It’s obvious if you know me that I like sad music a lot. There’s something to be said about songs that make you second-guess the commonplace effects of happiness. The whole “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile” makes me admire the hardworking DIY feel and common darkness found in emo, punk, and hardcore music. The late ‘90s/early 2000s commercialization of pop-punk pointed to the popularity of the brooding lyrics found in energetic loudmouths like Blink-182, Brand New, and Finch, and it’s something that I really bought into as a teenager.
But with years comes maturity, and the sad music culture has evolved since then just as people like me have grown up. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped turning up Take Off Your Pants And Jacket, but it does mean I’ve searched for different avenues of melancholic expression in addition to it. In the contemporary emo spirit, groups from the whimsical Front Bottoms to the dramatically straight-faced La Dispute have found ways to wear their influences on their sleeves, while managing to dig deeper into their personal experiences in order to emote heartbreak and other hardships. I appreciate how my empathy and cliched feeling of “not being alone” harbors hope in return. It allows me to aim for a bright future without repeating that bitter past often discussed so passionately in my favorite bands’ lyrics.
Through that, too, music is also developing in a way similar to my growing up, and thoughts of tomorrow seem to have a correlation in its development. As today’s emo/punk artists grow and inch closer to their feelings, a post-rock release of sorts is finding its way into the hearts of thousands. And in 2014, many groups are clinging to it not as a sense of rightness or separation from the past, but more so as that kind of “hope” for the future I mentioned earlier. Post-rock is musical and emotional elation; it lifts songs up and down, and has the ability to emit every emotion possible at once.
There’s no doubt of its appearance. Last year, one of the most critically-acclaimed records was a black metal album heavily influenced by post-rock in Deafheaven’s Sunbather. And recently this year, both Pianos Become The Teeth and Gates have reached into the genre to mold their own roots and inspirations, and it’s had some sweeping effects on their new albums. But what does that mean for them, the generalized category of “punk rock” or “hardcore”, or fanatics like me?
Keep You Dreaming
Despite my focusing on genre stylings, the thing that amazes me so much about Pianos Become The Teeth isn’t their style. Of course, the outfit’s earthly post-hardcore with thoroughly drawn-out, enormous instrumentation, and rough-edged screams is a force to be reckoned with. But what does stick out about these guys is how unbelievably cathartic they are.
Pianos bleeds sadness. But they produce a positive feeling — a sense of connection that feels hopeful because of the simple fact that its pain relates. And that’s because they’re so bold and unafraid in speaking about it. Their vibes freeze you, bring you to the edges of time, from the haze of early childhood not worrying about anything to the later years when that becomes a preoccupation. But if fear and love are opposites, then Pianos’ music is abundant in the latter. Even though they’ve got songs about sadness, death, and heartache, they still seem so loving. Perhaps that’s because, after every tribulation, they’re still here.
That the band has gone through a huge shift in sound between their past two albums, yet still is able to produce that same kind of sensation is amazing.
What was the heavily-enraged, screamo-laced hardcore showcased on The Lack Long After became a more atmospheric, raw, and rocky version of their former selves on Keep You. Gone are vocalist Kyle Durfey’s raspy screams, belted in full force from the battle-worn chest of his, and in place is rich, chilling clean singing that still manages to seem cried out. The vibe is still the same: pure emotion, in the mode of catharsis that makes the band so immaculate in staying power with listeners. Though 2011’s The Lack featured winding song structures and huge instrumentation that builds and crashes like waves, three years point to post-rock and a grander focus on texture and ambience than the mood Durfey led on that album. Instead, everything glides along in gloomy unity.
Such a progression points to a turn from reckless, bitter youth into grieved, yet accepting adulthood. And it’s not just them; it’s the whole genre as well. Just look at Deafheaven. Sunbather’s not much different sound-wise from its predecessor, Roads To Judah. It’s just that the appeal comes from its maturity. The turn isn’t drastic musically like Pianos, but it’s the sense of turning a corner as human beings, coming to a collective enlightenment, that displays its expression in more grandiose fashion. It’s simply bombastic.
