Funeral Diner and the redemption of screamo.

When I first heard the band Funeral Diner, four or so years ago, I was less than impressed. As much as I reviled the term, I knew exactly what I was hearing: screamo. These days, it’s a pretty accepted thing to call a band, and I’m sure a lot of people who’ve heard the term have no idea why its very existence irritates me. To explain at all requires a bit of background information.

Let’s start by examining the commonly understood meaning of the term "screamo." I admit, there seems to be little to examine; obviously screamo = emo + screaming vocals. This makes plenty of sense to the people whose first experiences with the term emo were late 90s alternative rock bands such as Saves The Day and Jimmy Eat World. These and other bands were termed "emo" by the mainstream music press, and for the vast majority of their readers, this was the first they’d heard of such a term. So in the minds of many people, emo was music that mixed punk rock crunch and pop melodies with smoothly sung vocals and lyrics about heartbreak. There were occasional references in these mainstream magazines to mid-80s hardcore bands like Embrace and Rites of Spring, who had been derisively tagged "emocore" at the time of their existence by Thrasher Magazine. These references were accurate, though they may have seemed a bit of a non sequitur to uninformed readers, since those bands sounded nothing like modern examples of emo. The only reference points usually given for anything between them and the current hitmakers were Weezer and Sunny Day Real Estate.
What the average mainstream music listener was missing out on in this distorted history of the term emo was the entire time between those mid-80s hardcore bands and the immediate forebears (such as The Promise Ring, Mineral, and Braid) of the chart-topping emo bands of a few years ago. What went on during those missing years was a full-on renaissance, an entire scene that sprung up in college towns and medium-sized cities all over America, Canada, and as far afield as France and Germany. This scene was a reaction to the thuggish direction in which the original hardcore scene had gone by the late 1980s. Kids who couldn’t relate to Judge and Earth Crisis started their own bands, who played in basements and released records that were packaged in manila envelopes. These records typically included photocopied booklets giving lengthy explanations for the feelings behind their songs. These bands made no attempts to hide the emotions that went into songwriting and performances, and did their best to involve themselves in progressive political movements, especially those linked to identity politics (for better or for worse). The unifying factor in this scene tended to be method of expression rather than musical sound, and that emotionally centered method of expression earned these bands the legacy of the original emocore bands. This tag was quickly shortened to emo, differentiating this scene from the previous generation.

Despite the fact that there was no specific musical style uniting this ad-hoc genre, some factors were common, if not universal. Vocalists screamed, and tended to have high-pitched voices, while guitarists relied on octave chords, and songwriting utilized 3/4 time signatures about as often as standard rock n’ roll used 4/4. It was common for bands to structure songs around dynamic shifts from quiet to loud, and to use volume swelling toward a crescendo as a method to create cathartic moments within their songs. Bands tended to both come together and fall apart quickly, releasing a demo, an EP, perhaps one or two split EPs or compilation tracks, and a full length, at the absolute most. New bands, after the first couple years of the scene existing, tended to base much of their initial attempts to get their name out on members of their lineup who had been in other, now broken up bands. The most important factor to be understood is that this scene was small and closely knit. Earlier in the history of hardcore, bands had tried to get their albums into stores, to play to larger crowds of people. However, this new scene frowned on commercialism to such an extent that UPC barcodes, even on independently released albums, were seen as "selling out". Most shows occurred in VFW halls or the basements of punk houses, and only the most popular releases within the scene were pressed in numbers greater than 1000 copies or thereabouts.

Things were intensely creative within the underground emo scene for a while, but it started to run out of steam around 1997 or so. The older members of the scene were getting tired of laboring away in obscurity, and began either taking their bands to bigger labels or dropping out of the scene in order to use their college degree and get a real job (the latter had actually always been common in the emo scene, and was a lot of the reason why most bands lasted three years or less). The bands formed by younger kids stopped pushing the envelope where musical exploration was concerned, content instead to replicate broken up bands of years past–what ones they’d even heard. A lot of those bands were being forgotten–the obscurity of the scene, and the tiny press runs of records and fanzines, had caused a lot of the history to disappear completely.

This is where things stood around the time that a lot of younger kids, their curiosity piqued by interest in this new radio-friendly version of emo, stumbled upon the remains of the early 90s scene. Not understanding that what they had found was an older iteration of the same genre they were already listening to, they coined a new term to describe it. Hence, we have "screamo". The first time I heard this term, I wanted to shake the kids using it. "Emo always had screaming!" I’d have yelled at them, but I knew my frustration would only leave them confused. And eventually, I started to feel ridiculous even getting indignant over the proper use of the term "emo". After all, at the time, we’d hated for our bands to be called that. In our own eyes, we were hardcore kids; we felt we had just as much (if not more) right to the genre as did the thuggish vegans in basketball jerseys who bought all the new releases on Victory. My 1993 self would have been appalled to hear me defend what had been, to us at the time, such a demeaning term.

