Friday, April 21, 2017

album review: 'you're not as _____ as you think' by sorority noise

So I probably should have covered this band earlier. Indeed, if you were to look at my past few years of music reviews, an in-the-know follower would spot there's a considerable hole in my reviews, a subgenre that has experienced quite the critical revival that I haven't covered. 

And that subgenre is emo - and yes, I'm referring to the musical subgenre that broke off from hardcore punk and post-hardcore in the early 90s, not the overwrought aesthetic that was beaten into the ground in the mid-to-late 2000s. Now as I mentioned in my Falling In Reverse review, my knowledge of post-hardcore is a little more lacking than I'd prefer to admit, and as such I was exposed to emo music like the majority of people were: through the mainstream crossovers. Oh, I know there were some people who were on the ground floor for Rites Of Spring or Jawbreaker, but I got exposed to it most when I started hearing Jimmy Eat World and then the more theatrical bent that came a few years later - which, if I'm being brutally honest, I tended to like more. From there I took in a lot of the mid-2000s scene with my general liking for Say Anything and I've made some inroads into back catalogs whenever pop punk adjacent to the subgenre gets covered, but when I heard about the emo revival from acts like Touche Amore or The Hotelier or The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die... well, I just wasn't interested. And that's not a judgement on quality, believe it or not - there was just other stuff I'd prefer to talk about and explore, trying to plug as many of my other knowledge gaps like electronic music and black metal.

That said, when I have found the time to listen to more of the emo revival, I've found acts I like, which takes us to Sorority Noise. Thanks to Patreon they wound up on my schedule and going through their first two albums, I found a lot to like - they had a good knack for hooks, some modestly clever and honest writing, and there was real progression from their debut Forgettable to their more melancholic but more tuneful and refined Joy, Departed in 2015. As such, I had every reason to think I'd probably like their newest album You're Not As _____ As you Think, especially if the confessional honesty hit some interesting new places and the tunes were as strong. So, what did we get?

This is one of those projects where I certainly see its strengths - good production, sharply intuitive writing, the right sort of delivery to anchor the story, and short enough to tell its story and not wear out its welcome - but its weaknesses are just as sharply defined as well. Granted, some of what I deem as weaknesses might be the very traits that emo listeners go to hear... and yet even with that I don't think Sorority Noise quite sticks the landing here. Not a bad release - I certainly see why in the pantheon of emo Sorority Noise is getting critical acclaim - but I'm not always certain this band has a handle on their strengths just yet, especially coming off of Joy, Departed.

So let's start with production and instrumentation... and you know, for the most part I do like a lot of what Sorority Noise is doing here, even if they are definitely not reinventing the wheel when it comes to a guitar-driven emo sound that flirts with the edges of more traditional pop punk or indie rock. The grinding riffs in the low-end that spark off the drums and basslines that are often a lot more defined and intricate than I expected, working the loud-soft dynamic arguably more than I prefer but effectively all the same, and a main guitar line... okay, this is where I think Sorority Noise makes the biggest stylistic departure. For one, a lot of their tones are more liquid and blurred over, getting to the point of borderline tremolo picking in the vein of White Lung albeit not quite picking up the swell or bite. And it does contribute to the otherwise woozy, stumbling progression that runs through this record compositionally and thematically in filling up the melody against the fantastic bassline on 'No Halo' or the pileup of rifts and crescendos on 'A Portrait Of', or the glittery fragments that buzz around 'A Better Sun' before a basic but effective solo, or the very liquid line that run through 'Leave The Fan On', which could easily play to mid-90s alternative tones. 

