Review Summary: I don't know / what they told you / but this place is not what you think.
I'm starting to think that Underoath's magic ingredient was never in the sonic department. They didn't stand out from the pack because of the crazy riffs, or the electric vocal interplay, or even the experimental dips into post-rock and ambient and so on. I think the reason I'm writing an Underoath review in 2018 and you're all reading it is their uncanny ability to mean almost anything to anyone. I realise that sounds incredibly vague, but think about it: there are few bands who could just as easily make the soundtrack to losing your girlfriend to another guy as they could to, say, losing the love of your life in a car crash or losing yourself to drug addiction. Within the space of six years, from The Changing of Times
to Define the Great Line
, Underoath pulled that off almost unconsciously, following where the music took them. Lost in the Sound of Separation
took the style of Define
to its breaking point, but Spencer turned his lyrics towards apocalypses literal and metaphorical. Those albums felt and feel like world-enders, appropriate capstones to a wildly inventive discography, and to this day the finest work the ever-changing roster that was Underoath created.
Does all of the above make it more or less surprising that Erase Me
sounds the way it does? The jury's still out. It's not all that shocking that they considered Disambiguation
about as far as they could push the envelope in that direction. It's a little shocking that, according to his Music Feeds interview, Spencer Chamberlain was the main voice of pulling back towards radio rock hooks and simple structures in its place. Like many, I'd always thought the band's shift in direction was a direct result of Spencer becoming a songwriting voice, but in hindsight it just seems like Tim McTague letting loose writing for a vocalist with a better range. This would all be academic if the softer direction was a success, but by any conceivable measure it's not. "Rapture" and "Wake Me" are the two worst Underoath songs since Act of Depression
, both bubbling in the truly horrid stew of post-grunge, radio rock and electronics that Sleepwave, That's the Spirit
and that comeback Thrice album all shared. "I Gave Up" also withers in the face of past Underoath album closers, to put it generously, shooting towards emotional piano ballad and landing firmly in overwrought and formulaic instead. Lines like "take the keys to my car / and drive me far / far away" really don't help. Choruses are cheap and thin; Spencer's voice is pitchy and a touch out of key; Aaron's bridges and post-choruses feel perfunctory, tossed-off, like the band forgot how his effortless ability to carry a hook could have benefited an album like this.
If your blood is pumping double-time right now, let me ameliorate, because all the shit I just talked mostly applies to Erase Me
's opening stretch. The album kicks off around track five with "Bloodlust", an appropriate transition piece. One of the band's catchiest choruses, and verses with an echo of "Paper Lung" dance with a bridge that blows off the cobwebs by finally bringing the heaviness, or as much heaviness as Matt Squire's mosquito buzz guitar sound will allow. From there is an impressive stretch of music much closer to the album, we must imagine, the band envisioned from the jump. Spencer's pop sensibilities come good on the rocket-powered, heartfelt "ihateit", whilst the vicious "Sink With You" and "Hold Your Breath" nearly recapture the band's former lightning in a bottle energy. It's on clear standout "No Frame" that the album makes peace with the spectre of experimental Underoath lingering behind the curtains. A glitchy, mournful atmosphere marks it closest in sound to "Driftwood" or "Desolate Earth :: The End is Here", albeit with Spencer and Aaron harmonising for a genuinely unnerving refrain that bodes well for a possible future direction.
Unintentionally or otherwise, Spencer's Music Feeds interview divided the band's creatives into himself and Aaron, the pop songwriters, while Tim and Chris bring the heavy and experimental material. It's probably not that black-and-white in reality, but it's an easy narrative I think many will adopt in Erase Me
's wake, looking for ways to shift and pinpoint the blame on why the album is a relative disappointment. Admittedly, it's so easy to see the struggle for a compromise between the two echoed throughout Underoath's discography. Their very best songs would see the light and the dark clashing within the same structure, every member's different interpretation of what the band could be fighting for dominance in an exhilarating rush. The major difference on Erase Me
is that the two sides are in harmony, cleaned up and smoothed out and repackaged for a digestible listen. "Every record we've done has been a fight", Spencer said in that interview. He said it by way of comparison, to show how much more diplomatic and open the recording of Erase Me
had been, but it honestly just made me nostalgic for days gone by. Because I miss the fight.