A Review of the New Solitary Set Album

In my most recent newsletter, I bemoaned the fact that the largest and most visible subset of modern emo– twinkle, sparklepunk, whatever you’d most like to call it– has been usurped by a bloodless indie rock machine, sucking all of the vivaciousness and urgency that its hardcore roots lent it out of the form in favor of a soft-bodied, vacuous color-inside-the-lines model. While I don’t necessarily think this is going to change in the coming years, I do have to say that the most recent offering from Solitary Set, The Series Parallel, has me rethinking what the current wave of emo is really capable of.

To be clear, it’s not that I don’t like any modern emo– Origami Angel, Commander Salamander, and California Cousins are some of my favorite currently active bands, to name a few, and I’ve discussed the latter two on this very blog– but it is that much of modern, non-skramz, emo lacks the full-bodied heft I came to know and love when I was exploring the genre’s roots years ago.

So imagine my surprise when I happened upon Solitary Set’s new album. The beginning of the opening track, “Asking for a Friend,” chimes with familiar Midwest emo-type guitar licks, and I braced myself for another twee, cutesy record with lyrics about chocolate milk and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. However, when the voice of guitarist/vocalist J. Henry Bohm bursts into, the song develops into something much heftier and more affecting. The closest analogue I have is Hot Water Music– in general, Brohm’s vocals echo the gruffness of that particularly Floridian brand of churning, emotive punk music.

As “Friend” closes after a robust, gang vocal-fueled climax (always the key to my heart) and “Midnight Society” begins, I also feel the urge to bring up Fiddlehead. However, while Fiddlehead rests so strongly on the charisma and personality of Pat Flynn (not to disparage the musicianship of his bandmates, by the way), Solitary Set feels much more collectively identified, with bassist Tanner Spaulding and drummer Kenneth Noble providing one of the strongest low ends I’ve heard in emo this year and anchoring the song as it spirals out into an impressive and intuitively emotive guitar solo.

As the record continues, I find myself enchanted by the sense of groove that keeps it coasting along at a fairly restrained pace. Though I wish the band would build up into more explosive moments, there’s something to be said for the consistency of their textures. I spoke earlier of how they feel a lot heftier than most modern emo, and this is true, owing a lot to their at times Mineral-esque dreaminess and especially the dry, warm production style– the drumming in particular benefits from the crisp tightness, cutting through the mix at the perfect moments.

There are some moments of really strong pop songwriting on this record, but my personal standout is probably the genuinely melancholic “Take Two of These”– oddly enough, the song on the record that sounds most like an old Free Throw cut, but bolstered by a downright shimmering guitar tone and, for such a gruff vocalist, a fairly pretty central melody. It is refreshing to hear a band that already knows how to construct a proper pop song, especially one that could be an early Gin Blossoms gem with shinier production and cleaned up vocals. It helps that this is one of the songs on that record that truly does pay off with an explosion at the end, albeit one sanded down to fit the structure. The other song on this record that truly lets loose is probably the markedly more aggressive “To the Receiver,” which succeeds wildly based on the cathartic energy displayed throughout the back half of the song as well as a tasteful use of call-and-response vocal work. Special shout out to Noble, whose drum fills make the track.

The finale of the record is the two-song set “I Feel Connected”/”Disconnected.” The former of the two boasts the most distinctive and intriguing bass line on the album, which is primarily guitar-driven. Here, despite there being a rather interesting electric/acoustic interplay in the foreground, it’s the melodic and expressive bass work that carries the song through. The song doesn’t really explode as much as it shifts into a higher gear, but it still feels like a triumph before the downbeat, more intricately performed closer kicks in. “Disconnected” isn’t so much its own song as an instrumental coda to the previous track, but it’s lengthy and interesting enough that it warrants its own inclusion. I do have to say, I wonder if it would have worked better as an interlude elsewhere in the album, or maybe even as a prelude to “I Feel Connected,” but by no means it is unpleasant to listen to.

Although I definitely have not had enough time to digest The Series Parallel in comparison to the absolute mountain of excellent releases from this year, I wonder if it will end up in contention for my favorite records of 2019 after the fact. If you take nothing else from this review, let it be that there’s still emo bands out there who are worth sitting with and who are making music that feels emotionally and musically grounded in something heavier than memes.

-Ellie

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Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #10: My Chemical Romance

THIS IS HOW I DISAPPEAR

I started this project almost three months ago, thinking it’d be a longer series of shorter blurbs about bands that I got made fun of for liking by my hardcore friends when I was in middle and high school. I thought I would maybe get a few clicks on my previously-dead blog and perhaps find some interesting things to say about bands that people to this day don’t take quite as seriously as they should.

Instead, I’ve found myself exploring what a bunch of bands have meant to me over the years, examining my own experiences with nostalgia, reckoning with mistakes that my idols have made, learning how mainstream music has changed since the early-mid 2000s, and relearning what made me fall in love with these bands in the first place. I’ve gotten tons of positive feedback, a surprising amount of traffic, and I even managed to parlay it into my first professionally published article. I feel so eternally grateful. I also learned that I can’t phone these articles in, and that I should only write about bands here that mean a lot to me.

So, for my final article in this series, I want to talk about the band of all bands that you were not allowed to like, and a band that means more to me than any band I’ve covered so far aside from Fall Out Boy: My Chemical Romance.

I actually didn’t get into My Chemical Romance until long after I had gotten into DIY hardcore. I was definitely aware of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge when it came out because “Helena (So Long & Goodnight)” and “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” were quite literally inescapable, but everything changed for me one sleepy day in 2006 or 2007. My little brother, Ethan, came home from school and said that he had heard a song he really liked and wanted me to put it on the iPod Shuffle that our family shared. This wasn’t uncommon practice, because my dad had taught me how to pirate music when I was very young, so my brother would often ask me to download things for him. This time, the song he wanted was “Teenagers,” by My Chemical Romance. I thought I’d do him a solid and download the band’s discography for him. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the following week, I was bored and decided to listen to the band’s first album, I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, on a whim. Over a decade later, and my love affair with My Chemical Romance, vampire-like, refuses to die.

SKYLINES & TURNSTILES

My Chemical Romance’s origins in 9/11 have been talked about to death, but in case you somehow have not heard the story: Gerard Way was a struggling New Jersey cartoonist in 2001 who took a ferry to New York to pitch a show to Adult Swim. He witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers (later writing the first My Chem song, “Skylines & Turnstiles,” about the experience) and decided to walk away from cartoons and comics (for a time, anyway) to “do something with his life,” soon forming a band with friend and drummer Matt “Otter” Pelissier. They roped in the impressively afro’d Ray Toro as guitarist when it was discovered that Gerard could not sing and play guitar at the same time. Gerard’s younger brother, Mikey, learned bass so he could be in the band once he heard some early demos that they cut in Otter’s attic; Mikey is also responsible for naming the band, after seeing Irvine Welsh’s book Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance in the Barnes & Noble where he was working. The “My” was added later to add a personal dimension to the name– in a typically dark and tongue-in-cheek way, it could also refer to the drinking and drug habits of Gerard, which would inform much of the subject matter on the first two My Chem records.

One thing that a lot of people don’t talk about is how eclectic My Chem’s influences are, which is a large part of what made them such good songwriters. They were obviously heavily inspired by what was going on in their backyard in Jersey, as the fingerprints of Saves the Day’s fizzy, feisty pop-punk and the romantically macabre post-hardcore of Thursday are all over their early material. In fact, it was the friendship and faith of Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly that gave My Chem the early push that they needed; he produced their debut record, after all, and his co-sign gave the nascent band some much-needed credibility in the competitive and insular New Jersey punk scene.

However, the bedrock of My Chem’s sound is a lot more varied than they often get credit for: one of their biggest influences was Philadelphian vampire-noisemakers Ink & Dagger, who made angular, synth-infused hardcore that’s hard to categorize; outside of traditional goth influences like the Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie & the Banshees, they were huge fans of the Smiths and Morrissey, going so far as to cover Morrissey’s “Jack the Ripper” at early shows; there is the token influence of classic hardcore bands like the baritone horror-punk of the Misfits, the tortured, jazz-inflected chaos of Black Flag, and the strident, straightforward fury of Minor Threat; Gerard in particular was inspired by the layered, evolving melodies of 90s Britpop like Pulp and Blur; the band members taught themselves to scream by listening to the melodic death metal of At the Gates; Ray Toro took a lot from the NWOBHM, especially Iron Maiden; the majestic, classical-influenced rock of Queen and the timeless harmonies of the Beatles were seminal parts of their sound; and of course, the proto-punk and glam rock of David Bowie, T. Rex, and the Stooges permeates through much of their material and persona, and is what eventually won them the respect of mainstream music critics.

Their music had lots of non-sonic influences as well, like the pulpy comic books and cheesy horror B-movies that the band pulled a lot of its aesthetic and lyrical cues from. Altogether, My Chem truly didn’t sound like any other band in their scene, and that is what made people sit up and take notice of them. One of those people was a sickly, tiny boy named Frank Iero who, at the time, was singing and playing guitar in the post-hardcore/pop-punk/Holden Caulfield hybrid Pencey Prep, as well as the more experimental side-project I Am A Graveyard; he was also a touring guitarist for one of the greatest hardcore bands of all time, American Nightmare (who were going by the name Give Up the Ghost at the time for legal reasons). Frank had a diverse set of influences all his own, from the throat-shredding, artsy hardcore of Converge to the punchy and melodic emocore of Lifetime, and adding him to the band during the recording process of their debut was the final piece of the puzzle. He only played on two songs (opener “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” and “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville”), but he added so much immediate weight to the band and would soon be an inextricable element of their sound and live shows.

I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love isn’t the most fully-formed My Chem album, but it is my favorite, not only because it’s the first one that I heard, but also because I love the way the band sounds when all their influences are so close to coming together: the song structures are just a little more ragged; the performances a little bit more energetic and desperate to prove themselves; the hooks just a smidge more subtle. Of course, subtlety doesn’t preclude melodrama– after the unnerving classical guitar in the intro track, “Romance,” we’re treated to the melodeath-derived riff that opens “Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us” and we get Gerard’s over-the-top, near-cheesy scream of “The amount of pills I’m taking/counteracts the booze I’m drinking.” What a way to announce themselves to the world.

Gerard’s vocals are really the crux of My Chem’s sound. They’re extremely emotionally expressive, and they’re also malleable, making for an ability to work well with lots of varied material. However, his commitment to and passion for the material is a bit of a double-edged sword. For some people, like me, his unhinged, unguarded, and completely vulnerable performance melds perfectly with his charisma and I find his vocals to be one of the most charming aspects of their sound. For others, his near-histrionics are just too much, and they’re everything they hate about that mainstream era of emo. Fair enough, but those people are missing out, especially on the sprawling epic “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” which rises and falls in tension until it bubbles over in an extended, nearly two-minute climax that causes the song to practically cave in on itself.

Elsewhere, songs like “Drowning Lessons” show what a goth Saves the Day might have sounded like, with some of the most nuanced and infectious guitar work of Ray Toro’s career– the harmonics that hover over the breakdown at the end are so interesting, and I could listen to those 40 seconds on a loop. Meanwhile, “Our Lady of Sorrows” is a breakneck fan-favorite (aside from their traditional performance of “Vampires Will Never Hurt You,” it’s the only song from this album that they played at their final show), filled with memorable moments like the two-step chorus, the ultra-melodic bridge, the “take my fucking hand” refrain, and the hair-raising scream that closes the track. “Our Lady of Sorrows” also provided me with one of my many message-board aliases back in the day (PatronSaintofSwitchbladeFights, in case you’re wondering).

Before we go any further, I do want to take a moment to talk about “Headfirst for Halos,” which is my favorite My Chemical Romance song. It’s the first song of theirs to betray their Queen influence in the towering, achingly melodic intro, and the concept of the song, musically, was “thrash Beatles,” which they pulled off exceptionally well. However, even aside from the intoxicating music, the lyrics on this song are what have stuck with me for all these years and kept me coming back to it. I didn’t understand what “the red ones make me fly and the blue ones help me fall” really meant at the time (I was straight-edge in 2007 and wouldn’t have real contact with addiction until a few years later), but “I think I’ll blow my brains against the ceiling” was a line that immediately grabbed me. I knew what that felt like for sure. For years, whenever I was in one of my lowest places, I could put this song and hear someone else articulate how it feels to be that miserable. “Think happy thoughts,” indeed.

“Skylines & Turnstiles” is an interesting track, mainly because of how obvious it is that it’s their first song– the Thursday influence is palpable, the juxtaposition between the singing and screaming is just a bit more amateurish than the rest of the album, and they didn’t quite know how to end the damn thing– but also because it’s one of the most mournful, elegaic, and genuine sets of lyrics to be penned in the aftermath of 9/11. Lots of punk bands were willing to sing about the event’s political implications, but few were plaintive enough to simply ask someone to “tell me where we go from here.” Plus, it’s here that the precision and weight of Otter’s drumming becomes most strongly apparent– his fills are extremely agile and nimble. Meanwhile, for being the newest musician of the bunch, Mikey nails his bass lines. They’re simple yet catchy (and he was the only member to nail them all in one take!).

The home stretch of Bullets is where things begin to get a little more fragmented and experimental. For some people, this is where the album becomes unlistenable, but I adore it– “Early Sunsets Over Monroeville” is a song about the emotional conflict of having to shoot a loved one during a zombie apocalypse, but Gerard pitches his performance perfectly, selling the pain of the situation with authenticity despite suffering from a muffled vocal mix (he had just had surgery for a horrible toothache that made him punch his own head from the pain, which is why he sounds so garbled). Musically, this is the closest My Chem ever got to Midwest emo, full of twinkly guitars, but it builds to such an overwhelming climax, reserved yet intense, that it transcends emo.

“This Is the Best Day Ever” is, correlatively, the closest they ever got to screamo, a fast-paced and short banger of a song that never lets up and also includes a nice gang vocal (which Geoff Rickly cameos in!). It’s a nice breather after the suffocating misery of “Monroeville,” and the more conventional “Cubicles” is a suitable follow-up. It’s the one song of theirs that blatantly addresses the misery of late capitalism and its subsequent alienation, but it’s also extremely catchy. It’s not my personal favorite on the record, but enough people have brought it up to me that I find myself viewing it in a much warmer light than I did previously. It’s lyrically one of the darkest moments on the record, but the dissonance in the sprightly instrumentation makes it addictive.

And of course, we have to talk about the six-minute closer, “Demolition Lovers.” Conceptually, it’s the one track from the album that undeniably ties into their next record (the couple in the song who dies in a gunfight after an armed robbery are the protagonists of Three Cheers), but musically, it’s a piece-de-resistance, betraying the band’s more epic ambitions and sliding through multiple music movements with ease and confidence. It’s also home to one of Ray’s most reserved-yet-epic solos, the centerpiece of the song being a heart-rending instrumental performance that boils over into an emotionally exhausting vocal performance in the climax.

I understand the argument that Bullets isn’t as coherent and complex as their later efforts, but this album means the world to me and every time I sit down to listen to it in full I feel completely satisfied. It doesn’t have the concise pop songwriting skills of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge nor the high-minded conceptuality or classic-rock pretensions of The Black Parade, but it makes up for that with a scrappy, endearing aesthetic and an unflinching penchant for picking at the most upsetting scabs on the body of depression, mixing its unpleasant findings with just enough B-movie goofiness to make for an exhilarating ride into the psyche of five damaged New Jersey hardcore kids with coke and pop habits. Plus, it’s got some of their most nuanced, subtle, yet completely over-the-top songwriting. What happens when you combine obviously talented kids who just don’t quite know how to write songs yet with the resources to record a full-length album (presided over by one of their closest friends and musical idols)? You get an over-eager, endlessly fun, addictive, and fascinating listening experience. If you’ve somehow missed out on Bullets, give it a chance– even if you’re a holier-than-thou “Orchid is the only real emo band” type, it might just sucker you in and win you over. I’ve witnessed it myself many a time (hi, Eleanor!). Bullets might not be their masterpiece, but it’s my favorite.

GIVE ‘EM HELL, KID

Of course, despite my love of their debut, I have to acknowledge that thematically, their later records give me a lot more to chew on. Gerard’s worsening addictions to alcohol, pills, and cocaine notwithstanding, the Way family experienced a huge blow with the loss of Gerard and Mikey’s grandmother, Elena, who was an avid supporter of the band and went to many of their early shows. Her death inspired the potent “Helena (So Long & Goodnight),” of course, but it also symbolizes the disconnect that Gerard was experiencing with reality. I can’t speak definitively, but I speculate that it was easier for him to turn his grandmother’s death into a comic-booky storyline that fit into the narrative that he was crafting for Three Cheers, because at the time, he was a mess of a person, deepening his toxic relationships with substances along with his one-time-best-friend Bert McCracken of the Used. This was an extremely dark time for the band, despite their excellent performances on PureVolume and the riotous responses they were receiving on tour volleying them into a major label contract with Reprise Records, and it’s that morbid and miserable place that provided them with the emotions necessary to craft a gothic pop-punk masterpiece.

Everything on Three Cheers is raw. Arguably, the punchy and dry production on Bullets was lower-fi, but the production on Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge is extremely unpolished, often pushing into the red and distorting as it gets louder (see the chorus on “The Jetset Life Is Gonna Kill You”). Meanwhile, the instrumental performances became much rowdier and more hectic (not at the expense of musicianship: the guitar dynamic between Ray and Frank became increasingly complex and intricate, while Mikey’s bass became much more integral to the band’s sound, providing hooks-a-plenty in moments like the intro to “Give ‘Em Hell, Kid”) and Gerard pushed his vocals to the point of collapse, often sounding like he was going to throw up from the intensity. Three Cheers may have been popular, but it wasn’t that accessible, and it also isn’t a far cry from the introspective, melodic hardcore and desperate, ragged vocal approach of emo’s founders, Rites of Spring. There’s octave chords and screams a-plenty on this album, they’re just more refined and well-structured than a lot of the other bands that came before them.

That, in addition to the band’s stellar image and aesthetic (playing every show in undertaker’s suits that got more gross, sweaty, and covered in fake blood as time went on) immediately endeared them to millions who wanted something just a little darker and edgier than the likes of Jimmy Eat World, and just a little more polished and propulsive than the likes of the Used. The breakthrough success of fellow goth kids AFI with 2003’s Sing the Sorrow probably paved the way, too, but My Chem were decidedly more untethered and energetic– they had true charisma and rock-star quality to them, more than any of their peers, and that made them magnetic. It helped that the core members of the band all had something to offer from an image perspective– Gerard’s upturned, pixie-like nose and adorable, sharp features made his violent vocal eruptions even more shocking, Ray Toro’s afro was extremely hard to look away from, Mikey’s small, waif-like, bespectacled appearance made him a twink ingenue, and Frank’s tiny stature and heavily tattooed frame made him the pretty-yet-approachable bad boy. Any high schooler would be head over heels for these guys.

Of course, their over-emoting and their use of makeup made them the most immediate punching bag for the type of people who never understood emo’s mainstream breakthrough. It’s really with Three Cheers pushing them into the national conversation that diehard rock and metal fans grew to greatly dislike My Chem; Gerard’s heart-on-sleeve theatrics just made zero sense to them, after a decade of macho posturing by nu-metal and alt-rock bands, and even their metallic streak (seriously, the opening riff of “Thanks for the Venom” has Iron Maiden written all over it) wasn’t enough for people who prized technicality and proficiency above all else. Meanwhile, their older fans– many of whom Andy Greenwald memorably described as “hardcore hulks who hid their copy of Bullets with their secret stash of Morrissey imports” in a 2005 cover story for Spin— turned on the band, their major-label affiliation and newfound radio play (the stellar, Jimmy Eat World-meets-Queen pop classic “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” lit up the airwaves almost instantly, while its high school-set, tongue-in-cheek, Wes Anderson-esque video made the rounds constantly on MTV2 and Fuse) meant that they were disgusting sellouts no longer worth their time. The ire set upon their new fans– often young girls who shopped at Hot Topic and were playing with their self-loathing and low self-esteem through goth fashion and self-harm– was considerable, as was the homophobia heaped upon the band due to their penchant for face-paint and gaudy red eye shadow.

Luckily, the band welcomed its detractors– as the chorus of “Thanks for the Venom” evokes their hatred in addition to Gerard’s many addictions– because they fed off the negativity, and so did their fans. In embracing the darkest pits of despair (or at least, the darkest that a band could go and still remain mainstream), My Chem provided hopeless, mentally ill teenagers everywhere with rallying cries and, more than anything, a spokesperson who understood them. Gerard was known for telling fans during shows that if they were suffering from depression or suicidal impulses to get help, and in the process became much more than the wallowing stereotype of emo kids who were in love with their pain. Many years later, Gerard would come out as non-binary (he/they pronouns), and his early embrace of homoerotic imagery in his songs (pretty much the entirety of “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison,” for example) provided lots of LGBT and questioning youth the validation that they so desperately needed.

Of course, many of the issues that I brought up with Fall Out Boy’s fandom persisted in just as much, if not higher, frequency in My Chem’s– glorification of mental illness and self-harm, exploitation of gayness for the salacious pleasure of women who see gay men as spectacle, general grossness– but My Chem stood strong with their songs and with their fans, becoming a makeup-smudged oasis amid the pressures of everyday adolescent life.

It helped that Three Cheers was the tightest, most concise set of songs the band has ever put together, with some of their most inventive ideas on full display. The bizarre guitar effect in the intro of “Helena” coupled with the watery, buried vocals in the bridge was just the tip of the iceberg in a song that could have been a weepy power ballad sped up past breaking point. The choruses on this record, admittedly much moreso than Bullets, are absolutely indelible, while the songs as a whole are stacked with hooks, grabbing the listener by the neck and reeling them in whenever they start to feel bored. Even the weakest track, “The Jetset Life Is Gonna Kill You,” is saved by a massive bridge that uses AutoTune to satirical, slightly unhinged effect, and songs like the vaudeville-to-screamy-barn-burner “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison” and the massive, chaotic “Hang ‘Em High” stand as the most breathless and exciting tunes the band has ever committed to tape. Other moments, like the way that Gerard’s wailing contrasts with the hypnotic guitar solo on the Glassjaw-esque “The Ghost of You” or the heart-pounding key change in the final chorus of the serene, bubbly showstopper “Cemetery Drive,” show the band’s grasp of dynamics at their height.

The way the album is paced makes almost every track feel like a standout, from the “whoa-oh” bridge of “To the End” to the weepy, impassioned climax of high-water-mark “It’s Not A Fashion Statement, It’s A Death Wish.” There’s barely any moments that don’t bleed with energy and passion, and guest appearances like Bert McCracken’s screaming in “You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison” and Keith Morris of the Circle Jerks’ buried yawps at the end of “Hang ‘Em High” pick up the slack when the band starts to falter (which they never really do). And of course, it closes with yet another mind-melting display of flawless song structure with “I Never Told You What I Do for a Living,” a song that turns its final two minutes into an endless bridge, chock full of tight performances, thrilling melodic turns, and the most heartfelt, singing-to-the-point-of-choking vocal performance from Gerard on the album.

Out of My Chem’s golden period, Three Cheers is the album with the least emotional attachment for me, but it’s still an incredible work of songwriting, and on a sheer musical level, I might argue that it’s My Chemical Romance’s best album. Its half-baked concept (a man must take 1,000 souls from evil men in order to bring back his girlfriend from the dead, or something) doesn’t detract from the adrenaline rush of its best musical moments– the rousing chorus of “Hang ‘Em High,” the piano-induced lyrical fakeout at the end of “I’m Not Okay,” the fist-pumping guitar solo in “Thank You for the Venom”– because structurally and performatively, the band is firing on all cylinders. The weakest moment on the whole album is the cheesy way that Gerard adopts a vague Latino affect in his voice when he says “Hotel Bella Muerte” in “The Jetset Life Is Gonna Kill You,” and I think that’s a pretty impressive achievement. If there’s one track that’s superfluous, it might be the Radiohead-influenced “Interlude,” but it works so well as a dividing line between the “acts” of the album that it’s hard to argue against its placement. Three Cheers is a masterpiece of the emo-pop era, and no amount of hand-wringing from the old guard nor the snide dismissal of the cooler-than-thou set can ever take that away from them.

Nowhere is this clearer than on the live album, Life On the Murder Scene. Gerard’s complete and total ownership of the crowd (and his excellent vocals– he does a pretty good approximation of Bert’s unbelievable performance on “You Know What They Do…”) blends perfectly with every other member’s strengths– Mikey’s staid consistency, Otter’s perfect control of tone and atmosphere, and Ray’s loyal backing vocals and flawless (matching the album nearly note-for-note) guitar chops. For Frank’s part, he gives the whole affair a punky, weighty, hardcore energy– listen to the way the guitar chugs during the bridge of “Cemetery Drive,” or the way that gang vocals give way to audience participation in “I Never Told You What I Do for a Living” (not to mention the handclaps in “Headfirst for Halos”) and you can practically smell Geoff Rickly’s basement. More than any other band, My Chem was the one that brought the spirit of underground emo and hardcore to the mainstream, for better or for worse.

Life On the Murder Scene also includes two of the best unreleased tracks in My Chemical Romance’s ouvre, “Bury Me In Black” and “Desert Song.” You can hear the roots of “Thank You for the Venom”‘s main riff in the intro of “Bury Me In Black,” but the whole song bleeds a sort of desperate, uncontrollable atmosphere, from the Gerard’s short-of-breath screams throughout to the Slayer-rip-off breakdown (just a double-bass part away from sounding exactly like an outtake from Satisfaction Is the Death of Desire). “Desert Song” is an acoustic song (albeit with some Oasis-esque electric overtones in the right channel) which features one of the most depressive and gutsy performances from Gerard– in any other band’s hands, it would be unspeakably cheesy, but here it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Alcohol-soaked miscreants they may have been, but My Chem justifiably ruled the world from 2004-2008, and Life On the Murder Scene is a pretty good document for making that point.

Still, what’s a band to do after their breakthrough? Successful major-label debuts are notoriously hard to come by, and harder still to follow up. My Chem had a few choices: they could flame out in a drug-and-alcohol-fueled blaze (which Gerard seemed to be heading towards); they could double down on the sound they’d found with Three Cheers and keep releasing bland rewrites of the same song; or they could clamp down, get their shit together, embrace some of their more traditional rock influences, and create something that was both exquisitely new and hearkened back to the old days of rock. They picked the latter.

THE BLACK PARADE IS DEAD

After barely being talked out of suicide in 2005 (immediately following an eightball and heavy drinking), Gerard got clean and sober and has mostly remained so for the entirety of his career since. The rest of the band, some of whom had almost been driven to quit (Frank Iero has said as much about that time period), rallied together and tried to create an album that could live up to monolithic expectations created by the success of Three Cheers.

My Chem are relentless perfectionists; listening to Living with Ghosts (the collection of Black Parade demos released on its 10th anniversary), it’s clear that the process of writing The Black Parade was extremely long and arduous, and you can hear bits and pieces of ideas that would be used elsewhere all over the place. “The Five of Us Are Dying” is a prehistoric version of “Welcome to the Black Parade” with almost completely different lyrics and a vastly truncated structure, while the original version of “House of Wolves” is almost completely unrecognizable when compared to what ended up on the album. Other songs, like “Emily,” “Party at the End of the World,” “My Way Home Is Through You,” and “All the Angels” got left on the cutting room floor almost entirely. There were some tracks from this period of the band that probably would have made for welcome additions to The Black Parade (“Kill All Your Friends,” with some tweaking, could have been an all-time My Chem song, while the live performance of “Somebody Out There Loves You” from this period shows what a post-The Black Parade My Chem might have sounded like if they didn’t reinvent themselves). Still other songs, like “Mama” and “Disenchanted,” were already almost fully formed, but the process of putting them back together in the studio clearly enhanced their arrangement and performance greatly.

All of this work just goes to show that The Black Parade was no accident, either in its musical accomplishments or its massive success. This album’s creation was extremely meticulous, and I have a somewhat conflicted relationship to it; on the one hand, it’s very hard to deny it’s a modern rock classic, and its story (about a cancer patient reflecting on his failings, going through the afterlife, and eventually getting another chance to redeem himself) is something that gained much greater resonance for me early this year, after I spent nine days in the hospital thinking I might die. But on the other hand, while I don’t begrudge the band itself for being calculating nor for indulging their classic rock influences, I do begrudge the music press for finally acknowledging their talent only after they decide to bring back dinosaur rock sounds and aesthetics. It’s exactly why critics fell for the theatrics (and ultimately empty politics and massaged, flat sound) of Green Day’s American Idiot; bands that Hot Topic kids enjoy are only acceptable for “adults” to like once they engage in already-established rock buffoonery. It’s not My Chem’s fault that The Black Parade canonized them, but I find myself bitter at the establishment for doing so anyway.

As for The Black Parade itself, well, it’s a near-unimpeachable record, a collection of painstakingly interwoven songs and themes that draws from post-hardcore roots, classic rock aesthetics and song structures, and unstoppably massive pop hooks to create a completely engrossing listening experience. Even newer, more “credible” bands, like New York’s rising emo-indie-pop-punk darlings Prince Daddy & the Hyena, are openly indebted to it (their newest record, the Wizard of Oz-esque concept album Cosmic Thrill Seekers, boasts influences from The Black Parade, while the band itself covered the album in full for one performance). Meanwhile, the smash success of the album continues to this day, as streaming numbers for it are still off the charts and many young people discovering it are convinced that it’s the pinnacle of emo. There’s some reservations to be had about that tag being applied to The Black Parade for sure (it’s an incredible record, but their prior material draws much more from the classical “emo” well), not least because My Chem could now no longer be any further from the DIY ideals of what “emo” originally meant, but it’s hard for me to deny that The Black Parade is, in essence, the peak of many young people’s emotional attachment to any music, and represents that intrinsic bond between performer and audience that I think emo is all about. And anyway, The Black Parade smokes.

I’m actually not a huge fan of the production– I think it’s a little compressed and messy– but there’s so much going on that it’s hard to argue for a more spartan mix, anyhow. The guitar work is indescribably good– interlocking, circuitous vortexes of pop, post-hardcore, and dinosaur rock melting together and wrestling around with each other, creating some truly fantastic sonic textures throughout. Otter has left for spurious reasons, so Bob Bryar, former soundman for the Used, is manning the kit, and his playing is, for lack of a better term, more “rock” and less “punk” than Otter’s speedy-but-light drumming style. Bryar’s drumming is a lot heavier and harder-hitting, somewhat reminiscent of Dave Grohl’s work in Nirvana, giving The Black Parade‘s tones a somewhat more monolithic quality (though he still knows how to ease up on the album’s softer tracks). I don’t think Bryar does the Bullets material the same sort of snotty justice that Otter did, but I don’t think Otter could have pulled off the marching-band vibe nor the massive fill before the first proper verse in “Welcome to the Black Parade,” either.

The Ways have simply rocketed to another level of performance with The Black Parade— Mikey has developed into a solid utility player, but when he is given moments to shine, like the bridge of “The Sharpest Lives,” he shows a complete and total mastery of tone and melody on bass that proves he isn’t just there to provide the low end. Meanwhile, Gerard is an animal on this record– no longer just working with pure passion, he has evolved into a gifted and rubbery singer, mining his upper register for some of the most expressive and forceful vocal work in the genre to that point.

The change in purpose between Three Cheers and Parade is immediately noticeable when you press play; “The End” begins with ambient sound effects, acoustic guitar, and a lush piano performance in the background, while Gerard has never sounded more like a preacher speaking to his enraptured followers (when he says “nothing at all” at the end of the second verse, he actually kind of sounds like he’s having a stroke). The melody is uniquely dirgey and funereal, but doesn’t dwell in it for long before launching into the uptempo boogie “Dead!”, which is one of my personal favorite My Chem songs– an excellent solo from Ray Toro aside, the bridge and climax of the song is pure, unadulterated My Chemical Romance, cinematic and communal and intimate all at once, and the inclusions of strings, horns, and piano are shockingly welcome.

The rest of the album cycles through more straightforwardly post-hardcore-indebted tunes and songs that play with classic rock tropes and conventions. “This Is How I Disappear” boasts a monstrous, menacing bridge section, while “The Sharpest Lives” (another song about Gerard’s tumultuous relationship with Bert McCracken) stocks up on nifty vocal and guitar effects to sculpt a thick soundscape. Both songs are stacked with knockout, stadium-ready choruses– watching the band perform them live in a massive Mexico City amphitheater on the Black Parade Is Dead! DVD feels like you’re seeing the songs be played the way they were always meant. Meanwhile, other tracks play exactly the role you expect them to play in rock operas; the piano-driven ballad “Cancer” functions as the emotional and structural centerpiece and lynchpin of the record, for example (and it’s a beautiful song, as long as you focus on the soppy strings and ignore some of the more obvious AutoTune). Other tracks are more blatant about copying classic rock artists– the end of the solo in “I Don’t Love You” cops the solo from “We Are the Champions,” for example, while the pre-chorus of the rollicking standout “House of Wolves” nakedly rips off KISS’s “Detroit Rock City”– but all those tricks up their sleeves are merely ancillary to the magnum opus of the record and the most definitive moment of My Chemical Romance’s career, “Welcome to the Black Parade.”

“Parade” is a perfect song– its five-minute run time slides by in mere moments, while its symphonically-derived structure throws everything at the wall, and it all sticks. From the melancholic-yet-triumphant piano intro to its punky main body and its ascendant, downright beautiful climax, the song is a three-part paean to both rock music of the past and the moment that My Chem were occupying. They were the center of attention in mainstream rock during this record cycle, and this song shows that they were more than deserving of that honor. It’s by now cliche to observe that “Welcome to the Black Parade” is the “emo generation”‘s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but I’ll be damned if it isn’t an accurate observation; no song of the era comes close to matching its anthemic qualities nor its near-universal appeal.

I’ve seen criticisms that The Black Parade doesn’t know when to stop putting its foot on the gas, but I’m inclined to disagree. There’s not one but three weepy ballads on this record, all of which slow down the energy of the record without sacrificing their strength or infectious qualities. “I Don’t Love You” is a borderline-hateful anti-love song, but Gerard’s vocal performance and the lush, sticky instrumentation make it sound completely genuine. I’ve covered “Cancer” already, but the penultimate track “Disenchanted” is an often-underrated cut from The Black Parade; I myself used to have some reservations about it, but after my aforementioned hospital stay I found myself embracing its regretful-yet-empowering energy more than anything else on the record. Plus, it’s got a solid, offhanded sex joke– the song describes the speaker’s life as a movie and says that it “started with an alright scene.”

“House of Wolves” would have probably been the most straightforwardly “rock ‘n’ roll” track on the record (and it is an excellent song), but the bluesy chord progression of late-album standout “Teenagers” just barely tops it, with some jaunty piano adding to the atmosphere and Gerard’s lyrics about a school shooter terrified of his own generation speaking to a subset of disaffected, angry teenagers who otherwise might not have found a constructive or harmless outlet for their aggression.

And lest you assume that The Black Parade has completely abandoned My Chem’s heavier inclinations for classic rock pretensions, the one-two punch of the unremittingly hard-hitting bangers “Mama” and “Sleep” puts that assumption to rest. “Mama” is a weird-as-fuck number, with a mandolin-inspired guitar intro and despairing lyrics about a war criminal reckoning with his horrible actions immediately putting the listener in discomfort, but it progresses into the best song of the album: a mean, off-kilter, disorienting bridge with woozy guitar work; a brief and memorable guest appearance from Liza Minelli; an apocalyptic shanty-like outro; what more could you want? “Sleep” is more straightforwardly hard rock, but the earth-shattering drum intro and its overwhelming, scream-infused climax make up for its structural simplicity while it boasts by far the most bleak and angry lyrics on the whole record.

So what’s keeping The Black Parade from being My Chemical Romance’s stab at perfection? That’d be the closer, “Famous Last Words,” which absolutely wastes an incredible riff from Ray Toro in favor of an unfittingly uplifting lyrical showing and a weak central structure. I mean, come on– “I am not afraid to keep on living”? I don’t doubt that this song means a lot to the kids who needed (and continue to need) it, but I can’t forgive the way that this song just goes nowhere and peters out at the end, especially after the purposeful and epic tone of the rest of the record leading up to it. I will say that the live performance of it on The Black Parade Is Dead redeems the song somewhat; it sounds much more powerful and deliberate in a live setting, rather than lumbering and heavy-handed (it’s also worth watching just to see James DeWees of Reggie & the Full Effect/formerly of the Get-Up Kids have an absolute blast playing keyboards for a band at the height of their mainstream moment). At least the hidden track, the morbidly funny “Blood,” provides some levity to such a thematically dark and heavy record.

The Black Parade marked a huge sea change for My Chemical Romance; the haters either came around to them, as in the case of music journalists, or just ignored them and accepted them as an inescapable part of the pop landscape, as in the case of the everyday neanderthals who shook their heads at the band’s success.

It also marked a shift in My Chemical Romance’s attitude to their own music– there was a relatively massive four-year gap between this record and their follow up (and we will get to that in due time), wherein the members focused on touring the record and devoting more time to their friends and families. The most notable musical export from this time of the band is Frank Iero’s hardcore band, Leathermouth, which released the bristly and bilious XO in 2009 to warm commercial and critical response and a less-than-enthusiastic response from the US government (who would have thought they wouldn’t be a fan of song titles like “I’m Going to Kill the President of the United States”?). The most notable non-music export was Gerard Way’s comic book series, The Umbrella Academy, a Doom Patrol-meets-A-Series-of-Unfortunate-Events outing that garnered a pretty large cult following and, I gather, a movie? Or something? I think something big happened with it recently, but I can’t find anything about it online.

Still, it would be extremely hard to try and top the theatricality of The Black Parade‘s concept and tour performances, which featured Gerard Way being brought out on a stretcher as The Patient and the band playing the record in its entirety. Why would they even bother? It would just to lead to catastrophe.

DESTROYA

Well, try they did. Much in the same way as the band created an alter ego, the Black Parade, for their previous album, they created the Killjoys for 2010’s Danger Days, a group of post-apocalyptic freedom fighters who apparently love extremely boring rock music. The concept of Danger Days and its associated extended universe makes literally zero sense to me, but aside from that, the album is a horrible mess, full of downright deliberately annoying choruses (“Na Na Na [Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na]”), weepy-even-by-My-Chem-standards ballads (“Summertime”), and ill-advised dabbling with misguided and ugly hard rock (“Destroya”). Elsewhere, there’s boring, go-nowhere songs completely void of ideas like “Bulletproof Heart” and “Sing,” and even worse, dance songs that completely forgo catchiness, like “Planetary (Go!)”. The whole record is embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as the legion of kids who somehow try to claim that it’s either better than it’s given credit for or, bafflingly, some kind of misunderstood masterpiece. I’ve seen claims that it belongs somewhere in the sass lineage, which is both confusing and offensive to me personally as a defender of all things sass. The only redeemable song on the album for me is the bitingly funny closer “Vampire Money,” a savage kiss-off that fits nowhere into the ham-fisted narrative of the record and mostly functions as a fuck-you to the band being asked to contribute a song for the Twilight movies (not that there’s anything wrong with that, right, Paramore?).

If that had been the last we’d heard of My Chemical Romance, it would have been sad, but I would have understood. The thing that was vastly more frustrating was, immediately prior to the band’s breakup, a series of five singles that comprised the record they almost made before scrapping it and making Danger Days from scratch, known as Conventional Weapons. These songs are not just really good, they make me wish that that had been the record we’d gotten instead, and furthermore, they make me really angry that My Chem broke up before fulfilling the promise that these songs so obviously showed.

For almost any doubters of My Chemical Romance, I often point to the first track released from these sessions, the extremely energetic “Boy Division,” which feels almost exactly like a Three Cheers era My Chem track, but with a bouncy, destructive breakdown near the end. All ten of these songs are worth hearing, but it’s “Boy Division” and the late-era standout “Make Room!!” that are most worth your time. Elsewhere, you’ve got the James Bond-esque groove of “Tomorrow’s Money” and the restless-yet-relaxed “Ambulance” and “Gun.” proving that My Chem could have made yet another timeless record had they had the time. The slow-burning “The World Is Ugly” and the string-driven epic “The Light Behind Your Eyes” evoke their traditional goth influences, “Kiss the Ring” is the unstoppable rocker that Green Day wish they could have been writing in 2009, and “Surrender the Night” and “Burn Bright” are both garage-y bangers that presage the direction Danger Days could have gone had they not succumbed to their impulses to top The Black Parade‘s conceptual strength and tightness. My Chemical Romance: a story of unfulfilled potential, sadly enough.

FAKE YOUR DEATH

And yet, while My Chemical Romance broke up in 2013, signifying the death of their incarnation of emo in the mainstream, they were not forgotten– they live on, both in the past members’ solo projects and the mark they made on the lost generation of millennials who called their music home.

I’ve written before at length how 2013 was a major year for mainstream “emo,” not just because My Chemical Romance broke up, but because an entirely new type of emo-that-wasn’t-emo started cropping up. It could be the vacuous posturing of Twenty One Pilots, or it could be the restless DIY output of truly emo- and hardcore-influenced rappers like Bones, but just because rock music was no longer the zeitgeist didn’t mean that the emotions that made My Chemical Romance megastars went away overnight. As I said in my article on Lil Peep, the music might change, but teenagers don’t. And as the former members of My Chem continue on their path to elder statesmen of the scene– whether it be the Bright Eyes-esque rag of Frank Iero’s series of solo albums, Ray Toro’s airy, Smashing Pumpkins-influenced alt rock, or Gerard Way’s haunting and effervescently catchy post-punk– it’s never been more clear that My Chemical Romance were not a flash in the pan, latching onto a moment in youth culture that only lasted as long as there was money to be made.

Say what you will about My Chem’s authenticity– their major-label work was for the most part excellent, but their indie work proved that they had the talent and work ethic to make it from the get-go– but they were pillars of a movement, one that was started in the 80s by the underground hardcore scene and one that was fostered throughout the 90s and 2000s by acts as disparate as Jawbreaker, Every Time I Die, American Nightmare, and Fall Out Boy. My Chemical Romance was not just the commercial high-water mark of that movement, they were an artistic and social high-water mark as well; for every kid in America who has been depressed, bullied, or just plain miserable at some point in their lives, My Chemical Romance might have been the band that helped them get through some truly hard times, or ushered them into a more DIY and personal scene that helped give them purpose. My Chem were never a band that made it seem cool to be miserable, at least not to anyone who was actually paying attention. They made it cool to try and fight your way through that misery.

To ask if I am embarrassed of being a fan of My Chemical Romance, a band that has meant so much to me and millions of other people, a band that made near-objectively fantastic music for most of its run, a band that provided an open door from the endless drudgery of everyday life to the freedom of DIY, punk, emo, hardcore, and making your life what you want it to be, is to insult everything that I stand for. My Chemical Romance might have been a band that you weren’t supposed to like, but I always hated being told what to do, and I resent even further being told what to think, enjoy, or listen to.

From Las Vegas theatre kids making baroque dance-pop to straight-edge Chicago softcore to gross pop to existential pop-punk to riotous post-pop-punk to Christian metalcore to white-belted scenecore to gothic pop-hardcore to DIY Soundcloud emo rap to My Chemical Romance, everything I’ve touched on in this series is part of me, and hopefully, if you’ve followed along for everything I’ve done so far, it’s part of you, too. Even if it isn’t, hopefully you understand why it’s part of me, what it means to me, and what it means to the people who are like me.