So I gave in. I found a way to make screamo, as a term, work for me. I didn’t apply it to the bands I’d loved so long ago; they stayed "chaotic hardcore" or "emocore" or whatever I’d always referred to them as. Screamo became, in my own personal vocabulary, a term for new bands who tried to do what those old bands had done, but were either too generic, too derivative, or too uninspired to succeed in creating the excitement that bands like Still Life, Current or Indian Summer had generated with all of their best work. If I called a band screamo, I was insulting them.

Which brings us to Funeral Diner. The first thing I heard about them was that their drummer was Matt Bajda, formerly of the band Portraits of Past. Portraits of Past had been another one of those bands whose passion and inspiration had been obvious in their music. This was best reflected in their sole full length LP, "01010101", released two years after they’d disbanded. Matt’s drumming on the record had been great, but I wasn’t sure if it could be enough to have any real effect on an entirely different band. And in 2001, when I heard their split LP with tourmates Staircase, I was less than impressed. Matt had gone from a bonafide chaotic hardcore ensemble to just another screamo band. It was disappointing.

That was the last time I gave any serious thought to Funeral Diner for over two years. I’d hear their name mentioned occasionally amongst record collector types, but I didn’t pay attention to what they said. Truth was, I wasn’t really paying much of any attention to anything involving hardcore at that point in my life. Nothing new that really interested me had come from any level of the hardcore scene in several years, and I was starting to wonder if entering my late 20s just meant that I was too old for the entire thing. When my band broke up, it severed the last thread holding me to the hardcore scene. For nearly a year before it ended, the only shows I’d been going to were ones my band played. I hadn’t really noticed a difference, since we played so much, but once we broke up, I realized that I preferred to spend most of my time alone. I started dating someone I’d met over the internet, who turned out to live only 6 blocks away from me. She got me into hanging out with her friends, who were more into role-playing games and the local Irish pub scene. For a long time, this was my entire social life.

Almost. I still went to shows occasionally. I’d run into an old friend somewhere random, and invariably, said old friend would mention an upcoming show and tell me to come out of the woodwork and attend. Sometimes I even would. This was how I wound up at a show Funeral Diner played in late April of 2003. I wasn’t really all that excited about seeing them, either–I was there to see The Setup, a local band with a bunch of my friends in it. Once I got to the show, though, a lot of my friends who were in attendance swore that Funeral Diner had improved considerably in the years since I’d last heard them, and that I would dig their set. I figured what the hell, and stuck around to watch them.

Sure enough, I was blown away. They’d written a whole set of new material and gained a new vocalist, Seth, who had tons of energy and a killer scream. I couldn’t deny that they were 100% improved, and now lived up to the hype my friends were giving them. That night, when I went home, I downloaded their two most recent records. I had one blank CD-R left, I was moving in a day and a half, and the computer was my roommate’s, so this would be the last thing I could download for who knew how long. I put their first full-length, "Difference of Potential," and an EP they’d just released, "The Wicked", onto my lone remaining CD-R. When I got around to listening to it, I found "Difference of Potential" to be more like the early stuff I hadn’t liked. "The Wicked", though, obviously featured Seth on vocals, and contained the song that had been my favorite of their set, "End On 6." I’d liked every song they played, but I assumed that most of them weren’t recorded yet. This especially made sense in light of the way hardcore bands tend to disown most of their back catalog in favor of the dozen or so songs they’ve written most recently. This means that by the time you see a hardcore band, it’s pretty likely that they’ve already dropped half of the songs on their newest release from their set, in favor of unrecorded new material. It can be frustrating when you like a band’s records, but everyone comes to expect it after a while.

Ok, so my opinion on Funeral Diner had now been revised for the better, and I’d made a mental note in the back of my mind to keep an eye out for new releases of theirs. However, I wasn’t going to hardcore shows, and wasn’t even really shopping for records much. And for over six months after that show, I didn’t even have internet access. Then, for Christmas of 2003, my parents took pity on me and bought me a computer. I could only afford a dialup connection to the internet, but I still downloaded music, even though it would take anywhere from 12 to 36 hours to get a complete album. I didn’t care–there wasn’t much room in the budget for new CDs, and by this time I was starving for new music. Sometime in the spring of 2004, I located a new Funeral Diner full-length while browsing someone’s files on Soulseek. It was called "The Funeral Diner Is Dead", and I of course wasted no time in acquiring it. This was the Funeral Diner album I had been waiting for–I couldn’t remember any of the specific songs I’d heard them play the year before, but I got the same powerful, energetic feel from the CD as I had from that set. In particular, I was enamored with the final track, "Let Me Get A Few Practice Stabs". It started out heavy and fast, then halfway through dropped into a slower, more melodic riff that quickly built to a pounding crescendo. It was the perfect way to end a record. Ironically enough, I later learned that "The Funeral Diner Is Dead" was not a real album at all, but a compilation of tracks from splits and comps that had been released as a CD-R for their European tour. Even though internet copies were easy to find, only 200 actual copies had ever been pressed. "Practice Stabs" was from the split LP with Dead City, and it was the first song on that record.

