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.

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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.

Bands You Weren’t Supposed to Like, Case Study #1: Panic! at the Disco

PART ONE: THE BULLSHIT

We’re now more than halfway through 2019, and never have I felt more like the ever-nebulous “scene” is standing on some sort of precipice where old and new, “fake” and “real,” are no longer things of any concern. We’ve delved into this sort of postmodernism before, but those past experiments (BrokeNCYDE and Hollywood Undead, anyone?) just seem clumsy in retrospect. The new Sanction record is literally just an update on the 7 Angels 7 Plagues/Misery Signals brand of emotionally and melodically pained metalcore. Shin Guard continue to amaze with material that ranges from chopped-up Fall of Troy riffage to Slint-y spoken word, all wrapped up within a traditionally screamo context. And if you’ve never heard the truly transcendent bubblegum bass/MySpace mish-mash/ska/dubstep/ringtone pop of 100 Gecs’s magnum opus, 1000 Gecs, I honestly envy that you will have that experience for the first time.

There have been many words written about #twentyninescene, a somewhat roughly-sketched concept that states 2019 is the year of the new crop of kids embracing their roots in the world of flat-ironed hair, T-mobile Sidekicks, and Stickam. Over at Metal Injection, Drew Kaufman has penned several articles giving artists like From Autumn to Ashes and Norma Jean their due. The spiritual forbear of this site, Finn McKenty, has talked about upstarts SeeYouSpaceCowboy and Wristmeetrazor embracing the scene aesthetic while simultaneously playing to crowds of people who, had they been around back then, would have spit in these bands’ faces and gone right back to fawning over Palatka and In Loving Memory or whatever. I myself name-checked the phenomenon in my coverage of Pattern Recognition, a fascinating and fucking bizarre record label (which, coincidentally, recently released one of my top five albums of the year so far, Die On Mars by the Callous Daoboys— a daring blend of Every Time I Die, Glassjaw, My Chemical Romance, and a fucking violinist).

All of this to say that, despite all of the Critical Reappraisal happening around bands who were considered teenybopper bullshit at the time (I wait with bated breath for the AV Club to release an oral history of Underøath’s They’re Only Chasing Safety for its 15th anniversary), there’s been a remarkable lack of attention given to the bands who transcended their underground roots and became VMA-level famous, despite those bands producing art just as worthy of critical engagement as the breakdowns and technical fireworks of their less pop-oriented brethren.

PART TWO: WHY YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO LIKE THEM

I’m as surprised as anyone else that I find myself wishing to give this crop of bands their due. Back in my halcyon days, I hid my affinity for the Warped Tour set like a dirty secret, beneath my obsession with the hardcore du jour such as Ceremony, Trash Talk, and Blacklisted, as well as a burgeoning involvement in the scenes that would soon become known as “emo revival” and “skramz.” And although I’ve outgrown my embarrassment and shame about many of these bands, one still lingers with an overbearing stench of “fake poser bullshit”: Panic! at the Disco.

I was considering a litany of bands to be the first entry of this series: Fall Out Boy; the Academy Is…; Senses Fail (I maintain that Still Searching is just as good as that other 2006 post-hardcore concept record about death); the Used; and of course, Paramore and My Chemical Romance, both of whom actually are kind of undergoing that Critical Reappraisal I was talking about earlier– or at least Paramore’s more recent work  and The Black Parade are. The latter is MCR’s entry into the “rock canon,” having long ago been deemed “safe” for the patrician set to like, and the former have morphed into Blondie-esque genre-bending artistes on par with Chvrches or Charli XCX. All of these bands will probably be given their time in the sun, but I wanted to start this series off with a band that even people who will cop to being fans of the aforementioned acts might pull back from.

And why shouldn’t they? By all rights, Panic! should be deemed inauthentic and without credibility. They were 17 year olds who had never played a note of music at a live show prior to being signed to a record label, and didn’t even know how to use a guitar tuner while recording their (Matt Squire-produced and given a budget of fucking $11,000– that’s in 2005 money!) debut album. They got radio and MTV play as well as a vaunted cover story from Rolling Stone pretty much immediately. Their frontman was unbearably pretty. Worst of all, they were well-off private school kids (Bishop Gorman, to be exact) from the wealthy Las Vegas community of Summerlin who dressed up in ostentatious outfits and engaged in the sort of over the top LiveJournal drama that would make even someone with the handle xXxTasteOfInk96xXx cringe.

They started off as Pete Wentz’s vanity project, kickstarting his Fueled By Ramen imprint, Decaydance, which would later play host to an array of acts including scene-adjacent fixtures Cute Is What We Aim For, the Academy Is…, and Cobra Starship, the booze-and-coke-fueled/Ke$ha-gone-Kiki-Kannibal party girls Millionaires, emo-trap upstart nothing,nowhere., and even NJHC legends Lifetime. That Panic! piqued the Fall Out Boy bassist/lyricist/mogul’s ears is not shocking– Ryan Ross’s extremely literate, wry-beyond-his-years lyrics are permeated with Wentz’s sensibilities, especially after Wentz gave them a few tweaks during the recording of Panic!’s debut, and Brendon Urie’s mellifluous warbling bears more than a passing similarity to the marble-mouthed trilling of Patrick Stump. Given that Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree was absolutely destroying the charts by the time Panic!’s debut came out, it seemed like a given that their sound, which so clearly rested within the same confines, would be quick to gain momentum as well.

So, they had shit more made Joel and Benji Madden’s clothing line. Why should we give a shit what these rich, preppy-ass, bandwagon-hopping, privileged little snots had to say about anything?

Well, it turns out that A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is fucking good. Like, really fucking good. Like, so good I can forgive all of the above, so good I can even forgive the fact that Panic! has metamorphosed (in much the same way as Fall Out Boy has, funnily enough) into an ugly mess of glitz-soaked and cynical pop, barely glued together by a mixture of mid-00s nostalgia and, loathe as I am to admit it, unbelievably virtuosic vocals. In fact, it’s so good, I can actually almost forget that I frequently listen to an album that shares fans with Twenty-One Pilots.

“Alright Ellie,” my imaginary readers are saying to themselves, “you’ve been jerking off about completely unrelated bullshit for 1,050 words at this point. Are you gonna talk about the music, or should I go back to calling Gerard Way fat on Facebook?”

PART THREE: WHY YOU LIKE THEM ANYWAY

First of all, I want to be clear: I literally do not listen to anything this band has ever done except for A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, at least not on purpose. I’ve heard good things about Pretty. Odd. (and admittedly, I do enjoy “Nine in the Afternoon”), but everything else I’ve had the displeasure of hearing from Panic! is genuinely atrocious. Of course, that’s just my personal opinion, I might be entirely wrong and will have to publicly recant this later, but I just want to make it clear that I will primarily be talking about Fever. Got it? Good.

Let’s talk about Las Vegas, Nevada. Not only because it informs much of the thematic and musical content of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, but also because my experience with Las Vegas kind of parallels my experience with this album. I used to be really averse to telling people that I was from Las Vegas. It’s not traditionally “cool.” It’s gaudy, bright, and gross, and it attracts the worst kinds of people. But the older I get, the more I realize I can’t give a fuck about that shit, and I have to be honest: Vegas is ultimately where I come from. I don’t think I’ll ever move back there, I find the culture of the city to be gauche, and I think it’s secretly a cesspool of oppression and violence, but I claim the city now, and that’s not something I can say of my younger self.

Something that’s never explicitly spelled out by the lyrics on Fever but is undeniably embedded within it is that growing up in Vegas desensitizes you to so much shit. Alcoholism? Well, everyone’s got an alcoholic within spitting distance of them. Drinking is never the stated goal of going out, but that’s because it’s implied alcohol will be abundant. Sexism? Well, when your formative years are spent getting bombarded with strip clubs and naked women on billboards on your way to school (I’m not joking– the Hustler strip club was literally on the side of the road, in unavoidable view, on the way to school from my several of my friends’ houses), as well as a pervasive culture of glorifying sex work while demonizing sex workers themselves, and you’ve got a pretty poisonous attitude brewing about women, sex, and what those things mean to young men. Drug addiction, misery, homelessness, constant violence, the entire economy relying on gambling and tourism, a truly corrupt police force (I have a few cops in my family, and one of them literally once told me “police brutality doesn’t exist”), the complete lack of a middle class (and the resultant class envy), and a general refusal to analyze or even acknowledge the wretched material conditions that pervade every Las Vegas community, from the poverty-stricken D Street to the ketamine-and-glitter-smeared Summerlin, all result in a hellscape where even the richest and most sheltered of kids are often pretty fucked up.

At least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for lyrics written by someone who skipped his high school graduation to go on tour that mock the naivety of “praying for love in a lap-dance” (“But It’s Better If You Do”), preemptively give the finger to webzine critics before their debut had even been released (“London Beckoned Songs About Money Made by Machines”), condemn the hypocrisy of organized religion (“I Constantly Thank God for Esteban”), detail the grotesque plot of Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters (“Time to Dance”), paint a bleak and gruesome portrait of prostitutes toiling in abuse and squalor (“Build God, Then We’ll Talk”), and painstakingly map out the brutality of living with an alcoholic father who’s always in and out of the hospital (“Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” and “Camisado”). In fact, the father in question ended up passing away while Panic! were on their 2006 summer tour, right before Ryan Ross turned 20.

So take that emotional volatility and intense intelligence, mix it with Brendon Urie’s desperation to break free from the religious constraints of his family’s Mormonism, and for good measure, sprinkle a dash of all the elaborate theatre-kid pretensions that the band eventually became known for, and all of the dramatics start to suddenly make sense, don’t they?

