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Monday, October 15, 2007

The land of screamo : An earnest shout-out to Thursday, Thrice, and Coheed and Cambria

BY SEAN RICHARDSON @thephoenix.com

This fall’s highest-profile alterna-rock package tour, a five-week US jaunt starring Thursday, Thrice, and Coheed and Cambria, comes to a close this weekend with two sold-out New England shows: Saturday at Avalon and Sunday at the Webster Theatre in Hartford. It’s something of a victory lap for the three bands, who all recently released new albums that debuted in the upper half of the Billboard 200 albums chart. But the trek is more symbolic than that — it’s further proof that so-called "screamo" is posing a serious challenge to new metal as the sound of youth in the American suburbs. It doesn’t even take a trip to the mall in any of the three acts’ home towns — New Brunswick, New Jersey (Thursday); Irvine, California (Thrice); or Kingston, New York (Coheed and Cambria) — to realize that.

Thursday joined Dashboard Confessional and AFI as this year’s biggest commercial-punk hitmakers when their major-label debut, War All the Time (Island), hit #7 on the charts in September. On the disc’s first single, "Signals over the Air," frontman Geoff Rickly delivers the kind of twisted love poem that’s made emo a household word: "When you say my name/I want to stop it in your lungs and collect all of your blood/To put in the radio." As soon as he sings the word "radio," the band give program directors everywhere what they want: a dreamy guitar hook and a lush synth backdrop. That’s the most exciting part of the song, but it’s not the only one — the angular guitar intro gets things started on the right note, and the way the rest of the group yell behind Rickly’s piercing wail on the chorus will satisfy fans of their early stuff.

The main thing that separates the screamo generation from their new-metal forebears is integrity, and Thursday are famous for theirs. They made War All the Time with hardcore producer Sal Villanueva at his Jersey studio — the same way they did their previous two indie albums. The first, Waiting, came out in 1999 on the NYC label Eyeball, which recently graduated a second band, My Chemical Romance, to the majors. Two years ago, Thursday released the underground classic Full Collapse (Victory), and they eventually scored some airplay with that disc’s "Understanding in a Car Crash." They hooked up with Island after an ugly split with Victory, the legendary hardcore label that has gone soft in recent years.

In most cases, screamo is a catchy new name for what used to be called post-hardcore: it’s what happens when hardcore kids grow up, slow down, and discover melody. Nineteen-nineties post-hardcore bands like Quicksand and Into Another anticipated new metal even as they faltered on the charts, but Thursday and company are doing them one better — they’re fostering a new breed of heavy rock and shifting units at the same time. The first cut on War All the Time, "For the Workforce, Drowning," starts off with a violent lurch, and it blends Rickly’s earnestness with a host of turbulent soundscapes. His outrage is directed at the ultimate middle-class punk target, cubicle work: "Please take these hands, throw me in the river/But don’t let me drown before the workday ends."

For all the melodic thrust of their songs, Thursday occasionally suffer from the same mid-tempo blues that afflict new metal. But most of their songs rise above. "Division St." is by turns elegant and dissonant; the closing "Tomorrow I’ll Be You" balances Rickly’s full-bore rage with a placid keyboard interlude. On the lacerating "Steps Ascending," the frontman watches in horror as a friend gets shot; then members of kindred spirits Cursive and Far stop by to commiserate. Rickly’s songs have always been littered with tragedy: "Understanding in a Car Crash" told the true story of a friend who died in an accident. "War all the time/In the shadow of the New York skyline," he sings on the shimmering title track, which runs through a litany of misfortune before finding solace in a basement hardcore show. Any way you define it, that’s what screamo is all about.

ISLAND LABELMATES THURSDAY AND THRICE may have grown up on opposite sides of the country, but their competing punk-metal hybrids have a lot in common. The new Thrice album, The Artist in the Ambulance, landed just outside the Top 10 when it dropped in July, and it immediately left its mark with the hit "All That’s Left." "A ghost is all that’s left/Of everything we swore we never would forget," sings frontman Dustin Kensrue as guitarist Teppei Teranishi noodles tastefully behind him. There are hints of pop-punk jubilation in the band’s attack, but Kensrue is agonizing over selling out: "We are the dead, can we be saved?" Teranishi asks no such questions — he’s having too much fun aping pre-Pyromania Def Leppard.

