Reflecting On: Say Anything – In Defense of the Genre

In many ways, In Defense of the Genre is the absolute time capsule of pop punk in 2007. The sounds spanning the double album run the gamut of what was popular at the time while still managing to be, arguably, the most “Say Anything” record that exists. Guest vocals appear on over half the songs in unique, significant parts. In Defense of the Genre isn’t for everyone, especially on first listen, but it is an opus that celebrates and challenges the genre in every way.

You can buy In Defense of the Genre on iTunes.

After the success of …Is a Real Boy, Max Bemis faced what seemed an impossible task: topping himself. What he produced is a masterpiece of collaboration, experimentation and craft. In Defense of the Genre brought the outward, judgmental venom of “Admit It!!!” and cast it in every direction. To counterbalance this, Bemis also provided uncomfortably reflective and humbling lyrics of himself. The colorful poetry describing drug addiction, psychosis and coming to terms with indiscriminate anger is equal parts enthralling and sickening.

In Defense of the Genre is a dark album that reflects the time of its release. The golden era of the early 2000’s had faded and the few bands that still seemed to have any traction were heavier and brooding. Nearly everyone took a stab at experimentation, and while some succeeded, this era saw a massive drop off of bands that had been big just a couple years prior.

Rather than remake another punk record, Say Anything delved to see how depraved pop punk could be. The entire album is a blur of genre. Techno, dance, ragtime piano, grunge and pop seamlessly traipse between tempo changes that would kill a song by a lesser writer. Somehow, each sound manages to survive a solid coat of production and make a cohesive sound. In Defense of the Genre is as much a masterful dark pop album as it is the sound of madness itself.

The stories about Max Bemis prior to this album are legendary. Wandering the streets before being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, mental hospitals, and drug abuse seemed to constantly filter in through the news sites for a while. In his writing, not only did Bemis not shy away from this, the entire album documents the process of finding himself in the midst of madness (“The Church Channel”) and crawling his way out (“Sorry, Dudes. My Bad.”)

While each song attempted something new, some of the true stand outs are the acoustic tracks. “An Insult to the Dead” is one of Say Anything’s most amazing songs. The wrangled guitar, the gentle tambourine and plinking piano, and Max’s voice, accompanied by the faint shout in the background during the chorus, create a haunted effect. More than anything, the heartbreak in Bemis’ voice as he sings, “Oh God, forgive me Moses, Jesus, Allah” is unparalleled.

One true highlight is the use of guest vocals. They’re expertly chosen and provide a snapshot of who was popular. What’s amazing is how many of them are still wildly relevant today. On top of that, their placement in songs reflects the guest’s own personality. Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzara provides the evil voice of paranoia on “Surgically Removing the Tracking Device”. Paramore’s Hayley Williams is the defiant angel on his shoulder in “The Church Channel” that urges him to seek help (“You were forlorn in despair / With your drugs and your hardcore porn / Trust me, those days won’t be mourned”).

Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carrabba provides a haunting melody in the background of “Retarded in Love”. Anthony Green is the voice of alcoholism (“Hangover Song”). Gerard Way appears in the title track, a song attempting to make sense of why musicians write. The song breaks into a momentary country western jamboree as Way sings, “I’ve got an empty wallet and a record cover”, reminding himself that the best art doesn’t guarantee reward.

Max Bemis never hid his adoration of Saves The Day. I remember hearing a rumor about how the band dropped off of a tour with Saves The Day, allegedly due to drug problems. “Sorry, Dudes. My Bad.” seems to address this directly. Max asks his bandmates for help, and swears that evil shouldn’t be in their tour van. Saves The Day’s Chris Conley appears after an interlude of people offering help. Hearing Bemis’ personal hero shout, “If you want it, then come and get it /We’re all with you now”, still gives me chills 10 years later.

In Defense of the Genre is a true artistic endeavor. It was a massive risk taken at the height of Say Anything’s popularity. It’s also the last ‘classic’ Say Anything record. After this, the band’s sound became poppier and Max’s struggles less dire. What should be a hot mess of a record manages to be a cohesive concept album that finds the sound of madness itself. It’s an album that truly deserves to be celebrated on its anniversary, even though it may not be to everyone’s liking.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and is currently fighting the pesky Baratheon hordes! …..Or battling his cat to the death over small flakes of chicken.