I’ve been going to DIY hardcore shows for well over a decade now, and I’ve been involved in Internet forums about hardcore, skramz, emo, hip-hop, and what-have-you for even longer, and the one thing that’s never changed is that there’s always self-righteous dickheads who are quick to assert the superiority of who and what they enjoy at the expense of people who may have needed something else to get to the same place. At the end of the day, who we are as people is constantly changing, and I’m eternally grateful for all the pieces of the puzzle that helped make me who I am today, and I’m grateful for everything that will change me in the future.

So to all the kids who are like me, the kids who needed Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance in their lives no matter how deep they went down the rabbit hole of obscure 90s hardcore and emo, the kids who eventually developed addictions after breaking edge and had to white-knuckle it out with the help of friends, lovers, and cigarettes, the kids who needed to hear someone else say that it was okay and normal to feel like shit and think about killing yourself as long as you got some help, the kids who have never known what the fuck to make of their gender or their sexuality or their nightmarish anxiety, the kids who keep the lessons they learned close to their hearts, this article was for you, this series was for you, and everything I write, in some form or another, is for you, and it’s for me, too. I’m not nearly self-important and arrogant enough to think that people care about what I think, or that I’m making a difference, but I truly hope that, if you identify with anything I just said, you know you aren’t alone because I’m here, too. We’ll carry on.

-XO, Ellie

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #9: Lil Peep

WANNA BE
(a hasty foreword)

This one’s gonna be a little different. For one thing, Lil Peep was far too prolific for me to do my usual format– not counting his two studio albums, his five mixtapes, and his eleven EPs, he also released literally countless loosies and collabs, and there’s still probably untold unreleased material– and for another, he wasn’t a band, and this column will probably not be focused solely on him. A long time ago, when my writing was much more flippant and obnoxious, I called Lil Peep’s brand of music the closest thing we would get to a crabcore revival. I’d like to walk that back a little bit– Lil Peep wasn’t so much the reincarnation of Attack Attack as much as he was an update on what “emo” meant in the early-mid 00s (ie, the focus of this recurring column).

To me, the parallels are undeniable; here was a disaffected, deeply depressed teenager making extremely emotive music with an unshakeable DIY ethic, who eventually achieved fame that was ultimately detrimental to him. Lil Peep was objectively talented, an instantly charismatic presence with a knack for constructing indelible vocal melodies. The main difference between him and the kids who, a decade earlier, were forming pop-punk bands, is that he came of age in an era where hip-hop was the most accessible and immediate form of self-expression for the youth. Not only did the advent of simple-to-use and free music software make hip-hop more viable than pop-punk (which requires knowing a whole bunch of people who can play instruments and a studio to record in), but platforms like Soundcloud made it frankly easier to produce and distribute songs than ever before. For someone like Lil Peep, who absolutely wanted to be famous, it was a no-brainer to embrace hip-hop as a dominant musical style.

And yet, his music wasn’t pure hip-hop. Not just because Lil Peep wasn’t really a rapper (he sang more than anything), but because the influence of emo and pop-punk was palpable in everything he did, from his producers’ extensive sampling of artists like Mineral and Death Cab for Cutie to the way that he constructed his vocal hooks. His voice, whiny and youthful, was just more suited to writing blink-182 or Taking Back Sunday-caliber choruses than the mumbly auto-tuned warbling of many of his peers. It’s not that one took more talent than the other, it’s that Peep was of two worlds and fusing them made the most sense to him.

Born Gustav Ahr in 1996, in the town of Allenstown, Pennsylvania, Peep’s early life was defined by his close relationship with his mother, an elementary school teacher, and his grandfather, a Marxist scholar (Peep’s father stopped being involved in his life when he was a teenager; it’s been implied by many that he was neglectful and/or abusive towards Peep). Despite both of Peep’s parents being Harvard graduates, neither was seemingly upset by Peep’s decision to drop out of high school and get his diploma online. In fact, the support of Peep’s mother was a driving force in his public persona– she gave him the name “Peep” when he was a child, after all, and his first tattoo, at age 14, was her birthday and initials, supposedly so she couldn’t be all that mad at him for getting them.

Peep is often incorrectly characterized, after the fact, as “the voice of the Soundcloud generation.” I don’t think this is necessarily accurate– although his music appeals to people across all lines because of its innate catchiness and his almost inhuman likability, Peep himself was far from an avatar of his generation. Instead, I thought of him as the most representative member of a specific subset. Most of his peers were not getting face tattoos to commit to a life of playing music, and his generation is statistically less likely to be having sex and doing drugs. Instead, Peep was part of the most modern iteration of counterculture– he grew up in Long Island and was obsessed with punk music, after all, and self-identified as a loner who made most of his friends on the Internet.

Inspired by the intense work ethic and output rate of acidic DIY rapper Bones and his Seshollowaterboys collective, Peep moved out to LA to start his music career in earnest. He quickly hooked up with internet friend Craig Xen, who introduced him to JGRXXN and Ghostemane, all of whom were underground rappers infatuated with both edgy metal/hardcore aesthetics and the occult-influenced, dirty lo-fi sound of Three 6 Mafia’s earliest work. After establishing those relationships, Peep became the resident singer in their rap collective, Schemaposse. His career was on an immediate upward trajectory after that, with his first solo mixtape Lil Peep Part One garnering impressive play counts and spawning two of his earliest hits, “Star Shopping” (which was not originally on the mixtape, but is included on the official Soundcloud playlist) and “The Way I See Things.” The songs were good, of course– slight, wispy, yet memorable slices of pop-punk misery and ennui clawing their way out of a miasma of 808 beats and hazy, lo-fi guitar samples– but beyond that, why was Lil Peep’s music becoming such a phenomenon? And why would he attract such vitriol from the old guard and young kids trying to suck up to them?

CRYBABY
(kids these days)

There are a lot of audiences who have embraced Lil Peep since his music started to make the rounds in underground hip-hop forums in 2015, but the thing that binds them all, that makes them all part of Lil Peep’s tribe, is that he spoke to the general melancholy and anxiety that has always existed in teenagers and post-adolescents– it’s just that in today’s world, those feelings are magnified and reflected back at you by the 24/7 personal news cycle of social media, and Peep’s extremely blunt lyrics and earnest delivery fit that frame of mind perfectly, while the music itself is laid-back enough to remain broadly accessible (and never, in today’s parlance, “cringe”– a word that used to mean vicarious embarrassment but now refers to anything that seems too excited or genuine). The hooks are there: take one listen to “Kiss,” one of his breakthrough singles, and you’ll see that the dreamy, effervescent, instantly irresistible vocal hooks are there in spades.

That being said, a lot of Peep’s earlier material resonated with a certain type of person (and continues to resonate with that type of person)– extremely lonely (from mostly self-imposed isolation), prone to drug abuse (especially downers like Xanax and opiates), afflicted with depression, anxiety, apathy, vague anger. In times past, these were the kids who would be forming bands of their own, but now they’re making beats in their bedrooms, furthering their own sense of loneliness. If you don’t have to even leave your room to promote or make your music, why would you? When I listen to Lil Peep and think of his fans in the early days, I see people holed up in messy bedrooms, escaping the pressures of the outside world, but also all of its joys. Headphones on and engaged in endless Soundcloud bliss, playing video games and smoking weed until it’s time to go to sleep and start the whole thing over again, wishing for sex and intimacy but never quite approaching it– and if they do, it’s in the form of sloppy and manipulative app-assisted hookups or fleeting DMs from Twitter accounts that will never be attached to a physical presence.

The music of Peep and his peers also feels suffocatingly isolating–producers like Nedarb and smokeasac specialized in making beats that didn’t have to be lo-fi, but were by choice, often muffled and warped to make for an uncomfortable, watery, claustrophobic atmosphere. Peep’s vocals were multi-tracked and then pushed to the very middle of the mix, intelligible and serving as an island among the muck of the beats. Influenced by witch house and cloud rap, as well as the blown-out sound of other underground rap pioneers like Raider Klan, Lil Ugly Mane, and Awful Records, Peep’s songs could have often disappeared into the swirl of the other Soundcloud rappers who were trafficking in similar sounds, but two things set his music apart. For one, his producers often chose specifically obscure samples in order to show how those artists had influenced their artistic sensibilities as well as to give their beats a more concrete sonic identity. And then there’s Peep’s vocals and lyrics, which I’ve already spoken on, but it bears repeating how they elide exuberance and misery, how they’re both addictive and fleeting. Lil Peep songs are best listened to, not on repeat, but in an endless playlist, alternating between him, his peers, and his influences. They’re mood-setting, at once insular and expansive, mirroring the effects of his drugs of choice all at once: the communality of ecstasy; the closed-off darkness of opiates; the drowsiness of Xanax; the easy confidence of cocaine.

There were also his music videos, often shot on grainy, deliberately degraded VHS tape– quick-edited shots of him messing around in the streets and in dilapidated Skid Row apartments, often with friends and frequent collaborators like Lil Tracy (see “Witchblades” for a representative example). They were evocative, Peep’s tattooed-yet-innocent face was pretty to look at, and the aesthetic was by turns bracing, slightly eerie, and instantly (perhaps even predictively) nostalgic. The first time I ever heard of Lil Peep, it was by snarky friends of mine who swore I would hate the kid, but I watched a few of these videos and I was instantly hooked. In fact, this aesthetic instantly reminded me of Title Fight, another act who cross genre lines and manage to evoke that same feeling of manufactured, nay, immediate, nostalgia (it doesn’t hurt that they also shot videos on VHS).

While Lil Peep’s audience wasn’t exactly the same as Title Fight’s, he did speak to something similar, and it makes lots of sense that he could be considered a pop-punk artist, or even (deep breath) an emo revival act. He wasn’t reviving any sound as much as reinventing it– what he was reviving was the connection between artist and audience that flourished in the mainstream emo explosion of the early 2000s. Why do you think Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Lif3” was such a huge hit? Here’s a hint– Uzi tapped into those same feelings, and by his own admission, Hayley Williams is his biggest influence.

Lil Peep’s posses– first Schemaposse, and then GothBoiClique and a litany of assorted hangers-on– reminded me of the California hardcore band Trash Talk, who lived in similarly destroyed LA apartments, skating and writing graffiti, and associating with the rappers and artists in the Odd Future collective. However, while Trash Talk’s music and image were fundamentally alienating, even by hardcore standards (their shows are notoriously unhinged– I’m sure you’ve heard of the dude who pissed in his own mouth in a Trash Talk pit), Peep and his friends were welcoming and inclusive. Peep famously came out as bisexual in the most nonchalant way possible, and that nonchalance extended to his inclusion of a trans woman of color in the music video for his song with Horse Head, “Girls.” While his tall, gaunt frame and adorable facial features lent themselves to modeling, his fashion sense was androgynous, owing as much to the forward-thinking attire of Young Thug as it did to the sartorial flamboyance of bands like early Panic! at the Disco. Peep was also vocally outspoken about the mistreatment of women in the music industry (his posthumous, record-label-induced collaboration with the violently misogynistic and homophobic XXXTentacion would be, I’m sure, deeply distressing to him had he been alive). Fans of his who were in marginalized communities identified on a deep level with his bluntly (dashboard) confessional lyrics about suicidal impulses and drug use, both of which are afflictions that teenagers struggling with self-identity and dysphoria are often victim to. But Lil Peep’s music resonated with so many because pain is universal, and Peep’s mono-articulate straightforwardness spoke to that pain in a universal, plainspoken way. This new wave of hip-hop speaks to the same feelings as pop-punk did in its commercial heyday. Kids will always fundamentally go through the same things, and now that the Internet has been around for three generations of them, they’ll use that in the same way.

Extremely important in Peep’s rise to fame was the Internet– utilizing Twitter, Instagram, and Soundcloud as fan-building tools as well as indulging in every adolescent’s self-revealing, diaristic, and flippant impulses, the Internet presence of Peep and his peers reminded me that the more social media changes, the more it stays the same. Things have become sleeker and the language has updated, but Peep’s feverish cult of personality reminded me of the MySpace scene queens who built brands and loyalty through their appearances and personas, as well as the masterful self-marketing of bands. Kids will still post Lil Peep lyrics to describe their mood on Twitter, in the exact same way that a melodramatic LiveJournal post would be titled after a Say Anything song. Tinder has made hooking up faster and more localized than the days of Makeoutclub, where you would court someone for months before flying a plane across the country to have awkward sex and then leave the next day, but the mechanics are basically the same, sloppy and youthful as they ever were, fleeting as always. The outsized emotions of hormonal teenagerdom, made even more expansive by having a constant audience and mimicking the way they express their emotions, are just as perfect for Peep and emo rap’s rise as they were for Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.

“Emo rap” as a term has been around for quite some time, going as far back as 1997, when Slug of Atmosphere used it to describe the introspective and cathartic nature of his lyrics as well as his DIY work ethic (founding his own independent label, Rhymesayers, to release his own music and the music of likeminded rappers) and his melodic, hard-hitting production (courtesy of Ant). Being from the Midwest city of Minneapolis, I’m sure he was familiar with the emo coming out of his region, but it was a sight to behold a hip-hop artist associating himself with music that could clearly be derided as “soft.” As Rhymesayers grew, with highly emotive and melodically inventive hip-hop artists like Eyedea & Abilities, Brother Ali, and P.O.S. all being associated with it, “emo” exploded in the mainstream, and by 2008, Kid Cudi and Kanye West’s depressive masterwork 808s & Heartbreak were being described as emo.

I think it’d be myopic of me to assign emo the same meaning in hip-hop as it has in rock music– while deeply intertwined in many ways, hip-hop and DIY/hardcore/etc. are still distinct subcultures and I think there are semantic differences between their interpretations of emo that should be respected. However, with many artists blurring the lines between the cultures and sounds– Lil Ugly Mane, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, nothing.nowhere., SCXRLXRD, and Ghostemane chief among them, helping to popularize the hardcore and emo acts that they tour with along the way– I would point to Lil Peep as the ultimate synthesis of these disparate definitions of emo. Hip-hop and punk-derived genres are both inherently democratizing and populist forms of music, but with the ascension of Lil Peep, the fusion of these two genres finally seemed to become something more than a punchline about late 90s nü metal. It’s more than white kids appropriating black culture***, it’s cultural exchange and synthesis for a whole new milieu of teenagers. This new wave– known by emo rap, trap metal, or shadow rap– was developed by people of color like Lil Tracy, Shinigami, SCXRLXRD, Cold Hart, and Zillakami alongside their white peers, which is demonstrative of how arbitrary the division between hip-hop and rock (a division that has always been implicitly racialized) is. Mutual respect and dialogue is always a good thing, and I have greater hope in this generation of musicians than any before.

***: One could absolutely still argue that black culture is being exploited by white hip-hop artists like Post Malone, who don’t have reverence for the art form or the culture. Lil Peep’s racially-diverse GothBoiClique never seemed to blink at having white members like Peep or Wicca Phase, but hip-hop culture is not a monolith. It’s predominantly rooted in stories of black struggle, but Latino culture also has deep ties to it, and hip-hop artists of all stripes have accepted white rappers like El-P, Mac Miller, and the Beastie Boys, all of whom historically showed deep respect to the culture as well as demonstrated a clear aptitude at the art form. It’s a question of integrity, respect, and talent, and it’s also, to an even greater extent, about class and power. At the end of the day, as my Jewfro indicates, I’m far too white-passing to say anything definitive on the subject– I’m just echoing what I have heard and learned from the people of color around me. Above all else, listen to and respect their voices first in these discussions.

HELLBOY
(the backlash)

By the same token, I feel as if a lot of the vitriol aimed towards Peep often came from older people, especially older white people, and especially the variety who prized the specificity and secrecy of the Midwest emo of their youth, who could not fathom the boundaries breaking down in this way. Around the time that Pitchfork released that infamous “The Future of Emo” article about Peep (a claim that Peep denies in the same article), the backlash reached critical mass. I moderate /r/emo, and there were daily– in fact,  near-hourly— heated debates about whether or not to allow emo rap in the sub. The arguments that went further than “Peep is trash” usually boiled down to “It’s just not the same genre.” There is some implicit cognitive bias in this statement– it postulates that not only should hip-hop and emo not blend, but that people who try are committing heresy, as if one DIY art form crossing over into another was anathema to the whole enterprise.

I spoke earlier about the way that “hip-hop” and “rock” as phrases– denoting fanbase– became racialized over time. Despite hip-hop being the most popular form of music in America (a majority-white country), hip-hop is still coded as “urban.” Don’t get me wrong, hip-hop is inarguably black music, but it very obviously isn’t exclusively black, and it hasn’t been for a long time, especially not now; the same goes for rock music, which also began as black music, but was co-opted by white entertainers until it became almost exclusively white, with DIY punk and hardcore music (and their derivatives) often being one of the few spaces where people of color could have a voice in the genre. While early punk and early hip-hop certainly have ties, I find that it wasn’t until the advent of hardcore, the first truly DIY-from-the-ground-up movement in punk rock, that hip-hop and punk culture began to intermingle in a way that was more than a novelty. Hardcore was a genre founded by black people (Bad Brains), and with a rich Latino lineage, so to me, this seems like a no-brainer.

Graffiti– one of the four elements of hip-hop culture– and skateboarding– a sport that gained its greatest foothold in America as more than a passing fad when West Coast hardcore kids adopted it in the 80s– assisted in cross-pollination between hardcore and hip-hop throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Hardcore bands composed of graffiti writers like Downset and Spazz also flirted with hip-hop (Kool Keith even has a drop on a Spazz record, and shouted the band out on the Dr. Octagon track “I’m Destructive”). Downset, for their part, were the one band of the 90s who did Rage Against the Machine just as well, if not better, than Rage themselves (Downset’s “Anger” is a thinly-veiled criticism of Zach de la Rocha talking about a gang life that he never experienced in Rage’s “Settle for Nothing”— compare Rage’s lyric “I got a nine, a sign, a set, and now I’ve got a name” to Downset’s “Whatchu know about a set or a sign? Fake motherfucker, never even seen a nine”). Rage Against the Machine themselves, the oft-mentioned pioneers of rap-metal, were named after a scrapped song from Zach’s former hardcore band, Inside Out. Meanwhile, the massively popular video game series Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater exposed millions of skateboarding youths to underground hip-hop alongside various strains of punk. By the time of the time of the mid-late 2010s, it had become commonplace for Soundcloud rappers to rep hardcore and death metal (Lil Ugly Mane is probably the biggest influence in this regard, always wearing Jesus Piece and Obituary merch), and for rappers to experiment with a hardcore-derived screaming delivery in their tracks. Emo and screamo were simply the next logical step, and at this point the massively popular producer Nedarb is wearing a Saetia shirt on the cover of his solo album.

Collectives like THRAXXHOUSE, GothBoiClique, and Misery Club aren’t just the new incarnation of hip-hop groups like Wu-Tang Clan and Hieroglyphics– they’re part of a generation of groups founded through message board culture. They met or connected musically online, just like newer collectives in the same vein, like the hardcore-affiliated OFWGKTA, Brockhampton, and Injury Reserve. They’re also the new hardcore and emo bands, eking out a whole different kind of DIY circuit, one that navigates the internet just as much if not more than tour cycles. Yes, there’s still bands making guitar-based punk/emo/hardcore music, but when they’re releasing and promoting their music in the exact same ways as these rap groups, on Bandcamp and Soundcloud and Twitter and Instagram, why do those distinctions need to exist, beyond simple categorization? More often than not, the fanbases cross over anyway, so who cares?

The obvious answer, as always, is annoying old people, which finally brings me back to Lil Peep. His track with Gab3, the smokeasac and Yung Cortex-produced “Hollywood Dreaming,” samples Mineral’s “LoveLetterTypewriter,” a seminal Midwest emo song. To me, this was an obvious and good-natured show of affection towards their influences– “showing some love,” as Peep put it. It was released for free on YouTube and Soundcloud. Mineral themselves seemed to be none too pleased that they weren’t contacted about the sample (although now that they’ve reunited and are playing to crowds of both old fans and new kids who may have been introduced to them through Lil Peep’s sample, I wonder if they’re still upset), which set off a wave of angry responses through the old-o-sphere. Much love to Tom Mullen, but when my friend Kyle and I had him on our podcast, the E Word, we got into a brief spat over the subject. His party line is none too dissimilar to most other complaints, which is why I’m using him as an example– they should have gotten the sample cleared, and otherwise they were being disrespectful. My argument then is the same as it is now. For one thing, they didn’t actually make any money off the song, and for another, the sample itself was a show of respect and acknowledgment. Laws against sampling have long been used as an attempt to hold hip-hop production back, but intellectual property is not only an inherently gross and capitalistic concept, it simply shouldn’t hold up when the sample is used in a transformative way (for example, going from one genre to another, creating an entirely new song). Could they have asked for permission for the sample, or used an interpolation? Sure, but it would have been irrelevant, because old people were just going to be angry about kids “co-opting” their culture anyway. It’s sad to see a lot of younger people falling into these arguments as well.

It does bear mention that fans of underground music are often more protective of their genres of choice than fans of mainstream music– there was no major backlash to one of Peep’s best songs, “Yesterday,” which is not only much more straightforward in its sampling of Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” but also features a reinterpreted version of the vocal melody in “Wonderwall”‘s verses (in the context of the mixtape it’s on, Crybaby, it basically functions as an “Anyway, here’s ‘Wonderwall'” joke). I said earlier that Title Fight’s fanbase was different from Peep’s, but it didn’t have to be. I think young DIY rock fans have the capability of embracing this branch of hip-hop, and some of them do, but too many of them don’t want to. For a lot of white and ostensibly well-meaning kids in the DIY scene today, hip-hop is music that they don’t need to care about, or worse, music that they only care about in a tokenizing or condescending way to legitimize their taste in music to themselves and their peers (“My last.fm chart could use a more strategically placed JPEGMAFIA album,” they mumble to themselves). I understand that there’s no accounting for taste, but in a world that is becoming increasingly genre-agnostic, there’s no need to chain yourself to a constructed persona. People are messy and you won’t always adhere to a “brand.” It’s okay.

Some people took aim at Peep’s lyrics as vapid– that misses the point. They were deliberately spartan, as that was the best way of constructing the mood and conveying the feelings that Peep was aiming for. There is a valid argument to be made that his lyrics in songs like “Girls” and the somewhat-reprehensible “Driveway” were sexist. That is fair; as much as Peep, in his personal life, tried to combat the abuse of women in the music industry, his lyrics often portrayed someone who could be very vengeful against women, and that’s something that’s always been endemic in the tortured, toxic masculinity of emo in most of its incarnations. Still, by the time of his later material, Peep was showing signs of growing out of those lyrical conceits, and it’s hard to tell how else he might have matured as an artist in future years. Add to that his unblemished record– in a scene that’s often seen as a hotbed for abuse, Peep was never even thought, much less accused of, being an abuser– and it’s clear that his heart was in a much better place than people gave it credit for. As for the rest– the suicidal impulses, the drug abuse– Peep was singing about his reality, one that many people related to, and I find it hard to condemn that.

Then there was a whole other contingent of gatekeeper who despised Peep (and for that matter, all Soundcloud rappers) for the most predictable reasons: alarmism and forced moral outrage. Face tattoos? Drug use? What is this world coming to? Most people are smart enough to see through this as the same type of faux-anger directed at pretty much every rising subculture once it becomes apparent that suburban children could be exposed to the nefarious and degenerate lifestyle choices of the lower class (the “culture war” narrative that refuses to die has been in existence, in its contemporary form, since at least Tipper Gore and the PMRC). I shouldn’t have to tell you that it’s nonsense, because it should be self-evident. There is a new angle here, as Peep’s death and Soundcloud rap culture as a whole is tied to the opiate epidemic, but let’s be honest, the concerns raised about that are 1. fake non-empathy and judgment directed at drug addicts and 2. the polar opposite of the apathetic and even dangerous response that was directed at the crack epidemic. However, the crack epidemic plagued the black community, while the face of the opiate epidemic is mostly white. Shocking.

BEAMERBOY
(and the rest)

So when you strip away the responses to Peep’s music, both positive and negative, what is left? The material reality of the situation is that Peep was an extremely talented and innovative musician, which his major label debut, Come Over When You’re Sober, Part One proved amply as it became an immediate hit. It was a trap-infused update of the emo anthems of the early 2000s– with the samples done away with, Peep and his producers composed their own beats, which were filled with dark, twisting bass lines and guitar melodies by turns mournful, melancholic, and menacing. Even the most major-key number, the pop-punk-infused banger “Awful Things,” is stacked with Peep’s anguished yowl and a music video that plays with both ironic and genuinely sad iconography. In it, Peep confronts his real feelings of betrayal when he sees the girl he likes flirting with someone else by engaging in a self-aware and over-the-top act of self-immolation (onlookers literally mouth the words “what the fuck?”). It’s a nifty balancing act of self-consciousness, both reveling in and making fun of the emotions that he’s going through, which is instantly appealing to a generation that sees irony as the baseline of contact with the world around them. And yet, Peep’s approach to the music itself is wholly non-ironic, a purging of demons that never seems to end because he’s wallowing in the emotions even as he engages in the catharsis.

There’s a nearly intangible, but extremely noticeable shift in gloss between Peep’s underground material and Come Over When You’re Sober. Call it the damnation of low expectations, but while Peep’s earlier material is infused with the likability of a dirtbag who knows he’s going to flame out and die early (On his breakthrough mixtape Hellboy, he drawls “I used to wanna kill myself/Came up, still wanna kill myself”), it’s always tempered by the fact that Peep was so clearly enamored with fame. From naming a song “Cobain” to his tireless self-promotion, Peep was self-mythologizing to a fault. He was both honest and inscrutable– lines like “I don’t wanna lie, I wanna keep it real/I don’t wanna tell you how I feel” speak to this dichotomy– but more than anything, the thing that kept me invested in the kid was hoping he would overcome his issues and make it. On Come Over When You’re Sober, Part One we’re confronted with the fact that although he had finally made it, he was still just as miserable as ever. Add to that the pressures of touring and the fact that arguably his management enabled his drug addiction, and it was immediately clear that he was going to meet the exact fate that he always sang about.

Whether the music that he made and the people he associated with fueled his disregard for himself is irrelevant. There’s also a multitude of conspiracy theories surrounding his death, none of which I’m particularly interested in. Peep’s death came at an extremely weird time in my life– I was about to descend into some of the worst depths of my own bad decision-making, and the specter of his life and death hung heavy over the following few months. His music soundtracked a particularly hopeless and directionless patch of my life, and I feel like as much as it resonated with me before and after, Peep’s music never meant as much to me as it did in that immediate period. Counter as it runs to the nature of this column, I fear getting too indulgent, so I’ll spare you the details.

Ultimately, this column is about Lil Peep, and it’s difficult for me to think of a more representative performance of his than this video of him covering blink-182’s “Dammit.” His enthusiasm for the track is infectious, transforming what could have been little more than a karaoke performance into a transcendent moment of old and new colliding in a heartwarming and definitive way. “Dammit” occupies an extremely unique space in our cultural fabric– as the first guitar riff that most people of a certain age learn, it’s deeply embedded in our consciousness as a relic of late 90s nostalgia, and yet something about it will always feel timeless and relevant, and Peep’s choice to close his show with a cover of it speaks to both his respect for the pop-punk of years past and the way that those feelings will always remain trapped in time, frozen for angsty teenagers who hate their hometown and love their friends to discover whenever they are ready. It’s a beautiful moment of catharsis and homage.

It’s this image of Peep that I prefer to keep in my mind when I think of him, and not the shameless cash-in of the posthumous collaborations foisted upon his legacy by his record label, who have been pretty shamelessly manipulating the grief of his mother and his friends (like the producer smokeasac or rapper/possible partner iLoveMakonnen) into blatantly obvious cash grabs. “Sunlight On Your Skin” was a clear anthem about love between two men, and it was contorted into a gross mess with obfuscated lyrics and a guest spot by a man who represented everything that Lil Peep stood against, and then given the remix treatment by a desperate-to-stay-relevant Travis Barker (talk about symmetry in the worst possible way). That Fall Out Boy track is better, musically, but completely extraneous. Come Over When You’re Sober, Part Two is another mess of a record; for every strong salvaged song like “Sex with My Ex” and “Cry Alone” there’s a repackaging of a Peep song that was better served in its original form (“Life Is Beautiful” is a confused, I’m-14-and-this-is-deep reconstruction of an old Peep track from 2015, while “16 Lines” was a leaked track that stood much better in its initial incarnation). The song “Fingers” ends with the forced emotional manipulation of Peep saying “I’m not gonna last long”– how much more crude and empty can you get about an artist’s death? Peep shouldn’t be remembered as a martyr or a scapegoat. He was a goth angel sinner.

Am I embarrassed to be a fan of Lil Peep? I never have been, and never will. I will defend his place in emo’s history to my dying breath, as his ascendance was the perfect counter-example to people who claim that the way that fans connected with emo bands in the past could never happen in the age of social media. If anything, social media makes the connection more palpable; for as much as we could talk about parasocial relationships, the youth of many of these performers makes them more open to their fans, makes them more real and knowable. While that may be something of a social construct, social constructs are very powerful and very real. The pain that I and others felt at Lil Peep’s loss was as real as any other relationship that people in America create with a celebrity. It may be passe, but I’d like to conclude this column with two things. First is an arguably overwrought and emotional post I wrote immediately in the aftermath of Peep’s death:

This kid needed help. He posted a video on his Instagram yesterday of himself trying and failing to get Xanax into his mouth. Interviews with him were always incredibly troubling, too. Someone should have intervened. But honestly, an intervention would have been really hard too, considering the crowd he ran with. I’m sick of this shit; we shouldn’t have to try and tell a fucking aesthetic apart from a legitimate problem. Stop romanticizing drug use.

Either show people with addiction some empathy any other day of the fucking week or shut the fuck up, permanently. You’re not helping by offering your empty, hollow sympathies anytime another one of us poor junkies dies. Save that shit for your DARE presentation.

To make things even more crystal clear– Lil Peep wasn’t popping xans because his “music and lifestyle” glorified it. He was depressed as fuck and that’s immediately apparent when you read his lyrics or look at his Instagram; he was asking for help at least half the time. The blame for “glorifying” drug use isn’t on the artists themselves, it’s on the system that banks off the controversy and clicks it gets from those artists being open about their troubles. The blame is on anyone who profited off that shit without once thinking to step in to help him. The blame is on the industry folks– record execs, managers, anyone with a professional foothold in Peep’s career– who saw Lil Peep, mentally ill and killing himself daily with his drug addiction, and instead of trying to help him get clean, forced him to go on fucking tour. The fact that people are still going back to the same hoary old “rap culture” well pisses me the fuck off. Yeah, Peep was a depressed drug addicted musician who hung out with other depressed drug addict musicians… No fucking shit, Sherlock. You’re not a next-level culture critic.

Perhaps a bit too much, but these feelings are still just as strong today as they were in November of 2017. And if nothing else, no one else could have said what Peep and his fans were going through during his and their darkest times than Peep himself, in his song “U Said”:

Sometimes life gets fucked up
That’s why we get fucked up
I can still feel your touch
I still do those same drugs
That we used to do
I was used to you
“What have you been through?” she asked me
Every fucking kind of abuse

Not everyone can say they’ve been through his exact struggles, but everyone can know what it feels like to be at the bottom. And if nothing else, that’s what emo is about: articulating what it feels like to be at the bottom, and rejoicing in the relief that comes with seeing other people come together, hands clasped, shouting your words back at you, and saying, “I know. I’m here. You aren’t alone.”

NEXT WEEK: This column must come to an end, my friends, and I can think of no finale more fitting than the kings of bands that you weren’t supposed to like, the culprits of distorting everything about emo and presenting it to audiences of millions, the enemy of oversensitive authenticity-fetishists everywhere: My Chemical Romance. See you soon.

If you are dealing with drug abuse or mental health problems, please, seek help. Here is a list of international helplines. If someone has a better source for these, I implore them to post it below.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #8: AFI

PRELUDE 12/21

When I told my partner that AFI was the next band to be covered for this series, her response was, “Really? AFI? Were they a band that you weren’t supposed to like?”

That question made me stop for a moment. I have a tendency to lump a lot of the Warped Tour/Taste of Chaos/mall emo scene together, both for pragmatic purposes and because a lot of the same people listened to all of those bands. But my partner is right: AFI was a little bit different. For a certain period of time, AFI were kind of considered the same way that bands like Thursday, Taking Back Sunday, Glassjaw, and Every Time I Die were: normies were into them, but it was okay for hardcore kids to get down with them too. However, sometime after 2003’s major label breakthrough Sing the Sorrow (and certainly by the time that “Miss Murder” was destroying the airwaves in 2006), AFI crossed a line. They were not only now a band entirely for the mallrat crowd, but they were also receiving a nearly-unrivaled amount of venom, both for their music and for the androgynous, flamboyant attire of lead singer Davey Havok and guitarist Jade Puget. In particular, I remember a lot of the ire being aimed at them as transphobic in nature; Havok was regularly referred to as a “he-she” by the eternally enlightened punk traditionalists.

AFI underwent another shift in public perception following 2009’s Crash Love. While their diehards were still ready and willing to go in any direction AFI was willing to take them, the record-buying public and the DIY kids both seemingly forgot about them entirely. They were now in “Oh, they’re still a band?” territory. For reasons I’ll get into later, that’s kind of a shame, because the band started pulling cues from post-punk and indie rock that manifested in unique ways, but for the purposes of this article, it’s pertinent to remind everyone that to most people, AFI are remembered for anywhere from two to four albums, but they’ve produced ten.

While AFI may not have been as successful as many other bands in this series at adapting themselves to the changing times, they’re worth taking a look at. In many ways, their life as a band is a microcosm of the scene we’re talking about: starting life as a scrappy skate-punk band, maturing into material that took more from hardcore and pop, and eventually transcending their roots and becoming something entirely different, yet still with those hardcore roots intact.

CULT STATUS

The thing about Northern California is that while places like Berkeley and San Francisco often get a lot of credit for being countercultural meccas, NorCal is still home to a metric ton of boring, borderline rural places. Ukiah, California is one of these; AFI often brightened up their roots by claiming to be an “East Bay Hardcore” band, and while that may technically be true, Ukiah is miserable. According to Wikipedia, two of their largest employers are Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which says a lot about your options there. The Bay Area is also known for a preponderance of methamphetamine addiction (even Billie Joe Armstrong was hooked on it for a while– see “Brain Stew” and “Geek Stink Breath”) and general drug usage, which is why Davey and Jade being vegan straight-edge is pretty unique for that area. All things considered, Ukiah is a pretty weird place for a band like AFI to have come from, almost as much as the Used coming from Orem. But don’t be fooled by the odd circumstances of their formation: early AFI is about as boilerplate as you can get.

I’m sure Answer That and Stay Fashionable and Very Proud of Ya have their adherents (many of whom were pissed at AFI for daring to actually write, you know, hooks and memorable parts in any of their songs later on), but even when I was younger and excited about this type of music, neither album made much of an impression. The one standout track is probably “I Wanna Get A Mohawk (But My Mom Won’t Let Me Get One)”, a pretty entertaining anthem for the type of suburban mall-punkers who were starting to get into the scene in the mid-90s thanks to the success of bands like NOFX and Lagwagon.

Ultimately though, from their first stirrings in 1991 up until about 1997, AFI were kind of boring. They hadn’t even settled on AFI standing for A Fire Inside, instead bandying about Asking For It, Anthems For Insubordinates, and Another Fucking Initial. And while Davey Havok and drummer Adam Carson were instituted in the band from the get-go, two of the most vital parts of their sound (guitarist and primary songwriter Jade Puget and bassist Hunter Burgan) were yet to join the fray. The result is a series of extremely monochromatic punk songs that have the snotty aesthetic of a band like Screeching Weasel or Guttermouth, but without any of the personality or catchiness. The songs are also mostly jokey affairs, rarely stopping to plumb the depths of despair in the way that the band would soon make their career out of.

That changed (somewhat) with the release of Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes in 1997, the first AFI album to feature Hunter Burgan on bass– I don’t know what it is about the Bay Area, but it has a consummate knack for producing agile bassists who are uniquely adept at constructing extremely catchy and engaging bass lines (see also: Klaus Flouride, Matt Freeman, and Mike Dirnt). While Jade was yet to be a full-fledged member of the band, he contributed vocals and guitar work to several songs on the album. It was also the first album to feature one of AFI’s standing traditions– the short intro track. While it wasn’t the absolute peak of their powers, it was the first AFI record that felt like a record rather than a collection of songs. In addition, the riffs were getting both more melodic and harder-edged (they were finally discovering the “hardcore” part of “hardcore punk”) and Davey was finding his voice as a frontman, evolving from a nasal yelp into a sharper timbre with lots of range (check his screams in “Three Seconds Notice,” “Today’s Lesson,” and “Let It Be Broke,” for example).

More than that, the songs were becoming much more memorable, resulting in actualanthemic songs rather than minute-and-a-half bursts of adolescent noise (those are still there, too, though). Songs like “Third Season” and “Salt for Your Wounds” are fully formed, engaging, and dare I say, catchy, bolstered by the inclusion of gang vocals. While they’d always been a part of AFI’s sound, it’s here that they began to take on their status as a fifth member of the band, adding weight and melody to already strong songs and fostering an extremely communal and energetic atmosphere.

Shut Your Mouth is often unfairly lumped in with the formless mess of the first two AFI records, but there is a lot to like here, especially if you’ve already whetted your appetite with their later material and want something with a touch more hardcore-esque aggression. The twisty-turns at the beginning of “Three Seconds Notice,” the two-step dance part at the end of “The New Patron Saints and Angels,” the haunting and eerie guitar work during the verses of “Third Season,” and the generally moody bridges that pervade throughout many songs on the record throughout makes Shut Your Mouth stand out among the glut of bro-stomp moshcore and youth crew revival that made up the majority of late-90s hardcore. Plus, Davey was developing a dark and twisted charisma all his own; drawing from the machismo of Glenn Danzig, the sensitivity of Robert Smith and Morrissey, and the throaty screams of Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye, he was a Molotov cocktail of a frontman. Known for his devilock, his unorthodox stage presence (he would often stand on the audience’s heads while singing) and wholesale commitment to the material, he made AFI stand out in a live setting when they could have easily sunk into a morass of personality-less punk.

Still, there was something missing from Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes, not from all the songs, but from enough of them that the album felt like it could be improved upon. When Jade Puget joined the band as a full-time member in 1998 (coinciding with the exit of previous lead guitarist Mark Stopholes), things truly came together. I can’t stress enough how much Jade’s guitar sound is AFI. Drawing from hardcore more than straight-up punk, he was also heavily influenced by goth favorites like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sisters of Mercy, which came through both in the theatricality of his riffs as well as the out-and-out poppiness of much of his material. This blend helped give AFI a huge sound and personality, and the difference is immediately noticeable on their first release with their newly solidified lineup, 1998’s A Fire Inside EP.

The two original tracks, “3 1/2” and “Over Exposure,” are an immediate step up from Shut Your Mouth, both in songwriting and production. Davey is beginning to an experiment with a mildly sassy spoken word delivery, while Jade’s guitar sound is just harder-hitting than anything the band had ever done before. The rhythm section matches the intensity perfectly– the breakdown in “Over Exposure” sounds absolutely massive. Genre-wise, the band is still playing speedy hardcore, but there’s an intangible new sense of darkness and desperation that plays out in fascinating ways.

The band also flexes new muscles on the B-side of the EP, which features a slightly rocked-out rendition of the Cure’s “Hanging Garden” and a fairly faithful version of the Misfits’ “Demonomania.” These covers make perfect sense– when you synthesize the Misfits and the Cure and update it with a snarling 90s sensibility, you get AFI.

A Fire Inside was released on Adeline Records, the vanity label that was started by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in order to help out more underground punk bands, but AFI was soon snatched up by the vanity label of a different big-league punk rocker– Nitro, which was run by Dexter Holland of the Offspring, who had recently signed to a major label and was experiencing massive success off the corny sugar-rush of Americana. With the backing of Holland, AFI doubled down on their songwriting efforts and began to experience their true creative peak.

CLOVE SMOKE CATHARSIS

Nobody really saw Black Sails In the Sunset coming. While it was plain to see that AFI were heading in a more serious direction with their last two releases, neither were necessarily cohesive. Black Sails is meant to be listened to as an album; from front to back, it doesn’t let up (aside from the ten-minute silence between ostensible closer “God Called In Sick Today” and hidden track “Midnight Sun”). No longer were AFI simply moody, they were downright miserable. No matter how exuberant the music itself sounded (and, trust, there are double-time skank beats for days on Black Sails), the guitar tone was dark, and Davey’s lyrics and delivery were darker. Add to that his newfound range– while he still remained in the upper-register shout of Shut Your Mouth and A Fire Inside, he also introduced a low-key, sensitive singing voice– and even more macabre lyrics, Black Sails is the apotheosis of every hardcore kid’s obsession with the Smiths, a darkly addictive and unrelenting album that successfully fused hardcore with goth and pop in a way that had never been done before, not even by similarly tortured bands like Christian Death.

From the militaristic chanting intro of “Strength Through Wounding,” it’s clear that AFI aren’t fucking around, and “Porphyria” follows through on that promise, moving from a breakneck intro to a swaggering, stomping breakdown bridge and back again, before segueing easily into the foreboding bass intro to “Exsanguination.” Black Sails has a forceful momentum that takes me by surprise whenever I listen; every time I think I’ve outgrown them, I find myself wanting to shout along with the ever-present gang vocals. Jade is extremely talented at breaking every song down into a theatrical and expressive bridge that sums up the track’s emotion; Davey matches it with his vocal performance, while Hunter and Adam make up the difference with a near-relentless bubbly and energetic assault in the rhythm section.

Every track on Black Sails feels like a standout. From the cataclysmic opening guitars of “Malleus Maleficarum” (yes, AFI have the edgy song titles on lock) to the sweeping and epic chorus, it feels like AFI have scientifically engineered every song on the album to evoke an unreal live reaction. The way that Davey moves his voice from calm-yet-tense to barely-controlled chaos in the bridge is matched only intensity by the climactic “whoas” of the song.

“Narrative of Soul Against Soul” is another breakneck track with a weirdly calm chorus (given a typically over-the-top energy from Davey’s lowly-mixed howls), being just short enough to not overstay its welcome and succumb to typical filler track status. This is important, because it’s followed by the album’s centerpiece and one of my personal favorite songs on the record, “Clove Smoke Catharsis.” Beginning with a bombastic intro, the song slows down and stretches out to a relatively mammoth-sized four-and-a-half minute runtime. Arguably the “ballad” of the album, it’s truly a black lipstick-smeared, goth-inflected epic replete with both Davey’s gentlest singing and most agonized yelling on the album, along with the most intense instrumental performance yet. It naturalistically ebbs and flows with such an extremely tight grasp on dynamics that you barely blink as it transitions into “The Prayer Position” (another of my absolute favorite AFI songs), a mid-tempo, stomping hardcore track that openly condemns religion with such venom and sarcasm that it arguably contributed to my atheism at a young age. The song breaks down into a gentle and almost emo-inflected bridge before it explodes with the most head-nodding iteration of the main riff yet, with some tasteful, tribalistic drum rolls providing a thick gravity to the song’s already-heavy themes.

