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, placing “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.
It makes sense. Metalcore was long 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 outright singing in metalcore was seen, by and large, as an overstepping of boundaries, the “pussification” of a fusion genre whose components--both metal and hardcore--have long codified stoic masculinity. Expressing emotions beyond the spectrum of anger, spite, and hatred was the practice of pop and nu-metal, the lowest you could sink, as far as your stereotypical metalhead was concerned--a belief somewhat justified over time. Although singing became something of a hallmark of the genre, it’s 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 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.
As we hear on 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 your average 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 escape from Loss’s freakery, although it’s more realistic to imagine that Me and Him Call It Us were only 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; however, his skill and conviction on the instrument are hard to deny, and render his performance as a vocalist even more impressive. 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; it’s the nightmare sequence of Loss’s horror movie, one that goes on for so long and warps so much of the fundamental structure of the whole as to cast doubt on the reliability of our narrator, if not the story itself.
Of course, “Innocent Bystanders Watched in Horror as Peter Jennings Drew His Murder Weapon” reestablishes order with the record’s least-forgiving composition, housing 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 whole and self-contained 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.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!