Although they are often placed in the same vein of melodic hardcore as bands like Terror and Touché Amoré, Defeater resists typical hardcore labeling. Rather than shouting anthemic chants over down-tuned two-steps, the Boston-based quintet brandishes unique literary merit alongside musicality that delivers both hardcore punches and post-rock glints. Bolstered by the lyrical prowess and the throat-threshing screams of Derek Archambault, Defeater has used their discography to dramatize the history of an unnamed family caught in the throes of poverty and violence after World War II. Sons kill fathers. Mothers become heroin addicts. And brothers engage in suicidal rivalries. In Defeater’s Cormac McCarthy-esque world, no one is safe from pain. But from Archambault’s compassionate perspective, no one is without sympathy.
Since Defeater’s first three full-lengths closely followed the torments of the father and two brothers, many of the band’s devotees presumed that Abandoned would focus on the family’s heroin-addled mother. However, Defeater scripts a plot twist with their most pummeling album to date. Suffused with noise walls, feedback screeches, gashing drums and rending screams, Abandoned pushes its listeners into a fight, providing a visceral environment for its unanticipated narrative animus — a collapsed Catholic priest wrestling with his faith.
The choice of making a priest the protagonist is anything but arbitrary. Appearing first as a character in “Cowardice” from the band’s debut Travels — a song in which the murderous younger brother seeks absolution before committing suicide — the priest now takes on a more fully fleshed-out role in Defeater’s astringent epic of human depravity. On Abandoned, he functions not only as a character who affects the family’s paths, but also as a lens through which to reconsider them. While the conceit of the priest complicates the family’s storyline, it also provides the band space to chart out a larger map of human suffering.
While previous iterations of the family’s story detailed specific events, Abandoned is less event-focused, fixating instead on the pathos elicited from the priest’s spiritual conflict, while providing clues about the experiences that contributed to his deprivation. Functioning like an overture to the album, opener “Contrition” summons an incantatory rush with Jay Maas and Jake Woodruff’s intensifying arpeggios and Joe Longobardi’s upsurging drums. Despite Archambault-as-priest’s lyrical spareness, his repeated lines typify the album’s clashes with religious disaffection. He starts by uttering the concluding lines of the Hail Mary prayer. The reverb-laden vocal modulation mutates his recitation into something bleakly nonhuman, as if to suggest the vacuousness of his invocation. Only in the climactic crescendo of cymbal crashes and thunderous tom rolls does his voice achieve a human quality — if only in the primal desperation of enunciating his abjection.
Occasionally deploying hackneyed lines of faith-versus-vice strife, the band risks veering too far into the general, relying on rhythmic and timbral rawness to put more weight into the words. But within the glimpses of experience, one finds embryonic narrative pulses colored by idiosyncratic torment. For example, amidst a cacophony of feedback and punk aggression in “December 1943”, the priest painfully remembers his wartime experience, as he is haunted by “The eyes and faces of my brothers / They never made it back home to their mothers.” And over the syncopated rhythms and churning swells of “Borrowed & Blue”, Archambault screams of sharing a post-coital cigarette with a lover, inhaling the poisoned ambivalence of sexual rapture and priestly guilt.
Archambault’s most poignant lyrics on the record meditate on how the priest’s spiritual constitution manifests itself corporeally. After the raucous thrum of guitars and drums yields to a sparer musical grace in “Unanswered”, Archambault maps the physical and spiritual pain coursing through his body: “I let the pain in my head to the veins in my arms to rush / I feel the burn in my blood in my lungs in my chest collapse.” While the band is able to tame their battering rhythms into incandescent harmony, the priest finds no such catharsis.
The final two songs, “Atonement” and “Vice & Regret”, sustain the intimate lyrical thrust of the album, while also reconnecting its narrative most explicitly with the overarching one of the family. In the soaring ambiance of “Atonement”, Archambault screams “What brings you here, my son”, evoking the scene from “Cowardice.” And in the brooding swells of “Vice & Regret”, Archambault interpolates many of the album’s lyrical refrains around a line that ventriloquizes both the brother in “Cowardice” and the father in “Bled Out” from Letters Home: “I am no one / I am nothing.” By situating the priest’s plight intertextually within the family’s tragedy, Archambault positions him in a network of inescapable human suffering. So whatever future chapters Defeater adds to their unparalleled oeuvre of literary hardcore, one thing is certain. They’re going to make you hurt.