Becoming Self-Aware: A Farewell to The Swellers

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Sometimes it takes a band breaking up for you to truly appreciate how special they are and how much of an impact they’ve had on your life. Such was the case with bands like Thrice and Moving Mountains a couple years back, and such is case with The Swellers now. All three are examples of bands that weren’t really on my radar until a little later in their career and didn’t truly become favorites until they were almost ready to call it quits.

I discovered Thrice a little late in the game, during my junior year of college when they released Vheissu, and their early work never resonated with me quite as much as their last few albums. Their music was present in my college and post-collegiate years, but never in the captivating, all-consuming way that other post-hardcore/emo acts like Thursday and Taking Back Sunday were. After putting Thrice on the back burner for a few years, I became blown away by their last LP Major/Minor and subsequently started to appreciate their back catalog even more. And then about a year later, they announced their farewell tour, which I was lucky enough to see in two cities. I had a similar experience with Moving Mountains; I stumbled upon them a little later in their career, when they opened for Thrice (oddly enough) in 2011. While I was never a huge fan of their post-rock heavy debut Pneuma their last two LPs have now taken their rank among my favorite albums of all time.

As far as The Swellers, they’re a band I’ve liked quite a bit since I first saw them open for Paramore back in 2009. Much like Thrice, their music had a pretty decent presence in my mid-late 20’s, but for whatever reason their albums never quite made the transition into heavy rotation on my turntable. That all changed when I heard The Light Under Closed Doors for the first time last year on a road trip through New England and New York that involved me meeting up with friends and seeing Taking Back Sunday play in five different cities. The hundreds of miles I drove that week were soundtracked almost exclusively by The Swellers, Saves The Day, and of course Taking Back Sunday. I developed a deep appreciation for The Light Under Closed Doors; “Big Hearts” served up an instant shot of nostalgia, hope, and joy at a time when I was getting hit pretty hard by what I like to call my “quarter-life crisis, part deux,” “Becoming Self-Aware” quickly became one of my personal anthems, and “Call It A Night” honestly made me weep. When I arrived at my last destination on the trip—Portland, Maine—I immediately drove to one of my favorite record stores and purchased the album on vinyl. It has definitely been in pretty heavy rotation ever since.

Right before I went on my TBS road trip and rediscovered the Swellers, I reconnected with another thing from my past that I had kind of abandoned: long-distance running. After dabbling in cross country during my high school and early college years, I set goals to train for longer races in my mid-20’s, which ultimately led to injury and burnout. Then, after practicing yoga for a few years, I developed a renewed sense of appreciation and ease with running longer distances, which were always set perfectly to long pop punk/emo playlists of the Saves The Day/Taking Back Sunday variety. I’m especially particular about the tempo of the songs I run to; I need something to both inspire me and keep me going at a steady pace. So after my long road trip, I decided to try running to some Swellers songs, and the rest is history.

I’m not sure if it was the songs themselves, the fact that I interspersed them with songs from another one of my favorite bands—Weezer—or the sense of freedom and rejuvenation I felt after taking that much needed break from life to go on the open roads, but I was running faster and longer without the feelings of burnout, strain, or defeat that had always plagued me. I ran to my Swellers/Weezer playlist for weeks on end until I did what I had always thought of as the impossible: complete a full 13.1 miles. I’d like to think that the familiarity and personal connections I had with the songs— especially those on The Light Behind Closed Doors— and the feelings of pure joy and exhilaration I felt from associating them with my long drives across New England were what encouraged me to literally go the extra mile to achieve my goal.

A few days after I finished my own personal half marathon, I learned that The Swellers had decided to break up and were planning a farewell tour. Even though I had only been to two of their shows and felt like more of a casual fan than a diehard supporter, I was hit by a wave of loss and sadness when I heard the news. Their music had only recently made a significant personal impact on me, and now I would only have one last chance to see them perform. I’ve seen a fair number of bands from my teenage and college years break up, and I’ve gotten teary-eyed at several farewell shows, but perhaps because of the particular place I’m at in my life right now, this farewell felt more bittersweet than usual.

