Umbrella genres are kind of useless. I hate it when I find myself referring to albums as being something as ill-defined as 'alternative' or 'indie rock' because in all honesty those labels say next to nothing about the sound of the album. Any time I see something described with only those terms it strikes me as overall critical laziness that no one can find a more useful classification. I'm just as guilty of this as anyone but it sill bothers me that what amount to empty classifications are the go-to label for not only all manner of albums but for entire subsets of culture. And it really pains me to see that post-hardcore has probably joined those ranks.
It's still a useful tag on some levels, amounting to 'hardcore-adjacent music with more ambition' or 'stuff that you'll like if you own a copy of The Shape of Punk to Come' but the breadth that the tag's come to cover since the term's inception makes it just as useless insofar as describing what an album sounds like as indie or alternative. think about it, within the confines of post-hardcore you've got everything from epic screamo (City of Caterpillar) to the heavier side of mainstreamed emo (early Thrice) to aggressive noise rock (Racebannon) to suspense-laden chamber punk (or whatever you want to call The Paper Chase.) None of those bands sound that much alike, but all of them have a firm root in the hardcore punk scene that they then branched out from to vastly different effects. It makes for one of the most interesting subgenres out there but one that is all but useless to use as a description of what the bands actually sound like.
In my eyes, Racebannon and The Paper Chase represent opposite ends of the post-hardcore spectrum. The former are more explicitly hardcore based, but owe as much of a debt to noise rockers like Big Black and Melt Banana as they do to punk while the latter are one of the most vital and expansive rock bands of the decade, with everything from piano and string quartet based numbers to full on hardcore/emo moments that all sound cohesive in the context of the band's albums. You'd never think they'd get painted with the same brush, but that's where post-hardcore's gone as a genre. It's also worth noting that these two are, for my money, among the most consistently amazing bands of the decade. Ignoring their respective debuts, which hinted at their future quality but were marred by horrible production in one case (Racebannon's First There Was the Emptiness) and a lack of cohesion in the other (Paper Chase's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know) they went on to each put out a trio of absolutely amazing albums along with assorted splits and EPs. Picking out a highlight for each of them was difficult, but in the end it winds up being the first in their streaks of greatness that wound up on top.
In Racebannon's case it was pretty much predestined to be In the Grips of the Light that got the nod over the equally intense rock opera of Satan's Kickin' Yr Dick In and last year's Acid or Blood which I honestly haven't spent enough time with to put it here anyway. The reason is pretty basic too: their cover of Captain Beefheart's "Electricity" is on In the Grips and it's probably the only cover of Beefheart's material that I wouldn't hesitate to call better than the original. Now, I love Beefheart with a fervor that borders on insanity. Trout Mask Replica ranks as my absolute favorite album of all time and Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Doc at the Radar Station don't rank too far behind that one. I have a folder on my laptop that's 267 MB of Beefheart covers that I've found in the course of my travels, and of that batch Racebannon's "Electricity" is the only one that improves the original. It's played fairly straight, but Racebannon imbue it with a sense of urgency that the original can't match, as good a song as that is. It was my introduction to the band, and probably did more to make them among my favorite artists of the decade than the rest of In the Grips of the Light but that's no reason to discount the rest of the material there.
Basically, over the course of an hour the band lays down some unrelentingly harsh, noisy grooves that rarely give the listener a chance to catch their breath. Producer Mike Mogis (yes, the dude behind 90% of Saddle Creek's output) captures the band's intensity better than anyone else has since, and judging by the few live videos of these guys in action I've found on youtube it's as good an approximation of the energy they possess in a live setting as you're likely to get in a studio. The band employs all manner of odd techniques to augment their noise-laden assault, from DJ scratching that's far removed from the way you'd expect that technique to be used to theremin playing to add to the chaotic soup on a few songs. The bass playing is fantastic, the closest to a melodic element the band has in most cases (not that that's a bad thing) and the drummer isadept enough to send all eight tracks hurtling along at a manic pace without ever getting too static in his technique. The guitars wind their way between frantic, Truman's Water circa-Spasm Smash bursts of off-kilter noise with a surprising amount of blues-inspired rhythms and riffs. And on top of this there's Mike Anderson, the most singularly demented vocalist in modern music, shrieking shards of unnerving poetry as if his life depended on it. The result isn't anything other than intense, but it's also fun to listen to once you get used to its unrelenting assault.
Intense is a good description of Hide the Kitchen Knives as well, although where Racebannon's intensity comes through aggression The Paper Chase's is brought out much more subtly. In general, they represent one of the best produced rock band of any stripe this decade, and given that their lead singer is one of the most vital producers of rock music in the 00s, working with everyone from underground post-punkers Single Frame to the likes of Marilyn Manson and Bono (color me surprised on the last one) that's not a surprise at all. He's not as well known as someone like Steve Albini, but any time I hear an album John Congleton has a producing credit on it seems to become a favorite. His own band's only the tip of the iceberg for that, but the work he does on Hide the Kitchen Knives is among the best production work he's done so far. It's not just that a band that fuses as many diverse elements as The Paper Chase all but requires a strong production job to work well, but that the choices Congleton makes in that area are a) not the ones you'd expect and b) wind up sounding better than any other way of arranging the elements. For instance, using the tandem bass and piano root as the focal point of "Don't You Wish You Had Some More?" instead of the relentless guitar line that runs underneath gives the track a unique sense of menace that it wouldn't have had otherwise, almost like a Hitchcock soundtrack in its suspense building capabilities.
There's also a level of cohesion to the album that makes it much more of pleasure to sit through. Well, pleasure's not the right word really, because I have yet to hear an album that's this unsettling, ugly and creepy for its entire runtime. The whole album is steeped in dread. It's got the same aura that the best psychological thrillers maintain, the feeling that something incredibly twisted is right around the corner at every moment and making the times that that's the case make just as much of an impact as the times where it's not. There's really only a couple of truly aggressive tracks here, but the other moments are no less intense. That intensity is as much a product of the overall production as the way the different instruments sound. It's odd, the individual instruments never seem to change their tone, but the way they're used on each specific track gives makes the album sound just as varied as it can. Compare "Where Have Those Hands Been?" to "A Little Place Called Trust" and you'll see what I'm talking about. The guitar is always set to that sick, trebly, distorted to the point of dissonance tone, the piano is always that little bit out of tune, the background is always that unforgiving, oppressive sterility but the former is the album's most frenetic moment and the latter is a relatively calm moment in the middle of the album. It goes back to Congleton's production as much as anything, but the fact that as a band The Paper Chase are able to evoke such a wide array of moods with such a static palette is worth praising.
Coming up tomorrow: A man who raps like a mildly coherent homeless prophet's first two salvos in the world of underground hip hop.