13 years ago, a small band from Texas may or may not have released a record.

That may seem like an uselessly vague statement about something we should be able to logically prove, but few things in the twisting history of legendary metalcore septet Design The Skyline (including all of the last six words in this sentence) are clear, consistent, or definite. From an outsider’s perspective, Design The Skyline came seemingly out of nowhere on one of metalcore’s predominant labels, blew up on YouTube with a song that still fuels “worst song ever” reaction content 13 years after its release, dropped an album that reviewed middlingly, and disappeared a mere half year after they emerged. In the midst of it all, they announced an album - fittingly entitled Synthetic Cities - that would come to define their legacy despite it being unclear that it even came out.

You can’t tell the story of Synthetic Cities without first telling the story of Galactical Celebration, a 5 track demo uploaded to MySpace in 2007 by Corpus Christi, Texas-based mathcore quintet Extra Large Kids. Formed earlier that same year by a bunch of high school kids (as was common for hardcore bands at the time), ELK immediately started playing local gigs and soon got into the studio to record 5 tracks of See You Next Tuesday-esque chuggy whitebelt mathcore.

Despite having been made by a bunch of kids who had been playing music together for a matter of months at point of recording, Galactical Celebration is a fairly impressive piece of work. Across its twelve-and-a-half-minute runtime, ELK explores relatively little ground for a band working in as eclectic a genre as they were, and I doubt that anyone would call their sound particularly original; however, the musicianship and writing is well above what you’d expect for new musicians. Songs all follow the same general formula and primarily oscillate between spindly tapping sections and clean cut MySpace-era breakdowns with quirky sass grooves acting as connective tissue when necessary. The only real differentiating element between these songs is their one obligatory Minor Quirky Detail; “Fox In A Box” closes with a very primitive attempt at some kind of vaguely cloudy hip hop while penultimate track “Swirly Time” does functionally the same thing with what can generously be described as a feedback loop. Actual closer “Ghastly Panic” makes a bold play at distinguishing itself from the pack by putting its basic electronic element at the beginning and delving into full on sassy dance-punk at one point, but the true standout is track 2 occupant “Ugly Ugly Dinosaur Eats You.” Both the longest and most ambitious track of the demo, this track replicates most of the same basic language of the other cuts (albeit moderately more compellingly) before dropping into a landscape of twinkling guitar arpeggios, outlining an atmospheric element that would be revisited throughout the band’s career and giving the song a welcome new dimension that makes its final breakdown all the more devastating.

While Galactical Celebration is an admirable and genuinely enjoyable piece of work and gave the band a decent amount of buzz within the already highly-saturated MySpace Hardcore landscape, Extra Large Kids had grander ambitions both artistically and commercially. What began as a quartet soon swelled to a septet (two guitars, two vocalists, drums, bass, and synthesizers) and, come 2010, the band took a hiatus from live performance and dedicated themselves entirely to writing music for a full-length album. Accompanying this decision was a new name, chosen somewhat randomly but still symbolic of their desire to forge their own path: Design The Skyline.

The landscape of hardcore had changed a lot by this point; janky mathcore laced with chaotic sass eclecticism had given way to highly produced mathcore laced with chaotic genremash-y eclecticism (a la iwrestledabearonce, later cited by touring bassist-turned-full-timer Ricky Bravo as one of the band’s more notable influences) and the synth revolution that had fired its opening salvos around the time of the band’s forming had fully taken over the web-centric end of the scene. It was in this environment that DTS hired a local video production company and shot a low budget video for a little song they had recorded called “Surrounded By Silence”.

The thing about “Surrounded By Silence” is that the things that made it so influential to a legion of young musicians are the very same things that make it still one of the most infamous videos to come out of the era where seemingly every other day there was some new “hardcore cringe” clip circulating social media. Yes, it is a disjointed mess of tenuously connected breakdowns, autotune-drenched melodic segments, and skronky mathcore anti-riffing; someone who loves the songs could very well describe it the same exact way someone who hates it would. It is, beyond anything you can say about it, unbelievably janky, so much so that it’s easy to miss how intentional it can be. 