The band’s decision to break up coincided with my decision to transition out of a full-time career I had been immersed in for the last four years. I was working as an independent contractor, teaching yoga to adults and children, and the struggle to make ends meet without burning out became too much. I had experienced an intense moment of clarity during that recent long-distance run when “Becoming Self-Aware” popped up on the playlist. I realized that while I will always feel grateful for the freedom and flexibility my career offered me and the amazing people I met in the many classes and workshops I taught over the years, I was no longer in love with the work I was doing and needed to move on. Shortly after making this decision I read an article by The Swellers’ drummer, Jonathan Diener about the challenges of being in a mid-level band, and I drew a lot of personal connections to their struggles on the business end of things. Even though I had experienced a brief, blissful period of “selling out” my classes at a big corporate yoga studio chain—akin to a major record label in some ways—I was pretty much always a mid-level yoga instructor. Much like a band who tours extensively, I put far too many miles on my car and too much wear and tear on my general well being teaching too many classes just to pay the bills. This simply wasn’t something I could do full-time through my 30’s. And while it felt like a relief in many ways to give up several of my classes, it was a bittersweet departure. Months later, I’m still at a bit of a crossroads, caught between careers, working part-time jobs and attending school part time, but still very much hopeful and optimistic for whatever my next step might be.

A few days before I saw The Swellers on their farewell tour I took a mini road trip up to Portland, Maine to fill out grad school applications and write my personal statement. I needed the time on the road and the change of venue to clear my head, and Portland seemed like the perfect place, since I’ve considered it my home away from home for years. It was also the place where I bought The Light Under Closed Doors on my last major road trip, so it felt extra symbolic. A good friend of mine teaches yoga in the city, so I took her class in the morning, which was honestly the first positive, bullshit-free yoga experience I’ve had since stepping away from my full-time job as an instructor. After class I sat at my all-time favorite cafe, just down the street from my favorite record store, and the many words and paragraphs of my personal statement just came pouring out. The process of writing that essay helped put my past in perspective and calmed many of my fears and anxieties about whatever my future might bring.

I put the finishing touches on my essay just hours before seeing the Swellers play at a unique venue just two doors down from the apartment where I said goodbye to my 20’s not too long ago. It was like VFW Hall meets old school Italian Wedding Hall, and perhaps due to its oddly charming, DIY/celebratory ambience, it just felt like the perfect setting to bid farewell to a band that always did things themselves and persevered despite never quite becoming a household name or selling out a tour. I went to the show with my brother, his girlfriend, and one of my best friends who also recently quit her full-time yoga gig. Each member of our group is currently in a weird transitional place in life; like the members in the band, we are getting ready to say goodbye to certain things that just aren’t working for us anymore, and we’re optimistically bracing for the changes we’re about to face.

While at first I was overcome by nostalgia for the carefree, post-collegiate life I lived right down the street from the venue, and then by a grim, depressing feeling that my younger, happier days were behind me and that it would all be downhill from here, that feeling changed when The Swellers took the stage. They plowed through a pretty impressive, comprehensive playlist with a genuine gratitude for their fans and a love for their work. The energy with which they played began to transform my woeful pessimism into mindful positivity. I’m mindful about the fact that it will be challenging to switch careers, move to a new city, and return to school in my early 30’s, but I’m trying to maintain a positive outlook, and I know that these challenges will all be for my benefit.

I’m sure each member of The Swellers will find some success and happiness in whatever their next adventure might bring them, and to loosely quote one of their most memorable songs, I’m sure they’re “on [their] way to better things.” Their music re-entered my life at the perfect moment, and it played an important role in guiding me toward some better things for my future. While I didn’t get to personally say goodbye or thank them after the show, I’m truly grateful for this band and for what they’ve created. And the fact that I got to see them play one last time at such a pivotal point in my life made me happier than I could have imagined.