The album continues unabated by the two slower tracks, “No Poetic Device” being perhaps the fastest song on the record. Even when the song hits its requisite more restrained bridge, the rhythm section refuses to match Davey’s gentler cooing, opting instead for one of the bounciest bass lines ever recorded and extremely fast drumming, which provide some really neat dissonance, especially when the soft singing is occasionally broken up by staccato bursts of power chords and gang vocals.

“The Last Kiss” is, in my opinion, the peak of the album, marrying the speed and fury of hardcore with the sweetness and catchiness of pure pop– the juxtaposition between the pre-chorus and the chorus is immediate and affecting, heightening the skyscraper emotional stakes of the song, and further going over the top with an digitally-modified guitar break that gives way to a short-but-sweet, extremely emotive bridge and then bringing us home with a characteristically busy bass line and a succinct exit.

That same frenetic energy on the bass announces “The Weathered Tome” with style and energy, while the two-step-friendly chorus provides the impetus for dancing and singing along galore. At this point, the songwriting may be becoming repetitive, but the fever-pitch intensity of the performances and the record’s short length means that the record never truly flags. Songs slow down, the bass takes center stage, the song hits an explosive conclusion– on the surface, it sounds easy, but I guarantee that it’s extremely difficult to make the formula come up aces on every track as AFI does here.

The penultimate track, “At A Glance,” is a close runner-up contender for my favorite song on the record. Beginning with a typically breathless and catchy skate-goth verse, this song’s bridge is genuinely sinister and moving, and right when it reaches its logical endpoint, it instead stretches out into a half-time masterpiece. Much has been made of AFI’s over-reliance on “whoa”s during this time period (see NOFX’s “Whoa On the Whoas”) but when they are utilized as well as they are here, I don’t see a need to complain. Of course, the contrast between the heavy-yet-bouncy bass line and the highly-pitched octave chords Jade wrings out of his guitar as the song reaches its end help a lot, too. AFI makes misery sound positively ecstatic.

“God Called In Sick Today,” while not my choice for the album’s best song, is a justifiable fan favorite. Davey genuinely sings here, in an unguarded and vulnerable fashion, giving fans their first glimpse at the band’s true pop aspirations. There’s still shouting and “whoa”s to go around, for sure, but the aggression is easily tempered by the melancholy that hangs heavy over the entire affair. “God Called In Sick Today” isn’t even the longest song on the record, but it sounds massive, and it makes sense that it was the requisite Black Sails setlist staple as late as the Decemberunderground era.

While “God Called In Sick Today” is definitely an admirable closer, AFI threw in the hidden track “Midnight Sun” ten minutes after it ended, and it’s a damn great hidden track, skating along with reckless energy and even including a nearly-overbearing but perfectly-pitched acoustic bridge, complete with almost-buried, eerie whispering, that capably puts a cap on arguably the most tortured and consistent AFI album.

Black Sails In the Sunset is magnificent, and arguably AFI’s greatest album (it’s definitely here that many of the band’s earliest fans jumped off and many of the band’s later fans jumped on). It’s an album of both tireless energy and deep darkness, but the combination of the two makes for an exquisite listening experience, one that makes you understand why so many kids with chain wallets and checkered Vans graduated to Doc Martens and chokers. With Black Sails In the Sunset, AFI crafted their first (but, perhaps contentiously, not their only) masterpiece.

However, Davey and Jade are unstoppable songwriting machines, and Black Sails In the Sunset was just the latest in a seemingly-endless stream of hits for the band from 1999 to 2000. While their next full-length record, The Art of Drowning, is held in nearly as high esteem as Black Sails In the Sunset (and some would say it’s better), I think that the outright best AFI record lies in between the two, with the All Hallow’s EP, released in October of 1999.

All Hallow’s includes another Misfits cover, this time of the thematically fitting “Halloween,” and I honestly think it is better than the original– Davey’s sharper singing voice and the fact that all the members of AFI are simply better musicians than the original iteration of the Misfits helps that massively. This EP also features “The Boy Who Destroyed the World,” which was featured on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and was many people’s first exposure to the band. It wasn’t mine, but this EP does feature the first song I ever heard by AFI, and my favorite of theirs to this day, “Totalimmortal.”

All Hallow’s is four songs of breathless melodic hardcore, far surpassing the “horror punk” label that it often gets tagged with– from the creepy, lilting guitar intro of “Fall Children” through to the downright destructive bridge of “Totalimmortal,” every song on this EP feels like AFI showing off all their muscles. There’s tantalizing fast drum beats, intriguing bass lines, and some of Davey’s most impassioned singing yet. A few of the songs feature ambient noise (their “Halloween” cover is supplanted by a full two minutes of piano chaos) but it adds to the mood rather than subtracting from it. This is the era of AFI that really introduced them (and their fans) to the whole Nightmare Before Christmas/Hot Topic aesthetic, which would eventually become their downfall, but here it feels vital and likable rather than cheesy.

A few of my favorite moments on this record: the chorus of “Fall Children,” which hits as viscerally and physically as a brick to the face; the bridge of “The Boy Who Destroyed the World,” which features some of Jade’s most intriguing and intricate guitar work within a hardcore setting; and the entirety of “Totalimmortal,” from the absolutely incredible bass work and Davey’s untouchably good vocals in the bridge to the way that the “whoa”s extend themselves slightly past their breaking point during the final chorus to Jade’s quiet supporting vocals in the pre-chorus.

While I love Black Sails and Drowning as much as the next person, I often tell people to start with All Hallow’s, because it’s short, accessible, and tells you everything you need to know about this era of the band. It’s dark, it’s fun, and it’s amazingly catchy. There aren’t too many tangible differences between Black Sails AFI and Drowning AFI, but I do think that Drowning is slightly more traditionally catchy and poppy, and All Hallow’s splits the difference between that and their earlier melancholic aggression rather nicely. If you’ve somehow never listened to AFI until this point in your life (or even if you’ve been a longtime fan but haven’t gone back to this one in a while), take a listen. The weather is right for it.

SACRIFICE THEORY

There really was only so far that AFI could push their whole EC Comics-inspired image at this time, and The Art of Drowning (named after a book of poetry by Billy Collins) is kind of the peak of it. The hints of occult that peeked through in song titles like “Malleus Maleficarum” are now a full-blown overtone, and the art direction is self-consciously cartoony; that was fine for a one-off like the All Hallow’s EP, but for an LP, it makes Drowning feel kind of locked in time and space. Drowning is AFI leaning into the image that they’d cultivated with their previous two releases, and while it’s still extremely good, you can’t help but hear them beginning to grow tired with their self-imposed limitations.

The album starts off with the mildly disappointing intro “Initiation,” which wastes a foreboding and suitably creepy palm-muted guitar line early on for a “Reoccurring Dreams”-style burst of chaos, but it’s soon back to business as usual with the off-kilter bass intro and gang vocal theatrics of “The Lost Souls.” The Art of Drowning is an interesting album, in that it’s full of songs that follow the Black Sails formula (“The Lost Souls” features that traditional slow-down bridge with an evocative and sad guitar interstitial before bursting back into the initial energy) but it also features moments where AFI are clearly straining against their confines. “The Nephilim” is an effectively classical AFI tune, but the repeating intro riff and a brief, sparse moment right before the final chorus shows that AFI were trying to play with the post-punk-isms that would define their later material.

“Ever and A Day” is perhaps the first time that AFI wrote a truly anthemic pop-rock riff, the kind that would carry them to success later on, with more of Davey’s constrained singing during the verses. Of course, they were still on Nitro, so it still has a heavy edge to it that maintains the appeal they’ve cultivated throughout the mid-era of their career, but the fact that this songs never really rises above mid-tempo shows that AFI were becoming more concerned with accessibility.

Luckily, “Sacrifice Theory” changes things up, moving at a neck-snapping pace and showing Hunter Burgan at the absolute peak of his powers with an extremely nimble and catchy bass line throughout. Even when the song pauses for its traditional slowdown, my attention is consistently drawn to his extremely charismatic efforts on bass, although the final chorus introduces a tasteful melodic overtone from Jade.

The bass theatrics continue during “Of Greetings and Goodbyes,” a likably stomping number with perhaps the most infectious chorus on the record. The Art of Drowning is the sound of an underground punk band bristling against the confines of the underground touring circuit, and “Of Greetings and Goodbyes” would have been an enormous hit single in another world, Jade’s high-pitched guitar tone giving the whole song a bit of an unhinged atmosphere.

The digital manipulation on the guitar at the beginning of “Smile” is an endearing fakeout, as the song immediately becomes a throwback to the more straightforward hardcore of the Shut Your Mouth days, albeit with much more engaging bass work and a likably off-kilter and brief guitar freakout during the bridge and outro.

The following two tracks, “A Story At Three” and “The Days of the Phoenix,” are really where it shows that AFI were struggling with their own genre. The beginning of “A Story At Three” feigns a gothic dirge in the vein of “Clove Smoke Catharsis,” but it quickly becomes a standard AFI track. However, the song does follow through on the promise of the intro with the end of the track, a long and agonized meditation on the song’s central melody that feels downright elegaic, so that when the bring-it-home fast chorus comes back, it sounds renewed. Meanwhile, “The Days of the Phoenix” was maybe the first AFI track to gain a significant amount of radio airplay, bolstered by an extremely catchy guitar riff and a monstrous, affecting chorus. “I fell into yesterday” is such an evocative line and the song matches that yearning sensibility perfectly, toning down the speed and aggression just enough that it sounds fun and jaunty without sacrificing what made AFI such a unique force within hardcore. Again, there is a bridge that evokes Midwest emo, with another spoken word endeavor from Davey. “The Days of the Phoenix” is deservedly one of the first songs that people think of when The Art of Drowning comes up, and it shows that this record was much more of a bridge between the gothcore of Black Sails and the breakthrough pop success of Sing the Sorrow than people give it credit for.

Enjoyably, AFI immediately reneges on the promise of “The Days of the Phoenix” with “Catch A Hot One,” a song that combines the frenzied energy of Earth AD-era Misfits with a skittering and accomplished bassline and a frenetically catchy gang-vocal refrain (“Have you ever turned to dust?”). The Art of Drowning might not be AFI’s most artistically accomplished record, but it’s a very good record, and when “Catch A Hot One” segues into a savage breakdown (along with more freaky guitar work from Jade), it’s easy to see why this one has so many diehard adherents.

Hunter Burgan really is the unsung hero of this record, as so many songs here live and die by the nuance he provides with his memorable and stunningly competent bass lines, like “Wester.” This song is what The Art of Drowning could have been, a further refinement on the Black Sails formula, filled with emotion and tension and a characteristically stellar drum performance during the bridge, as well as a ground-punching two-step part.

“6 to 8” is another moment where Drowning shows that AFI were capable of so much more, a truly brooding and unnerving number with intricate guitar work and perhaps Davey’s most restrained and subtle vocal performance yet, but still brimming with the kind of energy that invokes circle pits and pile-ups. This song signifies the homestretch of the record, and it’s the perfect, almost-but-not-quite-calm moment for this segment of the record. Hardcore this song ain’t, but it’s still informed enough by hardcore to feel vital, complete with a mournful-yet-exhilarating guitar solo that caps off the whole endeavor.

“The Despair Factor” is both the first song where AFI really plays with their electronic and industrial influences (in the dark and cold intro) as well as the song that gave their fanbase, the Despair Faction, their name. It’s one of the most definitive AFI songs, in that it’s chock full of speed and melody in equal parts, as well as more of Davey’s spoken word melodrama (including a fun Beetlejuice quote that sees Davey doing his best Winona Ryder impression). Calling AFI post-hardcore at this juncture of their career doesn’t feel quite right, but it almost fits in the way that AFI are trying to push past those boundaries, especially with the absolutely cacophonous bridge, with both some of the gentlest and hardest-edged guitar work in the band’s history.

The closer, “Morningstar,” is the apotheosis of AFI’s aspirations on this album, an actual pop song full of singing, strings, and a very understated and lengthy intro. I’ve seen this song called the sequel to “God Called In Sick Today,” but it’s more sprawling, more indicative of things yet to come for the band, and much more of a prologue to “The Leaving Song.” The way that it builds up to its tension-filled “I don’t want to die tonight” refrain is a master-class in dynamics, especially when it finally explodes in the way that we’ve been wanting it to the entire time. “Morningstar” is the true send-off to this era of AFI, even with another hidden track (the short, Misfits-y banger “Battled”) functioning as the actual ending of the album.

After The Art of Drowning, the band pressed pause for three years, focusing more on touring, before riding all the momentum they’d built into a contract with DreamWorks. It’s here that AFI begins for a lot of people, as well as where AFI ends for a lot of others. For the purposes of this series, here is where AFI truly earned their title as a “Band You Weren’t Supposed to Like.” They were given the sellout tag instantaneously by people who had been aware of them previously, and many who had just discovered them instantly dismissed them because of their new image, centered around the makeup-strewn posturing of Davey and Jade. Were they correct to do this? Obviously not– that’s a horribly gender-normative view of the world, and it’s impossible to defend in good conscience. However, it must be said that Sing the Sorrow is not actually a very good record, and it’s hard to defend it in good conscience.

THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT

I have to admit, at this point in writing the article, I stopped and said to myself, “What the fuck, I’m only halfway through AFI’s discography? What absolute bullshit.” That’s kind of indicative of how I feel about this period of the band musically as well: aside from a few sonic highlights, it’s just a chore to get through. Sing the Sorrow is nearly an hour long, but it somehow manages to feel even longer. It boggles my mind that this is the record that launched them into the mainstream– sure, some of the songs are catchy (“Girl’s Not Grey” is one of the most sticky and consistent songs ever written, to be sure), but the whole effort is bogged down by songs that stretch long past their expiration dates and overwrought, muddy production. This album was produced by Butch Vig and Jerry Finn– the latter is the person who made blink-182’s major-label albums sound so vibrant and immediate, while the former is the person who sanded Nirvana’s Nevermind down into glistening sameness. The result is an album that sounds both too fussed-over and only half-formed, a would-be epic that doesn’t follow through on its promise, and I found myself experiencing an odd sort of combination of boredom and annoyance every time I forced myself to listen to this record for this article.

A large part of the reason for my frustration with Sing the Sorrow is that about half the record shows extreme promise, especially in the first half– despite the snoozer of an intro this time around, the guitar work in “The Leaving Song, Part II” is refreshingly innovative, “Bleed Black” is suitably propulsive and features an enjoyable acoustic bridge, “Silver and Cold” is about as fun as a sad-ass ballad can be– but it feels a lot more reserved than it ought to. The would-be hardcore track, “Dancing Through Sunday,” is where the cracks start to show for me, and I find myself thinking, “This should sound a lot harder, right?” It’s functional and not bad (the guitar solo is a pretty welcome accoutrement given the mid-tempo, accent-less slack of much of the record), but there’s something missing.

Davey certainly hasn’t gotten any worse as a vocalist, and has thrown a few more tricks into his grab bag– his high, smooth croon is now augmented by an evincing baritone, and his screams are beginning to attain a more tangy and gritty metalcore tone to them– but in the process of pushing their songs into a big-league mentality, AFI feels like they’ve forgotten what made them part of the big leagues in the first place. This is rectified somewhat by the genuine heaviness of “Death of Seasons”– simultaneously harsher and catchier than any hardcore song they’d written previously, with a gripping industrial-derived second verse– but much of this album is composed of interchangeable riffs and hooks, a bunch of gears turning with little purpose.

I mean, I’m probably one of the only ones who feels this way, as this album launched AFI into the mainstream eye without much convincing, and this album was bafflingly highly acclaimed. This album doesn’t sustain itself much for me on repeated listens– there’s a series of boring, go-nowhere songs in the middle section like “The Great Disappointment,” “Paper Airplanes (Makeshift Wings),” and “This Celluloid Dream”– and although I don’t wish that they made a big-budget version of Black Sails or Drowning, that probably would have been preferable to the glossy and confused mess that is Sing the Sorrow.

The stripped-down aesthetic of “The Leaving Song” and the genuinely moving sing-along moments and savage breakdown of “…but home is nowhere” almost salvage this album, as they are probably the most emotionally convincing moments here, but AFI misses their hat-trick with the ten-minute drudge “This Time Imperfect,” a song that’s so in love with its own atmospherics that it forgets to actually flesh out the perfectly good song that’s buried in there.

With Sing the Sorrow, I get the sense that AFI wanted to upgrade from “theatrical” to “cinematic,” but in the process, I think they lost a lot of the visceral energy and verisimilitude of their last two LPs, which both sounded like they’d evoke the same response live as they did on record. Sorrow, by contrast, feels like a studio album, and while AFI would go on to do interesting things within those confines, here it feels hollow and tapped out. The black lights are on, but nobody’s home.

THE MISSING FRAME

For a band that was so prolific– releasing two EPs and five LPs within a five year period– once AFI signed to a major label, they seemed to spend a lot of time regrouping. Granted, after Sing the Sorrow was released to an warm commercial response, some regrouping was probably necessary. You tour for your new fans, and you write songs that build on what you’ve already accomplished. For a lot of bands, ignoring what your old fans want is a death knell, but after Sing the Sorrow AFI continued to make moves that alienated people who wanted more of the same from them, and it actually worked really well, for two reasons.

ONE: Many bands who fail because they alienated their old fans failed because they didn’t have the persona or likability to form a diehard cult around themselves. AFI are not one of these bands. The Despair Faction may not boast the numbers that it once did, but the people in it would die for Hunter, Adam, Davey, and Jade, and that’s a fact.

TWO: In the three-year interim between Sing the Sorrow and AFI’s biggest commercial success to date, 2006’s Decemberunderground, something strange happened: My Chemical Romance got big, and were followed by a multitude of bands who bit their goth aesthetic but didn’t have any of the soul (see: Aiden). AFI were borrowing tips from the goth playbook before My Chemical Romance had even formed, so they probably realized it was a good time to double down on it, and they started pulling more blatantly from goth musically as well, with sophisticated and layered pop songwriting and more generous incorporation of dance music and synthesizers. The result was a much more cohesive and consistent album than Sing the Sorrow, and a real fucking firestorm of a main single.

“Miss Murder” really was AFI’s brightest moment as a mainstream outfit, as well as the thing that ultimately buried them. That groovy bass riff and the almost football-chant quality of the chorus were custom-built for mainstream success, and it rocketed AFI past even the heights of “Girl’s Not Grey”– “Miss Murder” has the odd distinction of being the song that the coaches at my school made kids listen to while doing exercises in the gym, joining quintessential Jock Jams like Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin'” and “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” by C+C Music Factory.

Simultaneously, it was with “Miss Murder” and Decemberunderground as a whole that I feel AFI was codified as The Hot Topic Band, which ruined their credibility for holier-than-thou “true punk/hardcore/emo/whatever” types forever, and immediately put an expiration date on them. Kids who wore Hot Topic in middle school were made fun of (sometimes rightly so– all that Invader ZIM merch really was rather gaudy, wasn’t it?), which sent a message to all the kids who loved AFI and their brethren back then: expressing masculinity or femininity in ways considered outside of the norm was to be punished, and blending the two, in the way that Davey and Jade did so skillfully (I hate the term “guyliner,” but a lot of bands of the day were pretty fucking lazy at applying makeup, while Davey and Jade always looked damn gorgeous), meant that you were a “tranny,” a “shemale,” or any other number of horrible transphobic slurs. Whether the kids were trans or not, it was still harmful; I think that’s actually a really big reason why so many kids grew out of their so-called “scene phase,” and by extension, bands like AFI. “Miss Murder” introduced them to the soccer mom mainstream, but simultaneously condemned them to a career of playing mostly to lifers, becoming ever less likely to recruit new fans into their brood.

Decemberunderground is, by the way, a pretty fucking good album, and it’s totally understandable that it’s AFI’s biggest hit. The dance-synth/handclap chemical mixture of opener “Prelude 12/21” is immediately infectious, the aforementioned “Miss Murder” genuinely slays, especially once its shockingly heavy bridge kicks in, and the freezing and airy melodies of “Love Like Winter” make it an able contender for follow-up single. There’s some really cool nods to the hardcore AFI of the past in songs like “Kill Caustic” and “Affliction,” while other songs like “Summer Shudder” truly do show a world in which AFI became an ever-relevant pop-rock band. Unfortunately, their attempt to solidify themselves as such, Crash Love, was kind of a colossal failure.

It’s not that Crash Love is necessarily bad, because there are some real standout tracks on it (the huge chorus and shimmery guitar solo on “Medicate,” for example), but AFI spent way too long writing it and it shows. They were smart enough to know that mainstream emo’s time in the spotlight wouldn’t last forever, and so they crafted some alterna-rock gems like “Veronica Sawyer Smokes” and “Darling, I Want to Destroy You,” but too often fall back on lazy choruses– closer “It Was Mine” is a particularly bad offender, which makes my eyes roll every time I listen.

To that end, it’s understandable that AFI somewhat retreated. Aside from their foray into full-on post-punk with the mostly forgettable Burials, Davey and Jade occupied themselves with side projects like the moody electronic music of Blaqk Audio (not my thing) and the thunderously heavy vegan straight-edge digital hardcore of XTRMST (totally my thing, and you should definitely listen to it– it’s got the hardest and most inventive guitar riffs that Jade ever wrote, and some of Davey’s most bilious lyrics and delivery, especially on “Social Deathplay” and the stellar “Swallow Your God”). By the time of their most recent full-length effort, 2017’s The Blood Album, I kind of expected them to make a commercial comeback, but it didn’t quite happen for them

That’s a shame, because The Blood Album is their best album since Decemberunderground, and an able fusion of all the various places they’d taken their music throughout the years, from the hard-edged pop-punk of “Snow Cats” and “White Offerings” to the hardcore-inflected religion-bashing of “Above the Bridge” and the aggressive-but-restrained post-punk of “Pink Eyes.” Ultimately, though, AFI is still in the same place that they were. Last year, they released the middling and tired effort The Missing Man EP and have been mostly quiet since then. It’s a little sad to see, because over the course of ten albums, AFI have shown that it’s possible to expand from hardcore into experimental and worthwhile horizons– it’s just a shame that they themselves only followed through on that promise three or four times.

THE DEVIL LOVES YOU

So ultimately, what is AFI’s legacy? They got a shitload of kids into hardcore– Davey often reps the sweaters of bands like Refused when they play live– and introduced a lot of people to vegan straight-edge (while I am not straight-edge, I do think it’s a valid and important lifestyle for many people, and I am working to become vegan). They also inadvertently made their fashion sense and the aesthetics of much of their fanbase an undeserving punching bag throughout the mid-2000s, which is a damn shame, and I hope newer, “scene”-influenced bands like Wristmeetrazor and Kaonashi assist in bringing it back in a slightly more enlightened social climate.

Am I embarrassed to be a fan of AFI? No, but I am sad. For a band that reached the dark heights that they did during their pre-mainstream days, I feel like they deserved a lot more, if only they’d been able to parlay that momentum into even more consistently excellent songwriting. I know AFI has a strong and dedicated fanbase that will follow them to the ends of the earth, but I wish they hadn’t turned to dust for everyone else. But no matter what they do in the future, the records they made at the height of their powers will always ignite a fire inside me.

NEXT WEEK: The end days are upon us, my friends. Before I close out the series for good, though, I want to take a look at the artist that became the modern equivalent of the bands I’m talking about, the person who arguably became a martyr for the return of the scene, and one of my favorite artists of the last five years: Lil Peep. Stay tuned.

 

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #7: Bring Me the Horizon

OH NO

We’re now firmly in the back half of this series now; I wasn’t sure exactly how long I would end up writing it for, but I think that 10 entries is a nice, round number to aim for, and there are only so many bands from this era that I truly developed a strong emotional attachment to, which is the beating heart of this series. So, stay tuned for the final three entries– the way I have things set up, it looks like the series is going to end on October 28th, with an appropriately Halloween-themed band. If you were introduced to me through this series, stick around! I promise there will be cool new things for you to read! I’d also recommend checking out the podcast that I co-host about DIY music, the E Word, on Spotify, iTunes, and Twitter.

With that out of the way, let’s talk about Bring Me the Horizon. They were, at the time, the absolute epitome of a band that you were not allowed to like. The tr00 kids hated them because they were pretty and indulged in scene fashion, the mainstream music press hated them for the same reasons, and my mom hated them because they were loud and noisy. As time went on, the critics began to warm to the band (partially because they evolved into an artsy metalcore outfit and then into something more eclectic and boundary-pushing), but the band seems to accumulate as many haters as it does fans with each new album. Because of this, Bring Me the Horizon have the unique distinction of being a different kind of “Band You Weren’t Supposed to Like” to different people. Everyone has their opinion on which era of the band is shit and which is good. However, I am good and smart and my opinion is always correct, so you should listen to me over them. I have a prestigious blog, sir.

RAWWWRR!!

The roots of Bring Me the Horizon lie in Sheffield, England. I don’t know anything about England, so I won’t pretend to know what it was like for the band members growing up (although frontman Oliver Sykes has said about his heartbreak-focused lyrics of their earlier work, “My life’s never been that bad so I’ve not got that much to talk about”). According to Wikipedia, Sykes and drummer Matt Nicholls were fans of American hardcore bands like Norma Jean and Skycamefalling (which is a clutch name drop, by the way– that band is still extremely underrated), while their stalwart guitarist, Lee Malia, was an At the Gates fan who was killing time in a Metallica cover band. The band members were all teenagers at the time and, in 2004, this could even be considered a “diverse” set of influences for a British band. Hooking up with Matt Kean on bass and hiring on Curtis Ward as an auxiliary rhythm guitarist, the band continued to develop their melange of influences (everything from melodic American metalcore like Poison the Well and Every Time I Die to punishing, wonky mathcore like the Dillinger Escape Plan to the traditional death metal and grindcore of British pioneers like Carcass) and cut a basement demo, which led to their first EP, This Is What the Edge of Your Seat Was Made For. 

For as annoying as it is when people bemoan the way that Bring Me the Horizon have tinkered with their sound over the years, slowly introducing more and more pop elements, it is admittedly a shock to go back to their very first EP and hear how heavy these songs were. Maybe the heaviness isn’t unprecedented (there’s lots of Dillinger Escape Plan worship in the skronky bits and time signature shakeups, and the breakdowns recall early 90s NYDM like Suffocation while the vocals are reminiscent of early Obituary), but it’s a damn sight more intense than what they’re doing now. Hell, this EP and their debut LP were both released on the distinguished death and grind label, Earache. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Granted, I do think there’s a lot to like about This Is What the Edge of Your Seat Was Made For, from its likably scrappy production to its zany song titles (“Rawwwrr!!”, initially an onomatopoeia referring to Sykes’ animalistic vocals, foreshadows the “Rawr XD” era of MySpace pretty heavily, while “Who Wants Flowers When You’re Dead? Nobody.” is one of my favorite quotes from The Catcher In the Rye), but song-wise, the structure just isn’t there yet. The songs stretch themselves out to five minutes or more by force, and often feel like a collection of “brutal” parts that were thrown together without consideration to a central theme. “Flowers” is the exception to this rule, and it’s deservedly a standout, but even excellent moments like the extended breakdown that finishes out opener “RE: They Have No Reflections” lose a bit of their punch because they haven’t been earned within the song.

Like I said, though, this EP has its moments. There’s a dancey, panic chord-filled breakdown in “Rawwwrr!!” that wouldn’t feel out of place in, say, a .gif from god or Meth song in 2019, and there’s several moments where the song pauses so Sykes can do a spoken word breakdown intro, which is pretty cute and endearing (his speaking voice is borderline squeaky this early in their career). I’d also be remiss not to mention the spindly arpeggios that punctuate the fight riffs in the beginning of EP closer “Traitors Never Play Hangman,” in a moment that actually sounds closer to, say, “Shingles” by Converge than any of Bring Me the Horizon’s contemporaries. “Traitors Never Play Hangman” is also home to the best breakdown on the EP, a descending riff matching Sykes’s demonic vocals, along with some pitch-shifting, that closes the EP out on a high note.

While This Is What the Edge of Your Seat Was Made For isn’t perfect, it’s a promising debut EP from an early band, showing a variety of influences and a couple standout moments. Career-wise, the band was still in its infancy too, scamming their way onto tours and playing for beer money. All of that was soon to change with their next record, Count Your Blessings.

OFF THE HEEZAY

If you asked me to name the most hated album on metal blogs in 2006, Count Your Blessings would probably be the first one to come to my mind. Metal kids hated this album; everything from the band members’ skinny jeans and flat-ironed hair to the polished production to the abundance of breakdowns seemed tailor-made to incite the wrath of long-haired nerds who practice sweep-picking in their parents’ garage. It got so bad that they were often pelted with garbage from the audience and had fights picked with them during live performances.

While the band has grown to disregard Count Your Blessings as an inferior album in later years due to a variety of factors (many of the songs were written in three days prior to the album’s recording, and it is clearly heavily indebted– to an almost plagiaristic degree– to the riffs of bands like Arch Enemy, In Flames, and At the Gates), a growing contingent of the band’s fanbase regards Count Your Blessings as the pinnacle of the band’s sound. While I disagree with this opinion, I have to say that I unfairly dismissed this album for a long time simply due to the strength of the band’s next efforts.

Count Your Blessings is an extremely tight, clean, and well-polished deathcore record. It might actually have my favorite drum sound of any Bring Me the Horizon album– really tightly-tuned and organic. Sykes is also at his peak as a “metal” vocalist here. He’s got plenty of range, with well-defined higher shrieks mixing well with his gutturals. A lot of deathcore bands around this time often cheated with their lows, relying on inhale vocals, but it’s pretty clear that Sykes never did that.

However, this album is also pretty guilty of the background effect. “Pray for Plagues” is an extremely strong opener, but second track “Tell Slater Not to Wash His Dick” copies it wholesale. There’s not a whole lot of variety on the album as a whole; melodic death metal riffs succumb to breakdowns, the occasional solo serving to break up the monotony without ever giving songs their own unique identity. The songs are definitely more tightly constructed than on This Is What the Edge of Your Seat Was Made For, but when every song sounds the same, how much of an improvement is that, really?

I will say that “Tell Slater” does add one neat kink to the formula– there’s a high-pitched, achingly melodic tremolo riff at the end of the song that recalls the more Shai Hulud-esque direction that the band’s melodic metalcore moments would take in ensuing years. Unfortunately, it’s immediately followed by another forgettable riff salad, “Braille (For Stevie Wonder’s Eyes Only.” The whole album also suffers from Sykes’s misogynistic lyrics– this song includes the stunner “I’ll take everything, you fucking bitch,” with Sykes adding a lower tone to “bitch” for a thicker and heavier pre-breakdown moment. That  tack would be copied by sexist deathcore bands for years to come, and it comes off the same way it does here: fucking insufferable. If it weren’t for the extremely energetic and heavy drumming, this album would feel like a lot more of a chore to get through.

“A Lot Like Vegas” is a shorter track that actually throws in some more traditional hardcore influence, with Sykes introducing his more emotionally-expressive shout for the first time and the band including some gang vocals right before a fairly memorable breakdown and a surprisingly melodic and restrained guitar solo. It quickly devolves into another generic melodeath song (although with yet another strong breakdown), but the first half of this song is one of the brighter spots on the record.

“Black & Blue” is also pretty strong, its breakneck pace recalling the early work of Darkest Hour, but it’s not strong enough to overlook the painful “I will dance on your fucking grave” breakdown. I feel like I should note that Sykes, despite being an excellent vocalist and an extremely charismatic frontman, never really improves as a lyricist. Still, every album is another step up from the garden-variety misogyny of this album. For his part, Lee Malia contributes another genuinely excellent guitar solo to the end of “Black & Blue,” but when half the song consists of a breakdown that gets dragged out long past its expiration date, I wonder if it only stands out because of the relative sameness.

“Slow Dance” is a genuinely interesting track, barely over a minute, with some intricate and neat guitar work, atmospheric keyboards, and anthemic melodeath riff cruising over one of the heaviest riffs on the album. I wish it had been worked into a longer song, but as an instrumental interlude, it helps to provide momentum and break up the constant onslaught of death metal theatrics. Its follow-up, “Liquor & Love Lost,” also benefits from a shorter running time (as well as some cool pick squeals), but I always find myself waiting for the guitar solo and the breakdown, which are the best parts of most of these songs. As a side note, I wish the bass was more pronounced; Matt Kean would get lots of moments to shine on later records, but he’s regrettably lost in the shuffle here, serving mostly to strengthen the bluntness of Matt Nicholls on the kit.

The album heads into its home stretch with the longest song on the album, the near-six-minute “(I Used to Make Out with) Medusa.” Does it justify its length? I’ll let the lyric “So why don’t you just fuck yourself, you fucking whore?” speak for itself. Not even another guitar solo can save this track from itself. I will say that it ends with one of the most gnarly breakdowns on the album, its sole saving grace; Sykes’s lows on this track near inhuman levels, and I am always impressed by his performance.

By now it should be clear that this band can definitely play their asses off, even if the technical riffs and tight rhythms are in service of weaker, generic songs. Still, it’s nice to hear the band relax a bit with the penultimate track, the acoustic “Fifteen Fathoms & Counting.” It’s arguably a cliche move to provide a respite to the chaos of the rest of the album, but I honestly love the melancholy, melodic, and somewhat folkish atmosphere of this song. It makes me wonder what Bring Me the Horizon may have been like as an indie rock band.

For all this album’s faults, I can’t say that it closes off weak– “Off the Heezay” is a consummate ripper, stacked with top to bottom energy and genuinely memorable riffs. If I recall correctly, this song had actually been around since their first demo, and it’s cool that they continued hammering it out, because it’s extremely good, on par with “Pray for Plagues.” If the band had released those two songs as a 7″ and then broken up, they might have been remembered as the greatest deathcore band of all time. This song’s got it all; it even throws in a weird off-time hold that recalls Gorguts, of all bands, as well as a stomping and catchy-as-fuck melodeath bridge that transitions into a thrillingly yearning climax.

I could definitely see a world where Bring Me the Horizon built upon the foundation of “Pray for Plagues” and “Off the Heezay” and became an extremely strong death metal/hardcore hybrid, but they threw in a cover of Slipknot’s “Eyeless” on the 2007 Hot Topic reissue of Count Your Blessings, which sneakily foreshadowed the direction they were soon to go– something chunkier, more indebted to out-and-out rock than the trappings of metal, but still with an extremely heavy, hardcore-influenced edge. For as much shit as Bring Me the Horizon got, they were going to throw it back in everyone’s face ten-fold.

SUICIDE SEASON

The lead-up to 2008’s Suicide Season was filled with tumult for Bring Me the Horizon; the band’s hard partying was catching up to them, as Sykes began to develop a nasty ketamine addiction (the most British of all drug addictions), and he was accused of urinating on a female fan (he was later cleared of all charges, although that didn’t stop him from dropping a vicious and perhaps ill-advised diss track on this record). Meanwhile, the hatred from concertgoers and the mainstream press was reaching fever pitch, and rhythm guitarist Curtis Ward was beginning to slack on his duties, only contributing three riffs to the writing of this album. Maybe the band growing from privileged British teenagers into surly, emotionally-volatile twenty-somethings thrust into the national spotlight wasn’t great for their mental health, but it sure made for some excellent, emotionally-charged music.

Recruiting the acclaimed melodeath producer Fredrik Nordstorm to man the boards on this release was an excellent decision, as this record sounds absolutely incredible; chunky and melodic by turns when it needs to be, with a much more pronounced bass tone, this is probably one of the best-sounding Bring Me the Horizon albums (especially when compared to the compressed and gross production job on what many consider to be their magnum opus, Sempiternal).

Sykes also turns in his best vocal performance yet; although he hasn’t completely abandoned his more metallic gutturals and shrieks, he employs them only sparingly here, instead relying on a pained, howling scream that sounds a lot like Keith Buckley does on early Every Time I Die records.

The band also isn’t afraid to use the studio to their advantage– the muted, vaguely electronic intro that announces opener “The Comedown” and the tinkering during the bridge of “Chelsea Smile” are seamless and tasteful, while Sykes uses muting and electronic delay to make the desperate climax of the closing title track sound disconnected, desolate, and cold.

These improvements would all be for naught if Suicide Season wasn’t an extremely strong collection of songs. Not only have Bring Me the Horizon refined their ability to write songs around a strong central theme, each song has its own identity and extremely memorable moments. The “Repent, repent/We’re all gonna die” breakdown in “Chelsea Smile” is one of the brightest spots in their entire discography, being full orders of magnitude heavier than anything they’d done before while also sitting right next to one of the most melodic passages on the album, with Sykes actually managing to pen some evocative and emotional lyrics about questioning his faith (“If I don’t believe in him, why would he believe in me?”).

Bring Me the Horizon have finally managed to combine their heaviness with an ear for infectious hooks, turning Sykes’s howls of pain into scream-along anthems. The chorus of “It Was Written In Blood” should by rights not be catchy at all, but the juxtaposition of Sykes’s timbre and tonality with Malia’s not-too-technical and extremely propulsive guitar work turns it into one of the strongest entries on the album even before the achingly emotive bridge, which reminds me of bands like Strongarm or Hopesfall, but with better production and songwriting aimed for stadiums.

Though still stronger than a song by any of their contemporaries, I feel as if “Death Breath” is one of the more forgettable songs on Suicide Season, but that’s really not saying much. It still boasts an ass-beating nu-metal derived riff (honestly, the guitar sound on this album is really ahead of its time, and I hear newer, more djent-influenced bands ripping it off all the time) and a tight, technical drum performance that makes the song (it’s one of the longer ones on the album, clocking in at 4:20) fly by in no time. Plus, there’s another cool, electronica-influenced moment in the bridge that adds some extra flavor. What I’m trying to say is that “Death Breath” doesn’t at all feel like an obstacle between two of the biggest standouts on the record, “It Was Written In Blood” and “Football Season Is Over.”

Featuring guest vocals from JJ Peters of Deez Nuts, “Football Season Is Over” is one of two short-but-heavy-as-fuck songs on Suicide Season. Rather than shoving all their hardcore influences into the shorter songs, Bring Me the Horizon makes the shorter songs home to the most brutal and technical metal moments on the album, with a skronky finger-aching riff and a rare appearance of Sykes’s high shriek. Still, the breakdown that closes the song out is one of the most straightforward and fun moments on the album, simultaneously a paean to and condemnation of the band’s constantly-drunken image.

The back half of the album kicks off with “Sleep with One Eye Open,” home to one of the most sludgy riffs in the band’s career, as well as an excitingly immature “Fuck you!” gang vocal shout. Like “Death Breath,” “One Eye Open” is one of the less memorable moments on the album, but it’s still as close to chaotic as Bring Me the Horizon would get on this record, filled with speedy drum fills, gnarly vocal performances, a sick down-tuned bass riff that drives the bridge, and one of the more badass breakdown boasts in the band’s history– “You better beg for mercy, get on your fucking knees and cry me a fucking river.” As far as bitter friend-kiss-offs go, you could do a lot worse.

Also like “Death Breath,” “One Eye Open” probably only seems a bit weaker because it sits in between the onslaught of “Football Season Is Over” and the outright best song on the album, “Diamonds Aren’t Forever.” I saw this hoodie on almost as many scene kids as that Suicide Silence “Pull the trigger, bitch” hoodie, which speaks to this song’s innate ability to be ridiculously heavy and catchy at the same time. The gang-vocal breakdown chant of “We will never sleep/cuz sleep is for the weak/and we will never rest/til we’re all fucking dead” contrasts extremely well with the unhinged energy of the verses, all inchoate guitar riffs and one of Sykes’s most brutal vocal performances on the album (topped only by the penultimate track, which we’ll get to momentarily). Clocking in just a few seconds short of four minutes, it’s a metalcore anthem for the ages, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it. I refuse to close my eyes.

“The Sadness Will Never End” is in many ways the emotional climax of the album, the endgame for a record that’s full of heartbreak and desperation. The quiet ambience at the beginning is a hint to this song’s modus operandi, as it’s one of the more melodic and desperate songs on the album. Sam Carter from Architects contributes some excellent clean vocals that complement Sykes’s screams rather will, while the constant high-pitched guitar accents assist in establishing the song’s pained, miserable atmosphere. This song also never stops developing new parts, exploring new sonic avenues without ever deviating from the central structure and ideas. It’s an extremely impressive piece of metalcore songwriting, and it’s just a bonus that Malia throws in a short-but-sweet guitar solo to help close the song out, one of the rare appearances of a solo on this more hardcore-oriented record.

After an easy-listening interlude, we’re bombarded with the shortest track on the album, the sub-minute “No Need for Introductions, I’ve Read About Girls Like You On the Backs of Toilet Doors.” This song is kind of gross– the title is slut-shamey as hell, and lyrically wishes death on the fan that accused Sykes of pissing on her. Right before the breakdown, he screams in probably the most committed fashion on the album, “And after everything you put me through, I should have fucking pissed on you.” It’s a questionable decision and not one of the band’s more distinguished moments. But holy hell, this song goes hard, unfortunately. Sykes’s lows during the verse are disgustingly good and the breakdown is the heaviest one they’ve ever written. Damn shame.

Including “No Need” on the album might have been a bit of mistake in terms of pacing, too; the song after, the titular closing track, is a melding of post-hardcore, metalcore, and electronica that explores the impact that suicide can have on the friends and family of those who make that choice, and it would have made more sense immediately following the optimism and sensitivity of “The Sadness Will Never End.” Still, “Suicide Season” is an incredible song, wasting not one moment of its eight-minute (!!!) runtime, and when I declare that Suicide Season is one of the musical peaks of the Hot Topic/scene era of metalcore, this is the song that I have in mind.

Suicide Season was pretty much an immediate hit, and the band could have easily stuck with this sound, too, and made lots of bank off it. However, ever forward-thinking, they booted that slacker Curtis Ward from the band (to be replaced by guitarist/keyboardist/drama inciter Jona Weinhofen) and began writing even more artsy, melodic, and progressive metalcore songs for their follow-up. Not for nothing, But Bring Me the Horizon were also early adopters and boosters of the then-nascent crossover between the electronic and metalcore/post-hardcore scenes, releasing a remix album of Suicide Season featuring production work from established electronic artists like KC Blitz and the Secret Handshake, as well as dabbling from Ben Weinman of the Dillinger Escape Plan and Travie McCoy from Gym Class Heroes, and an early contribution from former From First to Last frontman Sonny Moore, then going by the moniker Skrillex.

BLESSED WITH A CURSE

There Is A Hell Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is A Heaven Let’s Keep It A Secret. is Bring Me the Horizon’s masterpiece. As much as I adore Suicide Season, I think that There Is A Hell takes a lot of what made that album work so well and amps it up to eleven, fine-tuning the process, getting slightly more experimental and nuanced in their compositions, and ultimately making a cohesive album that flows in a natural and logical order rather than just being a collection of songs. With Fredrik Nordstrom back behind the boards, this album’s production sounds just as perfect for their sound as Suicide Season did, but with the strength of the new songs, it just feels like a huge step up.

The songs are genuinely varied in tone and emotion as well, not just on a track-by-track basis, but within the songs themselves. Opener “Crucify Me” is a six-minute epic that goes from a gentle, plunky guitar intro to a catchy and anthemic metalcore section before incorporating choral influences and glitched-out guest vocals from indietronica luminary Lights, and slowly melding all of them into a chaotic-yet-coherent climax that feels transcendent, especially compared to both the band’s peers and their own back catalog. Of course, “Crucify Me” is immediately followed by “Anthem,” a heavy Suicide Season throwback that feels more polished and immediate than even the best songs on that album. The production on There Is A Hell might actually be even crisper and clearer than Season; the short-but-sweet breakdown at the end of “Anthem” sounds incredible, each element of the band’s sound both clearly audible and of a piece with everything else.