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Nightmare of You Bring the Feels to Chicago on Anniversary Tour

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Ten year anniversary tours are a weird trend of late. Many times, it feels like a popular band just plays a record that made them so popular that they’ve actually been playing most of the songs for the last decade anyway. Other times, it pulls a band back from the grave to see what was in an attempt to regain the energy that made the album special.

I expected Nightmare of You’s 10 year anniversary tour of their ­self-titled album to be the latter, but their recent show in Chicago was a far different experience. Instead of being a show of what could have been, it was a celebration of what was and the appreciation of an audience that still cared about them.

Nightmare of You have always felt like an enigma to me, as they never caught on the way that they should have. Nightmare of You, their debut album was a stylized, glamour-soaked indie pop album that seemed keen to take over the music scene. In the mid 2000’s, bands of similar ilk (Panic! At the Disco, The Academy Is…, etc.) became household names quite rapidly. NoY’s sound was instantly ensnaring for those who heard it, light and sweet, but with enough sexually tense lyricism to make Pete Wentz jealous. Unfortunately, the band disappeared soon afterward.

Only in recent years have they seemed to begin working again, with a smattering of demo releases on Bandcamp and one-off shows. This anniversary tour, though, proved that their debut still held the attention of fans after so long and the shows reflect that. Chicago’s date was oddly intimate and drawn out as little as possible. Much like the album itself, the show was magnificently paced with significant impact, proving its point and leaving the enjoyment intact.

The only opening act, Chicago’s Even Thieves, is a relatively new band with just some singles online and an EP handed out after the show. However, they harbor a massive talent. Even Thieves cover the stage almost entirely with two guitarists, bassist, drummer, keyboardist and singer.

Even Thieves are a talent waiting to be found. Their music is a sweet mixture of Angels & Airwaves coupled with the steadied guitar work of a ‘wannabe’ Oasis. While some of their rock songs ran a tad long, although they would immediately jump ship  into a pop punk song and spring momentum back into the room. Their main flaw was just that not enough people knew who they were. Most heads in the crowd bobbed, but few sang back. But if anything can make or break a band, it’s a powerful closer.

Several members took to the back of the stage to join in on individual snare drums coupled with an amazing drummer, creating a massive marching band style percussion conclusion that ended their set on an incredible high note. Seeing them gave me the same sense that Nightmare of You instilled so many years ago – there is something great hiding beneath the surface that just needs to be uncorked.

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Taking the stage, Nightmare of You jumped immediately into album opener, “The Days Go By Oh So Slow”. For a band that has been out of the scene for a while, NoY sound nearly perfect live. Singer Brandon Reilly belted each song with an exact precision, despite seeming slightly nervous on stage.

While their songs sizzled, the night settled into a chilled scene, contrary to the energetic songs. The crowd barely seemed to move, save for head bobs and the rambling mouths singing along to each song. Rather than dance, the audience seemed more focused on hanging onto each and every note of songs that hadn’t come to Chicago in many years.

From the agonizing dance beat of “My Name Is Trouble” through to the whimsical finale, “Heaven Runs On Oil”, NoY created a hypnotic wave over the venue. Reilly spoke briefly between songs, not about the album or to give nonchalant thank yous, but just so the audience could get to know them a little better. It allowed the audience to become a part of the show as much as they were watching it. At one point, Reily invited anyone who wanted to recite a poem onstage, only to pull a man from the front row up who delivered some quick prose before disappearing back into the crowd.

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The anniversary tour of Nightmare of You is a celebration of continued interest and mutual respect. Rather than expect the audience to relive what the album was, the band invited them to remember what it meant to them. The entire show was a reflection about what made it special, without specifically addressing the fact, making the entire event a casual conversation with the very people who had supported it for so long.

This show meant more than the usual anniversary tour. It wasn’t a rehashed, fleshed out version of a usual tour date, nor a one off for a dead band. It felt like a memory playing out on stage. The laid back format, and the way that the band treated the audience like friends, as though they were playing at a wedding, made the entire performance feel more personal. Reflecting on an album and what it meant to you to begin with can be more powerful than just a casual listen through, especially in a room full of people having the same experience.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has nightmares of himself. WHAT?! OH NOES!