The album became the first black metal release I’ve ever seen hit mainstream audiences — even among critics. And I think the post-rock underbelly has something to do with it. That’s because, even in a day and age where radio hits are saturated and singles are in one day and out the next, a strong minority seek out the kind of connection and expressed release of Deafheaven and Pianos. It may not always be visible, but it’s still within us whether we think so or not. We’re willing to invest. If not, why else would an album like Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience do so well? Yeah, it’s catchy, but most of the tracks are seven minutes long with layer upon layer of groove.
Sunbather’s first offering, “Dream House” differs in its intentions from Keep You’s “Ripple Water Shine”. One tears its artistic canvas to pieces; it’s a Jackson Pollock splatter of guitar shredding, expansive instrumental aura, and intense-beyond-comprehension screams. The other doesn’t rise up at the sign of emotion or catharsis. Instead, it sinks down to the lowest of lows, as if the sheer impact of raw guitars and hummed vocals are enough to shake every bone in the body.
But there’s a moment in “Ripple Water Shine”, where the guitars chime together in a high-pitched melody that’s nearly euphoric in nature. In that moment, the vibes captured so well in “Dream House” and throughout Sunbather feels ever so similar. They’re both visceral. There’s the largeness of post-rock that fleshes out sadness like it’s a drug, and a drug necessary to ever get better. It brings into reality every single image of our distinct lives and lets them all out at different moments. But it’s also so dreamy, and the sounds allow listeners to get lost — perhaps within themselves instead of outside of themselves, unlike musical “escapes”.
Then, like the lyrics to the aptly-named “Dream House” go, “‘It feels like dreaming’. ‘I want to dream’”.
Blooming At The Gates
When I think about pop-punk, what immediately comes to mind are two things: memories and energy. I recollect summer nights in high school listening to Blink-182 songs and riding the bus with songs glaring through my headphones that understood my every experience. But musically, the high-octane guitar riffs and bouncy melodies of groups like The Story So Far and The Wonder Years always stick out to me. The energy has always been like fuel for my life, with the honest, confessional lyrics digging a little deeper into the gas tank to make sure my journey has a companion that will never run out or run away.
Sometimes, that fuel burns out in a few weeks, leaving me to move on and face my fears like I know I’m supposed to. But other times, they burn slowly, letting me examine events through a multi-dimensional lens of both youth and adulthood at once. That’s Gates: the post-rock/punk group that carries heartfelt determination in one arm, and their ability to draw tears at the noodling of their guitars in the other. One could say they’re pop-punk-inspired, especially considering their placement on Pure Noise Records’ roster. But they’re more Moving Mountains than State Champs. Perhaps it’s appropriate to bring back the term “emo”.
Punk and hardcore music originated with the ability to play fast anthems that dig at your inner core and make you question personal and political values. But newer bands like Gates, in addition to Elder Brother and Balance And Composure, who are using epic arrangements and affecting lyrics, are purging in a different way. They’re looking at a bigger picture; the angsty teen in me that used to go to shows to blow off steam for a night sees in them a figure that’s looking for something more long-term in that. With Balance And Composure’s new album title, The Things We Think We’re Missing, they’re self-aware enough to recognize their temporary fears are less than their entire lives, and they’re inside everyone. Like Gates, they see life in all its colors at once, its everyday actions coming together to form one giant, beautiful whole.
The band’s pristine melodies, the kind that glide like spirits around your entire body, are enough to bring today to a standstill. What does the “now” mean when our lives will all end someday? But, as vocalist Kevin Dye wishes in “The Thing That Would Save You”, “Don’t break your heart / I don’t want to see you grind your pulse to a halt”. Gates doesn’t want people to over-analyze their lives or sink into failure, but if they could just take a look around once in a while and maybe see what goes wrong, the world might become a better place. That, to me, is hope, an emotion above all others.
Early 2000s “emo” fills me with hope because sad music is sympathetic, like a support group for those who just don’t know what to think and would rather just let the emoted troubles of their favorite bands do the talking. But unlike the scene’s strong winds of sorrow that tend to break listeners’ hearts, or even Pianos Become The Teeth and their own dreary recollections, Gates is just striving to be as authentic as they can possibly be. And people are beginning to listen because they can sew up a heart just as easily as they can tear it apart.