The band continues to flirt with the two polarized elements of their sound with “It Never Ends,” an ambient intro segueing into a rollicking metalcore banger that nonetheless incorporates symphonic elements and atmospheric tremolo sections (sounding at times like the scenecore version of, like, Wolves In the Throne Room or something). The chorus of “It Never Ends” is one of the brightest and most vital in the band’s career, feeling both desperate and victorious all at once. When the song does lapse into chug riffs, they feel earned and appropriate, never overwhelming the tone that the band is working to cultivate throughout the album. For as heavy and bombastic as Bring Me’s sound is, there’s a sense of thoughtfulness and melancholy that pervades every one of these songs. The climax of the song, for as blunt and lacking in artifice as Sykes’s lyrics are, is strikingly beautiful, in a scenecore kind of way.

“Fuck” continues this trend, being both the most aggressive song on the album yet as well as being at its core a love song. John Franceschi of You Me At Six contributes clean vocals to the song, most apparent in the bridge, that hang in the air like an open wound, standing in stark contrast to both the hardcore punk verses and the intimidating, bent-note guitar fury in the slowdown sections. Strong dynamics are the key to my heart, and when “Fuck” intersperses its angry furor with moments of orchestral quietude and a monumental post-hardcore climax, I find exactly what I’m looking for.

The end of “Fuck” artfully segues into “Don’t Go,” another Lights-assisted banger. Rather than spinning between tones like “Crucify Me,” “Don’t Go” is a slow-burner, Sykes’s screams lying over a string-soaked, gentle build-up. Although you know the intense, melodically pained metalcore climax is coming, “Don’t Go” teases it with brief moments of intensity that make the softer moments (like Lights’s contributions) stand out even more. The marching-band drum rolls that come in near the end assist in building tension, and the band drags out the ending of the track for as long as possible, relishing in the anguish.

Of course, too many restrained and borderline-beautiful songs does not a metalcore album make, and the back half of There Is A Hell is populated by a run of hard-hitting bangers that don’t allow the listener even one moment of respite. Despite throwing in moments of that newfound aching melody, “Home Sweet Hole” stacks gang vocals on top of groovy, rhythmic chunks of guitar and builds up to a stunning finale before returning to that same gang vocal chorus. Bring Me uses the same trick over and over again on this album, but somehow I never tire of it.

“Alligator Blood” might be the high-water mark of an already stellar record, perhaps being the heaviest song that the band has ever written. It’s a breathtaking roller coaster ride to a vicious breakdown, with some of the most cathartic vocals in the band’s catalog. The end of this song makes me want to crowdkill babies.

If there’s one moment on this album where I start to feel fatigue, it might be “Visions.” Although still a very good song, it just doesn’t quite feel up to snuff to the rest of the album. It’s a shame that it’s stacked next to the best songs that Bring Me the Horizon has ever written, because it would be the best song on either Suicide Season (by a little) or Sempiternal (by a lot) with its head-nodding main riff, but ultimately it feels just a little less purposeful than the rest of the record.

“Blacklist,” by contrast, is fueled so strongly by its sludgy, down-tuned, absurdly heavy atmosphere (including the strongest and most effective bass work of the album). The lyrics complement the miserable atmosphere provided by the instrumental, evoking the collapse of a friendship, but coming off more awash in general misanthropy than specific anger. The song lopes along until it doesn’t, but it’s an intensely enjoyable experience, with Malia including another brief but fitting and melodic guitar solo to accent the affair.

There’s a brief, ambient interlude (the vaguely sad but mostly aesthetic “Memorial”), and then we’re into the album’s final act. “Blessed with a Curse” is a monster of a track– of course the loud/quiet dynamic is predictable, but it’s also thrilling, and when the heaviness does come in, it feels both appropriate and more intense than anything on the album previous. The subtle electronic touches add a lot too, both foreshadowing the band’s future direction and adding a sense of unnerving tension to the proceedings. I also love the jazzy, soft-rock influenced guitar work near the end of the track– listen closely, and I swear you can hear a Dire Straits influence.

“Blessed with a Curse” may have been the most logical conclusion of the album, but I quite enjoy that the band chose instead to close with the two-minute hardcore barn-burner “The Fox & the Wolf,” a fast-paced firestorm that revels in perfectly-placed gang vocals, unstoppable energy, an absolutely monstrous breakdown, and a truly incredible guest vocal performance from Josh Scogin of the Chariot. It’s the perfect shot of adrenaline to put the cap on this era of Bring Me the Horizon’s career.

SLEEPWALKING

Unfortunately for you Bring Me the Horizon fans out there reading this, I’m going to gloss over the next phase of their career. Sempiternal is often regarded as Bring Me’s masterpiece, but I find that assertion borderline-offensive when they’ve produced metalcore albums as fully-realized and well-constructed as Suicide Season and There Is A Hell. For one, the record’s production– handled by veteran metal producer Terry Date– is blown-out to all hell, and for another, the band’s songwriting feels fundamentally uninspired. They’re using a lot of tricks that they have in the past– including the use of keyboards to sculpt soundscapes, baking them into the structure of the song rather than simply using them for ambience– but they feel hollow and calculated now. There’s the inclusion of post-rock influence, most apparent on the passable closer “Hospital for Souls,” but mostly it feels ancillary to the new direction that Bring Me seemed to be taking: butt rock.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of previously hardcore or metalcore bands going full hard rock (check out this post if you don’t believe me) but it’s hard not to feel like Bring Me’s dabbling in the genre was cynical. Granted, it does produce some great tracks– “Go to Hell for Heaven’s Sake” is one of the most palpably fun anthems the band has ever recorded, and “Shadow Moses” is justifiably one of their biggest hits, heavy-ass breakdown and all– but songs like the ugly opener “Can You Feel My Heart?” and painfully dumb lyrics like “I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim” serve to weigh the whole affair down.

There’s some interesting ideas being played with here– the clean-vocal-laden “And the Snakes Start to Sing” and the aforementioned “Hospital for Souls,” for example– but they’re often lost in the shuffle of interchangeable, rote kinda-hard-rock-kinda-metalcore songs like “The House of Wolves”, “Seen It All Before,” and “Empire (Let Them Sing).” There’s also “Antivist,” which on the surface is a pretty fun and heavy metalcore track, but lyrically is a downright embarrassing pile of invective aimed against “internet activists” (SJWs, I guess? Maybe people who thought that releasing a song threatening to urinate on a girl who already accused you of urinating on her wasn’t the best idea?). “Crooked Young” is also a pretty dumb track, with Sykes exaggerating a faux-Cockney accent to say “yoof” rather than “youth.”

It’s ultimately rather disappointing that Sempiternal ended up being both their most popular to album to that point in their career as well as their most critically acclaimed– in my opinion, they explored much more varied and interesting sounds with a lot more consistency and vitality on their previous records. Bring Me’s fanbase has splintered multiple times, and while the faction who continuously clamor for the band to play “Pray for Plagues” every night are annoying, I think they’re quite a bit less irritating than the people who consider Sandpit Turtle to be their best. Worse yet, I can’t believe that this is the album that brought so many people over from the “Bring Me the Horizon are sceney-weenie garbage” camp over to the “Bring Me the Horizon are the most artistically accomplished band in metalcore” camp. Neither of these viewpoints are true, and both betray a narrow-minded worldview (the former being much more toxic, granted), but I implore them to give Suicide Season and There Is A Hell an honest chance.

Of course, I don’t begrudge Bring Me for leaning into the more commercial rock aspects of their sound– it’s a smart move financially, and they probably feel a lot better as pop stars than the metalcore band that got beer bottles flung at their heads– but artistically, I can’t really say that it paid dividends on That’s the Spirit. Honestly, the brightest spots on the album are the most obvious bids for radio play– “Happy Song” is as ironic as it is exuberant, a sardonic cheerleading chant augmenting an already enormous chorus, and “Throne” sounds like Linkin Park’s “Faint” retooled for the modern day (I mean that as a compliment)– but they’re still bogged down by some of the worst lyrics that even the poetically-challenged Sykes has ever written. Come on, “True friends stab you in the front?” That sounds like an outtake from the “Sleep with One Eye Open” breakdown.

Still, with Weinhofen having been booted from the band and replaced with much more accomplished programmer Jordan Fish, the band does seem to have embraced the more electronic leanings of their sound to pretty strong effect, and “Doomed” and “Drown” are both very strong pop songs. Hell, the closing track “Oh No” even features a trance breakdown. In retrospect, it wasn’t shocking to learn that That’s the Spirit spawned seven radio singles– the whole goal of the album was to get Bring Me on mainstream radio, and it totally worked. It topped even the commercial heights of Sempiternal, and I even ended up hearing “Throne” and “Happy Song” on my local pop/rock station (94.1 in Las Vegas, in case you were wondering).

Even with That’s the Spirit being a commercial juggernaut (it recently topped 1 billion cumulative streams on Spotify, holy shit), I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for the next step that Bring Me took. I’ve taken great care to frame this band as one whose audience is absolutely never happy with their new album until they put out their next (at which point the previous record becomes an “underrated classic”), but I can’t stress enough how much Amo pissed everyone off. Well, except for critics (it’s one of their most critically acclaimed albums to date). Oh, and I guess the record-buying general public (it’s on track to top even That’s the Spirit). Guess a band can’t make a living playing entirely to the interests of kids who do nothing but shitpost in metalcore Discord servers all day.

THIS SHIT AIN’T HEAVY METAL

I love pop music, and Bring Me the Horizon’s Amo is a pure pop album (although the packaging looks like something Eighteen Visions would have signed off on around the time of Vanity or Obsession). This might shock you, given my hatred of both the vapid, high-gloss wonk peddled by the modern-day iterations Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco, as well as the faux-underground pabulum that the managers of Twenty One Pilots and Billie Eilish keep trying to pawn off as youth culture, but pop music is good, and it can be artistic, and important, and extremely well-made. Look at Paramore’s self-titled album. It also doesn’t have to be any of those things to be good or even great; look at the wave of (semi-)DIY SoundCloud artists who have combined mall-emo with e-thot culture to give the pop landscape a shot in the arm. Other artists, like $uicideboy$ or Denzel Curry, fuse trap aesthetics with the energy of hardcore or metalcore to produce something truly interesting and exciting. I feel like I repeat a lot of the same points in these articles, but they always bear repeating, because they’re true, and people need to pay attention.

So when I tell you that Bring Me the Horizon’s Amo is a damn fine pop album, you should pay attention. I kept being told that it was going to be a garbage album when I started researching this article (and, granted, my hopes weren’t all that high after Sempiternal and That’s the Spirit), but I ended up being really surprised by just how pleasant the experience of listening to Amo was. From the lush bleep-bloops that adorn the opener “I Apologize If You Feel Something” to the sarcastic breakdown that they throw in at the end of the hater-baiting “Heavy Metal,” Amo is expertly constructed and produced. If there’s one low point, it might be lead single “Mantra,” which pretty much just traffics in the same radio rock as That’s the Spirit, but even that song boasts an extremely strong bass line and an infectious chorus (despite some laughably wretched lyrics).

There’s a little something for everyone on Amo, whether it be the backpacker-inspired hip-hop interlude “Ouch” (which seriously sounds like something Dan the Automator might have had a hand in) or the blissed-out electronica euphoria that closes the Grimes-assisted standout “Nihilist Blues.” “In the Dark” rides a fun bass line and jazz-pop chords through to a lush and gorgeous bridge, showing that Sykes has truly come into his own as a clean singer. Cradle of Filth’s Dani Filth shows up on the handclap-driven, catchy, and surprisingly heavy “Wonderful Life,” which shows that Bring Me can groove on a djent breakdown with the best of them while still constructing an absolutely effervescent chorus.

The hits keep coming throughout the album’s staggering 51-minute run time, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it has as many if not more singles as That’s the Spirit. “Medicine” is extremely enjoyable pop rock, while “Sugar, Honey, Ice & Tea” is yet another kinda-heavy-but-still-poppy banger. “Why You Gotta Kick Me When I’m Down?” is a well-produced pure pop song, something that I wouldn’t be surprised to hear on the radio but I am mildly surprised to hear coming from Bring Me the Horizon. “Fresh Bruises” is another pleasant surprise, a minimalist, dark piece of, I don’t know, chillwave? I have no idea which electronic genres are which, but “Fresh Bruises” is really fun. “Mother Tongue” is another bid for pop radio, and it’s incredible in its own way, brimming with sticky-sweet high notes and a reserved-yet-bouncy energy.

I mentioned “Heavy Metal” as a standout already, but I can’t oversell how fun it is to hear Sykes make fun of kids on Instagram who complain about Bring Me’s new direction. Maybe it’s a little unhealthy to be so focused on the opinions of dumb kids on the internet, but I think that Bring Me’s aggressive change in direction with each new album shows that they’re not actually all that bothered (even if it is a little painful to hear that he can’t quite scream like he used to at the end of the track, this song is definitely worth a listen if only to hear an extremely random beatboxing appearance from everyone’s favorite ex-Roots member, Rahzel).

The string-soaked, acoustically-assisted closer “I Don’t Know What to Say” is the perfect closer for this album, striking the right balance of pop and melancholy. It even throws in a (distorted, buried, and faux-lo-fi) guitar solo to extremely strong effect, and it definitely earns its six-minute run time. Altogether, I’m extremely impressed with Amo and I hope that regular readers get mad at how much I fall head over heels for well-made pop music.

CRUCIFY ME

Altogether, Bring Me the Horizon was one of the most interesting case studies I’ve done for this series. They kind of came into my life at the tail-end of my involvement with the mainstream “scene” version of metalcore, post-hardcore, pop-punk, and what have you, but they were good enough to keep me invested while I was knee-deep in local hardcore shows, posting about obscure 90s emotive hardcore on the internet, and listening to Panic! at the Disco in furtive secrecy. I understandably lost touch with them these past few years, but I look forward to seeing how well Amo holds upand I’m very excited to see which steps they take next. Bring Me the Horizon always has their finger on the pulse of pop culture, and I trust that they’ll follow the zeitgeist to a cool and interesting new place.

Am I embarrassed to be a fan of Bring Me the Horizon? Nope, and if you are, repent, because the end is nigh. Or, alternatively, Drop Dead.

NEXT WEEK: God called in sick, so you’re getting AFI instead. Welcome to October, motherfuckers.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #6: Underoath

JESUS CHRIST, I LOVE YOU

I don’t believe in G-d. If I ever did believe in G-d, I’d imagine that she is played by Alanis Morissette. I’ve had a pretty complex journey with my faith. Technically, I’m a born Jew (thanks ma!) but my dad was confirmed Catholic, so that’s how I lived the first five years of my life before raising me Catholic apparently proved too difficult for my parents and our family became some kind of basic-bitch Christian (the phrasing they use is “non-denominational”). When I was seven years old, they had me go on a playdate with a girl I knew from church, whose parents would not let us watch The Land Before Time because something something dinosaur fossils were put here by Satan to trick us into thinking the earth is older than 6,000 years. I love dinosaurs with every fiber of my being, which meant that I lost a lot of interest in religion right around then. In high school, I got more in touch with my Jewish roots (to the point where, in my sophomore year in college, I nearly joined a Jewish fraternity) before eventually realizing that I didn’t need a G-d in my life.

All this to say, I wasn’t introduced to Underoath as “the heavy band that was okay for Christians to like.” I came to them through the music scene as a whole, and have always engaged with their music and lyrics on a secular level. I do find it rather interesting that they are perhaps the band most responsible for bringing Christian heavy music to the mainstream; I suspect this is because their lyrics, after their debut, became introspective and abstract enough to appeal to anyone who was going through inner turmoil. They are also from Florida, which was also the home of perhaps the best Christian hardcore band, the almighty Strongarm, so they really just have that good-enough-to-be-secular blood running through their veins.

Ultimately, I think of Underoath not as a Christian band, but as a band that was always pushing their sound to its farthest reaches, from their beginning as what was essentially the first blackened deathcore band through their ascendance to chart domination to their newest incarnation as some combination of pop-metalcore and Linkin Park-indebted hard rock. Underoath is a band that means a lot of things to a lot of people, and it would be wrong of me to presume that I could write an article distilling all of those things. So instead, here’s an article about the most important thing about Underoath: their music. I’ll probably also throw in some self-indulgent bullshit about what they mean to me personally, but take that with a grain of salt. Underoath is our lord and savior.

BURDEN IN YOUR HANDS

Underoath began in the sleepy town of Ocala, Florida (soon to be home of easycore heroes A Day to Remember) as a collaboration between vocalist Dallas Taylor and guitarist Luke Morton. Aaron Gillespie was recruited as drummer through their church friendship (Gillespie had often been told that his drumming was terrible and too loud, which is wonderfully ironic, given that his extremely tasteful and innovative drumming style would drive much of Underoath’s evolution as time went on). Eventually, Morton dropped out of the band, to be replaced by bassist Octavio Fernandez and guitar wizard Corey Steger. This incarnation of the band is the one that recorded their first album, 1999’s Act of Depression, released on Takehold Records while all the members were still in high school.

Act of Depression is an odd beast, even given the band’s earliest predilections towards death and black metal. The songs are extremely long, often hovering around 6 or 7 minutes (“A Love So Pure” and the title track both crack 10 minutes). The production isn’t great– clinical and flat, the guitar riffs are not all that powerful, and Gillespie’s drum sound is missing the extremely full and tight sound that would later become one of Underoath’s hallmarks. The lyrics are also much more blatantly “Christian” than the band would ever dare to go later on. “Burden In Your Hands,” one of the musical standouts, is blatantly pro-life, while “Innocence Stolen” is a plea for God to punish child molesters and rapists. It’s a little embarrassing, to say the least.

Still, the riffs are there, gnarled and nasty and evil in a way that is reminiscent of Yesterday Is Time Killed-era Eighteen Visions; the trudging and twisted main riff in the title track gives way to a death’n’roll-esque stomp that echoes the bluesy death metal leanings of Entombed’s Wolverine Blues, which stands in stark contrast to the way that “A Love So Pure” descends into straight-up melodic worship music during its climax.

Special attention must be paid to Dallas Taylor, the nucleus of Underoath’s early work, and the beating heart that pumps through the rest of the sound. His screams are pulpy and gross, expressive and emotive, powerful and imbued with a weight far beyond his years. His range is also incredible, as his lows are closer to the guttural, testosterone-driven style of NYDM bands like Suffocation, and he is still able to push his voice into the higher-registered shrieks that would become much more prominent on their second, more black-metal-influenced LP. The moments where he lapses into spoken word are also extremely expressive and even foreboding. The ending of the title track also features a screaming performance that echoes the anguished Holy Terror vocals of Integrity’s Dwid Hellion.

I think the bass on this record is one of its more underrated aspects. Playing with a more cleanly-distorted tone, Fernandez is able to both enhance the record’s low end and, in the sections where the bass is highlighted, display a skittering, frantic energy that is missing from much of the band’s ouvre.

“Watch Me Die,” the album’s final track, is a near-seven-minute showcase of the band’s abilities, Gillespie’s drumming functioning at peak heaviness while the guitar riffs play a darkened variation of the melodeath riffs that would define the coming years of mainstream metalcore (in fact, I think this is the song that has most in common with other pioneering melodeathcore bands like Prayer for Cleansing and Undying), while Taylor delivers his most anguished vocal performance yet. There’s lots of metal-leaning tremolo and double-bass, but it has that undefinable hardcore energy and groove. At around 5 minutes in, there’s a mocking, semi-ironic high note that echoes NWOBHM or even hair metal, but it quickly is moved past as the band goes into a high-octane section that segues into the heaviest, nastiest breakdown on the record. The last twenty seconds are a breathless sprint to the finish line, Gillespie’s panicky double-bass and fills closing the record out on an energetic note.

Of course, I would be remiss to not note the hidden track, a nine-minute acoustic number that foregrounds the speechifying of Corey Steger, who improvises a meandering and stuttering dedication to victims of rape and depression, while also pleading for the band’s fans to give themselves over to Christ. This awkward moment gives way to a saccharine and honestly kind of enjoyably bad praise song with vocals from Gillespie, foreshadowing the way his Chris Carrabba-esque pipes would gain greater prominence in Underoath’s later work.

Shortly after this album’s release, the band’s history of hectic and frequent lineup changes would soon begin; Octavio Fernandez would move to rhythm guitar, Matt Clark would join in on bass, and most importantly, the band recruited Christopher Dudley on keyboards. All of these elements would contribute to a much fuller and more powerful sound, one which would kick into full effect on their next album.

CRIES OF THE PAST

Sonically, the differences between Cries of the Past and Act of Depression are much smaller than the differences between Cries of the Past and the rest of Underoath’s discography. However, it is here that the band’s songwriting began to congeal into something altogether more focused and propulsive. The songs on Act of Depression often felt like a bunch of different heavy parts randomly stacked on top of each other. The songs on Cries of the Past, while no shorter (this album is five songs in 42 minutes), are much more centralized and, when they do deviate from their central ideas, feel progressive rather than tangential. An excellent example of this is the moment a little over halfway into opener “The Last,” where the music falls away for a mournful symphonic break that is reminiscent of the Phantasm interpolation on Entombed’s “Left Hand Path,” while Steger solos his heart out.

Despite the length of the songs, the album passes by at a breakneck pace, absolutely filled with compelling sections like the stomping climax of “Giving Up Hurts the Most” (the shortest and best song on the record), as well as completely lacking in superfluous digressions. Every song here is fine-tuned to be as sharp and heavy as it can possibly be, the production is much more full and dynamic, and the performances are much tighter. Less than a full year passed between the writing and recording processes of Act of Depression and Cries of the Past, yet Gillespie’s drumming is even tighter and more bold, while the riffs are much stronger and more varied, owing to the increased black metal influence. I think the riffs on Cries of the Past actually owe a lot to the black metal/melodeath fusion of bands like Dissection, while the drumming and vocals function as the hardcore roots that keep the energy high.

Every song on the album is filled with heavy hooks that keep your ears glued to the record– the bass interlude in “Walking Away” transitions into a disgustingly heavy trudging section before transitioning into a fast-paced riff laid over a steady, mid-tempo drum groove. There’s not a moment of dead air on the entire record– even the brief moments of acoustic reprieve, like in “Giving Up Hurts the Most” and “Walking Away,” are often heavy in their own way. If all black metal sounded like this, it might actually be a genre worth paying attention to.

Dallas Taylor’s vocals are the strongest link on the record. Everything I said about his performance on Act of Depression applies here, only much more polished and impressive. His lows are particularly impressive, managing to be emotive and menacing all at the same time.

Another thing I find particularly impressive on this album is the consistent, heart-pounding intensity and energy. “And I Dreamt of You” is perhaps the best example– at over 11 minutes, it is by far the longest song that Underoath has ever written, and yet every moment is imbued with a level of urgency that highlights the song’s heaviness. The “acoustic section gives way to unbearably heavy riff” trick is employed to its greatest effect on this song, only three minutes in, and it refuses to let up the entire song. At about the four-and-a-half minute mark, the song also introduces the most breathlessly melodic riff on the album, a shot in the arm that carries through the next minute or so, with some of the most intricate guitar counterpoints in Underoath’s career (a tactic that would be employed with a more post-hardcore panache on later albums like Define the Great Line).

I also have to mention the addition of Christopher Dudley– as a keyboardist, his greatest moments were yet to come, but it is impressive how well his gentle ambience is incorporated into these heavy songs, adding a more symphonic touch and just generally improving both the atmosphere and the dynamic depths of these songs by a country mile. I have to imagine that, with bands like Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth becoming mainstream in the mid-to-late 90s, their orchestral keyboard soundscapes were a heavy influence on Cries of the Past and Dudley’s playing.

Ultimately, though, Cries of the Past is a relic of its time as much as anything. Its release date in 2000 signifies its status as the ultimate synthesis of many of the sounds being explored by metallic hardcore bands throughout the 90s (their first two albums are filled with riffs that sound like better, more polished versions of the riffs that bands like Day of Suffering, Morning Again, and Culture were hinting at). It’s unsurprising that Underoath’s earliest material has gained new resonance in the late 2010s, with bands like Wings of Kynareth (née Gnapenstob) taking much from their hybrid of death metal, black metal, and freewheeling, aggressive hardcore.

As the epic title track that closes out Cries of the Past proves, Underoath was far too creative and talented to continue straining against the confines of their metallic leanings. Metal is fundamentally a much more limited genre than hardcore, and while hardcore does inform much of Underoath’s first two albums, it’s no stretch to say that they lie far more on the metal side of the metalcore divide. Additionally, while the band was growing in popularity, they were chafing against the scene they were part of, and as Takehold was bought out by the Christian punk label Tooth & Nail, Underoath signed to its heavy music imprint, Solid State, and began to craft material that was both more indebted to hardcore than metal, and was more fearlessly melodic, painstakingly structured, and most daring of all, defiantly accessible.

SICK FROM THE MIRROR

There are many reasons that 2002’s The Changing of Times shouldn’t reside in the highest echelon of Underoath records: there was yet another lineup change (the addition of one-album-wonder William Nottke on bass as well as Tim McTague– one of the most interesting guitarists to ever play in a hardcore band– taking over for Corey Steger on lead guitar), lending a sense of instability to the proceedings; the production is a bit of a hollowed-out mess, with Taylor and Gillespie both having their vocals somewhat buried and the entire album having a much more dark and dismal atmosphere than was probably intended due to the production’s flatness; and it’s the first of several “transitional” records in Underoath’s catalog, maintaining much of the heaviness of the Dallas Taylor era while setting the stage for the thrillingly melodic heights that the band would later take with Spencer Chamberlain as frontman.

Still, The Changing of Times is an incredible record, filled to the brim with emotion and melodic invention while simultaneously boasting some of the most purely “hardcore” heavy bits in the band’s career. It’s a wild ride, so let’s go.

“When the Sun Sleeps” essentially telegraphs the change in the band’s sound from the get-go– you have Dudley’s bleep-bloops providing a vastly different atmosphere from the symphonic tones he provided on previous outings, while the guitars are less focused on riffs and much more on texture. Gillespie and Taylor both provide a hook with clean vocals, while the song’s structure itself is more compact and focused than Underoath had ever been before.

“Letting Go of Tonight” brings back the riffs somewhat, but it’s sub-two-minute length forces it to function as more of an interlude before returning to the melody with “A Message for Adrienne,” possibly Underoath’s most thrilling fusion of catchiness and heaviness yet– the way Taylor screams with a propulsive guitar harmony beneath him is nothing short of exciting, before the song barrels into a double-bass climax that brings back some of the tremolo riffing of the band’s past work and finishes out with a gentle, indie rock/emo-indebted outro, given extra texture by Taylor’s spoken-word flourishes.

“Never Meant to Break Your Heart” is one of the peaks of the album, as the band plays with crescendos and payoffs in a much more concrete way than on either of their previous albums. The deadpan, heartbroken way that Taylor intones “Sick, from the mirror” communicates such palpable self-loathing before the song launches into sections that are by turn the heaviest and most melodically haunting on the record. The big payoff is the gorgeous, keyboard-infused climax, which features Taylor’s anguished scream of “I rip my heart out,” before an extremely punishing, descending riff (accompanied by Gillespie’s most tasteful use of double-bass) closes the song out with a bang.

The title track is the most definitive synthesis of the band’s past and present sounds on the album, blending the sonic textures with confidence and aplomb. Tim McTague truly shines here with his ability to graft downright yearning guitar melodies onto music that sounds like incomplete without heart-rending screams. Underoath was never a screamo band, but that quality of supplanting melody with an unendingly desperate and extreme vocal approach is one thing that they have in common with the screamo bands of the late 90s.

“Angel Below,” while still functioning as a downright catchy rock track (that keyboard riff is incessantly sticky), brings back the death metal double-bass-and-tremolo flourishes with a renewed sense of purpose. The staccato guitar break that accompanies Taylor’s abrupt “Every time you think of me, I hope your heart dies” line is followed by one of the nastiest, most straightforwardly hardcore breakdowns the band ever wrote, and the finale of the song even brings back some of the melodeath touches that defined the first two records. I will say this song has one of the more unfortunate lyrics the band ever committed to tape– “If you could die, I’d be the one with the gun.” That hate-filled approach would give way to much more considered and therapeutic introspection after Spencer Chamberlain started to contribute lyrics, but it’s worth noting for its sheer misanthropy (and misogyny).

“The Best of Me” ushers in the back half of the album with more of the chiming, gently-distorted guitar melodies that McTague excelled at so much on this album, and also includes one of the more anguished and complex build-ups on the album. I find it interesting that the song spends so much of its back half building up to a heavy climax, only to pull the rug out from under us by taking away all of the other instrumental backing and leaving only smoke-alarm-esque beeps. The true payoff to the build-up in “The Best of Me” is the intro of its follow-up “Short of Daybreak,” which storms the gates with a breathless intro that sinks into a trudging, more straightforwardly metalcore riff, then returns to the catchiness for a brief respite before hole-punching itself with a machine-gun guitar and drum assault. The song closes out with a section that, again, fuses a Get-Up Kids-ian sense of beauty and restraint with Gillespie’s dauntingly heavy drumming prowess.

The closing track of the album, “Alone In December,” is a showcase of why the record’s production, which I initially felt was hollow and flat, was actually on asset for The Changing of Times. The songs were clearly meant to sound warmer, but the distance that the production provides gives everything an extremely icy and isolated atmosphere, which makes the melancholy and miserable vocal delivery sound all the more desperate, as if Taylor is trying to reach across the chasm between the listener and the music but can’t quite make it. “Alone In December” also functions as a microcosm of the record’s sound as a whole, ably constructing an up-and-down masterpiece in which the melody feeds off the heaviness and vice-versa. It’s not so much that they are integrated into each other as well as on Underoath’s next album, 2004’s breakthrough They’re Only Chasing Safety, but that the separation of the two elements and the way they struggle but inevitably succeed to reconcile is part of the record’s ultimate charm.

The album has its own epilogue in the short, electronic-driven instrumental “814 Stops Today,” another cold and bleak track that stands at a sharp remove from emotion, yet in its brief length manages to convey a sense of longing. I think this track is something of a thesis statement for The Changing of Times as a whole– sad and held at arm’s length while searching for a comfort it cannot find. Ironically, that’s what’s most comforting to me when I listen.

YOUNG AND ASPIRING

Following an appearance on the 2003 edition of Warped Tour as well as another lineup change that could have gutted the band entirely (Dallas Taylor was replaced as frontman by tortured soul Spencer Chamberlain, in an exit mired by rumor and uncertainty, while Octavio Fernandez and William Nottke were replaced by James Smith on guitar and Grant Brandell on bass, respectively), They’re Only Chasing Safety not only feels like a completely different band, it might as well have been one. Only Aaron Gillespie remained from the band’s initial lineup, and had taken on an even more prominent role as clean vocalist, foreshadowing his time as frontman of the rough-edged pop-punk band the Almost. However, instead of changing their name (which was considered as an option) or simply imploding, the band committed to the catchier direction that steered the course on The Changing of Times and soldiered on.

Many of these songs were written while Dallas Taylor was still in the band (and the album was almost recorded with him under the name Dear Misery), but I feel as though ex- This Runs Through vocalist Spencer Chamberlain served these songs better. I have watched this video of Dallas Taylor performing an early version of “Reinventing Your Exit” many, many times, and while it’s impossible to deny his talent and charisma as a frontman, it’s also impossible to deny that Chamberlain’s more evenly-toned, somewhat untrained, and expressive screams were better-suited to this more emotive and melodic material than Taylor’s more traditional and metallic roar. Underoath was no longer a metal-leaning hardcore band that flirted with melody– they were now a more even-keeled post-hardcore outfit that used melodies to drive their songs rather than enhance them, and only occasionally delved back into the full-throated terror of their earlier work. Chamberlain’s vocals are closer to the emotional intensity of The Used’s Bert McCracken than anything like the death metal-indebted Taylor (you’d never hear Taylor’s voice break into an obvious whine like Chamberlain’s does less than a minute into opener “Young and Aspiring”), and ultimately, I think these songs are better for his involvement.

Despite including some of the aesthetics of the smudgy, art-damaged breed of contemporary post-hardcore peers such as Glassjaw or the Blood Brothers, ultimately Underoath’s sound on They’re Only Chasing Safety is much more focused on creating driving, catchy rock songs with screaming than it was in exploding the boundaries of what heavy music could be. It’s better for this, too– anthems like “Reinventing Your Exit” and “A Boy Brushed Red Living In Black & White” are so much better as straightforward, well-constructed rock songs than they would have been as the more experimental or fragmented songs the band wrote for The Changing of Times. Accordingly, the production on They’re Only Chasing Safety is by far the best of the band’s career so far, crisp and clean. It’s odd that the production here is leaps and bounds better than their previous three records, because all four of Underoath’s albums to this point were produced by the same person– James Paul Wisner. Whatever class he took before recording Safety, it must have been a good one, because this album also boasts an absolutely glistening drum sound, one which captures the subtle nuances of Gillespie’s playing far better than the production on previous albums, which almost forced him to play heavier than the material required.

That’s not to say this album is completely absent of heavy moments, as the breakdown in “Boy Brushed Red” so succinctly proves. Indeed, I think Chamberlain’s screams here, anguished and bleeding with the desperation of someone with something to prove, provide a lot of the songs with more weight than they would have otherwise had. This is compounded by the fact that Gillespie’s cleans, previously only deployed in the most necessary and urgent of moments, are now almost as ubiquitous as the screams. As I noted before, his vocals somewhat the echo the whiny, heady range of Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba, but Gillespie is a bit more staid and practiced (given that he had the chore of drumming and singing simultaneously). Still, the Gillespie/Chamberlain dynamic is an immediate and affecting one, and songs like “The Impact of Reason” and “Reinventing Your Exit” rest entirely on their interplay. Interestingly, in stark contrast to the formulaic “screamed verse/clean chorus” structure that many mainstream metalcore/post-hardcore bands would soon employ, Underoath weren’t afraid to mix both vocal approaches throughout the song, and also weren’t afraid to delve into expressive and intriguing bridges– a sort of Taking Back Sunday by way of Refused approach, if you will.

The guitar work on They’re Only Chasing Safety has fully forgone any sort of riffy onslaught in favor of guiding the songs with sonic textures, as illustrated on experimental asides like the instrumental interlude “The Blue Note,” and the keyboard accents have finally been completely integrated into the songs themselves, as the intro to “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door” exemplifies. I’d also like to point out that They’re Only Chasing Safety is the first Underoath album that uses the bass to its fullest potential, as Brandell brandishes his instrument with more melody and confidence than the expressive-yet-rudimentary root notes displayed on prior releases.

“It’s Dangerous Business” also features perhaps the musical high-water mark of the album, the choir-esque “drowning in my sleep” bridge boiling over with emotion so much so that when the chorus comes back around, it’s an instantaneous rush. It’s fitting that such a monstrous track is followed by one of the more restless and aggressive cuts from the album, “Down, Set, Go,” which shows that the guitar work is just as capable of being percussive and propulsive as it is capable of flowing beauty. “Down, Set, Go” also breaks down into an acoustic bridge with some twinkly backing guitar that’s somewhat reminiscent of Clarity-era Jimmy Eat World before absolutely exploding with the most damaged and affecting climax on the record.

The back half of They’re Only Chasing Safety is, as a whole, more aggressive than the first half, with “Down, Set, Go” and “I Don’t Feel Very Receptive Today” functioning as a twin set of engines that carry the album’s momentum after the bigger, catchier hits like “A Boy Brushed Red” and “Reinventing Your Exit” had already been stacked on the front of the album. “Receptive” holds one of the record’s best bass performances (as it both bubbles and holds the song together under the shimmery-yet-panicky staccato guitar hits) as well as perhaps Chamberlain’s most pained and angry vocal performance, imbuing the entire song with an undeniable sense of urgency. It’s here that the album proves its heaviness comes from the obvious emotional instability that ties the whole record together, rather than easy instrumental tricks like tremolo riffs or double-bass breakdowns.

Penultimate track “I’m Content with Losing” is one of the weaker songs on the album, a last-ditch attempt to give the listener another frantic anthem like the ones in the first half, rather than continuing the more damaged and aggressive motif that had been defining the previous few songs. Still, the Chamberlain/Gillespie dynamic is at an early peak, and it’s still exhilarating to hear the clean vocals and the screams stacked on top of each other, conveying more emotional complexity than most other “scene” bands at the time were capable of. Plus, the guitar in the bridge is downright Thrice-esque in its ingenuity and catchiness. The song’s climax is still one of the finer moments on the album.

However, if “Losing” was a bit of step down from the previous eight tracks, closer “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape” is a borderline misstep. With more openly worshipful lyrics written by Copeland vocalist Aaron Marsh (who also contributes vocals to the track), “Forgiveness” feels a bit mawkish and overbearing in contrast to the more universally appealing lyrics on the rest of the record. Additionally, the electronic and acoustic elements, rather than being tastefully integrated, make up the majority of the song, and it suffers for it, with the inevitable build-up and climax feeling telegraphed rather than earned. “Jesus, I’m ready to come home,” indeed. It’s not a bad song by any means, but I wish that they had chosen to end the album instead with a song like “I’ve Got Ten Friends and a Crowbar That Says You Ain’t Gonna Do Jack,” a five-minute epic that was relegated to a B-side/bonus track status, but justifies its length with an all-time great Gillespie drum performance and top-to-bottom hooks. If it weren’t for this song and Jacob Bannon’s cool-as-fuck cover art, the reissue of They’re Only Chasing Safety wouldn’t have been worth getting, since the other bonus tracks are just demos/instrumentals/early versions of tracks that are better as finished products on the album.

I will say, for as good as They’re Only Chasing Safety is as a whole, and as popular as it was, it’s somewhat of a black sheep in Underoath’s discography. It’s by far the softest and most poppy release, less a fine-tuning of The Changing of Times as much as it is a full step towards the sounds that they were playing with on that record. And, of course, this album would be eclipsed in heaviness by the three monstrous full-lengths that lay ahead. Still, without this album, I doubt that Underoath would have had the confidence to move forward as a unit with Chamberlain, and he is definitely the frontman and lyricist that their music would need as it would become more tortured and cerebral. And while Gillespie’s ineffable vocal hooks would provide the honey to Chamberlain’s vinegar, the tension between their two vocal styles would provide a lot of the sonic complexity on the band’s records to come.

Meanwhile, although The Changing of Times had easily outsold both Act of Depression and Cries of the Past combined, They’re Only Chasing Safety put it to shame with zero effort, immediately selling 100,000 copies and going gold by the end of 2005.  It’s no shock that their next record would again outsell their previous records, but its strengths lie in the way that it combines Underoath’s newfound talent at pop songwriting with an altogether heavier and more complex, if not chaotic, approach.

EVERYONE LOOKS SO GOOD FROM HERE

Although there were no major lineup changes between They’re Only Chasing Safety and 2006’s magnum opus Define the Great Line, there were two key factors that had an influence on Underoath’s identity: the addition of lyrics written by Chamberlain, in collaboration with Gillespie, as well as production helmed by Adam D. from Killswitch Engage and popular metalcore producer Matt Goldman.

The production is much more dynamic than any previous Underoath album, balancing the glistening sheen of the clean vocals with the unmistakable grit of Chamberlain’s screams. Accordingly, the music is also much heavier than on the previous album, albeit in a different way than the death- and black-metal-influenced tip of their earliest work. Instead, Define the Great Line feels like Underoath taking pages from the true standard-bearers of progressive heavy music, like mathcore behemoths Botch and Cave-In, post-metal architects Isis, and the aforementioned art-smeared post-hardcore of early Glassjaw. Even with these new, heavier tones, as well as therapeutic, faith-questioning lyrics (“There Could Be Nothing After This”), Underoath never forgets that melody is king, offsetting every skronky riff (the beginning to opener “In Regards to Myself” is particularly gnarly) or throat-shredding scream with vocal hooks that wouldn’t be out of place in a Further Seems Forever song.

That sounds like an insult, or perhaps like Underoath was scared to leave its comfort zone; I promise you that neither is true. Like The Changing of TimesDefine the Great Line is another transitional album for Underoath, following the band’s evolution from newfound teen-scene superstars to unendingly creative metalcore artists. If The Changing of Times and They’re Only Chasing Safety were snapshots of the band in various stages of growing pains, Define the Great Line is the very end of that cycle, right before they were about to burst from their cocoon. Underoath was always a hardcore band at heart, no matter how obfuscated it was by black metal on their early work or sing-along choruses on their middle records, but it’s on Define the Great Line that Underoath shows they can be extremely, punishingly heavy, truly innovative, and genuinely, unguardedly emotional just by taking the sonic aspects they’d applied on They’re Only Chasing Safety and cranking them into the red.

While Define the Great Line is definitely my favorite Underoath album, I do feel as though as if I need to acknowledge that the record has definite weaknesses, although none of them are unique to this album within their discography. Like both of its follow-ups, I feel like the songs on Define often suffer from the background effect, where they end up feeling like one long song. Unlike on their later albums, I think that it works to Define‘s favor, making each song on the album feel like part of a greater tapestry. And that’s certainly not to say that the songs on Define don’t have their own individual identities, as anyone who has heard the singularly electrifying “You’re Ever So Inviting” or massive hit “Writing On the Walls” could testify to.

Ultimately, the greatest strength of Define the Great Line is that listenability. Every moment on this record seems scientifically designed to be compelling and affecting. This is also the album where Chamberlain finally comes into his own as a vocalist. Although I personally disagree, he felt that he was doing something of a Dallas Taylor impression on They’re Only Chasing Safety, and regardless of how true that is, Chamberlain definitely puts his own stamp on Define‘s material. Whether it’s his tortured lyrics or his vocals– he can sing cleans just as well as Gillespie now, and his screams have truly evolved into something by turns completely unique, unfailingly passionate, and animalistic in their ferocity.

The band, perhaps because they have finally managed to spend a full album cycle together, have some of the best and most synced-up chemistry I’ve ever heard in a heavy band. The songs sound less like they were written by a band and more like they were composed, although every performance feels so organic that the nuances take me by surprise every time. Whether it’s the rhythm section’s tasteful innovations (the gentle electronic drums all over the album, Gillespie’s career-best performance in “Returning Empty Handed,” the bass’s nimble drive during the foreboding trudge of “Casting Such A Thin Shadow”), the way that the guitars seem to find endless new and creative ways of sculpting propulsive and compelling soundscapes and sonic textures (the staid and reserved interlude “Salmarnir,” the dizzying change-ups throughout “Writing On the Walls,” the devastating climax of monolithic closer “To Whom It May Concern”), or just the way that the entire band is able to make every single moment on this album sound as urgent and necessary and important as the last, I am quite simply impressed every time I listen to Define the Great Line.

If you’re looking for one song from this album to get a sense of what it’s all about, I’d recommend either “Moving for the Sake of Motion,” a fast-paced and white-knuckled hard-hitter that boasts one of the most singular and unique guitar performances on an already singular and unique album for guitar work, or “There Could Be Nothing After This,” which is the pinnacle of the album’s lyrical themes of discontent and grasping for answers either in spirituality or in self. Truly, though, this is one album you’ll want to sit and listen to front-to-back. Songs like “A Moment Suspended In Time” or the heavy-even-by-this-album’s-standards “Everyone Looks So Good from Here” are simultaneously excellent by themselves and impossible to divorce from the rest of the album, in a way that must be heard to be believed. And if nothing else, you need to hear the iconic intro to “Writing On the Walls,” which immediately transports me to a hot and sweaty Warped Tour mosh pit no matter where I am. “Writing On the Walls” is also indicative of the leap that Underoath took from They’re Only Chasing Safety to Define the Great Line— for a song so catchy, it’s notably absent of repetitive refrains or even a recognizable chorus, and it’s also probably the biggest hit of the band’s career. That’s something any band in any genre should be commended for.

