[21 February 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Ever since the mid-‘70s, punk and metal have had an often uneasy yet symbiotic relationship over the years. The DIY aesthetic of early indie labels like Stiff and Rough Trade inspired late ‘70s metal imprints like Music For Nations and Neat Records. Bands like Slayer and Anthrax derived their thrash metal sound heavily from the hardcore of the West coast and East coast respectively. Suicidal Tendencies and Bad Brains evolved from early ‘80s hardcore favorites to metal crossover successes later that decade, underground acts like Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front drew curious listeners from the metal side, and Stormtroopers of Death’s classic Speak English or Die was a hardcore album performed by metal musicians that scored big with both crowds.
By the time the 1990s rolled around, grindcore, power violence, and crust had blurred the lines between metal and hardcore even more, but it wasn’t until the late ‘90s that the most significant progress was made, as some highly creative bands drew equally from both punk and metal, with thrilling results. While the Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity and Converge’s Jane Doe had a massive impact, it still does not compare to the influence of Seattle band Botch, who with only two full-length albums changed the relationship between metal and hardcore irrevocably. The first, 1998’s American Nervoso, was an enormously confident debut full-length, but its follow-up would go on to be deemed, deservedly, a modern classic.
Even though it was released mere weeks before the start of the new decade, We Are the Romans remains the most influential album in extreme music over the last eight years. Just as At the Gates’ seminal 1993 disc Slaughter of the Soul influenced an entire generation of young bands that would adopt their melodic death metal approach, the aggressive, discordant style of We Are the Romans has been copied, co-opted, and bastardized to near overkill. There is no metalcore or noisecore band alive that is not indebted to Botch: Norma Jean, Between the Buried and Me, the End, the Chariot, Every Time I Die, Underoath, the Devil Wears Prada… the list goes on and on. Yet none of these bands has ever come close to equaling the towering, visceral, grotesque majesty of We Are the Romans. Today still, one listen to the recently expanded and remastered album immediately renders the subgenre it spawned irrelevant. But just exactly why does it succeed where so many other pale imitations fail?
A full-throttle assault on the senses can be an exhilarating experience (just ask anyone who’s been to a death metal or grindcore show), but what often works even better is when an extreme band holds back just enough to create an undeniable tension in the music, and that feeling registers instantly on We Are the Romans, and doesn’t let up for a second. On opening track “To Our Friends in the Great White North”, Dave Knudson’s guitar alternates between a repetitive, oddly catchy descending riff and jarring, atonal chords that are punctuated by drummer Tim Latona. “Mondrian Was a Liar” is a lurching beast of a track, anchored by the menacing groove by Latona and bassist Brian Cook, Knudson’s slicing chords more nervous than aggressive. “C. Thomas Howell as the Soul Man” comes close to the over-the-top energy of the Dillinger Escape Plan, but the quick, finger-tapped guitar accents possess a surprisingly strong sense of melody, which in turn leads us to…
This album is still an awfully long way from being considered mainstream-friendly, but in a world where the more chaotic strains of noisecore have now become commonplace among the Warped Tour crowd, We Are the Romans spends a surprisingly good amount of time letting subtle melodies and hooks wriggle their way into our collective subconscious. Take the aforementioned “C. Thomas Howell as the Soul Man”, for instance; the first 100 seconds absolutely throttle the listener with its herky-jerky cadences, but Knudson’s chiming notes suddenly slow down, introducing a brooding coda that can be described as gloomily gorgeous, before climaxing with a flourish that echoes the theatricality of metal. Elsewhere, the considerably mellower “Swimming the Channel vs. Driving the Chunnel” explores more subtle territory, the bass and lead guitar melodies interweaving around Latona’s straightforward, lugubrious drumming, while for all its seething rage, the rampaging “Saint Matthew returns to the Womb” boasts a wickedly contagious groove that would ignite any crowd.
One aspect of songwriting that has diminished in quality the most during the subsequent dilution of metalcore has been lyric writing, attempts at sounding profound coming across instead as either inarticulate, juvenile, or just plain pretentious, often hidden by the fact we rarely can tell what the hell they’re screaming about anyway. Vocalist Dave Verellen, on the other hand, has plenty to say on We Are the Romans, most of which centers around the main theme reflected in the title. According to Verellen, we’re in a modern-day Rome as it’s about to fall, as popular culture, politics, and the plight of the working class have all contributed to a culture spiraling out of control, and each song brims with pre-millenial anxiety. Eight years later, the album is still relevant, as America is in worse shape than it was in 1999. Tracks like “Mondrian Was a Liar”, “Transitions From Persona to Object”, and “Saint Matthew Returns to the Womb”, sounding disturbingly prescient.
Combining “progressive” and “punk” is about as easy as mixing oil and water, and prior to the 1990s many would have said those two styles had no business commingling anyway, but Botch pulls it off with astonishing ease, especially on a trio of songs that serve as the thematic apex of We Are the Romans. “Transitions From Persona to Object” is a tour de force on the part of Knudson, who leads the foursome on a labyrinthine ride through movement after movement, Latona keeping the diverse track grounded with his steady, almost patient groove as Knudson’s guitar work becomes increasingly more abstract. “Frequency Ass Bandit”, on the other hand, is the closest we get to that tension unraveling, the riffs displaying a decidedly metallic, muscular crunch, the stop-and-go, quite-and-loud dynamics put to brilliant use, everything coming to a head with Knudson’s swooping, explosive riff at the 2:34 mark. The 10-minute title track is the clincher, however, the band opting for a much more streamlined yet bombastic approach. Tom-toms are pounded theatrically, guitars and bass enter with a flourish, and Verellen bellows his lyrics as if inciting a massive chant: “We are the Romans!” The song then dissolves into a decidedly anti-hardcore instrumental jam, the vocals now resembling a Gregorian chant, before coming to a spectacular, rousing flourish, a blast of hyper-distorted bass serving as a blast of sonic pyrotechnics.
Appended by a bonus disc containing seven demo tracks and four live recordings, the deluxe edition of We Are the Romans serves up plenty of rarities to please the longtime fans, but despite the strength of the bonus tracks (the performance of “Hutton’s Great Heat Engine” is ferocious), the real draw remains the original album, which continues to grow in stature with each passing year.