It’s 1am in the UK, but for those who can resist the pull of slumber, time is irrelevant when it comes to kicking off a new era of Twenty One Pilots. Today has been ‘Scaled and Icy’ release day, and given we’ve been waiting weeks to celebrate with Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun – albeit from afar – we wouldn’t miss this one off opportunity for all the sleep in the world.
After three hours of pure nostalgia in the form of pre-show archive footage that has taken us on a journey from the band’s origins in Ohio to headlining festivals worldwide, fans have been suitably primed for the emotions that are sure to come flooding in with this live stream – the first glimpse of a live performance Twenty One Pilots have played since late 2019. And what a comeback it will be.
Unlike many that have come before, this live stream is fully immersive to the point where you often forget it’s taking place at an arena in Columbus, Ohio, and that it hasn’t been pre-recorded, feeling more like a real time music video instead. From the get go, it encapsulates front man Tyler Joseph’s perfectionist personality and it’s evident that what we’re watching is a result of more than six months’ worth of planning and the involvement of nearly 70 performers, techs, stage hands, and camera people.
Where other bands have struggled with these online events due to a lack of an audience to bounce off, Joseph and his drummer counterpart, Josh Dun, haven’t made the mistake of trying to emulate a normal gig environment and it works completely in their favour. Instead, the show is made up of a handful of different sets, some rigid in their design such as the intricately designed Mulberry Street, with others – such as the stage with backing screen – being more fluid and lending themselves well to different moods and themes as required.
Our first introduction to this is when the show kicks off with the fictional ’70s talk show, Good Day Dema, a fierce nod to the ‘Trench’ narrative from 2018 but with a heavy focus on the fake nature of overt saturation that exists within the ‘Scaled and Icy’ world. This skit sees Joseph sitting on a couch between two overly jolly hosts as they ask tired questions to an increasingly bored Joseph who launches into the new album’s second single, ‘Choker’, removing himself from the situation and finding himself performing on a rainbow set that most fans will recognise from the new album’s promo shots.
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This isn’t the last we see of the talk show hosts, however, as they interrupt the show a handful of times in infomercial style ad breaks that allow for Joseph and Dun to change outfits and move sets. Each time one of these ad breaks occur, the hosts appear more beaten up and dishevelled, further hammering home that all is not what it seems in this oversaturated world and that something darker is at play. What exactly that something is, we’re never explicitly told.
While this underlying story is perfectly interwoven, you don’t need to understand the band’s back story to enjoy this show – you just have to love the music. The transitions between scenes and songs are seamless, the cameras working in perfect harmony with the different sets to create an entire world that acts as an escape for the hour in which it exists. For those who have delved a little deeper, however, there are easter eggs aplenty, as well as smart and sneaky inclusions that tie all of the worlds together.
While the nine bishops don’t come into the Twenty One Pilots narrative until ‘Trench’, in this world, they make an appearance on the stage set during ‘Blurryface’s’ ‘Stressed Out’, and similarly, later on in the show when the band performs ‘Jumpsuit’ followed by ‘Heavydirtysoul’, the burning car that featured heavily during ‘Trench’ remains a central feature of the set, connecting ‘Blurryface’ to ‘Trench’ in a way that perhaps we’ve never considered before. It’s a narrative that now continues into ‘Scaled and Icy’, the title itself being an anagram for ‘Clancy is dead’ – Clancy being a character from the ‘Trench’ era. This stream is entertaining, sure, but it’s bloody intelligent too.
In fact, this live stream experience is phenomenal for so many reasons – the professionalism, the easter eggs (my personal favourite coming in the form of ‘Rosie’s Lounge’ on the makeshift Mulberry Street), the technical delivery… the list goes on – but never more so than when you once again take a moment to appreciate that nothing about Twenty One Pilots’ performance is affected by the lack of an audience. For a band whose entire show is usually hugely interactive, this is a great achievement that they pull it off simply by not trying to replicate the moments that make their live shows so special, instead tweaking them to suit the unique circumstances.