Knowing this took a little of the wind out of my sails, but did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for the songs collected on this particular CD, or for Funeral Diner as a band. They were still playing the same style as they always had: screamed vocals, lots of octave chord-based riffing and start-stop syncopation. They’d just gotten better at it. Speed was a big factor in the improvement; a lot of bands playing in the chaotic style rely pretty heavily on midtempo riffs. The problem with doing that is that it robs your songs of intensity. In hardcore, it’s easy to create intensity through extreme speed or pounding slowness. However, finding a way to generate intensity from medium tempos is hard, and most bands aren’t up to the challenge. So they take the shortcut of using a lot of building crescendoes, playing a note-based riff quietly and steadily getting louder and louder until finally they kick in the distortion and the whole thing explodes. At least, that’s the desired effect. It seems pretty powerful the first time you hear it, but most listeners have heard it done a million times by now, so it’s very rarely effective anymore. Funeral Diner seemed to have learned both of these lessons quite well by the time of "The Funeral Diner Is Dead". They used fast hardcore riffs more often than is typical in the chaotic hardcore/emo style, and when they dropped back into the slow quiet parts, instead of using them as buildups, they were far more likely to stretch things out, staying quiet for a few minutes and building an atmosphere. Some of the songs on this CD were quite long as a result, but things never got boring. The drumming often carried the quieter parts–if Matt had been a good drummer in Portraits of Past, he was amazing now.

"Funeral Diner Is Dead" got a lot of play from me last summer and fall, so when I saw recently that they had a new album out, I was really excited to get it. When they came through my town, I went to the show, stood up front, danced a lot, and yelled for them to play "Let Me Get A Few Practice Stabs" (they did). I also picked up a copy of the new album, entitled "The Underdark." This is the first release by Funeral Diner that I’ve ever spent money on, and if the packaging is any indication of what sort of work generally goes into the look of their releases, I have been missing out. "The Underdark" is a Dungeons and Dragons reference, specifically to a land below ground where it is always dark and lots of mining goes on. It’s an unpleasant place, populated by unpleasant beings, and many of its inhabitants spend their whole lives in backbreaking toil. The cover of this LP is almost entirely black, with the lower half taken up by a picture that appears to be a woodcut, of people in hooded capes, their heads lowered, walking in a long line that recedes out of view to the left of the picture. Their posture makes it seem likely that the place where the line ends is not pleasant. In the foregrounds, two figures stand on a rock, in observation of the line, as if guarding it to make sure no one tries to escape. These figures bear laurel wreaths upon their heads, and resemble stained-glass depictions of Christian saints. The overall impression given by the cover is one of bleakness, and lack of hope.

This impression continues within the lyrics and music of the album. It’s obvious in retrospect why Funeral Diner didn’t consider "Funeral Diner Is Dead" a proper album–unlike that CD, which was just a collection of songs, "The Underdark" presents a unified theme, lyrically, musically, and even in its packaging. The lyrics are interrelated, and are vague enough to support any of a number of different interpretations, but as far as I can tell, Funeral Diner found the concept of the underdark from Dungeons and Dragons to be evocative, and are using it as an extended metaphor for modern American society, post 9/11. The lyrics speak of darkness, hate, fear, and failure, of the powers that be using their ability to distort the truth and divide us from each other to weaken us and keep us from preventing the success of their own selfish, twisted agenda. We live in constant darkness, but that doesn’t change the fact that the horrible things done in our name still taint us. This is what the lyrics have to tell us, what Funeral Diner sees in the human condition at this point in history that we are all living through. It is a bleak and hopeless vision, the blow softened only a little bit by the distancing created through use of metaphor. When Seth screams, "the tower is lit again (like a funeral pyre)" on "Two Houses", it’s hard not to think of the World Trade Center. "Now it all belongs to the few, and only cutthroat tactics and walking over others gets us respect in the eyes of our ‘god’," he sings on the final track, "We All Have Blood On Our Hands," and he could be talking about monetary greed, or the way right-wing evangelical Christians have perverted the teachings of Christ into a tool with which to breed hatred. Or he could be talking about neither of those things. Nonetheless, it sounds frighteningly familiar.

The music has changed a bit from previous releases. Gone, for the most part, are the fast tempos that appeared frequently on "The Funeral Diner Is Dead." The riffs here are quieter and more dirge-like, as fitting the darker lyrical approach. The album’s centerpiece, the 9-minute epic "It Is Good That We Never Met", features extensive use of organ, which calls images from old horror movies to mind, and reinforces the funereal mood of that song. "We Become Buried" and "Regardless We Fall" have sections which could have fit on older releases, but even these songs have their moments of gothic melancholy. Other songs, like "Collapsing" and "Two Houses", are slow, dark, and drawn-out. The quieter moments, which used to be the breaks between louder passages in their old material, are the dominant facet of the music on "The Underdark." Two of the eight songs here are instrumental. One, "Decline," begins the album, and uses a slowly repeating guitar figure to set a mood. The other, "What Was Said," acts as a buffer between the more melancholy first two-thirds of the album and the final two songs, "Regardless We Fall," and "We All Have Blood On Our Hands." These final two songs are heavier and more intense musically, and also bring the ongoing storyline of the lyrics to an apocalyptic conclusion.

