Screamo might be one of the dumbest names for a musical subgenre this side of "microhouse", but you simply cannot deny its appeal right now, as more and more younger listeners are gravitating to its overblown combination of intense hardcore punk and the raw emotion of emo. As far as the bands themselves go, it's a decidedly mixed bag, ranging from overly sincere (Thursday), to somewhat intelligent (Funeral For a Friend), to adventurous (Glassjaw), to explosive (Alexisonfire), to downright annoying (Billy Talent), as all those bands try to take the now-legendary sound of At the Drive-In to a higher level. Trouble is, as well-meaning as these bands are, nobody has yet to come even close to the savage majesty of something like Relationship of Command, their songs sounding too repetitive too often, and sometimes even worse, completely devoid of any originality.
California's Atreyu seem to be aware of the monotony of that sound, and have looked elsewhere for inspiration, creating a sound that dares to burst out of the corner that screamo bands have painted themselves into. We all know just how staunchly devoted teenaged fans of hard music can be, so it's no surprise that Atreyu will have to fight to win over the kids; after all, this Orange County quintet are too goth to be emo, too metal to be punk, and too brazenly emotional to be metal. What, a young band who dares to make music that defies categorization? Could it be?
As they've proven on their first album, 2002's Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses, and even more so on their new CD The Curse, Atreyu are on to a very cool idea, meshing the taut arrangements and frantic vocal spewing of hardcore with a darker, more sinister goth element, but underneath all that noise and misery lurks what truly is the band's one great trump card: a healthy dose of metal. Not the sludgy, churning, tuneless, Ross Robinson style nu-metal we've heard too much of, either; no, we're talking about some great, melodic, technically sound, progressive, Scandinavian metal here. Guitarists Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel let fly with the Viking metal riffs, nailing down the harmonies of In Flames and the death metal tones of Opeth, but instead of delivering bombastic, 11-minute epics, the duo shred away on taut, three-minute tunes. One listen to the nimble guitar flourishes during the opening bars of "Bleeding Mascara" is all it takes to realize these boys have the chops.
On The Curse, the band's two guitarists are complemented by a pair of vocalists who work off each other remarkably well. Lead vocalist Alex Varkatzas delivers his overwrought lyrics with an anguished snarl, enunciating enough to keep from slipping into indecipherable "cookie monster" blurting. However, it's the much more accessible voice of drummer Brandon Saller that ultimately makes each song good, as he delivers the choruses in a voice that bears an uncanny similarity to Husker Du drummer Grant Hart; the formula is simple, and gets predictable as the album goes on, but the contrast between the two singers works consistently.
As for the songs themselves, there's some real breakthrough potential here. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Right Side of the Bed", which eschews punk completely, in favor of some of the best, most straight-ahead '80s metal you'll hear. Jacobs and Miguel bring a catchy German metal riff that echoes both Accept and Scorpions, offset nicely by Varkatzas and his anguished, weepy verses ("Of all the joy all of the pain, I took your guilt and placed it into me, and now I kiss it goodbye") and Saller's soaring chorus, which is underscored by some great guitar harmonies that echo Iron Maiden's Dave Murray. Capping it all off is (gasp) a guitar solo that's so shamelessly '80s, complete with fingertapping, it's impossible to hate.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned "Bleeding Mascara" is a well-executed In Flames rip-off (homage?), while the impassioned "You Eclipsed By Me" dares to take nu-metal's negative energy and turn it into something positive ("Hate can be a positive emotion, when it forces you to better yourself"). The trio of songs midway through the album, the maudlin (and ridiculously titled) "The Remembrance Ballad", the instrumental "An Interlude", and "Corseting" feature Atreyu at their most adventurous, and album closer "Five Vicodin Chased With a Shot of Clarity" burns with rage, as the band takes on a more hardcore punk sound.
If the album has a drawback, it's Varkatzas's lyrics, which teeter dangerously toward self-parody, but he throws in enough goofy lines in his songs to win you over for the time being ("Robert Smith lied, boys do cry, and with blood tears in my eyes I'm an Anne Rice novel came to life"). It's not a perfect album, as the band would be better off focusing a bit more on the metal side of their sound and less on the "poor, poor me" sentiment, but The Curse is nonetheless a confident album, and coupled with the fact that the band has landed a slot on this year's Ozzfest lineup, it's a CD that has a good chance to click with the metal crowd this summer. Who knows, maybe in a year or two, "retro metal goth punk" will be the next screamo.