Duality of self, separation from wholeness.

I've been listening to Underoath for the better part of a decade now, and while it sometimes surprises me that I continue to play their records so frequently, all I have to do is listen to them again to realize why that is. Their music speaks to me on a deep level that most other musicians have been unable to reach. I'm still not at a point where I will tell people that they are one of my favorite bands, but in real terms, I probably play their records more often than those of the bands I do claim as favorites. This feels strange to me, for a variety of reasons. For one, as an agnostic with tendencies towards atheism, it's odd to feel such a deep connection to the music of an openly Christian band who regularly make reference to their religion in their lyrics. Furthermore, Underoath are generally regarded as music for teenagers who shop at Hot Topic. Their music is not regarded as serious, and the emotion that fuels it is seen as immature. The genres in which they can most easily be filed--metalcore, emo, screamo--are also seen as insubstantial; rockcrit types write them off as insubstantial, commercial in that they appeal to superficially rebellious teens who, again, will outgrow them by the time they're out of college.

And yet, for all that, I cannot help but love Underoath. The standard state of my emotions is also lumped into that immature teenaged pigeonhole, regardless of the fact that I'm in my mid-30s; our society's discussion of such things has no way of dealing with emotional problems that carry past adolescence besides labeling them as arrested development, which is a fact that I consider a failure on society's part. There absolutely is validity in the idea of emotional struggles continuing well into adulthood, and being part of our lives for most if not all of the time we're alive. I think maybe it even helps that Underoath are Christian; within a religious framework, they are given much more freedom to discuss issues like this openly and without risk of condemnation. In fact, I see Underoath's mindset as particularly advanced in light of the typical Christian mentality in America. Where a lot of American Christians follow the hard-right political party line of evangelical Christianity, buying into an idea of spiritual materialism that seems explicitly opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Underoath have openly advocated for liberal political positions. Vocalist Spencer Chamberlain has also talked in interviews about his struggles with drug abuse and mental illness. That's probably why I've seen myself in so many of the songs they've written; their album Define The Great Line was a concept album about struggling with suicidal impulses, and finding the hope and the will to turn away from those thoughts and believe that life was worth living. This sort of doubt and struggle is something that mainline American Christianity usually has no room for. You won't find most religious figures admitting to any sort of doubt--they're all about their solid, unshakable faith. Underoath are a band who manage to straddle the line between religion and humanity, between faith and doubt, and when they speak from that position, the things they say and the emotions they express are ones that I relate to.

Their most recent album, Lost In The Sound Of Separation, has been harder for me to connect with than the two that came before. They're Only Chasing Safety was the first album to feature Spencer Chamberlain on vocals, and the first one that I really loved. Previously, with Dallas Taylor still on vocals, they'd done an album called The Changing Of Times, which featured one song I'd really liked, "While The Sun Sleeps." On that song, drummer Aaron Gillespie did some melodic vocals which, when contrasted with Taylor's screaming vocals, sounded pretty great to me. I loved the way they mixed melody with heaviness on that song. When the rest of the album was much more straightforward in its heaviness, though, I couldn't find as much to get into. The introduction of Chamberlain into the band on They're Only Chasing Safety really helped, though. Once Chamberlain was in the band, he and Gillespie traded off on vocals more often than not, and all of the songs focused equally on melody and heaviness. Sometimes it seemed a little silly for the band's drummer to sing quite as much as he did on that album, leaving the actual singer with little to do, but a more equitable balance was achieved on Define The Great Line. That, coupled with lyrical topics that reached me on a deep level, made it my favorite Underoath album thus far.

Lost In The Sound Of Separation had a lot to live up to, and while I was very excited for it, and rushed right out to buy it, I was always prepared for it to be a letdown. I liked it when I got it, so it wasn't a total disappointment, but when compared to the two previous albums, I found it a bit harder to get into. For that reason, once I got over the novelty of a new Underoath album, I put it aside, and went back to spending a lot more time with They're Only Chasing Safety and Define The Great Line. Even though I certainly liked it, I don't think I ever connected with Lost In The Sound Of Separation the way I had connected with those two. When I was playing Underoath this moring, it was They're Only Chasing Safety that I put on. But tonight, I thought about how long it had been since I played Lost In The Sound Of Separation and decided to give it a listen again. And tonight, I heard a few things in it that I'd never heard before--things that helped me find a way into an album that had previously been somewhat of a mystery.

