90s, Against Me!, Balance and Composure, Brad Wood, Circa Survive, Cloud Nothings, Creed, Dinosaur Jr, Dowsing, Emily Lazar, emo, Enemy, Foo Fighter, grunge, I'm Swimming, Jawbox, Joie De Vivre, Jon Simmons, Kellin Quinn, lo-fi, Meat Puppets, Midwest, music, New Moon, Notice Me, Parachutes, Pennsylvania, Pissed Jeans, Portlandia, post-hardcore, punk, Reflection, review, Separation, Sleeper, Sleeping With Sirens, Smashing Pumpkins, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Men, The Things We Think We're Missing, The Wave, Title Fight, Ty Segall, Warped Tour, Wavves, Will Yip
The 90s seem to be back in full force in 2013. Boy bands have returned via One Direction and N’Sync reunions, Portlandia has evangelized the slacker-congratulating “Dream of the 90s,” and perhaps most excitingly, alternative music is fucking awesome again. Be it the Midwest emo revival of Joie De Vivre and Dowsing, the lo-fi buzz of Wavves, or a renewed interest in aggressive music made by men from places like Seattle and DC, bands are reaching back to a time before post-hardcore meant Kellin Quinn and Warped Tour, and grunge had yet to fall out of favor, much less make superstars out of its damaged leading lights. And the results are spectacular. The Men recently put out the impressive ‘New Moon,’ channeling Dinosaur Jr. and Meat Puppets, Ty Segall took a turn for the dark and gritty on ‘Sleeper,’ released last week, and finally we come to Balance & Composure and a little album called ‘The Things We Think We’re Missing.’
Balance & Composure are a band from Pennsylvania, home state to other recent hardcore acts like Pissed Jeans, though they occupy a different space, being nominally associated with a movement within post-hardcore called “The Wave,” which draws influence from classic 90s post-hardcore bands like Jawbox, while building upon contemporary developments and expanding their sonic palate. Much like grunge and other jokingly applied names to musical movements, “The Wave” is rather loosely defined, with bands sounding different enough that the term describes more of an aesthetic than a sound. This results in plenty of room for variation, not just from band to band, but in B&C’s case, from album to album. Their previous album, ‘Separation,’ was a very well-received debut from a band who had established a heady reputation through their EPs. This album, though, is a vast improvement. Where their last album was the sound of bitter lashing out, this is an album of brooding and reflection – which, as things would have it, is the name of the first track they released from the album.
“Reflection” sums up the theme of the record quite nicely. As singer and guitarist Jon Simmons puts it;
“It’s me wanting something to hold on to, perhaps someone, or answers to my questions about life. I’ve also noticed we spend all this time in life wanting more and more. Whether it be materials or success, we think we need these things constantly. At the end of the record I had some kind of epiphany where I realized that this was no way to live my life. I should be happy with what I have. I’m alive and I’m breathing and I should embrace that. There are things we think we need in our lives and maybe one day they will come, but right now we are on earth experiencing life and we should be caught up in the moment and just live.”
However, based on the musical ambition present on this track and the album as a whole, it seems abundantly clear that the band is not content with resting on their laurels from their last album, nor will they take for granted what they’ve been handed down within their genre. No, B&C want something more, and they get damn close to getting it all on this record. “Reflection” starts off with a moody guitar line before building up into a brutal assault by the full band. The dynamic changes, from loud to even louder, to tense quiet, to punishingly loud again are stunning. “Burn all the wreckage/and start it all over/we’re building a message” seems as much a manifesto for the band and its lofty intentions as it is a reflection of personal growth, and is indicative in where B&C’s strengths lie, in the intensity of emotional expression.
The album opener “Parachutes” follows a similar musical formula of starting with a bit of sparse guitar overture before launching into a grunge-guitar assault, spicing up the dynamics with alternating loud and quiet sections, which makes for excellent pacing. While the technique is a favorite of the band on a number of the songs, it never seems tired, misused, or predictable, and they manage to mix it up enough, like on “Lost Your Name,” which, in contrast to “Parachutes,” is relatively subtle in the verse, picking up in the chorus and the bridge.
“Tiny Raindrop” is, by B&C standards, is a tender track, offering such sweet sentiments as “come close, stay far/I’ll be your tiny raindrop/I’ll fall down now/you left me feeling shameful,” showing off a less intense side of the band. “Notice Me” is another absolutely excellent track, with powerful chord changes, a surprisingly tuneful melody, and a positively bouncy chorus that is the most reminiscent piece of the past they draw such poignant inspiration from on the album. “I’m Swimming” is another incredible offering, projecting an almost shoegaze type of vibe as it meanders from brooding verse to trudging chorus, while giving up some great lyrical wordplay and rhythmic ingenuity, particularly in the “caught me swimming in a daydream” section. The drums on “When I Come Undone” give a palpable sense of impending cataclysm that catches immediate and sustained attention. “Dirty Head” sees the band relent from the distorted attack, favoring an acoustic treatise on loneliness. Closing out the album, “Enemy” is a dark number, giving a great contrast to the relatively more intense, angry tracks that preceded it.
The production and mixing boasts contributions from Will Yip (producer of contemporaries like Title Fight and Circa Survive), mixing from Brad Wood (Sunny Day Real Estate, Smashing Pumpkins), and master engineering from Emily Lazar (Foo Fighters, Against Me!), which seems like a recipe for success. But listening to the album, while I acknowledge the intensity of the music, the album as a product can at times be a bit much, with drums and guitar mushing together to form an unsatisfying product, and after looking at that roster, I can see why. While it’s not a huge one, this is my biggest complaint, and while B&C are clearly trying to go as far with the music as they can, hopefully they will soon learn that less is more when it comes to this kind of music.
With “The Things We Think We’re Missing,” Balance & Composure show us promise that the band and bands like them can soon make the jump from tight-knit underground scene to attention-grabbing game changers. They join the rank of bands like Cloud Nothings in showing us that grunge as an influence did not die when Creed took up the mantle, that its power is not limited to a specific point in musical history. Meanwhile, they save genres like post-hardcore and emo from suffering a similar fate in the public consciousness by harshly proving to us that depth is still possible in the genre they find themselves in, and if the band continues the trend of fearless experimentation, paired with a keen eye for melody and refined songwriting, we may find ourselves in a 90s-esque renaissance of alternative music. But this isn’t the 90s, and they’re never coming back. Instead we have bands that recognize the impetus of its spirit, seeking to make it all their own and come up with something, unique, powerful, awe-inspiring, and harshly beautiful.
Recommended Tracks: Notice Me, Reflection, I’m Swimming, Enemy