So, imagine you’re Underoath, and you’ve reached both the perfection and logical conclusion of the musical path you’ve explored over the course of your career, as well as reached a commercial peak that any band in your genre, let alone an openly Christian band, would kill for. Where do you go from here? Well, if you’re Underoath, you release a live CD/DVD showing you at the peak of your powers as an untouchably tight live band (seriously, the fact that Gillespie can sing and drum as well as he does on Survive, Kaleidoscope boggles my mind), and then double down on your newfound heaviness, releasing what might be your hardest album yet.

BREATHING IN A NEW MENTALITY

This being their third album with a fixed lineup, it’s probably unsurprising to note that musically, 2008’s Lost In the Sound of Separation is by far Underoath’s tightest release (it definitely displays the most consistently impressive drumming of Gillespie’s time in the band). What you might not expect, however, is that rather than continuing to push the outer edges of post-hardcore, as they did on Define the Great LineLost In the Sound of Separation sounds like a more polished and accessible update on the metalcore of 10 years prior (Zao’s Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest, Converge’s When Forever Comes Crashing, Vision of Disorder’s Imprint). Indeed, this is the album where Underoath’s riffs finally return, in the form of sludgy and off-kilter ass-beaters. With Adam D. and Matt Goldman returning as producers, the new songs are given the extremely gritty-yet-crisp treatment that they deserved.

Gillespie’s cleans are here, but in much smaller supply (perhaps utilized best on second track “Anyone Can Dig A Hole, But It Takes A Real Man to Call It Home”), and in many ways, it shows that the band could have always been this heavy if they’d wanted to. But man, I’m glad they showed it off for a full album, just this once. Opener “Breathing In A New Mentality,” with Chamberlain’s most-gruesome-yet vocals and disgustingly distorted bass, communicates that this iteration of Underoath is absolutely not to be fucked with. Even on another relatively tame track like “A Fault Line, A Fault of Mine,” which lets Gillespie breathe a bit and includes a gentle, atmospheric bridge section, any moment of respite is only used to contrast with the objectively crushing nature of the rest of the proceedings. Is there still several doses of melody? Sure– doesn’t make it any less heavy.

Songs like “Emergency Broadcast: The End Is Near” truly convince me that this was Underoath’s attempt to remake Until Your Heart Stops. Guitar pyrotechnics aside, the way the song woozily drifts back and forth between a menacing-yet-calm trudge and a barely-reserved military stomp shows that Underoath had been taking notes from mathcore closely. It’s rare that a band of Underoath’s “scene” can stretch a build-up out for as long as they do here, but this song is nearly six minutes long (the longest track on the album) and it keeps teasing pay-offs and pulling back without delivering, successfully keeping the listener on the edge of their seat the entire time. Seriously, count how many times the song’s slow-burn starts over again– it doesn’t really explode until the final minute of the song, at which point it’s become a genuine surprise. Even still, there’s a sense of reserve that is thrown aside with reckless abandon on follow-up “The Only Survivor Was Miraculously Unharmed,” a song that makes me want to wildly crowdkill anyone in my sight. Christian bands aren’t supposed to have lyrics as dour as “The cycle never really ends,” but Underoath never did anything that they were supposed to.

The album continues to deliver on its dark promise with cuts like “We Are the Involuntary” and “The Created Void,” two songs that seem to probe the deepest edges of what both the band’s sound and lyrics are capable of. “Involuntary” in particular features possibly the most desperate performance of Chamberlain’s career, as he screams the album’s title with such conviction that it feels more poetic than it has any right to. Gillespie balances out Chamberlain’s misery with lines like “There’s gotta be something bigger here” and “This can’t be it,” proving that the band’s faith was never a given and has become just as much fodder for their lyrical soul-searches as anything else. For its part, “The Created Void” fosters an atmosphere that’s as optimistic as it is desolate, lines like “I’m suffering right in front of you” and “We are not alone” coexisting in a manner as discomfiting as it is life-affirming. “I say what I don’t mean and mean what I don’t” could easily be just as much of a clever-for-the-sake-of-clever line as a latter-day Pete Wentz toss-off, but here it is, excuse the pun, downright confessional.

Coming off songs as cerebral and self-assured as the last four, “Coming Down Is Calming Down” sounds even more frantic and full of fear than it would by itself. Mining Chamberlain’s previous issues with addiction for lyrical inspiration, “Coming Down” is one of the more truly unhinged songs in Underoath’s catalog, complete with another manic drum performance from Gillespie. “Can someone help me hold on?” is about as naked a plea for religious affirmation as they could muster.

“Coming Down” leads immediately into one of the bigger hits from Separation, “Desperate Times, Desperate Measures.” “Desperate” starts off with one of the noisiest riffs of the band’s career before ascending into a truly anthemic chorus, finding the middle ground between Separation‘s heaviness and the universal appeal of They’re Only Chasing Safety. Rather than careening to a close, the record slows down again for the two final numbers, “Too Bright to See, Too Loud to Hear” and “Desolate Earth: The End Is Here,” both of which balance hope with bleakness in that signature Underoath fashion. “Too Bright” is the album’s sole clean vocal showcase, successfully building up for four minutes to a gospel-inspired, foot-stomping, hand-clapping climax that gives way to a finale that makes Chamberlain’s screams sound even more inhuman than they otherwise would. Meanwhile, “The End Is Here” is a near-instrumental, mildly experimental number that closes the record out on a truly subdued and melancholy note, one which masks the chaos and uncertainty of the rest of the album with a sense of resignation, the furious questioning of self, God, and others replaced with a plaintive plea for someone, anyone to feel what Underoath is feeling.

IN COMPLETION

Weirdly enough, it’s fitting that Gillespie, the band’s sole remaining founding member, had amicably departed the band by the time of their (former) final album. It’s indicative of the cycle that the band started in 1997 and finished in 2013, sixteen years in the making. What was once new becomes old, and with the inclusion of former Norma Jean drummer Daniel Davison– himself extremely talented and fully capable of filling Gillespie’s enormous shoes– not only did Underoath die as a completely different band than the one that first ripped through Act of Depression, it died at what many consider to be the peak of its powers, with the hulking-yet-concise post-metal masterwork that is 2010’s Ø (Disambiguation). Adam D. wasn’t behind the boards for this one, but Goldman knew exactly what kind of crunchy and feedback-drenched sound the band needed, and this record sounds, accordingly, amazing.

Disambiguation is a fucking heavy fusion of electronic elements, ambience, sludge metal riffs, and metalcore attitude. Opener “In Division” tricks you into thinking that this might be a soft affair before smacking you in the mouth with the heaviest riffs that Underoath have concocted thus far in their career. The addition of Davison actually lends a little bit more of a vulnerable and outwardly aggressive hardcore flavor, while the absence of Gillespie’s more pop-punky cleans allow Chamberlain to flex some more muscles in that arena. “In Division”‘s climax actually finds him reaching into spaces that are reminiscent of, say, “Down In A Hole” by Alice In Chains (minus the yarling, of course).

“Catch Myself Catching Myself” allows the bass work to shine strongly on its own, as it completely carries the intro of the song with its distorted stomp. When the guitars finally collide with it, it’s only to show that they’re just as heavy as they were on the last song. Almost every song on Disambiguation starts off heavy and manages to sound even heavier as time goes on, owing to the band’s expert usage of build-ups and bridges. Songs like “Paper Lung” show the band firing on all cylinders, proving that even with Gillespie gone, their songwriting hasn’t suffered. “Paper Lung” is also another neat bass showcase– I’m glad that Brandell is finally getting some of the studio love that he’s always deserved. Plus, Davison absolutely destroys the skins during the discordant climax.

The Alice In Chains influence that popped up on “In Division” wasn’t a one-off; in fact, I’d describe the sound of Disambiguation as somewhere between Alice In Chains and Isis, or maybe even mid-era Converge (coming from me, that’s a pretty damn big compliment). The abridged length of Disambiguation (it’s their shortest record since They’re Only Chasing Safety) also works in its favor, so every song feels like its own mini-epic without overstaying its welcome. “Illuminator” bursts onto the tracklist sounding like a lost Cave-In track before dissolving into one of the more haunting choruses on the album. Chamberlain seems, even more than on past outings, to be plumbing the depths of his psyche for inspiration. Part of the reason that Disambiguation sounds even darker than the fractured and desperate tone that shaped Define the Great Line and Lost In the Sound of Separation is that Gillespie’s brand of guarded optimism is no longer there to offset Chamberlain’s self-eviscerations. As “Illuminator” draws to a close, Chamberlain talks about “preying on the innocent” as Smith and McTague seem to draw close to destroying their own guitars. This album is a harrowing listening experience.

“Driftwood” is harrowing in an entirely different, utilizing electronic drum loops, a dark and visceral bass line, and extremely subdued ambience to create a truly uncomfortable atmosphere before Underoath leans into their more traditionally destructive tendencies with “A Divine Eradication.” Chamberlain’s claim that “I am not what you made me out to be” seems to be a call for anyone who wrote the band off with They’re Only Chasing Safety to give a listen to Disambiguation— with the way it deftly interjects handclaps into a song filled with skronky, speedy guitar runs and the beastly cry of “Where is my fix?”, “Eradication” is sure to take any casual fan aback, and stands tall as one of the highlights of the record.

With “Eradication” serving as the album’s centerpiece, it’s only natural to assume that the back half of Disambiguation might not hold up to the absolutely stacked front half. That fear is quickly laid to rest with the off-kilter, eerie intro to “Who Will Guard the Guardians?”, a song that bemoans “Machines built by machines,” a song that uses a church bell almost ironically in its bridge, a song that asserts that “We are the lost, and we are the abandoned” before it delves into what might be the most Gillespie-esque section on the album. Rather than making one long for the Underoath of old, however, it actually lends the song greater gravitas than it might have otherwise had, especially when it pauses right before its feedback-laden, teeth-grindingly intense climax.

“Reversal” is another interlude, along the lines of “Driftwood,” although it is much more sparse and aggressive. If Gardell’s bass was menacing before, it’s a junkyard dog here, gnashing back and forth atop the messy guitar and Chamberlain’s scarred voice. “Reversal” also stops, for just one moment of calm, before the record plunges us into “Vacant Mouth,” perhaps the best song on the album. The rhythm section is on fire during the intro, but it’s when the song swerves into its main body that it shines, full of off-time holds that recall Deadguy as well as the type of polished singing that bands like Deadguy could have never dreamed of incorporating. “Vacant Mouth”‘s bridge is nothing short of brilliant, a miasma of needle-sharp guitar riffs and sludgy low end that eventually resolves into a clean section that recalls Nine Inch Nails’s more melodic moments, and then returning to the song’s mammoth of a chorus.

“My Deteriorating Incline” is an excellent choice as a penultimate song, seeing as it’s by far the heaviest song on the album; the riff that the song closes out on is nothing short of groovy and gnarly. At 3:33, it’s one of the shortest songs on the album, but it feels like half its length due to its breakneck pace and bottomless energy. The way it ends and abruptly segues into ethereal closer “In Completion” is somewhat jarring on first listen, but then, everything on this album is supposed to feel jarring. “In Completion” is a fittingly desolate way to finish out the album, and the end of this incarnation of Underoath. It accomplishes the opposite of their older material– where Dallas Taylor screamed, heart on sleeve, over euphoric and melodic guitar work, Chamberlain sings mournfully over one of the heaviest riffs the band ever wrote, before leading into a monstrous screaming section that slowly turns into a long, painful outro. It’s as good a way as any to put a cap on Disambiguation and Underoath as a whole.

Underoath released a best-of compilation in 2012, with two pretty damn good new songs (“Sunburnt” and “Unsound”) that function as a coda to their career. Then they broke up.

WAKE ME

I’m actually not sure just how authentic Underoath’s break-up was, given that they got back together only two years later. It almost seemed as if it was done specifically to fulfill a contract, or something. Nonetheless, in 2016, Underoath played their first reunion show at A Day to Remember’s Self Help Fest, with the momentous return of Gillespie as drummer and vocalist. However, the new iteration of Underoath that released Erase Me in 2018 (on Fearless Records, a notable detour from their usual home on Solid State), was markedly different in that it was a four-piece. They’d retained Dudley as keyboardist, but now McTague was taking up the mantle of bassist and pulling double-duty on guitars (with the help of Chamberlain). Additionally, Chamberlain had come out as an ex-Christian in the interim, and his grappling with that loss of faith informs much of the lyrical content on Erase Me.

This might come as a surprise, given how long-winded I’ve been on Underoath up to this point, but I don’t actually have much of an opinion on Erase Me. Do I like it? Of course I do– I was very scared to listen to it, given that I was led to believe it was an unsalvageable garbage fire, but I ended up pretty pleased with the catchy flavor of songs like opener “It Has to Start Somewhere” and the Linkin Park-tinged anthem “On My Teeth” (which features a standout drum performance from Gillespie). However, I can’t help but feel as if the album was released in order to capitalize on the industrial/hard rock direction that their peers in bands like Bring Me the Horizon had experienced a huge degree of success with. Accordingly, I feel like Erase Me is an album I don’t  need to sit with. It’s made to be easily digestible, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s not quite what I look for when I come to Underoath– I want that interplay of accessible and challenging, and I think in 2018, the musical atmosphere was one that would have welcomed another album like their past three. So, I’m sorry, but there’s not much for me to say on it.

So, twenty-two years and 9,000 words later, am I embarrassed to be a fan of Underoath? If they continue to make albums like Erase Me, maybe, but as it stands, they have at least six albums that are better than they have any right to be, and you have to thank God for that.

NEXT WEEK: I’m taking the week off. I can’t just keep inundating myself with one band over and over, and I need to hit a reset button. Plus, I’m tentatively working on some stuff for the Hard Times, and I need to free up some time for that. I’ll be back October 7th with an article on Bring Me the Horizon.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #5: Paramore

STILL INTO YOU

Somehow, when I decided to start doing this series weekly, it didn’t occur to me that between obsessively doing close-listens of a band’s discography over and over, going to work, and my personal life (I officially turned the age where no one likes me last Wednesday), I might not have enough time to listen to music that isn’t, you know, decade-old Hot Topic soundtracks. Luckily, I’m proud to announce that aside from a brief deviation (the new Glitterer album is actually rather good, once you get past the fact that it’s Not Title Fight), I didn’t actually care this week, because Paramore has pretty much never written a bad song.

I’ve been hesitant to write about Paramore with this series, not because of their music (which I’ve always thought was great), but because the entire critical conversation surrounding the band has always seemed a bit toxic, perhaps because Hayley Williams was the only woman in a prominent position in the scene, or perhaps because too much attention was paid to their endless lineup changes, or perhaps because their early work was (in a misogynist and dismissive fashion) often inaccurately compared to Avril Lavigne and Kelly fucking Clarkson, of all people. Paramore wasn’t really given the critical attention they deserved until their 2013 self-titled album, when they began to shift from effervescent, post-hardcore-indebted power-pop to a more “mature” and boundary-pushing pop sound, therefore slotting neatly into the category of the Taylor Swifts of the world– ie, the place that women are supposed to occupy within contemporary pop music, and, moreover, the place where music critics decide it’s okay to engage with their music in an honest way and without condescension. Gross, right?

So, while it may be true that Paramore has indeed steadily improved with each record, it would be fallacious for anyone to argue that their early work is without merit just because it sprouted from a place and time within alternative music that’s often looked at with derision. According to Wikipedia, Hayley Williams is renowned for being able to sing in a “whistle register” (I don’t actually know anything about music, so that sounds like fucking nonsense to me). What she should be renowned for is being one of the most electrifying and charismatic frontpeople to ever set foot on a stage. Music critics often referred to the other musicians in Paramore as “her” band, overlooking the more collaborative aspects of their music, which has been a source of endless frustration for all the members. So let’s peel back the discourse and reveal who Paramore actually are: one of the most versatile and accomplished bands in alternative music, and the one band from the 2000s mall-emo explosion to pull off the segue into pop music with grace and skill.

FRANKLIN

So, one of the biggest arguments levied against Paramore is that they are a manufactured industry plant, because technically Hayley Williams was the only person whose name was on the contract when it was signed, with Atlantic Records’ initial plan being to market her as a solo pop act, along the lines of Avril Lavigne. This line of thinking never addresses two important facts: one, Hayley wasn’t even sixteen when she signed the contract in 2003 (and honestly I think that practice seems rather predatory in retrospect), and she actively fought for the right to make the music she wanted with the rest of the band.

People often forget that the original lineup of Paramore was a bunch of high school friends who gravitated to each other naturally. What’s more is that while the rest of the band members obviously were into the major touchstones of their sound– post-hardcore and emo bands like mewithoutYou, Jimmy Eat World, and Sunny Day Real Estate– Hayley in particular often professed admiration for bands like Underoath, the Chariot, Kid Dynamite, and American Nightmare, betraying her hardcore roots. I often find it interesting that while Hayley herself is functionally straight-edge, she went out of her way to say she doesn’t claim it in an interview with Toby Morse of H2O’s DARE-esque One Life One Chance program, which shows she’s pretty well-versed in the culture.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story of Paramore starts in 2002, in Franklin, Tennessee, when a fourteen-year-old Hayley Williams moved to town following her parents’ divorce and hit it off with the Farro brothers, Josh and Zac, after meeting them at school. A brief stint auditioning for a funk band led to her meeting Jeremy Davis, and soon enough, a band started to coalesce– the first song they ever wrote as a band, “Conspiracy,” took shape around this time. Zac, only 12 at the time, was a thunderously good drummer, adept at deceptively simple fills and imbuing the band with a propulsive energy; balancing out Zac’s muscular drumming was the surprisingly nuanced guitar work of his older brother Josh, a songwriter who was equally willing to explore the influence of heady, eclectic rock groups like Radiohead and Mew as he was to let loose with roaring screams. And of course, Hayley was the Chemical X to the mixture– growing up on girl groups like the Shangri-Las and the bubbly vocal talents of people like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, her parents were smart enough to give her vocal training from famed coach Brett Manning, and even at her young age, her pipes were a force to be reckoned with; additionally, she was already shaping up to a lyricist more articulate than anyone her age had any right to be. Rounding out the group on bass, there isn’t much to say about Jeremy Davis, as he left the band prior to the recording of their debut record (and in fact his departure would inform much of the lyrical content of said record), but he would eventually return, so more on him later.

Taking a page from Fall Out Boy’s massive playbook of music industry innovations, the band and label decided it would be best for their image to release their first LP on Fueled By Ramen. With Davis being replaced by the crunchy, understated rhythm guitar work of Jason Bynum, and Lucio Rubano and Jeremy Caldwell stepping up to provide studio bass work, the band recorded 2005’s All We Know Is Falling with an already extremely wide rage of influences– the band would cite the fractured metalcore/post-hardcore hybrid of Underoath, the esoteric and hazy space rock of Failure, and the airy pop hooks of the Academy Is… as having a large impact on the sound of the album, as well as admitting to listening to a lot of Slipknot. The result is a record with a much wider array of sonic variance than it’s ever given credit for, from the suspended feedback that forms the bridge of the title track to the ineffably catchy chorus of their first big hit, “Pressure.” The bounce between the laid-back twinkle and intense crunch of “Emergency” would also catapult that song to an early hit status. As an amusing side note, I often hear people accuse Mom Jeans. of ripping off Free Throw’s “Two Beers In” for their track “Death Cup,” but I think that the secret nucleus of both songs lies in the lilting opening melody of “Conspiracy,” which is the closest Paramore would ever get to Midwest emo.

While All We Know Is Falling lacks much of the sheer energy and verve that would define their later work in the world of pop-punk, there’s still a lot to like here, and I would argue that their debut is often unfairly forgotten. There’s plenty of standout moments, from the ultra-anthemic guitar riff that announces “Brighter” to the understated early ballad “Franklin,” and I’d like to assign special importance to “My Heart,” the monstrous closing track, which also features Josh Farro contributing one of his few screaming performances to the band’s ouvre. “Here We Go Again” opens with a thick groove that recalls Hayley’s roots auditioning for funk bands before segueing into one of the dreamier choruses on the record, and Hayley proves that her voice was the most vital and combustible element of the band’s sound from the beginning, guiding the progression of both the subdued “Never Let This Go” and enormous pop-punk standout “Whoa” with her extremely powerful and malleable pipes.

Paramore followed up All We Know Is Falling with extensive touring, especially on the Warped circuit (in 2005 they were weirdly relegated to a female-oriented side stage, which seems tokenizing to me) as well as a 2006 tour-exclusive EP, The Summer TicThe Summer Tic is interesting because it shows the band exploring more of the heavy side that they indulged with “My Heart” (the screaming makeover given to “Emergency” is especially cool) as well as an excellent cover of Failure’s “Stuck On You” and two of the band’s sharpest originals, “O Star” and “This Circle.” The EP also notably announced the return of Jeremy Davis on bass and one of the first songwriting contributions of future member Taylor York (Taylor had previously contributed to the writing of “Conspiracy”).

Electing to become permanent fixtures on Fueled By Ramen rather than graduating to Atlantic, and after going through another shuffle of touring members, Paramore’s lineup of Hayley, Josh, Zac, and Jeremy entered the studio with mega-producer David Bendeth to record their next album. As inauspicious yet promising as their beginnings seemed to be, all expectations would be blown away.

LET THE FLAMES BEGIN

2007’s Riot! is important for several reasons, but chief among them is that it’s an inexhaustible blast of exuberant power-pop. Of the eleven songs on Riot!, it’s hard to point to any of them as less compelling, less brimming with energy, less melodically inventive than any of the others. “That’s What You Get” and “crushcrushcrush” obviously lead the pack, being hit singles for a reason, but in all honesty, any of these songs could have been hits for the band. Josh Farro said that this record was written with a live response in mind, and it shows in the absolutely massive hooks and choruses that fly all over the place.

Another thing I find interesting about Riot! is that in many ways, Paramore were perfect opposites of their Fueled By Ramen contemporaries. Aside from opener “For A Pessimist, I’m Pretty Optimistic,” Paramore never indulged in the lengthy, tongue-twisting song titles that defined bands like Panic! at the Disco, and rather than fixating on their complicated relationship with their newfound fame like Fall Out Boy, Paramore were content to share victory laps with their fans (“Hallelujah,” despite having been written around the time of All We Know, was first released on Riot! and ultimately has much greater resonance placed here).

Paramore’s unwillingness to engage in exhausting wordplay or bend over backwards to force witticisms is indicative of Williams’s approach to lyrics– direct and to the point, she draws strongly from the Blake Schwarzenbach school of songwriting, taut and evocative (her cover of “Accident Prone” accentuated the similarities for me quite well), although perhaps a bit more accessible and less bitter.

The re-entering of Jeremy Davis to the fold is highlighted by Bendeth’s production, which allows the bass to shine, and shows that Davis was capable of the type of agile melodic counterpoints that Josh’s often nuanced compositions required. Describing songs as straightforward as the set presented on Riot! as nuanced may seem silly, but you simply don’t get hooks this good without having an excellent sense of dynamics and layering. Take “Let the Flames Begin,” for example, which takes a classic soft/loud dynamic and enhances it with excellent melodic layering in both the verse’s guitar noodles and the strong, yet subtle backing guitar melody throughout the chorus.

For his part, Zac had experienced a stratospheric leap in talent from All We Know to Riot!, growing from a highly competent utility player to the essence of Paramore’s groove– it’s hard to imagine a lot of this record’s finer moments without the strength and versatility of his hits, and in particular “Misery Business” (the album’s high-water mark and a massive achievement in performance and composition within the pop-punk genre) relies so heavily on the propulsion he provides.

On the subject of “Misery Business” itself, enough words have been spilled on the internalized misogyny of the lyrics by people far more talented and qualified to dissect it than myself. Given that it’s really the only time that the band ever delved into this sort of lyricism, I think it’s a bit unfair to relentlessly hammer on about it (and redundant, given that Hayley long ago stopped singing the most objectionable of the lyrics and finally retired the song entirely from their live sets last year). Regardless, on a sheer songwriting level, “Misery Business” is impossible to deny– that snaky, rhythmic riff ascends perfectly into the chorus, while Hayley delivers her best vocal performance to that point in the band’s career, careening from high to low with pinpoint precision and control.

Hayley’s vocals are, as always, the most enduring and enjoyable aspect of this album. She is a master of emoting through her vocal work, and elevates already-enjoyable tracks like the bouncy and rollicking “Fences”, the yearning and gorgeous “Miracle,” and trademark softer song/late-album standout “We Are Broken” to classic status with her magnetism and power.

Although in many ways “Misery Business” is probably the best song on Riot!, my personal favorite is the closer, “Born for This.” It’s the most hardcore-informed song on the album– there’s gang vocals all over the place and its built around a line from the hook of Refused’s “Liberation Frequency”– but I think it’s where everything comes together most perfectly. Zac’s drumming is almost robotic in its speed and tightness, Jeremy’s bass work is at its most inventive and memorable, and Josh’s percussive, anthemic guitar work makes the whole song feel like a breathless hurdle. For her part, Hayley treats the song like a circus for which she’s the ringleader, commanding every inch of space and turning an already stellar closer into one of the band’s most timeless songs and a consistent live staple. “Everybody sing like it’s the last song you will ever sing,” indeed. Bonus points for the clever lyrical throwback to “Pressure,” highlighting Paramore’s continuous chronicling of their own rise. Again, unlike Fall Out Boy’s often pained contortions and struggles with their own success, Paramore never seemed anything other than overjoyed to have found fame and a stable income doing what they loved, and it shows in the wide-eyed innocence and optimism that both defines Riot! and contributes to its position as a modern pop classic.

You can see that same not-quite-naïveté in full effect throughout their documented live performances during this period. Paramore was (and is) an extremely tight live band, with Hayley at peak control of both the crowd and her voice on the performances captured on their 2008 live album, The Final Riot. A special nod should go out to the band’s performance of “Decoy,” a song that was pretty much only available on the Hot Topic-exclusive Riot! CD and probably didn’t need to be played live, but was given the all-out committed performance it deserved anyway. Paramore have an odd habit of sidelining perfectly good songs as random bonus tracks for certain albums or as soundtrack-only songs– “Temporary,” “Rewind,” and “Stop This Song” all suffered from this fate, being spread out among several random reissues of Riot!, and relegated two of their soon-to-be most popular songs (the Evanescence-tinged down-tempo slog “Decode” and the slow-building but layered and excellent “I Caught Myself”) to the Twilight soundtrack. No accounting for taste, I suppose.

Unfortunately for Paramore (but fortunately for us), that happy-go-lucky attitude was soon obliterated– internal struggles within the band resulting from miscommunication, the pressure to write a successful follow-up, and Hayley deciding to write lyrics about things she was still actively struggling with rather than writing feel-good anthems about problems she had already overcome all contributed to the fractious and aggressive sound on their third record, 2009’s brand new eyes. However, that anger and desperation, coupled with the overdue addition of longtime friend of the band and touring guitarist Taylor York as a contributing songwriter and official rhythm guitarist, came together to create Paramore’s most assured and compelling record to date.

WHERE THE LINES OVERLAP

The years between Riot! and brand new eyes saw a lot of expansion on Hayley’s part– she contributed a solo song to the Jennifer‘s Body soundtrack (the adorable acoustic shuffle “Teenagers”) and appeared as a scene-stealing guest vocalist on tracks as diverse as “The Church Channel” by Say Anything“Then Came to Kill” by the Chariot (!), and my personal favorite, “The Few That Remain” by Set Your Goals (a band that Hayley named one of her newer favorites along with fellow sadboi pop-punk pioneers Fireworks in 2008). Despite all this building of her personal brand, and a brief worry that Paramore were on the verge of breaking up, the unit stayed strong and the mostly self-produced (with eventual oversight from Green Day’s go-to producer Rob Cavallo) brand new eyes was released in late 2009 to overwhelmingly positive commercial response.

Somehow, Zac Farro has again just leveled up massively as a drummer. I don’t know if it’s the production or what, but he seriously sounds better and better with every record, each new fill sounding more agile, hard-hitting, and precise. Jeremy’s bass work is also more intricate and ostentatious than Riot!. Josh Farro and Taylor York, having broken in their chemistry on past Paramore tours, sound like they were born to play in tandem on brand new eyes, locking in as one unit and lending the record a brawny muscle that I don’t think it would have otherwise had. Really, everything on brand new eyes feels like a more accomplished extension of Riot! except that rather than an overwhelming feeling of positivity reigning over the proceedings, it’s an overwhelming sense of anger and cynicism. This is Paramore’s Big Angry Rock Record, and it’s fucking excellent.

Hayley announces that sense of resentment with the one-two punch of openers “Careful” and “Ignorance” (the sarcastic way that “It’s nice to meet you, sir” seethes out of Hayley on the latter is perhaps the most pissed off I’ve ever heard her on record). Again, the intelligence of her lyrics is stunning (she was twenty-one on this record! Unreal!). “Playing God” may be calmer musically than the first two tracks, but with its “Next time you point the finger, I’ll point you to the mirror” refrain, it’s just as bitter towards self-righteous, judgmental pricks as the rest of the album, and it’s immediately followed by what is probably my favorite song on the album, “Brick By Boring Brick.” Musically, “Brick” is one of the more classically pop-punk songs on the record, but it has that indescribably more aggressive post-hardcore edge that permeates all of the proceedings, and that recurring “ba-da-ba-ba” motif is so perfect– I’m a sucker for that shit, but the way that it continually builds up until the monstrous climax of the song is just icing on the cake. “Feeling Sorry” is another of the more pissed off cuts from this record, with Hayley outright declaring that she feels “no sympathy” and the palm-muted verses conveying that same disdain and fury.

Still, the record is more than just angry all the way through. “Turn It Off” revels in depression with its “I’m better off when I hit the bottom” messaging, while the mega-hit “The Only Exception” is a sticky-sweet love song of the highest caliber (side note, I’ve heard this song described as “country-esque,” which couldn’t be more off to me– it’s acoustic-based power pop, no twang to be found). Elsewhere, the suitably peppy “Looking Up” is as undeniable a love letter to their success as they’ve ever written (“It’s not a dream anymore/it’s worth fighting for” and “god knows the world doesn’t need another band”), and “Where the Lines Overlap” is an olive branch to all their fans, not only admitting that “no one is as lucky as us” but somehow topping the plea to sing along from “Born for This” with its absolutely enormous and unbelievably infectious “I’ve got a feeling if I sing this loud enough/You would sing it back to me” bridge just begging to be shouted at the top of your lungs. There’s also still lots of interesting musical ideas in these tracks– for example, “Looking Up” has a straight-up two-step part, and the penultimate song “Misguided Ghosts” is an extremely haunting and eerie acoustic number.

And of course, it’s not a Paramore album without a crushing, stellar closer, and this album pays off big-time with “All I Wanted.” Not only does it build up to the heaviest and most overbearing guitar work in all of Josh Farro’s time with the band, but it might actually be my favorite vocal performance of Hayley’s; she pushes her voice into the highest register that the song could stand with such emotion, strength, and grace, that it’s hard not to get actual chills when I listen.

Of course, brand new eyes being the absolute peak of Paramore’s involvement in the pop-punk genre, something had to break. And break it did.

GROW UP

Amidst another flurry of solo Hayley appearances (B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” anyone?), there was some sort of shudder sent through the band. I don’t really care to speculate, nor to take sides; whether there was some sort of financial disagreement, the press was focusing too much on Hayley, or Hayley simply wasn’t “Christian” enough for the Farro brothers has no bearing on my opinion of the band’s work. All I know is that Josh and Zac left, leaving Hayley, Taylor, and Jeremy to continue on as a three-piece (although  Ilan Rubin did an excellent job with the drums on their next record). In the four years between brand new eyes and Paramore, the band only released the kind of subpar “Monsters” (their contribution to a Transformers soundtrack), as well as a few flurries of singles that were later released as The Singles Club, and the excellent B-sides “Escape Route” and “Native Tongue.” However, slowed output be damned, Paramore rolled up their sleeves and, with Hayley and Taylor becoming a songwriting duo par excellence, forged an entirely new path with 2013’s Paramore.

2013 is an extremely pivotal year for this column. I point to it as the year that the mainstream “emo” explosion finally morphed into nü-pop (my name for the borderline-undefinable pantheon of sadness-tinged and genre-malleable pop artists that have proliferated since then). 2013 is the year that you could argue this strain of emo-derived mainstream alternative rock died: Panic! at the Disco and Fall Out Boy both pivoted to a more straightforwardly “pop” sensibility (becoming garish and ugly in the process); My Chemical Romance, objectively the biggest stars of that scene, broke up; and many other bands faded into the background, to be replaced by newer, more electronic-focused artists like Twenty One Pilots (their breakthrough album Vessel was released that year). These were artists that echoed many of the sentiments of those earlier bands, and appealed to a similar demographic, but ultimately hold roots in something much different. It’s no surprise that 2013 is also the year that “emo rap” started to spread its wings– Bones released the formative single “Air” and Adam McIlwee officially left Tigers Jaw in order to focus on Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. There was a new dichotomy forming, one that would eventually be the catalyst for millions of “Is Lil Peep emo?” arguments on Reddit, but in 2013, Paramore were smack in the middle.

As I lamented earlier, it was bittersweet to see Paramore ranking so highly at publications like The AV Club. On the one hand, it was so vindicating to see them finally taken seriously, and this album deserved all the praise it was getting. On the other, I felt like, “Shit, it took y’all this long to catch up to a train that thirteen-year-old girls were on years ago? I thought you were hip!”

Nevertheless, Paramore is a stunning achievement. 64 minutes long and completely absent of filler or dead air, it shows the pop-punk of the past melting into the thrilling new pop sounds of the future. Jeremy’s driving, disgustingly thick bass tone forms the foundation of the album as Hayley and Taylor go absolutely nuts. “Fast In My Car” announces the proceedings with a fuzzy, almost garage-like riff which belies the song’s slight synth-pop edge and shows off both a succinct, hard-hitting chorus from Hayley and Taylor’s knack for bizarre, bracing guitar noise. I will say I miss Zac’s thunderous strength on the drums for this record (and it’s a shame that Aaron Gillespie wasn’t immediately on hand for the recording), but the production fills out Ilan Rubin’s sound to the point where it’s much less noticeable than it should be.

If “Fast In My Car” didn’t communicate that we were in for something completely different, “Now” should fix that. Hayley’s “Now-ow-ow-ow-ow” hook somewhat recalls the way that Katy Perry breaks up syllables on her hooks, but the atmosphere is ultimately more organic and desperate than any other contemporary pop record of the time (the way the rolling drums coincide with that morbid “There’s a time and a place to die” refrain makes that much clear). “Now” is also followed by “Grow Up,” perhaps the most bitter kiss-off to the Farros on a record full of them (“If I have to, I’m gonna leave you behind”). The foreboding synth fadeout that closes the song is one of the record’s most memorable and sonically prescient moments.

Hayley name-checked Blondie and Siouxsie & the Banshees as primary influences on this record and it shows, both in the record’s obvious pop eclecticism (Blondie) and the way its tone dances swiftly between playful and uncomfortably dark (Siouxsie). However, “Daydreaming” reminds me of a quite different peer of those previously mentioned artists– the Cure. With its creeping synth, ambitiously layered guitar pop, Hayley’s achingly vulnerable voice, and a chorus somehow subdued and transcendent and propulsive all at once, I could see “Daydreaming” slotting onto Head On the Door or Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me with little-to-no fiddling. If you can’t tell, it’s one of my favorites on the record.

Resting between two of the best songs on the album, “Daydreaming” and “Ain’t It Fun,” is the first of three lo-fi ukulele-driven interludes on the album, “Moving On.” In a lesser singer’s hands, these tracks would probably be superfluous, but Hayley’s vocals serve to make these cutesy digressions somehow sound completely integral to the album’s flow. And besides, after the dreamy heaviness of “Daydreaming,” I needed a moment of respite before the sheer pop euphoria of “Ain’t It Fun,” one of the best songs the band has ever crafted. If you told me in 2007 that Paramore would eventually write an irrepressibly joyful pop-rock gem that seamlessly incorporates both a xylophone and a six-piece gospel choir, I doubt I would have believed you, but rest assured, I’m so happy they did. PS– peep the funk-influenced bass during the outro. There’d later be disputes about how much Jeremy Davis actually contributed to this album, but that moment at least deserves, like, thirty bucks. It’s such an innocuous and small moment, but so danceable and a perfect little accent to a perfect little song.

Seemingly worried about alienating past fans, Paramore melded the sounds of brand new eyes and Paramore with “Part II,” a song with such a dark and driving chorus that it almost belies the airy, ambient bridge. Said bridge eventually collapses in on itself with reckless abandon. It’s the first moment on this record where Paramore pull off a neat trick. By playing with tone and atmosphere, they can make moments that aren’t actually all that heavy sound downright menacing and oppressive. I think “Part II” also features one of Taylor York’s absolute best moments as a guitarist, proving you don’t need to shred in order to be a master of your instrument.

Paramore returns unapologetically to their new sound on “Last Hope,” one of the more yearning and beautiful moments on an already yearning and beautiful record. Jeremy again provides an extremely memorable and fun bass line, while Hayley delivers some of the most honest and open lyrics of her career. She’d later expand on her mental health in this essay, but I’ll be damned if “Every night I try my best to dream tomorrow makes it better/And wake up to the cold reality and not a thing is changed” isn’t as succinct and poignant a summary of depression as has ever been written. Accordingly, her performance on this song is more subtle, running on a level just below completely letting loose.

Hayley’s decade-long, friction-filled relationship with New Found Glory’s guitarist Chad Gilbert would provide lots of darker and sadder material on this record’s follow-up, and was also the fuel for previous love songs like the gooey-yet-wonderful “The Only Exception,” but I’d argue that the best song to come from that relationship is the buoyant, irrepressible “Still Into You.” For all my cooing over Hayley’s hardcore roots, and my love of the moments where Paramore lean into aggression, I will always come back to immaculately-constructed pop songs like “Still Into You.” Plus, it’s got another absolutely spine-chilling performance from Hayley at the end of the bridge.

“Anklebiters” fakes us out with a feedback-drenched, ominous drum-driven intro before revealing itself to be an extremely jaunty pop song, albeit the fastest-paced and closest to aggro one on this record (peep the gang vocals when Hayley shouts the name of the song). Surprise, surprise, Jeremy’s bass line is again perfect, perfectly contrasting the shimmering, sparkly cascades of guitar that Taylor pours all over the song. Ilan’s drumming is excellent as well, showing that he was doubtlessly a solid utility player.

Another ukulele interlude, “Holiday,” adds both a fun bass counterpoint and Hayley admitting to eating Top Ramen in order to save money. Inessential in theory, essential in practice, as it provides reprieve between the caffeinated energy of “Anklebiters” and “Proof.” “Proof” was one of the first songs written for this album, and it straddles the line between brand new eyes and Paramore effortlessly, with Taylor providing some joyous guitar accents to the sticky-as-fuck chorus. Yet again, I’m left thinking that Jeremy Davis is one of the most perennially underrated bassists of this scene. Yet again, we roll into the next song before I can even blink.

“Hate to See Your Heart Break” is uncharacteristically reserved for Paramore, even considering their trademark softer songs. “Hate” is tender and precious, with a gentle orchestral touch that emphasizes the maximalism of the record as a whole. With many bands of Paramore’s genre, there’s a tendency to draw back from sounds they couldn’t necessarily recreate live, but “Hate” benefits from the accoutrements of gracious studio time and a major label budget, swelling and fading with all the grace of a perfectly-scored movie. And again, Taylor’s understated and tasteful guitar work ends up stealing the show for me at the end of the track, despite Hayley competing for my attention with a performance that exudes both empathy and exhaustion.

If “Hate to See Your Heart Break” is a study in how minimalism and maximalism can collide to thrilling effect, “(One of Those) Crazy Girls” flips the polarity, as here the orchestral elements (and a toweringly melodic solo from Taylor) fills the song to overflowing, while also allowing ample space to focus on Hayley’s lyrics, somehow both earnest and satirical. I actually find these lyrics to be the most compelling on the record, as Hayley draws an evincing and affecting sketch of how love can feed our most unhinged impulses, without ever succumbing to scorn or sacrificing her inherent likability.

That same likability turns the final interlude, “I’m Not Angry Anymore,” from sparse and forgettable to perhaps the most memorable one of the entire record. Again, Hayley reminds me of Blake Schwarzenbach on this track, at first studying obvious contrasts (“I’m not angry anymore/Well, sometimes I am/I don’t think badly of you/Well, sometimes I do”) before hitting us with an exceedingly witty turn of phrase (“I’ll rot your teeth down to the core if I’m really happy”) and giving the theme of the record adequate closure (“I’m not totally angry/I’m not all that angry anymore”), all within less than a minute.

The final ten minutes of the record, rather than functioning as a climax, are more of an epilogue of sorts. “Be Alone” is the most straight-up pop-punk song on the album, yet it evokes both resignation and satisfaction, two themes that couldn’t be farther from pop-punk’s raison d’etre. “You should be alone with me” is probably the most accurate portrayal of a long-term relationship that I’ve found, where alone time often means cuddling with your partner after a long day of socializing and needing to recharge.

Paramore‘s closing track, “Future,” is frankly a stunning achievement. Starting as an ethereally uplifting soft-pop gem, the song betrays that Failure influence the band talked about so much in their earlier days with an extended, borderline-shoegaze climax, complete with a false fade, that might be the most crushing finale they’ve recorded throughout their history of crushing finales. Extra credit goes to Ilan Rubin, who absolutely shatters the room with his whirlwind drum performance (Aaron Gillespie of Underoath/The Almost proved to be an enormously capable touring drummer, and he absolutely destroys this track live), as well as Jeremy for providing a heavy-as-all-fuck bass riff and Taylor for wreaking havoc with a high-pitched, haunting vibrato effect on his guitar. It’s interesting that Hayley herself takes a backseat on the final moment of what might be the definitive Paramore record, communicating that Paramore is a band, not a person.

HARD TIMES

Of course, yet another lineup change occurred during the four-year gap between Paramore and 2017’s After Laughter. Jeremy Davis left the band, some hurtful words were exchanged, and of all people, Zac Farro returned to provide drums for the next Paramore album. Healed grudges (and Zac’s excellent drumming chops back on display) aside, After Laughter completes a transition that Paramore could have only hinted at. Nü-pop is passe– it’s all about new wave and 80s avant-pop, a la Talking Heads.

I’ll cut right to the chase– “Hard Times” was my most-played song of 2017, and After Laughter tied with Converge’s The Dusk In Us for my favorite album of that year. While Paramore boasts some truly soaring heights and a startling consistency, After Laughter prevails as my favorite Paramore album thanks to Hayley’s most vulnerable lyrics yet (these songs, I suspect, will ring as true in 10 years as they did at the time of After Laughter‘s release) and the unstoppable chemistry between Taylor’s most innovative songwriting yet and Zac’s pinpoint-precision drumming. “Hard Times” is patient zero for this synthesis. When I first heard this song, I couldn’t believe that Paramore had written a song so clearly indebted to disco, nor that I was head-over-heels in love with it. “Hard Times” speaks to an extremely specific strain of self-destructive tendencies, one that is so specific as to wrap around to universal. Also, it’s unreal catchy.

