Nights Like These - The Faithless [GodCity Studio Recording]
A sort of counterpart to the label’s own Premonitions of War, Nights Like These were one of those gems hidden deep in the rough of the less commercially-viable end of Victory Records’ roster, and should have received more acclaim and exposure, but didn’t. Night Like These are no longer signed to Victory Records but continue to release music independently (in fact, they released a record just three years ago, and it’s as powerful and dynamic as anything found here), but prior to Victory, the band had a shot at something different.
Demos exist of a version of The Faithless recorded at Kurt Ballou’s GodCity Studio before the band decided that Victory Records would be a better fit. These demos were not so much scrapped as set aside so the band could re-record their debut at Victory’s behest, leading to the longer and more polished version still available on Victory’s webstore. The GodCity demos now float around on the internet, gathering dust on forgotten blogspots. This version of The Faithless is distinguishable from the Victory recording in a couple of ways: the tracklist lacks “Ghost Town Rituals” and “Eternal Tempest,” which were recorded to pad out the runtime to a grand total of twenty-six minutes (incidentally, the same length as Left in Kowloon), and the song “Memento Mori” retains its original title, “Eggbeater Abortion,” which makes something of a dark joke out of the sanitized retitle.
Also, Nights Like These sound fucking feral. Not that they don’t on the Victory recording--it’s hard to neuter a sound with balls like these--but it’s the difference of Kurt Ballou, which, as seasoned listeners know, is all the difference. The Victory Faithless hits like a hammer. The GodCity Faithless strikes like a knife. Take your pick. I’ll be writing mainly on the GodCity recordings because I feel it’s a better representation of what Nights Like These intended the record to be in terms of sequencing and attitude, which is one of violent, unrelenting bleakness--and, given the American Metalcore Project’s interest in an “alternative history” of the genre, this is really the only route to go.
The Victory Records blurb touches on one salient point: Nights Like These are natives of Memphis, Tennessee, “born out of the city that birthed rock n’ roll”--and, thanks to Norma Jean, one of the most iconic cities in metalcore. Sonically, their closest parallel is Premonitions of War (“Ghost Town Rituals” even sounds like a pastiche of “Black Den” and “The Octopus” from POW’s full-length), but it’s possible to hear strains of Mastodon, Coalesce, Buried Alive, and even The Silent Circus-era Between the Buried and Me in their more spastic moments and in their submerged sense of musicality, providing a refreshing groundedness to the record’s heavier-than-thou approach.
Many of these songs are older than either recording, as Nights Like These were a prolifically active band in their home scene, honing their hooks and edges on the strop of an enthusiastic fanbase. “Storming Valhalla,” “Destroy the Stairs,” and “Eggbeater Abortion” are obvious favorites, full of cascading forward momentum and breakneck riffing, as well as quick, nearly subliminal jazz chords. The production is dense and somewhat demo-y (especially in comparison to its more polished Victory incarnation), but not without its nuances: the snare thunders through the mix, and the guitarwork, while muddy and occasionally incomprehensible as the band works up a froth, is forward enough in the mix to match the vocals in brute volume and power without one drowning out the other. There's a noticeable distance between each instrument on the Victory release that is absent from the GodCity version, the effect being that Nights Like These sound like they're all in the same room, laying waste to everything in sight. “Scavenger’s Daughter” and “Let the Waters Overtake Us” are some of the album’s longest compositions, clocking in at over three minutes apiece (it’s that kind of record) and brimming with gang chants and panic chords--“Scavenger’s Daughter” even flirts with black metal, teasing another ingredient on the band’s shelf.
The band’s genealogy hews closer to death metal in its utter disregard for melody and taste for clobbering rhythmicality, mirroring The Red Shore on the Rise Records lineup: both arguably among the heaviest bands to ever sign to their respective label; both labels known to sign more conservative bands with greater commercial viability than what The Faithless and Unconsecrated, respectively, offer. While neither band quite got the run they deserved, one can only imagine what and where Nights Like These would be today if The Faithless was part of the Deathwish, Inc. stable. The fact that they never toured with labelmates Premonitions of War is only one example of Victory’s mishandling of both. Perhaps we wouldn’t have gotten their lackluster sophomore release, Sunlight at Secondhand, and skipped straight to the more natural, mature tones of Old Youth Culture a decade earlier; and where that may have led is anyone’s guess.
Premonitions of War - Left in Kowloon (2004)
Left in Kowloon is named after an urban district in Hong Kong best known for its Walled City, which is just what it sounds like: a city surrounded by massive walls, originally conceived as military fortifications. It fell under the anarchic rule of the Chinese mafia and descended into lawlessness. Sometimes called the City of Darkness, it became a terrifying confusion of opium dens and brothels, narrow streets and cramped spaces, and was overrun with crime, poverty, prostitution, and overpopulation in a matter of years. In complement to its namesake, there is a monstrous claustrophobia to Left in Kowloon: with the average runtime per song clocking in around two minutes and just about every one of them consisting of harried drumwork and strangled riffing, it’s stylistically more in the camp of grind and death metal than many of their peers on--of all labels--Victory Records. Says guitarist M. Gaytan:
"Recording Kowloon included a lot of late nights fueled by coffee and Cuban guava pastries. We worked through evenings and mornings for 3 weeks straight, which definitely added to the genuine bitterness and the emphatic bleakness of the recording. It was amazing to record with [Erik] Rutan as we’ve all looked up to the bands he’s been in and the recordings that were done in this studio like Hate Eternal and Krisiun."
