home with memories. This moral ground you think you own is frankly dangerous when you’re ripping kids away from what they need. Roman Empire is what you are, Roman Empire is who you are. You’re an empire, Darkest of empires, The Roman Empire.” Two thirds of the way into the song, the music and mood turn more introspective, with Matthew questioning God’s existence: “What if God’s not real and everything we are is just a moment here where we’re only growing older? What if God is real and everything I’ve done pushed me down this path, and it’s only growing colder?

I adore the original album version of “Can You Feel The Sun“, with its lush and bold sweeping orchestration, but the stripped down version is equally beautiful. The gorgeous instrumentals are highlighted by strummed acoustic guitar, warm piano keys and blissful strings, all melding together to produce a thoroughly enchanting backdrop for Matthew’s sublime ethereal vocals. I realize I’m overusing the words ‘gorgeous’, ‘stunning’ and ‘beautiful’, but damn it, they bear repeating for every track! The introspective lyrics speak to reassessing one’s prejudices and shortcomings, and trying to be more open-minded and accepting: “Below the willow tree is where I hide the darkest parts of me. They’re hiding underneath the broken lies that I just still believe. Below the willow tree is where I sit and hate on my enemies. I drown ’em in my dreams, I think it’s me who needs some humility.”

The fifth track “Do You Realize??” is a stripped-down reworking of the beloved original by American psychedelic rock band The Flaming Lips, using only four verses from the beginning of the song. But truth be told, it doesn’t really feel stripped at all, as it builds to a cinematic orchestral crescendo in the middle, before calming down to only a somber piano note as the song fades out. In his breathy vocals, Matthew softly asks seemingly simple questions that are actually filled with deep meaning: “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face? Do you realize we’re floating in space? Do you realize that happiness makes you cry? Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?

What more can I add, except to say that Skeletons: Part III is a bewitching little slice of sonic heaven. I love MISSIO, and hope at least some of my readers will love and appreciate their music even half as much as I do.

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Stream their music on Spotify / Soundcloud / Apple Music
Purchase on  Amazon

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