It’s hard to say what exactly what Funeral Diner are doing on this album. Many hardcore bands have explored darker, gloomier musical moods. Typically, those bands went one of two ways–towards goth-punk (The VSS, Spanakorzo), or towards doom-metal (Tragedy, Catharsis). Funeral Diner has done neither. Instead, it seems as if an entirely new sound, both for them and for hardcore in general, has sprung forth, fully formed, within the minds of these five musicians. Perhaps it did, or perhaps they were just bored with everything they’d been doing before and forced themselves to come up with a challenge in order to keep their music fresh. Either way, "The Underdark" is an obvious crossing of the rubicon from mere chaotic hardcore into something altogether darker. And it’s Funeral Diner’s best work yet.


Bloc Party

The tendency is to want to avoid the hype. When some new band comes out with their first LP and is immediately showered with accolades, especially from the sources that are becoming the "usual suspects" where hype saturation is concerned, it is natural and understandable that half of us have the knee-jerk reaction of hating this band, sight unheard. And sometimes, this sort of refusal to buy in pays off--The Rapture, who were legitimately interesting before their DFA-engineered makeover, couldn't follow up on "House of Jealous Lovers", and I still haven't figured out why anyone cares about The Arcade Fire. On the other hand, any policy that involves head-in-sand behavior is not only short-sighted but liable to leave one in a position to crumble in the face of any opposition, when after 30 seconds or so it comes out that, in point of fact, you never have heard the band you're currently railing against. Knowing all of that, I figured I had better at least download the Bloc Party album, "Silent Alarm", so I could have an opinion on it when the inevitable discussion started up, at clubs or on message boards or wherever.

That was two weeks ago. Today I bought it. This would have happened sooner, but I was waiting for my next paycheck. And this is the kind of effect that Bloc Party has on you, the listener. It is not subtle, nor is it a slow, cumulative effect. It is immediate, and it is obvious. In fact, for me, it was hard to get past the first song. "Like Eating Glass" begins with a slow build, two guitars playing one note apiece in subtly different ways that slowly intertwine just as a quick, shuffling beat appears. One guitar changes, grows louder, then drops back out, to be replaced by the singer's voice. About halfway through the verse, a bass appears for the first time, adding a funky rhythm to the beat, both of which stand in sharp contrast to the guitar, still playing a single note, over and over. The tension created by this interplay continues throughout the first half of the song, as instruments randomly jump in and drop out, the entire band (two guitars, bass and drums) not playing at once until a full two minutes have passed. The first chorus releases all of the tension by plunging into an insanely catchy melodic hook, but the frantic pulse of the song never abates. By the end, you just want to start it all over, which is the trap I fell into for the first week or so I had the album.

Soon enough, though, I found myself moving deeper into the CD. There is always the fear, when one falls in love with the first song on a record, that none of the other tracks will measure up. I've certainly had that happen to me plenty of times. It's not the case, however, with "Silent Alarm." This is a solid album, with variation from song to song but a remarkably unified theme. The vocalist's undisguised British accent, and the sharp stabbing sound of the guitars, do a lot to send my thoughts in the direction of UK punk's second wave, circa 1979-1981. This era is a heavily relied-upon influence right now, and this trend is causing a lot of backlash towards the "dance punk" sound, of which Bloc Party can definitely be said to be practitioners. Gang of Four, in particular, have provided a key element of a lot of these bands' sound, and sure enough, Gang of Four's influence can be heard in Bloc Party's sound. It's not what you'd expect, though--the basslines are funky at times, though nowhere near as often as David Allen's celebrated work on "Entertainment!" What Bloc Party take from Gang of Four is something I never would have been able to put my finger on, had it not been pointed out by the Greil Marcus essay included as liner notes in my first Gang of Four purchase, the cassette compilation "A Brief History of the 20th Century." What Marcus noticed about Gang of Four's sound was the way that a lot of the musical tension created by their songs is generated by instruments moving into and out of the arrangement. Basslines disappear, and when they come back the drums drop out. Guitar lines will end in long, diminishing sustained chords, leaving the rhythm section to carry entire verses by themselves. This technique can be pointed out in Bloc Party's sound in the aforementioned first half of "Like Eating Glass," but it recurs throughout the record, notably in "Price of Gas" and "Positive Tension."

The latter song title provides, perhaps unintentionally, a sort of manifesto for Bloc Party's sound. Much like Gang of Four and their contemporaries, such as Wire and Joy Division, they use nervous energy as a propulsive force. But don't write them off as a one-trick pony--while Gang of Four's funk bounce may have been the ideal soundtrack for leaning against a wall, tapping a foot and casting paranoid sidelong glances at everyone else in the room, Bloc Party want you to get off that wall and dance--and smile while you're doing it. "Positive Tension" is reminiscent of the more rock n' roll oriented bands of the initial British punk explosion, such as the Damned or the Stranglers. "This Modern Love" evokes the best of the mid-80s synth-driven new wave, without actually using any synths. Meanwhile, the operatic sustain of the guitar lines on "Pioneers" are nicked from The Chameleons but rendered nearly unrecognizable as they appear here, layered over a rhythm section groove that's more like early New Order than anything else.