It’s very tempting to leverage accusations that the musicianship is “sloppy” and the writing is random, and while there is certainly a mild lack of polish in the production and performance (you have to remember that this is a demo recording), this is also a band that came out of an era and style where being chaotic was not only a feature but part of the basic musical ethos. If you actually break down the structure of the song, it doesn’t look that weird: atmospheric intro, verse, heavy turnaround, chorus, breakdown, skronky bridge, extended deathcore chug outro, bosh. Even the angularity of the riffing and juxtaposition of radically different textures, while jarring, is only marginally different from what you would find in an earlier Between The Buried And Me album. It’s hard not to imagine that the same music but without the synths and autotune and scene aesthetic would have gone relatively unnoticed.

If you can take it as it is, though, you’ll find a track that is not only ambitious and multifaceted but generally pulls off what it’s trying to do very well. The first thing that usually catches peoples’ ears is the synthwork, one of the new elements that Design The Skyline added in their creative retreat. Where the electronics laced throughout Galactical Celebration were primitive and sparsely used, functioning more as wacky sound effects and transitional filler than meaningful musical content, the synthwork and processed vocals scattered throughout “Surrounded By Silence” form a key part of its musical tapestry, providing a counterpart to the chaotic guitarwork that is both highly melodic and texturally expansive. The contrast between the breakdowns and incoherent guitar warfare and the meditative, downright progressive textures in the more electronics-driven sections is not only core to the song’s pacing but cleverly inverts the imagery of the lyrics. The basic lyrical conceit of nature acting as both a force of grounding beauty and an impenetrable obstacle preventing intimacy in the relationship symbolized by the song’s “mystical forest” parallels the dual roles that artifice and complexity play within the structure of the song; its lushest moments and most stunning vistas, painstakingly layered with synths and octave guitars and vocal harmonies, are ultimately no less artificial than the chugging riffs, panic chords, and blast beats that comprise its heaviest sections, and the final impression it leaves is not one of beauty but of impenetrable brutality.

These subtleties probably weren’t specifically recognized by many at the time of the video’s initial release, but the technicality and individuality on display was enough to impress Matthew Tybor of The Bunny The Bear, who had recently signed with Victory Records and showed the video to someone in management.

Quick aside for younger readers who aren’t up on their scene history: Victory Records were the unofficial stewards of metalcore for the first 20-ish years of its existence, rising to prominence in the early 90s by putting out some of the most influential metalcore records of all time from bands like Integrity, Earth Crisis, All Out War, and Hatebreed. They remained influential in the metalcore sphere throughout the 2000s but have long been known for their scummy business practices and for taking advantage of young bands, including Design The Skyline.

One thing led to another and Design The Skyline were signed to Victory in May 2011, just a couple months after the release of the “Surrounded By Silence” video. In addition to the signing, Design The Skyline announced that they were working on an album (Synthetic Cities) for release later that year. The backlash to a band that looked and sounded like that signing to a label as prestigious as Victory came pretty much immediately and is largely what led to “Surrounded By Silence” video becoming as infamous as it is. What happened next is unclear; at some point, Synthetic Cities was either released as a CD-only EP, outright abandoned, or quietly reworked into a brand new album. Information on what actually happened is both scarce and conflicting; you can find records of it on Spirit of Metal and Metal Music Archives as well as reviews from around the time that claim it released as a 5 track EP by Victory Records that April (a month before the band’s signing was even announced), taking 3 tracks from Galactical Celebration and augmenting it with two new tracks, including “Surrounded By Silence”. A later YouTube upload goes so far as to say there was even a version which added the other two songs from Galactical Celebration as bonus tracks, which seems to be the most common version you can find online these days. Wikipedia disagrees with all these parties, claiming that Synthetic Cities was thrown out entirely and restarted with the intention of creating something more “mature”, but provides no source actually backing these claims up.

