There Are Rules sounds like the product of a band that knows well where it's been, but can't quite figure out yet where it wants to go from there.
It would be unfair for us to expect the Get Up Kids to sound the same now as they did 10-plus years ago, when they put out their career-defining Something to Write Home About. After that record, but before the band went on hiatus in 2004, they had worked their sound into a more direct pop aesthetic, from the gentler tones of On a Wire to the straight power-pop of Guilt Show. But even those albums seem far away now, and if there's one thing to admire about their "reunion" record, There Are Rules, it's that they threw out the playbook. Whatever the Get Up Kids were supposed to sound like, it's not here. So, if there are rules, as the title implies, they have certainly changed over time.
Still, in stepping out into new territory, the band has created a problem for itself to solve. While they seem pretty clear on not being who they once were, it's hard to tell who it is they want to be now. There Are Rules is not the guitar-based, brash yet poppy emo the guys made their name on. In fact, it's hardly a record you could call guitar-based. Instead, it's an album of thick -- and often perplexing -- textures. The keys which once barely coated these songs in melody now thicken them with oddball edges. Guitars and vocals are run through fuzzed-out filters. The once propulsive drumming now churns along behind the storm, willing it forward from the back rather than leading the charge.
It's an interesting shift, from the basic rock-band sound of their earlier work to the effects-laden present, but the interest exists mostly on paper. In practice, much of There Are Rules feels forced. At their heart, many of these songs could have been on Guilt Show, but they're twisted unnaturally into something else. "Tithe" could be a scorching rocker but for the oddly produced, hollow-sounding drums. The moody thump of "Shatter Your Lungs" starts off at a cool glide, but layers of electronic noodling bog it down as it goes. Of course, the new elements do work sometimes. The brittle staccato notes play off the loose flow of the bass well on "Automatic", and "Pararelevant" comes across as the best scuzzy rocker here.
Those songs, however, work because the effects are weaved into them and not just piled on top. Everything else here seems to shoot for experimental but comes out confused, mostly because these heavily produced songs don't play to the band's strengths. The buzzing guitars get obscured by endlessly swirling effects, and Matt Pryor's voice -- once the full howl that fueled the band's best work -- is almost always drenched in reverb or other filters that bury it in the mix. With all these production theatrics, the album takes on a harsh, industrial feel, which is fitting for an album that feels overworked.
"Turn away, turn away, from everything we once were", Pryor shouts during "Keith Case", which would be a perfect tag line for the record if it didn't come at such an ironic moment. The song is clearer than anything else on the record, a straight-up rocker, and a much welcome break from the rest of these crowded songs. That penchant, for the band to do something brand new, to make music that feels new to the players, is an admirable one, and the Get Up Kids get points for not pandering to us with dull retreads. But while it is safe to say they've avoided that pitfall, the album's constant insistence on being nothing like the past comes at a cost. In the end, There Are Rules sounds like the product of a band that knows well where it's been, but can't quite figure out yet where it wants to go.