Left in Kowloon makes a supreme effort to blend a list of influences that include Napalm Death, Pig Destroyer, and Neurosis, as well as a number of out-of-the-box references from southern rock and electronic music. It would be hyperbolic to say that they’re all felt, but it’s exciting to hear how many of these ingredients actually filter through: as early as “Layover,” we’re hearing hints of the flanged chords that later dominate “Black Den,” amid the sort of muscular dynamics you wouldn’t bat an eye at in the midst of a (slower) Dillinger Escape Plan song. “The Octopus” is a highlight, with its unabashed southern stutter; five-minute noise piece “Cables Hum Overhead” unsettles with waves of nauseating industrial static and clanging percussion. It’s easy to see why Premonitions of War were brought along for tours with The Red Chord and The Black Dahlia Murder, as they more than hold their own.
The first third of the album, roughly from “Mother Night Revisited” to “One Constant Volume,” comprises six minutes of the album’s most aggressive and technical material, and could function well independently--the bluesy misery of “Black Den” can be found in stray guitar licks of “One Constant Volume” like, well, premonitions of what’s coming, and “Stolen Breath” is a gymnastics workout that feels like it should be much longer than fifty-seven seconds. But it’s the “middle ten” of “Black Den” and “Cables Hum Overhead” that bring the album’s scope into focus. Together, this pair of songs runs four minutes longer than the preceding five songs and make up the brunt of the album’s runtime, at once opening up POW’s arsenal and pulling some of the album’s shortcomings to the fore. “Black Den” is a natural progression from “One Constant Volume”; it ramps up the tension by reducing the tempo, and resembles something out of the early Neurosis playbook. By the time it lurches to an end, the track has built up such a head of steam that the ballistic “Citizen” come as a relief, and makes as much sense as the previous transition from “One Constant Volume” into “Black Den.” But “Cables Hum Overhead” counters that logic. Noise tracks are a rarity among heavier metalcore bands, and frequently end up filler. To be fair, “Cables Hum Overhead” is an exception, a well-constructed noise track that’s simply misplaced, and would serve best as a closer--a musical representation of the eerie chasm adorning the cover. Perhaps it’s the fault of those rushed recording sessions and overcaffeinated nights.
But Gaytan isn’t exaggerating Kowloon’s “emphatic bleakness.” Between its visual aesthetic of urban rot and pessimistic lyrics, it’s one of the slickest, most seamless statements of second-wave metalcore. Looming over it is the specter of World War II, and to some extent, Vietnam; they unify the album along a loose but compelling narrative of hopelessness and futility that stops just short of concept-album territory. The lyrics of “Mother Night Revisited” are riddled with “vials and spoons,” bitten tongues and foaming mouths; the markers of a habit fueled by the paranoia and desperation of “Layover” and “Stolen Breath.” The former’s call to “outrun them on everyone’s time but my own” in search of “total silence / a welcoming foreign language,” hints at thoughts of desertion and finds motive in the “overwhelming failure” and “decay” of “Night Soil”; in the futility of the “undone and ever-changing,” the “sad fences and filled-in fountains,” the “pennies in the eyes of dragons”--one of the record’s most evocative images--leading to the stoned haze of “One Constant Volume” and “Black Den.” One can imagine the latter was only a retitling or two from “Opium Den.”
Perhaps solely in this context, the placement of “Cables Hum Overhead” makes sense. There isn’t much to go off lyrically (“Lines stretched out to storm and torch,” an eerie image repeated ad nauseum), but its crawling atmosphere of dread has the feel of a bad trip, a drugged-up nightmare, or perhaps a revelation of the madness not just of the war, but of warfare itself. This clicks neatly with “Citizen” (full lyrics: “Personal exile is a personal utopia / Anonymity is bliss / a faceless nirvana amidst this horde of neon-huffing human refuse / strung out on fluorescence and pure-cut incandescence”), and the pathetic escape detailed in “The Octopus” (“Fingerprints on clouded-out transfers and identity theft / where forged documents guarantee safety / Shredded evidence of some obscure masquerade / of blurred nights held together by black ink and cold tones instead of warm voices and lies warmer still”). But there’s no happy ending for a deserter; only a forlorn desire to “disappear completely into deafening silence,” to let the “miles wash off,” their fate ultimately one of cowardice and isolation, “wandering aimlessly and throwing sidelong glances down unlit alleyways...off-limit mansions and dim light districts covering the escape.”
Left in Kowloon should be better-known, and the band deserved more attention for what they accomplished here; but Premonitions of War--along with Between the Buried and Me, Bloodlet, Deadguy, and Nights Like These--are part of a loose contingent of bands whose brief tenures with Victory Records saw the label struggling to market the more forward-thinking acts on their roster. To some degree, Victory can be held accountable for their obscurity at a stage in their careers when they should have been exploding in popularity. In any case: whether it’s a straightforward tale of desertion or an elaborate allegory for narcosis, Left in Kowloon feels like an important bridge--or perhaps a small, walled city of darkness--between the extremes of metalcore and the beginnings of deathcore.
December - The Lament Configuration (2002)
Reno, Nevada’s December have the unique distinction of being one of only four metalcore bands for whom Devin Townsend has produced, and of being the only one not to find widespread underground success. Townsend has a bit of a Midas touch for the genre; Misery Signals’ Of Malice and the Magnum Heart, Darkest Hour’s Deliver Us, and Bleeding Through’s Declaration are all commercial landmarks of the genre and in the careers of their respective bands, but for whatever reason, The Lament Configuration didn’t catch on like those records and failed to leave much of an impact. This is all the more curious, and all the more disappointing, because even Earache Records broke a three-year drought of American signings to scoop them up.