The band’s performance of ‘Lane Boy’ is one example, wherein the segment of the song that would usually see the crowd ‘stay low’ before jumping up in unison, losing their minds in the process is omitted (and in fact, most older songs are cut in a similar way to allow for a more eclectic set list). This way, nothing feels as though it’s missing and the nostalgia that might otherwise creep in, making you regret the lack of live music, is kept at bay. Other performances see this distinct lack of an audience tackled head on, as with the medley of 2013’s ‘Migraine’ and ‘Holding Onto You’ and 2018’s ‘Morph’. It’s here where the band uses the backing screen to show immersive footage of an excitable crowd – complete with sound – inciting the exact nostalgia trip they’ve previously avoided and yet managing to do so in a way that will only make you smile. Whichever direction they take, it’s executed with professionalism and perfection, making you more than glad you spent the £16-something for the privilege.
While being able to experience the new ‘Scaled and Icy’ songs for the first time has certainly been one of the main draws to embark on this experience with the band, it’s actually their unexpected approach to their older music that stands out the most. Not only have they restructured many of these tracks to make them fit within the time constraints, but Joseph has reworked some of them entirely, giving fans something new to take away from songs that feel like home.
Most notably is the stunning scene that sees everything stripped back until it’s just Joseph, a rowing boat titled OH (for the band’s home state, Ohio), and a starry sky. Here, Joseph sits with his signature ukulele to play the softest, most intimate version of ‘Heathens’ we’ve ever heard before smoothly transitioning into ‘Trees’ – a special fan favourite from ‘Vessel’, and a song that historically closed out every Twenty One Pilots show. These are both songs that are usually heavily reliant on crowd interaction, and yet despite their now stripped back nature, they still feel as powerful as ever – maybe even more so. At this point if there aren’t tears, there will certainly be goosebumps.
That said, nothing beats seeing your new favourite songs come to life for the very first time, and during this late night stream we’re treated to performances of half the ‘Scaled and Icy’ track list, each as impressive as the last. Whether it’s the wintery dinner scene that accompanies ‘Shy Away’ (during which Joseph and Dun are dressed suitably for Hogwarts’ Yule Ball), the extravagently presented ‘The Outside’ that sees a fully choreographed dance take place on Mulberry Street ahead of a cameo appearance from Dun’s wife, Debby, the undeniably fun ‘Saturday’ where Jenna Joseph sits on the other end of the phone line to a bath robed Tyler, or the politically charged ‘Never Take It’ complete with another cryptic appearance by the burning ‘Trench’ car… There is a lot to unpack here and while it would have been preferable to experience these songs for the first time in a sweaty pit surrounding by the Clique, this is a pretty damn great second best.
The choreography is worth discussing in its own right, as not only have Twenty One Pilots rarely invited others on stage with them before, but Joseph’s idea of dance moves have always started an ended with a death drop and a leap off his piano. Today, however, we see him engage with other dancers in fully choreographed numbers, as well as a full band joining them in this theatrical endeavour where before Joseph and Dun have been left to command the stage alone. The extended band members themselves sometimes act as easter eggs, as the boiler suit uniforms are printed with one of Joseph’s tattoo designs that has been said to represent an egg timer to signify time running out. We’ll let you overthink that one another time.
After a delightful yet somewhat unexpected performance of the band’s lockdown tune, ‘Level of Concern’, and another throwback in the form of ‘Ride’, ‘Car Radio’, the event is brought full circle with a reprise of ‘Choker’ as Joseph returns to the talk show studio to a now completely battered and bruised host duo. While the band have stayed in character throughout, as the cameras pan out to show the different sets and a host of crew members, Joseph and Dun can be seen standing side by side with their arms around each other, grinning. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to attend a Twenty One Pilots show before, you know that usually this is where Joseph tells the crowd, “We’re Twenty One Pilots and so are you”, and while there’s no crowd necessarily to say that to, we still know it to be true.