There are one or two slow songs here, but they are the exceptions. "Silent Alarm" is a fast record. It's also a punk rock record, though it may not seem as much so to kids weaned on today's mainstream punk approximations; Sum 41, Yellowcard, New Found Glory, etc. Truth is, Bloc Party is probably closer to the spirit of punk rock than those bands and their ilk. Punk rock was never meant to be something so predictable as a sound, and in fact it wasn't for a long time. Punk rock is more of a feeling than anything, a feeling of discontentment with one's immediate surroundings, an awareness that something is off and that things are not quite what they seem, especially when seemingly arbitrary authority figures assure us that they are. Bloc Party's frantic melodies and nervously propulsive rhythms are not intended to be retro, to hark back to some past that nostalgia renders more appetizing than it ever actually was. Instead, they are updating a message that just such a sound carried to listeners a quarter of a century ago. "Silent Alarm" is the sound of paranoia, of nervousness even when surrounded by unprecedented prosperity. At a time when most of the country seems to prefer to remain fat, dumb, and happy in the face of looming disaster, this album calls us to remain vigilant and keep our bullshit detectors at the ready. And hey, may as well dance while we're at it.


Some of my favorite bands are already this fucked.

It took a while before I figured out exactly why I wasn’t all that excited about the new album by A Static Lullaby. I’d actually been looking forward to it for a while; I’d been incredibly impressed by "...And Don’t Forget To Breathe", their 2003 debut. They’d somehow managed to come out of nowhere with a fully formed sound that was a perfect combination of emo and metalcore. This was exemplified by the tremendous "Love To Hate, Hate To Me", on which the intense metal riffs of the verses led into a chorus featuring some of the best pure pop hooks ever crafted. Multiple band members contributed to the vocals, creating a layered mixture of melodic singing and bloodcurdling screams, all of which built up to a midsong crescendo that shocked the listener with its stop-start intensity. The entire album cut to the heart of the teenage emotional experience–it was music to listen to on dark nights after hours spent fighting to save a rapidly disintegrating relationship, and it delivered the sort of catharsis such situations require more consistently than anything else on the musical landscape at the time.

Because of all this, the personal anticipation factor was high for "Faso Latido", A Static Lullaby’s second album and first on major label Columbia Records. And maybe it’s true that a followup to a well-loved album is always somewhat of a letdown, especially at first. It's not a terrible album; I enjoy it whenever I put it on, and particularly dig closing track "The Jesus Haircut". However, it’s not quite what I wanted from these guys, and it took me a while to figure out why. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem. The songwriting style is still very much the same, with both the chugging metal riffs and the powerful pop hooks making plentiful return appearances.

Tonight, though, playing the album for maybe the half-dozenth time, it suddenly hit me. The problem is the production. The mix of screamed and sung vocals survives, but no longer do the two share equal levels in the mix. Screaming, when it occurs, is fed through distortion, slathered with echo, and dramatically lowered in the mix, while the singing vocals continue to be loud and clear. While previously it was tough to tell which style of vocals were the "lead", given the fact that they seemed to alternate positions on nearly every line, the production on "Faso Latido" has decisively consigned the screams to the role of background vocals. The guitars fare little better in this new sonic arrangement, often taking a back seat to both the vocals and the drums. When the powerful riffs that are a vital part of A Static Lullaby’s sound get their turn in the spotlight, they falter and lose steam due to immersion in a wall of keyboards and choral effects, all working together to remove the teeth from a sound that used to be ferocious.

It’s a shameful thing, and it’s only made worse by the fact that "Faso Latido" features the same solid songwriting that made "...And Don’t Forget to Breathe" so exciting. By sacrificing the excitement and originality of their first record in exchange for a modicum of increased commercial potential, A Static Lullaby have become just another of the millions of mediocre bands attempting to cash in on emo’s flavor of the month status. The underground hardcore scene has always been wary of major labels, referring to deals with these huge conglomerates as "pacts with the devil." With their disappointing major label debut, A Static Lullaby has become merely the latest in a long line of supporting arguments for that position. They deserved better. We all did.

My Audition for Spin, Part 4

Here's the long-overdue final installment in the Spin tetralogy. Now all that's left to do is write a cover letter, mail them out, and hope for the best. I'll keep you posted.

Ash - Meltdown

While Northern Ireland's Ash are not very well-known in the United States, they've been quite popular in the UK and Europe over the past decade. Now, with their fourth album, "Meltdown", they find themselves with yet another chance to make a dent stateside. To that end, they've enlisted Foo Fighters/System of a Down producer Nick Raskulinecaz, and the difference in their sound is immediately obvious. Raskulinecaz has thickened up Ash's guitar sound considerably, giving their riffs a more metallic crunch, and this heavier approach appears to have inspired a long-overdue sonic unification. Previous Ash albums have been uneven affairs, characterized by jarring transitions between catchy singles, such as "Girl From Mars," "A Life Less Ordinary," and "Walking Barefoot"; and rather mediocre excursions into heavier realms. While the singles were always worth the price of admission, things faltered when they went too far into the realm of bombastic metal.