Technically their third album after a pair of self-released records, December are sonic cousins to The Sawtooth Grin, resembling a mature version of that band sans the anarchic humor (no “Satan Would Sit in the Smoking Section, But He Doesn’t Like the Creepy Waiter” here), but they compensate in sheer bludgeoning force. There’s an argument to be made that The Sawtooth Grin were their immaturity, but cuts like “Vertigo” and “The Sleeping Throne” make the counter-argument that, with a little discipline, they could have been more. The Lament Configuration may not have enjoyed the popularity of Magnum Heart or Declaration, but it is undeniably December at peak form, blending elements of grind, death metal, and mathcore in the sizzling cauldron of metalcore with finesse. The rhythm section of Asa Dakin (bass guitar) and Jason Thomas (drums) happen to also belong to fellow Nevadan progressive metal band Cranium, who released an album the same year as December. It’s easy to spot the influence of one on the other: The Lament Configuration’s barrage of time signatures and hair-pin songwriting calls to mind your average prog-metal band in double-time.
But December lack the flashiness of Cranium, substituting, as mentioned, grind and death metal for prog, as well as a smattering of industrial. They’re reminiscent of Napalm Death in those moments when they decide to cut loose and blast, but they can also bring to mind the manic density of Devin Townsend’s own Strapping Young Lad. That one artist found the other suddenly makes sense: while the production isn’t quite as sleek as other Townsend-produced records, you can imagine--and more importantly, hear--how he might have gone about coaxing the band into the maelstrom riffing of “Vertigo” and “Trial,” and the contortions of “By Example” and “Play Dead,” tapping their potential in fitful but satisfying bursts.
Some of the muddiness of the recording could be the result of budget constraints, but it may also have been the band’s choice, given that production on their prior record Praying Hoping Nothing is noticeably cleaner; leaving in the grit gives the guitarwork a certain OSDM edginess, and The Lament Configuration a rough-and-dirty aesthetic befitting their rough-and-dirty take on metalcore. If the record grows a little homogenous by the end, it’s less a sign of fatigue or repetitiveness than craftsmanship; December have a good grasp of how they want to sound virtually by the end of “Icenine,” and the album’s first half is eager to blindside the listener with pure technical prowess. The run from “The Sleeping Throne” to “Quiet Cold” shows the band circling their own work, picking, fussing, and fine-tuning it. It’s no surprise that “Quiet Cold” is the record’s most well-rounded song, a minor masterpiece of concussive riffing, fluid time-changes, and the sort of unique audio signature--a combination of production, songwriting, and performance--that a follow-up record would have probably taken to even more interesting extremes. There’s even the faintest hint of a saxophone in the album’s final seconds, a mysterious swirl of melody that seems to hint at a more experimental future.
Maybe the most surprising thing about The Lament Configuration is how modern it sounds, barring the production quality. Skimming reviews from the time of its release, you’ll see terms like “aggro-tech” brought up among comparisons to Meshuggah and Fear Factory. While you can hear some of the former, and a little of the latter if you try, these are not the bands that would spring to mind today on first listen. It’s a credit to December, but also a sign of how metalcore and heavy music in general have evolved; what was cutting-edge and indefinable two decades ago has become something of the norm.
Taken - And They Slept (2001)
“Screamo” is often used as a catch-all term by lazy listeners and music journalists for any music that utilizes screaming despite the fact that it’s a genre of its own, with distinct rules and hallmarks. It’s tricky to bring the term up in relation to metalcore since, for some reason, the two became erroneously synonymous at the turn of the century, and many are still wandering about under the impression that Atreyu, Orchid, and Underoath all belong to the same genre. It would be foolish to blame Taken, since they never achieved the level of popularity during their initial run as a band necessary to blur such lines, but someone somewhere stumbled on And They Slept and didn’t know what to make of its fusion of metalcore and screamo, which plays so naturally it transcends all three and defies easy categorization.
Taken knew they were iconoclasts. They relished their idiosyncrasies, thrived on thwarting expectation without compromising their core sound, which eschews most of the traditional sources of the metal part of the genre--thrash, Gothenburg, etc.--for Pg. 99, Circle Takes the Square, and Thursday, while hooking the rest of their wagon to the hard-bitten sounds of Drowningman, Converge, and The Dillinger Escape Plan for their -core. Taken earned themselves that other common mislabel, “emo,” thanks to vocalist Ray Harkins’ Geoff Rickly-ish singing: the way he oscillates between screams and off-key clean phrases on “Never An Answer,” and the way he commits to the histrionics of “Same Story, Different Day” and “Overshadowing at 100 East,” make a case for Taken drawing just as much inspiration from post-hardcore as screamo and metalcore--and, as if this shepherd’s pie of influences wasn’t already overstuffed:
“We put a part in every CD that we think is funny as hell that no one else will….The jazz part on [debut record Finding Solace in Dissention], it was funny to us, everyone else got pissed. I have a feeling it's going to be the same thing with the hand claps [on song “Overused History”] and I can't wait to hear it because that's what makes me laugh, when people get bent out of shape because we put hand claps on a CD, give me a freakin' break!”
And They Slept has a lot going on, but even the hand-claps, jazz passages, and emo flourishes aren’t what make it a difficult listen. The record is slippery in a way uncommon to metalcore. It seems always to be squeezing out of one’s grasp, coalescing for a moment around a fidgety riff, a vocal pattern, or a spritz of melody before it disintegrates and reforms around another. In moments of harmony, it’s dense and frantic; in moments of disarray, it’s insular and introspective, even mournful. Despite its inability--or unwillingness--to settle on a mood, the album has atmosphere to spare, one that haunts long past the album’s half-hour running time and demands repeat listens, at first just to investigate whether there is some underlying structure and not just the illusion of one projected by the short songs and musical repetitions. More of their framework emerges the more one listens--rickety, melted, and unstable, but metalcore through-and-through. “The Most Feared Thing” brings it into sharp relief with its Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline riffs and Harkins’s caustic screams.
