Deathwish, Inc. circa 2013 has quite the fascination with the pretty music/harsh vocal contrast. This was seen first earlier this year in Deafheaven‘s Sunbather, an album that, while divisive in its composition, is more or less viewed as a landmark in the ever-growing “post-black metal” craze, which began in a big way with Alcest‘s 2007 masterpiece Souvenirs d’un autre monde. Sunbather, a step up from the band’s debut Roads to Judah both in terms of beauty and composition, is made all the more fascinating by the vocals of George Clarke. Lead guitarist Kerry McCoy is writing some of the most textural and gorgeous chord progressions he’s ever written, and yet there’s Clarke, changing the tonal quality of McCoy’s guitar with his bewitched screams. For some, the effect is akin to oil and water attempting to intermix, and to a large degree it’s an understandable position; Clarke’s vocals do have a real defamiliarizing effect. However, part of what has made Sunbather take on such massive popularity, culminating in an especially unsubtle shout-out from Apple, is that this contrast calls attention to how beauty can give way to the harsh realities of life, a fact that Sunbather captures with gusto.
Fast-forward to four months later, and the Deathwish label—run by Converge‘s Jacob Bannon—is at this juxtaposition yet again, though this time it’s both easier on the ears and much less divisive. When the Los Angeles post-hardcore outfit Touché Amoré signed on to Deathwish in 2011 for their sophomore LP, Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me, some heads were probably turned; while the tortured pipes of frontman Jeremy Bolm do frequently give off the edge of hardcore’s most noted vocalists, in the grand scheme of all things hardcore—”post” or otherwise—Touché Amoré is pretty tame in terms of “heaviness.” A good many of the cuts on Parting the Sea and now with its third studio record Is Survived By, with certain modifications (i.e. no screaming), could have had the misfortune of being a Blink-182 song once upon a time. Fortunately, Is Survived By does spend the right of time emphasizing the “hardcore” part of “post-hardcore.” It’s especially refreshing to hear the sledgehammer of a riff that drops in the middle of “DNA,” one that brings Gallows to mind, as it’s often the case that the clean-toned guitars don’t quite keep up with or effectively contrast with Bolm’s impassioned screams. Whereas Sunbather‘s screams-over-clean-guitar technique has a pointed purpose, too frequently in the past Touché Amoré has assumed the contrast will always be striking, which doesn’t always end up being the case. On Is Survived By, however, not only are the heavy moments heavier, but the calmer passages are refined unlike anything the band has done before. The three-minute “To Write Content” sounds like two different tracks in its composition, especially given this group’s penchant for songs in the one and a half to two minute range, but The album’s climax and finest moment, “Non Fiction,” begins like a cut off of Mogwai’s Come on Die Young, then seamlessly building into an emotionally charged coda driven by Bolm’s eulogizing lyrics: “With time the paint will peel / And all sense will lose its feel.”
If there’s one thing that keeps Touché Amoré tethered to hardcore, it’s Bolm, who as a singer and as a lyricist exemplifies qualities that get people to wax exalted about hallmark figures like Bannon. Many make the mistake of labeling Bolm’s writing style “poetic”, which is true for certain lines (Is Survived By‘s winner: “Left over right, walk a careful line between you and the outside”) but not for his form and technique as a whole. There is one too many a poetry faux pas here, particularly the over-reliance of “I”, for his tortured musings to pass off as the next J.R. Hayes. This isn’t to say, however, that Bolm’s writing isn’t sharp; he’s one of the major reasons that Touché Amoré is several cuts above the average screamo band. While not poetry, Bolm’s lyrics are best described as the diary entries of an emotionally self-aware and articulate person; he writes the type of confessionals that doesn’t come off as sappy or inauthentic. On “Steps,” he captures the push-and-pull of looking for love in all the wrong ways: “There’s promiscuity and devotion / Only one fulfills an emotion.” The powerful opener “Just Exist” has the record’s most resonant closing line, which comes after Bolm considers the weight of existence: “I’ll just bow my head and leave out the back.” And then there are the album’s final seconds, where the theme of Is Survived By comes to its culmination: “This is survived by a fear: that all that’s left when said and done is words you will never hear.” Bolm’s impassioned delivery is crucial to the impact of these lines, and he’s in top form here. He only falters when the lyrics take a turn from the confessional to the extemporaneous; hearing lines like “It was the fall of last year in New York City / Day two of a tour, when my friend Johnny said / ‘Hey, I’d like you to meet Andy'” delivered in a harsh yell is more unintentionally funny than poignant.
Lyrically, Is Survived By is remarkable for its thematic continuity, even if those themes require some suspension of disbelief on the part of the listener. “Just Exist” kicks things off with an anecdote: “I was once asked how I’d like to be remembered / And I simply smiled and said ‘I’d rather stay forever.'” This then leads in to the central dilemma of the album: “I don’t know what my legacy will be / A song, some words I wrote, or a kid I’ll never see.” This fixation on immortality becomes then the driving engine of the band’s existential angst for the remainder of the LP. The various crises explored by Bolm span those specific to the band, such as the meta musings of “To Write Content” (“I won’t fake what is expected / To succeed with album three”), or the universal woes about wanting to break free from the bad things one inherits from his family (“DNA”). These anxieties all come to a head on “Non Fiction,” where Bolm comes to settle on a sort of non-religious view of immortality: “With time we’ll all be gone / But how you lived can live on.” This is then capped off with the title cut, an ode to the band’s loving fans, with just a touch of humble self-deprecation: “It’s a song of thanks sung by a hack.” On one hand, it’s easy to understand Bolm’s position; wondering what it is that makes a life worth living is as universal as worries come, and a musical artist is in a unique position to express that worry. That being the case, however, much of Is Survived By‘s lyrical matter gives the impression that Bolm has reached the top of the musical world, and that this record in particular is a do-or-die moment. Of course, anyone can drop dead at any given moment, but the urgency behind Bolm’s writing here is never particularly warranted; that he attributed the motivation for his lyrics here to a sort of quarter-life crisis helps explain why one might find his emoting to be a bit over the top. It’s hard to doubt that Bolm genuinely feels this way, and this isn’t to completely discredit the experiences that are genuinely meaningful to him. But at the same time, it’s easy to predict that the immediacy of the problems Bolm airs out won’t be shared by all of his listeners. The problematic The Last Kiss is a mirror of this situation; in that film, Zach Braff’s lead character, who has a pretty good life, takes turning 30 to mean the death of freedom and exploration, in doing so feigning a romantic crisis that “gets him” to cheat on his girlfriend. Is Survived By is thrice the work of art that film is, but in its overemoting it bears some similarity.
Yet even if one accepts these heightened expressions as a flaw, it’s hard to accuse Bolm of being a phony. In fact, even those who find his style to be melodramatic have a hard time denying his sincerity. The follies of Is Survived By come in overselling emotions, not manufacturing them. In every other respect, this album finds Touché Amoré at its strongest, emphasizing those qualities that have made it such a draw in the past and improving those ones that had been holding it back previously. Far from “bowing it head and leaving out the back,” the band is putting itself out there—emotionally, amongst other ways—and the risks it takes pay off remarkably.