Assemblage 23 is one of the most dependable bands in the dark synth scene. For more than 20 years, this one-man project from artist Tom Shear has been pumping out fantastic albums that meld emotional resonance to electronic soundscapes.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Assemblage 23’s sophomore album and his big breakthrough, Failure. To mark this occasion, Tom has recorded new mixes of every song on Failure and is releasing them as a 20th Anniversary Edition Deluxe CD that includes remixes from the likes of Rotersand, Clan of Xymox, Suicide Commando, and none other than Patrick Codenys of Front 242. It’s out on Friday.
To celebrate the Anniversary Edition of Failure, I’m counting down my favorite Assemblage 23 songs. It would have been easy (and lazy) to just list the ten tracks from Failure, but I made a point to review the entire A23 catalog and consider the full scope of his evolution.
10. Alive (2009)
Fans love Assemblage 23 for Tom’s emotionally charged lyrics and his deep and affecting voice. It has never sounded better than it does on “Alive,” a track from his sixth album, Compass. As his vocals reach the chorus, he shows off some dynamic range: “I never felt… I never felt sooooo alive.” It’s an exquisite, life-affirming moment and one of his most uplifting songs.
9. Purgatory (1999)
Assemblage 23’s debut, Contempt, is an of-its-time album released just as the burgeoning futurepop sound was emerging from electro-industrial—there are even media samples. It’s no surprise then that it sounds a bit dated, though it’s not without its charms. Album highlight “Purgatory” stands out for swirling slabs of synths and poetic lyrics that conjure up feelings of hopelessness and seclusion.
8. Epiphany (2020)
“Epiphany” kicks off Mourn, Assemblage 23’s ninth and most recent album with a bang: “I just can’t take it anymore, this is killing me,” capturing the anguish we all felt living through the events of 2020. It’s a remarkable fusion of Assemblage 23’s frequently explored topics of mental health with the current socio-political climate and proof that Tom can still deliver the emotional anthems we expect from him.
7. Drive (2002)
Assemblage 23 was running at full throttle by the time he released Defiance, his third album and the follow-up to his big breakthrough, Failure. Defiance may not command as much attention, but it’s a solid album from start to finish with many standout moments, including “Opened” and “Document.” “Drive” is not just my favorite track from the album, it’s one of the first A23 songs I remember falling in love with, not coincidentally while driving across rural Georgia. It captures such a specific feeling of hitting the road to escape the demons you’ve left behind and seek new experiences. I still add it to my playlist every time I go on a road trip.
6. Damaged (2007)
Assemblage 23’s most popular tracks are his dancefloor stompers that combine high-tempo beats with emotional resonance. But he’s no slouch in the mid-tempo range. “Damaged” from his fifth album, Meta, is by far my favorite of his softer-drawn moments. The lyrics are a poignant tribute to all of us who have faced hardship and trauma: “I’m damaged but somehow I’ve managed.”
5. Sorry (2007)
Tom has made a career out of writing first-person lyrics that allow listeners to project his feelings onto themselves. On “Sorry,” one of his best-known tracks, he flips the prescription. Sure, it’s still framed within his personal feelings, but he pointedly switches to singing in second-person: “You wear your misery like a crown. You’re only happy when you’re down.” In a bit of irony, the song is supposedly aimed at some of his own followers who are perpetually mopey.
4. Disappoint (2001)
“Disappoint” comes from Assemblage 23’s landmark second album, Failure, and for many fans, it is the first time they shared that deep connection with him. The song’s bouncy EBM beat and trancey synths are peak futurepop, and the lyrics, which are a reaction to his father’s suicide, are Tom at his most heartfelt: “Did I disappoint you? Did I let you down? Did I stand on the shore and watch you as you drowned?” I’ve heard multiple people call “Disappoint” lifesaving or dedicate it to someone they’ve lost.
3. Infinite (2004)
“Infinite” kicks off with church choirs, then practically explodes. Tom piles on layers of electronic sound and cranks up the beat to 146 BPM. It’s an exhilarating song—for just over five minutes, he barely gives you a moment to catch your breath. Likewise, the lyrics come at you fast, as Tom covers the vastness of time and space, though he doesn’t forget to tell you how this makes him feel: “Never have I ever felt so small.”
2. Let the Wind Erase Me (2004)
This fast-paced club track from A23’s phenomenal fourth album, Storm, epitomizes everything that’s great about the band: a stomping beat, Tom’s distinctive voice, first-person lyrics that are both anthemic yet personable, and compelling electronic noises—that staccato synthline might just be the most iconic sound in all of A23’s catalog. I immediately recognize it when a DJ brings it into a mix, and if I’m on the dancefloor it’s impossible not to shout along: “Let the wind erase me like the memory of a kiss. Let these waters take me away from all of this.”
1. Awake (2001)
The opening line of “Awake” could be the band’s mantra: “I am lost.” He’s been charting those waters ever since, searching for answers to personal trauma and sharing his feelings with the world. “Awake,” the ninth track from Failure, is Tom’s ode to insomnia and self-doubt—it’s a powerful and dynamic blast of swirling synths and personal lyrics that capture anxiety like no other song I’ve ever heard. Twenty years on, it remains Assemblage 23’s finest moment.