Label: Deathwish Inc
Youtube stream: Click
Is there a dirtier word in punk rock than “emo”? It’s the kind of horrid catch-all that means a dozen different things to a dozen different people, and almost all of them carry negative connotations; right from the off, it was treated with disdain (“You mean like Emo Philips?”) . It’s almost impossible to remember that it once actually meant something to do with real, honest punk rock, rather than a fashion label for teens. If it ever did.
Regardless of what the band might describes themselves as, “emo” is the term that comes to mind for me, and not in a negative way. Touché Amoré’s previous two albums were records that I wanted to like more than I actually did, reminding me as they did of those long-ago summers spent listening to Rites Of Spring, Heroin, and Indian Summer, amongst other emo acts. Musically, the fact that twenty-odd years (or more) has gone by since those benchmark records were released was undeniable on Touché Amoré’s past releases, as was a strong hardcore punk influence. They were great records, and the band absolutely kill it live, but the odd lyrical clanger or moment where they just fell short of what they were aiming for stopped me from enjoying them as much as I thought I could have. Third album, Is Survived By, brings with it a lot of hype, but honestly, I was worried that it wouldn’t succeed on building on the promise of the past.
My initial listen didn’t do much to counter those worries. There was nothing wrong with the record, but nor did it stand out and grab me, and if the internet is anything to get by then I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Well, almost two months on, I have decided that my initial impressions were utterly, completely, thoroughly wrong. Perhaps it just took some familiarity, or for the weight of expectation to be lessened, but listening to it now I feel confident in saying that it has built upon the promise those previous records hinted at, and is an honest, clever, modern emo record (or punk, or post-hardcore, or whatever other genre label you prefer) that is among the best releases of the year.
The first thing that stands out is the production. One of the issues with previous releases for me had been the production; Marching To The Beat Of A Dead Horse seemed to be suffocated when it should have shined, whereas second album Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me featured a snare sound that seemed rather misplaced and distracting. Here, there’s no such worries. The songs feel loud when they’re meant to, light and spacious when required, and everything works in conjunction with everything around it.
Furthermore, the lyrics are much, much improved. Whereas Parting The Sea… featured some superb lyrics (“There’s a thousand reasons I can’t open up/Every combination is one turn off”), they were often undermined by other, less deft pairings. On Is Survived By, there’s no such clumsy moments, yet the band have retained their knack for writing lines which strike as profound and smart, with a real sense of self-awareness – if “It was possibly my loudest cliché/but felt better than just walking away” doesn’t sum up the spirit of this kind of emotional hardcore whilst being subtly self-depreciating, I don’t know what does. As someone who puts a lot of stock in lyrics, that’s a real plus point. The whole album almost feels as if it’s telling a story too, though perhaps not in a linear format – a concept album about a concept, about what you leave behind when you die, and the pressures that come with awareness of your own mortality, both as a person and with regards to your music or art (“I don’t know what my legacy will be/a song, some words I wrote/or a kid I’ll never see”). It’s a pretty weighty concept, full of potential pit-falls and traps, but the band pull it off in a way that feels totally natural.
As for the music, this isn’t your Revolution Summer emo, but the influence of it is loud and clear. It’s not as fast an album as much of Parting The Sea… was, which largely raced along in the manner of a classic hardcore record, but is happy to take its time, to build tension and let strong song-writing and a sense of dynamics shine through, as well as some great melodies. As for the vocals, Jeremy Bolm’s vocals are sometimes criticised as being one-dimensional shouts, but I feel they suit the songs and music perfectly and are more nuanced than their detractors claim. DNA showcases each facet of the band superbly, starting off with tempo before the band tone things down, letting the bass take the lead as the vocals build towards a moment of catharsis tailor-made for being shouted in hundreds of packed basement venues across the globe. To Write Content sounds like a logical progression from their previous records, carried along with some strong bass and guitars, whilst Harbor demonstrates the band’s confidence with writing slower songs and the tension and release that can come with them.
It’s the second half that’s really interesting, though. This is where the band sound truly, truly special, mixing hints of 80s emo with classic Dischord sounds. There’s a lot of speed and fury here, but there’s also melody and creativity that brings to mind the time in the 90s when Jawbox broke a thousand hearts by signing to a major label and not sucking, or when Fugazi (should have) ruled the world. The quick-fire trio of Kerosene, Blue Angels, and Social Caterpillar is breathtaking. Even if the rest of the album wasn’t up to standard, the six minutes that comprises those three songs makes it worth checking out, they’re that good. And then there’s Non-Fiction, which sounds to these ears like a modern update of the classic, near-untouchable Indian Summer sound, featuring a sense of dynamics and tension-and-release that’s reminiscent of post-rock. Steps is lyrically defiant, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place near the end of a 90s Fugazi record. Finally, the title track rounds thing off in cathartic, jubilant nature, as if in answer to the challenge posed at the beginning of the album and by the album title. A phrase so typically associated with death becomes celebratory, and captures the essence of emo and underground punk in a most poetic, beautiful nature – all the more remarkable considering how far it’s come from some of the previous album’s lyrics, both in execution and tone.
There’s a lot to take in on this record, even if it does largely stick to a sound that’s an obvious progression from previous releases. To some extent, it’s no surprise that some were unimpressed so soon after release; what Touché Amoré have made here is an album that asks a lot of the listener, and demands attention and engagement, but when given time and focus reveals a host of charms. A modern classic for sure.