Gates- “Not My Blood”

Gates are one of few bands that seamlessly blend indie rock, post-rock, and emo to create a unique and captivating sound that makes me feel as though I’m falling in love with music for the first time, all over again. The only other bands who evoke a similar feeling in me are the now defunct Moving Mountains; one of my all time favorites, The Appleseed Cast; and one of my more recently appointed favorites, From Indian Lakes.

Much like the trajectory of Moving Mountains’ catalog, it has been fascinating to watch Gates progress from the diamond in the rough sound of their debut EP The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home to the more finely tuned, intricate stylings and impressive production that made their follow up EP You Are All You Have Left To Fear so stunning. If the lead single, “Not My Blood” is any indication, I’m sure that their upcoming LP Bloom & Breathe will build upon its predecessor’s blueprint to produce an even more spectacularly detailed, cohesive sound. The guitar work calls to mind some of Explosions In The Sky’s most poignant moments, and Kevin Dye’s well-honed vocals have the same kind of almost crystalline, yet still slightly gritty beauty and strong emotional impact as Gregory Dunn of Moving Mountains.

Bands like Gates are a rare find, and their music certainly deserves and will command your full attention. Sit and listen to “Not My Blood” and be prepared for an especially moving experience that might alter the way you think about rock music in general, regardless of the somewhat meaningless genres and sub genres we can be so eager to impose on bands who don’t quite fit the mold.

Stream the song below and pre-order the album here.

Turnover- “Disintegration”

Turnover went through a pretty remarkable transition between their 2011 self-titled EP and their full length follow-up, Magnolia, which was one of my favorite albums of 2013. So it will be interesting to hear what other shifts in sound and style this band has in store for us with their upcoming EP, Blue Dream, which comes out on August 26.

The EP’s first single, “Disintegration,” begins with a simple, minimalist kind of sound, stripped down to gentle guitar arpeggios and subdued vocals that enhance the song’s especially reflective, introspective lyrics. Then, a little beyond the halfway mark, the emotional floodgates open as the chill guitars and somber vocal style abruptly give way to a beautifully noisy, turbulent crescendo that pretty much leaves me speechless every time I listen to it.

If you’re a fan of Balance and Composure or Brand New (especially their 2006 magnum opus The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me), you’ll most likely love “Disintegration.” Stream it below, courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan, pre-order their EP here, and fall in love with this extremely talented, ever-evolving, genre defying band.

The band will also be touring with Light Years and Malfunction this fall. Tour dates are listed below.

http://www.brooklynvegan.com/archives/2014/07/turnover_releas.html

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Turnover — 2014 Tour Dates

SEP 17 – Virginia Beach, VA @ Shaka’s w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 18 – Baltimore, MD @ Metro Gallery w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 19 – Long Island, NY @ Amityville Music Hall w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 20 – Howell, NJ @ Gamechanger World w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 21 – Philadelphia, PA @ The Barbary w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 23 – Holyoke, MA @ The Waterfront Tavern w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 24 – Poughkeepsie, NY @ Pizza Shop w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 25 – New York, NY @ The Studio at Webster Hall w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 26 – Ottawa, ON @ Pressed w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 27 – Toronto, ON @ Hard Luck Bar w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 28 – Buffalo, NY @ Waiting Room w/ Light Years, Malfunction
SEP 30 – Cincinatti, OH @ Legends w/ Light Years, Malfunction
OCT 01 – Lansing, MI @ Macs Bar w/ Light Years, Malfunction
OCT 02 – Chicago, IL @ Beat Kitchen w/ Light Years, Malfunction
OCT 03 – Cleveland, OH @ Mahall’s 20 Lanes w/ Light Years, Malfunction

Don’t Call It A Comeback: 10 must hear bands from the so called “emo revival”