The Changing Of Times was the first Underoath album that attempted to introduce melody into their sound. The focus was generally on heaviness, though, and the album suffered as a result. Lost In The Sound Of Separation is the heaviest, least melodic Underoath album since The Changing Of Times, but it would be inaccurate to say that it suffers. Five years ago, it seemed that their songs were effective in direct proportion to how melodic they were. In the intervening time, though, Underoath have learned to make their heavy parts just as interesting as their melodies, perhaps because, with the focus on heaviness decreased, they had to make those parts count. The result is that when, on Lost In The Sound, they decided to focus more energy on being heavy, they were able to apply lessons they learned in the interim, and make the songs better than they would have been in 2003.

That said, the melodies were the most accessible elements of Underoath's songwriting on the previous albums featuring Chamberlain on vocals. Whenever a chorus came around, Gillespie would take the vocal lead, with Chamberlain reduced to occasional screams as counterpoint, or punctuation. Those choruses were the payoff to the buildup in momentum generated by the heavy riffs. On Lost In The Sound, the choruses are often just as heavy as the verses. In fact, there are songs here on which Chamberlain's screams are the only vocals. Opener "Breathing In A New Mentality" is one of these, and while terms like "emo" are frequently used to describe Underoath, there's nothing emo about this song. This is straight up metallic hardcore. As previously mentioned, Underoath have learned to use heavy parts to build tension and increase momentum. On this song, though, they are not building towards a melodic chorus. Instead, the buildup, which is fed throughout the first half of the song by a fast hardcore drumbeat and Chamberlain's howling vocals, is leading up to a neck-snapping mosh breakdown that hits 90 seconds into the album. The riff chugs in fits and starts, seeming more appropriate for desperate flailing than anything as structured as the sort of fist-swinging martial arts moves that dominate the mosh pits at the kind of shows Underoath play. That desperate flailing is there in Chamberlain's lyrics too: "Oh God, my hands are shaking again," he screams, ordering himself to "calm down" as he narrates his panic: "I can't feel the floor, and my vision takes its toll on me. There must be some kind of mistake." This sounds like the narrative of a drug trip gone wrong, and considering what Chamberlain has revealed about his struggles with addiction, there's good reason to interpret this song that way. As it ends, he attempts to give himself a pep talk ("They say I'll never change--I'll prove them wrong"), but ends up on the floor, begging for mercy: "Clean me up, show me how to live. Let me start again."

Without pause, the band slams into the second song, which is given a long and thought-provoking title: "Anyone Can Dig A Hole But It Takes A Real Man To Call It Home." In light of the way the song starts, it's impossible to take this title as anything but sarcasm. "I'm no leader, I'm just a mess," Chamberlain screams as the band blasts through an uptempo hardcore riff. "That's not the way it's supposed to be, but it's the way it is." It's not clear what he's blaming himself for here, but there's obviously blame being placed as he ends the first verse with the line, "I've led us all astray again," then screams "Oh, how the plot thickens!" over a guitar lead that flows into the next riff. The lines he sings on the next verse strike me as particularly poignant: "We always assume the worst. I'm afraid no one's listening anymore." This is a feeling I know all too well. And the song continues in this vein for its entire first half until, at the end of the second verse, Chamberlain screams, "I should have been gone so long ago." At this point, the music drops back into a quiet, pensive lull for the first time on the entire album. Aaron Gillespie is still keeping time on his drum kit, tapping the rims of his snare and floor tom, but other than some feedback and volume swells from one of the guitarists, this is all we hear for about 10 seconds. And then, for the first time on the album, he begins to sing.

On previous Underoath albums, Gillespie and Chamberlain's vocal parts were so evenly balanced that they generally just finished each other's sentences and combined in other ways to sing a unified vocal narrative. They still do this most of the time on Lost In The Sound Of Separation, but with Gillespie's vocals appearing less often, it opens the door for his vocal parts to take a different role. On "Any Man Could Dig A Hole," his voice seems to represent a different point of view than is expressed by Chamberlain. It's tempting, in light of the Christian slant of Underoath's lyrics, to see Gillespie as the voice of god (in the same way that Dan Hoerner's backing vocals on Sunny Day Real Estate's "Song About An Angel" represent the voice of god speaking to lead vocalist Jeremy Enigk's human character), but the lyrics don't support this interpretation. Gillespie is here representing another side of the same character that Chamberlain is playing--and if Chamberlain is singing from his own point of view, then Gillespie is the positive voice in the back of his mind, providing counterpoint to the panicked doomsaying that is running things up front.

