All Else Failed have been around for quite a while--I first heard about them over 6 years ago, when a friend of mine came back from a show he'd been to in the Delaware area, bearing a CD and some tales of wild onstage behavior. At the time, they had two singers, and my friend told tales of one of them getting smacked in the forehead with a guitar headstock, only to finish the set as if nothing had happened while blood poured down his face and onto his clothes. In researching the band on the internet, I heard even more dramatic stories. One person told of a show where the two singers collided during a particularly intense performance, and proceeded to drop their microphones and get into a full-on fistfight that lasted the rest of the song--after which, they got up, picked up their microphones, and continued the set as normal. Listening to the CD my friend had picked up--a European release that combined their first full-length, "A Most Bitter Season," with a more recent 10-inch entitled "In My God's Eye"--only reinforced the impression that these wild stories had initially given. It was brutal, chaotic, and emotional, all at the same time. As a listening experience it was both exhilirating and, ultimately, draining.
I've gotta admit--I'm a sucker for shit like that. Despite the fact that most of what I listen to, especially these days, is more melodic and less intense than the sort of heavy hardcore that I'm describing here, it's this kind of music that I always come back to. When I actually got serious about a band I played in and worked hard on keeping that band going for seven-plus years, it was a band that played that type of music. I love the kind of stuff that compels the listener to move, to thrash themselves around in a violent, spastic manner, the kind of stuff that causes the people playing the music to rock out so hard that they hurt themselves. I know all too well what it feels like to be so upset, so crushed by life, that you need this sort of violent catharsis just to stay sane.
All Else Failed knew that feeling, too--"A Most Bitter Season" and especially "In My God's Eye" reflected this quite well. There wasn't anything particularly amazing about their musicianship, but they wrote good songs and played them with a lot of heart. They could occasionally get bogged down by dragging out a midtempo riff for too long, but they also showed flashes of originality--in particular on the CD's last song, "Stale". This 12-minute epic is the entire second side of "In My God's Eye" in its original vinyl form, and while it starts out as a typical All Else Failed track, after three minutes or so the brutal hardcore gives way to a slow, descending minor-chord riff that is carried by bass and undistorted guitars. Overtop of it, vocalist Luke Muir forsakes his usual agonized screaming in favor of a tormented croon. At first it's easy to expect this to just be a minor break in the song, but instead, it continues on and on, taking up the last 2/3 of the song. Instead of getting old, as one might expect, the riff mesmerizes the listener, until one finds oneself sucked completely into the gloomy, morose atmosphere that All Else Failed create. In fact, one night around the time I first got "In My God's Eye", I made a midnight run to Wal-Mart for some groceries with the tape I made of it in my car's tape deck. I got to the store during "Stale"'s drawn-out ending, and I can remember quite well how I walked around the store picking out my groceries in a total funk. That was probably the most depressing grocery store trip of my life, and yet as soon as the tape finished and I put something else in on the drive back, I found my mood improving immediately. This was the kind of effect that All Else Failed could create.
My friends and I tried to book them with our own bands down here in Virginia a couple of times in the year or so after we first heard them, but it seemed like All Else Failed were plagued with bad luck. Sometimes they were having member troubles, other times they had no transportation, and for one reason or another we were never able to successfully book them. Despite the fact that a lot of what first made me interested in them were hair-raising tales of their intense live shows, I still to this day have never seen them play. In fact, after that first year or so of trying to book them, they seemed to disappear completely. I heard so little about them that I assumed they had broken up. However, towards the end of last year, I heard they had a new album coming out. I didn't know who was going to be releasing it, when it would come out, or how easy it would be to find, but before I could ever get the answer to any of those questions, I happened upon a copy while browsing at my local independent record store. Of course, I snapped it right up.
You could be forgiven for not expecting too much from them at this point, considering the advances that have occurred in hardcore's sound since All Else Failed last released an album. You could be forgiven for thinking that, without the sort of metalcore tricks that have grown common during their years of absence, a band wouldn't have much to go on at this point. But what you'd be missing with those quick assumptions is the fact that, when this style is done well, it works every bit as well as it did the first time you ever ran across it. In fact, All Else Failed sound better than they ever did before. Back when I first heard them, the influence of metal on hardcore wasn't entirely unheard of, and people were even starting to use the term "metalcore". However, things have still changed a lot since then. These days, it seems like any hardcore band that wants to come off as "brutal" or "intense" has a whole equipment case full of tricks acquired from the metal scene. All Else Failed had none of that sort of thing going on six years ago, and they have made no attempt to change with the times. There are no blast-beats here, no complicated technical time changes, no Gothenberg-style melodic lead runs, and no crushingly slow mosh breakdowns. What you get from All Else Failed now is the same thing they provided before, only with the sort of marked improvement that comes when a band spends several years woodshedding, honing their craft instead of trying for fame. It seems that this woodshedding wasn't even necessarily a matter of choice. It was only after visiting the website listed in the CD's liner notes that I learned they'd released an album in 2001, entitled "Archetype." Apparently, it sank without a ripple, and they were forced to spend the next few years working jobs and saving up money. It's a shame they were forced into these circumstances, but on the other hand, it has done them plenty of good. "This Never Happened" is their best album yet.