Later, Mike Minnick of Curl Up and Die pops up to lend his voice to “Coward For You,” testifying that And They Slept and Unfortunately, We’re Not Robots do, in fact, belong to the same family tree. And the band sear the point in with the nitroglycerine of “What’s Best Right Now,” a song that never seems sure when it’s going to blow. In contrast, “Beauty in Dead Flowers” establishes the band as more than a metalcore band: it doesn’t feel like a break from Taken’s drums-bass-guitar set-up so much as a surprise jerking-back of the curtain, revealing the band’s core of sentimentality, but not of saccharinity; a mistake many of their peers tend to make. Bonus trivia: the piano that dominates the song is played by Molly Street, who also performed for Bleeding Through on Portrait of the Goddess.
Counterparts have cited Taken as a major influences, and Brendan Murphy, one of the biggest names in modern metalcore, has been vocal about his love for this “perfect band.” It’s not hard to hear the influence of Taken’s first record, Finding Solace in Dissension, in Counterpart’s heaviest moments, and the shadow of their final EP, Between Two Unseens, hanging over their more contemplative pieces; this is a band that have studied Taken through their phases, noted their successes, analyzed their (few and negligible) failures; and if you listen closely, you can hear how Counterparts have come to sound like a reimagining of the band Taken were, or a fantasy of what they could have become.
Theirs would have been a fine legacy to leave behind with an innovative discography, including a masterpiece in And They Slept, to their name. But, in a fortuitous alignment of things, Taken have today released their first new music in fourteen years; the same day The American Metalcore Project looks back on And They Slept! The song, titled “Regret,” is nearly five minutes (4:39—it counts), and is the first single pulled from a forthcoming EP, With Regards To, due out in just over a month on April 27th. According to the blurb on Get Alternative, through which the song premiered, With Regards To will center on a personal tragedy:
This song and entire EP are about my mental journey with my wife’s diagnosis of cancer. This song in particular is about that moment when I picked myself up off the ground to be a better version of myself for my wife and family. I could have let this news bury me and my wife, but after soul searching nights I gave that thought process up and moved forward. This is a universal truth that we all must face; when life hands you a situation you can’t fathom, what will you do?
With as much sensitivity toward the matter as possible, I think we can safely expect this EP to present a maturation of the sound Taken pursued on And They Slept and Between Two Unseens with the same affecting sincerity as defines their back catalogue; the band is older than they were, no longer heartbroken young men but adults coming together to make music not for profit, but for the reasons I think we make music in the first place: to give form to intangible things like pain and hope so that we can grapple with them, understand them, absorb them, and move on.
It Dies Today - The Caitiff Choir (2004)
Last week, we covered It Dies Today’s debut EP, Forever Scorned, a punishingly heavy record that could very well have passed off as melodic death metal with breakdowns and panic chords; something that the much of the more popular second wave metalcore is commonly referred to. Most would conclude that with a sound so relentlessly brutal, It Dies Today would continue with that sound, especially considering the fact that they were from the northeast. They’d be wrong though, because IDT’s debut full-length, The Caitiff Choir, goes in a different direction and draws all types of influences from the other metalcore hotbed in the early 2000s: Orange County, baby.
We’ve decided to cover two separate IDT releases in order to highlight post-hardcore, the other main influence, in addition to melodic death metal, that bands were pulling in the early 00s. Around the same time that bands like Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall started writing Gothenburg riffs with breakdowns, bands like From Autumn to Ashes (more on them later) started combining that Gothenburg sound with soaring vocal melodies borrowed from contemporary post-hardcore bands like Thursday and Senses Fail, leading to a sound that put more emphasis on vocals. IDT follow this trend on The Caitiff Choir, transforming their sound from melodeathcore into a more clean and melodic style.
This is most noticeable in the increased amount of “clean” singing from vocalist Nick Brooks. He sung a few lines on Forever Scorned, but there are way more found on this record, often utilized during the verses rather than being saved for the chorus in the manner of Killswitch or All That Remains. Songs like “The Radiance” and “Marigold” are good examples; the riffs take a backseat while the band defers to Brooks’ vocal melodies to carry the song. “Naenia” is also a straight-up post-hardcore song, sounding like something that would be more at home on Let it Enfold You over the debut LP of the same band that released Forever Scorned just two years earlier. There’s still plenty of heaviness to be found, though; “My Promise” literally starts the album with a chugged breakdown, and it’s all fight riffs from start to finish following it. The melodic death metal influence is still there, with plenty of harmonized and tremolo picked 5-7-8 riffs peppered throughout the record, just with a greater sense of melodrama than one would expect from anything out of Gothenburg. The breakdowns are still there too – I can picture pits across the nation full of kids in 2004 with black eyeliner and nail polish and size small t-shirts beating the hell out of each other to the end of “The Depravity Waltz.”
While on the topic of eyeliner and nail polish, it’s also important to note that IDT, despite being from the hardened northeast, sported an image the more closely resembled the fashioncore of Orange County bands (and Trustkill labelmates) like Eighteen Visions and Bleeding Through than the more casual attire of their Buffalo compatriots Every Time I Die. It’s evident that around this time, the scene fashion inspired by the aforementioned OC bands began to catch on outside California, across the country. It might not have very much relevance if second wave metalcore (which was still largely metal-leaning) were to be placed in a vacuum, but it undoubtedly had its effects on the image, ideals, and sound of the wave of bands to come later in the decade and leading into the following decade. It’s for that reason why we decided to cover two separate releases from IDT, and why they were in an important factor in the development of the genre over time. Their influence is still felt today, with current metalcore bands like Counterparts repeatedly singing their praises as an influence material produced during their formative years.
It Dies Today - Forever Scorned (2002)
Forever Scorned is heavy.
That’s about all there is to it, but “heavy” can be so much in the right hands. At least for one record, It Dies Today had the touch. They never rediscovered what inspired metalcore grenades like “Sentiments of You” and “Bloodstained Bed Sheet Burden,” but that’s what makes Forever Scorned so worth revisiting when The Caitiff Choir doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you just need to hear the way “Sentiments of You” builds up to that first, clobbering riff and the way Nick Brooks seems to really mean it when he says he’s lost his head over a breakdown that sounds like it’s taken heads before.
