8/27/2007

Sleep.

I first heard about Split Lip during their mid-90s heyday, and back then, pretty much everyone was over the moon about them. They had the kind of reputation, both as a live and a studio act, that was better than great. People talked about them in awed, hushed tones, as if these were gods that walked the earth. They were apparently somewhere between hardcore and emo, but kids from both sides of that particular divide loved them. I was equally into both of those styles of music, and the idea of a crossbreed that brought out this kind of reaction in people was nearly impossible to imagine. I thought Split Lip must sound like alchemy, like magic.

Back in those days, you couldn't transmit music over the internet yet. And in fact, although I was aware of the internet, I didn't have access to it. Other than students at certain colleges, I didn't know anyone who did. Because of these things, it was much, much harder to locate music by bands than it is now. You had to hope for a distro getting a record in stock, or it showing up in your local punk-friendly record store (if you even had one of those... Richmond had two, but we were very lucky), and sometimes that took ages. And forget hearing a band before you bought their albums. Back then, if a band's reputation was good enough, or maybe even if their label's reputation was good enough, you just bought the record. You couldn't wait until you heard it and come back, since it probably wouldn't still be wherever you saw it by the time you did hear it (if you ever even did--that was not something you could take for granted). You just bought it.

When I finally got the opportunity to do this with Split Lip, it was their second album, "Fate's Got A Driver", that I came across. And you'd think that after all the hype I'd heard, there'd be no way this record or any other could live up to the expectations set for it. On the contrary, though, this was one of the rare times that they did. Split Lip were brilliant. They knew how to use rhythms and song structuring methods that came from the hardcore scene in the context of writing more melodic songs, and in doing so, wrote some of the most intensely emotional songs that I'd ever heard. "Union Town", "Five Year Diary", and "Her Side Of Sundown" in particular all blew me away--but really, the whole album did (other than the Tracy Chapman cover, which was the last track on side two and could therefore be easily ignored anyway).

All of that was a long time ago. After "Fate's Got A Driver", Split Lip changed their name to Chamberlain and made a couple of Bruce Springsteen/John Mellencamp style heartland rock albums. They were good, but despite the fact that it was all of the same people, they were a different band. And even that band broke up a long time ago. I eventually obtained the first Split Lip album, "For The Love Of The Wounded", and though it wasn't as consistent as "Fate's Got A Driver", it had some great songs on it. In fact, it's one of those songs that I've found myself going back to over and over lately. Track two on side one. "Sleep."

Split Lip still had a bit more hardcore than emo in their sound at the time of "For The Love Of The Wounded." "Sleep" is the most melodic song on that album, and points the way towards what they did on "Fate's Got A Driver". But sometimes the transitional material by a band has its own particular magic, separate both from what comes before and what comes after. Sometimes it's the best stuff they ever did. I wouldn't say that about "Sleep", but it's definitely a unique song in Split Lip's catalog. In fact, lately, when I put on "For The Love Of The Wounded", I more often than not get far enough into it to hear "Sleep" and then have to move the needle back to the beginning again. I play it over and over, because nothing else on that album can compare to it.

It starts out with a driving hardcore riff that is elevated by David Moore's vocal melody into something far catchier. He sings at least an octave above the riff, and the melody hooks into your brain and doesn't let go. There's a great deal of emotion in his voice, and the fact that I can't understand a single word he's saying matters not at all. The chorus has a bit of early 90s hardcore style chugging in its riff, but is mostly melodic; however, it flows directly into a half-speed breakdown that sounds almost moshy, though certainly not in the context in which it's placed. This is followed by another verse/chorus repetition, which is still good, but is overshadowed by the long section that begins directly after the second post-chorus breakdown. This is the part that really puts this song in a class by itself.

The guitars and bass ring on the last chord of the breakdown, and only the drums continue to play, still at half the speed of the verse and chorus. After two measures, during which Moore mutters something mostly inaudible, the guitars and bass come back in, chugging a few times at the beginning of each measure but other than that remaining silent, leaving the drums and vocals to carry the song. As this section progresses, it becomes apparent that the chords the guitars are chugging on are the same basic chords that make up the verse riff in the song, only now it's taking them four measures to get through one repetition of the riff. All of this dramatic chugging and pausing only heightens the drama that David Moore is already creating with his vocal. His singing on the earlier parts of the song is intense, but if anything, this section is even more so, his voice working through a more elaborate version of the verse melody, drawing it out to cover the same amount of time as it's taking the guitars to work through the riff. After two repetitions of this melody, one of the guitarists breaks off chugging to start playing a repeating arpeggio. Before he does this, the riff sounds mostly like a hardcore breakdown, with the thick chugging of the guitars overriding the slightly melodic nature of the riff they're actually playing. However, the arpeggio combines with Moore's vocals to greatly increase the melodic element of this section, and therefore heighten the melodramatic emotional feel that much more.

The amount of tension that's being built here seems designed to quickly reach a crescendo, after which some sort of explosion will occur. But Split Lip have obviously heard this done many times before, and there seems to be a desire to push things farther, to build up the tension even more, before releasing it. Therefore, instead of slamming back into the chorus riff after four repetitions of the verse riff, they keep going with it, but with only the bass continuing to play the basic chords. After two repetitions with the repeating arpeggio, the other guitarist also abandons the chugging chords and starts to play a lead of his own. By now, Moore has been joined by a second track of his own vocals, singing an octave lower than his lead vocal and carrying a completely different melody. I can just imagine that it's things like this that gave Split Lip such a towering reputation in the mid 90s hardcore/emo scenes. Granted, the double-tracked vocal couldn't work live (my theory is that the bass player probably sang this part live--but who knows? I wasn't there), but the layered structure of the music undoubtedly would, and I can't imagine the sheer overwhelming emotion that would have been felt by a crowd of angst-ridden teenagers crammed into a VFW hall or a basement by the time that Split Lip worked themselves up to this point in the song. I can remember bursting into tears at times like that, and not even necessarily knowing why I was crying, but looking around me and seeing that several other kids near me were doing the same thing. That might sound cheesy now--I have no doubt that it appeared cheesy to many people even then--but to me, at the time, it felt important, like barriers were falling inside my heart and mind. I have no doubt that these experiences shaped the person I grew into, and I'm sure many other kids (both then and now) who've had the same experiences would agree. These days, I'm older and wiser, and far less likely to cry at the climactic moment of a band's set. But when I listen to "Sleep", I can still remember exactly why it used to happen. Those emotions are still not very far from the surface, even now.

Split Lip - Sleep
(This is an .m4a file--I hope that's not a problem for anyone. If it is, leave a comment and I can see about converting it and posting an .mp3 version.)

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