2005 may just be the year that Chicago’s Alkaline Trio skyrockets into the mainstream. After all, less talented horror punk acts like My Chemical Romance are gracing the cover of Spin and filling MTV’s airwaves with a black and red color scheme that Alkaline Trio conceived years ago. But Alkaline Trio, unlike the young New Jersey outfit, has experience on their side.
The mark of a good band is not only whether they can stand the test of time, but also whether they successfully grow and evolve while doing so. Alkaline Trio, in some incarnation or another, has been around since singer Matt Skiba’s days as a Chicago bike messenger in the mid-‘90s, and each subsequent release has marked a step in their burgeoning musical growth. After the group’s first release on Vagrant, From Here to Infirmary, in 2001 began to creep them into the public eye, hopes were high for the trio. Unfortunately, with the release of 2003’s follow-up, Good Mourning, doubts began to grow in the minds of longtime fans. Could the group successfully transition from the raw early material to produced, streamlined rock songs?
The awkwardness of Good Mourning suggested a failure on the part of the band to evolve from an adolescent band to a mature band that’s all grown up and ready for the mainstream. A split EP with One Man Army a year later offered further evidence that Alkaline Trio might just want to call it quits if they couldn’t reach musical maturity. But this phase of Alkaline Trio’s relatively lengthy career was exactly that—a phase—and they have apparently outgrown it.
Crimson, the trio’s fifth full-length (sixth if you count their self-titled collection), reveals that Alkaline Trio has the potential for extreme longevity. The 13-track release is ridiculously solid, the kind of album every band tries for, but few actually deliver. The group, whose lineup has been solidified into Skiba (vocals/guitar), Dan Andriano (vocals/bass), and Derek Grant (drums), retains the foundation of their signature dark sound, overflowing with plunging guitar riffs, pounding beats, and Skiba and Andriano’s split vocals, which ricochet across the music with emotional urgency.
Although Skiba and Andriano seem far more levelheaded than the lyrics on earlier releases suggest they have been in the past, the songs on Crimson still echo with morbidity, pessimism and ghoulish references. “I used to long for a casket to call my own,” Skiba howls on “Mercy Me”, a song that recalls the group’s debut, Goddamnit. “Send us back to hell, we’ve had our fill of heaven,” Skiba later cries on “Back to Hell”, although it’s fairly clear that now, unlike on the previous albums, he doesn’t really mean it.
The album’s best tracks (and there are many) are generally those penned by Skiba, although Andriano’s “The Poison” is quite possibly the group’s catchiest song to date. “Dethbed” and “Burn” are the standouts, filled with emotional and musical depth, and Skiba’s skilled lyrical poetry. “Everyone learns faster on fire,” he moans. “You live and you burn.” It is lines like these that further reveal Skiba as one of the best songwriters in whatever genre it is that his band is categorized as. My Chem’s Gerard Way can wail about death as much as he pleases, but lyrically he’s got nothing on Skiba.
If anything, Crimson is the album that will push Alkaline Trio from the edges of the spotlight directly into its midst; its sound is smooth and produced enough to appeal to Fuse-watching teens (mostly thanks to producer Jerry Finn), but still angsty and dark enough to retain the older fans they picked up over the years. Flavor of the month bands will come and go, stealing color schemes and imagery, and trying for their level of cool, but Alkaline Trio has proved that slow and steady wins the race. It’s finally clear that they have what it takes to be immortal. Or whatever it is you call the eternally undead in hell.