Not since The Dismemberment Plan made Swiss cheese of the entire 90s with ‘Emergency & I’ and At The Drive-In provided Ross Robinson with one of the most unbelievable stories of redemption in music has it been a better time to be a post-hardcore band. For the better part of the last decade, the term was used by mallwalkers to lend some artistic legitimacy to that shrieky, derivative band from the Midwest/Long Island that used too much hairspray (you know the one I’m talking about – all of them), sullying the good names of Fugazi, Quicksand, and Jawbox in the process, leading to most critics to dismiss the genre entirely. But then, quietly, in 2008 a changing of the tides began to occur. Bands like La Dispute and Defeater began making waves, and some began to come to a realization. Post-hardcore was not a lost genre, and the iteration of it that bands like Chiodos played wasn’t one to be entirely dismissed, they were just doing it wrong. Touche Amore, however, gets it right. They’re no mere revivalists – they build on developments in the genre that have taken place over the last decade, while recognizing the genre artistic roots. The music they play is aggressively modern, and modernly aggressive. They are quite aware that they’re the hottest young band in hardcore, along with what expectations come along with that; with that knowledge, they completely erase the cynicism of the hype machine by putting absolutely everything they have into this album. They didn’t have to, considering they didn’t start out with the status they’ve attained. The smart man would have put his money on La Dispute or Balance & Composure (and those still aren’t bad bets, all things considered), but in this scene, each new album sets a high watermark for the genre tentatively known as The Wave, and ‘Is Survived by raise the bar by such an impressive margin, only the truly amazing will be able to top this release.
It’s easy to fall into hype like this, I must admit. We were guilty of it when The Strokes came out, we were guilty of it when The Killers came out, we were guilty of it with Arcitc Monkeys (although that hope might not have been so misguided), and we were guilty – and I mean really guilty – when Fall Out Boy and its ilk drilled emo into our collective consciousness. But I really, truly hope that we’re not guilty of it now. The crucial difference, though, is that Touche Amore and bands like it have had time to hone their craft. They started out small with no aspirations to be the next big thing, they didn’t get cradle-robbed by music media, and unlike many of those aforementioned bands, each of their albums is far better than the last. They’re making steady, noticeable improvement with each release, and that’s why it’s really as exciting as it is to watch.
When that first melancholic chord drops on “Just Exist,” underpinned by buzzing power chords, before the listener even knows what exactly they’re in for, the entire record is laid out before them, and it is a sight to behold. The first line goes “I was once asked how I’d like to be remembered/and I simply smiled and said ‘I’d rather stay forever,’” and it reads like perfect poetry. And it’s very much in line with a lot of the themes on this record. There are no easy answers, and catharsis is not an end in itself. One simply has to deal with the harshness of reality, and no one really knows quite how. It’s that sense of purposeful desperation that makes the band both succinct products and evident leaders and figureheads of their generation.
The content of the lyrics in general aren’t the kind of pandering to the supposed hardships of adolescence that has earned some of their more Warped-friendly peers such scorn. Frontman Jeremy Bolm writes so self-consciously both about common experiences of mortality, confusion, and anguish, and about what it says about him to be in a band, singing about those things. These experiences, captured so perfectly on “Praise/Love” where he laments “everything I say becomes a joke,” are both very specific to Bolm as a person, but in that way are relatable to anyone who’s unsure of who they are or what they want out of life. The pressures of being in such a self-serious band becomes a metaphor for life, and it rarely falls flat on this record.
The music is equally strained and frayed to the breaking point. The quiets are foreboding, and the loud parts are brutal, as on “Harbor.” The buildups, the release of tension, and the return to frantic highs are as much a self-contained journey in 2-and-a-half-minute bursts as they are over the course of a 30-minute album. And that’s another part of what makes this band so endearing. Despite their Tumblr-ready one-liners, the songs on ‘Is Survived By’ tell stories, whether it be about the expectations of life in a band are more soul-crushing than one could have imagined on “Is Survived By,” or the factual story of his falling out with Manchester Orchestra, and perhaps the music industry as a whole, on “To Write Content.” And as is demonstrated time and again, the stories are just as much told by instrumental dynamics as they are by the lyrics.
The last third of the album, which sees the longest tracks on the album, bring out the best parts of what preceded it, and pushes them to the limit. “Social Caterpillar” is loud, frustrated, and self-effacing to the extreme, “Non Fiction” recalls the most tender parts of 90s emo and post-hardcore that is in no way hopelessly nostalgic, being equal parts Braid and La Dispute, “Steps” sees a brilliant collaboration with Jon Simmons from Balance & Composure, and the title track brings it all back home while leaving you wondering how you could possibly continue from here.
And indeed, where to go from here is the million-dollar question for Touche Amore. If the trajectory they’ve followed thus far, of getting better and better, of getting more and more intense, or probing further and further into the depths of what it means to be human, then we can only expect good things from them. On ‘Is Survived By,” they put to bed all concerns that guitar rock, let alone hardcore, is dead, injecting new life into an old format with energy, sincerity, self-awareness, and a willingness to push the envelope. Quite frankly, what Touche Amore and their peers are doing is the most important set of things being done in rock music right now, and while it’s unlikely that hardcore is going to see a Nirvana-esque, saves-the-day moment of mainstream exposure from the current crop of bands, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this generation saw their own iteration of ‘Full Collapse’ or ‘Yank Crime’ come out in the next few years.
Recommended Tracks: Just Exist, Harbor, Social Caterpillar