Not Waving But Drowning - If It's Too Cute, Set It On Fire (1999)
We’ve covered some dark stuff thus far on the American Metalcore Project. Amid all the eschatology, emotive politics, and heretical philosophy, it’s easy to forget that there are metalcore bands that play music because it’s fun, and that they’re just as deserving of attention as your Bloodlets, Unruhs, and Kiss It Goodbyes. Not Waving But Drowning are a St. Louis band with a single record to their name and an unplaceable appeal that allows them to play large shows around their hometown area to this day, making them something of a “cult” metalcore band, if you will. While they aren’t going to score points for technical skill or win over progressive crowds, for anyone who can appreciate a catchy riff, If It’s Too Cute, Set It On Fire is as riffy and infectious as they come.
“Somewhere Away” and “Untitled In D” are upbeat slices of punk that start the album on an almost carefree note. It’s hard not to smile when you hear the band chant “1, 2, 3, 4!” on “Somewhere Away,” or when they rip into “Good Intentions” with its faint echoes of pop-punk. The tone on these songs belies the angularity of the rest of the album, our first hint of which is the sudden growling on “Untitled In D,” at odds with the song’s otherwise sunny disposition. “You’re Up Next” takes us into hardcore territory with chunky, triumphant riffing and chin-up lyrics, but it’s “Undercover” that, funnily enough, unmasks the beefy Snapcase riffs that are the band’s true calling. Todd Finoch’s Tommy Rogers-esque screeches (think The Silent Circus, but less strained) are weird, but you acclimate to them as the album hurries along. “Shatterproof” rocks a jaunty, stop-start rhythm that periodically bursts into flurries of shred. “Everything Vs. Nothing” turns some pensively strumming into the album’s heaviest song, after which the party-ready “Covering Ground,” with its slurred vocals and loping riffs, can be jarring. That goes doubly for “Rock Anthem.” “Covering Ground” makes sense on the tracklist as a moment of decompression, but “Rock Anthem” is a full-on joke song, and your enjoyment of it will depend on how onboard you are with Not Waving But Drowning’s sense of humor. Its first two minutes are a chant of “You can’t keep us down! / We’re gonna rock your town!” peppered with cheesy yeah-yeahs, followed by several minutes of listless drumming and ambient guitar. Eventually, they splice in a sample of the audio from The Evil Dead 2’s “Dead by dawn!” scene, and the song culminates in what sounds like a mathcore parody, with squealing guitars and gurgled vocals.
That this is is a one-off album is a mixed prospect all around. On one hand, the music is ripe with potential, and there’s a sense that they could have become a “serious” band and dominated the scene if they chose. On the other, there are so many experimental tangents buried in the writing that one wonders what they might be capable of if they dialed back or ditched the hardcore influence altogether. “Rock Anthem” may be a joke, but if they had gone on to write a tortured grunge record, I doubt they’d had received a lot of pushback - the sleaziness of “Covering Ground” and the upbeat openers shows signs of the sort of musical quirkiness you can mine for a career. It’s these kinds of possibilities that keep their fanbase around, I suppose, not to mention their ability to flat-out crush a riff. Incidentally, they’re also one of the rare American Metalcore Project bands you can still catch live if your timing is right. It’s clear that Not Waving But Drowning genuinely enjoy the music they play, and sometimes, that’s all you really need out of a band. Again: if you can get with the band’s humor and refrain from taking them too seriously, If It’s Too Cute, Set It on Fire is a memorable example of metalcore that doesn’t have to push boundaries to be enjoyed.
- Brian L.