My teens and early twenties were definitely fueled by a steady diet of emo. Bands like Saves The Day, Hot Rod Circuit, Piebald, Jets to Brazil, and Sunny Day Real Estate have left a permanent imprint on me and will forever occupy a prominent place in my record shelves. My taste in music has certainly evolved and gone through various phases in the past several years, but I always find myself digging back into the emo. Maybe that term has lost the meaning or relevance it had in my high school years and maybe it got rather distorted and tainted in the mid 2000s with the rise of MTV friendly bands like Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, who got unfortunately lumped into this increasingly amorphous category. Nonetheless, it’s a term I’ll probably always use to describe the kind of music that has always been a staple in my diet. With so many genre and sub genre names being tossed around these days, it doesn’t really matter anyway. The experience of listening to music and appreciating it as a work of art has always mattered far more to me than assigning something a label, a stereotype, or a scene. There are so many different meanings and images that people have come to associate with the term “emo,” but to me, it has always simply described a certain style of music that’s passionate, raw, emotional, clever, and even a little bit poppy and fun.

There has been a lot of talk of a recent “emo revival” of sorts that’s been happening for the past couple of years and speculation as to whether emo really “died.” The jury’s still out for me on that one, but what I can say is that I have discovered some pretty talented newer bands during the past couple of years that possess a sound and a style that’s rather evocative of the emo bands I grew up on.

Here’s a list of my top 10 newer “emo infused” bands that I hope receive more attention in the coming months/years. While I always hesitate to toss genre labels around, this group of bands is pretty diverse and some may appeal more to your emo sensibilities than others. They run the gamut from the “pop punk” and “post-hardcore” to “indie rock” and even 90’s rock-influenced. I’ve included a video of an essential song for each band that gives you a snapshot of their sound.

1.) My Mouth Is The Speaker

These guys from Ohio are exactly my kind of band. They have a unique, driving emo-rock sound that takes me back to the early 2000s and immediately calls to mind Hot Rod Circuit. I discovered them right after they released their latest EP “In Focus.”

Here’s a great track from that EP to get you started:

My Mouth Is The Speaker “Worst Case Scenario”

2) Turnover

This band from Virginia Beach came on the scene in 2011 with the release of a self-titled EP, which they followed up with their debut LP, “Magnolia” in 2013. Their sound incorporates a little old school emo, a little pop punk, and a lot of bright, driving melodies laced with contemplation, melancholy, and minor chords.

Listen to “Most of the Time,” one of the standout tracks from “Magnolia.”

3) Light Years

Equal parts pop punk and emo, Ohio’s Light Years round out my top 3 favorite bands I’ve discovered in 2014. I’ve had their debut album, “I Won’t Hold This Against You” in pretty heavy rotation since I first got my hands on it. The whole album is most definitely worth listening to from start to finish several times, but to get you started, here’s the title track:

4) Balance and Composure

I was late to the game in discovering Balance and Composure. This Pennsylvania band has been around for a little while and have released two fantastic albums and a few EPs, the most recent of which is 2013’s “The Things We Think We’re Missing.” They’re one of the hardest bands for me to attempt to categorize, but if you like rock that’s raw, emotional, contemplative, and a bit heavy, you owe it to yourself to check these guys out. Jon Simmons’ intense, unpolished vocals are among my favorite ever. Hear them for yourself on “Lost Your Name.”

5) From Indian Lakes

These guys are quite a different band from many others on this list, but I included them because a) their sound and lyrical content could definitely be called “emo” and b) they’re one of my favorite new bands and they deserve way more attention. The band’s name actually speaks to their place of origin, the Indian Lakes of the Yosemite Valley. If you had to categorize them, they’d be more in the Circa Survive/Appleseed Cast/The Early November camp of emo. Lead Singer Joey Vannucchi’s vocal range and flexibility is impressive, so listen to him showcase his skills on the opening track from the band’s latest album, 2012’s “Able Bodies.” They’re currently in the studio recording LP 3, so expect big, exciting things from them.

Listen to “Stay Outside,” one of the many standout tracks from the excellent “Able Bodies” album.