Not everyone is buried in sadness all the time. I have my ups and downs just as everyone else, and sure, sad music helps soothe me, but I love a song for being more dimensional than that. I want the bitter breakups and troubled past to be more “hopeful” because I think we all tend to have hope — or else, why would we continue living with anything to look forward to? Pop-punk – and punk in general – hits close to home because it’s upfront and personal. It doesn’t hold anything back. Thus, it only makes sense for post-rock, post-punk, and prog-rock to seep into the mix. Bands like Gates don’t create lattes that are consumed in one moment and are soon forgotten. Their songs latch onto people, forcing them to reflect, consider, laugh, cry, and, quite simply, feel.
Some feelings may last longer than others, but the fact that they forge such an impact and often don’t go away shows just what punk music is becoming: it’s “everything that’s ever been”, just like the title to Bloom And Breathe’s whistling rise of an opener. It’s unadulterated, blooming and breathing for the sole reasons of making a connection via their fully-blown intersection of experiences. And its density makes it everything to everyone.
Post-Rock and Post-2014
Now, I love the 90s and 2000s, and the way punk rock and “emo” has aged over the years. I can’t go a day without listening to The Get Up Kids’ Something To Write Home About or Brand New’s Deja Entendu — and not solely out of nostalgia, but out of a spiritual connection constructed from many years of human development. These albums have become a part of who I am, and they speak to me when I need them to most. It’s like God answering my prayers every time that chorus to “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” comes along.
But in modern times, when thousands upon thousands bash the music scene for being “fake”, “unoriginal”, or just simply “bad”, I want to think about the potential that the current evolution of alternative, indie, rock, and punk could have on this generation and the generations that follow. Believe it or not, like post-rock’s elevating vibes of inhaling and exhaling crucial breaths, I think it’s huge.
There’s something I love about what’s going on right now. Bands must tour more because of a lack of music sales, yet vinyl is making a comeback. Pianos Become The Teeth and Deafheaven are growing because of the specific moods their thick, abundant styles bring out. Also growing are Gates and Balance And Composure, and the new wave of punk that’s taking after their sad “emo” elders in order to relay their feelings as a method of comforting those who feel the same way just as before, but in a fuller, more collective sense than ever. What I’m beginning to realize is that we all are more similar than I once thought. We all crave a destination, some tangibility, some answer. Luckily, our resources allow us to be more intimate than ever in this. I love the maturity of this modern scene, and I love how post-rock and other deep, sonorous playing styles bring out these feelings. It doesn’t take an acquired taste, nor does it take some unique, coming-of-age story to be able to empathize.
It just takes us.
Because of that, I no longer feel like the only one who yearns for these emotions and their tangibility so intricately.
Two years ago, I was afraid to go off to college not simply because I didn’t think anybody listened to the music I liked. It was more that I was afraid that their lives would be different because of that than just a silly lack of interests. Rather, we embody what we hear on a daily basis, and each day I see dozens of intricate faces built by the deep impressions and long-term considerations I thought may be forgotten in my own party-consumed, responsibility-less, technology-dependent generation.
We’re definitely an impatient people, but we’re also striving to grow closer through genres like post-rock, infused with hardcore, rock, punk rock, pop-punk, and any other genre you’re able to come up with. That’s because post-rock and post-punk are post-everything. We’re past the World Wars, the Great Depression, the so-called “greatest generation”, and the Baby Boomers. It’s up to us just what to make of that, and those growing up in this post-influenced millennium know there’s something to fight for, and we just have to use who we are to figure that out.
Social media brings people from around the world together. Music seems to be doing the same, especially punk rock — a genre notable for the lack of a stage. Because of this sort of mindset, you don’t have to worry about being ignored anymore. No longer do you need an anonymous message board to relate your feelings about that Taking Back Sunday song so others can reciprocate the same adolescent confusion and breakup angst. Now, you just need Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, or a small local show to go to and harmonize with others seeking out the truth of aging and progressing in their lives. That’s why all of these groups – specifically Pianos – focus so many of their themes on death.
It reminds us, as Pianos’ “Legion” states, that we’re “doing just fine”. We’re alive, we’re breathing, and we’re listening. And in a technology age that some may not have much hope for, I have faith that each subsequent listen isn’t just hearing. It’s listening. I’m listening, and we’re listening, and thanks to all of us, we don’t have to be alone.