“Rose-Colored Boy” is a pretty naked confrontation between Hayley and her relationship with Chad Gilbert (the two had divorced before the release of After Laughter). While the relationship between the two, Chadball being seven or eight years Hayley’s senior, was always on-off and seemingly filled with tension, its collapse fuels some of the most intimate moments on this record (Chad’s lyrics about the breakup, found on New Found Glory’s Makes Me Sick, are no less introspective but perhaps a bit more gross). Together with “Told You So,” “Rose-Colored Boy” forms a duology of profoundly catchy and heart-on-sleeve world music-indebted pop singles. “Told You So” in particular is more bitter than its infectious melody lets on, with its “They love to say they told me so” line feeling like Hayley pulling a long-overdue knife out of her own back.

There’s a study of contrasting feelings throughout After Laughter, whether it’s Hayley lamenting her inability to give Chad the closure that they both want in “Forgiveness” or the way that “Grudges” is both a sweet reflection on the mending of the bridge between Hayley, Taylor, and Zac, and a chronicling of the worst downs of their relationship. And of course, two of the album’s biggest highlights, “Fake Happy” and “Idle Worship,” are meditations on the conflict between an artist’s external image and internal turmoil, the former being directed inward and the latter directed outward.

“Fake Happy” might be the peak of this record’s powers, a pitch-perfect concoction that fuses their newfound new wave flair with the pop-punk predilections of their past, a massive, tough-yet-sensitive chorus somehow finding time and space to coexist with a shattered and unguarded acoustic intro. It’s fitting that it’s immediately followed by “26,” a gentle acoustic song that slowly layers in strings before washing over the listener with Hayley’s gorgeous “ooh-oohs” and a message that seems to be directed as much at herself as it is her fans: “Hold onto hope if you got it/Don’t let it go for nobody.”

“Pool” opens up the second half of the record with an off-kilter, almost claustrophobic groove that develops into an aqueous, glittery chorus that’s both the bounciest and most dreamy on the record. Hayley delves into more breathy intonation for this record, rarely letting loose as she has in the past, but it fits this record’s dark and resigned lyrical atmosphere perfectly. It’s frankly impressive as all hell that Taylor is so in sync with Hayley’s lyrical ambitions while also pushing to the farthest corners of pop music. The wonky intro to “Grudges” is perfectly emblematic of this dichotomy, as it bursts into a keyboard-inflected chorus that recalls the finest moments of a band like Crying. “Grudges” also utilizes Zac’s drumming talents perfectly– his little shuffle in the pre-chorus and bridge is tasteful, danceable and galvanic all at once. Zac also harmonizes with Hayley on this track, a rather sweet touch.

“Caught In the Middle” is almost ska-like in its staid, rhythmic drive, although Hayley steadily gets more frayed and frenetic with each repetition of the chorus. Taylor’s guitar fills during the second verse also serve to fill out the soundscape nicely. Zac continues to amaze with his ability to be both lively and reserved simultaneously, while Hayley’s desperate, almost lilting refrain of “I don’t need no help/I can sabotage me by myself” is the magic ingredient that completes the song’s central conceit.

“Idle Worship,” musically, is discomfiting and exciting. This is Hayley’s most unhinged vocal performance on the record– “Rest assured there’s not a single person here who’s worthy” is belted out with all the rage and sadness of someone who’s completely convinced of its truth. It’s also one of the catchiest songs on the record, Taylor’s guitar interplaying beautifully with the bass work of ever-helpful producer Justin Mendel-Johnsen (who also helmed their last record).

Penultimate track “No Friend” is often singled out as a low point on the record, but I’m a huge fan of its creepy atmosphere as well as the almost-buried, unsettling guest vocals from mewithoutYou’s Aaron Weiss (returning the favor after Hayley, a longtime fan of the band, guested on a few mwY tracks). It steadily builds tension throughout its scant three-and-a-half-minute runtime, Zac’s drumming expertly providing much of the atmosphere while Taylor layers soft, post-hardcore-indebted guitar work over the proceedings. Hearing Aaron work himself up to the point of screaming “You’re no friend of mine!” is actually rather thrilling in the context of such an out-and-out pop record, and its relative quietude serves as a reprieve between the emotional distress of both “Idle Worship” and “Tell Me How.”

“Tell Me How” is a heartbreaking, piano-driven track that functions as a study of Paramore’s relationship with Jeremy Davis. Neither forgiveness nor condemnation, it’s a perfect note to end After Laughter on, as it’s been an album entirely about confronting uncomfortable feelings and expelling personal demons. I feel extremely comfortable saying that After Laughter is my favorite Paramore album thus far, and I’m excited to see the direction they take when they return to music.

FUTURE

Return to music, you ask? Why, yes, Paramore is currently on hiatus. I don’t believe that they’re going to break up, or at least, I pray that they won’t, based on the strength of their last decade-plus of releases. Hayley and Taylor have established themselves as the post-pop-punk equivalent of Lennon and McCartney, or rather, Hoppus and DeLonge; untouchable songwriters working perfectly in tandem with each other to continue pushing their chosen genre forward.

Hayley’s still a hardcore kid (her favorite bands are Turnstile and Inside Out), she still kills guest spots (“Uncomfortably Numb” is the best American Football song and I’ll probably die on this hill), she still shouts out up-and-coming artists like Pool Kids on Twitter, she’s unfailingly nice to everyone who talks to her (my friend shared a story about meeting her at a hardcore show and her being complimentary towards someone’s hair), and she still is a classic case study of a musician whose charisma and talent will always buoy them above the critics. Though the misogyny of the kids who mocked me for listening to a band that made songs for Twilight (and thus, of course, made music for preteen girls– why do young girls deserve to be hated and dismissed? Who knows?) may have faded, Paramore still reigns supreme.

I’m reminded of Jenn Pelly’s excellent piece on Hayley for NPR, where she notes the influence Paramore has had on newer torchbearers for emo in 2019, especially women. She quotes emo-rap wunderkind Princess Nokia on the way that Hayley Williams impacted her growing up:

Before the New York City-born-and-bred rapper Princess Nokia played “Misery Business” on a recent Beats1 show dedicated to the pop-punk of her youth, she gave the song, and Williams, an introduction that was especially emotional, as the tone of her voice grew awed and teary. “Girl, you changed my life, girl!” Nokia said of Williams, recounting Paramore’s 2010 Bamboozle set and how this band of Tennessee teens took over the music industry, becoming a soundtrack to so many beginnings. Nokia herself brought a missing perspective to the boy’s-club of emo rap with her recent mixtape A Girl Cried Red.

On Beats1, Nokia unspooled her praise with total rapture: “You came out and you changed everything, girl!” Nokia went on. “You like four feet tall and you got a voice that come from the Baptist church of the South — where you from girl, Tennessee? You definitely from Tennessee, girl! I know you was raised in that church, Miss Honey, Miss Hayley Williams…”

“We gonna have to take a moment and just live for Miss Hayley Williams,” Nokia effused. “‘Cause she really did that.”

Am I embarrassed to be a Paramore fan? Fuck you for bothering to ask that question.

NEXT WEEK: I might have glossed over Paramore’s Christianity here, but we’re going full Christcore for the next entry– Underoath (also known as Underøath or underOATH, depending on what level of tryhard you’re on).

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #4: Senses Fail

THE RAPTURE

When I decided to do Senses Fail for this week’s edition of Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, I spent a lot of time listening through their discography in the car with my partner. We were helping a friend move at the time, which gave us a lot of downtime in the car, and it turns out that Senses Fail are actually really fucking good. I mean, I’ve known that they were a pretty consistent band, and I’ve been particularly impressed with their newest records, but even their less iconic records are still pretty damn good. With a discography clocking in at seven full-length records, a warmly-regarded debut EP, and some scattered singles and compilation tracks and whatnot, I feel pretty confident in saying that almost all of Senses Fail’s material (save for a few songs here and there) is at the very least in the “damn fine” category. In fact, on nearly all terms– ethical concerns, musical consistency, lyrical competency– Senses Fail are genuinely contenders for the best band of their scene and era, though they never get brought up in those conversations, for reasons I can’t quite grasp.

By all rights, though, Senses Fail shouldn’t be that good, right? Their career trajectory makes zero sense– they were supposed to flame out after their sleeper hit debut and crossover success sophomore record, either plunged into the depths of an endless nostalgia-fueled touring circuit (looking at you, Hawthorne Heights– for the record, I saw them last night and they ruled) or dwelling in embarrassed semi-obscurity, opening for bands that are a fraction of the size they were at their peak (this is currently where, for example, Matchbook Romance resides).

Against all odds, though, Senses Fail have persevered and overcome, and I would say have even thrived in the current musical landscape (although, as erstwhile vocalist/stalwart center of the band Buddy Nielsen would tell you, they’re certainly not making bank or anything). Their set lists tend to be a respectable mixture of old and new, their fans actually seem to give a shit about material from all eras of the band’s career, and they’ve kind of become a shadow version of Paramore– vocalist-driven vehicles, constantly refining their sound and taking brave steps forward, but operating on vastly different sonic and commercial wavelengths (Buddy and Hayley Williams have more musical tastes in common than you’d probably expect, though). For any band to remain relevant and respected as long as Senses Fail has is an admirable feat, but to do so when you’re the dinky scream-pop outfit who fucked up shamefully hard on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2005 is pretty much unheard of.

To me, the answer is kinda complex, kinda not– Senses Fail, and Buddy Nielsen in particular, is extremely good at adapting to the times without sacrificing the core of what makes Senses Fail sound like Senses Fail. By the same token, no matter where Senses Fail goes, Buddy’s long-vaunted honesty, openness, and authenticity serves as a guide and an eye of the storm for fans. So sit down, settle in, and stretch your legs out to coffin length, kids, because today we’re biting to break skin on a career that’s been lost and found. This is Senses Fail.

GARDEN STATE

In 2001, James “Buddy” Nielsen was an angry seventeen-year-old living in New Jersey by way of upstate New York. Born to parents who divorced when he was five and suffering from lifelong issues with panic disorders, he was reeling from the events of 9/11 and the death of a close friend. Seeking solace in Buddhism and the concept of nirvana, he was yearning for some sort of release in the form of music, and began writing lyrics influenced by beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Charles Bukowski (at 12, Buddy’s dad gave him a copy of Bukowski’s Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame). Despite some dalliances with Metallica and 90s hip-hop, he was drawn into the East Coast hardcore scene by the band/hoodie brand Bane and soon posted an ad on the internet looking for band members. It was answered by soon-to-be lead guitarist Garrett Zablocki, who soon recruited his friends in the form of rhythm guitarist Dave Miller and bassist James Gill. Eventually, they found 14-year-old wunderkind drummer Dan Trapp and settled on the name Senses Fail, based on the Buddhist concept of meditation-as-transcendence.

Senses Fail were part of the extremely vibrant and hyperactive New Jersey underground music scene, which also begat bands like My Chemical Romance and Armor for Sleep. At the time of their formation, though, they were just another DIY band playing skate parks, churches, and VFW halls, praying to be the next Saves the Day or Thursday, but willing to settle for being the next Lifetime. At some point, James Gill proved to be a point of friction for the band, who soon dismissed him and replaced him with former Tokyo Rose drummer Mike Glita. There’s some confusion over exactly which songs James Gill played on and which songs Mike Glita played on, but I’m pretty confident in saying this was the lineup of Senses Fail that recorded their earliest releases, a couple of rough demos that was eventually polished and reshaped into a proper EP, From the Depths of Dreams.

Depths is a bit of an odd beast. As an introduction to Senses Fail, it’s passable– the band’s early fascination with skate punk like MxPx and Pennywise was apparent in the extremely melodic punk riffs and their penchant for harmonies, but it’s hard to hear that when the songs are stretched out, Appleseed Cast-style, with lengthy bridges and guitar work that toes the line between amateurish and intricate.

Meanwhile, Buddy’s young voice was a marvel– he’d never really be able to sing this well at high registers ever again, and his screams had not yet developed the beastly quality that would define the band’s later work, but it was already clear that he had a talent for constructing cutesy Jimmy Eat World-esque vocal melodies, intercut with sparse but effective screams (sometimes assisted by Glita and Zablocki). On his Washed Up Emo appearance, Buddy would later credit screamo bands like Orchid and Saetia with influencing his initial decision to scream, but here it comes off like a more adolescent version of Thursday, or even a more emo-inflected Poison the Well.

There’s a lot to like about From the Depths of Dreams, whether it’s the clever, plunky guitar hook that kicks off “Bloody Romance” or the extremely infectious chorus to “The Ground Folds,” but I have some quibbles with it, too– neither “Free Fall Without A Parachute” nor “Dreaming A Reality” have any right to be as long as they are, and the lyrics to “One Eight Seven” are almost unforgivably early-2000s, what with the clunky poison-dart metaphor and the desire to murder whoever the vague woman is who has done Buddy wrong (lest we mention the “I’m insane” refrain, either).

And yet, there’s an undeniable spark to the EP’s best moments. They’re a band with lots of promise, an irrepressible ear for hooks, an interesting and varied sonic texture, and a seemingly never-ending well of energy. Opener “Steven,” a eulogy for Buddy’s aforementioned friend, is as potent and touching a song as they’d ever go on to write, and surprisingly mature considering the band’s collective ages. And I know I clowned on “One Eight Seven”‘s hammy lyrics, but on a musical level, the song is brilliant. The shimmery, chiming intro leads up to the bleeding-vocal climax with confidence and aplomb, and even early on Senses Fail were smart enough to include a gang vocal part that is sheer joy live (this performance of the song at the 2003 Skate and Surf fest is one of my favorite live videos ever– Buddy looks overjoyed at the love for the song pouring out of the crowd).

From the Depths of Dreams was initially released in 2002 on local indie ECA (who are now mostly known for peddling the mathcore-derived chaos of fellow New Jersey natives The Number 12 Looks Like You), but only 300 copies were pressed and thanks to both Senses Fail’s fervent touring (with bands like the Used, Finch, and Millencolin) and the newly-minted Internet message board hype machine, it sold out pretty much immediately.

However, the EP was soon snapped up by the voracious maw of early-2000s pop-punk monolith Drive-Thru Records, known at the time as the home of squeaky-clean, almost-ready-for-prime-time players like New Found Glory, the Movielife, and the Starting Line (who Senses Fail toured with), all of which were experiencing massive amounts of success on MTV and the touring circuits. Senses Fail, while a bit more screamy and rough around the edges, fit right in, and Drive-Thru’s well-publicized distribution deal with MCA Records allowed Senses Fail to reach a previously unprecedented amount of people. Drive-Thru sweetened the pot by throwing in two bonus tracks on the From the Depths of Dreams reissue, the short and punchy “Handguns and Second Chances” and an acoustic version of “The Ground Folds.” I believe that this is also around the time they recorded the fan-favorite B-side “Bastard Son,” but I could be wrong.

With From the Depths of Dreams somehow hitting 2003’s Billboard Top 200, Senses Fail were sitting pretty, ready to drop their debut record. Choosing Steve Evetts based on his work on Saves the Day’s Through Being Cool, they started tracking their first LP in April of 2003. The sessions would be extremely fruitful, producing eleven stellar, fully realized tracks with a cohesive musical style, despite the band’s frequent partying in the studio. Excited to release their first record, they brought it to the record label, and a very confusing mess ensued.

The aforementioned distribution deal with MCA had one slightly odd stipulation: MCA was allowed to poach whatever artists they wanted from Drive-Thru’s roster, whenever they wanted, in a kind of bizarro version of the deal that Fall Out Boy struck with Fueled By Ramen and Island. However, soon after the record was finished, MCA got swallowed by Geffen, who shelved the record for eight months, while simultaneously pressuring Senses Fail to get back in the studio and write a more obvious “hit.” The band begrudgingly complied, recording “Buried A Lie” and “Rum Is for Drinking, Not Burning” in October of 2003; those ended up becoming the hits from the record, so it worked out for both parties.

However, the band was becoming uncomfortable with the culture of Geffen, a record label that boasted the success of, well, Limp Bizkit and Drowning Pool, who Senses Fail imagined themselves to be in defiance of. Things came to a head when Senses Fail met with the president of Geffen, who didn’t even know their names (referring to Buddy as “Bubby” the entire time).

Enter Vagrant Records. If you’re reading this, under the age of 40, and have heard the word “emo” before, I can pretty much guarantee that’s because of Vagrant, who successfully broke the Get-Up Kids in 1999 with Something to Write Home About and proceeded to release more extremely popular albums from the likes of Alkaline Trio, Dashboard Confessional, Saves the Day, the Anniversary, From Autumn to Ashes, and Thrice, among many, many others. Point being, they were uniquely equipped to promote Senses Fail, who slot fairly well into their “plaintive, desperate pop-punk” ouvre, despite the dash of hardcore vocals– the hooks were there, the band members were cute, and the spiked belts, tight jeans, and flat-ironed hair were in full effect. To make things even easier, Vagrant was owned by Interscope, and therefore was part of the same messy network of labels as Geffen and Drive-Thru. After some negotiation and contractual hoo-ha (the result of which was that Drive-Thru and Vagrant’s logos were both displayed prominently on the packaging of the band’s next two records), in September 2004, Let It Enfold You was unleashed upon the world.

YOU’RE CUTE WHEN YOU SCREAM

Let It Enfold You struggles with a unique form of dissonance, in that it’s the band’s most enduring and beloved release, and it’s also the album that critics were the most lukewarm towards when it came out. On the one hand, I want to agree with the critics– the lyrics can be insultingly juvenile and misogynist, from the “I’ll leave you like your father did” throwaway in “Tie Her Down,” to the murder fantasy of “You’re Cute When You Scream,” to the playing-doctor conceit in the chorus of “Buried A Lie.” The band were also benefiting from the success of the Used and Thursday, who in 2004 had reached their respective peaks of popularity and brought screaming and post-hardcore song structure to the masses.

On a songwriting and performance level, however, Let It Enfold You is more than a touch above the glut of similar releases that year. This is a record full of moments built to grip your heart, a kind of thrillingly permanent immaturity bolstered by effervescent musicianship and Buddy’s bubbly vocals. The guitar hook in “Bite to Break Skin”? Perfect. The bridge of “Choke On This”? Irresistible. The way Buddy pushes his voice from clean and cute to a disgusting scream in the first verse of “The Irony of Dying On Your Birthday”? Endlessly endearing. The choruses are here on the record, with “Buried A Lie” and “NJ Falls Into the Atlantic” leading the pack, their kinetic energy practically threatening to leap from the stereo to your living room.

This record is like the synthesis of Through Being Cool and Full Collapse, or maybe a more violent and turbulent version of Tell All Your Friends– a perfect fusion of pop-punk’s catchiness, emo’s melodrama, and post-hardcore’s urgency and anger. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bridge of the title track, a classic twinkly breakdown with lyrics that are simultaneously fantastic and terrible. Remember the shockingly poignant life-as-a-movie metaphor from blink-182’s “Apple Shampoo”? Imagine that pushed to its breaking point, in the context of the New Jersey basement scene. Given that the song and album’s name are derived from a Charles Bukowski poem, it’s no surprise that the band was already showing off their more literary bent before it would properly come to fruition.

The record’s popularity was bolstered by the success of “Buried A Lie,” which boasted a video shot on the set of Guiding Light (a soap opera that Buddy’s mother had actually acted on). If you remember the time when Fuse would designate certain videos to be “Oven Fresh,” then you probably remember the video for “Buried A Lie” being an enormous hit. Senses Fail were also early adopters of PureVolume, which was a masterful form of self-promotion that paid off beautifully for them. Throw in some strategic touring (with bands like From Autumn to Ashes, Boys Night Out, Moneen, My Chemical Romance, the Bled, Silverstein, Name Taken, and Midtown), and it was no surprise that Let It Enfold You became as successful as it was. It was the edgy, more fucked up and anguished little brother of Saves the Day, released just as that band had given in to more adult pop influences with In Reverie, and it was literal candy to the skinny-jean-wearing youth.

However, the peak of the band’s success coincided with constant internal tension. Buddy would later go on record as becoming an extreme alcoholic and sex addict during this time in order to cope with the return of his panic attacks, but he was hiding it beneath the ruse of being a college-age boy who was enamored with the rock star lifestyle. That didn’t stop him from ruining a lot of opportunities for the band– not trusting his voice for “Buried A Lie,” he elected for the band to perform “Rum Is for Drinking, Not for Burning” on Conan and ended up being suffering so badly from dissociative anxiety that he forgot the words.

Buddy was far from the only member who engaged in risky and obnoxious behavior, and the barely-out-of-their-teens band conjured a lot of rumors pretty much everywhere they went. A famous 2005 Alternative Press cover story dispelled some of the more outlandish stories about the band– one member having a glass eye, Buddy getting a girl pregnant on Warped Tour and having a drug dealer dad in Florida, every member of the band dating porn stars– and contributed to new rumors, such as the claim that Let It Enfold You was recorded in a strip club owned by the Russian mafia, as well as a story about the band getting into a fight on Warped Tour because someone took issue with a shirt that Dave Miller was wearing that said “Girls have pussies” and proudly displayed an enormous, hard dick.

Additionally, Dave was dealing with a lot of his own issues and left the band, but the band’s extremely incompetent lawyer told them that because Dave wouldn’t sign the contract forfeiting his share in the band, they were to withhold his mechanical royalties until he did (for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about entertainment law, that’s not only immoral, but highly illegal and would result in a protracted lawsuit in 2011, only solved when Buddy himself took over the band’s finances and paid Dave all the back royalties he was owed).

Heath Saraceno, former vocalist and guitarist of Senses Fail tour-mates Midtown (who had broken up in 2005), stepped in to fill Dave’s shoes. Midtown, despite also being New Jersey hardcore kids, had a much poppier aesthetic than Senses Fail, and Heath’s knack for catchy, layered songwriting added a lot more pop sophistication to the band’s sound. Buddy, in the midst of the most emotionally turbulent moment of his life, turned inward instead of outward for his newer lyrics, exploring the most fractured and tortured parts of his psyche. Additionally, while on tour with Silverstein in late 2004, Buddy’s grandmother– someone who was a major part of his life growing up and provided him with maternal support during his often fractious and tumultuous childhood– passed away, and Buddy was unable to leave the tour to bury her. The resultant panic attacks and Buddy’s self-described “downward spiral” formed much of the impetus for the lyrical introspection on Still Searching. For this reason, I believe that this moment is when Senses Fail really became Senses Fail. Despite Let It Enfold You being their most popular release, Senses Fail were never meant to be just another band screaming about the girls who broke their heart, and with their next record, they finally fulfilled that promise and eked out their own niche within their world– existential pop-punk.

Writing some 40 songs and cutting it down to 13, the band recruited producer Brian McTernan (who would stay with the band for their next three albums), and cut 2006’s Still Searching, which would become not just their best-selling album but also their first true masterpiece.

In my article about the Used, I made a point to compare Lies for the Liars to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade, a Queen-inspired concept album about death that incorporated elements from the critically-respected rock canon and launched My Chem into the greater heights of true acclaim. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Still Searching did not do the same for Senses Fail. Maybe it was because even just listening to it betrays the instability within the band (Buddy’s personal problems momentarily caused the rest of the band to consider kicking him out), or maybe it’s because Senses Fail never gave up their screaming streak (overt hardcore influence in a nominally non-hardcore band will always be poison to rock critics), but Still Searching is the band’s most cohesive and memorable set of songs, a record that explores the concept of suicidal tendencies (shout out to Senses Fail’s absolutely stellar cover of “Institutionalized”) with more grace and authenticity than almost any band in their genre had done before. Other bands would make performative gestures towards mental health; Senses Fail ended Still Searching with a three-song suite that documents a fictional account of Buddy leaping from a building and succumbing to his injuries with unflinching detail and passion.

Still Searching is, true to the roots of the band’s moniker, a study in finding balance– the heaviest moments of their career so far careen alongside the most powerful moments of melody they’d constructed yet, choruses and breakdowns existing alongside each other in a manner that feels wholly organic. Kicking things off with the spacious, airy, and ethereal opener “The Rapture,” the band contrasts an ostensibly uplifting musical atmosphere with the declarations that “the good book was wrong” and “we’re destined to all die alone,” before sliding headlong into “Bonecrusher,” a song about alcoholism that makes no promises to improve and boasts an actual bonecrusher of a riff.

The heaviness continues with “Sick Or Sane (Fifty for a Twenty)”. It’s interesting that Buddy’s addiction to sex only became common knowledge in recent years, given that this song is as literal and non-metaphorical as it gets– “Take me to a hotel room,” “Kiss me like I paid for this,” and “I’m paying you to suck out all my faith” are nakedly confessional  lines about the sex workers that Buddy would reveal that he’d spent thousands of dollars on over the years. The chorus is a sarcastic and vitriolic screed against a narrative that would portray him as a tortured artist– “I know the white coats just don’t get it/I’m a genius with a headache”– and the song caps off with a phenomenal guitar solo before returning to the chorus with an even heavier, noodly groove that cements the song’s gritty theme.

“Can’t Be Saved” and “Calling All Cars” are interesting case studies, being much more accessible than the rest of the record and correspondingly being the most successful tracks of the band’s career, thanks to strategic radio play and placement on the soundtracks of games like Guitar Hero 3. Catchy as they may be, they’re not nearly as desperate and introspective as the rest of the record– it’s fitting that they’re immediately followed on the record by the hardcore-tinged assault of “Shark Attack,” which signals that the band was using them as a way to lull the listener into a false sense of security.

The title track, while not the heaviest song musically on the album by a long shot, certainly comes close with the lyrics– a song about the failure of therapy to help Buddy solve his problems, its towering bridge section features gang vocals moaning “Oh my god, I’ve lost control,” an excellent example of the band’s ability to make the personal communal. The record stalls for a minute with the enjoyable but formulaic “To All the Crowded Rooms” before showcasing the band at its most vulnerable with the gorgeous ballad “Lost and Found,” which honestly should have been a successful single in its own right, layered acoustic guitars, mountainous chorus and all.

“Every Day Is A Struggle” is just as intense other moments on the record, with its infectious “So long to the past year, I poured it down the drain” refrain functioning as a paean to Buddy’s alcoholism, but it’s most useful when viewed as a mood-setter for the bombastic finale of the record. “All the Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues” is stunning, a vaguely industrial intro setting the tone for a song that lays out Buddy’s issues with an absentee father and a mother he is unable to conjure up feelings for before climaxing with a monstrous bridge section that both nods to the record’s themes of substance abuse and establishes the conclusion of the psychodrama that’s been accumulating throughout the record– the narrator’s decision to commit suicide (“I know my body is ready to fly/I start the countdown backwards from ten/When I reach one my family name will end”). Far from being melodramatic, the intense intimacy of the record allows this moment to have the gravitas it deserves.

“Daddy Issues” segues into “Negative Space,” an extremely pretty and even somewhat Appleseed Cast-esque instrumental that symbolizes the silence and clarity of the narrator’s tumble to the ground– when the big kick drum hits, the song ends and so too does the narrator’s flight, hitting the ground with a hard thud.

The last song on Still Searching is “The Priest and the Matador.” Full disclosure, this is my absolute favorite Senses Fail song, and I will defend it with my dying breath. Neither a glorification of suicide nor a condemnation of those who make that choice, “The Priest and the Matador” is a deceptively simple storytelling song about the final moments of the narrator’s life after he hits the ground, but is the apex of Buddy’s lyrical talent. The running theme of loss of faith is finally given the full attention it deserves, as Buddy compares his dying body “kissing the ground” to a cross turned upside down before telling onlookers trying to save his soul with religion to “please get the fuck away.” Musically, the song might be the band’s peak achievement, sailing right past their hardcore roots and embracing a collision of guitar-heavy power pop and acoustic sensitivity. The record ends on a serene moment– the band fades out and all we are left is the strumming of an acoustic guitar. The time of death is half past six.

NEGATIVE SPACE

It’s worth giving a listen to the deluxe edition of Still Searching, because there are some secret treasures that merit a close listen, especially the unflappable banger “Stretch Your Legs to Coffin Length” and the no-fat, driving cover of the Cranberries’ “Salvation.” It makes me wonder what Still Searching might have been like as a double album, although at the end of the day I think that a single album will always be a better distillation of what that band was trying to accomplish.

The release cycle for Still Searching is also representative of the band’s success during this time period, as the band performed on Taste of Chaos and Warped Tour alongside extremely successful peers like Saosin, Bleeding Through, and Alexisonfire, as well as the rising star of likeminded hardcore-gone-pop-punk misfits Set Your Goals (whose album Mutiny would lay the groundwork for the more hardcore-inflected pop-punk scene that would rekindle Senses Fail’s relevance in later years).

Given Still Searching‘s massive commercial success, it’s unsurprising that Senses Fail attempted to recreate it track-by-track with 2008’s Life Is Not A Waiting Room, another album that explores the themes of mental anguish and substance dependency. Granted, there are some differences. Buddy seems to move towards a malleable vocal approach that owes a strong debt to Anthony Green of Saosin and Circa Survive, and his harsh vocals have finally reached the depth and pain that would be the greatest asset of their later work. Bassist Mike Glita is replaced by former Hot Water Music bassist Jason Black, who adds a session-musician level of competency and a pro’s sense of intricacy to the proceedings. Still, it’s hard to ignore that ethereal opener “Fireworks at Dawn” and thunderous follow-up “Lungs Like Gallows” seem to follow the playbook of “The Rapture” and “Bonecrusher” to a tee (the riff of “Lungs Like Gallows” is even a near dead-ringer for “Bonecrusher”). The title itself is also an obscured reference to Charles Bukowski’s Pulp, echoing Let It Enfold You. Self-plagiarism isn’t a great look.

That’s not to say that Life Is Not A Waiting Room is a bad album; on the contrary, I don’t think Senses Fail have ever made an album that falls below an above-average level of quality. Waiting Room is probably the band’s best production, for one, completely absent of compression as well as exceedingly bright and clear. “Garden State” is an astonishingly good single, an extremely agile guitar lead dancing around a propulsive chorus that gets the gang vocal accompaniment it deserves. “Wolves At the Door” is an appropriately heavy addition to the proceedings, and it’s accordingly become a fan-favorite and mainstay of the band’s setlist. However, there seems to be cracks showing, like the rote and predictable (though nonetheless enjoyable) “Family Tradition” and the forgettable “Ali for Cody.”

There’s also a certain level of monotony that begins to set in– placing “Hair of the Dog” and “Four Years” next to each other was a bit of a sequencing error, as both songs are meditations on Buddy’s alcoholism and that well is beginning to run dry for inspiration. Buddy has gone on record as being ultimately disappointed that Life Is Not A Waiting Room didn’t move the band forward commercially or creatively, and these songs are the best arguments in that direction.

Still, the record is salvaged by Buddy’s trademark honesty and empathy. Deciding to end a longterm relationship and striking up a close friendship with a terminally ill fan named Marcel, his life was getting no less chaotic, which informs this record’s strongest moment, the beautiful and relentlessly emotional and life-affirming “Yellow Angels.” The stop-start rhythm and vocal intensity of “Chandelier” is another standout, especially once the keyboard-inflected bridge kicks in. And of course, “Map the Streets” and “Blackout” are a perfect one-two punch of closers, showing this iteration at the height of its powers before it would inevitably implode.

And implode it did, as Garrett Zablocki decided to leave the band and was replaced by Zack Roach (although Garrett did still play guitar on 2010’s The Fire). Heath Saraceno left as well– Buddy describes this era of Senses Fail’s career as a “sinking ship,” and Heath, who had already experienced a band trying and failing to break big with Midtown, left to focus on career and family. With the absence of the twin jets propelling the band’s songwriting, I feel like The Fire– though still an engaging and solid record– falls squarely into “safe” territory.

The band had supported the release of Life Is Not A Waiting Room with a tour alongside rising post-hardcore acts like Dance Gavin Dance and Foxy Shazam, as well as longtime mathcore stalwarts The Number 12 Looks Like You. You would think that would contribute to a more adventurous songwriting style, but instead The Fire is an album that can’t decide which side of Senses Fail it wants to land on. There’s songs like “Coward,” which features the heaviest and most savage breakdown of the band’s career so far, as well as songs like “New Year’s Eve,” “Lifeboats,” and “Ghost Town” that benefit greatly from the added aggressive edge. There’s also songs like “Saint Anthony” and “Landslide,” which are pitch-perfect pop-punk songs with anthemic choruses and layered composition that communicate the same message found on the album’s opening title track– it’s okay to feel lost. Beyond that, though, the record veers between forgettable and genuinely kind of bad; penultimate song “Hold On” is the worst offender, sounding exactly like the type of latter-day inauthentic tripe made by bands who took cues from Senses Fail’s aesthetic without grasping the true heart of their sound. “Nero” doesn’t fare much better, being perhaps the least memorable song of the band’s catalog.

Production-wise, The Fire is also kind of muddled, being markedly muddier and more clipped and tinny than the crystal clear, punchy production that defined Still Searching and Life Is Not A Waiting Room, sounding somewhat like Brian McTernan was beginning to tire of the band’s musical stagnation.

I’m not saying that this is even a bad record– songs like “Headed West” and “Irish Eyes” are catchy enough without being as cloying as “Hold On”– but it’s also so clearly the worst Senses Fail record. While Life Is Not A Waiting Room elicits disappointment from Buddy, The Fire seems to evoke resignation and borderline embarrassment. 2012’s best-of collection, Follow Your Bliss, only includes two songs from The Fire (the title track and “New Year’s Eve”), seemingly more out of obligation to their more recent material than an attempt to showcase the best of what this record has to offer.

Still, something interesting was percolating in the Senses Fail camp. I keep returning to the tour-mates that Senses Fail select throughout their careers, because I think who you tour with is usually indicative of the culture that you choose to align yourself with. In this case, Senses Fail did a co-headlining tour with Bayside where they hand-picked Title Fight and Balance & Composure as support, two of the rising stars within the sadboi pop-punk world (for further illumination on this subject, my friend Finn made this excellent video about that era). Following that, they went on two similar tours– one with melodic hardcore saviors The Ghost Inside as well as Man Overboard and Transit, two of the unquestioned commercial titans of early 2010s pop-punk, and another one with Make Do and Mend (proponents of the post-hardcore/nu-screamo “Wave” that also included Touché Amoré, Defeater, La Dispute, and Pianos Become the Teeth), Stick To Your Guns (purveyors of Strife-esque metallic hardcore), and the Story So Far, who would soon become the definitive band of that wave of pop-punk. Hitching their wagon to the Story So Far during this time (right before they released their classic debut, Under Soil and Dirt), was a wise move– Buddy even managed them for a period of time.

While Senses Fail were entrenching themselves in the current wave of semi-underground music, their record label, Vagrant, was moving in a different direction. Enamored with the faux-indie sounds that were beginning to explode in both word-of-mouth popularity and radio airplay, Vagrant began to sign acts like the 1975, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, and Blitzen Trapper. It was clear that they were focusing on a different zeitgeist, one that had no room for Senses Fail. Vagrant did their due diligence by allowing Senses Fail to release Follow Your Bliss in 2012; a best-of album that interestingly organizes the band’s biggest hits like a proper album sequence or an abbreviated setlist, rather than simply playing them in chronological order, Follow Your Bliss also includes a bonus EP of entirely new tracks, showing that the band took their music more seriously than the typical band of their era, who would maybe throw in one half-hearted new song in an attempt to appeal to collectors.

Still, Vagrant seemed to have lost faith in the commercial viability of Senses Fail, and consigned them to a new imprint, Staple, which was reserved for Get-Up Kids reissues and the few bands from their early years who were still making music. Adding to the stress of Buddy’s everyday struggles of substance abuse, anxiety, and the lawsuit between him and Dave Miller, Staple also placed him in charge of marketing and managing the imprint. At this point, it seemed like Buddy should have taken the hint and broken up Senses Fail, who were pretty much a shell of rotating session and touring musicians at this point aside from longtime drummer Dan Trapp. Instead, Buddy bared his teeth, buckled down, and kickstarted a renaissance in the band’s career.

THE COURAGE OF AN OPEN HEART

In Spanish, Renacer means to be reborn (hella Catholic, ain’t it?). According to the Spotify commentary for Renacer, Buddy wasn’t very familiar with Spanish prior to the recording of this album, but was struck with inspiration while writing the song “Mi Amor,” which is sung mostly in the language, while the band would later adopt a mascot that deliberately echoes Día de Muertos masks. Accusations of cultural appropriation aside, Renacer is a more than accurate moniker for this record, which pushes Senses Fail into the heaviest sound of their career. It wasn’t entirely unexpected– in 2011, Buddy had released a self-titled EP with the band Bayonet, which also featured members of the Banner, Suburban Scum, and Fit for An Autopsy, and is an extremely satisfying and punishing piece of hardcore with varied influences. Accordingly, Bayonet disbanded when the band was going through the writing process of Renacer— according to Buddy, Bayonet didn’t need to exist as an outlet for his hardcore side anymore, since Senses Fail adopted those sounds for themselves (and Nate from the Banner was assisting with the songwriting on Renacer anyway).

Although a bit of a studio project– Jason Black was busy with commitments to Hot Water Music at the time, so Zack Roach pulled double duty on guitar and bass– Renacer is a refreshingly organic and warm-sounding album in comparison to The Fire, and benefits greatly from the claustrophobic mixing (check the deeply-distorted bass and pained-vocal combo that opens standout “The Path”). It helps that the band had picked Shaun Lopez– famous for working with heavier and more adventurous acts like Deftones and Far– to helm the production on this effort.

With Garrett Zablocki firmly outside the fold, the band brought in Matt Smith from the highly political and equally melodic punk group Strike Anywhere to join in on second guitar, and the result feels extremely full and realized. The band’s penchant for melody hasn’t completely disappeared– the chorus of “Mi Amor” and the extremely catchy late-album standout “Snake Bite” both hearken back to their earlier days– but this is a record with a nearly single-minded focus on heaviness, from the skull-cracking breakdown that finishes out “Closure/Rebirth” to the Isis-gone-pop-punk sludgy post-metal tactics on the closer “Between the Mountains and the Sea.”

This record is full of great and surprisingly inventive moments. The Deftones influence is out in full force on “Frost Flower,” at its heart a gorgeous dream pop song but drenched in disgustingly heavy guitar tones, while “Glass” is maybe the hardest love song ever written. My personal favorite moment on this record is the denouement, “Courage of the Knife,” which intersperses thunderous verses with the almost mocking chorus of “I believe your god is dead,” while simultaneously managing to sound uplifting and hopeful rather than cruel or pessimistic.

Taken as a musical effort, Renacer is a remarkable achievement for a band at the point of their career that Senses Fail were at. Being able to reinvent your sound is one thing, but being able to do it successfully after a full decade of consistent records in another genre is an entirely different matter. I remember when this record came out, it was a Big Deal that Senses Fail had retooled in this way. While Renacer might not have quite reached the commercial highs of Let It Enfold You or Still Searching, it absolutely started a word-of-mouth campaign that signaled Senses Fail didn’t deserve to be placed in the faceless pile of nostalgia acts that were polluting the scene in 2013. The band fearlessly played on the cross-section of pop-punk and hardcore fans that was de riguer at the time, touring with bands like Major League, Real Friends, and Such Gold one month, and then with For the Fallen Dreams, Expire, and Being As An Ocean the next (I saw them on the latter tour– the fucking Acacia Strain also played two stops on that one). The band fully leaned into their new “hardcore kid” image at this time– Buddy could often be seen wearing Backtrack and Infest shirts in press pictures, and they released a tour EP with covers of Pantera, Bad Religion, and American Nightmare songs.

2014 was a transitional year for the band, as Jason Black made a full exit and was replaced by Gavin Caswell, who toured with them on their 2014 10th anniversary tour for Let It Enfold You, which was supported by soon-to-be-superstars Knuckle Puck. Despite engaging in the nostalgia tour circuit, Buddy utilized the band’s newfound Cool Kid Points and his standing relationships with the Story So Far and Man Overboard to sign with Pure Noise Records, which was becoming (and still remains) the most vital and exciting label for new music within the hardcore and pop-punk spheres. Dan Trapp finally left the band, having spent his entire formative years in the band and wanting to explore new avenues in his life (they are still on good terms– Dan came back to record drums on the most recent Senses Fail LP). Excitingly, Dan’s replacement was none other than Chris Hornbrook, the restlessly creative and energetic drummer for experimental metalcore weirdos Poison the Well. With Hornbrook in place and Shaun Lopez returning as producer, it seemed like Senses Fail were on track to write an album even heavier than Renacer, and they did.

If you can find it, it’s worth taking a listen to the split single that Senses Fail did with labelmates Man Overboard in advance of this record– it includes a particularly good outtake, “All You Need Is Already Within You,” and showcases the band giving a pretty thorough hardcore makeover to Manny O’s “Real Talk” (which was already that band’s most aggressive– and best– song). Tours with new-school hardcore bands like Counterparts, Hundredth, and Capsize ensued (all bands who shared the sensibility of Senses Fail’s new records), as well as a tour with Silverstein, who had also curiously performed the same death-defying trick as Senses Fail themselves, appealing to a modern audience without losing their old audience.

Pull the Thorns From Your Heart is an unflinchingly, uncomfortably honest and open album, even by Buddy Nielsen’s standards. There are more exact details that I’ll go into later, but Buddy had become an unfailingly transparent voice in the public sphere, and his commitment to growth and self-improvement is palpable throughout Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, an album structured around Buddhist concepts (a spiritual return to the band’s roots and namesake). Questioned about the album’s concept and the band’s commitment to their abrasive sound, Buddy stated “Friction is what helps spur action.”

If there are any words that describe Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, they’re friction and action. Opener “The Three Marks of Existence” is a galloping punisher that leads into more face-punching numbers like “Carry the Weight,” “The Courage of an Open Heart,” and “Wounds,” all of which contrast their heart-grabbing heaviness with the most hopeful and yearning lyrics of the band’s career thus far. Album standout “Take Refuge” volleys between its lumbering, stoner-sludge main riff and a shockingly vulnerable and soft bridge section, while “Surrender” leans full-force into dreamy, borderline shoegaze atmospheres and layers screams far below the muck of the crescendo, as Buddy intones on top of everything, “There is a way out.”

Never a band to commit to one mood throughout a record, the hazy calm of “Surrender” is simply the eye of a hurricane that comes back in full force with “Dying Words,” which is a straight-up metalcore song (Will Putney, famed producer, guitarist of Fit for An Autopsy, and a former member of Bayonet with Buddy, contributed to the writing of this song and the title track). The breakdown of “Dying Words” is almost hilarious in its dissonance– guitar chugs and atmospherics that wouldn’t be out of place in a Knocked Loose song collide with gang vocals that scream, “There’s so much beauty/There’s so much love/If you’re willing to/Give up.” The overall effect isn’t laughable as much as it is vindicating. “The Importance of the Moment of Death” takes the foot off the gas for a moment, playing with a scuzzy, post-punky groove that churns below Buddy’s most pained vocal performance on the album and flows into a grungy bridge that recalls the most desperate moments on Alice In Chains’ Dirt.

