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 them up. Surely, with credentials like these, December must have had something special on their hands.
They did. 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 a representation of December at peak form, blending elements of grind, death metal, and mathcore in the sizzling cauldron of metalcore with a rare 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 enormously 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; it’s obvious that 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 in an effort to categorize them. 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.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!