March 08, 2011 - Bridge Nine
Hardcore punk might be the least accommodating subgenre for ongoing storylines. Bands of this style rarely last beyond a first LP, if they even make it that far. Setting up a thematic arc that digs further than a first recording session or two? Forget about it. Perhaps that's why Defeater went all-in on their first proper release, 2008's Travels. It told an all-encompassing narrative that detailed the journey of a teenager who returns from World War II psychologically damaged by warfare and tearing apart his family in the process. The truncated followup, 2009's Lost Ground EP, offered a flashback in the timeline. So while one might surmise that the band might be running out of angles to tell the story further, Empty Days & Sleepless Nights proves that there's just enough leverage in the tale to provide a thrilling musical and lyrical novel, resulting in the band's most forceful and compelling effort yet.
The first 10 tracks, Empty Days is Defeater at their best: chilling, relentless, desperate and cathartic through and through. While the band have always seemed to hearken to the epic thrust of Modern Life Is War and Verse ca. Aggression, they're staking out more of their own territory. A stunning, gripping urgency has emerged, and yet there's a rhythmic liveliness and dynamically varied guitarwork that drives this album—a dark, melodic sound somewhere between later Pg. 99 and a double-time Thursday. Whether it be the restrained, octave-driven verses of the anthemic "Dear Father" and "Empty Glass," the verge-of-collapse, pounding panic of "White Knuckles" or the surprising major-key contrast in "Cemetery Walls," it's just stunning.
Sure, these scenes, set up track-by-track, are merely going further in-depth than the story has before, but it's amazing how passionate frontman Derek Archambault—despite his relatively stagnant vocal delivery—plays the role of the story's central character this time around. Speaking through a nameless boy of an era usually romanticized in punk rock (see: the Gaslight Anthem, Social Distortion), he conveys the emotional wreckage of familial catastrophe in poetic though plain terms. Some might find it melodramatic, but Empty Days is driven with such an uncompromisingly fierce yet musically intelligent pacing that it all works immensely well.
The album wraps with Sleepless Nights, four tracks departing the hardcore mode completely. These are straight-up, earthy folk tracks, and admittedly, they take some warming up to. Not because hardcore fans are presumably one-dimensional, bone-headed music fans, but because these are quite a change from the band's acoustic song on Travels, which garnered fan acclaim for its stripped-down, aggressive approach. More in the key of Rocky Votolato, Sleepless Nights is lush and delivered with much greater moderation. However, multiple listens reveal them to be well-done, hook-laden turns. They might dull the intensity capped by Empty Days closer "White Oak Doors" and its broiling, abruptly clipped finish, but they offer an easier, singer/songwriter-oriented expression that's performed sprightly.
The continuing story behind Empty Days & Sleepless Nights may be getting saddled with some redundancies, but the band are executing it with such finesse and conviction that it feels permissible. Defeater can revisit and overanalyze their creation as much as needed if they can play more angles this well. Hardcore can accommodate that.