Musically, it’s hard to deny that the base of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out is by-the-numbers pop-punk that owes a lot to Fall Out Boy and New Found Glory’s straightforward, hardcore-infused rhythmic approach (“I Constantly Thank God for Esteban” even has a moment that kind of sounds like a pop version of Cave-In near the end). There’s certainly also dashes of emo proper and older indie rock (the band’s name is a reference to songs by both Name Taken and the Smiths). However (and thank Vegas for this one again), the album also toys often with both dance music (the first six proper songs) and baroque/show-tune instrumentation (everything after the intermission). I like to think that this is meant to reflect the disparity between the new-school dance clubs and the Rat Pack Vegas of old. This odd chemical mixture of influence also has to do with the fact that Panic! shared practice space with lots of post-hardcore, metalcore, and death metal bands, and quickly found themselves bored by the limitations of those sounds (I wouldn’t be shocked to hear that they shared practice space with the stultifying Escape the Fate– the two bands formed the same year).

The result of all these influences is a truly boundary-pushing record. I wasn’t expecting myself to say this about Panic! at the fucking Disco, of all bands, but at the same time I can’t deny that they were doing things that other bands would be copying for years to come. “Fall Out Boy rip-off” was one of the most common insults lobbed at Panic!, but by the time of Infinity On High it was clear that Fall Out Boy was taking lots of inspiration from Panic!’s electronic tinkering, and Folie a Deux‘s maturity can in part be linked to Panic! showing that it was possible to integrate strings and piano into emo-pop structures. It’s hard to imagine 3OH!3’s vocoder-drenched scene pop without “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” laying the groundwork, and even harder to imagine a version of later Paramore records that didn’t borrow from Panic!’s obvious eclecticism (a unique example of influence coming full circle– the band had selected Matt Squire as the producer for Fever based on his work on Paramore’s All We Know Is Failing). And of course, the first Cobra Starship album is a by-the-numbers carbon copy of the first half of A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out (Pete Wentz must have thought if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it). I mean, consider these examples in as negative a context as you want. My point is that A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out was, in several regards, new territory.

SIDENOTE: I AM SO SICK OF WRITING THE EXCLAMATION MARK IN THIS BAND’S NAME.

And the songs themselves? Do they hold up? The answer is “yes,” but with some obvious caveats. For example, Brendon Urie’s vocals were probably considered extremely polished by the standards of the scene at the time, but now that we know how good of a singer he truly is, some of his caterwauling on this record is borderline painful. “I Write Sins, Not Tragedies,” is a borderline unimpeachably good pop song, but Urie’s wailing during the bridge and the outro goes on for way too long and is kind of grating. There’s also the matter of how glossy this album sounds. Sure, everything is crisp and clear and comes through in the mix how it’s supposed to, but I would have loved some grit and heft in the guitar sound on occasion (the climax of “I Constantly Thank God for Esteban” and the guitar strikes during the intro of “Build God, Then We’ll Talk,” for example). Forward-thinking and lyrically capable as it may have been, “Nails for Breakfast, Tacks for Snacks” is a sonically disgusting track that has gone from being a mild annoyance to causing me to physically withdraw when it comes on. And although “There’s A Good Reason These Tables Are Numbered, Honey, You Just Haven’t Thought of It Yet” has an infectious jauntiness to it, it’s both lyrically and musically a bit too precious for me to take seriously, at worst sounding like an actual show tune rather than simply borrowing aspects of one.

These concerns are outweighed by the punchiness and exhilaration the rest of the record offers. I don’t mean to insult Ryan Ross’s lyrical prowess whatsoever (and several of the best moments on this record are so clearly him, from the extremely provincial Vegas references in “Build God, Then We’ll Talk” to the “Dear studio audience, I’ve an announcement to make” aside in “The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage”), but Wentz’s fingerprints are all over this record, for the better. “Press Coverage”‘s “so young, desperate for attention” refrain had to have been tweaked by him, and the song feels both more earnest and more snide and sarcastic because of it. Hell, the title of that song (an esoteric quote from Palahniuk’s Survivor) feels like a Fall Out Boy lyric itself. There’s so many great/borderline-aggravating lyric-vocal-interplay bits on this record, though: there’s that moment in “Lying Is the Most Fun A Girl Have Without Taking Her Clothes Off” that functions as both obnoxious and sly (“Did you really think I’d let you kill this chorus?”); there’s the “take the kid from the fight/take the fight from the kid” trick on “Camisado”; there’s the oblique criticism of their peers in “I Constantly Thank God for Esteban” with the “If this scene were a parish, you’d all be condemned” line; and there’s the too-clever-by-half Sound of Music interpolation in the bridge of “Build God.”

In many ways, “Build God, Then We’ll Talk” is the record’s masterpiece. A tale of an ill-fated attorney and virgin within the walls of a decaying motel on Fremont Street, the song haphazardly sways between borderline-ballad moments and freewheeling heaviness (well, relatively speaking), while constantly building tension and then sweeping the rug out from under the listener with the surprisingly subdued climax. It’s like a pop-punk version of what their Vegas peers in Curl Up and Die would accomplish that same year with their post-mathcore opus The One Above All, the End of All That Is.

And of course, special attention must be paid to “Time to Dance.” While it’s no longer my favorite song on the album, I do have to admit I still get super stoked when I hear that “I say shotgun, you say wedding” bit– delivered with the perfect amount of conviction and properly backed up by a swirl of keyboards and punchy pop-punk.

Although I’ve harped a lot on the high-end, studio-manufactured sound of the record, by no means do I want to take anything from the performances on this album. Drummer Spencer Smith doesn’t often get a chance to shine, regularly denied fills and restricted to light touches like the snare work on “Esteban”, but he’s got a great moment with the wicked, almost Dresden Dolls-esque bridge in “But It’s Better If You Do,” which is joined by a great, thickly-mixed walking bass line (performed by either Brendon Urie or Brent Walker, depending on who you ask and who’s more pissed off at the time). Ryan Ross and Urie kill all the guitar work as well– I’m sure there was more than a little bit of post-production done to make it sound smooth, but the guitar solo in “Esteban” and the extremely tight octave chords on “Time to Dance” shine so beautifully. The dance and baroque elements are both integrated pretty seamlessly, and although the transition between the two “sides” of the album is clumsy as hell (“Intermission” is thoroughly useless) it’s all carried through by theatre kids who knew how to properly commit to anything they tried. And of course, Urie, green as he may have been, is a legitimately stellar vocalist and the band would have so much less of a personality without his pipes.

At the end of the day, am I embarrassed by my love for A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out? Ultimately, probably not as much as I’m “supposed” to be. If you’re into immaculately constructed and performed pop songs with perhaps a touch of alternative edge, you won’t be disappointed by it. I can imagine kids who bump Billie Eilish listening to this record and realizing where a lot of those ideas came from. And although the kids in Panic! at the Disco probably lack any real hardcore roots, I can’t be alone in asserting that I truly don’t give a fuck when the music is this good.

 

A Review of Distant Relatives, the New Record from California Cousins

It’s been a while since I’ve found myself intrigued by newer “emo” bands. I mean, obviously I’ll never stop loving screamo or emotive hardcore, but the glut of derivative, boring twinkle bands that flood the touring circuit have left me feeling cold for a couple of years now. That being said, this year has provided me with several of my favorite releases in the genre since I first got into it so many moons ago. From Darkle to Origami Angel to awakebutstillinbed, it’s been an amazing year for ambitious, creative, and arresting emo/sparklepunk/twinkle/whatever records. Distant Relatives, California Cousins’ third release, and their first for rising DIY champion Chatterbot Records, is no exception.

When I first sat down to listen to this record, I found myself slightly put off by the beginning to the opener, “Aspirin.” It kind of seemed like the type of thing that had been bothering me in emo so much lately– pleasant, and melodic, but bland and passionless. However, a couple seconds in and I was proven immediately wrong. The drop hit me like a freight train, and I was stunned by the variety of styles being incorporated: on one hand, there are the sparkly lead guitar lines, vulnerable lyricism, and plaintive vocals we’ve come to expect from the scene; on the other, there are sharp shrieks reminiscent of, say, Jeromes Dream, in conjunction with stomping, on occasion complex rhythms straight from the playbook of bruising hardcore crews like Vicious Embrace and Inclination. The latter is not exactly a shocker, as the members of California Cousins have also spent time in the gnarly, short-lived but hard-hitting Knife Culture. Much of the record’s strength comes from the way that these two styles clash and mesh, often producing something beautiful yet simultaneously antagonistic.

When you think you’ve got California Cousins figured out, though, they pivot straight into the second track on the record, and one of my personal favorites, “Hold This Coupon.” I may not always be up to date on what the kids are saying these days, but I feel fairly confident in saying that this song fucks. It would be easy for California Cousins to stick to the style that they introduced on “Aspirin,” but “Hold This Coupon” boasts one of the most infectious vocal hooks of the year. It’s not massive– quite the opposite, in fact, the chorus is one of the smoothest and least rowdy moments in the song– but I’ve been unable to get it out of my head since the record’s release.

From there, the band jumps back into frenzied chaos on “7 Minute Freestyle,” before pulling back in the closing moments for an absolutely mesmerizing passage, with a gorgeous guitar melody complemented perfectly by the bouncy bass, as well as the drums, which remain both energetic and completely danceable throughout the record’s duration.

The lockstep in which these musicians play with each other is completely admirable. Having been around for a few years, California Cousins are slightly more experienced and adept at playing with each other than many of their contemporaries, and it shows whenever they delve into one of their signature grooves, such as the aforementioned “7 Minute Freestyle” as well as the face-smashing rhythmic break that immediately follows the frantic solo on “Brockport 1995” and the fucked-up quasi-breakdown during the halfway mark of the otherwise catchy and mellow late-album standout “Sand In Pockets.”