Reflecting On: Cartel – Chroma

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During 2015, 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 me, Chroma always served as a bridge album between the pop punk golden years of the early 2000’s and the rise of harder rock and blended genres in the later part of the decade. The album has become a pop punk staple over the years, but it’s hard to say exactly why. As good as the songs are, there is little on the record that actually pushes the boundaries of the genre; Chroma just does it better.

Cartel are also part of the last wave of the musicians to find mainstream success with the genre. Over the last decade, the band has released several incredibly strong records, but have been forced to stand up to Chroma by fans and critics alike. The album is as much of a roadblock as it is a landmark.

On paper, Chroma is a more or less a standard rock record. It’s a pop rock album that focuses on the angst of teens/young adults and the ideas of chasing love, living free and the usual fare for these types of things. But being titled Chroma, it follows an arch of passion through every ‘color on the spectrum’; starting brightly tongue-in-cheek with crisp rock and follows a spiral into darker pop that reflects on the earlier lyrics in a much more somber light.

Chroma is a message of growth and youthful idealism that slowly fades as it ages. Although nearly every song has the attention and detail required to make it a single, the shift in tone and maturity mimics that of the rock community in general at the time, as it lost the innocence of the original pop punk movement.

The real magic to Chroma isn’t the just the sound, style or the crisp production. It’s much more subtle. The guitars are loud, melodic and meticulously poppy. The music itself is so good that it almost sounds robotic, as though meticulously crafted to be perfectly symmetrically layered while maintaining the edge of amateur song writers. It’s one of the pure efforts of a fresh band pouring energy and ideas into a mix that works on a sincere level. However, the themes of the album are what helps it to endure.

Chroma’s legacy is built on a scale of youthful rebellion. What starts as power rock blasting away the standard flare of pop punk ideals and teen passion quickly grows matured; recapped through the eyes of someone who now sees those same ideals in a more balanced tone. Several of the later songs act as near sequels to many of the songs earlier on the album.

“Honestly” and “Settle Down” orbit each other in an odd symbiosis. “Honestly” worships the idea of chasing young love and speaking your mind (“You tell me what you think about being open / About being honest with yourself… I’m spinning while I’m falling down / Now you know why I’m begging you to stay”) while the later dramatically shifts tone.

“Settle Down” shifts perspectives to a failing relationship that has gone through normal trials and finds itself failing. The idealistic love chase has been replaced with knock down arguments that tear these relationships to pieces. “Consider this: he was busy moving on while she was busy trying to pass the time / Between the previous and next nervous breakdown”, and “Just say you left me like you could / Although you said you never would / Just say it’s done and be gone”.

“Burn This City” is the epitome of college angst. It cherishes the idea of adventure and conquering the city amidst “games of lust and love”. While this is nothing new to the world of pop punk, the near immediate retraction and realization that this type of idealism doesn’t work out, is. Just a few songs later on “If I Fail”, Pugh sings, “I could put my trust in giving up the heart / It makes the difference / And how can you afford to settle down / When I would promise to love you now / But I would lovingly let you down”.

The album closer, “A” is the final wrap that brings the album into the new age of music. Pugh sings “You can take this however you want / Just don’t waste your breathe unless you can save us”. Where “Say Anything (Else)” demanded free thought and open, energetic dialogue, “A” finds the band not particularly retracting the ideals of their earlier songs, but sees them now in a new light. Pop punk’s standard war cries are optimistic at best, but can easily be beaten down by life.

Chroma isn’t a sad record. It’s a real record. The maturity in the writing is subtle and granular, the way that the realizations in life are. The only real problem with the album is that after its release, the music scene seemed to change. Pop punk took a back seat to alternative and hardcore for a few years, and bands attempted to adjust in several ways.

Since then, Cartel have put out several amazing albums (the Self-Titled is my personal favorite) that have unfairly been stood side by side to Chroma as a standard rather than just as additions to their discography. However, with the fall of popularity in pop punk in the years after the album’s release, it seems harder for the band to shake the impossibly high expectations of fans based on this album alone.

Chroma is an achievement in pop punk and saw the last glimmer of the genre acting as a mainstream force. But, given the exposure that it had to a shifting audience, fans may give it more credit than it deserves. Cartel’s writing and talent grew exponentially after Chroma, but even ten years later they almost seem to be stalked by the popularity of this album, at least from an outside perspective. The band and the scene itself were growing out of the youthful ideals as the album released. That sense of maturity is a timeless sensation that sticks with you as you age and grow. Maybe that’s why all these years later we still love it.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and has seen Will Pugh play live in the same green sweater he wears in the “Luckie St.” music video. Is that a creepy thing to be aware of? Oh golly…

Reflecting on: New Found Glory – Catalyst

new_found_gloryThroughout 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!