This problem has been solved on "Meltdown"; with production creating a uniformly heavy sound, Ash’s metal cravings are appeased enough to allow them to stick with the punk-pop hooks, descended from late 70s pioneers The Buzzcocks and The Undertones, that are their true strength. The first single, "Orpheus", is a particular standout. It starts with a heavy introduction, but by the chorus, things have reached sugary pop nirvana. "Clones" and the title track concentrate on hitting hard, while "Out of the Blue" and "Won't Be Saved" focus more on the catchy end of things, but every song on the record features at least one blissfully pure power-pop hook, and the whole album flows by in a seamless combination of what had previously been irreconcilable extremes. Hopefully, this step up in songwriting quality will be the key to finally gaining Ash some recognition here in America. They deserve no less.


The Emo Roundup

It’s been around a month since the last time I posted here, so let me just go ahead and apologize for that right now. I really want this to be a regular thing, and I’ll try not to slack off like that in the future. Right now, I’m going to try and catch up by talking about a bunch of different things that I’ve been enjoying during my absence. Specifically, I’m going to discuss the more emo-ish end of the spectrum. I’m sure you expected no less.

I’m most excited about the fact that there’s quite a bit of new Fall Out Boy material floating around right now. As I’ve previously detailed, I discovered their album "Take This To Your Grave" last year and fell in love with it. At around the same time I was spending my Christmas money on that CD, I found that they had a newer acoustic EP, entitled "My Tongue Will Always Be The B-Side To My Heart". I already had a burn of the full-length, but I prefer to own actual copies of albums I like that much, and even though the EP was only 5 songs, it cost almost as much as "Take This To Your Grave." So I didn’t buy the EP, and in fact didn’t even think about it again until about a week ago. That was when I found out about a new seven-song release that had gotten leaked to the internet, called "From Under the Cork Tree." Information about this collection of songs is scant–I’m not sure if it’s a sampler culled from an upcoming full-length, or an actual EP that will be released in a few months. Either way, I downloaded it, and located a copy of the acoustic EP while I was at it. I snagged a few scattered one-song demos during my search that are also floating around cyberspace. The whole thing added up to about 45 minutes of new music, and the CD-R I burned of it is one of my favorite things to listen to right now.

I’m especially excited about the 7 songs on "From Under the Cork Tree." They show Fall Out Boy expanding their horizons, in particular on "Dance Dance," which mixes hardcore-influenced fast parts with a sort of melodrama reminiscent of My Chemical Romance's plundering of classic musical theater. "Our Lawyer Made Us Change The Name Of This Song So We Wouldn't Get Sued" is also a new direction for them. It revolves around a bouncy mid-tempo rock riff that stays catchy without relying on typical pop-punk/emo tropes. The latter song and "Champagne For My Real Friends, Real Pain For My Sham Friends" (some of these song titles are pure genius) both have lyrics that discuss Fall Out Boy’s recent surge in popularity. Evidently, these former hardcore kids are not too sure how they feel about all of that. They don’t dwell on it too much, though, preferring to focus on their tried-and-true themes of alienation and romantic loss. "A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More Touch Me" is just as quintessential of a breakup song as anything off "Take This To Your Grave", and features another of their many classic choruses: "I don’t blame you for being you, but you can’t blame me for hating it." We’ve all been there... or, at least, I sure have.

The acoustic EP features a new version of "Take This To Your Grave"’s big single, "Grand Theft Autumn", three new songs, and what has to be the millionth cover version of Joy Division’s "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It’s a decent record, but on the whole it’s a bit thin. I’m glad I didn’t shell out the ten bucks Best Buy wanted for it. At this point, "Love Will Tear Us Apart" has moved beyond cult classic into the realm of cliche, and no cover version could possibly shed any new light on this old chestnut. If they were going to do a new wave cover in order to show how down with the 80s they are, a suspect move in and of itself, it would have been nice to see that they'd put a bit of thought into it, instead of jumping for what is probably the most obvious choice possible. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that covering an 80s night staple like "Love Will Tear Us Apart" does more to make it look like Fall Out Boy don't know their shit where the 80s are concerned, which I can't imagine was the intention.
The three new songs are better, but since they only feature guitar and vocals, they really just make me long for full-band versions. It doesn’t help that a full-band electric version of "Nobody Puts Baby In The Corner" is one of the demoes that I found online while searching for this EP. Hopefully the new full-length that is obviously in the works will include full band versions of all of these songs, in particular "It's Not a Side Effect of the Cocaine, I Am Thinking It Must Be Love", my favorite of the three new ones.

