Jeremy Bolm turns a vinyl disc over in his hands, holding its splattered colors up to the light, before pulling out an accompanying zine from its sleeve. Behind him are racks upon racks of records, the result of years upon years of collecting. This one, though, is special. Framed in a Zoom window, the Touché Amoré vocalist reflects on the work that’s gone into Balladeers, Redefined, a monster screamo comp he has spent countless hours curating for his label Secret Voice. “I'm fucking excited, man,” he says. He obviously means it, and that excitement has been earned.
Assembling the collection has been an act of love that pitted one of heavy music’s most prominent nerds against spiraling, transcontinental practicalities. Having set out to collect together a few prime examples of a stubbornly out-of-the-way subculture, he ended up with 31 bands who were scattered across the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Europe.
Every time he thought he’d clamped the lit shut, another recommendation would come his way, a word-of-mouth roadmap eventually spreading out before him. “It started with a handful of bands,” he says. “And then, sure enough, everybody's like, ‘Well, dude, have you talked to this band? What about this band?’”
“I started getting sent songs, thinking they were all gonna be 90 seconds long, and every band started sending four-minute songs. I was about to have a real uncomfortable conversation with Deathwish, the label that makes Secret Voice possible. It was about to be, ‘This might have to be a triple LP.’ Thankfully, it ended up working on two. I have a hard time accepting when I have enough of a thing.”
The tracklisting brings together pioneers such as Jeromes Dream, plus members of Majority Rule, in Nø Man, and Pg.99, in Terminal Bliss, alongside newer proponents such as Record Setter, Infant Island, Thirdface, and Touché Amoré’s European tourmates Boneflower, betraying Bolm’s understanding of the significance that comps such as this one can attain as a shop window.
Once momentum began to pick up, he leaned into creating something that was as definitive as possible. Would he like Balladeers, Redefined to become the Flex Your Head — a canonical 1982 sampler covering the early thrashings of D.C. hardcore — of modern screamo? Duh, of course he would. “That would just be the coolest thing in the entire world,” he says.
“I hope that there are still those record nerd kids that are listening to each song and then wanting to do the homework. A big motivator was putting myself in 16-year-old me's shoes, sitting on my floor cross-legged reading the information, and wanting to know more. With the internet being so easily accessible for finding out information on all these bands, I really hope that people take advantage of that and that it does further grow their fanbases.”
Coming so soon after COVID-19 drove a train through many local scenes, Balladeers, Redefined could be an ideal, timely staging post if Bolm’s intentions are mirrored by listeners. Infant Island’s guitarist-vocalist Alexander Rudenshiold paints a picture of a movement recovering its feet following a body blow. “I think that there was a big screamo boom right before the pandemic that was cut short by it, or at least delayed,” he says.
“An effect of that has been the dilution of what screamo means in a lot of ways. Many bands, including us, have attempted to redefine ourselves outside of the genre to appeal to more people who might actually like what we’re up to if they could get past the label, which is still discursively aligned with the value judgment of ‘bad’ in many people’s minds. This has had an unintended consequence of leaving the movement that had been brewing, in conjunction with the show situation, a little rudderless.”
As a style, screamo lends itself to rigorous, anorak-style interrogation, and getting these bands in front of the right people could spark a domino effect. As Rudenshiold says, the music has long been a handy punchline for folks who prefer their favorites to be cool, dead-eyed killers, but if you can catch its overwrought, emotionally violent drift, screamo will never leave you. He recalls, for example, urgently scouring the internet for scraps by bands no one else gave a shit about. “I remember sitting around the kitchen table watching live sets of old bands with no views on them,” he says.
Coming out of Fredericksburg, Virginia, their song “Aurora” closes Balladeers, Redefined in gut-wrenching style, pushing the boundaries all the way past grindcore toward black metal. They draw a straight line from its chaotic heart back to their hometown’s Magic Bullet Records, which often traded in out and out mayhem such as the Pg.99/Majority Rule split LP Document 12.
“The genre was already in the environment of our small town. It wasn’t just some maligned thing from the internet,” Rudenshiold says. “We’ve all gravitated towards extreme music of different varieties, and screamo is probably one of the most extreme subgenres of punk, whether or not people want to admit it, both vocally and emotionally. Even in terms of the dedication it used to take to dig some of this stuff up.”
For Jeromes Dream, who ended a two-decade hiatus with LP three years ago before following it with the incredible The Gray In Between in May, Balladeers, Redefined is a way of reconnecting with that vital, youthful dedication to finding something that chimes with you on a deep level. “The sentiment reminds me of the old days when you discovered everything through split seven-inches, or digging through a milk crate of records at a show,” drummer Erik Ratensperger says.
“It’s that excitement behind discovering something that hits you in a visceral way, the way the physical packaging influences how you receive the work,” he continues. “I think a comp like this successfully offers not only a similar function, in that a listener can discover so many bands that are harnessing this type of music, but it also successfully documents a very special time for the genre itself. It’s really impressive and admirable how Jeremy took the time to make this happen.”
Bolm views Jeromes Dream, who formed in Connecticut in the late-1990s, as one of screamo’s Big Four, alongside Saetia, Pg.99, and Orchid (or maybe Neil Perry or You and I, it’s hard for him to narrow it down). The fact that their inclusion is not a sop to a legacy act is particularly pleasing to him. Their cut, “Reminders to Parallel,” is a febrile coming together of scratchy noise and melodic release that stands as one of the comp’s best. “I often say that the coolest thing about this entire world that we're a part of is that if you try just hard enough, you can play with your favorite bands,” Bolm observes.
“Through that same thought process, it's pretty easy to befriend people who have changed your life in one way or another. I got to put out the Saetia discography record, which is one of the biggest honors of my life, and then I got the Jeromes Dream song. I think that, with the people who played this music 20-plus years ago, they can't escape it. It's still going to be in your life.”
This is as true for Bolm as it is for any of the bands assembled here. In his work with Touché Amoré, he has always maintained a direct channel into the combination of gut-wrenching feeling and melody that the best screamo bands have always prized, transfusing it into a hardcore space. “Ross Robinson did our last record [2020’s Lament], and I had the realization when talking to him that what made me a Korn fan when I was a child was the vulnerability in it,” he observes.
“That has always been the homing beacon for what I attached myself to. There are a billion bands that I love that are just good for a mosh part. But the stuff that has changed my life is always the stuff that is deeply vulnerable and honest. I think screamo is just an onslaught of that in the best way possible.”