Of particular note is the production on this album, which is unique in that it buries the vocals a bit (not to the point of being inaudible, but enough to provide an air of mystery) in favor of the bass and guitar. The guitar tone on this record is absolutely fucking nasty, able to pivot from memorable twinkles to crushingly heavy riffs in an instant without making it seem like a drastic mood shift. The rhythm section is also captivating. As I already said, the drums are one of the record’s biggest strengths because of their eminent danceability in the face of some of the songwriting’s dynamic changes, but the bass is just as prominent as the guitar here, and for good reason. Lots of fans of this genre like to gush over the intricacies of the twinkly guitar bits, but the bass lines on this record are just as involved and catchy, often completely carrying parts of the song that would otherwise be less kinetic (providing the thrust and drive for future crowd-favorite “Extendo Weekend”) or just flat-out empty space (the distorted bass fill right before the payoff in “Sand In Pockets” is something to behold).

If this record has one slow moment, it may be the closer, “Camp Shorts,” a tidbit of an acoustic track followed by some sound collage-type stuff. It’s cute and lo-fi, but lacks the strength or ambition of songwriting and presentation that the rest of the album has in spades. It’s not really something to worry about though, since the track is so short (the album as a whole flies by in a quite brisk 26 minutes).

I am not in the least bit exaggerating when I say that California Cousins have played a big role in revitalizing my interest in sparklepunk/what-have-you this year, along with a select few others. Their sound is fleshed-out, exciting, and executed with tons of precision and heart, and I guarantee when they come down to my neck of the woods this October that I will tear the roof off the place. Check out Distant Relatives here and tell ’em Ellie sent ya.

A Review of the GHOST SPIRIT/FRAIL HANDS Split

As some of you may recall, West Coast legend/inventor of the word “skramz,” Alex Bigman, is back in the game after the dissolution of his classic and revered acts, Seeing Means More and Fight Fair. Aside from his more straightforwardly aggressive act, Tower of Silence, he is also in the screamo act Ghost Spirit, along with members of Lord Snow, Heritage Unit, and other skramz luminaries. Their first record, released on Will Swan’s (of Dance Gavin Dance fame) record label, Blue Swan, was one of my favorite screamo releases last year. A blend of raw early 90s emo, akin to Don Martin Three and Navio Forge, and early 2000s screamo, there was a lot of promise in their debut and I was excited to see how they would further cement their identity as a band with coming releases.

When they announced their split with Nova Scotia’s Frail Hands, I was doubly excited. Frail Hands are easily one of the most electrifying bands operating in screamo right now, a furious and gut-wrenching derivation of emoviolence with unreal drumming and some of the most frayed and unrelenting vocals in the game. Needless to say, putting legends like the skramz alumni in Ghost Spirit alongside the restless energy of the upstarts in Frail Hands would inspire both bands to push the boundaries of their songwriting past their already-stellar prior output.

With Ghost Spirit releasing the second single from this split LP yesterday, “Sick Dreams,” I thought it would be a perfect time to put my thoughts on this record into writing. Ghost Spirit takes the A-side, the aforementioned “Sick Dreams” being the first song on the record, and it immediately showcases their roots in both European screamo such as Daïtro as well as in bands of the American Midwest such as Sinking Steps…Rising Eyes and the Spirit of Versailles, the riffs full of expression, melody and emotionality while still matching the aggression of the vocal work.

Second song (and lead single), “The Guilt of Your Affection,” starts off in a far more gentle way, recalling the lighter moments of bands such as Raein and Suis La Lune, with a bit of a danceable edge a la After School Knife Fight. The music eventually crescendoes into a crunchier, distorted section, while still allowing Bigman to exercise a more gentle vocal range than what he showcases on the rest of the band’s side on the split.

Other particular highlights include the short-but-sweet “Skull,” which features an exhilarating moment of gang vocals (I’m always a sucker for gang vocals in screamo), as well as the A-side closer “In Parting,” a track which shows remarkable dynamic range and a particular skill in build-up. Throughout the entirety of the album, the drumming sticks out as the key force in the band’s sound, dictating each moment’s intensity and teasing out patterns and aggression in tasteful moderation. It would be tempting to completely show off during the more forceful moments of melodic hardcore, but drummer Taylor Jewell exercises restraint and it pays off beautifully, making tracks like the aforementioned “In Parting” feel like a master-class in build-and-release.

I would of course also be remiss not to mention Niko Zaglaras and Evan Henkel on guitar and bass, respectively. Their chemistry on these tracks is undeniable, and their fluid transitions during songs like “Dark Winter” make each moment feel seamless. Zaglaras in particular has an excellent grasp of tone and knows exactly how to make certain moments feel light, others oppressive, others melancholic. Meanwhile, Henkel’s skills shine equally bright whether they’re providing a thick backbone to each song or when the music quiets down and gives Henkel a moment to show off their subtle prowess, such as in the intro and outro of “A Hollow Peak.”

The Ghost Spirit side of this split is one of the most cohesive screamo releases of the year so far, packed with boundless enthusiasm as well as the artful, measured ear of pros who have become genuine experts in songwriting. The B-side also shows the maturation of Frail Hands, whose debut LP last year blew me away with its aggression and songcraft, firmly rooted in hardcore and yet desperate to push past those boundaries. Their side of the split here does not disappoint and proves that there is some truly interesting shit to come from this band yet.

“The Image of You” opens with a softer moment, along with some softer vocals, before segueing into some of the most brutal and chaotic screamo I’ve heard yet this year. Follow-up track “Mortar and Pestle” maintains the impressive momentum while simultaneously introducing some incredibly groovy riffs and showcasing yet more of the band’s insanely eclectic and compelling drumming.

In fact, one of the only potential flaws of Frail Hands’s side of the split is that, unlike Ghost Spirit’s side, it almost never relents. The atmosphere is unceasingly bleak and the music is heavy in the same way as a weighted blanket, practically suffocating you. Of course, I don’t think this is a flaw at all, so I’m all for it, and it also provides Frail Hands with a strong identity as one of the most unconscionably dark and sad bands working in an already dark and sad niche of hardcore. If you can stand up straight while facing the onslaught, you’ll be met with some of the most memorable riffs in screamo as well as potentially my favorite vocalists currently working in the scene. The songs get in, make their point, and then get the fuck out with reckless abandon, especially the swift banger “Collateral”, and songs like “Atonement” and the absolutely thunderous “In Conclusion” feel inescapable and cacophonous in the best possible way.

The closer, “Every Volatile Thing,” is my favorite song on this entire split. It moves through each segment of itself with an extreme effortlessness, and manages to feel heavy and visceral even when the guitar onslaught briefly stops for a bass-heavy, emotionally ravaged bridge. The punctuated, staccato guitars at the end of the song just absolutely ruin me; I must have listened to this track at least twenty times while trying to write this review.

Ghost Spirit and Frail Hands have put together one of the most essential splits in recent memory. If for nothing else, get your hands on this record for “Every Volatile Thing,” and stick around for what can only be described as a seminar on how to write a screamo split. Each band has a clear identity and point of view, and each band expresses those things with a deft hand and complete commitment. I have nothing but respect for this split, and it comes highly recommended— snag your preorder here.

BUFFALO WILD WINGS-CORE: A Chronology of Hardcore’s Symbiotic Relationship with Hard Rock

That amazing header image is a picture of Uniform Choice in the early 90s, which Carlos of Black Army Jacket wisely used in his article on the dreadful trend of 80s hardcore bands ripping off Aerosmith.

As you are reading this, East Coast metallic hardcore outfit Vein have dropped their first full-length LP for Closed Casket Activities, Errorzone. Whereas on previous releases they could sit comfortably alongside their peers in Typecaste and Jukai, playing ugly, fucked-up and pulsating hardcore that recalls late 90s bands like Coalesce, on this record they seem to be drawing from a much different template: Slipknot. One of my friends who has listened to their new material has likened it to a “more creative Emmure.” Unlike most people, I actually really like Emmure, and so the new Vein songs that have flexed more melodic muscles, such as “Doomtech,” really appeal to me. However, this begs the question: when did hardcore start taking such blatant cues from mainstream hard rock outfits? If you’ve read this blog before, chances are you already know that the answer is “fucking forever.” Let’s dive in.

The original basis for hardcore bands ripping off mainstream hard rock is probably Boston outfits from the 80s, like straight-edge militants SSD and DYS, and decidedly non-straight-edge folks like Gang Green. The members of these bands have been open about taking influence from bands like AC/DC, so this shouldn’t come as much of a shock. The only real surprise I get from going back and taking another listen to these records is how objectively fucking wretched they are. This song is five and a half minutes long. These bands are not good enough at their instruments to justify that. When they were playing one-to-two-minute bursts of immature, violent hardcore, it was thrilling because of how peppy and energetic they were. This is like two steps up from Old Skull. Uniform Choice, the FU’s, and Warzone were also all guilty of committing similar sins against recorded music.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the very tail-end of Black Flag’s initial run as a band. This song still isn’t very good, but at least they can write a goddamn hook. You can definitely tell that Black Flag jammed mid-era Black Sabbath and ZZ Top in the tour van. Also, say what you will about what an awful, paranoid, cheap bastard Greg Ginn is, but in the 80s, the man truly did have a knack for interesting, atonal, free-jazz-influenced guitar work, and that lends the solo in this song an original, bracing quality.

Into Another were a really interesting band that had members of youth crew groups like Youth of Today and Bold, but this sounds nothing like those (thankfully, because I fucking hate Bold). Instead this band has some Alice In Chains-esque stop-start rhythms and downright virtuosic guitar work. The vocals take a hot minute to get into, but once they click, it’s possible to acknowledge that they wrote some of the most inventive and catchy post-hardcore/hard rock records of the era, especially this one and Ignaurus.