Further Seems Forever recently released their third full-length, "Hide Nothing," which features their third singer in as many albums. While many people remember them best as the band that unleashed Chris Carrabba, aka Dashboard Confessional, onto the world, I actually liked the vocalist on their second album, Jason Gleason, a bit better than Carrabba. Therefore I was at first disappointed to hear that he’d left the band. That is, until I learned that their new singer is Jon Bunch, formerly of Reason To Believe and Sensefield. Sensefield were one of my favorite bands about a decade ago. Sensefield were one of the first bands within the underground hardcore scene to take "emo" beyond a lyrical stance and turn it into a musical sound that predicted what we call emo today. Of course, at the time, this put them in line for a lot of criticism, but those who put aside the prejudices and listened to the albums were rewarded with some of the best melodic, emotional, hardcore-influenced rock ever produced. Things went sour for Sensefield when they got trapped in a bad major label deal after their third album. It took them four years of being unable to release anything before they finally got out of that situation, and something essential had drained from the band by that time. Their fourth album, "Tonight and Forever", seemed flat and sterile, and they broke up soon after its release.

However, now, with Further Seems Forever’s "Hide Nothing," Jon Bunch has redeemed the legacy of Sensefield. More than anything, it was his voice that was the strongest identifying mark of Sensefield’s sound, and the combination of that voice with Further Seems Forever’s melodic rock songs brings back memories of Sensefield as they were before the disastrous major label affair. It's not just the memories that make this album work, either–these songs have more than enough merit to justify listening to them even if you don't care about Sensefield at all. From the powerful midtempo opener "Light Up Ahead" to the slow, quiet "All Rise" and the more upbeat tracks like "Someone You Know" and "Bleed", there’s not a weak moment here. The only real disappointment is that the album, at 28 minutes, is so short.

One interesting factor of Jon Bunch singing for Further Seems Forever is that it ends the mystery of his religious affiliation. Sensefield were never openly Christian, but their lyrics hinted at references to a higher power. Bunch would even use the word "lord" as an interjection upon occasion. When asked direct questions about religious beliefs during interviews, the members of Sensefield, Bunch in particular, would give evasive answers that didn’t really shed any light on the subject. That said, Further Seems Forever have never hidden the fact that they are Christian, and there are a few songs on this album where the subject shows up in the words. I know a lot of people who don’t hold these beliefs get uncomfortable with bands that are open about religious affiliations, fearing that they will be "preached to." Luckily for those people, Jon Bunch and Further Seems Forever are not from the "believe as we do or burn in hell" school of things. In the closing track, "For All We Know", when Bunch sings, "These days are numbered, but things will get better, I hope," it doesn’t feel like they’re pushing anything on anyone. It gives more of a sense that they’re wishing us all the best, that their religious beliefs lead them to want happiness and peace for everyone who might be hearing the song. I would think we could all use a bit of that, regardless of what god we may or may not believe in.


Compared to Further Seems Forever’s well-wishes for humanity, the lyrical topic on the new Armor For Sleep album is quite a bit darker. The record, entitled "What To Do When You Are Dead," is a concept album–what might have been called a "rock opera" at one time. In the first song, "Car Underwater", the narrator has found himself, as the title suggests, trapped in a car under water. It’s one of the more masochistic methods of suicide I’ve ever heard of, but he confirms that it was intentional in his mention of having left a note for his ex-girlfriend. At the end of the song, he drowns. And for the remaining ten songs on the album, he’s dead. In the next song, "The Truth About Heaven", he’s returned to wander the earth as a ghost, because he can’t stand to be in heaven without the girl he's left behind. Over the course of the album, he follows her around as she continues to live her life. At first he thinks that they will reunite in the afterlife once she dies, but by the end of the record he has come to realize that though she is grief-stricken by his death, in time she will overcome it, move on with her life, and fall in love again–with someone alive. The album ends with no peace, no closure, just bitterness and recriminations.

It’d be easy to see this album and its lyrics as reinforcing many of the things people say about the inability of emo’s teenage male fans to get outside of their own egocentric perspective and understand the women they fall in love with as human beings, rather than objectifying them. However, this analysis falls apart under deeper examination. While this album does deal with these tendencies, it in no way constitutes an endorsement of them.
The act of committing suicide, while a tragedy whenever it happens, is also the ultimate in grandiose melodrama. Teenagers who attempt suicide, whether they are successful or not, are often convinced that this final act is the only way to make the people around them realize how important they are, and that they should have treated them better. Sting summed it up well in the classic Police song "Can’t Stand Losing"–"You’ll be sorry when I’m dead, and all this guilt will be on your head." Suicidal teens, especially those who are dealing with romantic loss, are convinced that their lives will never improve without the appreciation from loved ones, which they don’t feel they are getting. However, it at least makes them happy to think that they could, through some grand, final, life-ending gesture, finally make all of those people realize what they should have been doing all along.