Is that hyperbolic? I suppose, but that’s par for the course for an album entrenched in the sounds and moods of early 00’s metalcore. Every song on Forever Scorned is about a failed romantic endeavor, which, for some reason, this style of music utilized as a free pass to go as bleak as musically possible. Forever Scorned weds the trudging riffs of the darkest American hardcore to the guitar heroics of Swedish melodeath, and juxtaposes death growls, grimy shrieks, and heartfelt emo singing over this foundation. The subject of the cover is a scarecrow and a fence in some bombed-out field, rendered in smudgy browns; the song titles are preposterous, “The Requiem for Broken Hearts” and “A Romance By the Wings of Icarus” on a tracklist next to the absurdly ominous “Bloodstained Bed Sheet Burden” and the milquetoast “Bridges Left Burning.” The words “Forever Scorned” rest in the bottom right corner in ornate cursive, while the stark Times New Roman of the band’s moniker hovers in the upper left.
I’m not ragging on It Dies Today. Let’s reiterate: Forever Scorned is heavy. That blend of hardcore and Swedish melodeath is better executed here than on The Caitiff Choir, and feels just as uniquely American as Alive Or Just Breathing, if not a bit more. It achieves a sort of grace in its clumsiness, illustrated best on “The Requiem For Broken Hearts,” which is almost beat-for-beat a melodic death metal song until that teeth-gnashing breakdown. It moves from aggressive to mournful and back within the first two minutes, teasing breakdown riffs that masterfully erode the song’s Swedishness away before returning to those sensibilities in full-force, but only for a moment. At 3:22, It Dies Today drop the hammer, and then, as if by way of apology, spend the rest of the song doting on Brooks’s off-key wails and these deeply silly lyrics: “Will you hold this close to your heart forever and always / or will you bathe in my blood forever and always?”
The production on Forever Scorned is flawed but not unlistenable, and pretty good for a little metalcore band out of Buffalo, New York, a city no other notable metalcore bands call home. Its muddiness is actually a boon, especially to “Bloodstained Bed Sheet Burden,” which is unquestionably the heaviest and hardest-hitting song on the record. Brooks does not enunciate well, but this also works to the record’s benefit as it makes his growls and screams sound that much more guttural and monstrous (although I confess that I’m still not sure whether that growl at 4:21 is actually him; digital tampering; an uncredited guest; or a sample). The good lines comes through with greater power, and the bad ones are only slightly more intelligible when he sings, so how are you going to tell? The song is an undertow of panic chords, bludgeoning chugs, and feedback, strongly resembling--and maybe predicting--the downtempo movement.
Metalcore was derided as music for meatheads more interested in physical assault than musicianship, and the popularity of breakdowns and slow hardcore riffs was regularly singled out as proof. Theoretically, downtempo is just an extension of that mindset, whether it was ever a real thing or not--a twisted little branch on the metalcore tree nourished by overwrought emotion and on a quest for the most ludicrously slow breakdowns possible. Maybe metalcore is to blame for it and for whatever downtempo leads to (notempo? Yikes), but with the clarity of hindsight, we can probably all agree that It Dies Today had the chops, and even the songwriting, to back up their ventures into “ludicrously slow,” proving they could get themselves mistaken for a true-blue Swedish melodeath band better than their peers. That’s all it was really about, back in the day--and by that measure, It Dies Today were an unqualified success.
Me and Him Call It Us - Loss (2006)
Vulnerability is gestured at in metalcore more than it is exhibited. The introduction of singing to the genre was seen, by and large, as an overstepping of boundaries, the “pussification” of a style whose parent components--both metal and hardcore--have long codified stoic masculinity. Although it became something of a hallmark of the genre, clean singing is more often utilized as a means of approximating emotion rather than as a genuine expression of it, and so the quality of vulnerability it heralded for the genre has become both a cliche and a trope--a tool in the box, not the product itself.
You wouldn’t expect Me and Him Call It Us to be vanguards of progress. The duo gained prominence, back in the day, through “grassroots” MySpace promotion and a sound that seems like your typical two-tone mathcore: one-half sloppy grinding, one-half noise. There is, of course, more shading to Loss’s palette, although these descriptions are superficially apt--Me and Him Call It Us are competent musicians and sometimes excellent songwriters, but in the spirit of their (pre-MySpace) emo/screamo forebears, are more likely to give a passionate performance than a technically-precise one. Their production is standard-issue for a Myspace band; average at best, but primarily just adequate. Against the odds, these elements lend the record color and highlight its throughline of anxiety, which manifests in startling ways: the way vocalist Blake Connolly chokes on his own voice in the midst of “Cut-Throat Cardiac Arrest,” the borderline-pathetic weeping on the title-track, lends the record an unpredictability that even their contemporaries in Destroyer Destroyer and See You Next Tuesday can't match. Me and Him Call It Us are willing to show emotion in an emotionless genre. Vulnerability is their secret weapon.
Like similar records from the era, from Nuclear, Sad, Nuclear to Our Puzzling Encounters Considered to Behold the Fuck Thunder, the record’s jaggedness makes it both a thrilling and unsettling listen, each lightning-flash twist approximating the jump-scare tactics of a horror movie (a relationship further buttressed by the record’s production qualities--there's an inexhaustible charm to creativity on a tight budget), but it’s the rare mathcore record, let alone one plucked from the rotten garden of “MySpace grind,” that sounds just as terrified as it is terrifying. Aaron Womack, on drums, is responsible for keeping Loss coherent, but also for its messiness. He sometimes sounds as if he’s in a hurry to leave, although it’s more likely that Me and Him Call It Us were rushing to capitalize on the success of their demos and The (C:) Drive of Loves Stories. Connolly, on guitar, abuses panic chords and dissonance sometimes to Loss’s detriment, but his skill and conviction are hard to deny. Whatever logic binds Connolly’s vivid, frightened vocals to his spasming, shrieking riffs seems nearly spontaneous, and doesn’t reveal itself easily, even over repeat listens.
