Defeater really are a unique hardcore band. Musically, they fluctuate between slow-burning intensity and frenetic anger, following a pattern of towering guitars, crashing drums and clear, throaty screams, drawing comparison to bands such as Modern Life Is War, Verse, and, recently, More Than Life. Such comparisons suggest musically they are not breaking the mould, although they do
have a personalised take on the genre. No, Defeater’s uniqueness lies in their lyrics, their storytelling and in their conceptualisation. The band have thus far crafted a trilogy of ‘Travels’, ‘Lost Ground’, and ‘Empty Days & Sleepless Nights’, which, though focussing on different perspectives and stories, are all interconnected. ‘Travels’ and ‘Lost Ground’ were told through the eyes of two different characters – a murderous young man who ran away from home having killed his father, and an African American soldier in World War Two subjected to a life of destitution on his return. Through their storytelling they explore themes such as alcoholism, drug-addiction, murder, depression, homelessness, suicide, racism, and war. ‘Empty Days & Sleepless Nights’ is the third chapter in Defeater’s grim tale and chronicles an elder brother’s life up until his murder at the hands of his brother - the protagonist from ‘Travels’.
One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of ‘ED&SN’ is the increased ‘melodic’ aspect of the band’s ‘melodic hardcore’. Musically, it sounds sharper and arguably more focused than either ‘Lost Ground’ or ‘Travels’. A haunting guitar melody dances its way through ‘White Knuckles’
, gradually becoming more embellished as the anxiety in the vocals increases; ‘At Peace’
switches between sparse, beautiful sections and frantic ones, though always retains its melodic edge; while much of ‘White Oak Doors’
revolves around delay-ridden guitars over intricate drums and a solemn bass line. The musicianship on the album is noticeably more accomplished – especially the drums. This is most evident on the comparatively pretty, yet no less heart-wrenching ‘Empty Glass’
. The song features complex, yet powerful drumming; anxiously-picked guitar riffs; and understated, yet proficient bass lines which really drive the song forward to its intense conclusion.
But ultimately the potential for ED&SN’s success lives and dies with the execution of the storytelling. The results are mixed, but more often than not Defeater are successful. Impressively, very often the musical flourishes on ‘ED&SN’ support the lyricism, making the storytelling even more vivid. The band’s increased melodic edge lends itself to songs with gentler themes – the smitten, longing ‘Empty Glass’, for example – and it is songs such as these which produce the best results. Similarly, the claustrophobic guitars that greet you at the start of ‘White Knuckles’ and the many changes that the song undergoes create a frantic feel that matches the protagonist’s anger in the song. Perhaps the best example of the band moulding song structures to the lyrics is found on ‘At Peace’, which is decisively split in two. A hopeful first half, as the protagonist optimistically searches for his mother who is missing gives way to a devastating second, as he finds her dead body in the church.
Alternately, on songs such as ‘Cemetery Walls’
the clash between the soaring punk-rock and power chords and the sheer misery of the protagonist asking his murdered wife “Now that you’re gone, what am I to do?/ But get lost in this bottle thinking of you,” sounds awkwardly jarring rather than unnervingly vivid. Much has been made of the Sopranos-esque ending to the hardcore side of the album, and while its intention is admirable – stunning, even – its effect is ultimately dampened by the inadequate build up. Musically, it is actually very exciting, building tension almost to fever-pitch, but it is let down lyrically. While it is clear that the irregular metre, tone and rhyming scheme is supposed to be symbolic of the protagonist’s drunken and desperate state, ultimately it feels clumsy and awkward – thus, limiting the potentially shocking nature of the story’s conclusion. However, for the most part the relationship between the mood created by the music and that of the story is harmonious and as such is a success.
As ambitious as Defeater’s storytelling concept is in its own right, ‘ED&SN’ arguably sees them at their most enterprising, as they also have an ‘acoustic’ side to the album too. The four acoustic songs are again told from the elder brother’s point of view and intermittently detail certain periods of his life. The four songs tend to revolve around basic guitar chords, with additional slide-guitars on ‘But Breathing’
, and subtle full-band accompaniment on ‘Brothers’
. While these touches are certainly nice as it shows the band making an obvious attempt to be more than “just another hardcore band” (although labelling them as such is incredibly wrong, anyway), it feels a little bland and uninspired – although the idea itself is anything but. Specifically the bands’ acoustic songs feel like they are trying to be Rocky Votolato or Bright Eyes, but fail in being as good as either of them. Considering that one of the most appealing characteristics of Defeater is their unique character studies, this dilution of identity annuls one of the band’s most exciting aspects. Also, the lyricism here feels forced and this is certainly to the bands’ discredit. Nevertheless, the simple, heart-warming lyrics (“And there ain’t nothing like your smile, your legs and those eyes/And I will beg and steal and borrow to keep you safe your whole life) of ‘I Don’t Mind’
are certainly pretty enough to salvage some success from this gamble.
Defeater set themselves a difficult task with ‘ED&SN’. The idea of combining hardcore with fictional storytelling is ambitious enough as it is – though the critical successes that were ‘Travels’ and ‘Lost Ground’ have shown that the band are more than capable of pulling it off. Even though acoustic songs are nothing new for the band (‘Prophet in Plain Clothes’ from ‘Travels’), dedicating a sizeable chunk of what is essentially a hardcore album to country-tinged acoustic songs takes balls. Additionally, the success of their previous album and EP has heaped on a metric ***-ton of pressure and raised expectations sky high. Fortunately, Defeater are a good enough band to pull it off, although there are a few slight missteps along the way. Somewhat predictably the hardcore side is the stronger part of the album, with its sharp focus and unwavering intensity. The bands’ increased melodic edge is a welcome change, slight though it is, and it suits the story’s more tender moments more than its agony-ridden ones. Generally speaking the relationship between music and lyricism is successful, and this is important as lyricism is vital to Defeater’s identity. However, the execution of this is arguably better on the two releases prior to this. Nevertheless, ‘ED&SL’ sees Defeater rise to their own challenge and prove that they are still the most ambitious, forward-thinking band in hardcore. More importantly, ‘Empty Days & Sleepless Nights’ sees Defeater proving that they are one of the best
bands in hardcore.