Funeral Diner and the redemption of screamo.
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.