The grunge bands of the late 80s and early 90s took liberal influence from both hard rock and hardcore punk (never forget that Nirvana wrote a song called “Aero Zeppelin”), which helped open the floodgates for more bands that were more openly associated with hardcore to eke their way into the mainstream. Of these, the most popular and influential was probably Helmet, but the best was easily Quicksand. I’m a huge sucker for pretty much anything Walt Schreifels has been involved in, but the tight grooves and acidic vocal hooks of Quicksand are the closest he’s ever gotten to something that could garner legitimate radio play (which this song did get!) Obviously, there are some clear precedents to their sound, like early Shudder to Think and Jawbox, but Quicksand definitely expanded on and perfected that template.

Shift were a pretty unique band that sprouted out of the same scene and trend as Quicksand (one of their members was also in essential PNW hardcore band Undertow, and their drummer played in both Hole and fucking Motley Crue). They always jumped out as having really, really sophisticated and strong songwriting and they could have easily gone on tour with, like, Pearl Jam or something. Their second record was kind of a clunker, but this album has just banger after banger after banger (I’m a particular fan of the acoustic-to-electric slow-burner “Dress-Up”). It’s a real shame that this record was never on Morning Zoo Crew rotation at my local hard rock station.

Helmet and Quicksand inspired plenty of hardcore bands to break up and become alt-rocky post-hardcore in their day, including this band, which featured alumni of both Helmet and Quicksand as well as Cro-Mags and Jets to Brazil. The songwriting and production on this album are crisp and polished as fuck and this band could have been a bonafide crossover phenomenon, like a more concise and pummeling version of Hum or Far. This record boasts some really massive hooks and excellent songs like “Needles” and “Eden Complex.” It’s also painfully under-recognized today and I urge anyone to check it out. See also: Chavez, who were a bit more math-rock, but also had plenty of polish and groove and are woefully under-looked nowadays (or maybe they’re not, I don’t know, I’m old and out of touch).

To this point, most of the bands I’ve mentioned have fallen more into the realm of alt-rocky post-hardcore, but Vision of Disorder is probably the first band that I’m aware of to incorporate straight-up Alice In Chains vocals into really fucking heavy, metallic hardcore. They were signed to Roadrunner for a while and released some spectacular records (you should peep some of their late-period material like “Southbound” and “Living to Die,” which is achingly desperate and well-constructed straightforward hard rock) but never regained the steam they had with this self-titled record. It’s a shame, because they scratched a particular itch I had for hooky-but-heavy music drenched with painful and palpable regret. One of the most unique things about this record in particular is the bouncy nu-metal influence, which is cool because I always heard a little bit of Korn in the riffs of hardcore bands like Disembodied and it was neat to see a band that owned that influence in such an open way. The folks in this band went on to more mainstream pastures in Bloodsimple but VOD finally got back together a few years ago and released some solid albums.

Life of Agony were never quite a hardcore band, and drew more from groove metal and later on alt rock (on Ugly and beyond), but you can still hear some vestigial influence on this record. As far as I know, they’re still pretty revered, which is good because Mina is a stellar vocalist and the band has always had a knack for making unbearably depressing songs that resolutely rock the fuck out (and when I say unbearably depressing, I mean it– this record ends with the sound of a slit wrist dripping into the sink).

It’s a shame that Linkin Park is only now getting proper critical reappraisal after the tragic death of Chester Bennington, but it’s finally socially acceptable to say that the breakdown in this song breaks bricks. Like I said, I think that hardcore and nu metal had a somewhat symbiotic relationship in the riff-writing in the late 90s (something that comes through most strongly on songs like Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”), but it was still extremely validating, if unsurprising, to see Mike Shinoda name-drop bands like Botch, At the Drive-In, Refused, Gorilla Biscuits, and Inside Out as influences on Linkin Park’s sound.

No Warning ascended into the realm of hardcore royalty with their spectacular debut LP Ill Blood, but the hardcore scene collectively shunned them when they released Suffer, Survive, perhaps the first hardcore record to take influence from Linkin Park. It seemed to me that their reunion record got similarly tepid reception, which is understandable, because it was a warmed-over attempt to unite the sounds of Ill Blood and Suffer, Survive. I would have been happy if they kept the sound of this record, because some of these hooks are goddamn entertaining! The groove drop at 2:50 in this song is fantastic, and the scene did a massive injustice to this band by turning their backs on them. Joke’s on us, though, because Vein is about to become one of the biggest bands in hardcore by copying this template with better production and more breakdowns.

It is I, Ellie, the world’s biggest Eighteen Visions fan, and I’m here to proclaim that Obsession is non-ironically the best Eighteen Visions record. To this point, this was the absolute furthest that a hardcore band had pushed the Buffalo Wild Wings sound before they just became part of that world entirely. I’m not as big on the self-titled album, which tread a little too far into UFC bro territory for my taste (and also didn’t have any breakdowns, like the greatest-of-all-time banger that is this album’s “Tower of Snakes”), but the reunion record that 18V put out last year was a slick fusion of the Ink era with the Obsession era. Also, I have to hand it to James for being able to put together Scott Weiland-quality vocal hooks here without becoming a complete and total yarling monster. I would definitely argue that it was because of the self-titled 18V record and the post-VOD band Bloodsimple totally bombing in the mainstream that hardcore as a whole began to pull back from this sound, which is why there’s such a huge gap in it from here until the 2010s.

If there is a band that was responsible for holding down the fort of hard rock influence in their gnarly-ass hardcore, it’s definitely Cold World. This band is pretty well-regarded but I never see anyone talk about how advanced they are. Their union of heavy-ass fight riffs with wailing hard rock vocal hooks is unparalleled, and they are definitely one of the only bands that manages to bring in hip-hop influence without it becoming completely contrived and cringe-worthy (I suppose it’s worth talking about Downset in that context, but they’re really a completely separate conversation).

The band that was mostly responsible for ushering blatant hard rock influence back into hardcore was Twitching Tongues. This song turns the riff from “Bad to the Bone” into a breakdown on this song, for chrissakes. But they definitely reintroduced the concept of mostly-clean vocals, and they also brought some straight-up boogie riffs to the table. They started jocking Type O Negative and Life of Agony’s steez much more on their next few records, and their most recent one is kind of a disaster, but there was definitely a time when Twitching Tongues made it somewhat cool for hardcore kids to admit that they had a soft spot for Bob Seger.

I know, I know, Balance & Composure are a pop-punk band, but if you were in the hardcore scene circa 2010-2013, then you remember that it was definitely a common trend to admit a “guilty pleasure” admiration for certain pop-punk bands of the day, like Fireworks. Balance & Composure were probably one of the earliest bands to bring that soft-grunge influence into their post-hardcore-oriented pop-punk, and they’re totally the reason that Citizen was able to write Youth as well as why Title Fight (another hardcore-approved pop-punk band) decided to become a Filter cover band on Floral Green and Hyperview.

The first time I heard this song, I was like, “Oh, shit, so it’s finally cool to admit that we like the albums Metallica put out after …And Justice for All.” The last two Cruel Hand records are a refreshing mixture of hard rock choruses, thrash metal riffs, and raw-nerved hardcore, and that’s driven home by the fact that they can all play their instruments really well. The solo in this song is a good example of that, but my personal favorite Cruel Hand jawn is probably the regretcore anthem, “Too Far from That,” which I unfortunately cannot find on YouTube.

The post-Trapped Under Ice bands Turnstile and Angel Du$t are maybe kind of corny, but both have done an able job of incorporating catchy-ass riffs into their functional, efficient hardcore. Turnstile go the extra mile and throw in some funk influence (via Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rage Against the Machine), which adds an extra kick of danceability to tracks like this, and they just sit in your fucking gut like lead. Sure, they’re kind of copping the steez of bands like Token Entry and Dog Eat Dog, but at least they aren’t latter-day Leeway, which was and should remain an extreme embarrassment to everyone involved.

Now, I realize that Code Orange have become quite the punching bag in recent years (“FROM THE BASEMENT TO THE GRAMMYS”), but hear me out: this song sounds like if Deftones were a hardcore band, and it’s fucking great. If every song on their next record sounds like this one and “Bleeding In the Blur,” I’ll be stoked. Code Orange have absolutely demonstrated a talent for crafting incredibly catchy tracks without sacrificing any of their innate heaviness. Sure, Jami is an asshole nowadays, but not everyone can be Jesse Price and continue to be an insanely nice, approachable person while their bands are blowing up.

Which finally brings us to Vein, and their ability to fuse skronky, bracing mathcore with the accessibility and groove of Slipknot. This song is my favorite from Errorzone, based mostly on the rousing clean vocals in the last minute or so of the song. The sound of their up-and-coming peers like Inclination, Sanction, and Buried Dreams is heavily based in writing irresponsibly heavy riffs, but perhaps Vein are paving the way for a complete and total hard rock/nu metal revival in the hardcore scene? It’s already happened several times over in the mainstream metalcore scene (see: bands like Emmure, dangerkids, Of Mice & Men…), so perhaps with the backing of a total hypecore band like Vein, this sound can gain some legitimacy and traction in the DIY circuit. I’d also like to point out bands like Cast In Blood, who are bringing back the clean-vocal-laden sound of bands like Bullet for My Valentine with a DIY-friendly layer of lo-fi production and spitfire performances. Will the new thing in hardcore be accessibility? As much as I like complete ass-kicking fight riffs, I’m okay with a little desperate, regret-filled singing in my hardcore. I’m pretty excited to see what a new wave of kids copycatting Vein would sound like.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to predict what kind of trends hardcore kids will cling on to. It’s an extremely cyclical scene, and the cycle seems to be speeding up every day; bands like Every Time I Die were cool to hate on as recently as 2012, but their most recent records have been in the rotation of every kid with a God’s Hate hoodie, so to say that the tastes of the scene are fickle is an understatement. However, I feel confident in saying that with the distance time has allowed us in between now and the days of hard rock and nu metal past, it’s finally becoming acceptable to admit that you want your band to be catchy. Here’s hoping we get some damn good songs out of it.