6) The American Scene

I saw these guys open for From Indian Lakes on their recent “Able Bodies” tour and was impressed by their tightly constructed, well crafted emo rock sound. It’s definitely reminiscent of the style I loved so much in my high school and college years. They pair brilliantly with From Indian Lakes, and chances are if you like one, you’ll like the other.

Listen to “Shape Shifter” from their 2012 album “Safe For Now.”

7) Daytrader

Long Island’s Daytrader, who released their debut EP in 2011 and followed it up a year later with the album “Twelve Years,” have a post hardcore meets heavy 90s rock meets pop punk type of sound that’s just total ear candy for me. Even though the band is “on hiatus” for the time being, I’m including them here because they’re that awesome.

Listen to “Deadfriends” and see why:

8) Major League

New Jersey’s Major League definitely fall right into the “pop punk” category, but they’ve crafted a style of pop punk that’s intriguingly emotive, yearning, and reflective. Since the release of their 2012 album “Hard Feelings,” lead singer Nick Trask parted ways with the band and guitarist/lyricist Brian Joyce has taken the lead. They’re currently recording a new album, and I’m really excited to see how they’ll evolve.

My favorite song from “Hard Feelings” is “Because Heaven Knows.” Listen to it here:

9) Citizen

Like Balance and Composure, Michigan’s Citizen has a hybrid style that’s all their own. I definitely hear some 90’s indie rock influences in the heavy emo/post hardcore sound they’ve crafted. I recommend listening to them in tandem with Balance and Composure. The two bands go hand in hand and would be perfect on tour together.

Listen to “Young States,” the title track from their 2012 EP, here:

10) Superheaven

Speaking of 90’s rock…Superheaven, a band from Pennsylvania, formerly known as Daylight, definitely satisfies my cravings for the days when I was just a young kid and bands like Alice in Chains and Smashing Pumpkins ruled their airwaves. I absolutely love their heavy, grungy 90’s influenced approach to post hardcore. They’re almost more like part of a “grunge revival” than an “emo revival,” but I’m certainly not complaining.

Listen to “Sheltered,” a standout track from their 2013 album “Jar.”

Listen More, Label Less: a look at musical genres and sub genres

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We derive a certain comfort from putting things into categories, and we can get a sense of our preferences and our identity by doing so. I can tell you that I like indie rock, independent films and literary thrillers, and you might develop a rough sketch of who I am just by knowing that I prefer those genres. You might be able to refine that sketch if I told you I liked post-hardcore, mockumentaries, and supernatural thrillers. There is an astounding amount of sub genres popping up these days in the music world and an almost obsessive compulsive need for fans and critics to define a band’s sound in terms of one neat category or to invent a ridiculous sounding new genre just for them. I actually found myself using the term “chill trap” last week in an attempt to describe a remix, and I stopped myself before I could hashtag it in a tweet. #chilltrap to me is kinda synonymous with #musicdouche…

I wrote a short piece a few months back on La Dispute’s stunning new album “Rooms of the House” and how it defied categorization. It’s challenging to try to fit this band into even a specific sub genre like post-hardcore. While their unique sound does include elements of post hardcore, it also encompasses spoken word, jazz, and various other styles and elements. It would sound ludicrous if I tried to coin a new genre name like “progressive emo jazzcore,” just to satisfy my need to label this band and make them fit somewhere in the genres that I use to define my tastes and my identity as a music lover. It might be more effective to describe La Dispute as a post-hardcore band with a unique hybrid sound that’s challenging to categorize. Do we have to put our preconceived ideas and labels into listener’s heads before they’ve had a chance to hear the music and decide for themselves what it means to them and whether it speaks to their sensibilities? Why not just let fans listen to the record and let the music speak for itself?