Reprieve comes with atypical frequency, strengthening Loss’s mood of psychological horror through contrast: the back-to-back “Into Troubled Waters, I Sink” and “Headache,” along with “The Sea Swallowed Us Whole,” emulate the weirder bits of Calculating Infinity, as any of these tracks could have been amputated from “Weekend Sex Change” or regrown from parts of “*#..”. “Headache,” by its very nature, may remind Premonitions of War fans of Left In Kowloon’s “Cables Hum Overhead,” since both songs disrupt their respective records with forays into noise, and are seemingly engineered to test patience; they would seem to work better tacked-on after the last track, or left off the record entirely. But, for my money, “Headache” is more necessary to Loss than “Cables Hum Overhead” is to Left In Kowloon; there is more precedent, established right off the bat with “Sarsparilla” and furthered with the well-named “The Anticipation Is Killing Me,” so its headfirst plunge into the record’s latent undertow of madness is earned. “Headache” rises organically out of the anxiety-jazz of “Troubled Waters,” losing the percussive spine of that song (hardly there, anyway) as it opts instead for ebbing breakers of static and and waves of pedal-skronk. I’s the nightmare sequence of Loss’s horror movie.
“Innocent Bystanders Watched in Horror as Peter Jennings Drew His Murder Weapon” reestablishes order with the record’s least-forgiving composition, hosting a breakdown that sounds as if Womack and Connolly decided to wage war on each other with their instruments--and this, only to throw us for a loop two tracks later with “Loss,” which as mentioned, verges on the pathetic with its wept vocals and out-of-whack instrumentation. This is where the tension between the record’s violence and insecurity breaks. In isolation, it’s a mess, but in the context of Loss, the result is cathartic in a way truly not seen among bands of this ilk, for whom the opportunity to play in inscrutable meters and irreverent of musical convention is seized mainly for humor or for irreverence sake. Me and Him Call It Us recognized the complement between the unpredictability of the genre and the unpredictability of, well, loss; and although the song does not fare well on its own merits, the cumulative experience of Loss as a statement is the mathcore equivalent to what Korn did with “Daddy.”
Over time, Me and Him Call It Us have exerted a quiet influence on their branch of the metalcore tree: .gif from God, for example, although overshadowed on their most high-profile release by Vein’s side of the Self-Destruct split, name Me and Him Call It Us a direct influence, and it’s not hard to hear. I doubt the band ever expected to have such a legacy. But more intriguing, given their meteoric rise and current prominence in hardcore and metalcore circles, is the interest Knocked Loose have shown in this obscure little band. They recently covered “Innocent Bystanders...”--or at least the breakdown--following a live rendition of an as-yet-unknown song off their forthcoming album. For a moment, let’s table this homage and its implication that we may be hearing a little Me and Him Call It Us seeping into one of modern metalcore’s biggest bands and examine Knocked Loose. It would be tough to call them vulnerable; we’ll never hear a clean-sung note out Bryan Garris, and it’s probably a safe bet we’ll never hear an acoustic note on a Knocked Loose record, either. What we can expect is for the band to continue eroding the tougher-than-thou culture surrounding the style of aggressive metalcore they play--not in their music, but just outside of it. In interviews, on camera, and in person, Knocked Loose don’t pretend for a second that they’re anything but kids with a passion for heavy music. They aren’t tough-guys, thugs, or “hard,” and they wouldn't try to pass themselves off as any of these things, either. They are genuine, and they are having fun; this, I think, is what Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die recognized when he Tweeted that there was “something special” about Knocked Loose. A lack of pretension is their secret weapon.
Like Me and Him Call It Us, Knocked Loose play by the rules of their genre while covertly dismantling the expected behaviors and culture of the scene. For a band of their frankly staggering popularity to look nonjudgmentally back on the MySpace era of the genre, to recognize their place on a continuum and pay homage to their genre's many unsung champions is big, and bodes well for both Knocked Loose and for the unfairly dismissed era to which Me and Him Call It Us belong. They were ahead of the curve, but they were not alone; and if they can be rediscovered and reevaluated as important visionaries, there are surely more from where they came.
Lariat - Means of Production (2001)
You’ve got to admire Lariat for “Rage Against the Machine Which You Are Only A Part Of,” even if nothing ever came of it. On multiple levels, this little band from upstate New York embody a lot of what Rage Against the Machine only pay lip service to, and are dedicated enough to their anti-capitalist, fascist-destroying ideology to include prose explanations beside the lyrics in the Means of Production CD booklet so that you couldn’t possibly mistake their intentions. These little blurbs are the only insight we have into what made Lariat tick, as it’s impossible to find interviews or even a solid biography on the band. Fortunately, we have their music.
Lariat combine the efficiency of hardcore with the brute aggression of their state’s death metal, crafting riffs based on power rather than technicality and evoking the menacing air of an abandoned factory after dark. They ramp between sludgy beatdowns and choppier metallic sections with the deftness of New Jersey’s Rorschach (no small compliment), but the album is haunted by dread and resignation, starkly captured in the cover art’s elemental scene of industrial labor. Over the course of the album, we’re treated to seemingly every sound out of the New York hardcore scene, recalling the belligerent aggression of early Vision of Disorder as filtered through Brutal Truth, and a touch of Louisiana’s Crowbar without ever directly referencing any of those bands. Already heavy as they come, Lariat’s real concerns lie in disseminating a message that’s visible from the moment you pry open the jewel case. “This is not forever. We are not immortal. If you knew you were dying tomorrow how would you have lived today?” is printed on the back of the lyric booklet. “Start living your life. Start loving. Start living your life for yourself.” is printed on the actual CD.