Ellie is begging you to follow her on Twitter, like her page on Facebook, and ask her questions on her Tumblr. While you’re at it, consider listening to her bimonthly podcast for /r/emo, the E Word. She’s moving to Texas in less than three weeks and your validation means more to her than your money.

A Review of the New Darkle EP, Pain Train

At one point, this blog was supposed to be something that updated at least semi-regularly. Believe it or not, I was actually planning on writing a new long-form piece at least once a week. It quickly became apparent that my life was simply not going to allow that to happen. If you’re wondering what’s been going on with my life and why this blog has been dead for so long, I’ve been struggling a lot with mental health and personal relationships, I came out as trans to my family and friends, I joined a podcast, and I’m moving from Las Vegas, NV to Austin, TX in three weeks to restart my life. I truly do promise that from now on I will make a legitimate effort to update this blog more regularly, and to all the people who have sent me reader mail that I have either not responded to or not incorporated into a blog post, I apologize from the absolute bottom of my heart. All your feedback means so, so much to me, more than you could ever know, and I’m so sorry for dropping the ball on my end. Maybe one day I’ll actually get around to that Reader Mail post.

Anyway, this post isn’t about me. It’s about how the new EP from my good friends in Darkle is so fucking good that it actually dragged this dead blog out of retirement.

Darkle is a sparklepunk (or, as they would say, darklepunk) band from the Chicago suburbs (specifically, New Lenox). I’ve written about them before and have interviewed the vocalist, Matt, on at least three separate occasions. Their most definitive characteristic prior to this record was their cleverly-arranged guitar riffs and Matt’s distinctive vocal hooks. If you’ve never listened to them before, I suggest listening to their songs “Millennial Trash” and “Clonazejam!” to get a sense of the slight jump in style that Darkle have executed here.

The first thing anyone should notice about Pain Train, if they’ve been previously aware of Darkle’s work, is that this record sounds amazing. The production is incredibly crisp and clear, as opposed to their previous record, Birds, Bees, and Sweaty Palms, which could at times sound tinny and inaccessible. Pain Train sounds both clean and warm, allowing the listener to hear the intricacies of the performances without sounding over-processed or too slick. In particular, the rhythm section, Dean on drums and Chris on bass, pop far more than they ever have before, allowing their dynamic and tightly-woven work to be heard. This in particular shows on “Chillantro,” one of the most diverse and immaculately-constructed songs on the EP, and one which would not work if the band weren’t perfectly in sync with each other.

It took Darkle somewhere in the neighborhood of eight months to get from the beginning to the end of writing, recording, and releasing this EP, and it shows, as not only does the record sound great from a production standpoint, the songwriting itself is at the most polished Darkle has ever been. They criss-cross genres with fluidity and confidence, easily creating a varied and complex listening experience. Particular standout moments in this regard include the burst of screamo in “Edward Manghetti & the Western Spaghetti,” the saxophone-laden post-rock build in “Chillantro,” and the intricate breakdown at the end of what might be Darkle’s best song, “Loser POV.”

I want to take a special moment to highlight “Loser POV,” which represents a huge leap forward for Darkle. The vocal hooks are less prominent on this EP and are replaced by atmosphere and a more progressive sense of song structure, and nowhere is that more apparent than on “Loser POV,” a song that seems to toss to and fro, teasing out tension and building intensity before scaling itself back. The guitar work on this track is especially commendable, as the climax of the song is pure, off-kilter math rock and it absolutely wouldn’t work if Andrew didn’t slide in and out of the complex riff with extreme grace and conviction.

Also of special note on this record are the vocals, which show lead vocalist Matt pushing themself past what they’ve demonstrated on previous Darkle releases. The emotional climax of the album, closer “I Refuse to Sparkle,” is a piano piece with string accompaniment that drips with sincerity due to Matt’s vocal performance, hitting the high register with passion and ease. Elsewhere on the album, Matt’s vocals are equally powerful, whether they be harmonizing on the eerie opener “Nothing Like A Good Feeling” or belting out screamo influence on “Edward Manghetti” and “Loser POV.”

And of course, this EP would feel a lot more hollow if it weren’t for Darkle’s pals coming in to help on select occasions, such as the aforementioned sax and strings on “Chillantro” and “I Refuse,” as well as Kathy P. of Girl K contributing her unique style of vocals to those songs.

Overall, this EP is splendid, and it makes me incredibly excited to see how much further Darkle will develop. Along with bands like Commander Salamander and Origami Angel, Darkle are some of the most intriguing and clever new songwriters working in the genre today, and if you feel burnt-out on emo or sparklepunk or whatever you wanna call it, I recommend giving this record a spin. It just might rejuvenate your interest in the music the way it did mine in the blog. Check it out below.

Follow me on Twitter, like me on Facebook, and ask me questions on Tumblr. I promise one day my update schedule will be regular. 

The Secret History of Deathcore

Full credit to MetalMonsterDSN on DeviantArt for this header image, which I blatantly stole from Google Image Search.

One of the most baffling things about the fact that we are almost finished with 2017 is that deathcore, previously thought to be completely dead and irrelevant, is suddenly becoming kind of cool to be into again. I would have never thought that Kids These Days would still be getting hyped about the new Thy Art Is Murder record but they put out Dear Desolation earlier this year and not only do people somehow actually give a shit, but they are also somewhat respected by the same metal nerds that refused to accept them just a scant few years ago.

It appears to me, though, that most deathcore bands who still have modern Scene Currency™ (in the “getting reblogged on Tumblr” sense, not the “jocked by losers in Facebook skramz groups” sense) are those bands who have kept the things fans liked about them in the first place while also adding in new, minor tweaks in order to directly appeal to modern audiences. For example, the latest Veil of Maya record, which alternates nose-breakingly heavy pick scrapes and rhythm changes with clean vocals that most closely evoke mid-period Vision of Disorder. See also: the new Emmure album, which combines Frankie Palmieri’s Fred Durst fetish with the mosh chops of his new band members, formerly of Glass Cloud and the Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza, to create an album that sounds like Disembodied and Mudvayne had a torrid affair and gave birth to this record outside a Nautica outlet.

Do you see where I’m going with this? The most successful modern deathcore is that which takes elements of the past and vomits it out in a way that seems fresh. All this has gotten me thinking– how the fuck did deathcore even come about? It’s kind of an anomaly, in that unlike metalcore and scenecore, it has no clearly visible precursors in or traceable influences from the DIY hardcore scene that came before it. But that doesn’t mean those influences don’t exist; it just means no one has attempted to delineate them before. With that in mind, let’s begin an amazing journey, from the detritus-strewn battlefield of the 90s DIY hardcore scene all the way to the innovation happening within the genre today. Join me, friends, as this post becomes my moshterpiece.

PHASE ONE: THE 90s AND PROTO-DEATHCORE

I find this section to be the most interesting, personally, because most people think of deathcore as an exclusively post-2000 phenomenon. This could not be further from the truth; while the genre wasn’t fully codified until then, there are a ton of bands from the 90s that were combining death metal with hardcore in previously unprecedented ways and laying the groundwork for what we consider to be modern deathcore. Of course, none of these bands were consciously part of a movement within the genre; it was more of a disparate group of acts who were doing whatever unique things they could with what they had, and inadvertently formed the nucleus of today’s deathcore. I’d wager to guess that literally zero percent of today’s deathcore fans or bands are really aware of any of these artists, but they formed the blueprint from which many of them draw.

I know what you’re thinking: “But, Ellie, Assück are clearly a deathgrind band! Are you just going to be talking about bands like Phobia that everyone already knows about?” Well, cool your jets, smartass, there’s a good reason Assück is first on this list. While, yes, they did play deathgrind, which although a big stylistic influence on deathcore, is a fairly well-known one, Assück were unique in that they played a shitload of hardcore and emo fests, and therefore exposed a lot more hardcore kids to death metal much more efficiently than a band like, say, Terrorizer, who were playing to a much more metal and grind-exclusive audience. Sure, there were bands like Excruciating Terror and Iabhorher, who played a lot of LA house parties, and sludge/doom-indebted bands like Dystopia who were related to hardcore via their members being tagger-affiliated, but if you think anyone outside of a couple pockets of the West Coast gave a shit about those groups, you’re sorely misinformed. Assück were vastly more popular than those bands and achieved a wide amount of notoriety within a swathe of diverse scenes. It’s probably safe to say that without Assück bands like Cattle Decapitation wouldn’t exist.

Many people point to Suffocation as the true “inventors” of deathcore, via playing incredibly brutal death metal with occasional grooves that paid homage to NYHC, but in my opinion Suffocation were always a bit too jazz-influenced and Frank’s vocals were too low and “legit metal” to qualify as the progenitors. Instead, I’d like to point to this EP by fellow NYDM pioneers, Pyrexia. While there were other NYDM bands of the same era who had groovy riffs (Internal Bleeding springs to mind), Pyrexia brought the mosh in a much more sophisticated way, combining early 90s death metal-inflected shredding with straight-up breakdowns in a way that had never really been done before. Also, peep those vocals– definitely an influence on hardcore frontmen like Jamey Jasta and Scott Vogel, and the double-tracked wail at 1:48 sounds like it could have come straight off a Suicide Silence song.

