Six years before Nothing Left to Love became 2019’s most lauded melodic hardcore release, Counterparts played the most intimate of spaces: a bowling alley.
This wasn’t any ordinary bowling alley. It was the Fireside Bowl, a long-cherished venue on the west side of Chicago. (As evidence of its landmark-like heritage, this same venue was featured in hometown punk heroes Rise Against’s video for “Swing Life Away,” and it also played host to a scene in last year’s Windy City-set film Widows)
But on this breezy July night in 2013, a few hundred fans packed in like sardines along the alley’s thin concourse for a stacked bill of (for the most part) household names in the hardcore scene: Hundredth, Being As An Ocean, and Heart to Heart, along with Counterparts. There was heat, there was sweat, and there was me — screaming like a banshee as attendees climbed on top of one another, attempting to overrule vocalist Brendan Murphy’s screams.
Three domineering brutes of albums later, it’s hard to imagine anyone stealing the thunder from the uncompromising screamer and his robust backing band. They have become a sheer force in melodic hardcore, fine-tuning a sound that began on Chicago’s own Victory Records and has snowballed into a fiercely compact and relentless pursuit across three Pure Noise Records releases. Nothing Left to Love is again evidence that they have a utter and complete hold on the genre of melodic hardcore — and to know that, all you have to do is go back to the bowling alley show.
Take a look at the other three bands on the bill that 2013 night. With the exception of Heart to Heart, who showed a lot of promise on their debut self-titled album before going through a period of absence, they all have since peaked or changed their musical identity completely. Being As An Ocean has evolved to mostly remove unclean vocals and hardcore melodies, with their latest few efforts abandoning a lot of what made the band a cult-like favorite within the scene to start with. On the other hand, Hundredth’s more straightforward basement sound grew dull, leading to a complete change-up to shoegaze-driven post-hardcore — a case where removing unclean vocals led to something refreshing, albeit very different.
But Counterparts has stayed the course. All they’ve done is deepen their roots with every release, letting the nourishing power of time and experience help them grow from the very spot they began. This is in contrast to Hundredth and Being As An Ocean, who saw their roots wither in inhospitable ground and decided to replant elsewhere — whether it was out of boredom, maturity, or the mere fact that human beings change.
Yet, there’s something admirable about Counterparts’ run, as they’ve done nothing but improve with each new album (which we’ve come to expect every two years). It was 2017’s You’re Not You Anymore when the group reached the same breaking point its stage-sharing acts did. But while Waiting for Morning to Come and Rare were transformative efforts in their counterparts’ careers, Counterparts refused to alter their sound and instead cut to the chase. Album five cut the deadweight, with many songs clocking in under three minutes of hardcore fury, and the follow-up is a continuation of this approach — the biggest improvement this time around coming in firmer and denser musicality.
It’s clear, then, that the band is continuing to bolster their songwriting abilities as a collective, and Murphy agrees. “I wouldn’t hold your breath for anything groundbreaking, but as we grow and progress we just get better at writing Counterparts songs, and that’s all we’ve wanted to do,” he said when the new album was announced (the album, as always, he called the band’s “best”).
“Paradise and Plague” is an exemplary result of the forward progression. Counterparts has never too heavily relied on one distinct songwriting tendency of hardcore or metal music. This has allowed their sound to coast as it rushes from part to part, a brutal assault on the ears that always keeps things fresh and unpredictable. Yet, they surrender to the power of well-placed breakdowns and choruses on the album’s standout — and it’s no doubt for the best. Clean vocals appear for the first time in the act’s career, meshing with Murphy’s screams for a recurring sing-along hook (and a nice reprieve from the breakneck speeds of hearty riffage and a cutthroat breakdown).
The song is a momentous offering on a momentous record, and there’s a lot more urgency to be found throughout the remainder of its runtime. Counterparts has always been an urgent band, but this time around, their urgency is sonically sturdier and more focused than ever. In fact, you just have to look at the group’s mindset as they finished up recording of Nothing Left to Love to understand exactly how pressing they were.
Originally, the album was expected out in 2020. But the members were understandably impatient — they wanted it out sooner. “There seems to be a trend of bands’ labels waiting for the right moment or tour to let new material out and…that’s just not right. We want it and we want it now,” Murphy exclaimed when talking about LP6.
The November 2019 release assured fans their beloved hardcore fivepiece would continue their trend of putting out a full-length every two years (which they’ve done for five straight releases). Yet this need for new material didn’t result in anything feeling rushed, even considering the release of the three-song Private Room EP only a year ago. Rather, it shows a band comfortable at this sort of pace — think about the ace baseball pitchers who are in rhythm when working fast rather than slow.
If anything, the band’s urgency and intensity led to growth in terms of artistic framework. They pushed themselves more than ever, tying together the 10-track album with a heavy opener and slower closer under Nothing Left to Love’s titular concept. Murphy immediately poses a heavy-hearted question: “Will you love me when there’s nothing left to love?” The title track may not have pouncing riffs, but it does bring back that line from the frantic frontman. Its melodic backing vocals lay the record down to bed, all while maintaining the urgency it began with.
A lot of the trademark Counterparts lyrical themes stick around, from the heartbreak surrounding distance and loss (“Wings of Nightmares)” to metaphorical depictions of death (“The Hands That Used to Hold Me”) to self-inflicted wounds and deserved destruction (“Imprints”). We see a bruised and broken Murphy as always, and the multi-layered instrumentation chimes in to complement his aching inflection in every way. Thick, driving riffs back him in the chorus to “Wings of Nightmares,” while a slow-motion breakdown ends “The Hands That Used to Hold Me” is a reminder of the pain of drifting apart from a loved one (with the repeated line “You swore you were still here”).
On “Cherished,” the guitarists even expand their palette, channeling their inner Gojira (among other death metal bands) pre-breakdown. It helps that acclaimed producer Will Putney, also the guitarist of Fit for an Autopsy and a bandmate of Murphy’s in the more-brutal-than-Counterparts side project END, is on as producer once again. He’s been at the helm in every album of theirs since 2013’s The Difference Between Hell and Home, and there’s been an improving thrust in the band’s punch ever since.
It’s not 2013 anymore, and Counterparts has moved past the days of opening for Hundredth in bowling alleys. But with that, they’ve stayed on top of the sphere of melodic hardcore, even as everyone else they once played with has made drastic horizontal shifts. Maintaining the relentless energy captured on that July night in Chicago, they’ve turned their persistence into aesthetic — one that has made them a genre mainstay.
After all, we know what we want from this band of hardcore players, and we always seem to get it — with a tad of potential left in the wake of each release. Nothing Left to Love is no exception: It’s as hard-hitting and lyrically potent as ever, and no other offering in the group’s catalog is as tightly played and produced.
You’re right again, Brendan. This is the best Counterparts album yet.
Featured Image Photo: Wyatt Clough