Reflecting On: Underoath – Define the Great Line

underoath-define-2006

A decade after its release, Define the Great Line remains a pinnacle of the post-hardcore genre and an album by which all others of its ilk are judged.

For Underoath, a band that released four classic records and influenced a new generation of heavy music, Define the Great Line remains their magnum opus – an album that showcases their talent and fearless drive. Still, the album’s very existence in its known form is a startling testament to a band with conviction.

Fresh off the heels of 2004’s breakthrough record, They’re Only Chasing Safety, Underoath had completed their first contract with indie label Tooth and Nail Records, making the Flordia sextet free agents prime for the picking. The band was courted by a host of major labels with big plans to break the group into the mainstream. If you close your eyes in a quiet room, you can almost hear the crystal sheen of a Safety follow-up on Warner Bros. Records, filled to the brim with pop-laden hooks and bouncing guitar riffs.

Instead of cashing in, the band quietly returned to their home at Tooth and Nail and entered the studio with Matt Goldman and Killswitch Engage’s Adam Dutkiewicz. What resulted defied genre expectations upon its release, shirking classification and launching the band to new heights. Define the Great Line turned the screamo scene on its head and dared its audience to follow.

Define is a heavy record, to be sure, but when placed alongside Safety, it’s damn near bone crushing. With hardly a chorus to be found, Define the Great Line found Underoath experimenting outside of conventional song structures, often switching tempos mid-track, keeping the listener off balance at all times. Listening to Define is akin to being dragged down a winding hallway by your shirt collar. But in the most therapeutic way possible.

Whereas Chasing Safety relied heavily on Spencer Chamberlain and Aaron Gillespie’s call and response vocals, Define the Great Line is, without question, Spencer’s record. Chamberlain roars, howls, yells and cries aloud over the madness, only allowing Gillespie brief moments to speak. Those resulting vocal deliveries sound like pleading calls for help against Chamberlain’s manic battle.

All the while, Underoath explored new ground underneath the melee. Tim McTague and James Smith forgo simple riffing for complex chord progressions and bewildering breakdowns with help from bassist Grant Brandell. Chris Dudley’s keyboards and programming transformed from quirky background noise to a haunting bedrock that shifts tracks from disturbing to peaceful and back again.

Several minutes into the mammoth-sized “Casting Such a Thin Shadow”, nearly every trace of old Underoath is gone, with the band orchestrating one of the most beautiful and painful instrumental segments you’ll find on a post-hardcore record. When Chamberlain breaks through at the 3:49 mark with “Speak up, my ears are growing weary”, you feel his need for answers with every fiber of your being. I still remember replaying the track again and again on the day of the album’s release, trying to wrap my head around what I was hearing.

You could fill a book with descriptions of sonic acrobatics found on Define and the breath taking risk that such an endeavor was at the time, but equally impressive was the thematic content. In a genre where lyrical material can reach peak banal levels, Chamberlain experiences one of the most explosive existential crises put to tape on Define the Great Line. Here lies one of the most explicit, painful and ultimately beautiful depictions of a man alone with his thoughts, mistakes and regrets.

Underoath defied presumptions of a faith-based band over the course of their career simply by questioning everything they were expected to proclaim. The gospel preached on Define the Great Line consists of sitting amidst the hardest questions we ask ourselves and finding contentment when the only answer we receive is our own voice echoing off the walls.

This is an idea with which Chamberlain seemed quite familiar. “I stare so delicate and ashamed / At the shell I’ve shed myself from”, Chamberlain cries at the end of “There Could Be Nothing After This”, wrestling with guilt amid his defeat. Later, on “Returning Empty Handed”, he finds himself adrift once more, bellowing, “The floor is more fitting for my face / Here again? This is getting old”.

For all of the existential clamor that pervades each track on Define the Great Line, there exists a furious battle with the idea that we tread this journey devoid of company. During one of the most powerful moments in Underoath’s discography, Chamberlain repeatedly screams “We walk alone” as if attempting to jackhammer the idea into his skull. It’s a concept familiar to many – and one that is easy to accept in the middle of our trouble.

With such weighty content buried inside an experimental brew of the band’s heaviest work to date, it still seems unfathomable that Define the Great Line would translate to such great commercial success. The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, moving nearly 100,000 units in its first week, effectively solidifying Underoath as the premier post-hardcore act of the 2000s. It also demanded that any band desiring to follow their lead stretch their boundaries or risk being left behind. It’s fair to say that the genre would never be quite the same.

Nevertheless, Define the Great Line came at a cost and nearly resulted in the premature demise of the band. A work of such transparency spoke to a real divide in the Underoath camp – one that splintered friendships and shook their foundation. Fortunately for fans, redemption ruled the day, much as it does at the end of Define the Great Line.

On “To Whom it May Concern”, Gillespie acts as the faint voice of the light at the end of the tunnel, singing, “At the end of the road, you’ll find what you’ve been longing for / I know ‘cause my feet have the scars to show”. It’s an unexpected twist ending with the album’s loudest theme being carried by its softest song. It’s also signature Underoath – a band motivated by unreasonable hope, devoutly unwilling to compromise its art. Ten years later, Define the Great Line’s message is just as powerful as it has ever been.

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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