As far as powerviolence goes, you don’t get much more brutal and negative than Despise You, except maybe No Comment’s Downsided 7″. In any case, that is a god-tier “BLEH!” at the beginning and then the straight-up death metal riff that follows is absolutely next-level for a hardcore band at the time. This was right before the sea change in powerviolence from SoCal to NorCal– the SoCal dudes were gritty, fucked up meth addicts and losers, and I feel like they owe a lot more debt to metal than the more punky powerviolence that was to come (see late-period Spazz).

In my opinion, bands like Bloodlet and Integrity, despite being referred to as “deathcore” at the time by zines, were less influenced by the musical aspects of death metal than they were by the bleak and oppressive atmosphere of it. This song, for example, is all hardcore groove and aggression with little-to-no death metal influence to be found. These bands were more about coming off as “evil.” However, I guarantee you that bands who came later took massive amounts of influence from these groups and for that they deserve to be given a bit of a shout-out.

Though Starkweather were the first metalcore band to incorporate clean vocals (as early as 1991!), Reno’s Fall Silent did it with more swagger and with more death metal influences. As Sergeant D points out in this article, Fall Silent thank Alex Marquez, of old-school death metal bands such as Resurrection and Malevolent Creation, for inspiration. That is a little unfortunate, since Malevolent Creation’s vocalist is, you know, a virulent racist and homophobe, but before the Internet (and before the 1998 album where Malevolent Creation dropped the n-word), I think this fact was a lot less well-known, and since I live in Nevada and have chatted with the members of Fall Silent and was told point-blank that they were unaware of that fact at the time, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Also, if you aren’t listening to this band, you’re truly fucking up.

Morning Again were dancey as all get-out, and there are several moments on this record in particular where they break from straightforward hardcore and delve into deathrash guitar work, most notably the groove at 0:36 here. For 1996, this is absurdly advanced.

I can’t find the exact Abnegation recordings I’m looking for on YouTube (specifically their 1996 split with Chapter), but this song works fine as well. This is basically primordial deathcore– the pick squeals, the insanely brutal breakdowns, the Morbid Angel-esque guitar work at around 1:30— and if it weren’t for the hissy, awful recording quality and more traditionally “hardcore” vocals, I could see this being on a split with, say, Glass Casket circa 2003.

Although musically this hews closer to the melodeathcore that was soon to be absolutely dominating the New England scene a la Darkest Hour and Shadows Fall– in other words, the face of straightforward metalcore throughout the early-mid 2000s– Catharsis were probably the first hardcore band to blatantly rip off At the Gates, and for that they deserve recognition in the pantheon of “deathcore pioneers.” Bands like Walls of Jericho, Undying and the pre-Between the Buried and Me band Prayer for Cleansing are pretty much ripping off this record wholesale, and I cannot think of a more succinct way of explaining deathcore than “hardcore kids ripping off death metal.”

That same year, Day of Suffering beat Catharsis at their own game by being perhaps the first ever hardcore band to copy brutal death metal. I mean, fuck, they’re named after a Morbid Angel song, and that bit at 1:40 sounds like it could have come straight out of a fucking Cannibal Corpse song. Apparently after this album they started to go into a more black metal-influenced direction, which, had they released an album of that material, would have been so far ahead of its time that it would have caused DIY hardcore to collapse in on itself. There had been other hardcore bands that had raised the bar for heaviness to an absurd degree, like Racetraitor and Killtheslavemaster, but literally none could match the pure fury that Day of Suffering were spitting here.

While we’re on the subject of hardcore bands copying black metal, any post on bands that pioneered deathcore would be completely pointless if it didn’t bring up the first two Underoath albums, which are absolute masterpieces of blackened deathcore while the members of Abigail Williams were still in diapers. It even features a hardcore band attempting to go full metal with the vocals, and while it’s a little dated and laughable now, I’m sure it sounded fucking insane the first time people heard this album. I think the only other hardcore band to so successfully rip off Dissection was Eighteen Visions on “Prelude to an Epic.”

Christian bands were really fucking ahead of the curve, weren’t they? This album came out in 1998 and is, as far as I can tell, the earliest example of contemporary deathcore. I would be absolutely shocked if the members of Suicide Silence or Whitechapel heard that bit at 1:30 and didn’t hang their heads in shame when they realized they were essentially stealing all of their ideas from this band.

Of course, many of the heaviest bands of the late 90s were to be found in the Showcase and Chain Reaction scene. Eighteen Visions’ Yesterday Is Time Killed and Until the Ink Runs Out LPs are unprecedentedly heavy, and no other band besides perhaps Bleeding Through and Atreyu were as much of an influence on deathcore’s later fashion sense. I and many others have talked to death about how very influential this band was, so I won’t say too much, but if you deny that they were on some next-level shit, you’re fucking deluded.

Adamantium were also absurdly ahead of their time, perhaps second only to Eighteen Visions. While their compatriots in Throwdown were basically investing in payoff riff after payoff riff without paying much care to strong songwriting until much later in their run, Adamantium strung together songs with impeccable structure and hooks without sacrificing any of their brutality. I’ve spoken a lot about deathcore poster boys Suicide Silence in this article already, but Mitch Lucker specifically cited Adamantium as an early influence on them, and if you compare that part at 2:00 here to, say, “No Pity for a Coward,” it’s pretty clear and undeniable.

As opposed to the vast majority of these bands, Disembodied are fairly well-remembered nowadays due to bands like Code Orange and Knocked Loose essentially ripping them off wholesale. This is very odd because anyone who went to shows back then can confirm that there were at most 15-25 people in attendance for Disembodied. I am positive that those people can also confirm how much Disembodied fucking ripped. 2:07 features potentially the earliest example of the tremolo-picked breakdown, and it still brings the fucking house down to this day. No 90s band was as heavy as Disembodied, period, and anyone who says otherwise is a fool. Disembodied are also, I believe, the only band on this list that had a woman in it, which is unfortunate. Commenters, help me out! Are there any other absurdly heavy, pioneering deathcore bands with women in them?

Though I was debating even including Human Remains on this list because of how unapologetically death metal they were, I think they were one of the most creative metal bands of the 90s. They played an absolutely demented mixture of death metal and hardcore that, in the long run, I think was more of an influence on mathcore than anything else (listen to that bit at 1:15 and tell me that the Dillinger Escape Plan would have existed without it– this was all the way back in 1995, which is unbelievable), which I think can largely be attributed to the maniacal genius of Dave Witte on drums, also of Discordance Axis and Burnt by the Sun, among many others. In the end I decided they were worth including on here because of the large DNA crossover of early 2000s deathcore and early 2000s mathcore (see: Ion Dissonance and the Red Chord).

I suppose if I bring up Human Remains it’s worth giving a shout-out to the pre-Dillinger Escape Plan band Canephora, too, who were more rooted in hardcore but also took an impressive amount of influence from technical death metal.

I wanted to finish off this part of early deathcore history by shouting out early Hatebreed. It’s no secret that many of their most brutal moments are basically copycatted directly from the Obituary playbook– Jamey Jasta has said as much– and I think because of their immense popularity, many of those early-mid 2000s deathcore kids were first exposed to heavily death metal-indebted hardcore by the first few Hatebreed records. Obviously Hatebreed themselves are more of a moshcore band than anything else, but there’s enough death metal in their blood that I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous to slot them here.

PHASE TWO: DEATHCORE PROPER

As I brought up earlier, there was a good amount of crossover between what we now recognize as early deathcore and the early 2000s mathcore scene. Ion Dissonance, The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza, and the Red Chord in particular are bands that I could comfortably place in either of those categories without much fuss. If I had to wager a guess, I would say that this is because of the immense influence grind had on both of these genres. Of course, it’s easy in retrospect to see how Daughters and Despised Icon were going in completely different directions, but it’s also easy to see how much crossover appeal those bands had with each other. If there’s one major difference that leaps out at me, it’s that the mathcore bands were much more heavily devoted to DIY hardcore (probably due to their vestigial sass influence), and the bands that became known as deathcore originators were much more comfortable playing to macho metal audiences (side note, how fucking hilarious is it that the vocalist of the Red Chord is a cop?).

At this point, just about everyone is familiar with the Holy Trinity of early deathcore– Despised Icon, the Red Chord, and Ion Dissonance– but it seems that it’s only now people are starting to give a shit about Glass Casket. This sounds completely at home with moshcore bands like On Broken Wings, but definitely has a technical, death-influenced edge that puts them squarely into deathcore territory. The members of Glass Casket have a very interesting pedigree, however, going on to bands like the Faceless and Between the Buried and Me, both of which are emblematic of the cultural shift that deathcore was soon to go through, as it became more and more acceptable for “real” metal fans to listen to those technically demanding bands now that they weren’t playing “bullshit for hardcore kids to ninja-dance to.”

Speaking of Between the Buried and Me, I think it’s criminal that they are overlooked as the early deathcore veterans they are. While both they and the Black Dahlia Murder have now transcended the -core label and are fully integrated into the “trve” metal scene, 0:50 in this song is a prime example of early deathcore, as my good friend Loren pointed out to me recently. Absurdly brutal breakdowns as well as a laughable attempt at low death metal vocals– NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL EARLY DEATHCORE!

Good fucking god this is a heavy-ass album for 2002. A Life Once Lost and It Dies Today were the first bands that were doing the whole “songs that are insanely heavy breakdowns from beginning to end” thing, and they deserve credit for that, but the Acacia Strain came out with this record and unequivocally blew them the fuck away by finding the unspeakably heavy “brown note” that all deathcore from then on was rooted in. Major props to the Acacia Strain for continuing to be relevant in three full generations of deathcore (via 2010’s Wormwood, which was probably the heaviest record ever made at that point, and their most recent output, which is still fucking stellar). They also get points for coming up in the DIY hardcore scene as well as still considering themselves a hardcore band, while their deathcore brethren have mostly kept to considering themselves “metal bands.”