Hardcore has always had a core of sentimentality that manifests as a predilection toward moral codes and a mentality of brotherhood. Lariat try to both specify and broaden those ideas, expanding the notion of “brotherhood” to include, essentially, humankind. In order, the album covers topics such as: GMOs; police brutality; corruption of government; hypocrisy; the exploitation of the working class; consumerism; the War on Terror; and the militant indoctrination of American youth. This seems like a list of anti-right bullet points, because it is, but Lariat’s conviction affords us both a window on a certain mindset and genuine food for thought, whether their politics align with ours or not. While they occasionally descend into manipulative verbiage and harbor some flawed views on certain facets of society, they raise important questions and cite with specificity certain real-world contradictions worth pondering. Out of respect for their sincerity and effort, and in acknowledgement of the limited availability of the record, I’ll include photographs of the liner notes of the album.
Perhaps the most telling line is right there in the blurb for “Rage Against the Machine Which You Are Only A Part Of,” which I’ll transcribe in full:
Actions always speak louder than words. Being a political band isn’t about an image. It’s about spreading a message. It’s not about what your hair and your clothes look like and it’s not about telling kids not to dance at your shows. It’s about what you have to say. This song is dedicated to those who live every day fighting against the things that they think are wrong and for the things they think are right regardless of the consequences.
The band include a summary of their overall message on the last two pages of the booklet, headed as a “communique” and dated June 8, 2000 (a photo of which will also be included). In it, they clarify that they “are not, nor do we pretend to be, the ultimate authorities on any of the subjects contained in this booklet. We have faith in the idea that you can decide for yourself how to best use the information and opinions expressed here,” and then include contact information.
Actions speak louder than words. Lariat’s primary means of communication may be a scream, but they want to start a conversation, not milk their platform for attention--a chance to have their minds changed if the proof is there. This is a rare trait, especially in hardcore and metal, where adaptability is construed as weakness. Bands with strong political views always run the risk of becoming redundant and overly moral (Stray From the Path, Enter Shikari, etc.) limiting the reach of their message and insulating themselves from healthy discourse. There’s no progress without conflict, and nothing gets done when everyone agrees. If you can’t challenge your own beliefs, who are you to challenge others?
Burn In Silence - Angel Maker (2006)
I can’t imagine what prompted the exodus, but almost every member of Burn In Silence is ported over from Boston death metal band Goratory. Ken Susi, guitarist of fellow Bostonians Unearth, was hired to produce Burn In Silence’s full-length debut Angel Maker on the strength of their self-released Pure As Your First Day EP. After Burn In Silence’s surprisingly short run, members went on to join some of the most popular bands in metal, a list that includes Arsis, The Black Dahlia Murder, and Job For A Cowboy. The question I had to ask myself shortly after their breakup was the same question that arises after reading such a history: how could a band from the prolific Boston scene go so overlooked, especially when they sound so much like a success on paper?
The make-or-break factor with Burn In Silence is their symphonic black metal leanings, which manifest as gratuitous keyboards, tremolo riffs, blast-y drumwork, and Chris Harrell’s vocals, which successfully cast the illusion that Burn In Silence have multiple vocalists. Their closest musical neighbor might be Bleeding Through, but the way Burn In Silence alternate between operatic (“Lines From An Epitaph,” “Watching Dead Leaves Fall”), dissonant (“Primal Human Pain,” “Angel Maker,”), and treacly (“Embrace the Plague,” “The Age In Which Tomorrow Brings”) without much connective tissue makes them a far more disjunctive listen, but an ambitious and fascinating one, too.
The keyboard-and-drum interplay of “Lines From An Epitaph” is a litmus test for your enjoyment of the next four songs, and the rest of “Lines” encompasses everything Burn In Silence do proficiently: staccato riffing, abundant keyboarding, and breakdowns. There are some tremolo accents, and the chorus mushrooms up at unusual intervals. Harrell enunciates well, but his lyrics rely so heavily on hardcore cliches about refusing this and rebelling against that that you are guaranteed to have heard at least one line per song already. The denser “Rebirth” offsets the flashiness of “Epitaph,” and the chorus develops a little more naturally, but it all unfolds under the specter of Killswitch Engage. “The Age In Which Tomorrow Brings” swings in the opposite direction: Harrell’s singing dominates, and his melodies crib directly from the Fear Factory rulebook, lending the track a stale melodrama that isn’t helped by incomprehensible lyrics like “The age in which tomorrow / brings my heart inside to die.”
The off-time riffing of “Embrace the Plague” is where Angel Maker starts to pick up, scaling back the keyboards to give Jason Eick and Andy Ilyinsky space. They run away with the opportunity over the next several tracks, beginning with “Primal Human Pain.” A re-recording of the title track of their EP, it’s a more upbeat and cohesive example of Burn In Silence’s sound and the template they should have stuck by, as it’s Angel Maker’s first highlight, quickly followed by “Angel Maker,” a bonafide metalcore jam. One might expect a return to the goofy keyboarding that dominates the first few songs, but they’re pushed aside to let the song’s eerie Disembodied chords take over. Harrell shows off his death growl for the first time, lending the song’s psycho-killer lyrics some heft while also masking the worst bits. Continuing in this more inspired vein, both “Judging Hope” and “Well Adjusted” come strapped with panic chords, teasing the band’s symphonic edge but shoving it aside before it can ruin anything. At this point, Angel Maker has entered its final arc with “Watching Dead Leaves Fall,” a song that finally strikes the correct balance between Burn In Silence’s black metal and Gothenburg influences. In rare form, Harrell’s lyrics interrogate the finitude of time and culminate in a bluntly effective “How the fuck can you know how this feels?,” a point of climax for the album as much as the song. The music agrees, segueing back into Emperor-lite riffing and then a fade-out, but “World of Regret” has the final word with a mathy opening that is almost good enough to eclipse the song’ return to the bland choruses and keyboard melodies that started Angel Maker.