The title track is another standout on the album, with the thickest low end and the most anthemic chorus on the album (its competition is definitely stiff). It also features perhaps my favorite line on the record, “I fucking hated myself, so I abused/My soul, my heart, my body/For a sexuality I didn’t choose.” The song surges upwards into a misty bridge section that alternates with screaming, almost recalling a more polished and poppy version of Deafheaven, before collapsing into a punishing, droning breakdown that would put many more “authentically” hardcore bands to shame. We’re not given a chance to rest before the record plunges us into “We Are All Returning Home,” a song that features some absolutely incredible drumming (the intro fill into the breakneck verse sends me reeling every time) and sonically recalls the skramz-revival aesthetic and soaring ambition of Touché Amoré. Once again, the song collapses into a gorgeous, clean vocal-laden bridge, but I’m ultimately a sucker for this formula, so I can forgive it, especially since the first half of the song is filled with such heart-pounding intensity.

If Renacer‘s closer played with the dynamics of post-metal, “My Fear of An Unlived Life,” the finale of Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, delves into them full-force. Running just shy of six minutes, the song could be viewed as basic crescendo-core, but its ebbs and flows are so organic and the payoff is so relentless and immense that comparing it to other bands is near pointless. Senses Fail had redefined itself, and this song was the new Senses Fail.

FOLLOW YOUR BLISS

So why did Senses Fail survive when so many other bands didn’t? To expand on the points I made in the intro, consider Buddy Nielsen as a human. In 2014, he went on the podcast 100 Words Or Less and spent about an hour and a half spilling his guts about his personal history and the various untold secrets about the story of Senses Fail, including his longstanding alcoholism (he has been clean since early 2014). Most notably, he came clean about his sex addiction and his attraction to people all across the gender spectrum. I think those two things are key to the turnaround on Senses Fail in recent years, in ways that might not be immediately visible.

Off top, I just want to brush the cynics aside and say that by no means am I accusing Buddy of faking his sexuality, nor am I saying that choosing to come forward with it when he did was a shrewd marketing ploy. For as open and forthcoming as Buddy has historically been in interviews, it makes zero sense for him to pull some bullshit like that, and every time I’ve seen this theory come up I find it insulting.

However, the early-mid 2010s were a big turning point for identity politics in the DIY sphere. Conversations about sexuality and gender identity were coming to the forefront, and it meant so much to see an elder statesman and musical icon like Buddy be so proud of who he was, making fans everywhere feel vindicated and less alone. His open acceptance and championing of transgender people felt extremely validating to me, and the Senses Fail: Queer Hardcore shirt that they sold during their 2015 tour was fucking sick. There was also the famous feud between Buddy and Chris Fronzak of Attila on Warped Tour, where Buddy actually tried to fistfight Fronz over his use of the word “faggot,” and it gained massive respect for Buddy in my eyes.

Furthermore, when Buddy goes in-depth on his habits of spending mountains of money on sex workers during the podcast, pay close attention when Ray Harken asks him why he didn’t sleep with Senses Fail fans, who surely would have been champing at the bit for him. Buddy says that made him feel predatory and like he was taking advantage of his fans– a far cry from people like Jesse Lacey of Brand New (who Buddy famously blasted after the allegations against Lacey came out). There was also the epic Twitter thread that Buddy posted in 2015, taking the scene to task for its complacency in the epidemic of sexual abuse of teenage girls. I’ve always loved the last line of this screed: “I love that people think us talking about issues is to gain more fans. I can guarantee you we lose fans every time I open my mouth. It’s not popular to give a shit about racism, homophobia or sexism. People would rather me shut the fuck up.” Buddy never shut the fuck up, and I love him for it.

STAY WHAT YOU ARE

In 2017, Senses Fail tentatively started to step back from their newfound hardcore aesthetic with the release of an acoustic EP, In Your Absence. With production and songwriting help from Beau Burchell, the mastermind behind Saosin, In Your Absence feels less like a cowardly return to formula and more like a band stretching its legs in its original genre after proving it could move beyond it, with newfound lyrical poignancy. The title track in particular is an absolute monster:

How the fuck am I supposed to care
About what’s happening out there?
How the hell am I supposed to get used to all this death?
I wish I could forget
But no matter what I know how it ends
I swear I’ll start drinking again
I wish I could pretend
That we’ll hold each other close in heaven
But I lost my faith when I was seven

The EP also memorably includes acoustic re-workings of “Family Tradition” (which makes the track better, in my opinion) and “Lost and Found” (a stellar song no matter which format it’s presented in).

Also in 2017, Buddy stepped in to do vocals for a supergroup featuring members of Finch, Speak the Truth… Even If Your Voice Shakes. If you’re into over-produced scenecore (the drum sound on their LP is disgustingly processed), it’s worth checking out their full-length, but I prefer to think of it as a dry run for the sounds that Buddy explored with the next Senses Fail record.

With these baby steps back into pop-punk established, it should come as no surprise that Senses Fail’s most recent full-length effort, 2018’s If There Is Light, It Will Find You, is a full-throttle pop-punk record, with Burchell returning as producer. Again, rather than being a tepid retreat, it’s a bold and engaging step forward for the band, informed by the aggression of their past two records but with a renewed excitement for the song structure and hooks of pop-punk. The bouncy lead guitar that announces the record’s arrival in “Double Cross,” a tribute to Buddy’s refusal to quit music, tempered by a brief scream of “This is the only thing worth my breath.” With Trapp returning for drum duties, the record is rounded out by Gavin Caswell’s move to guitar and the addition of Greg Styliades on bass and Jason Milbank on second guitar. This newest iteration of Senses Fail boils over with chemistry on the barn-burner second track, “Elevator to the Gallows,” which includes a crushing throwback breakdown before launching back into its chorus, brimming with energy and emotion.

“Elevator” immediately leads into “New Jersey Makes, the World Takes,” an early contender for the newest Senses Fail fan favorite, a meditation on Buddy’s friends’ struggles with addiction buoyed by bitter and cynical lines “I heard you’re drinking, don’t lie to me” and balanced out by yearningly positive ones like “Everyone I love needs to be safe,” ultimately being a love letter to anyone who is in the midst of their own issues with substances. It’s followed by another new fan favorite, “Gold Jacket, Green Jacket…” (the full Happy Gilmore quote ends with “Who gives a shit?”), a shockingly angry indictment of the American government (“It’s an embarrassment, we’re all gonna die in debt”) that reflects on religious corruption (“Don’t you know that Jesus Christ loves America?”) and the paranoid style in American politics (“You got to defend yourself/Against anyone who doesn’t think the same”). While it could come across heavy-handed and as if Senses Fail is grasping for relevance, the conviction with which Buddy spits the lyrics and the brightly charming guitar solo convince me otherwise.

“First Breath, Last Breath” is a slower, more meditative track, an exercise in creative fiction that imagines Buddy’s life if his wife had died during childbirth in 2017 (she is happy and healthy, in case anyone is worried). Despite its more measured pace, it’s still explosive, flowing in and out of the rage and desperation inherent to its central conceit. I know it seems like I’m gushing over every track on the record so far, but the fact is that almost every track is a standout, and as far as returns to form go, it’s hard to top this record for sheer enthusiasm and talent.

“Ancient Gods” is another slow-burn of a track, and is one of the few moments that the band almost succumbs to sugary-sweet over-sentimentality, only rescued by the soul-baring intimacy of the lyrics. It seems that Buddy is constantly on a mission to make each Senses Fail record more personal and open than the last, and “Everyone in my life has left me/Every day is another test/To see if I can take this stress/Without it driving me to drink” is such a starkly confessional moment in a record that could have easily hidden behind metaphor to get its points across. Buddy isn’t trying for sympathy, he’s trying for empathy, and it works.

This confessional tone prevails throughout the next song, “Is It Gonna Be the Year?”, a song that nakedly confronts the possibility that Senses Fail is the washed-up nostalgia act they always aimed to never be (Buddy has long said that the band makes decisions based on the models of NOFX and Bad Religion, bands who have managed to last for 30-40 years and continue to be extremely successful touring acts while continuously pumping out new material). “When I was younger, I was a mess I must admit/I said and did a lot of stupid and selfish things” shows a much greater degree of self-awareness than pretty much anyone else who has been in Buddy’s position. The Queen-inspired solo that catapults the song over the top is the icing on the cake before the chorus (more subtle and subdued than many others on the record) returns and caps the song off on a triumphant note.

Senses Fail throw in another nod to the past with “You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense,” which completes the trifecta of Charles Bukowski nods throughout the band’s discography. The lyrics themselves are idiosyncratic as ever, starting with a bold and frank description of Buddy’s past suicidal thoughts before moving on to a refreshingly earnest love letter, and it still manages to find time for a gnarly bass fill and one of the few moments of levity on the record: “I’m the singer in a fuckin’ band and I’m still neurotic as shit.” The track includes a New Found Glory-esque lite-breakdown and an ascendant bridge that flows into yet another transcendent finale, closed out with one of the sparse moments on this record that Buddy chooses to employ his screams: “I won’t lie.”

That honesty informs “Orlando and a Miscarriage,” potentially the most lyrically brutal song on the album, a true-to-life account of Buddy’s wife’s miscarriage. It’s also one of the faster and more hardcore-indebted songs on If There Is Light, clocking in at 2:10 and sacrificing no time for fluff. The song closes with a tribute to Buddy’s unborn child: “I wish I could see your face, but life I guess had other plans.” It’s one of the truest gut-punches this band has ever produced.

As the record heads into its homestretch, the band throws us a curveball with “Shaking Hands.” While the chorus is in line with the rest of the record, the verse section breaks the mold with a dizzy, borderline-twinkly groove that almost recalls the more subdued moments of Mineral or Christie Front Drive. It’s yet another love song, and one can’t help but notice how much this record is informed by Buddy’s marriage. This running theme is carried to its conclusion with the next song, “Stay What You Are.” Named after the Saves the Day album, the song also hews close to the structure and sound of an early Saves the Day track– in fact, the lyrics are about Buddy’s first date with his wife, when they went to a Saves the Day show. When Buddy croons that “Stay What You Are will always be our eulogy,” he accomplishes something pretty special. It’s one thing to be nostalgic for a band, but it’s quite another for a different band that you’re nostalgic for taps into your nostalgic spirit for the first band. It would be an insufferable ouroboros if it weren’t so relatable and touching.

Proving that the band didn’t fully forget the lessons they learned on Renacer and Pull the Thorns from Your Heart, the title track that closes out If There Is Light, It Will Find You is a six-minute post-hardcore epic that lives in the same world as “First Breath, Last Breath,” focusing on Buddy raising his daughter alone, without his wife. It’s a breathtaking and heartbreaking accomplishment, one that could have easily been trite in a lesser band’s hands, but here it tugs at my throat with its emotion and commitment. It’s rare that a song by itself can make me choke up, but when Buddy unleashes his screams in this track, it sounds like he’s only barely keeping from crying, and the music itself matches his mood, a crushing blend of atmosphere and physicality, awash in guitar flourishes and the most tasteful drum work of Dan Trapp’s career. The album closes with a lone guitar and Buddy’s voice pleading “Don’t be afraid.” If there is justice in this world, If There Is Light, It Will Find You will go down as one of the definitive documents of Senses Fail’s career.

This morning, Senses Fail released a rerecording of From the Depths of Dreams, one which edits the lyrics of songs like “Handguns and Second Chances” and “Bastard Son” to remove words like “bitch” and “whore.” While I have some minor quibbles with the new versions– I think Buddy pitch-corrected his voice too noticeably on some tracks, and for some reason the drum sound veers between organic and insufferably processed– ultimately I think the new versions serve the songs themselves much better than the old versions, especially since having Buddy’s voice pushed up in the mix and making the guitar tone sharper foregrounds the song’s structures and makes them feel more accomplished than the original EP; songs like “Free Fall Without A Parachute” and “Dreaming A Reality” honestly sound a lot more urgent and deserving of their length on the rerecording. I’m also surprised that the mixes on the new versions don’t bury the bass work, and we still get the creative, bubbly little bass fills that defined songs like “Bloody Romance” (which sounds remarkably heavier this time around). And, ultimately, I am glad that we get to hear songs like “One Eight Seven” again live (the band had previously retired it), the new version of “Steven” rips, and it’s nice that Buddy can edit his original vision to more accurately fit who he is as a person now. After all, we still have the OG versions if we really really need to hear the line “stupid little teenage whore” in its unedited glory.

So, after all is said and done, am I ashamed to be a Senses Fail fan? Absolutely not, and if you are, you’re a fool. Senses Fail lives on forever, on record, onstage, and in our hearts.

NEXT WEEK: We talk about my favorite hardcore kid-turned-superstar, Hayley Williams. Paramore article up on September 16th, and that’s a promise.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #3: The Used

“I WILL LEAVE THE ROOM IF YOU START PLAYING THE USED”

It is 8:13am and I have been listening to new records by Ceremony, Knocked Loose, and Anxious, which dropped the morning of this writing. I need coffee and my work schedule next week is a nightmare, which means the article slated for the Monday after might be late or I may need to take a week off. But I’m writing about the Used, which means that none of these material conditions matter, because it’s always 4 in the fucking morning and I’m watching Fuse.

A couple people have messaged me to say that they don’t exactly get the point of this series because they were never shamed for liking these bands growing up. I’m hoping that this article finally brings them around because there is no band that I get more shit for liking in 2019 than the Used. My partner has literally threatened to throw me out of the car if I ever put them on the aux. Their broader reputation runs the gamut from “washed up losers who should have broken up in 2005” to “absolute legends but only to people who non-ironically enjoy Twiztid and get unreasonably excited for sales at Spencer’s Gifts.” With that said, I’m here to set the record straight on the Used, a band that never got enough credit during their prime or now, and probably gets too much credit for their missteps.

UTAH– NOWHERE

Utah sucks. There’s no real other way to say it. Some of the more laid-back areas, like Cedar City, are pretty tolerable, and some of the landscapes are pretty, but it’s pretty much a hodge-podge of boredom, suffocating religious sentiment, and an overwhelming lack of fun things to do. My grandparents live in Hurricane (pronounced “hurry-ken” by locals), an rednecky little burg that sits at the outskirts of the St. George area, so I’ve been unfortunate enough to have spent a decent amount of time in Utah growing up. There are exactly three things to do in Hurricane: rent VHS tapes from the video store, wander around looking at the various animals, and go “plyg-spotting,” which is an activity where you go to the local Wal-Mart (the closest Wal-Mart is about twenty minutes away from anywhere that people actually live, so it’s a lengthy affair) and try to identify polygamists. Religiously insensitive? Maybe, but when you’re eleven and bored out of your mind, you’re not left with too many other options.

All of this to say, I can see where the members of the Used were coming from. They’re from the Orem-Provo area, which is pretty big but not exactly a hotbed of culture. And I just want to get this out of the way up front: kids from Utah who get into any form of alternative culture get into it hard. Talk to any 90s hardcore veteran and they’ll mention the Salt Lake City straight-edge scene in the same breath as Boston and Reno, insofar as it was populated by extremely militant kids who pretty much had nothing else to live for besides their cause.

One of those kids was named Blake Donner, who, in 1998, was a student at a high school for troubled youths. A recent convert to the then-popular Hare Krishna subset in hardcore (which honestly deserves a whole post unto itself, but check out 108 if you’re genuinely interested and go from there), he was determined to give up his material possessions and live a committed life. He decided to give a box of CDs to one of his classmates, a sixteen-year-old named Robert McCracken who had recently been kicked out of Timpanogos High School. That box contained records by Sunny Day Real Estate, Ink & Dagger, Converge, and Texas Is the Reason, among others. One-half of the musical basis for the Used was born.

(As a particularly sad post-script for that story, Blake Donner– who was a major member of Utah’s Food Not Bombs chapter and did vocals for the hardcore band Parallax– drowned in a Utah County tunnel in 2005, along with his girlfriend and two of their friends. Rest in peace.)

Around the same time, guitarist Quinn Allman, vocalist Jeph Howard, and drummer Branden Steineckert were all playing together in a band called Dumb Luck. Although they had a pretty strong sonic foundation, the songs themselves just weren’t there yet. If you listen to 2000’s self-released The Naked Truth EP, it’s possible to hear the echoes of Midwest emo (Elliott, Chamberlain, Knapsack) and post-hardcore (Quicksand, Sense Field, Shift) in the music, but it lacks hooks and Jeph’s vocals are of a fairly ugly post-grunge variety that drags the whole endeavor down.

Branden had been sending endless tapes to John Feldmann, superstar producer and vocalist of third-wave ska heroes Goldfinger, in an effort to get a deal, but all he got back was continual advice, one piece of which was to get a new vocalist. With Jeph having decided to switch to bass (his original instrument of choice) anyhow, the band decided to audition a rotating cast of comically bad vocalists before Quinn finally remembered a friend of his from high school that he thought might be right for the gig, Bert McCracken.

Bert, who had dropped out of high school and ran away from home shortly after Donner had given him that box of CDs, was in a pretty bad way. Working at Subway, living in various garages or on the couch of his girlfriend Kate, and cycling through endless belief systems– first he was a stoner, then he was Hare Krishna, then he was straight-edge, then he was a full-blown addict and alcoholic– he finally scraped bottom when he was arrested for possession of meth and his dad had to bail him out of jail. Back with his parents, he got the call to audition for Dumb Luck from Quinn and leapt at the chance.

The band gave him an instrumental cut of their song, “Maybe Memories,” a pretty enticing piece of post-hardcore fury, and Bert wrote some lyrics and laid down vocals. The band was so impressed that he immediately got the gig. Somewhere around this time, they changed their name from Dumb Luck to Used– because a lot of their friends said they felt “used” by them, see– and then the Used, because some random band from Boston had trademarked “Used.” They played in living rooms and cut a demo in a basement to little interest, but Branden was still sending stuff to John Feldmann. The minute that Feldmann heard the song “A Box Full of Sharp Objects,” he flew the band out on his own dime and started shopping them around to record labels, eventually settling on Reprise Records and beginning to record their self-titled debut.

A MATERIAL ANALYSIS

The very things that made the Used so irritating for many are the exact same things that endear them to me. In much the same way that a lot of the hatred for nu metal was rooted in classism and a hatred for the genre’s often white trash, blue collar, and/or trailer park fanbase, the Used kind of suffered from being put into a box. Their look was unfashionable even by the standards of the time, characterized by gaudy and gauche raccoon eye makeup, baggy and dirty black jeans, and festooned with greasy, long, dyed-black hair. Hell, even their frontman’s name— Bert McCracken?– is the most hillbilly-ass shit you’ve ever heard in your life. They were seemingly shit out by a major label system, but let’s be real– when you’re from Nowheresville, Utah, have problems with drugs, are consistently homeless, and are offered a way out by doing the thing that you love to do, how are you not going to take that deal as soon as you can?

It makes sense that major labels were excited by the Used. The early 2000s were a phenomenal time to be a heavy band with screaming. The commercial success of nu metal had created a weird gestation period in the music industry. Glassjaw’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence was a minor hit due to splitting the difference between nu metal and post-hardcore. At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command, contrary to popular belief, was legitimately successful at the time of its release and would have been a career-making record had the band not imploded in short order. Thursday’s Full Collapse, the culmination of the past decade of basement hardcore packaged for a big-room audience, became one of Victory Records’ all-time best-sellers and ignited a large-scale major label bidding war.

At the same time, “MTVmo,” as it was called, was reaching a critical mass where it could no longer be contained by the underground the bands were coming from. In many ways the polar opposite of the macho posturing of nu metal and post-grunge, kids were falling head over heels for the heart-on-sleeve sensibility and melodic rush of records like Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are, Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American, and Dashboard Confessional’s The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, all of which were released in 2001.

Just four months prior to the release of The Used’s self-titled effort, Taking Back Sunday released Tell All Your Friends on Victory, which combined the catchiness and sensitivity of the emo-pop bands with the bloody-throated aggression and relentless energy of the post-hardcore bands. Music journalists began to hear the “screamo” tag bandied about– initially a handy term used to differentiate more roots-faithful emo bands like Saetia and You & I from the more soft-edged and friendly iteration proliferating through America thanks to the Get-Up Kids and the Promise Ring– and thought it appropriate to apply it to bands like Taking Back Sunday, Thursday, and even metalcore bands like Poison the Well (who at the time were poised to sign to Atlantic). Here’s one of the absolute weirdest examples of this trend— Jim DeRogatis simultaneously conducting solid interviews and woefully misunderstanding what either screamo or emo actually mean. This is the climate that The Used was about to enter when it was unleashed upon the world, and it seemed like the band took all the traction that had been created and slid full-force into instant success.

So if you ever manage to see that famous episode of The Osbournes where Bert shows up as Kelly’s boyfriend and elicit’s Sharon’s immediate distaste and disapproval, just imagine that it’s a metaphor for the Used’s impression to the world at large: uncomfortable misfits who were successful in spite of themselves, due to forces largely outside of their own control, and who were met with an almost universal disgust by the establishment and those who thought themselves the arbiters of common sense and taste.

“THE USED MADE IT AWFUL FOR ALL THE TRUE PUNK ROCK BANDS”

The Used is a fantastic album. I’ve listened to this band’s discography ad nauseam in preparation for this article, and gone back and forth on which record is actually my favorite, but at the time of writing, it’s their self-titled debut.

The first thing that sticks out is the production. The Used sounds spectacular, in a way that is almost unbelievable when you look at Feldmann’s resume, which includes hyper-compressed and fussed-over messes like blink-182’s California. In contrast, The Used shines with a three-dimensional depth and spaciousness, every bit of the mix getting proper room to breathe and providing an absolutely immersive and immediate experience.

Each element of the band’s sound is at its best here. Quinn Allman, who would eventually be relegated to embarrassingly unoriginal and simplistic hard rock riffs, shines as an inventive genius, mixing an undeniable flair for pop-punk hooks with an impressive knack for the post-hardcore noodling that would come to define bands like Circa Survive, as well as an unshakeable sense of both when to press the gas pedal for maximum heaviness and when to pull back and maybe throw in an acoustic guitar for extra texture.

As for the rhythm section, Jeph Howard’s bass work is exceptional; ringing out clearly in the mix, he never feels the need to stick to root notes and goes wild all over the neck, adding counterpoints and melodic sophistication to the songs that allow them to enter places of resonance that I don’t think the genre had really reached at that point. Branden Steineckert is one of the unsung heroes of this record, adding tasteful fills and controlling the atmosphere to a pitch-perfect degree, and I have to talk about the snare tone on this record, because this is one of my favorite snare tones ever committed to tape. It’s on par with the sound captured on Snapcase’s Progression Through Unlearning and the self-titled Vision of Disorder record– it’s that crystal-clear and kinetic.

Finally, we have the band’s secret weapon in Bert McCracken. I think at the time there was a tendency to relegate him to the same nasally category that the genre was known for, but that undersells both his range and his commitment to the material. Bert is an emotional bulimic on this record, singing every song with so much force that he often threw up from the intensity during live shows. For one thing, he has a shockingly wide breadth of performance– he can hit gorgeous high notes with precision that singers like Anthony Green and Craig Owens would later take to even greater heights, but his straight singing voice is so passionate, often hitting points where he’d yelp and break, leading you to believe that he might not be capable of the screaming that the heavier bits of the record would require. That’d be a mistake, because in my humble opinion, Bert has the most powerful screaming voice of the era, a full-toned and cement-solid thwack to the face that takes me off guard no matter how many times I listen.

The songs, of course, are almost universally perfect. “Maybe Memories” is a great choice for an opener, being both the first song the band ever wrote together as well as an excellent statement of purpose, beginning with a lazy palm-muted bob before assaulting the listener with an extremely well-written volley by turns both tuneful and throat-shredding. It’s immediately followed up by the big hit from this album and most likely the band’s most lasting legacy, “The Taste of Ink,” which expertly mixes a staccato bounce verse with an instantly anthemic chorus and never deviates, rather continually building intensity with each new verse and chorus, Bert becoming more and more frantic as the song goes on (admittedly difficult, since he starts the song off already in sicko mode). “Bulimic” caps off the initial run of songs with a more straightforward, conventional structure that’s nonetheless compelling (try to get “goodbye to you” un-stuck from your head after listening– I can’t).

From there, the album alternates between blasts of unremitting aggression and more sensitive and intimate moments, universally united by the intensity with which the band attacks every song. “Say Days Ago” and “A Box Full of Sharp Objects” are two of my favorite songs by the Used, the former a genuinely unsettling purge of inner demons that utilizes what is probably Bert’s most unhinged performance on the record and Quinn’s most eerie and off-kilter guitar work to strong effect, and the latter a straight-up banger about Bert’s nascent drug addiction that remains a perennial fan favorite and show closer thanks to its extremely physical heaviness. Elsewhere, “Poetic Tragedy” overlays Bert’s most accomplished singing with guttural screaming as well as the first appearance of the band’s knack for contrasting soft and loud to stunning effect, “Buried Myself Alive” is a masterful slow build that manages to somehow overcome one of the most cringe-inducing lyrics on the record (“If you want me back, you’re gonna have to ask nicer than that”) by sheer force of will, and “Blue and Yellow” is a gorgeous ballad about the disintegration of Bert and Quinn’s friendship that holds up as the best of the Used’s softer moments.

The back half of the record used to be a place where I kind of tuned out, but repeated listens have yielded a lot of surprising satisfaction– “Greener with the Scenery” is an offbeat R.E.M.-by-way-of-Sunny-Day-Real-Estate monster, “On My Own” is a last-minute acoustic reprieve from the chaos that functions very well as a penultimate track, and “Noise and Kisses” and “Pieces Mended” are both by-the-numbers classic Used tunes that benefit greatly from the band’s commitment and the production. The Used also contains what is perhaps one of my favorite hidden tracks of all time, “Choke Me,” which is both undeniably the heaviest song the Used ever made and low-key might be a “true” screamo song. I can’t exactly parse what the fuck “Choke Me” is about– I think a botched drug deal? Or maybe a comparison between a doomed relationship and a drug addiction?– but that’s honestly kind of irrelevant when it goes so goddamn hard, and caps off the record perfectly.

The Used was a pretty immediate stratospheric success, to the point that just a year later the band released a retrospective CD and DVD, Maybe Memories, that eventually went platinum. Maybe Memories both includes some of the band’s finest B-sides and demos– “Just A Little,” “It Could Be A Good Excuse,” “Zero Mechanism,” and “Alone This Holiday” all could have slotted onto their self-titled with relatively little tinkering– and a snapshot of the Used as a live band par excellence, sounding damn near identical to the studio recordings, as much as only one guitar and only one vocalist would allow.

In the time between their self-titled and their 2004 follow-up, In Love and Death, the Used went on tour with New Jersey miscreants My Chemical Romance, who were touring off their Eyeball Records debut I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love and would shortly also sign to Reprise for their 2004 follow-up Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. The relationship between the two bands would be both fraught and fruitful throughout the mid-2000s: My Chem would snake the Used’s sound engineer, Bob Bryar, to be their drummer; Bert would contribute some screams (“DO YOU HAVE THE KEYS TO THE HOTEL?”) to My Chem’s “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison,” reportedly about Bert and Gerard Way kissing; the bands would collaborate on a bizarre and kind of awful cover of “Under Pressure” to benefit victims of the November 2004 hurricanes; and the two bands clearly were an influence on each other throughout the recording of their respective sophomore records, with My Chem becoming more raw and emotionally untethered, and the Used tightening up the screws and discovering a different sort of pop sensibility.

Of course, there was also the famous friendship between Bert and Gerard, as the two legendarily addictive personalities became drinking and drug buddies on tour and fueled rumors of a possible relationship between the two. Eventually, Gerard went sober and Bert didn’t (at one point, Bert’s drinking was so bad that he collapsed on stage and ended up being diagnosed with acute pancreatitis), which slowly introduced a rift between the two that culminated in Bert holding a sign up next to My Chem’s stage on the 2005 Warped Tour discouraging people from attending their shows. There were lots of hurt feelings and songs written (“The Sharpest Lives” from The Black Parade is about Gerard and Bert’s partying days, while “Pretty Handsome Awkward” is a petty kiss-off to Gerard) and neither party currently talks to the other. It can’t have helped that the Used tacked the cover of “Under Pressure” onto the deluxe edition of In Love and Death, as the bands had agreed prior that neither would use the song for profit.

None of that ugliness had quite happened by the time the Used were recording In Love and Death, but late in the recording process for the album the band received a crippling blow: Kate, Bert’s ex-girlfriend and muse for many of the Used’s songs, had overdosed and died while pregnant with his child. Most of the songs had already been tracked, but the songs now carried an overbearing sense of trauma, especially since some of the songs, most obviously “Cut Up Angels,” were so clearly about Kate and Bert’s damaged relationship. John Feldmann reportedly dragged a suicidal Bert to the studio and forced him to write a song as therapy, which resulted in the heart-wrenching, spacious ballad “Hard to Say,” which is both a musical highlight and emotional lowlight of the record.

For a while, I would have probably said I preferred In Love and Death to The Used, but after a week of heavy listening, I admit that In Love and Death falls short in a few small ways that just keep it from reaching the same heights as the self-titled. First of all, the production seems just a little less potent than the debut, slightly more compressed and constrictive, which almost forces the songs to be written around the production rather than vice versa. The songs themselves, while often good, lack the visceral edge of tracks like “Say Days Ago” and “A Box Full of Sharp Objects,” corralling themselves into more straightforward structures that feel a bit more contrived and deliberately aimed for radio play. Plus, the sequencing of the album is a bit rough; it’s not that the songs aren’t consistently good, but the record is divided into two halves– the screamy pop-punk bangers in the first and the soppy ballads in the second– that makes the record lack the variety of The Used, despite the appearance of  late-album heavy hitters like “Sound Effects and Overdramatics” and closer “I’m A Fake.”

Still, though, that iconic hanging heart on the cover has become an extremely popular tattoo for good reason– many of these songs still stand up as the Used’s best. “Take It Away” is a fittingly punchy opener, announcing the Used’s more polished and sanded-down intentions from the get-go. Singles “I Caught Fire” and “All That I’ve Got” split the difference between “The Taste of Ink” and “Blue and Yellow,” combining the pained vocals and theatrics of the band’s past with a more mature pop songwriting that pays off in spades (along with some of Quinn’s best guitar work). “Let It Bleed” and “Listening” are throwbacks to the debut in the best way, even with the new constraints on their song structures, thanks to Bert’s masterful vocal control. Every song on the album also benefits from the rhythm section’s A+ performances, which is a bit more urgent than on The Used and supply the songs with plenty of infectious bounce.

This might be a hot take, but my favorite song on the album– and maybe my favorite song the Used ever wrote– is “Cut Up Angels,” an extremely weird song about sexual dysfunction in a dying relationship. For one thing, the entire song is dissonant as fuck– not just in the jauntiness of the music contrasted with the desperate and bleak lyrics, but in the slightly-wrong vocal melody contrasted with the ascending chords in the chorus. Bert is often a hit-or-miss lyricist, but the lyrics on this one are stellar– “If we cut up the bed, well then we’d have nothing left” and “I lost my head, you couldn’t come/This lust to my brain almost feels just like a gun” are both evocative and evincing sketches of a relationship that’s fallen apart in every possible way. Bert has described the end of his and Kate’s relationship as extremely toxic, and having been in a similar one to what he’s described, I can say that this song is disturbingly accurate.

As for the ballad-filled back half, I think the post-punk/goth influence on several of these songs isn’t recognized as much as it could be, especially in the very pretty slow-build masterpiece “Light with A Sharpened Edge,” which sounds exactly like a song the Cure would have written if they’d formed in 2001. “Yesterday’s Feelings” is a drunken, smeary farewell that’s honestly just pleasant to listen to, and “Lunacy Fringe” is often name-checked as one of the band’s best ballads, for good reason– it’s one of the catchiest songs in the Used’s repertoire. In fact, I think the ballads are strong enough that if they hadn’t been broken up by “Sound Effects and Overdramatics,” they would have functioned better as a stretch that showcased the band’s softer side. “Sound Effects” itself is a really strong heavier song, but I can’t help but think it should have been placed differently (maybe switch it with “Cut Up Angels”). Meanwhile, closer “I’m A Fake” is one of the band’s strongest moments (well, if you ignore the legitimately terrible spoken word poetry at the start of the song, which matches the stunning lows of Pete Wentz’s spoken word bits on “Get Busy Living” and “Twenty Dollar Nosebleed”) and the closest they come to replicating the magic of their debut, just a little bit faster and more frantic. It almost doesn’t even fit in with the rest of the album, with Bert sounding more desperate than ever, but I love it even so.

“I’m A Fake” also functions as a pretty good cap of this period of the Used’s career, as Bert vomits all of his dissatisfactions with the trappings of alternative fame– people constantly fake-complimenting his tattoos and incessantly asking about his personal life– and wraps it in a neat package where he announces that he’s his own biggest fan and renounces the interrogations of authenticity by declaring that he’s fake anyway. That was the essence of the early records by the Used, and foreshadows the cancer that would befall their later records– who gives a shit if we’re fake or real? Who gives a shit if we have credibility? Not us, as long as you look at me.

LIES FOR THE LIARS

So they kicked out Branden, which honestly baffles me, seeing as without him, they literally would not have ever been signed or experienced any of their success. They’d eventually replace him with Dan Whitesides of New Transit Experience (who Bert and Quinn had previously called the best band in Utah). It makes sense, though, since Branden was the only straight-edge member of the band and the rest (especially Bert) were pretty clearly descending into some of the nastier depths of their vices. In any case, on 2007’s Lies for the Liars, they enlisted Dean Butterworth (who’s worked with acts as disparate as Morrissey and Good Charlotte) to drum, and the result is the most confusing and frustrating album of their career, telegraphed by the truly dreadful album art.

Look, I understand that The Black Parade was a game-changer and a massive commercial success, but Lies for the Liars is such a weirdly naked attempt to copy that record’s shift from scare-quotes “emo” to canonized, capital-R Rock that it bogs down even the record’s most truly successful moments. “Pretty Handsome Awkward” is a hard rock anthem par excellence, nearly reaching the heights of Eighteen Visions’ butt rock phase, “Hospitals” is a restlessly catchy and energetic, and “Paralyzed” is maybe the most successful of their experiments on this record, a dancey boogie rock track with a sinister piano undertone and even a few horns. “The Ripper” isn’t a bad opener either, fast-paced and filled with the ripshit Quinn guitar noodles of old.

Every other song on this album, however, betrays a growing predilection for, um, “rawk,” I guess? “The Bird and the Worm” incorporates strings for seemingly no purpose beyond pretending to add depth to an empty, shapeless mess of a song, “Earthquake” is embarrassingly boring and pointless, and the rest of the songs range from forgettable hard rock garbage (“With Me Tonight,” “Wake the Dead”) to misguided attempts to capture their former glory (“Liar, Liar (Burn In Hell)” which, I swear to GOD, actually uses “liar, liar, pants on fire” as a hook) to, well, genuinely fuck-awful ballads (“Find a Way” and “Smother Me” send chills down my spine in a bad way– just absolutely disgusting songs).

I think that Lies for the Liars deserves its own section inasmuch as it serves as a dividing line between eras of the Used. If you were willing to stay on board after this abject mess, you’d probably be okay with the direction the band was soon to go. If you, like me, couldn’t abide this garbage after the genuinely exciting one-two punch of their debut and follow-up, well, I’ve got bad news for you– it doesn’t get better from here.

PURGATORY

2008-2015 was a pretty bad time to be the Used. The zeitgeist in rock music started to shift from the twists on pop-punk and post-hardcore that had defined their rise in the early-mid aughts to the more extreme descendents of their sounds– something that was still in the same family tree, but ultimately much more “metal” or more blatantly pop. The Used weren’t rock stars anymore, eclipsed by the “boy bands with breakdowns” like Attack Attack, Asking Alexandria, and The Devil Wears Prada, as well as the neon Disney punk of bands like Cute Is What We Aim For, Boys Like Girls, and All Time Low. Who would have thought that when Killswitch Engage, Senses Fail, Unearth, and Saosin were achieving commercial peaks in their prime, that they’d eventually lead to this world? Definitely not the Used.

I know people who are into the Used probably want me to go in-depth on 2009’s Artwork, which is sometimes regarded as their artistic peak (Alternative Press even called it the best album of their career), but like, you guys, it’s so fucking bad. They just clearly don’t even care. Why should I? There’s no hooks, no energy, no passion– I have no idea what happened to Quinn’s guitar work, which has collapsed into some sort of hard rock gunk, and Artwork is almost certainly the nadir of Bert’s vocal performance. The cover of the record is so self-consciously edgy– an arm with the title carved into it– that you’d expect it to be their heaviest album, but literally nothing is going on. During the press cycle for this record, Bert took to describing its sound as “gross pop,” an absolute insult, seeing as that term most accurately applies to the twists on pop structure and dalliance with truly uncomfortable subjects that defined In Love and Death. It’s fitting that this was their last record for a major label– despite the creative freedom offered to the band, it was clear they were out of creativity, and the lackluster public response to the records betrayed that.

Even by the time Bert got sober for 2012’s Vulnerable and decided to sort of develop a political conscience for 2014’s Imaginary Enemy, it seemed clear that the Used had completely run out of ideas. No amount of experimenting with electronic or hip-hop elements could disguise the fact that they no longer knew how to write a chorus. For these two records the band had jumped ship to Hopeless Records, ostensibly because they offered more transparency and a more honest business relationship, but if you compare these albums to the records being made by Hopeless’s most successful band of 2010-2014, the Wonder Years, it seems more like Hopeless took pity on a flagging band because they had the critical and commercial capital to do so.

It’s also worth looking at the Used’s peers in Senses Fail, who had also ascended to stardom based on two all-time classics, Let It Enfold You and Still Searching, before succumbing to sonic stagnation on Life Is Not A Waiting Room and The Fire. However, at the same time as the Used was experiencing the lows of their career, Senses Fail was sneakily reigniting theirs, by noticing that the mainstream zeitgeist had shifted and that they could make a bigger splash by focusing on the renaissance of hardcore-influenced pop-punk that was dominating the underground at the time (and regarded early Senses Fail as a cultural touchstone). In 2013 they released the heavier-than-ever Renacer and, lo and behold, they were signed to the massively successful indie Pure Noise within two years and experiencing an extremely healthy amount of underground success that continues to this day.

Meanwhile, the Used kicked out Quinn Allman in 2015. The fact that they were still together at all was truly bewildering, and anyone still paying attention to them had to wonder how much longer they could really last.

TRAUMA

2017’s The Canyon is a record that, by all rights, has no reason to exist. You’ve got a band that was pretty much a nostalgic touring unit by this point (hell, the year prior, the Used had embarked on a very successful 15th anniversary tour playing only material from their first two records). Ostensibly hollowed out by the exit of their founding guitarist, and experiencing a dearth of any critical or commercial acclaim, the last thing anyone wanted to hear was an 80-minute double album from a band that seemed to have no tricks left up there sleeve. Well, there are two things to consider.

First, Quinn was replaced by Justin Shekoski of Saosin. Although on a personal level, I have to imagine some things aren’t quite right (he was kicked out of Saosin after 12 years for “no reason,” and last year the Used kicked him out and put a restraining order on him for threatening violence and suicide, which is extremely concerning), it’s pretty hard to deny his creativity and talent as a guitarist, both when you listen to Saosin’s foundational Translating the Name EP and the riffs he came up with for The Canyon. (For the record, Shekoski was replaced in the Used by Joey Bradford from Hell or Highwater.)

Secondly, one of Bert’s best friends, Tregen Lewis, committed suicide after going off his anti-depressants for a week shortly prior to the recording process for The Canyon. There was an extra layer of tragedy to the situation, as Tregen was the person who had given Kate the drugs that she overdosed on in 2004. This event informed the entirety of The Canyon, giving it the vibe of an extended therapy session, and accordingly Bert’s most impassioned vocal performance in years.

The Canyon is, weirdly, kind of a masterpiece. I don’t think I’ve given it enough time to really sink in yet, but from the unsettlingly intimate acoustic opener “For You” to the bone-snapping heaviness of “Selfies In Aleppo” to the full-throttle beauty of the album’s only (!) single, “Over and Over Again,” this album is an extremely poignant and gorgeous ride through the band’s shattered psyche.

The Used is assisted in this endeavor by production from Ross Robinson, who made it a point to make this record sound like it was recorded live. At times, the album admittedly sounds a bit lacking in sonic depth, but the experience is so immediate and visceral that I can forgive it.

Isolating individually impressive moments in this album is nearly pointless. It’s one that demands a sit-down listen. Unfortunately, I don’t think this album exactly reignited the Used’s career, but their career as a touring band definitely isn’t going to suffer from an album full of deep cuts like this one. I will say there’s all sorts of weird detours on this record (there’s like, rapping, kind of, on “The Quiet War”). Shekoski stacks jazz chords on top of flashy solos on top of palm-muted filler riffs that collide with the honestly kind of funk-influenced rhythm section to create something that almost reminds me of mid-period Dance Gavin Dance (not in a bad way, mind you).

And of course, this might be Bert’s most potent lyrical moment, filled with excellent details like “I see the bass guitar in your room/PJ’s Ten on the wall/Just what did it take to trigger the end?/I could’ve been there/I miss you, my friend” and “I stood with you through How It Feels To Be Something On/Tom played my favorite song.” It’s private enough to be uncomfortable, personal enough to immediately connect. I can’t recommend this record enough; even if you don’t like it, I think it’s worth it listening to at least once.

REDEMPTION

I’m still not quite sure what’s going on with the Used in 2019, with lineup shuffles and personal obligations contributing to a sense of unease within the band (Bert lives in Australia, meaning it’s a long commute to tour in America). I know the Used headlined a tour with support from Glassjaw to promote The Canyon, and I know that they’ll probably be around and kicking in time for a twentieth anniversary tour in a few years. If they can make something as good as their first two records, or hell, something that can stand up to the burst of inspired therapy of The Canyon, I might be able to convince one or two of my friends that the Used deserve a second look.

In the meantime, I wish the members well, and I want to thank the Used for proving that the much-maligned cohort of MTV scene bands weren’t just spoiled suburban brats. They could be just as fucked up as the lost kids they appealed to, and they showed that it was possible to healthily work through your demons in music. Standing in stark contrast to other bands of their era who seemed to dwell in the negativity, and use it to make money, the Used always seemed like a band that balanced the cathartic melodrama of their music with an earnest sense of honesty, something more concrete than the vague promises of “hope” and “positivity” that others might pay lip service to. Bert’s always been extremely open about his addictions and the traumas that informed them, and although the music might have suffered as time went on, I’ve always gotten the sense that he’s a pretty solid and genuine dude who’s made mistakes and has done his best to atone for them– as a testament to that, he’s been married to the same person, Ali Schneider, since 2008, and has two children with her, which means he got clean and has stayed clean for seven years strong to keep his family and his band together, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for that. Am I embarrassed to be a fan of the Used? Their painful mid-period records aside, no. Keep on keeping on, homies.

NEXT WEEK: Like I said before, I have a pretty wack work schedule, but if I manage to get an article out, it’s gonna be about Senses Fail. Stay tuned, kids.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #2: Fall Out Boy

SNITCHES & TALKERS GET STITCHES & WALKERS
(a preamble.)

I made a mistake when I began this column last week with Panic! at the Disco. You see, I was thinking about all of this in the wrong way. I thought the right way to introduce people to this idea was to admit embarrassment and move past it, as a mood-setter of sorts. Unfortunately, as the response to that post proved, it looks like I’m going to be doing that exact same thing every week for the foreseeable future. Let’s assume beforehand that every band we talk about here is embarrassing and shameful, because that allows us to avoid the caveats and just plow into an intellectually honest engagement with the music. With that in mind… Fall Out Boy.

