The Revival Trap: Modern Baseball, Off! and Genre Death

the-revival-trap

The topic of genres stuttering to a grizzly death and their consequent mysterious phoenix-like ability to ‘rise from the ashes’ with the aid of fresh-faced teenagers copying their influences has been no better documented than in the recent ’emo revival’ movement, a misguided flurry of journalism aimed at hyping up a genre that never died in the first place whilst simultaneously breeding that ‘you heard it here first’ mentality that has plagued artistic development for the last few decades. But with that attention comes healthy skepticism, and the uncovering of something much more sinister – bands that seek to recapture a specific sound whilst missing the purpose of the ethos they claim to represent. It’s a dangerous game that has the potential to leave a lasting black mark, because when originality goes, what is left?


 

One second. That is exactly how long I can make it into You’re Gonna Miss It All, the newest from Maryland pop-punkers/potential pre-pubescents Modern Baseball, because that is the moment Brendan Lukens begins to sing. It is an annoying caterwaul of a whine, a deliberate attack against melody that refuses to replace it with anything else. It just doesn’t fucking work.

But why am I ragging on this album from over 6 months ago, fuming over a bunch of kids on a blustery spring day? Because I had almost managed to forget just how bad You’re is, and just how many useless bands have been pulled into the spotlight thanks to coverage on Pitchfork, Alternative Press, AV Club et al. Like the variegated horsemen of genre death, these bands have arrived to lay waste to anything resembling a promising idea, adopting every signifier of emo’s ‘golden years’ without an adequate understanding of why those classic records sound just like they do. These are things that should only matter to teenagers and college freshmen with unfortunate mustaches, and I had almost blocked Modern Baseball and its ilk from my mind.

Like the variegated horsemen of genre death, these bands have arrived to lay waste to anything resembling a promising idea.

I was unfortunately reminded by Wasted Years, OFF!’s utterly pointless blast of throwback hardcore, recently released by VICE records.[1] I cannot think of a more superfluous record released by a high-profile band in the recent path. Not bad, necessarily: these hardcore vets, including Black Flag/Circle Jerks shouter Keith Morris, know how to craft a solid hardcore song. If they couldn’t, I’d be worried. Rather, Wasted Years outs itself as obsolete from the first razor-wire riff on “Void Yout Out” and just keeps on chugging, content simply to repeat the ideas these men had in their youthful, pre-dreadlocked days.

In theory, these two records aren’t all that similar. Where You’re is just obviously, painfully bad Wasted is drab and boring; one fails and the other doesn’t bother to achieve. But in my mind one leads quite clearly to the other and drives me insane because of it. Why?

Because both, like the last 15-ish years of throwback hardcore and this year’s unfortunate boom of twinkly guitar bands, betray a complete lack of imagination, an utter unwillingness to do anything close to tweaking the rules.  This is how genre death happens, when bands become so enamored with musical norms that their only influences come from within their genre. For one, this is a completely ahistorical approach to how music is made. Greg Ginn was a deadhead and Ian Mackaye loved Led Zeppelin, but they music they made sounds nothing like these influences. When a band limits its approach only to bands it wants to sound like, the pool of new ideas shrinks exponentially.

But, I realized, I don’t dislike Modern Baseball and its familiars just because they’re derivative; that is nothing new. Rather, the how of the question is what bothers me. Many of these bands are not simply cribbing all of their elements from emo records past, they’re stealing many of the worst ideas and treating them as vital without understanding why these ideas came into being.

Modern Baseball, Prawn, etc are all guilty of one major sin: assuming that vocals, and specifically the strength of vocal melodies, don’t matter. If one were to skim the surface of the emo canon[2], it would be easy enough to make this mistake. Pitchiness and a general nasal whine predominate over even some of the best bands, and can prove a harsh barrier to entry for those used to polished singers. I can’t imagine The Power of Failing without Chris Simpson powering his way through some limited vocal chops, and Davey Van Bohlen’s impeded speech is a significant amount of The Promise Ring’s charm. These voices were these bands, because the singers who cast them out didn’t regard a lack of ability as a particularly serious affliction.

This is how genre death happens, when bands become so enamored with musical norms that their only influences come from within their genre.