Thrice don’t have quite as much Iron Maiden in them as Killswitch Engage or Avenged Sevenfold, but they know their power metal better than your average Warped Tour punks. The band came to Island from Sub City, the SoCal label that organizes the annual Take Action Tour and donates a percentage of all its profits to charity. They recorded their second album, last year’s The Illusion of Safety, with producer Brian McTernan, the East Coast hardcore veteran who also worked on recent high-profile releases by the Movielife and Hot Water Music, at his studio in DC. Like Thursday, Thrice stuck with their producer when they got signed, and they’re also sticking with the charity work: a portion of the sales from their new album will go to the Syrentha J. Savio Endowment for cancer patients.

Healing is one of Kensrue’s favorite subjects: "They’ve given me a second chance/The artist in the ambulance," he sings on the title track after being rescued from a car wreck. He doesn’t shy away from punk-rock politics, either, as the album’s opening and closing tracks attest. "Yeah we’re doing just fine/Here at the top of the world," he sneers on "Cold Cash and Colder Hearts," which works a string section into the mix as it mourns American apathy. Teranishi saves some of his most chilling guitar melodies for the military-brainwashing finale, "Don’t Tell and We Won’t Ask."

The new Thrice single, "Stare at the Sun," might be the most personal song on The Artist in the Ambulance. It goes without saying that the music doesn’t sound much like the 1990s U2 hit "Staring at the Sun," but the lyrics do sound like something the young Bono could have written. "I’ll stare straight into the sun/And I won’t close my eyes/Until I understand or go blind," sings Kensrue, replacing the bitterness of his sociopolitical rants with a deep spiritual longing. Pop-punk activists who dig heavy-metal flash: why didn’t someone think of this earlier?

THURSDAY, THRICE, AND COHEED AND CAMBRIA are all favorites on MTV2 and Fuse, the two best places to find rock videos on television. Right now, Coheed and Cambria have the coolest video of the three: "Devil in Jersey City," the catchiest tune from their already-classic debut, last year’s The Second Stage Turbine Blade (Equal Vision). With his frizzed-out hair and helium voice, frontman Claudio Sanchez is one of the most lovable freaks in today’s commercial-punk circus. "Let’s fire it up/Ha-ha/Now," he pleads over the band’s insistent pop-metal crunch as random images of babies, planets, and space-age furniture flood the screen. If you like your Warped Tour bands with a broad pretentious streak, these guys are for you.

With "Devil in Jersey City" still picking up steam on the airwaves, Coheed are also back in stores with a new album, In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3, that hit #52 on the charts in October. The amazing thing about their breakthrough is that the new disc is out on Equal Vision, the long-running New York indie label that has had plenty of underground success with bands like Saves the Day and Converge but nothing like this. That’s another fortunate consequence of the decline of new metal: these days, rock is such a free-for-all that bands hardly even need major-label backing to sell records.

Coheed have often been described as the screamo Rush, for a couple of reasons: one, Sanchez does sound a little like Rush singer Geddy Lee, and two, their albums follow the ongoing saga of two characters named Coheed and Cambria. Those comparisons won’t go away with the release of their new disc, which clocks in at a hefty 70 minutes and includes a three-part suite called "The Velourium Camper" that makes even less sense than the Pixies classic "Velouria." And guitarist Travis Stever emits enough fleet-fingered squeals to hold his own against Thrice’s Teranishi.

Still, Coheed’s hooks are straightforward enough that if you heard In Keeping Secrets for the first time at a party, you probably wouldn’t think it was a concept album with sci-fi overtones. "Pull the trigger and the nightmare stops," wails Sanchez on the demented pop standout "Three Evils (Embodied in Love and Shadow)," which, as the liner notes warn, is "part of a story and should not be taken literally." Elsewhere, the band come up with their most accessible and fun material to date: "Blood Red Summer" gives emo a new-wave makeover, and "The Velourium Camper Part I: Faint of Heart" grooves like 1980s ZZ Top. In Coheed’s case, post-hardcore means embracing classic rock in all its melodic and conceptual glamor.

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