Gillespie's vocals begin during the quiet drum break halfway through "Any Man Could Dig A Hole," and while this is probably a trick done in post-production, it sounds like he's singing from the back of the room in which the band is playing, and his voice is being picked up by the mics on his drums. "I can't get away from it all," he sings, his voice echoing through the airspace taken up by the song. "I messed up like I always do." And suddenly, the entire band is playing again, and Gillespie's voice has jumped to the forefront of the mix. "I gave you nothing, I took you nowhere, but you're still listening." Of course, this is a prayer. And yet, for an agnostic like myself, it seems like something else entirely. If Chamberlain's vocal in the first half of the song is self-flagellation, a desperate plea for forgiveness, Gillespie's vocal here is a recognition that, regardless of whether he deserves it, he still has the love and support of his friends. I've been struggling a lot lately with an inability to be the best friend I can be; I haven't been there for people, and when I am around, I feel like a drain on the energy of everyone in the room with me. Social interactions are hard for me at the best of times, and lately, I feel so desperately lonely and unable to connect with other people that, when I do get around other people, I find myself taking actions to alienate them and embarrass myself. Sometimes it is truly incredible to realize that my good friends still love me, still want me around, even in spite of how hard I can be to deal with. What Gillespie is expressing here is something I feel quite often, even though I can be terrible at expressing it.

The "separation" of this album's title is clearly a reference to separation from god, from a completeness and perfection that humanity keeps from all of us. To someone who believes in the Christian religion, this perfection is something that they hope to achieve after death, but will by definition prove to be elusive in life. And yet, they feel they must always try to be a good person, to get as close as they can to living a perfect life, so that they can be worthy of god's love and respect. I don't know about any conception of god, but for me, this struggle is reflected in my struggle to be worthy of my own love and respect. My ideas of what's right, what's good, and how I should be living all shift and change constantly, but I'm always trying to be as close to them as possible. And again, because I am human, I know I can't ever fully get there. In this way, I feel a kinship with the struggles of Christians, even if I don't believe in their god. And Underoath spend much of this album attempting to capture the duality of the human condition, the distance between perfect ideal and imperfect reality.

One of the most interesting ways in which they focus on this separation has nothing to do with lyrics. "Emergency Broadcast: The End Is Near" is the first Underoath song that I've ever heard that can only be fully understood when heard through headphones. Aaron Gillespie's drums are separated into two tracks and panned to the extreme left and right of the stereo mix; it sounds like there might be two different drum parts being played, but at first, you can't really be sure. It might just be a post-production effect. But as the song goes on--and it is the longest song on the album, nearly six minutes in length--differences in the two drum tracks become obvious. In one speaker, there will be a fill, while in the other speaker, the drums just keep playing the beat. At one point, during a short bridge, the two different drum tracks keep time in two completely different rhythms, both of which are appropriate for the part, but in combination are quite disorienting. Overtop of this multiplicity of beats, the rest of the band plays a dark, tribal rhythm that fits well with the percussion overload. Lyrically, Chamberlain struggles with the fact of his mortality, and the mortality of all things. But he doesn't come from the typical Christian perspective indicated by the song's title. This is not a Revelation-inspired pre-apocalyptic rant. No, in fact, it seems to be a political song. "We will be the new ice age. We will be the new plague. Disguised as a colony, we will wipe them all away. Feast your eyes, or just rip them out... We are the cancer. We are the virus." I can imagine Gehenna singing these same lyrics, the inherent despair in their pessimistic view of the human takeover of the Earth offset only by the song's final line: "Tell me it's not too late."

"We Are The Involuntary" is one of the album's best songs musically, and in giving the album its title, also makes overt reference to reaching for something divine. This one is about religion for sure. So why do I feel such a connection with it? "Hands in the air and love at our sides, there's got to be something bigger." I may not be reaching for divinity, but I feel this same desire in my life a lot of the time. It is hard to go through day after day feeling like your actions have no purpose. It's hard to deal with your life seeming meaningless, like you're just staying alive because of the survival instinct common to all animals. I've never been someone who was satisfied with being well-fed and comfortable. I want to be putting something into the world to make it a better place. Every time I go a day without writing, without using the talents I have to give, I feel like I'm wasting the day. "Under the glass behind it all, watch us crawl so fearfully," Chamberlain sings on "We Are The Involuntary." It's true--this is much of the human condition. Struggle, failure, fear, and regret. But there is another side to what we're capable of, and "We Are The Involuntary" showcases that side as well. For the first half of the song, Chamberlain sings all of the words over heavy, pounding verses and quieter but still dark and understated choruses that are more like a bridge than a true chorus. Halfway through the song, things start to fall apart, with the guitars degenerating into feedback as the drums are left to carry on by themselves. Chamberlain is screaming over this part, but even his voice isn't enough toe keep things together, and finally everything stops. After a few seconds of unstructured feedback, Gillespie's voice, almost inaudible, counts the band back in, and they launch into a heavy breakdown over which Chamberlain screams the album's title. And then the song changes completely. The guitars begin playing an understated melody, and Aaron Gillespie begins singing the lead vocal. The "hand in the air" line quoted at the beginning of this paragraph is his first line, and it's fitting that the song's emotional tone changes completely as he starts to sing it. "I'll come up for peace, I'll come up for truth," he continues, focusing on the positive things that make life worth it. Here again, we have opposite thought processes existing simultaneously, with Chamberlain and Gillespie representing the negative and positive sides of the same issue. These songs document the separation.

"Coming Down Is Calming Down" was my favorite song on this album the first time I heard it, and it still is a year and a half later. Unlike most of the songs on Lost In The Sound Of Separation, "Coming Down Is Calming Down" would not seem out of place on the previous Underoath album, Define The Great Line. Its musical structure is more akin to those used on that album, with heavy verses contrasting, and building towards, melodic choruses. Lyrically, it also fits with Define's songs of personal struggle, stepping away from the duality explored on much of this album to have Gillespie and Chamberlain speak in one voice again, seeking solace and reassurance in dark times. Therefore, I suppose, the song that I like the best on this album is not nearly as thematically linked to the rest of it as it is to the earlier Underoath work that I always liked better anyway. That's OK, though, because "Coming Down Is Calming Down" provides a more accessible way into an album that can be a bit inaccessible at first. If there hadn't been a song like this on here, I might have been a good bit more disappointed with this album than I otherwise have been. I might not have stuck with it long enough to make the connections I've made to it tonight.

But let's talk about this song for a minute. I don't know why it is that I've always related so strongly to Underoath's lyrics about depression and anxiety, since they are generally expressed as prayers to god. My best guess is that it's easy for me to transpose the pleading tone taken in "Coming Down Is Calming Down" and other, similar songs from one addressed towards a divine figure to one addressed to friends and potential friends. A lot of times, my depression takes the form of feeling like no one is listening, no one cares, and no one understands. I'm sure the more erudite cultural critics would consider such feelings, when expressed in song, cliched and immature. But when those musical expressions ring so true, and connect so deeply, not just for me but for many other listeners, it seems uncharitable at best, callous at worst, to turn up one's nose at songs that make thousands of lonely people feel a little less alone. When Aaron Gillespie leads into the chorus of "Coming Down Is Calming Down" by singing, "I've been losing my footing here," I know what he means. All too frequently, I sing along with it not just because I like the melody but because I've been feeling the same way lately. That isn't the line that hits me the hardest, though. What really gets me is what Chamberlain screams in the second verse: "I put my words out there for you to hear, but they never made much sense to you." This is my worst fear--that all of the writing that I do will never amount to anything. This is why I don't actively solicit paid writing jobs. I don't have enough confidence in what I do to believe that I deserve to make my living from it. Everything I've ever done for anyone else has been coincidental, something I've fallen into rather than something I actively tried to achieve. I'm terrified that if I worked towards making my words a way to keep me alive, that I would fail. I don't want to be a failure at the only thing I love to do, at the only thing that's ever made me feel like a worthwhile human being whose existence was justifiable. So when I speak, I do it quietly, in a little-used corner of the internet. I try to disturb as few people as possible. I want to believe that I deserve better, but I desperately fear that even this is too much to ask for.

There is no perfect version of me, not attainable through prayer or worship or any sort of blessing that will occur after I'm dead. At least, I don't think so. But I can't stop trying to believe that there is some better version of me, that I can improve, that I have free will and the ability to conquer my fears, to transcend my current lowly, struggling state. While I'm here, the music of Underoath makes me feel better, because they admit to their own doubts and speak their own fears aloud. More important, though, is the fact that they never lose hope. Even on an album that mostly focuses on Spencer Chamberlain's desperate, panicked screams, Aaron Gillespie's clean, melodic vocals step in on occasion to offer a hopeful, positive counterpoint. When I listen to Underoath, I feel like someone understands. But I also feel like things might get better. Maybe I am separate from the best version of myself that I can be, but in the music of Underoath, I find hope that I can get there someday. This gift, given freely, has such importance for me that any disagreement over religion pales in comparison. I'm sure I'll keep listening for a long time to come.