The Acacia Strain found the brown note, but Emmure arguably perfected it, and fused the bro-y, beatdown sound of Throwdown and Hatebreed with the aforementioned brown note as well as nu metal to create the insanely advanced 2004 demo linked above. I might be the only person I know who is an unapologetic fan of most of Emmure’s work (outside of their lyrics), and shit like this is why– people used to shit on Disembodied for kind of sounding like Korn, and then ten years later here comes Emmure playing heavy-ass hardcore that owes as much to Limp Bizkit as it does to Adamantium, and it is resolutely S-rank shit.

Job for a Cowboy are arguably the reason that metal nerds hated deathcore so much to begin with. This EP came out in 2005 and its mixture of brutal death, breakdowns, and hooky songwriting somehow coalesced into a perfect storm that resulted in deathcore becoming the sound du jour for MySpace kids. It doesn’t hurt that Job for a Cowboy also represents the complete abandonment of DIY hardcore by deathcore bands. In many ways, Doom is the apex of all of deathcore’s disparate cultural influences– sassy scene aesthetic, br00tal breakdowns, deathgrind, emerging Internet culture– and at the time, it all worked perfectly. I guarantee every deathcore kid loved the video for “Entombment of a Machine,” and it’s one of the earliest examples of a heavy music meme on the Internet (along with Waking the Cadaver’s legendary “I like shredded wheat”). Job for a Cowboy also came from the fucking desolate Southwest, which in the ensuing years became the hub for generic deathcore. For one more thing that made Job for a Cowboy such an essential influence on modern deathcore, by 2007 they completely abandoned the genre and went “full death metal” in order to appeal to metal nerds, and it fucking worked (much to the detriment of their overall popularity, though). If you want to know why deathcore is actually considered a viable genre to metal nerds today, Job for a Cowboy is why.

So here is Bring Me the Horizon’s one true deathcore album, before they fully embraced their melodic metalcore influences in Skycamefalling and Poison the Well for Suicide Season, and before they became a solid Linkin Park cover band. I have to admit that despite enjoying almost all of Bring Me the Horizon’s work, I’m not too stoked on this album, outside of a few bangers like, obviously, “Pray for Plagues.” However, one can’t deny that Oli Sykes was, for his time, the prettiest scene boy on the planet, and pretty much cemented deathcore’s transition from a niche thing that also appealed to the weirdos who were into white belt scene grind (Arsonists Get All the Girls, See You Next Tuesday, iwrestledabearonce) into a household phenomenon.

This record is so fucking pissed off. If Bring Me the Horizon made deathcore a household thing, Suicide Silence created a generation of kids who craved brutality more than anything else. I can’t think of a deathcore band in 2007 who were more brutal than them. Phil Bozeman’s vocals came close with Whitechapel’s Somatic Defilement, another essential deathcore record of the era, but they truly were just chasing Suicide Silence’s coattails. I suppose I should throw in a shoutout for Heaven Shall Burn and maybe early All Shall Perish, too, but they were already turning into a hard rock outfit (lol). The musicianship is just polished enough to be accessible while still raw enough to maintain a furious edge, and those vocals– fuck. The perfect example of a hardcore kid trying way too hard to sound like Corpsegrinder, but against all odds, they work. Bonus points for every girl you knew in high school who had that “Pull the Trigger, Bitch” hoodie.

Of course, it’s now been ten years since The Cleansing, and it’s not like deathcore as a genre had completely stopped innovating, but it’s at this point that the connections between it and the DIY hardcore that it was originally drawing from become less and less meaningful. Post-Suicide Silence, deathcore was as popular a movement in heavy music as they come, with bands like Carnifex, Chelsea Grin, and Abigail Williams even throwing in some black metal influence and still managing to appeal to a widespread audience. At this point, deathcore and DIY hardcore are completely separate and have absolutely zero crossover, and metal nerds also fucking loathe it with a passion. Because deathcore is neither “here nor there,” as it were, it appealed to a lot of kids who also felt completely out of place in their world, and I think that’s what makes this era so interesting to me. In the same way as nu metal, equally lambasted by metal nerds during its peak in popularity, appealed to the weirdo kids who didn’t really have another genre to cling onto and didn’t have anywhere else to fit in.

I suppose that is why DIY hardcore bands who took legitimate influence from death metal, such as Harms Way, Xibalba, Disgrace, and Harness, were never really considered deathcore bands, despite ostensibly fitting into that category (via being hardcore kids who were copycatting death metal). Deathcore became an entire aesthetic unto itself that was completely divorced from the DIY hardcore scene.

Like I brought up earlier, however, deathcore slowly became more and more accepted by elitist metal fans due to bands such as the Faceless, the Contortionist, the Agony Scene, and Between the Buried and Me becoming more and more technical as well as the fact that with age, metal fans will eventually embrace any good band no matter how much they were regarded as “poser bullshit” in their day. You can see this cycle repeating itself in many ways with djent. Where bands like Born of Osiris, After the Burial, and Periphery were once derided as Sumeriancore, their legitimately excellent musicianship as well as their enviable longevity have resulted in them being accepted into the metal canon. Some bands, like Volumes, aren’t there yet, and I think that sludgewave artists like Black Tongue, Yüth Forever, and Sworn In may never be, due to their heavy influence from mallcore, but nevertheless it’s an observation I’ve made and I believe I’ve pinpointed acceptance from the metal community at large as the point at which deathcore is no longer connected to the hardcore scene.

Which brings us to bands like Veil of Maya, whose new album was the impetus for me finally writing this article after teasing it for months. Twenty years ago, Eighteen Visions and Vision of Disorder alienated stalwart hardcore fans by bringing in clean singing and rock-oriented song structure, but now that Veil of Maya is doing the exact same thing, their long-standing reputation in the scene has lent them enough credibility to do so without being rejected wholesale from the deathcore scene. This is kind of adjacent to metalcore bands like Of Mice and Men and Bring Me the Horizon delving completely into hard rock territory, but I find that Veil of Maya don’t seem to be sacrificing their heaviness for more widespread appeal, like the aforementioned bands (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Overall, I’ve found that death metal-influenced hardcore is still very much a thing (that new Left Behind record is maybe the heaviest thing I’ve heard in years), but it doesn’t call itself deathcore. Deathcore no longer even really calls itself deathcore, the bands usually just referring to themselves as metal, including genre stalwarts like Thy Art Is Murder and (ugh) Infant Annihilator. So perhaps, despite the continuing popularity of many ostensibly deathcore acts, the genre really is completely irrelevant nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to see how a genre grew and developed from its roots. Gone are the days when Rose FUNOral, ABACABB, Jerome, early Liferuiner, and other supremely ignorant bands brought the mosh, but also, when looking at the incredibly misogynistic and homophobic lyrics and attitudes of those bands, perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe the end of deathcore is a result of the fans slowly growing more socially conscious. Or maybe it’s a result of the metal scene itself slowly growing more inclusive. I prefer to think that it’s because deathcore was truly just a moment in time, and it’s passed, like 77 punk or the Golden Age of Hip-Hop. Although there are still artists that take influence from those eras, the specific confluence of cultural factors will probably never happen again.

Anyway, that’s probably enough pretentious analysis of a dumbass scene phenomenon for one night. I think it might finally be time for me to let it die. In the immortal words of Mitch Lucker, “Pull the trigger, bitch.”

UPDATE:

A few people have told me that I missed a couple seminal bands, including my pal Jesse from Letters to Catalonia, who informed me that Through the Eyes of the Dead should have been mentioned, and that is fair– Through the Eyes of the Dead were around in the scene fairly early on and have had their share of influence.

If we’re going to bring up Through the Eyes of the Dead, we may as well also discuss the band that they came from, Deadwater Drowning, who are a lot more influential than they ever really get credit for, via members going on to join bands such as Through the Eyes, the Acacia Strain, Burnt by the Sun, Fit for an Autopsy, Shai Hulud (!), the Final Battle, and the Red Chord. As far as I can tell, outside of their demo, this EP is the only thing Deadwater Drowning ever released, and it’s absolutely fucking sick and should be looked at as a seminal stepping stone in the development of deathcore as a genre.

The first Elysia album is probably the closest thing you’ll be able to find to the pure, platonic form of MySpace deathcore. Contemporaries of Impending Doom and Killwhitneydead, among others, Elysia were the definition of scene kids playing the definition of generic deathcore, and it was fantastic. There’s some really aggressive, disjointed lyricism and song structure here that foreshadowed their follow-up, Lion of Judas, which was recorded by Kurt Ballou (!!), and which they were set to tour with Shai Hulud (!!! again!) in support of before they had to call it quits due to medical issues. They’re mostly forgotten now, which is a shame, because they were definitely leagues above their C-level peers like Salt the Wound, The Irish Front, Knights of the Abyss, and so on, but having to quit that Shai Hulud tour really cut their popularity off at the knees. Apparently they got back together a few years ago, but they immediately broke up again.

Animosity were often confused for a straight-up death metal act, which makes sense, considering that they were one of the few deathcore bands who actually knew how to write a fucking guitar solo, but one look at this music video makes it incredibly clear that Animosity were a deathcore band above all else. However, when they released their first LP in 2003, they were probably one of the only bands on the West Coast who were playing this brand of music, and it always felt a lot more slick and polished, songwriting-wise, than many of their Midwest and East Coast contemporaries. Somewhat predictably, given the fact that they could play their fucking asses off and always trended in a more “trve” direction, they were one of the first deathcore bands to be embraced by the more traditional metal community.

Although it’s not entirely appropriate to label Dead to Fall a deathcore band (they were more of a melodeath-influenced band, although they were certainly talented at writing murderous fucking breakdowns), I wanted to throw in a shout-out to this song in particular, because it came out in 2008 and the (fucking hilarious) lyrics really feel like ultimate kiss-off to the MySpace deathcore sound. So let’s end this song, and this article, with a fucking breakdown.

