Reflecting on: Underoath – They’re Only Chasing Safety

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Throughout 2014, we’re going to be looking back on some of the best albums that were released 10 years ago and discussing their legacy. Feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the replies. Enjoy!

For decades, the post-hardcore genre bubbled beneath the veneer of mainstream consciousness. Bands like Fugazi, Texas is the Reason and Glassjaw all clamored for attention amidst the metal landscape. The early 2000s saw acts such as Thursday and The Used begin to blend their own brand of hardcore with a dash of pop sensibility, leaving the door open for a potential explosion if the right balance were to be found.

In the summer of 2004, Tampa, Florida hardcore band Underoath unexpectedly found that balance, striking a chord with such ferocity that its effects are still felt a decade later.

They’re Only Chasing Safety is not Underoath’s greatest achievement. In truth, every subsequent album the band would go on to record could be easily argued as superior. However, Chasing Safety may very likely be the most game-changing album the post-hardcore scene has encountered in the time since its release.

Previously known as an underground metal outfit, Underoath underwent an enormous overhaul after their 2002 album, The Changing of Times, that would leave drummer Aaron Gillespie as the band’s sole remaining original member. New recruits came in the form of guitarist James Smith, bassist Grant Brandell and vocalist Spencer Chamberlain, replacing the well-respected Dallas Taylor.

The new lineup, which also included holdovers guitarist Tim McTague and keyboardist/programmer Chris Dudley, decided to shed the band’s dark, heavy metal sound in favor of something much different. They’re Only Chasing Safety seemed to defy classification upon its release, eventually being heralded as the flagship album for the new screamo wave.

In place of sludgy breakdowns, the band incorporated melodic guitar parts that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a pop-punk album. Dallas Taylor’s spastic shrieks were replaced with Chamberlain’s much more palatable screams and cleans. Dudley’s synthesizers and keys finally took flight, fitting in perfectly with the band’s new direction – no longer a background distraction, but instead serving a necessary fill amidst McTague and Smith’s dueling guitars.

But perhaps the most ear-catching change was the introduction of Gillespie as a full-blown vocalist. The drummer had previously contributed some spoken word spots and had sung the chorus on “When the Sun Sleeps”, but on Chasing Safety, he would take the driver’s seat, effectively becoming the frontman of the band, despite his seat at the back of the stage, behind the drum kit.

Gillespie’s sugary-sweet choruses throughout the album still sound just as exciting as they did upon the album’s release. His refrain of “Your lungs are dead and they’ve both stopped breathing” on “A Boy Brushed Red Living in Black and White” and “Up against the wall, up against the wall” on “Reinventing Your Exit” still stand as benchmarks for clean vocalists everywhere. These songs, filled with their angst and confusion, became the unlikeliest of summer anthems.

Of course, for all of his vocal prowess, Gillespie’s parts are made even more special when heard against Chamberlain’s. The two names would become inseparable upon the release of Chasing Safety, serving as the golden standard for back-and-forth dual vocals in the hardcore scene. Their trade-off, heard within the opening minute of album opener “Young and Aspiring”, still resonates as a moment when the scene shifted.

For all of the glistening pop sheen that producer James Paul Wisner was able to inject into the album, Chasing Safety’s duality is what made the album so influential. For every sing-a-long moment, there’s punch of crunching guitar waiting just around the corner.

“It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door” still sounds light years ahead of its time. Massive breakdowns and time signature changes stand side by side with Gillespie’s soaring vocals, Dudley’s dancy synthesizers and the band’s haunting refrain of “I’m drowning in my sleep”. This song about a premeditated car crash would not only serve as the building blocks for the band’s later work like “Writing on the Walls”, but would also function as the go-to track for any band wanting to emulate this new sound.

Underoath would take the Vans Warped Tour by storm in the summer of 2004, before headlining their own massive tours, being courted by a slew of major labels and essentially kickstarting a new brand of post-hardcore. It’s hard to find a heavy band in 2014 that doesn’t incorporate high-pitched clean vocals and include a keyboard player.

To say that Underoath were the sole purveyors of this new movement would mean discounting a number of bands that served as their contemporaries. Emery, Dead Poetic, Every Time I Die, Hawthorne Heights and others all forged new ground alongside the band. However, it’s impossible to overlook the impact that Underoath had as the most prominent band to come from that scene.

Not only did the band fit the mold for success with their look, accessible sound and strong musicianship, they set themselves apart with an eye-catching, wild, live performance and their overt Christian faith. Underoath ironically succeeded by being all things to all people – failing to fall completely into one grouping, thus defying complete categorization.

Looking for a metal band with a palatable sound? Wanting some upbeat songs with catchy choruses for summer drives? Searching for a positive band with a bit more edge and bite than those found in your local Christian bookstore? Underoath found an audience across a wide array of listeners, managing to invite them all in without alienating anyone. Even if you find the sound of Chasing Safety too “poppy” or “cheesy,” it’s hard to deny the uniting effect the album had amongst its assorted audience.

But perhaps what makes They’re Only Chasing Safety such an important album ten years after its release is that it is not the album that defines Underoath, nor did the band choose to ride that sound indefinitely.

Chasing Safety went gold, surpassing 500,000 units sold, in a scene where doing such a thing is nearly unheard of. While every major label made a pitch to the band to break them even bigger, the band instead re-signed with indie label Tooth and Nail. What followed was the band’s magnum opus, Define the Great Line – an album that would debut at number two on the Billboard 200 and move 98,000 copies in its first week, despite shedding nearly everything that made Chasing Safety such a smash in the first place.

Had the band continued to write the pop-emo anthems that lace Chasing Safety, perhaps their audience would have tired and moved on. Instead, Underoath refused to play ball with those who wanted to guide their sound and chose to experiment and push the boundaries of hardcore. Their final three albums, Define the Great Line, Lost in the Sound of Separation and Ø (Disambiguation) all stand as pillars of post-hardcore excellence.

Maybe without the breakthrough success of Chasing Safety the band never would have had the freedom or resources to expand their sound. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: They’re Only Chasing Safety is a landmark album – one that sparked the rise of one of the scene’s most revered acts and one that opened the floodgates for a massive wave of new bands (for better or for worse).

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Love this. I jammed Hawthorne Heights, Underoath and the Used hard back in 8th grade. Though, now, I think Define the Great Line is their best work.

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