In fact, when you break it down to a compositional level you could easily draw the parallels to 90s emo - lingering melancholic tones, oddly wonky tonal shifts into major chord territory on 'Where Are You?', and a whole lot of buildup on the two 'letter' songs that think leaving without a real climax is adequate payoff. I get that it fits the restless, discomforting feel of the record, but there's a part of me that can't help but think this could have been executed better instead of leaving crescendos to nowhere. But what irks me a fair amount more is the vocal production - yes, I get that there will be a lot of people who think the mumble-to-scream loud/soft transitions work, and props to frontman Cameron Boucher for remaining a compelling presence across the record. But he doesn't need to indulge in these messy singalong hooks like on 'Car' - not only do they feel jarringly out of place thematically for such a personal story, but it's just not particularly well-executed, an element of disorder that doesn't fit Sorority Noise's tighter compositions. That's not saying it can't work - the outro breakdown on 'A Portrait Of', for as reminiscent of Car Seat Headrest as it is, makes sense the overburdened context - but that it rarely seems to fit. And that's the thing: this is a ten song record that's less than a half hour, there's really no room for dead weight - so why end it with 'New Room', a lo-fi indulgence that doesn't remotely fit with the rest of the record, a coda that's easily the worst part of the project and leaves on a really sour note?

We'll come back to this, but let's circle back to the real reason the majority of people will check this out, lyrics and themes. And immediately we're hit with the sense of real lingering grief that runs through this record, because while Cameron Boucher has been out trying to find success despite the yawning hole of depression inside, a fair few of his friends have succumbed and died, either from drug overdose and suicide. And when this album hits the screeching reality of that grief and how Boucher can handle any of it, Sorority Noise hits its stride in songs that might as well serve as deconstructionist of the emo genre. Because sure, there is depression and substance abuse on this record, but the real killer is a lack of sleep and rest, as the inner torment and guilt lingers with every liquid not of the guitar. Sure, Boucher might see himself when on 'No Halo' he drives in the middle of the night to visit the house where his friend Sean died a year earlier, but that's a damning indictment in its own right - he couldn't even make it back for his friend's funeral, and now he's writing a song about his lonely grief and yet all he sees is his own self-absorption - the sort of guilt that triggers lines like 'If there's a race to heaven /I will surely come in last'. It's what inspires him a song later to try and lend solace to a suicidal friend despite his own leanings in that direction - he has to keep on living despite all of it, trying to immortalize their stories in song even as his own depression pulls him into the same listless cycle of grief, going through the motions like on 'A Better Sun' and even despite knowing people did care when his friends died on 'Disappeared', he still entertains the thoughts. And it's telling that even as he reconciles his friends passing with the hope that they've reached heaven, you get songs like 'Leave The Fan On' where he has to keep living with real pain, hoping that dealing with it will help him find some vestige of peace. 

In other words, if this record was looking to rip the glamour out of self-obsessed depression to fully subvert and deconstruct emo, it would almost get there... almost. And this is where the rougher, sloppier but more 'real' brand of writing can come back to bite Boucher, the first place being on 'Where Are You?', which piles on the sarcasm that's often used as a defense mechanism and directs it at the audience but it's set against a hook where he has found some vestige of peace with his friends' deaths, and feels a little like a backslide. It's even worse on 'New Room', which seems like it could be the thesis statement of the deconstructionist side of this record - any veneer is gone, an admission that he wants to satisfy his audience but he can't be the person that gets them all the way... but then he ends it with 'I will wait until you're not great anymore / It's not fair anymore'. And while I can't really call these lines self-obsessed or angst for its own sake, I can say I don't think they fit thematically with the record and are not the way it should have ended, especially on such an abortive coda of a track.

Regardless, I do think Sorority Noise stands as a group I can respect a fair bit, especially in their take on emo and confronting those merely here for the image with reality. It's less tuneful or catchy than Joy, Departed, but that fits with confronting the sleep-deprived, listless reality of depression and real grief - I just wish the the balance and refinement of the sound had been a little better tuned to hitting that balance consistently, and that the final track was excluded altogether. But as it is, I'm thinking a very solid 7/10 and a recommendation, especially for folks who might be looking for a more mature and considered take on emo than what the genre's branding can unfortunately put forward. Again, I'm late to the party here, but I appreciate what Sorority Noise put together - definitely curious how they follow this up, though, because when you close some doors so definitively, the doors that end up opening might surprise you.

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