They must have been very excited to get it done, too--they had no permanent drummer at the time the album was recorded. For eight of the 14 tracks here, they've enlisted the Dillinger Escape Plan's incredibly talented Chris Pennie to fill in. Surprisingly, he does very little of the sort of thing he's become famous for in Dillinger. With the notable exception of the second song, "Kinetic", Pennie sticks to keeping a beat ably and with little use of the complicated jazz techniques he's become famous for. If anything, this speaks even more for his talent than would some flashy, attention-grabbing performance; he makes it clear that he knows what All Else Failed's songs need from a drummer, and he sticks to serving the song rather than trying for the spotlight. "Kinetic," though, opens with frenetic high-speed picking, which both demonstrates that All Else Failed have the ability to be complex and technical when they want to be and gives Pennie a chance to shine. However, by the end of the song, the band has locked into a driving mosh riff and Pennie follows right along with them, playing the riff instead of overplaying it. His performance here is first rate.
As is that of the entire band. "Kinetic" is followed by "Wishful Thinking", which starts out fast, chaotic, and intense, and builds toward a crescendo. As it builds, Luke Muir screams "bite your tongue" over and over. Then suddenly, at 1:40 into the song, the music stops completely, he screams "...until you choke on blood!", and BANG! The band comes back in full-force, at half the speed and twice the intensity of the first half of the song. These days, it seems like most hardcore bands require the super-slow mosh parts or the technical change-ups just to generate any sort of intensity. Not so All Else Failed--they're one of the few bands I've ever heard who can write a standard midtempo riff that is still so intense you feel like your body is going to shake apart as you listen to it. In fact, this album is chock full of such things, and that's a lot of what keeps bringing me back to it.
They've got a lot more than just that going on, though. While the first four songs are pretty standard heavy hardcore, they show a lot more range than that starting with track 5, "Waterlogged." This song starts out quiet and melodic, and builds into a full-on ballad. Based on the first four songs, it's not what you'd expect, but it works incredibly well under the circumstances. Luke Muir isn't the best vocalist in the world when it comes to actual singing, but what he lacks in talent, he makes up for with sincerity and conviction. When he pushes his voice nearly to the breaking point on the line, "I whisper, 'everything's OK,' " it's one of the most affecting (and effective) moments on the album.
From this point on, All Else Failed continue to insert melodic interludes and even entire songs that aren't the least bit hardcore into the mix, giving "This Never Happened" the feel of a unified album instead of a mere collection of songs--something a lot of hardcore albums end up being. This careful crafting of music into a flowing narrative works well with the lyrics on the album, which appear to be telling the story of a long, drawn-out breakup. Many of the moments in this story have universal familiarity--the desperate, self-deprecating apology left on an answering machine ("To Whom It May Concern"), the feeling of never saying the right thing ("Centralia"), the frustration that gives way to anger when things just don't seem to be working ("Step One: Give Up"); we've all been to these places, and All Else Failed's pounding hardcore riffs and melodic, emotional breaks are the perfect soundtrack. One song that strikes a particular chord with me is "At Twenty-Seven;" this is the sound of a person who sees the years slipping away and is having a hard time accepting that yet another opportunity to find longterm companionship has not worked out, but in the midst of all that is trying to give himself a pep talk. "Don't worry, things will only look up from here," he tells himself. "Rearrange your busy schedule of wasted time and try to fix the mess you've made." You can tell he's scared, and not all that hopeful, but he's trying.
Both the music and the story arc of the album come to a climax on the last two songs. The first of the two, "Departing Flights", is another ballad similar to "Waterlogged" earlier, though perhaps even more heart-wrenching. This song documents the moment where our hero finally surrenders to his fate. He's fought to make the relationship work, and the longer it's gone on, the more it's felt like a losing battle. Now he's finally come to the decision that it's no longer worth the struggle. "Why sacrifice happiness and stay here to wonder why two people can't get along?" he asks. He admits that he's running away by getting on a plane and going... where? It's never said, but I find myself imagining a friend's couch back in his hometown, or maybe even his parents' basement. And that's a tragic enough ending even without the final track, "After All," a 6-minute percussionless dirge played on an almost inaudible acoustic guitar. There's really nothing hardcore about this song--it's bleak enough to show up on an album by Nick Cave, or a more recent Michael Gira project. The lyrics to the song provide the album with its title, and we find that "this never happened" refers to that feeling one gets when you look around and realize that, though you're a couple of years older, you've really gained nothing, and gotten no farther than where you were when you started out. "Time has come to bury me," Muir sings as the song fades out completely, and you can almost feel your heart break along with his.
All Else Failed have survived a lot longer than the average hardcore band, and that's especially true when you consider their relative obscurity and lack of success throughout their career. They've endured in spite of everything that's come their way, and with "This Never Happened," they have reached a career high. However, one gets the feeling that this could also be their last gasp. They're not as young as they used to be, and if the somewhat joking threat on their website ("If this tour goes badly, we're getting jobs again and you won't see us again until 2008") is any indication, they don't exactly have all the time and money in the world to keep pumping into their band. They have produced the hardcore version of a Shakespearean tragedy with "This Never Happened", and it's every bit as worth your time as that allusion, however high-flown, would suggest. Now is the time to hunt this thing down, so that All Else Failed can receive the support they need to continue making music. People, do not sleep on this record.