La Dispute are just one example of this current music genre madness. There’s apparently a whole “emo revival” going on (who said “emo” ever really died anyway?), and I’ve discovered several new favorite artists over the past couple of years that do remind me a little of the emo music that defined my teenage years and my early 20s. I can certainly hear hints of bands like Saves the Day, Thursday, Bright Eyes, The Early November, The Appleseed Cast, etc. in some of the younger bands that are getting more attention and gaining more popularity today, but I don’t think I’d necessarily call these bands “emo” or “emo revival.” I also don’t think I need to invent a douchey sounding new category for these bands like “nu emo” or “post emo.” It’s fine to acknowledge a band’s influences, but again, it’s more powerful and personal for listeners when we can let categorization take a bit of a backseat and allow the music to speak for itself.

Music scenes will always evolve and expand to encompass various nuances in sound and style, and bands that we have fit into a predetermined genre or sub genre will most certainly change their sound and defy that genre at certain points in their career. Saves the Day are a perfect example of a band who have gone through remarkable changes in their sound and lineup over the 15+ years they’ve been around. One could say they started out as more of a pop-punk band, evolved into what would be called “emo”, then brought in elements of power pop, and just kept growing and changing in such a beautiful way. Now I’d be hard pressed to try to fit them into a category and I wouldn’t want to. Saves The Day come up frequently in conversation due to the fact that they’re my favorite band of all time, and when people who haven’t heard them ask me about their music and what they sound like, I don’t even attempt to use genre labels. I simply say that they’re an amazing rock band whose sound has evolved a lot over the years and that each album in their catalog is so different from the next, so go listen and see for yourself.

I try to listen to new music with an open mind and to disregard my preconceived notions about genres and how I’ve defined my particular tastes and identity, but I do still find myself seeking the comforts of categorization and comparison. I guess it’s just something that human beings have always done and will always continue to do. I like hearing that a new band or artist someone is recommending to me sounds a bit like the XX or is “emo tinged.” Describing music in terms of genre or influence is definitely an effective marketing tool and will draw skeptical listeners, including myself, right in. But I think there needs to be more of a balance and mindfulness in the way we categorize and compare artists. Offering up a broad category and maybe a comparison or two to a similar artist and letting go of the need to slap on all these narrow sub genre labels might be one way to go. I think we all need to categorize less and just listen more.

New Song Review: “Flicker, Fade” by Taking Back Sunday

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Despite what some critics might say, I’m really digging the evolution of TBS’ sound, and I have equal love for all their albums.  Admittedly their self titled 2011 release took a while to grow on me, unlike their previous albums.  Based on this strong, hard hitting, and poignant first taste of their new album, I have high hopes that “Happiness Is” will be just as well crafted, thoughtful, and sonically pleasing as the rest of their impressive catalogue.  It would be unrealistic to expect them to recapture the sound or essence of “Tell All Your Friends,” which for so many fans is a potent dose of nostalgia and an instant trip back to their high school/college years in the early 2000s.  TBS has mastered the art of reinventing themselves with each new album, and I fully expect them to do the same with their new release.  If “Flicker Fade” is indicative of where they’re headed as a more mature band of 30- somethings, I feel like their longtime fans who have grown up with them are in for a treat.

I’ve always loved how TBS incorporates the use of strings into certain songs, and they are seamlessly and artfully woven into “Flicker, Fade.” The strings beautifully compliment the introspective lyrics, laced with despair ,and add a richer quality to the heavy, wall of sound elements in the song.  They’re definitely well paired with Adam Lazzarra’s compelling, emotionally charged vocal delivery.

To draw comparisons to some of their recent work, I’d say “Flicker, Fade” sounds a little like what would result if you put “Since You’re Gone” in a blender with “Money Where My Mouth Is” while almost trying to recapture the catchiness and the overall essence of what made “Make Damn Sure” one of their most anthemic creations.  While Lazzarra knocked it out of the park with “Damn Sure,” with its powerful, passionate punch, this new song expresses a more reflective, mature, almost morose look at self-sabotage with a slowly driving melodic style that’s “catchy” for sure, but not in the obvious, more uptempo ways of their earlier singles.