Not everything works on Burn In Silence’s sole outing, but it’s why it doesn’t and how could work that holds our attention. “Primal Human Pain,” “Angel Maker,” and “Watching Dead Leaves Fall” represent a messy, scattershot, but salvageable blueprint. Their blend of black metal tremolo and metalcore pummel can accommodate dissonance and harmony, and whether you prefer off-time grooves or a little (re: a lot) of pomp, there’s room for that, too. Abigail Williams explored similar territory on their Legend EP, but support for that album and Angel Maker was short-lived as Burn In Silence dissolved and Abigail Williams trend-hopped their way into a longer career than anyone expected. For all its lack of focus, or perhaps because of it, Angel Maker remains a fascinating curio piece in the history of metalcore, one that may someday inspire the right band to take this sound where it should have gone.
Anterrabae - Shakedown Tonight!
Sonically speaking, you could probably slip Shakedown Tonight! right before or right after Last Night in Town and not raise too many eyebrows. Both records may sound a little immature compared to what Every Time I Die would go go on to accomplish, but immaturity is half their appeal: there are as many moments of half-assed brilliance on Last Night in Town as flat-out brilliant ones, sometimes side by side in the same song, and the batting average is so even across the board that you can still find some of its songs mixed into the band’s recent setlists. Despite a consensus that Every Time I Tie have moved far beyond this kind of kind of songwriting, “Emergency Broadcast Syndrome,” “Jimmy Tango’s Method,” and “The Logic of Crocodiles” remains fan favorites; and for those who miss this volcanic period of growth for the band, Shakedown Tonight! has a big, sloppy grin on its face just for you.
Anterrabae hail from Long Island, but they don’t sit very well beside the likes of Agnostic Front, Vision of Disorder, and Cro-Mags. They don’t take themselves very seriously at all. Shakedown Tonight! is a keg party in audio form, full of cheerfully berserk riffing and the faintest inklings of emo, perhaps a byproduct of landing on Triple Crown Records. The songwriting, however, couldn’t be further removed the label’s typical fare. Shakedown Tonight! can barely hold onto its breakdowns, gang chants, tempo changes, shout-alongs, and sing-alongs from the moment “How Joey Got His Groove Back” kicks in, through the twitchy “Dressed To Thrill” and the frenetic “Curfews, Alcohol, and Other Jealousy Related Incidents”; it’s only this song’s gooey acoustic center and “Clever Shoplifting Tactics” that hints at their labelmates in Brand New and Folly before “Etcetera” gets things back on track. A swift kick of dissonance and Drowningman-lite nihilism, this song is exemplary of Anterrabae’s offbeat lyrics:
Lesson one: involves a slice of rye and a hand grenade. A reminder to what we once were, a mere glimpse as to all that we will become. Black preceding black. A hint of life (of nothingness) sporadically appears though, as if fate is having fun with us. Vertical incisions require more imagination. Lies are not lies when you're fooling yourself. Lesson two: and the maturity factor. White lined trophies and black book romances just prove walking before crawling. It's pretty hard to keep that tan through the cracks in the walls and it's quite sad to know that you're condemned to long sleeves and food stamps because when he was trying to save you from this place, you were alright. This is the universal. Lesson three: I'm still screaming.
“Ready Set Explode” is all about its nasty, lurching breakdowns, after which “Her Face Was A Sturdy In Martyred Innocence” acts as a melancholy reprieve (its chants of “I’m sorry is never enough” are surprisingly emotive), but otherwise, it’s one of the album’s only true stumbles, preferring to recycle a couple of tricks we’ve already heard the band pull off earlier on Shakedown Tonight!, and with more style. It’s better thought of as a bit of downtime before the absolute riff-a-thon of “Engage Catch Phrase,” which packs energetic call-and-response vocals and may just be the highlight of the record. “Nevertheless She Was a Mess” bristles with pinch harmonics, and true-to-form, is some of the messiest and most uninhibited music on the album - you can almost feel the stagedive injuries as brilliant lines like “Beware! I have a disease where borderline intolerance fucks lethargy in rhythmic fashion!” cut through the mix.
The sizzling fretwork of “Mending Tones from Vowels and Frowns” would make a great note to end on if not for the obligatory balladry of “CA Speech Goodbye.” Here’s the other stumble on Shakedown Tonight!: it may get off to a promising start with a bass-led introduction, but the songwriting is stilted and awkward, and the decision to rely on weak vocal melodies and subdued guitar plunking deprives the record of a proper ending. It almost seems as if Anterrabae were aiming for something grand and conclusive, either a spoof or an honest attempt at an emotional epic, but they fall so short of that mark that it simply leaves the listener wondering what happened as the album peters out, falls flat, and fades to black.
Most people’s introduction to Anterrabae is by way of the Bomb the Music Industry! song “Happy Anterrabae Day!!!” With its vulgar synth and corny hard-rock build-up, Long Island’s history of venerated hardcore acts isn’t quite the first thing on the listener’s mind; but when the song picks up with the band’s energetic style of punk, it begins to make sense. Lyrically, the song addresses the misdirected aggression of your typical mosh-bro, making a number of insights along the way-- “we're all here for the same stupid reason / we all like some stupid band,” and “Think about the reason you went to shows at twelve years old / We all felt alone” are my favorites. They named this song after Anterrabae for a pretty simple reason: they agree that music, no matter how “hard,” should be fun.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!