If you liked this article, please consider giving me a like on Facebook, and/or a follow on my Twitter or Tumblr. If you’d like to help me write more of this kind of high-quality content, I would love it if you considered donating to my Patreon— every little bit helps. Regardless, I hope you were at least entertained by this far too in-depth look at what amounts to a phase for most people. It’s more words than I’ve written on this blog in over a year, and it was very fun to write and research.

Love, Ellie

An Interview with Jesse Price (Letters to Catalonia, SeeYouSpaceCowboy, Recluse)

A few months ago, I went to go see SeeYouSpaceCowboy play in Las Vegas during their tour in support of Fashion Statements of the Socially Aware, a raging slab of sass and metalcore-indebted screamo. I was previously familiar with Connie through interviewing her (she also did the excellent artwork for this new Letters to Catalonia release and has done art for many excellent bands, such as Amygdala) but I also hit it off with the rest of the band, especially Jesse Price, who is one of the coolest people I’ve met in DIY, period.

Jesse’s other band, Letters to Catalonia, has been one of my favorite screamo acts in recent years, mainly because they’re actually exciting as hell. Their smart, conscious lyrics are split up in vocals shared among the members, all of whom play some of the most pissed-off music in San Diego since Struggle.

Recently, Letters to Catalonia released their first new material since their demo and split with Illil last year, a collection of songs called Fragmentary. Drawing from the political and melodic spirit of bands like Yaphet Kotto and fusing it with the bone-snapping heaviness of metallic hardcore, Letters have crafted an offering that is as dense and rewarding to listen to as it is brisk and exhilarating. Songs like “Manufacturing Optimism” feature guitar breaks that ooze with mournful bliss and the rhythm section absolutely rips (check out the bass during the bridge of “If I Hear One More…”). It comes highly recommended with the You Don’t Need Maps seal of approval.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jesse about Letters, the whitebelt revival, and radical leftist politics. Even if Letters aren’t your bag musically (although they absolutely should be), I highly recommend reading this interview, because Jesse had some incredibly insightful and thoughtful things to say and was frankly a fun person to interview. Check it! My questions are in bold; Jesse’s answers are in normal font.

-Ellie

Okay. So, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to this. The new Letters to Catalonia is fantastic. How did this new material come together? It’s definitely a bit more progressive than your previous stuff.

Of course! I’m extremely excited to be doing this. Thank you so much! I’m really stoked on how the songs came out. These songs are about 6 months to a year old, Dom (our bass player) and I wrote them right after we lost our original bass player and drummer. I’m glad to hear that you think that the songs are more progressive. Moving forward after the split i kind of wanted to move away from the “whitebelt” thing a little bit and focus more on just being a screamo band with heavy parts.

Yeah, the whitebelt revival has pretty much reached full fruition this past year and it’s cool to see bands who are kind of doing a “post-whitebelt” thing. I’m definitely picking up on a lot of late 90s/early 2000s metalcore influence, especially Blood and Fire-era Zao. Were there any other particular influences on your current sound?

Yeah I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am all about the whole whitebelt revival thing. Obviously, you know I have another band that I get to use all the silly elements of whitebelt stuff in, so i can get all that stuff out in that band. For Letters, I would definitely say that we take a lot of influence from late 90s/early 00s metalcore, Zao definitely being one of the bands that i love from that era. I’d say that influences for our current sound would be June Paik, Loma Prieta, Republic of Dreams, Ampere, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jeromes Dream, Orchid, Louise Cyphre, Arsen aka Konig Der Monster, I could go on for a while. But basically a lot of German screamo and metalcore with panic chord breakdowns.

I am absolutely all about that shit. It’s so cool to hear metalcore-infused skramz nowadays, especially after a solid decade of metalcore not being “cool” in the skramz scene.

Oh yeah, I got made fun of so bad for liking that stuff as a kid. Now it’s the “cool” thing to to in the DIY scene. The world is stupid [laughs].

Would you mind giving me a little bit of the history of Letters? You guys have been around for a minute now and are one of the hotter acts to emerge from the San Diego scene in recent years, and I find your name oddly prescient given what’s going on right now politically. How did the band itself come about?

So Letters to Catalonia started after the demise of my old band, Recluse, and PJ’s old band, allmywishes. At first it was just Julian and I (Julian was also in Recluse with me), and we were just super into Ampere, June Paik, and Battle of Wolf 359. We wrote two songs, then PJ started jamming with us and we finished writing and recording the demo. Then we wrote and recorded the split with Ilill and went on a tour to SXSW 2016. On the tour and shortly after, some things in certain band members lives started to come up and long story short, it ended up being me by myself. then Dom joined and we started writing our LP. Once we found a drummer we started practicing and playing shows again. We recorded the three songs on Fragmentary and here we are. I saw somebody made a joke on Facebook the other day about us having perfect timing with the release of Fragmentary because it was the same day that all the stuff in Catalonia started to pop off.

Ha! That is perfect.

I definitely lol’d.

That split with Ilill was one of my favorite screamo records last year. It’s great to hear that the band basically fell apart and reformed with a completely new lineup, and still is able to retain your unique voice.

Obviously, your name is inherently political. Do you consider Letters to be an explicitly political band? If so, has that impacted the way you’ve been received in the scene at all?

Hey thanks! Ilill’s side of that split is amazing. I love that band so much and I’m so bummed they broke up. I’d definitely say we’re an explicitly political band. I think the only difference now is we try to be a little less corny about it [laughs]. Honestly it’s really hard to tell. It may have had something to do with Lars (React with Protest) wanting to put us out. If so, I’m stoked because React with Protest is straight up my favorite “screamo” label.

Yes! React with Protest are fucking amazing. I don’t think y’all are corny about it at all; we need more outspokenly leftist bands in the DIY scene, there’s never enough. How do you put your political beliefs into practice with your band and/or in your personal life?

Thanks! I second guess everything I do so that’s definitely part of why I feel that way. In terms of application in our band I definitely take a lot of influence from European anti-fascist bands. I think the way bands like Fall of Efrafa implement anarchism into their music/art is really cool. Our band is definitely egalitarian in terms of the way we make decisions and write music. We try to play as many benefit shows as possible. I always feel like I fall short with my anarchism because I have to work every day to survive and being in two bands takes a lot of time from me so going out and organizing is difficult, along with my social anxiety with even leaving the house at all. I try my best to not take part in consumerism. I practice intersectionality theory in every facet of life and try to make space for others.

As a fellow anarchist I too have the constant feeling of falling short, and I always have to tell myself that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism and that we are always doing the best we can. I can absolutely see the way that you put intersectionality theory into practice. The best way to fight the system is to keep pushing ourselves to become more independent from it every day and to treat other people the way that we would want them to be treated in the society that we envision.

It’s nearly impossible to live a life that is completely ethical. I’ve never met a single person who lives an entirely ethical life.

Kind of building on that, I wanted to briefly touch on something I’ve noticed. I’m always looking at the way that people interact within music scenes, and it’s always seemed that skramz has one of the most notoriously cliquey mentalities in the entire hardcore scene. Having the wrong opinion can be a death knell in the social circle; in a way, I feel like a lot of people pretend to be better people than they actually are for capital within the scene, and so focus on putting others down in order to avoid the focus being put on themselves and forcing them to self-crit and self-improve. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you navigate that climate?

I agree 100%. I mostly just try to treat everyone like a person and don’t amount people to their scene credentials. I would like to think that I am very critical of myself and always open to criticism, but I can obviously always be more critical of myself. I think people who act like they’re perfect and are always shifting blame, are the people who won’t stick around in the long run and are only interested in being part of the scene for their own selfish gain.

I absolutely agree, and I find that to be very insightful as well, with regards to using the scene for their own personal gain. With that said, how did you yourself become involved with leftist politics, and DIY and hardcore culture in general?

So I started playing in Hot Topic-core bands around the age of 12 and played that style of music for years. I started getting into hardcore and punk when I was 15 but stayed in the metalcore scene until i was 18. Around that time my friends started to also want to start playing punk, so we started a band and through that band I met a lot of the people in the DIY scene that I’m still very close with. I started getting into leftist politics when I was like 19/20. At first I just dabbled in communist literature because at that point “anarchism” was still just for mohawk mall punks in my mind. Shortly after, my friend and Letters’ original bass player, PJ, was SUPER into anarchism and got me into a lot of anarchist ideas. I think at first I really latched on to anarchism through being vegan.

“Mohawk mall punks” is such a perfect description of the annoying people I hate being conflated with, thank you so much for that description. You brought up veganism. Is being vegan a moral thing for you? I know that to me being vegan just seems like a natural extension of anarchist politics, and most far leftists I know are vegan or vegetarian.

I’d say it’s a moral thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of vegan that thinks people who eat meat are pieces of shit, but I personally don’t want to eat meat or dairy because I think animal cruelty is fucked up, I don’t want to support those industries, and it’s terrible for the environment.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it, like DIY and anarchism, is just a natural ethical conclusion to the way we want to live our lives.

Alright, I think that’s all my questions. Anything else you want to add? Lesser known artists you want to shout out? Trap songs you’ve been bumping lately? Thank you so much for participating again, I really appreciate it!

Our LP should be out early next year, we’re doing a west coast tour with Senza in February/March. Honestly, shout out Senza, they are amazing.

Trap songs I’ve been listening to lately:

I don’t know if [Mykki] is necessarily trap but it’s similar and I’ve been listening to it nonstop.

Of course, this has been great! Thank you for having me!

Check out Letters to Catalonia’s new release, Fragmentary, on Bandcamp and feel free to give them some love on Facebook as well!

And hey, while you’re at it, if you like my material enough, why don’t you give me a follow on Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr?