By now we all know the story: Christian boys start band, band get fans, fans like band, fans turn band into most popular screamo band on the planet, band turns against screamo, leaves it dead on the side of the road, and become most popular hardcore band on the planet. Band write brutally killer songs, name drop J.C. on stage, and somehow manage to not make either hardcore music, or Christianity, look lame.
A couple years have passed since the popularity explosion that had everyone—from eleventeen-year-old MySpace mavens to chachi bros with frosted tips and brass pick-up truck balls—”up against the wall.” In that time they’ve given up on the formula that made them famous, given up on the lack of formula that made them Billboard heroes (their previous album’s #2 debut was the highest Christian label debut in nearly 10 years), and now it seems, have given up on the concept of formula altogether.
The record seems to land at times, between their fourth (but first real) album, 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, and their previous release, 2006’s Define The Great Line. Almost as if the shift between those two was so colossal that the shift from Define to Separation feels anti-climatic by comparison. Sonically, it’s a bit of a scramble for cover. A smart bomb of riffs and kicks and clever ideas. Sort of like they were told,”your talent’s been stolen … go find it.”
The first ten seconds of “Breathing In A New Mentality” rip us out of the gate with a terribly simple, terribly produced drumbeat, and after some of Spencer Chamberlain’s distant hollering, falls apart a la train-wreck-jam-session mode. For a second it’s all up in the air, up the sleeve, hard to call. Then it rears back in for real: loud as hell, heavy as heck, and Chamberlain’s outcry is, “I’m the desperate, you’re the savior.”
They’re back. And they’re angry. Or desperate, apparently.
There’s a serious language gap between music like this and a good majority of the fair-minded general public. More so than perhaps any other genre. And as hard as I try, I see no mode of translation, and no way to crack the barrier. Either this sort of music weaves into your heart and head until you can’t help but throwdown or windmill kick someone in the face, or it just gets to you (ie, headaches, confusion, hate-fueled anxiety). And I get the feeling that to the untrained ear, it feels comprised of the most mundane, meaningless structures, and boring unnecessary instrumentation. There could be validity to that (other than the fact that a lack of understanding forfeits most of your critical credibility), but I’ll humor you and say that at times, each instrument has its moment of blandness. Why heavy music would be the only genre held to this critical standard however, is beyond me. Separate any band into their un-summed parts and you’ll be bored to death. What I’m trying to say is that sometimes mediocre elements add up to great success.
The record goes on. It unfolds, and half way through you go back to track one because you realize the fuzzy bass, kick-drum breakdown kicked ass. You skip ahead to the sparse bridge and better-than-ever-singing on “Anyone Can Dig A Hole But It Takes A Real Man To Call It Home.” You get shivers for a second during “The Only Survivor Was Miraculously Unharmed”—not because of its Shyamalan reference, but because for a second you hear the ghosts of Living Sacrifice. And on it goes.
Define The Great Line was different for the sake of being different, because the rest of the screamo world was killing their sound. This time, out of reach of most any peers, they’ve made their best attempt at a truly cohesive album. Drummer/singer Aaron Gillespie has stepped up, by stepping down. Instead of relying on him for every formulaic hook, they use him sparsely letting the songs track their own path. He veers into some much slower-than-expected moments, and even entire down-tempo songs (not an everyday decision for a band this used to quickly hammering through things), while Chris Dudley’s electronic presence feels very deliberate, and guitarist Tim McTague’s squeakingly close feedback racket creates a blurry, slightly more chaotic mood than usual. If a slight increase in chaos is possible.
“Emergency Broadcast: The End Is Near” and “Too Bright To See Too Loud To Hear” show the most signs of change, departing from the common Underoath elements (most notably the former, which sinks into a slow heavy groove reminiscent of Zao, Mortal, and other plodding industrial/metal label mates of yore.) The latter messes with the best unused Thrice melodies, Radiohead inspired techno-moods, and an unexpected mewithoutYou-style indie rock clap-along chant. It also brings some beautiful baggage along with it, in a call back to the closing lines of “Some Will Seek Forgiveness Others Escape,” the closing track from 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety, which included the lyric, “Jesus, I’m ready to come home.” That line said so much with so little, culminating all the emotions that might cause a tired believer to long for unknown glory. Not to mention setting the bar for last line, last song, statements of musical faith from other secularly-lauded Christian buzz artists (Relient K, the Rocket Summer, Paramore, etc.) So it’s an unexpected whisper of the past to hear “can you still get us home … we’re forgetting our forgiveness” near the closing minutes of this new album. Not exactly at the end this time mind you, but still close. A reminder of where they’ve been and the growing pains that come with, well, growing up.
Its easy to take an album like this for granted because its not “heavier” than its predecessor, and therefore ends up not feeling like any sort of real progression. But when compared to Define and especially Chasing Safety its like comparing kids peeing in a sandbox, to building sand casltes of glory. It’s humble, head-rattling hardcore, which (besides the occasional misuse of Gillespie’s melodies) seems more and more like it knows no real limits. Or at the very least, doesn’t seem to care.
Jordan Kurtz is a Patrol music editor.
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