But extending to the idolaters of today, this idea has become hopelessly corrupted. Instead of doing the best with what they have, too many singers simply don’t try at all. For anyone who is a fan of that old emo sound, this is a downright idiotic assumption to make, one that ignores the music they profess to love. First, a wide variety of voices were present all throughout emo’s tenuous tenure, from the deep baritone of Benton Falls to Tim Kinsella’s hyperactive yowl in Cap’n Jazz to Jimmy Eat World’s big-time melodies. To assume one characterizes the ‘sound’ more than any other would be a pointless exercise.[3] Second, even those of rather limited ability did the absolute best they could with the tools they had. Punk is liberating because it breaks down mainstream standards of quality, but an internal control system still pervades. Bands still have to try, and the ones we remember with fondness today, from Sunny Day Real Estate to The Gloria Record, actually did. Van Bohlen crafted some absolutely kick-ass melodies on Nothing Feels Good and the Boys & Girls EP, stadium-worthy things as filtered through a basement PA in Middle America. EndSerenading features slow, loping vocal lines all throughout, delivered with precision and power by Simpson, bridging quiet sections and hammering down the distorted choruses.

Point being, effort was made to transmute something of decidedly limited range into a powerful tool.  You don’t have to be perfect, but goddammit, babies, you have to try. But too few of these bands do try. I have been at far too many shows where a lead singer steps up to the mic and proceeds to howl and moan with no conception of what the song actually calls for, or how to construct an actual melody for that matter. These so-called revivalists aren’t picking and choosing the good elements so much as regurgitating middle school mixtapes whole, without a true idea of just why the bands they love succeeded. It bespeaks a lack of imagination, sure, but also the inability to distinguish between core and peripheral elements in a song. Mineral didn’t succeed because of Simpson’s voice, but rather despite it. Simpson took his limited tool and applied to all kinds of jobs  This is the essence of Mineral’s sound: striving despite the odds, from poor recording quality to geographic isolation, arrayed against it. It is what makes EndSerenading so classic. But Mineral already made ES, so why bother trying to make it again? New bands shouldn’t copy old ideas whole cloth, but rather take their unique voices and skills and construct unforeseen tweaks with them. That might be asking too much.

Instead of doing the best with what they have, too many singers simply don’t try at all. For anyone who is a fan of that old emo sound, this is a downright idiotic assumption to make, one that ignores the music they profess to love.

This is not to impugn all bands unfortunately lumped together by lazy bystanders. The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Dieremains one of the most vital underground bands today, experimenting with crazy textures and gang vocals and a pop-punk sense of what will get kids rushing to the stage. Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss has, after suspiciously on-the-nose copies of Taking Back Sunday in the past, finally stolen his way to a good record with the Death Cab-ish Intersections. And from Touche Amore to Empire! Empire! to resurgent vets like Braid, good, exciting bands exist. It just can be hard to find them while wading through a fairly high level of shit. To a certain extent this is just a bell curve, and can be applied to any genre imaginable. But god if it doesn’t seem like there’s a pretty heavy low-end skew going on here.

Which brings me back to OFF! Unlike all the young whipper-snappers listed above, Wasted Years was made by people who should know better. Almost all of the musicians involved transcended hardcore years ago, but seem to have learned nothing from the experience. Hardcore is not only exactly the same after the Wasted’s release, the album itself is a total non-event, a blip erased without consequence. It is the sound of old men too bored to try and an audience too boring to ask for more. Ditto for Modern Baseball and its ilk. If I want to listen to Black Flag, I’ll put on First Four Years, and if I want to hear some vintage emo I will pull out Christie Front Drive. Attempting to remake these accomplishments is an exercise in futility, because if I truly wanted to hear a classic I would just listen to the classics, not a store-brand knockoff.

Make your own noise, kids, because the old noise was already taken, perfected, and buried. You can’t revive it, and even trying dooms you to obsolescence in a year, tops. And if you can’t make something worthwhile, then what the hell was it even for?


[1] VICE running its own record label is the most interesting thing about Wasted Years.
[2] Top 5 emo records, no order: Low Level Owl; A Better Version of Me; EndSerenading; Clarity; Anthology.
[3] And let’s get real for a second.  Once out of your teenage years, which did you spend more time listening to: Do You Know Who You Are? or those rare I Hate Myself tracks you desperately searched for on Limewire?
Robert Rubsam
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Robert Rubsam

Rob is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has been published at Roads & Kingdoms, Crux, and Flavorwire, among others. He is Features Editor at Noted.
Robert Rubsam
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