Post-hardcore fans who fear that their scene has been plunged into an interminable Dark Age of crunk rock and crab-core need only look to “The Wave” for signs of salvation. Don’t think of it as a scene, but as a secret club (or, more accurately, an inside joke-turned-pseudo-fraternity), consisting of five burgeoning post-hardcore bands from all over these United States: Michigan’s La Dispute, Baltimore’s Pianos Become The Teeth, Connecticut’s Make Do And Mend, Los Angeles’ Touché Amoré, and Boston’s Defeater.
Collectively, “The Wave” is all about retrospection and revival: a return to the acerbic stylings of screamo pioneers like Orchid and Pg. 99. But examine its constituents more closely, and you can begin to spot the differences. Make Do And Mend, for instance, is decidedly more melodic than the Deathwish-signed Touché Amoré; Pianos Become the Teeth flirts with post-punk, while La Dispute would rather play with prog.
That leaves us with Defeater, the most promising auteurs in the group. The only thing this ambitious Massachusetts outfit loves more than a sick guitar riff is a sick story, and they’ve spent the past five years toiling over their take on the great American tragedy. Travels, the band’s 2008 debut, introduced listeners to the story of two brothers living in a broken home in post-war New Jersey; dad’s an alcoholic, mom’s addicted to heroin, and money’s scarce. Spoiler alert: At the conclusion of chapter 2 (2011’s Empty Days And Sleepless Nights), we don’t get an It’s a Wonderful Life-style finale. Defeater’s characters inhabit a godless, lawless world, where sons kill fathers and wives stumble around in a morphine-addled stupor. Derek Archambault is our nerve-rattling narrator, a fearless vocalist who’s not afraid to get his windpipes gritty when the story calls for extra servings of angst.
Letters Home is the latest installment in this acerbic epic, and also the best: focused, fierce, and devoid of the bloat that kept Empty Days And Sleepless Nights from reaching its true potential. At just 10 tracks and 34 minutes, the band’s latest effort marks a welcome return to the short-and-sweet paradigms of its debut, with some significant tweaks here and there—most noticeably, in the production. With their contrasting, jagged riffs more effectively separated from the din of the rhythm section, guitarists Jay Maas and Jake Woodruff are free to embellish Archambault’s anguished shouts with unrestrained force, going practically toe-to-toe with him on “Bastards.” And new drummer Joe Longobardi is a terror on the kit, rattling off math-y fills with ease and, on the lurching “Rabbit Foot,” practically stealing the show.
The instrumentation on Letters Home is undoubtedly heavy, but it’s always the story that comes back to kick you in the gut. The album revolves around the father of the two brothers to whom listeners were introduced in the previous two chapters; based on the conflicted portraits painted of him thus far, we don’t know if he’s a brute reeking of booze, a helpless husband, or something else entirely. Thankfully, Archambault doesn’t fall for the cookie-cutter, sad-drunk tropes, and sticks to what he knows (the albums’ stories are based on his grandfathers’ service in WWII, and their associated concepts of survivors’ guilt and existential anguish resonate even to this day).
Addiction, abandonment, betrayal—we see (and hear) it all through the eyes of our loathsome narrator, and share in his descent to the bottom the downward spiral, right down to the last gruesome auditory detail. Hell, on “Bled Out,” the album’s tortuous closer, we get inside the head of a man bleeding to death after being shot by his own son. “I beg but death don’t come/That fucking coward,” he roars, as dizzying blurs of feedback whirl in and out of the scene. Death does come, slowly creeping in with the guitar fuzz, and the dying man’s mantra (“And all I see is the bastard in me”) becomes his only source of solace. As depressing as it may seem for Defeater to tell a story with no happy ending, it’s only by confronting those feelings of disillusionment and hopelessness head-on that they achieve some sort of catharsis. Letters Home does just that.