Embracing the parts of screamo that aren’t totally embarrassing

Embracing the parts of screamo that aren’t totally embarrassing

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@avclub.com.

Geek obsession: Screamo

Why it’s daunting: Like its stylistic big brother, emo, screamo suffers from a name that’s a barrier to entry. Over the years, both “emo” and “screamo” have been used as pejoratives rather than descriptors of sound or style, lumped in with stereotypes rather than anything substantial. Screamo’s constantly shifting, enigmatic nature doesn’t help, nor does its geographical diffusion. Post-hardcore and emo had Washington D.C.’s Dischord Records to anchor the budding movements, but screamo lacked a hometown. As a result, its practitioners had little stylistic overlap other than some shared influences (Fugazi and Unwound being the most obvious) when the genre took shape during the early ’90s—and they seemed a world away as it reached the 2000s. Yet despite the upheaval, screamo today enjoys a renaissance that’s as invigorating as those formative years.

Possible gateway: Envy’s A Dead Sinking Story

Why: Although Envy’s 2003 full-length, A Dead Sinking Story, is not the genre’s first masterwork, it remains one of its most artfully minded. Active since the genre’s birth, the Japanese band has a sprawling discography—released this July as a incredibly packaged 14-LP collection, Invariable Will, Recurring Ebbs And Flows—that positions Envy as the only band to adeptly weather the genre’s changes. Given its longevity, and its ability to connect screamo to post-rock, Envy is the best starting point as a singular entity for reasons both musical and historical. Although its monolithic discography welcomes exploration, A Dead Sinking Story functions as the point when Envy solidified its goals, leaving it as one of the few acts to survive into the new millennium as screamo’s second- (and in some cases, third-) wave bands pushed watered-down variations into the mainstream consciousness.

A Dead Sinking Story dexterously unites disparate genres, tempering boisterous attacks with moments of ambient frailty to create an expansive atmosphere. It showed off its range elsewhere, too: In 2008, it released split LPs with post-metal band Jesu and the poppier screamo group Thursday (the latter’s 2001 album, Full Collapse, was the first to break into the Billboard charts), effectively lighting a fire under its increasingly complacent peers. Envy helped legitimize screamo’s versatility, proving there was something more to the sound than angst-riddled breakdowns.

Next steps: Long before Envy found its footing, the early ’90s saw bands working to define themselves as something that went beyond the emo tag. The bulk of these acts were often short-lived, releasing genre-defining works before disbanding as suddenly as they appeared. Some of these early adopters stood the test of time, but San Diego’s Heroin and Ottawa’s Shotmaker stand head and shoulders above everyone else. 

Wearing its D.C. influences prominently, Heroin took the affectations of Rites Of Spring and added its own ramshackle elements, creating frequently sloppy, rough-hewn songs. In its own way, Heroin inadvertently created a template that would be followed closely, too much so, for years to come. The band’s small discography—a pair of 7-inches and a full-length—has remained an important starting point for newcomers to the genre. Its self-titled 7-inch was the first release for Gravity Records, a San Diego label that would become synonymous with the movement.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Shotmaker. Where Heroin would come apart during its songs, the Canadian trio was a tightly focused unit whose aggression never wavered. No one really sounded like Shotmaker at the time; where other groups trafficked in guitar-heavy, loud/quiet dynamics, Shotmaker emphasized its rhythm section with angular bass riffs locked in tight with its thunderous percussion. It took another decade for other bands to catch up, and consequently, Shotmaker’s various singles and two full-lengths (1994’s The Crayon Club and 1996’s Mouse Ear [Forget-Me-Not]) sound vibrant nearly 20 years later. 

As screamo grew, it became typified by bands with unforgivably precious/pretentious names: I Wrote Haikus About Cannibalism In Your Yearbook, Her Breath On Glass, Universal Order Of Armageddon, etc. Of these, Florida’s I Hate Myself didn’t just take the cake, it ate the whole fucking thing. Brothers Jim and Jon Marburger hailed from Gainesville, a college town experiencing a musical resurgence thanks in part to local label No Idea Records. 

For parts of its existence, Jim Marburger would dismiss I Hate Myself as a joke, perhaps to avoid associating with the many second- or third-tier acts then populating the landscape, but I Hate Myself was one of screamo’s most important acts. The band’s debut, Four Songs, seemed to support Marburger’s claims, but 10 Songs, released a year later, proved I Hate Myself was no lark. For the CD release, an 11th track was added, “To A Husband At War,” which became not only I Hate Myself’s best song, but a high-water mark for the genre. Removing the first-person perspective that characterized the bulk of the genre’s lyrics, Marburger portrays a wife coming to terms with the death of her husband by writing a letter to him. I Hate Myself’s final release, 2005’s Three Songs, saw it embrace emo by emulating the more subdued sound of Sunny Day Real Estate instead of the punchier one it helped define. It was a graceful bow instead of a raucous sendoff, but it still worked.

While the early 2000s saw the genre reach its peak commercial success and critical derision—thanks largely to Victory Records’ roster at the time—those breakout acts were, at best, cheap imitations of those that preceded them. Meanwhile, lesser-known acts continued to charge forward, such as City Of Caterpillar from Richmond, Virginia, which sounded like a more metallic, American version of Envy. Meanwhile, French bands also produced great work; the left-wing, feminist group Anomie helped define ’90s screamo abroad, but bands such as Daïtro, La Quiete, and Raein kept the ship afloat while it was danger of capsizing Stateside. Though Daïtro’s 2008 album, Y, could have reinvented screamo with a post-punk edge, the album took a long time to catch on elsewhere, and by the time it did, Daïtro had already hung it up.

Where not to start: There are more places to avoid than there are starting points with screamo. Thursday may have given the genre its first taste of the mainstream with Full Collapse, but it also created a template that dozens of terrible Warped Tour bands artlessly copied during the mid-2000s. Full Collapse is fine, but Thursday would explore far more interesting territory with later albums—and the ones released by its imitators (Hawthorne Heights, Atreyu) aren’t worth any attention.

On the opposite end is the even more extreme version of screamo sometimes referred to as skramz. (Inventing a term worse than screamo is a real achievement.) This heavier, powerviolence-inspired sect is a less-than-ideal launchpad, but it’s an area worth exploring after spending time with screamo’s more palatable offerings. Although bands such as Orchid, Pg. 99, and Saetia were some of screamo’s best and brightest during the late ’90s and early ’00s, their spastic, combustive music isn’t representative of the scene at large. They may provide an easier gateway for fans of metal and hardcore—because screamo’s whinier tendencies were hidden by volume and intensity—but they still embrace the genre’s more melodramatic impulses. Instead of working from loud to quiet like those that came before, songs were start-and-stop races between barely audible openings and blast-beat-laden climaxes. In recent years many new bands (Loma Prieta, Old Gray, Comadre) have updated this style, giving it a much-needed second wind, but for the casual listener, well, there’s nothing all that casual about it.

Filed Under: Music

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