Strung Out – Songs of Armor and Devotion
Songs of loss and heartbreak, anguish, and anger
Whenever there is a new Strung Out album, my first inclination is to look out for the “Strung Out song”. While arbitrary, it’s been a staple of the Strung Out discography and always a good sign that the record will be a great one. From Another Day in Paradise (1994), the band crafted songs that were the sum of the their best parts; urgency, melody, and emotion. These were songs that didn’t care that they were melodic to the point of balladry, yet still had the razor-sharp mix of high-octane riffs, high-energy percussion (that beat!) and Jason Cruz’s vocal anguish. What songs do I mean? It was “14 Days” in Another Day…, “Solitaire” in Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, “Paperwalls” and “Matchbook” in Twisted By Design early on while their latter discography was punctuated by the superb “Andy Warhol” in Agents of the Underground and “No Apologies” in Transmission.Alpha.Delta. My long-winded point is that when Strung Out forgo their love of metal for their love of melody, the results are always great.
Case in point the solitary 2017 single “Crows”, which would have been the best song on any of their albums but remain left off all. It’s these kinds of songs that Strung Out are at their best and in Songs of Armor and Devotion, we get the terrific “Ulysses”; a song of manic energy, superb melodies and yes, that sense of melancholy that all its “Strung Out song” brethren have. Criteria met.
So is Songs of Armor of Devotion a great Strung Out album? In a word, yes, and it’s been a steady ship since 2009’s Blackhawks Over Los Angeles after a few years of fluctuating returns and flirtations with more metal and less punk. Their latest builds on the terrific work they showcased in Transmission.Alpha.Delta, ratching up the melody as showcased in the opening salvo of “Rebels and Saints”. The nuanced harmonies play well with the blistering solos and make for the strongest opening track since Exile In Oblivion’s “Analog”. The album is buoyed by some strong percussion work again, and while this is the first album since the departure of long-time drummer Jordan Burns, newcomer RJ Shankle is no downgrade behind the skins.
There is still plenty of fire (“Monuments”), touches of metal (“Daggers”), and many instances of the band being great at who they are. But the strongest aspect of the album is the album’s consistency and tone- it’s good all throughout, with plenty that still stokes the energy and electricity they blazed on to the scene with. They’re a little more composed now, and there’s a level of introspection and maturity that keeps the more ruthless vitriol they showcased in Twisted By Design a little at bay. But for a band to be this well into their career to still be writing songs like great “Strange Notes” (hectic guitar solo work over razor-sharp punk “gimme gimme more” vocals and d-beat percussion work) is a testament to the band.
Longevity may not always be a musician’s strongest trait, but for Strung Out, it isn’t just about being the last one standing- it’s their continued ability to write songs that connect, that the listener can relate to. They write songs of loss and heartbreak, anguish, and anger, songs that incinerate as well as they reflect on life, and all these years later, they’re still doing it with fire and fury. For many, Twisted By Design is still the band’s apex, but remarkably, Songs of Armor and Devotion has come the closest to emulating it, with moments on it inching close to surpassing it. In “Andy Warhol”, Cruz sang “You can’t write a song if you’ve never lost anything you’ve truly loved”, and it always sounds like the band have loved and lost better than so many.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.