The argument could be made that boys who do this in order to inflict guilt and grief upon girls that dumped them are doing the ultimate in objectifying women. Ignoring the fact that this person doesn’t deserve to feel these horrible things, and further ignoring that in the end it is their choice whether they remain miserable forever or find a way to move beyond their current pain of loss, they treat the women as agents of evil who have wounded them and deserve to pay for it. And of course, in doing so, said boys ignore the fact that these girls are just people too–teenage people, in fact, who are still figuring out how to make their way in the world, just like the boys. The argument that this entire train of thought is essentially sexist has plenty of merit, and if one was to take "What To Do When You Are Dead" as an endorsement of this train of thought, then one could call the album sexist.

But that’s not what’s going on here, at all. "Car Underwater" presents the previously described male train of thought without comment, and if this song were taken by itself, it would seem to endorse that train of thought. However, as the album continues, Armor For Sleep analyzes how it would feel for a boy who thinks that way to be able to see the days that followed his dramatic action. At points during the album, he begs the girl to respond to him, to say something, to touch him... invariably, he receives no response. By the next to last song, he’s attempting to convince her of his own importance in her life. "I’ve got this feeling that I was put here for you," he says, but from the listener’s perspective it’s obvious that it’s himself he’s trying to convince. In the final song, "The End of a Fraud," he’s figured it out: "When I left, you all stayed the same." He's horrified to realize this, and departs for some other form of afterlife full of bitterness. In his unflinching portrayal of this melodramatic emo kid, vocalist Brian Jorgeson demonstrates a lesson that kids like that who sit around contemplating suicide after a breakup often ignore: the lesson that life goes on with or without you. Instead of relying on the typical "people care about you" approach, Jorgeson points out the depressing but true flip side of it all–if you do commit suicide, you can convince yourself that the people who wronged you will realize what they did wrong, and that they will never recover from the loss, but the truth is that, in time, people will get over it and go on without you. With "What To Do When You Are Dead", Armor For Sleep have created an anti-suicide message that may just be more persuasive than any amount of coming out and saying, "Don’t do it."

Of course, if these lyrics were all they had to offer, this album would be interesting as a sociological document, but not as an actual piece of music. However, the music more than stands on its own. Unlike their first album, which I found rather generic, "What To Do When You Are Dead" is immediately impressive. The production is excellent, indicating care and attention to detail; the guitars are clear and powerful, and the drumming is flawless–crisp without a hint of studio trickery. Creative touches such as the strings that build underneath heavy guitars at the climax of "Awkward Last Words" and the drum machines, layered guitars, and phasing on "Basement Ghost Singing", an atmospheric song that provides the album’s most chilling moment, are the sort of thing one seldom sees on typical emo records these days. Even the songs that do fit a more typical pattern, such as "Stay On the Ground" and "Car Underwater", are well-constructed enough to stand above the average. Rather than playing it safe and creating something guaranteed to sell, Armor For Sleep take risks both lyrically and musically, and they all pay off.

While I was absent from this place, I received a CD in the mail by a band called Goldspot, entitled "Tally of the Yes Men," which has the distinction of being the first promotional CD I've ever received as a result of this blog. It's pretty good, too, which anyone who receives promo materials on a regular basis will tell you is not typical. I'm taking this as a good omen.
Goldspot delight in using unconventional instrumentation, from programmed drums to xylophones, and tend to avoid spending too long working with any one sound. There is a prevailing mood, however, and it's one of melancholy. While they tend to deemphasize the bleak mood of a lot of the songs through elaborate arrangements, the true face shines through on "So Fast". On this song, singer/guitarist Siddhartha, the mastermind behind Goldspot (other than the drummer, he's the only musician who plays on every song), steps out from behind the wall of sound he creates on the rest of the album, accompanying himself with only a quietly strummed acoustic guitar. His vocals here resemble the high, lonesome tenor of Roy Orbison, another singer who used his melancholy as a tool with which to create unforgettable pop songs. It's the most powerful song here, and the most immediately affecting.
However, after a few listens, the entire album started to grow on me. Songs like "Rewind," "Friday," and "Motorcade" don't sound like much on first listen, but they are deceptively catchy, and despite my initial lukewarm impression of "Tally of the Yes Men", I found myself returning to it over and over again, without necessarily knowing why. Every time I heard it, I liked it more and more. The closest comparison I could make would be to The Pernice Brothers--I didn't initially get why everyone was so into them, but I couldn't deny that I found myself listening to their CDs on an increasingly frequent basis. In fact, The Pernice Brothers are also a good reference point for the sort of melancholy melodies that Goldspot specialize in--though Joe Pernice and company tend to draw more from the 60s instead of the 80s, in the end, both bands have a very similar feel, and I enjoy them both quite a bit.
Now that I've caught up with all of the emo-ish stuff I've been digging over the past month, I will hopefully start posting more regularly again. I can already tell you that the next piece in my Spin audition saga will be coming up in the next few days: it's a review of "Meltdown" by Ash, and I've already written a draft of it. Check back here for that midweek, and although I don't like to promise anything as far as coming attractions (since I know how flaky I am about stuff), I think it's at least reasonably certain that I will be writing about the new Queens of the Stone Age album at some point in the near future. Til then...