Fall Out Boy is probably the band that I should have started with, because arguably the entire scene that this column will ostensibly be discussing revolves around them, whether that be through tour cycles, Decaydance/Fueled By Ramen, or just plain following in their footsteps in every possible regard. To tell you the truth though, a critical analysis of this band just results in an abject fucking mess. The story of Fall Out Boy and my relationship with them encompasses: the journey of a band going from four dorky Chicago hardcore kids to potentially the most savvy and adventurous pop songwriters of their generation, then breaking up, then getting back together and becoming potentially the worst pop songwriters of their generation; an endless list of business decisions made by Pete Wentz that influenced the landscape of alternative rock for a solid decade-plus; an endless list of personal decisions made by Pete Wentz that make it difficult to reconcile my love of this band with my ethics; and a whole shitload of Gay.

Unlike most of these bands, who I hid for my love for like it was Anne Frank, I was loudly and unapologetically a fan of Fall Out Boy from the get-go, which means I was there for all of it– all the blog posts on FriendsOrEnemies.com, all the arguments about which ex each album was about, and the Summer of Like on Warped Tour ’05. So, fellow Overcast Kids, zip up your Clandestine hoodies and strap in for this one, because it’s gonna be more long-winded than a Fall Out Boy lyric and more confusing than the first time I saw those infamous dick pics on Oh No They Didn’t!.

xSTRAIGHT-EDGE SOFTCOREx
(the music, part one; hardcore is so two years ago.)

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you probably know by now how much I like to harp on the subject of hardcore kids starting pop-punk bands and gaining so much success that everyone forgets about their roots. Luckily, I don’t have to talk about most of that here, since I wrote this handy-dandy No Echo article that should bring you up to speed. With their only real competition being New Found Glory’s connection with Shai Hulud, Fall Out Boy is the one band whose hardcore roots are pretty well-known. My friend and number-one Fall Out Boy stan Kendra, who is otherwise a complete normie, actually knows who fucking Racetraitor is because Andy from Fall Out Boy drums for them.

In case you need a refresher on how the Fall Out Boy members spent the 90s in Chicago, Patrick Stump played drums for grindcore and powerviolence acts like PDI, Patterson, and xgrindingprocessx, Andy Hurley played drums for the ass-beater metalcore bands Racetraitor and killtheslavemaster, and Pete was in a variety of bands as a bassist and/or vocalist, including Birthright, Extinction, and Yellow Road Priest.

By the late 90s, Wentz had ended up as the vocalist for Arma Angelus, with future Fall Out Boy guitarist Joe Trohman on bass and later lead guitar, as well as future underground stars like Tim McIlrath (Rise Against), Jay Jancetic (Harms Way), and Daniel Binaei (Racetraitor) making appearances. Arma Angelus also played host to Andy Hurley and Patrick Stump on drums occasionally, and in its final iteration housed Chris Gutierrez on bass– Chris was of course eventually made famous on “Grenade Jumper,” before he and the Fall Out Boys suffered a nasty falling-out.

The thing you need to understand about Fall Out Boy is that they are, first and foremost and in their own words, “hardcore kids who couldn’t quite cut it as hardcore kids.” The influence of bands like Dag Nasty and Gorilla Biscuits permeates throughout their pre-hiatus material, and even by the time of a stadium-pop behemoth like Folie à Deux, they were still throwing in nods to their roots (check the screams on that record’s phenomenal closer, “West Coast Smoker”).

Fall Out Boy’s earliest material, however, is a mixed bag. They weren’t quite yet sure how to go about incorporating their more overt hardcore influences or their more ambitious pop influences, so they leaned full-force into the pop-punk and emo elements of their sound, resulting in songs that are less than the sum of their parts.

Their first release, a split with fellow hardcore-kids-turned-pop-punkers Project Rocket, was given an infectious energy courtesy of drumming (and decidedly less-energetic production work) from Jared Logan of Midwest melodic metalcore legends 7 Angels 7 Plagues. Unfortunately, the other performances are sloppy as hell (the guitar at the beginning of “Moving Pictures” straight up sounds like an outtake or scratch track), and this iteration of the band had an extra guy, TJ Kanusch, on rhythm guitar, leaving Patrick Stump to occupy the space of frontman, a role he’s never been comfortable with.

Their next effort, Evening Out with Your Girlfriend, didn’t fare much better, despite the addition of Mike Pareskuwicz (ex-Subsist– good luck finding material from that band) as drummer. Patrick hadn’t yet refined his vocal style, and wasn’t putting much effort into the lyrics (as made obvious by the horrific one-two punch of “I served out my detention/and in the end I got an honorable mention” and “I can be your John Cusack” in opener “Honorable Mention”). Meanwhile, the performances still lacked both nuance and confidence, potentially because no one was particularly enthused about playing music that sounded like a watered-down, keyboard-less version of the Get Up Kids’ early work.

There are some people out there who, to this day, claim that the Project Rocket split and Evening Out are their favorite Fall Out Boy records. I would hate to imply that those people are lying about their musical tastes in order to sound cool, so I’ll just straight-up say that they are lying about their musical tastes in order to sound cool.

So here’s where shit starts to get a bit sketchy: the band boots Mike and TJ, moves Patrick to rhythm guitar and has him take vocal lessons, and introduces their secret weapon, Andy Hurley, on drums. Meanwhile, they also leave Uprising (the label started by Sean Muttaqi of Vegan Reich) for Fueled By Ramen.

The band scraps almost everything from their prior records (except for a reworked version of an especially weak old track, “Calm Before the Storm”– more on that later) and begins to write new material with Hurley that’s sonically transcendent in comparison to their old shit. They proceed to record the ensuing record, Take This To Your Grave, in nine days, subsisting entirely on cheap sandwiches provided by their label and sleeping on their friends’ floors. Their initial goal is to create an album that stands on par with Saves the Day’s legendary Through Being Cool. The result is a record that is an objective pop-punk masterpiece, for reasons that are three-fold.

Firstly, the performances are just better, tighter, somehow both bigger and more subtle. The band seems to finally click with each other and understand how to rip through songs together.

Secondly, it’s around this time that I think Fall Out Boy made a conscious decision to include more hardcore influence in their music, or at least that’s the only way I can explain the caffeinated boost in speed and weight to their sound (aside from Hurley just being a superior drummer). Compare the best track from Evening Out, “Short, Fast, and Loud,” with Grave‘s opening track, “Tell That Mick He Just Made My List of Things to Do Today,” and it’ll be obvious what I mean. If you don’t think that’s fair, compare the two different versions of “Calm Before the Storm.” The Grave version is just better, due to both intangible improvements in the band’s performance and the addition of an absolutely sick hardcore bridge, courtesy of Wentz. “Grand Theft Autumn” coasts on its Earth Crisis-gone-top 40 chug, and “Saturday,” “The Pros and Cons of Breathing,” and “The Patron Saint of Liars and Fakes” all benefit from the contrast between Stump’s saccharine vocal hooks and Wentz’s filthy hardcore vocals, while “Reinventing the Wheel to Run Myself Over” is the Lifetime song that never was. No wonder they started to call themselves “straight-edge softcore.”

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, are the lyrics. While Wentz hadn’t completely taken over the lyrics yet, he ran all of Stump’s through his inimitably cynical filter, and the result is a set of lyrics rife with black comedy (the Chris Conley-influenced chorus of “Tell That Mick”) and turns of phrase that are equal parts clever and insufferable (“My pen is the barrel of the gun/remind me which side you should be on” from “Breathing”). Other songs, like “Homesick at Space Camp” and “Sending Postcards from A Plane Crash (Wish You Were Here),” are elevated from their status as traditional pop-punk filler tracks by their particularly incendiary lyrics. Of particular note here is all the ways that Pete’s witticisms are tied into pop culture references– the title of “Tell That Mick” is a quote from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, for example. I’ve always loved that detail of Fall Out Boy, the way that all the in-jokes and references end up helping to paint the picture of the emotion in the music rather than just serving as a way for the band to point out how hip it is.

Grave also began the band’s trend of including their peers in scene-stealing cameos– Motion City Soundtrack’s Justin Pierre provides the lyrical assault during the bridge of “Chicago Is So Two Years Ago,” while Knockout’s Jeff Warren plaintively extends an olive branch during his appearance on “Grenade Jumper.” Fall Out Boy would take this habit to borderline-incestuous lengths on their later records, but here it’s not just tasteful but legitimately exciting to hear these guest appearances, like you’re part of a special club that no one else knows about. That feeling is only enhanced when you see old videos like this where Fall Out Boy is playing at a fucking stacked hardcore fest, confronting the audience with beautiful vocal hooks and Pete’s even more beautiful visage.

Take This To Your Grave isn’t top-to-bottom perfect– the inclusion of obnoxiously obvious radio bid “Dead On Arrival” in the track two slot damn near threatens to ruin the momentum of the whole record– but it’s as close as Fall Out Boy would get at this point in their career, and it’s a stratospheric leap forward from where they were at.

Okay, so remember how I said they signed to Fueled By Ramen for Take This To Your Grave? That wasn’t entirely true. You can find more details here if you’re interested, but the short of it is that Fall Out Boy were actually already signed to major label Island Records by the time of Grave. However, in an attempt to build cred and hype, they released Grave on Fueled By Ramen (which, by then, Island had a controlling interest in) and toured relentlessly on the smaller club and Warped Tour-type circuits. As we know now, that shit paid off in spades. 

They released one more record on Fueled By Ramen, the all-acoustic EP My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue (aside from the irritatingly precious title, it’s also a clear attempt to emulate Saves the Day’s acoustic EP). I’ve always wondered why they didn’t include their popular Christmas song, “Yule Shoot Your Eye Out,” on this release— it’s acoustic, was written and recorded at around the same time, and at least as good if not better than the other acoustic original included here, “It’s Not A Side Effect of the Cocaine, I’m Thinking It’s Love.” The EP is rounded out by a rendition of “Grand Theft Autumn,” early versions of “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” and “My Heart Is the Worst Kind of Weapon,” and a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Cute, but mostly inessential.

By early 2005, it was clear that the band had enough to upstream to a major label, and the stage was set for From Under the Cork Tree.

I know that in the eyes of DIY purists, all that would be enough to condemn Fall Out Boy for eternity, but fuck it, From Under the Cork Tree is a goddamn masterpiece. In fact, I’ll say it: in 2005, this was the farthest anyone could push the genre of “emo pop” without becoming something else entirely. It’s a pitch-perfect fusion of hardcore dynamics and energy, the sweetest and most addictive of pop melodies, and acrid, extremely literate lyricism.

There are a few things that make From Under the Cork Tree a distinct entity from Take This To Your Grave. The first is the songwriting itself; while the base was the same– chiming guitar melodies laid atop chugging rhythms, songs with the energy of restless leg syndrome– they tightened up the screws and made the hooks more bombastic and ineffable. There’s also a willingness to play with the form, from the ballad-like “I’ve Got A Dark Alley and a Bad Idea That Says You Should You Shut Your Mouth (Summer Song)” to the literal waltz that informs “Get Busy Living Or Get Busy Dying (Do Your Part to Save the Scene and Stop Going to Shows).” The hardcore influences are back in full force, too, as Pete provides memorable vocal performances in several spots on the album, most notably the bridge of “Get Busy Living” and the Chad-Gilbert-assisted tag-team breakdown in “I Slept with Someone In Fall Out Boy and All I Got Was This Stupid Song Written About Me,” a song that’s somehow both one of their best originals and an over-the-top Taking Back Sunday parody.

The heavier elements of the album work because they’re juxtaposed with the strongest set of pop songs that the band had written to date. “Of All the Gin Joints In All the World” begins with an infectious “Oh, oh, oh” refrain and only gets poppier from there, while others here flex the band’s newfound talent at dynamics– “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner”‘s destructive bridge, the loud-quiet punchiness of “Sophomore Slump Or Comeback of the Year?”, the brawny Green Day-on-PCP anthem “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)”, the way that “Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends” goes from minor-key menace to beautiful triumph, and the absolutely gorgeous, octave chord-drenched climax to closer “XO” all deserve to stand with the band’s finest musical moments. And of course, the record has three of Fall Out Boy’s most timeless singles: the four-on-the-floor rave-up “Dance, Dance,” the instant pop classic “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me,” and that most unlikely of radio hits, “Sugar, We’re Going Down”– a song that balances an ungodly heavy hardcore chug with Patrick’s candy-coated vocal hooks, some shockingly “twinkly emo” guitar work, and a frankly stunning set of mordantly funny and caustically biting lyrics.

Patrick’s vocals are instrumental to making these songs work. He’d had standout moments of excellence before (the falsetto at the end of “Saturday,” for example) but by From Under the Cork Tree, he’d started to develop into the full-ranged white boy soul that the band would forever build its songwriting around. He can hit the highs, he can hit the lows, and his emotional control is unparalleled. Check the way that he volleys from the reserved first verse to the unrestrained lashing out of the bridge in “Dance, Dance,” or the slow build to explosion throughout “Summer Song.” I also had to have it pointed out to me that it’s Patrick who duets with Pete during the bridge of “Get Busy Living”— it’s really neat to hear him try out screaming for himself. Patrick’s delivery is everything– he manages to be knowing of the lyrics’ wry jokiness while taking them seriously enough to sing them with 100% commitment, and his inherent likability softens the blow of some of Pete’s more trenchant and acerbic lyrical indictments (of both others and himself, it’s worth noting).

The fact that Pete took over the lyrics entirely is perhaps the element that most shapes From Under the Cork Tree. Patrick has stated before that his goal became to create great vocal melodies while changing Pete’s lyrics as little as possible, and that comes through in the positively over-stuffed lyrical acrobatics of… well pretty much every song on the record. Pete also completely subsumed Patrick as the frontman; due to his offstage antics and business endeavors, it was hard not to view Fall Out Boy as The Pete Wentz Show, despite Patrick’s voice, Joe’s guitar ingenuity (the jangly, Johnny Marr-cribbing fills in “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” is a master class in how to rip on guitar without a solo), and Andy’s absolutely heroic efforts on the drums (this record is literally nothing without the atmosphere and energy that Andy expertly provides, track by track) all being vastly more essential to the band’s sound than Pete’s competent but uncharacteristically reserved bass work.

Ultimately, though, almost 15 years on from the record’s release, the thing that we’re left with is the songs. And what a wonderful set of songs it is. Opener “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued” (original name: “My Name Is David Ruffin and These Are the Temptations”) switches from meaty gang vocals to a suicide joke (“the ribbon on my wrist says ‘do not open before Christmas'”) on a dime, accompanied by the introduction of one of Cork Tree‘s biggest lyrical themes, Fall Out Boy’s anxieties about even the possibility of fame. It’s hard to get much more insecure than making the main hook in the first chorus of your major label debut “We’re only liars, but we’re the best/We’re only good for the latest trend.” This theme pervades every aspect of the record and at least five of the songs are about this and this alone: “Summer Song” is about comparing oneself’s success to everyone else’s; “Sophomore Slump or Comeback of the Year?” is about living up to the public perception of being “therapists pumping through your speakers” and worrying about being found out as inauthentic liars; “Champagne for My Real Friends, Real Pain for My Sham Friends” (an oblique Tom Waits reference) is an ahead-of-its-time condemnation of parasocial relationships (“We’re friends just because we move units”); and “Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying” (a Shawshank Redemption quote) is… well, I’ll just put the poignant passage here and let you unpack it for yourself.

This has been said so many times that I’m not sure if it matters
But it must be said again that all us boys are just screaming
Into microphones for attention
Because we’re just so bored
We never knew that you would pick it apart, oh
I’m falling apart to songs about hips and hearts

Pete Wentz’s fundamental lyrical conceit, self-awareness twisted inwards until it becomes painful self-consciousness, has matured into an overwhelming leitmotif. Even songs unrelated to the record’s running theme of the band grappling with its own success find ways to squeak references to it in– the otherwise straightforward break-up song “I Slept with Someone In Fall Out Boy” has its title and the sardonic line “I’m the first kid to write of hearts, lies, and friends” acting as a postmodern puncturing of the mystique inherent to major-label artists, and “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen),” a song ostensibly about Pete’s suicide attempt, gains greater resonance after you learn that part of his motivation was the pressure to create a hit record.

It’s also worth giving a listen to the bonus tracks for the album included on the Black Clouds & Underdogs deluxe edition, which includes three of the band’s most hardcore-influenced songs as a sort of farewell to their days of underground stardom. The breakneck “Snitches & Talkers Get Stitches & Walkers” and the High Fidelity-referencing “The Music Or the Misery?” (which contains probably my favorite Wentz-ism: “I got your love letters, corrected the grammar, and sent them back”) stand with the best songs they’ve ever written, and it’s definitely worth giving a listen to the full-band rendition of “My Heart Is the Worst Kind of Weapon,” previously an acoustic track on My Heart Will Always Be the B-Side to My Tongue. The subdued, dissonant way the song originally trailed off is transformed into the most monstrous breakdown the members had ever constructed, either in Fall Out Boy or any of their various hardcore outfits. There’s also a few dance remixes included, a neat foreshadowing of the way the band would play with electronic influences on their later work.

There are some more thorny themes to explore in the lyrics here (“Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner” becomes almost irredeemably icky once you know the backstory) but I’ll postpone discussion of those until later. For now, all you need is that this record catapulted Fall Out Boy to the type of TRL and Billboard infamy that would inform the rest of their output from here to eternity. This record’s requisite cameos are also representative of the band’s eye-on-the-prize ethos; aside from New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert providing a moment of screamy hardcore heft, the band finds time to allow two of Pete’s most recent signings to Fueled By Ramen/Decaydence to show off, with William Beckett of The Academy Is… popping up on “Sophomore Slump” and Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie lending his voice to “7 Minutes In Heaven (Atavan Halen)” a full six months before his band’s studio debut. The message was clear: we’re going to rule the world, and we’re bringing our posse with us.

DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I THINK I AM?
(the music, part two; when pop culture references become solipsism.)

Between From Under the Cork Tree and Infinity On High, Fall Out Boy had obviously become superstars. Some would argue that this was based on the strength of the songs, while others maintain that it was a result of Wentz’s tomfoolery in the public sphere; from his business acumen in starting the Clandestine clothing line and running the Decaydence label imprint (displaying an almost uncanny eye for young talent) to having his dick pics leaked onto LiveJournal, starting the band member-focused MySpace competitor FriendsOrEnemies, and becoming romantically involved with Ashlee Simpson (after an extremely messy and public breakup with his longtime muse Jeanae White– I promise all of this teasing will pay off), Pete Wentz was the type of person who seemed ready to get into A-list celebrity scandals before anyone even knew his name.

Of course, the answer is that it was a result of both. As much as it seemed like Wentz was a fame-whore who swallowed any attention thrown his way and took the focus away from his arguably-more-musically-capable bandmates, he was a natural born talent at self-promotion and a charismatic gadfly, fully deserving of being the spokesperson the nascent scene at the time deserved. His position as a flashpoint did indeed introduce more people to the band’s (extremely good) music, his internet addiction did foster the type of connection with and devotion from fans that any band would fucking kill for, and interviews would inevitably turn to topics the rest of the band was passionate about, like Andy Hurley’s commitment to vegan straight-edge ethics and Patrick Stump’s aspirations to become a producer par excellence (which he achieved).

Still, like with every Fall Out Boy album, the band recorded Infinity On High with something to prove. And while musically it’s probably the band’s messiest, least focused, and least confident album, the opener “Thriller” does a pretty good job of reconciling the band’s past, present, and future: Over a gorgeous, arpeggiated guitar melody, Jay-Z, Hov himself, introduces the album by giving a middle finger to the haters, symbolically announcing Fall Out Boy’s arrival to the top-tier of celebrity. The band then launches into a major-key mosh riff so heavy that the members of Four Year Strong and A Day to Remember were surely seething with envy. As a side note, pay close attention to Andy Hurley’s double-bass work here– that man is a god.

“Thriller” is a microcosm of the album as a whole. Infinity On High is a lot to unpack, rife with self-contradictions, steps forwards and backwards, and yet a new evolution in the band’s playbook: plagiarism. Wesley Eisold, the poetic troubador who put a raw, seething voice to a different kind of teen angst in the seminal hardcore band American Nightmare, was credited as “Inspirador” on From Under the Cork Tree, a nod to both the band’s roots as well as tracing a direct line between Wentz’s affectations and the ground broken by Eisold. By the time of Infinity On High, he was suing Fall Out Boy in court and getting songwriting credit for lines Pete cribbed from him. It’s hard to imagine what it feels like for either a world-famous band to steal lyrics you wrote as a teenager in a hardcore band or for one of your musical idols and major inspirations to sue you, but it’s probably complex as fuck.

Still, when Infinity On High shines, it does so brightly, especially in the back half of the album. “Carpal Tunnel of Love” is a suitably catchy pop-punk banger suffused with the now-predictable tinge of hardcore growls, “Fame < Infamy” is a punchyhefty number that features the funniest one-liner in the band’s repertoire (“I’m alright in bed, but I’m better with a pen”), and closer “I’ve Got All This Ringing In My Ears But None On My Fingers” is a fantastic, lushly produced R&B track masquerading as a pop-punk track. My personal favorite song on the album is penultimate track “You’re Crashing, But You’re No Wave,” which tells the tragic story of black activist Fred Hampton, Jr.’s arson trial with poignance and righteous fury. I never thought Fall Out Boy could write a political track with the grace and passion of Sarah Kirsch’s most incendiary material (that track is about Fred Hampton, Sr., by the way), but it turns out that color looks quite good on them.

The singles on Infinity are also mostly pretty good; “Thnks fr th Mmrs” fuses strings and high-octane pop-punk to strong effect, while “The Take Over, the Break’s Over” melds an extremely funky verse section with Patrick’s powerful vocals and a layered guitar solo courtesy of Ryan Ross and Chad Gilbert. “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” just might be the most exciting of Fall Out Boy’s singles, a drum-sample-heavy dance verse leading into a sugary popcore chorus with some of the most incisive lyrics Wentz ever wrote.

But man, when the record slacks, it slacks hard, mostly due to the band’s awkward inability to properly sequence the record. Why follow the bright, effervescent “Arms Race” with the ugly, Maroon 5-aping “I’m Like A Lawyer with All the Ways I’m Trying to Get You Off (Me & You)”? The most poignant of Wentz’s attempts to articulate his brush with suicide, “Hum Hallelujah,” successfully marries a gospel choir rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with thick and chunky pummeling, but it’s followed by the overbearing and mawkish piano ballad “Golden.” “Don’t You Know Who I Think I Am?” holds down the sagging middle section of the record well enough with its adherence to tried-and-true formula, but “The (After) Life of the Party” wastes a stunningly committed vocal performance from Patrick and remarkably understated and pretty guitar work from Joe in favor of a go-nowhere song structure and sacrifices Andy’s endlessly inventive and tasteful drumming for pretty disappointing drum loop. “Bang the Doldrums” buries a solid Pete growl and an enjoyably off-kilter, claustrophobic verse and pre-chorus under a decidedly non-endearing pirate-shanty hook, coming off weak and rote in the process.

Ultimately, Infinity On High is just confused, despite its many obvious strengths and Fall Out Boy’s new enthusiasm for breaking the bounds of their genre. Guest producers abound (superstar producers Babyface and Butch Walker only serve to muck up the mix with syrupy tackiness) and Wentz’s lyrics have begun to take on a stream-of-consciousness quality that sacrifices his heart-on-sleeve theatrics for an insular solipsism. He’s said that he took lyrical influence from Lil Wayne for this record, but Lil Wayne’s lyrics during this era only pretended to be inscrutable underneath his drawl– Wentz’s at times are an inchoate mess of impressionism and esotericism. Wentz here is in love with his image as the hoodie-wearing, broken-hearted spokesman for the emo masses. Downright evocative turns of phrase like “They say the mind is a prison/and these are just conjugal visits” or the therapy reference “Fix me in forty-five” end up subsumed by the self-important self-pity of lines like “I saw God cry in the reflection of my enemies.”

The bonus tracks for Infinity On High, “G.I.N.A.S.F.S. (Gay Is Not A Synonym for Shitty)” and “It’s Hard to Say ‘I Do,’ When I Don’t”, are suitably crunchy throwbacks to the style of From Under the Cork Tree, left off for the purpose of preserving the cohesiveness of an ultimately non-cohesive record.

If all of these elements failed to come together on Infinity On High, they do come together to both breathtaking and frustrating effect on the band’s pre-hiatus swan song, Folie à Deux. An album of both unbearable excess and unbridled creativity, Folie represents the height of the band’s obsession with itself. There’s the cribbing back in full-effect (the piano strikes during the intro of opener “Disloyal Order of Water Buffalo” nakedly copy the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” while “I Don’t Care” swipes its “I don’t care what you think as long as it’s about me” refrain from Nirvana’s “Drain You”) and the guitar sound is borderline hair metal in its glammy stickiness.

Still, as always, the exhilarating moments make all the bullshit worth it, and shockingly enough the cameos actually elevate the songs rather than distracting from their worth. “Tiffany Blews” somehow manages to make a collaboration between Lil Wayne and the Cab’s Alexander DeLeon make sense, the jaunty and endlessly fun “20 Dollar Nosebleed” utilizes Brendon Urie as much as he is needed and no more, and the phenomenal closer, “West Coast Smoker,” enhances it’s dark melodies with, ambitiously, both a guest appearance from Debbie Goddamn Harry and the last appearance of Pete’s growls.

Sure, there’s a very weird hit-miss ratio. The hits include anthemic opener “Water Buffalo” and the pop-punk throwbacks “The (Shipped) Gold Standard” and “(Coffee’s for Closers),” as well as the rock star early-death ode “27” and the thrillingly experimental “w.a.m.s.” The misses include the muddled “Headfirst Slide Into Cooperstown On A Bad Bet,” the forgettable “She’s My Winona,” and the downright gross, almost Lenny Kravitz-esque singles “I Don’t Care” and “America’s Suitehearts.”

And of course there’s the symbolic cap to this era of Fall Out Boy’s career, the absolutely beautiful album centerpiece, “What A Catch, Donnie.” An Elton-John-esque piano rock ballad, the song manages to overcome the confusion of its central conceit (a metaphor for the band’s inner tensions that references Roberta Flack, kind of?) with several incredible vocal performances, anchored by Patrick Stump’s most impressive singing yet and bolstered by a guest spot from Elvis fucking Costello (reprising the chorus of the substantially weaker “Headfirst Slide”), as well as an outro where seemingly all of the band’s proteges (including Urie and DeLeon as well as William Beckett, Gym Class Heroes’ Travie McCoy, and Midtown/Cobra Starship’s Gabe Saporta) join in a celebration of all of the band’s past hits, even throwing a short nod to one of their disowned earlier songs, “Growing Up.” Self-aggrandizing and overly indulgent? Yes. A thrilling payoff for seven years of loyalty to the band, and a surprisingly loving send-off to their first and best era? Also yes.

If it seems like I’m giving short shrift to Fall Out Boy’s post-From Under the Cork Tree material, I definitely am. While there’s certainly some excellent moments, both records lack the consistency of Grave and Cork Tree, and as I’ve already said, Pete’s lyrics became an intricate web of word salad that was nowhere near as fun to parse as his more bitter and personal material on the earlier records. They had to know this– while Infinity and Folie by no means were financial failures, and the band had relocated to much ritzier homes in LA after years of living with their parents, they decided to go on hiatus in 2009 in order to get their heads together.

Before they went, they released the greatest hits collection, Believers Never Die. It’s a solid enough collection of their hits, notable for the inclusion of their last two pre-hiatus originals. The first, “Alpha Dog,” is a wretched and disgusting song that sounds like a somehow worse version of “Headfirst Slide.” The second, however, is “From Now On We Are Enemies.” I’m not sure exactly when this one was written or recorded, because it’s a pretty interesting mash-up of ideas they’d explored on all of their major label albums— it’s got the heaviness of Cork Tree, the speedy harmonies of Infinity, and the playful song structure and pop experimentalism of Folie. It’s definitely worth a listen, especially for the shockingly gorgeous bridge.

But the story of early Fall Out Boy definitely doesn’t end here, so let’s dissect some of the messes they made along the way to their success.

FAME < INFAMY
(an exhaustive list of everyone who needs to get a clue.)

Musically, Fall Out Boy’s influence is fairly obvious– many bands that took their cues from them ended up on Pete’s Decaydence roster, after all. But their non-musical influence on the scene is practically incalculable, and is certainly the reason for the scorn heaped upon the band, much more than their music.

First, the fashion. If we’re being honest, the whole “girl jeans/architecturally impressive hair/studded belts buckled on the side” look was codified by bands like Atreyu and Eighteen Visions before Fall Out Boy had even formed, and even they were just doing a more well-groomed version of the whole Justin Pearson/Spock Rock scene that was happening in San Diego circa 1997 (see this post for more details). However, it’s impossible to deny that Fall Out Boy were the band that really codified and popularized the look. Even before Clandestine brought hoodies and tight jeans to malls all across America, the band’s brand of raccoon-eyes eyeliner and swoopy, dyed hair proved an extremely hot commodity. Along with help from AFI’s Davey Havok and, to a lesser extent, Eighteen Visions’ James Hart, somehow emo went from its original “handsome Midwest boys in sweaters singing emotive punk songs about girls” meaning to a mess of self-harm and fashion accoutrements that were fueled by androgyny. Fall Out Boy’s acute skill at propagating this look should came as no surprise. After all, they always told us they had such good fashion sense.

Frustrating as this shift may be to some purists, this was undeniably a moment in American culture, one that laid the groundwork for millions of kids to discover these newer, more polished bands and delve backwards into their more obscure influences. Fall Out Boy covering “Start Today” on Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland was just the tip of the iceberg in a world that would soon see kids who got into emo through Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance eventually forming the basis of an entirely new DIY movement defined by previously-unthinkable twists on pop-punk formulas and unbearably precocious lyrics, one that many of us now call home. The late-2000s pop-punk movement that saw bands like Title Fight, the Wonder Years, and the Story So Far taking more overt influences from the world of underground hardcore can also be traced back to bands like Fall Out Boy shining a light on those connections, too.

The tactic that Fall Out Boy pioneered with Take This To Your Grave, cynically using major label money to make an indie record become larger-than-life, was one that was copied by bands for the rest of eternity, from Paramore to Fredo Disco, and it’s probably Fueled By Ramen’s most tried-and-true method for breaking bands. Call it gross if you want, but I doubt it would have been financially viable were it not for Fall Out Boy taking that step.

And then, there’s the fans. A horde of children fueled by both Wentz’s looks and lyrical prowess, I’d argue that one of the biggest reasons Fall Out Boy was (and sometimes still is) condemned by the world of “real rockers” (yuck) is because they primarily appealed to young kids, and especially young girls. If you want to see misogyny in action, look no further than bands that teenage girls are in love with. The hatred heaped upon them is pure projection, a desperate attempt to defend masculinity against the encroachment of resolutely un-macho expressions of pure vulnerability and the embrace of that old vanguard of “rock is dead” scapegoats– young women.

THE MUSIC OR THE MISERY?
(teenage sexuality and you: a play in two livejournal accounts.)

CW: Some pretty frank discussion of self-harm, underage sexuality, and other uncomfortable shit herein. You’ve been warned.

Let’s talk about LiveJournal. If you’re either young or unfamiliar, think of LiveJournal as a primordial version of Tumblr– a platform on the internet that catered to the artsy, emotional, and feminine more than other, more male-dominated spaces. In theory, I’m all for it, but much like Tumblr, LiveJournal also attracted a set of people who used the inherent inclusiveness of the community to create a hub of truly toxic elements. LiveJournal users didn’t just refuse to deal with their mental health problems, they glorified and encouraged things like self-harm and eating disorders to an audience of young kids who were just looking for a place where they didn’t feel alone. If you’re familiar with the mess of horror that became the Final Fantasy House, it should come as no surprise that those people met on LiveJournal, and LJ was also the place where I first became aware of that most disturbing of internet phenomena, otherkin, in the form that it’s recognized in now (for the uninitiated).

It might seem like small potatoes in comparison to the things I just mentioned, but in many ways, the fanfiction community that sprung up on LiveJournal and mainly focused on writing stories about real people in bands like Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco having sex with each other (and thinly-veiled stand-ins for the authors) was ground zero for all of these problems– stemming from a rigid refusal to actually engage with the underlying issues and instead make them points for communities to rally around– and, unfortunately, was pretty fucking damaging to a lot of people’s perception of their own sexuality, myself included.

LiveJournal intersected with the proto-MySpace, emo-dominated social media platform MakeOutClub in a lot of interesting ways, the most dominant of which is that they were both hotbeds of confused teenage sexuality and served as ways that kids with lip piercings and a love for bands as disparate as Glassjaw, the Juliana Theory, and the Hope Conspiracy could meet up and act that confused teenage sexuality out.

See, Fall Out Boy was the center of this universe, at least in my experience. My AIM away message was usually a Fall Out Boy quote. As a kid who didn’t know whether I was a boy or a girl, gay or straight, whatever, the first time I saw Pete Wentz’s dick pics, it triggered something within me that took me over a decade to come to terms with, despite Pete being so open about being “gay above the waist” and consistently refusing to quell rumors of a relationship with My Chem bassist Mikey Way (the aforementioned Summer of Like on Warped Tour ’05). There was an intertwining of Pete’s very real sexuality with the fetishization of that sexuality within the fanfic world, and with the incorporation of some pretty disgusting elements within those stories (the amount of times I ended up reading a story where a Fall Out Boy member kissed the still-bleeding self-harm wounds of either another Fall Out Boy member or a member of a related band would make your fucking head spin).

I’m not necessarily faulting the kids writing these stories, at least not entirely; when you’re coping with the discovery of your sexuality and the onset of some pretty serious mental health issues, with no one to talk to and no real understanding of a healthy way to express these things, it’s pretty easy to fall into outlets for those feelings that only end up reinforcing them. The self-flagellating lyrics of Fall Out Boy (and of course many others) just played into it, kids lashing outwards and inwards and seeking refuge in the emotional honesty and openness of their favorite band.

The band was in no way responsible for this binge-purge cycle of physical and emotional self-abuse– for as much as Pete interacted with the fanbase through the band’s message boards, he wasn’t exactly encouraging of “slashfic” and, in all honesty, did his best to demystify and destigmatize conversations about mental health and sexuality in interviews, often openly talking about his struggles with bipolar disorder, his suicide attempt, and his bisexuality. If it weren’t for the fanbase poisoning the well, I probably would have gotten a lot of validation and affirmation from Fall Out Boy. But of course, we can’t have nice things, and the band’s intentions were quickly and violently tossed aside in a Death of the Author moment that never subsided, and was only magnified in later years by increasingly predatory “hopecore” bands like Memphis May Fire or whoever blatantly exploiting their fans’ insecurity and using their positions as figures of comfort to get money and, in several cases, emotional labor and sex from those fans.

Plus, on both the LiveJournal and MakeOutClub communities, there was the ever-present “fully grown adult in arrested development who should know better” element. These were the people who didn’t say anything to help the kids dealing with this shit, who at best allowed the kids to stew in their issues and at worst used those issues to position themselves as “older, wiser” guides to the world and groom the kids for their own needs. I was lucky enough to not have too many experiences with these types, but I had too many internet friends to count who fell victim to these motherfuckers who infiltrated communities, ones based on a youthful enthusiasm for alternative music, and took advantage of the openings in our self-esteem to squeeze themselves in and take what they wanted, whether that be emotional or physical or both.

Sorry to get this intensely personal, but talking and thinking about Fall Out Boy and this moment of my life is inextricable from these more disturbing and dark elements. For as much as Fall Out Boy and their peers helped me and others find ourselves, they inadvertently fostered a world of hurt for us, too.

I SLEPT WITH SOMEONE IN FALL OUT BOY AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS STUPID SONG WRITTEN ABOUT ME
(the pete wentz problem, or how we all learned to internalize misogyny and weaponize it on the internet.)

If you’re thinking that perhaps I went too easy on Pete Wentz in that previous section, rest assured that I’m about to rip that man to pieces. An earlier draft of this essay had this section subtitled as “the Jeanae White problem,” which is both harmful and inaccurate. To insinuate that the problem lies with the teenager who was in a relationship with a mid-twenties person in a popular band is deflection at best, victim-blaming at worst.

The urban legend telling of this part of the Fall Out Boy story has Jeanae White and Pete Wentz starting to date before Take This To Your Grave‘s release in 2003, when she was 15 and Pete was 23; the last time I brought this up on Reddit, a wild Pete Wentz stan appeared and linked these exhaustively-researched Tumblr posts that assert 1. Jeanae White was in fact, of legal age when she and Pete started dating (though, admittedly, still in high school) and 2. Take This To Your Grave was not written about Jeanae but is instead a mish-mash of one of Patrick’s ex-girlfriends and an older flame of Pete’s, someone named Morgan.

These two posts alleviate two of the main concerns about Jeanae and Pete’s relationship. First of all, it means that Pete didn’t commit statutory rape (although the power imbalance was definitely still there and should probably make any rational, empathetic person uncomfortable). Second of all, although some of the lyrics on Grave are still pretty unnerving (see “Tell That Mick”‘s simultaneously clever and stomach-churning lines “Let’s play this game called ‘when you catch fire’/’I wouldn’t piss to put you out’/stop burning bridges, and drive off of them”) they weren’t actually violent rhetoric aimed at a sixteen-year-old.

Still, that leaves us with a wealth of uncomfortable facts, so here’s a few. Pete Wentz has bipolar disorder (“I fully admit that I have a manic personality. I’m either on or I’m off… I have the ability to make a room go cold”). Pete Wentz is prone to impulsive and dangerous behavior (his suicide attempt, as documented in “7 Minutes In Heaven” and “Hum Hallelujah”; the Rolling Stone article previously linked details how Pete has a habit of punching through windows during fights with Jeanae). Pete Wentz can be extremely manipulative (from “Sugar We’re Going Down”: “I’m dying to tell you anything you want to hear/because that’s just who I am this week”). I’d also like to mention “Nobody Puts Baby In the Corner”– that “I’ll be your best-kept secret and your biggest mistake” line in the chorus, in conjunction with the “So wear me like a locket around your throat/I’ll weigh you down and watch you choke” line in the bridge, is unsettling no matter how old the subject is, but especially so when they haven’t even hit 20 yet.

Pete’s been in a shitload of therapy, and he and Jeanae are now on as good and healthy of terms as any couple with that public of an ugly breakup could be. These are possible reasons we haven’t seen as much of an explicit call for accountability as other frontmen in the same scene who have demonstrated similar behavior (Jesse Lacey of Brand New and Cam Boucher of Sorority Noise, for example). Despite my discomfort with the things I have laid out, I acknowledge that Pete doesn’t have any record of similar behavior and it’s more than likely he’s done the work to better himself, as well as that Jeanae has never accused him of abuse. This doesn’t quite cross my personal line.

But– and this is a huge but– let’s go back to those LiveJournal fanfic people real quick. You know who took the breakup between Jeanae and Pete personally? Those fans. You know who took Pete’s angry, extremely visceral lyrics to heart? Those fans. I’m not necessarily saying that Pete or any of the other Fall Out Boy members are misogynists, but they did say misogynist things and a generation of teenagers, especially teenage girls, internalized that negative energy and thought it was acceptable to direct that energy towards another young woman. The bile spewed at Jeanae over the years (one memorable comment accused her of shitting on William Beckett’s dick while they were having anal sex) is probably the worst taste left in my mouth when reckoning with the history of Fall Out Boy and my personal attachment to the band. Can I reconcile this with myself, personally? Yes. I’ve outlined a pretty fair rationale, one that neither makes excuses for Pete nor demonizes Jeanae.

But I can’t abide the wave of internet hate that was directed at Jeanae, and I can’t let it continue to not get talked about when we’re still unlearning this shit years later. Damaged men shouldn’t get to put all their shit on teenage girls, and although Fall Out Boy weren’t necessarily the ones mobilizing the internet hate machine in Jeanae’s direction, it’s pretty indicative of a deeply-rooted cultural hatred of women when the impulse of every one of their fans is to protect the man in the situation at all costs. We’re only a little over a decade past this situation, and we can still see this pattern of “thorny situation between man and woman=woman getting punished for existing on the internet,” and it unnerves me that these situations align in such a close parallel. At the end of the day, it comes down to parasocial relationships borne out of emotional connection to art. I don’t really have any answers, but I like to think we’re slowly getting better.

THE PHOENIX
(the music, part three; anyone born after 1996 should be shot in the face.)

This article is a novel already, so I won’t mince words: Fall Out Boy’s comeback is horrible, musically. Collectively, on the three albums they’ve released since reuniting, they have failed to write even one song that doesn’t make me want to gouge my fucking eyes out. Fall Out Boy’s reunion is notable for two reasons only: it’s insane that they are somehow more popular than ever (probably due to an insanely good ear for musical trends and a willingness to adapt themselves as such), and it’s insane that they are now part of a new musical wave that they themselves played a huge part in inspiring, much in the same way that Panic! at the Disco’s early work paved the way for nü-pop outfits like Billie Eilish and Twenty One Pilots to explore darker topics within their work and adopt a superficially alternative aesthetic to give their particularly over-produced brand of pop some sort of identity.

Note: I’m not necessarily saying that Eilish or Pilots are bad artists, per se, but I am saying the trick they’re pulling is easy to identify. I actually really enjoy a lot of this current wave of pop/trap music that aesthetically pulls from mall-emo; I recommend 93FEETOFSMOKE for the more pop-oriented set and SCARLXRD for the more hardcore-oriented set. And it’s particularly fitting that one of Decaydance’s newest signings, nothing,nowhere., is part of this scene and that he has a collaboration with Dashboard Confessional.

Both Fall Out Boy and Panic!, along with Paramore, have ably inserted themselves into this crowd, with no one seeming to notice that there’s been a seismic shift in both the sound and goal of their music. Paramore have managed to avoid the trap of becoming a complete vanity act by continuing to push new boundaries with their music, while Panic! and Fall Out Boy, by contrast, just seem to have gotten better at finding what the zeitgeist is. Fall Out Boy in particular have been very good at it– Twenty One Pilots are signed to Decaydence, after all, and they’ve even released a posthumous collaboration with my favorite of the emo rap wunderkinds, Lil Peep. As time goes on and more and more of the kids who would have been making emo, pop-punk, or hardcore in years past gravitate towards this new wave of pop and trap, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Fall Out Boy are simultaneously an influence on and an inextricable part of this new musical landscape.

It makes sense why Fall Out Boy’s reunion seems to shirk the guitar rock of their past for more abstract pop soundscapes. The band members have managed to eke out spaces for themselves in the heavy music scene– Patrick did guest vocals on the Weekend Nachos song “Jock Powerviolence,” Andy drums for hardcore bands like SECT and Racetraitor– so they can keep that part of themselves fulfilled. It seems to be working out pretty well for them, but it does often leave me wishing that they would just make a goddamn pop-punk record again.

FRIENDS OR ENEMIES
(a conclusion.)

I can already tell that the process of writing this series every week is going to be pretty fucking soul-corroding. I hope y’all enjoyed this extremely long and occasionally far too personal essay on Fall Out Boy and what they mean to me. I think this will probably be the longest article for a while, so please don’t get too used to this length (I can imagine that’s a relief to those of you who have actually made it this far). Am I embarrassed by the fact that I adore Fall Out Boy? The answer is no, but I am embarrassed to be a Fall Out Boy fan.

NEXT WEEK: We explore addiction and trauma with the Used. Stay tuned.