In a scene dominated by the likes of The Wonder Years, Pianos Become the Teeth and La Dispute, it seems a bit peculiar that mewithoutYou is as much of a force in that very same scene. A 15-year-old experimental rock group that regularly treads upon religious allusions and an ever-evolving musical palette that ranges from post-hardcore to indie folk and everything in between, the fact that a band of this sort holds the sort of cult following that it has within a curious cross-section of fans in the pop punk/emo/post-hardcore realm is rather fascinating.
As precarious as that description may seem, mewithoutYou hold a special niche within this scene; one that is dominated by teenagers, angst, and Warped Tour. There doesn’t seem to be a band as complex, intricate and multifaceted as this Philadelphia quintet. Over the course of their career, the band has exercised their ability to use faith, musicianship, and ambiguity in a variety of ways, each quite unique in its own way. Pale Horses, the group’s sixth studio album, is a haunting trip. Like they’ve done in the past, mewithoutYou has put together complex and intricate record of an inexplicably remarkable quality.
It’s tough to classify mewithoutYou, as they possess a range of ability in spoken word, post-hardcore, indie rock, and folk styles. While their most recent work has leaned on the melodic and indie side of the scale, Pale Horses is a grittier affair. Ten Stories used a thematic story to synthesize all of the sounds they have put together over the course of their career. Pale Horses presents a return to the band’s earliest sounds, filled with varying dynamics both musically and vocally, sticking along the lines of what can best be described as some sort of art/experimental post-hardcore, lacking on the melodic side of things. It isn’t necessarily as loud and aggressive as the band’s first few records, but it is consistently dark and distressing.
Like most of its predecessors, Pale Horses delivers from front-to-back, tightly packed and free of any filler. There is nothing in the way of the cathartic “January 1979”, but building and crashing rhythm sections under prominent guitar accompaniments that lead the mood of the melodies. On “Watermelon Ascot”, the guitars can shift from walls of sound to airy melodies that move to the beat of the rising and falling drum patterns. Over the course of 40 minutes, Pale Horses is able to build itself up and settle down again, with climaxes in intensity and catharsis that will keep listeners invested.
Throughout, the band doesn’t stick to a single songwriting agenda, treading different paths along the way. Vocalist Aaron Weiss’ distinct nasal tone is quiet to start off “Mexican War Streets”, before he shifts with the intricacies of the guitar into a slew of slightly distorted yelling that carry that idiosyncratic structure of the song. “Red Cow” is full of polarity, including Weiss jumping from a reluctant croon to an unconfined attack of shouts, with the uncertainty and frailty in his voice echoed by the desperate guitar howls and dramatic percussive shifts. Later in the record, after fighting through the dreary and desolate, “Magic Lantern Days” fills with swelling, hopeful crescendos that are among the most optimistic on the record, before “Birnam Wood” hits its climatic meeting of instrumental and vocal release.
Lyrically, it’s no surprise that Weiss delivers his fair share of theological references and vivid imagery. To that same end, it is unfair to attempt to decipher lyrics that are so densely packed with Biblical illusions, personal perspectives, and intentionally ambiguous images. This album has rendered itself to be the toughest review I’ve put together, specifically because of the lyrics. It is tough to try and illustrate the true meaning of the words on this record, as it, like every other mewithoutYou song, is ultimately held to the listener to take as their own. Some may see Weiss’ Bible savvy as essential to the group’s Christian songs, while others see him using faith and literature as a crutch to place his lyrics upon.
There’s no one way to read it all, and that is where the core of the album’s lyrical strength comes forth. The fact that Weiss is able to intertwine religion, politics and his own personal life into his words, combined with the push and pull of the band behind him and the shifting dynamics in his own voice work well to make his lyrics come to life. The more and more you look at what he is yelling, singing and whispering, the more astonished you grow at the fact that someone can even find a way to tie all of these images and concepts together in the way that he does. Weiss is a prolific and powerful songwriter throughout Pale Horses, and it is up to the listener to explore everything he offers here, which is nothing short of dizzying.
Much of what I have to say about this record is tough to justify without a real listen, and that is very much in the vein of what mewithoutYou has always been about. Making music that is tough to classify effectively, an experience with mewithoutYou is completely upon the listener. It will take many, many listens for each song to resonate with its full force. The interplay between the music and deep lyrical value makes Pale Horses a record with multiple layers. However, once it all comes together, this album is mewithoutYou at their finest, a welcome addition to the band’s already strong discography.