The most likely scenario is probably that DTS were caught off guard by just how heavily criticized “Surrounded By Silence” was and decided to majorly rework the material they had in the oven at that point: the name of the album was eventually changed, any new material we’re aware of post-Galactical Celebration was thrown out, and Synthetic Cities emerged as a bootleg at some point in late 2011 to early 2012 compiling already-released material. The unfortunate reality is that the album that was released by Victory, late 2011’s Nevaeh, isn’t much to write home about. The problem is less that the band suddenly lost their skill as performers and songwriters - Nevaeh is a very competent and pleasant record and a decent listen all around - and more that they clearly didn’t know where to go as artists or how to make their sound palatable to a wider audience. The band was cagey about their influences in interviews; in a late 2011 interview with ShockYa, they field a question on that front about as generically as possible, stating they “have a very wide range of musical influences” and that it “varies through each band member.” 

The reason for the hesitancy is clear when one actually listens to the album: across 10 tracks, it jumps aggressively between various obvious imitations of contemporary sounds. “Cybernetic Strawflower” most resembles their older work with its sassy mathcore riffing and Locust-esque synthwork, while “Crystal Swords Kill the Hordes” reinterprets the “lush electronics meet heavy chugging” concept of “Surrounded By Silence” in a much more straightforward and much less interesting way. Lead single and album standout “Break Free From Your Life” is transparent Enter Shikari worship, while “Destroyer” and “Witch of the Woods” semi-sleepwalk through competent but forgettable attempts at an As Blood Runs Black melo-deathcore sound. Throw in some proggy interludes and you’ve pretty much got a full album.

It’s sad because we’ll never really know what Design The Skyline’s debut full-length would have sounded like if they hadn’t become the punching bag of hardcore. It’s entirely possible that Victory wanted them to reign in the idiosyncrasies and Nevaeh would have been just as bland and derivative no matter what, but it’s impossible to know. In the end, Nevaeh and Synthetic Cities ended up being the only real documents of the band’s sound for many years. Galactical Celebration became a rarity for many years before finally being reissued by Wax Vessel in 2021, while DTS splintered into various projects that failed to get off the ground. The band dropped one more single in 2013, abandoning the heavier elements of their sound altogether for a proto-arenacore alt-djent sound, and then broke up. The various members started other projects - vocalist Dani Doom moved on to djenty deathcore outfit Lucid Haven and released a few EPs but seemingly hasn’t done anything musical since 2017, while guitarist-turned-vocalist Matt Ryan and bassists-turned-guitarists Ethan White and Dean Ramirez started The Starlight Season, a band which resembled DTS’s sound a little more closely but never released anything more than singles and similarly has been dormant since 2019 - and DTS while eventually reformed in 2015, their sound was closer to Lucid Haven and their second full-length, Rebirth, has yet to materialize, with the last single from it having been released in 2018.

But while Design The Skyline never found their true potential and released that world-shaking masterpiece those who enjoyed their sound wanted, the brief period they were around still yielded some unbelievably memorable music. The last track on the purported original version of Synthetic Cities was a song called “Terror At The Tea Party” that they wrote and uploaded to MySpace after the release of Galactical Celebration. It actually predates “Surrounded By Silence” by upwards of 3 years, but it explores a lot of similar territory, opening with a chaotic mathcore assault and dense breakdown before eventually opening up into a massive buildup. From there, it takes a hard left turn into progressive post-hardcore, parlaying bouncy shuffled octave riffing into a meditative tapping breakdown and then finally collapsing into an enormous outro that melds nintendocore synthwork and monolithic guitars, crashing freely into itself as it builds and builds and builds, waves of emotion cascading into a tsunami of sound that flattens everything in its path. It’s a phenomenal way to close an EP, real or not, and it’s in this moment that DTS most clearly resembles everything that followed in their wake. Every time you hear bands like Blind Equation or Mikau lay their soul bare and create something true and unique despite working with elements some would consider “cheesy”, the endless ambition and individualistic spirit of Design The Skyline shines through. It’s hard to overstate just how much they paved the way for hundreds of hardcore bands to make whatever the hell they want and be sincere about it, even if nobody else likes it, and I hope that somewhere out there they’re happy with what they made, backlash be damned. “Surrounded By Silence” turns 13 this March, which’ll make it old enough to sign up for a MySpace account. When it does, go give it (and the rest of Synthetic Cities for that matter) a proper, loving listen.

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