Catalyst was many things, chief among them being the last ‘classic’ album for New Found Glory. It was the first release by the band to toy with their sound, crafting the bridge between the signature pop punk energy of their first few albums with the softer tone of the follow up record, Coming Home.

For all of its experimentation into slower songs, it included some of their heaviest melodies coupled with a higher production value. Where the new exploration in songwriting took slight missteps in the flow of the album, what remains is one of NFG’s classic albums that still sounds just as good a decade later and influenced their songwriting all the way into the present.

The production and writing for Catalyst was able to straddle the thin border between keeping the style and sound that their fans grew to love while perfecting the polish that their songwriting needed to feel more layered than ever. Ultimately, it’s this layered sound of punk that has carried over with them for every album since. While it’s not a departure by any means from Sticks and Stones or the self-titled album, Catalyst is the first release that saw their songwriting at its greatest potential and swinging from all angles.

The grungy chord progression opening to “It’s All Downhill From Here” is crisp and thick, hard enough to bite into the scene and bouncy enough to retain the pop forged in earlier works. Just that sound in and of itself is weighted so heavily, you can still hear it stylized on the newer releases, such as Not Without a Fight and Radiosurgery.

One of my earliest memories of this album was the fact that it ground to a halt with the sudden addition of slower and quieter songs placed amongst the loud ripping guitars. Though this only tested on a few songs to fairly mixed results, it just seemed so out of place for a NFG record. “I Don’t Wanna Know” is the first time anyone saw the band take a step back with more acoustic based melodies, a layer of swishing violins and singer Jordan Pundik not belting our lyrics as loudly as he could.

The songs weren’t bad, just out of place. New Found Glory was known for coming out guns blazing and forcing you to jump with the energy that blared through the stereo. When that flow of power was suddenly interrupted by a ballad, it just felt forced and unnecessary. Looking back at it now, I appreciate the songs more, but they’re still not the best that the band has to offer. But these experiments helped build the foundation to allow for blend light and loud music, such as the brilliant cover of “Kiss Me” from From the Screen to Your Stereo Pt II.

Ultimately, this experimentation in style wouldn’t lead to too much. It set the groundwork for the next release, Coming Home two years later with much more somber songwriting and matured sense of lyricism. However, much like the rest of their discography after Coming Home, Catalyst is mostly high energy punk rock. Most of the songs are hard, fast and legendary among NFG’s discography.

Staples “Intro” and  “It’s All Downhill From Here” are chief among the anthems that are unquestionably necessary for any and all live shows.  “Truth of My Youth” is a classic song that feels like it was ripped straight out of Sticks and Stones. The melody is alarmingly simple and stretches over the rapid drumming and bass. The guitars find quick solos that hide themselves in the choruses and try not to steal the show.

“At Least I’m Known For Something” is a gem hidden near the end of the album, with a slow build up of chugging guitars and lightning quick drumming, becoming quicker and louder for twenty seconds. The entire set up just builds and builds until the vocals finally appear. It’s only fitting that a song this strong and deliberately loud helps close out the album, as it would be five years, until 2009’s Not Without a Fight that NFG would write a song as strong or as hard.

Catalyst isn’t the album that NFG are most remembered for, but it’s one that fans of the band can’t live without. A decade later, the hits on the album are so good that they’d still impress if they were new today. The few forays into more acoustic based songs don’t particularly disappoint, but ultimately were an experimentation stylistically that the band eventually dropped almost altogether. It was the last ‘proper’ sounding NFG album for years though, until the Tip of the Iceberg EP brought the energy back in full form as a rough punk album.

NFG still retain many of the elements perfected on Catalyst as the backbone to their current writing style: loud, fast punk wrapped around a simple melody that will never leave your brain. As the fourth incredibly memorable album in a row (Nothing Gold Can Stay was incredible, admit it), Catalyst is proof that a band doesn’t need to completely reinvent themselves in order to grow and mature. The smallest tweaks and tests can make all the difference and still maintain the legacy of songwriting that fans demand.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.