In Vinyl Retentive, A.V. Clubbers share what we find while crate-digging in our own houses.
To Bury Within The Sound
Lovitt Records, 2000
File Under: Emo's last gasp
Welcome to a special, run-off-at-the-mouth edition of The A.V. Club's fledgling Vinyl Retentive series. In the past few weeks, my colleagues Kyle Ryan, Scott Gordon, and I have dug deep (read: closed our eyes and randomly grabbed) in our personal vinyl collections to examine an overlooked Green Day side-project, a legendary filmmaker's early standup record, an anachronistic punk masterpiece, and a hard-edged oddity from a '60s bubblegum act.
But today, my friends, we're gonna roll up our sleeves and shovel some emo.
A band called Engine Down. An album called To Bury Within The Sound. An opening track called "Retread." Self-deprecating much? It's always been easy for haters of emo to paint the music, its makers, and its fans in broad strokes of whiney wimpiness and sad-sack self-absorption. Unfortunately, emo itself made that kind of stereotyping pretty easy. But, as with any widely polarizing genre of music like jam or reggae, it's never that simple. Anyone can jump on Wikipedia and learn about emo's origins: Rites Of Spring, one of the bands that birthed Fugazi, is often cited as the movement's unwitting daddy. Why exactly? Uh, maybe because they were the first punk band with the word "crying" in their lyrics. After all, there were lots more hardcore-spawned groups in the mid-'80s–from Hüsker Dü to 7 Seconds to Slint forebear Squirrel Bait–that experimented with the same dynamic tempos, confessional lyrics, and earnest, epic melodicism. I honestly think it had something to do with the straightedge movement that immediately preceded Rites Of Spring in the band's hometown of Washington, D.C.; always regarded as a united front–almost a Masonic cabal–to the rest of the punk world, the D.C. scene became an insular social model that emo would idolize and adopt throughout the '90s.
It also helped that Fugazi, like Black Flag before them, toured and networked like crazy upon forming in 1987–and that the label Fugazi and Rites Of Spring shared, Dischord Records, kept most of its releases in print and widely advertised in most major punk zines like Maximum Rocknroll and Flipside. Before the age of eBay and downloading, this was a big deal; most hardcore records back then took quite a lot of effort to track down, so it makes sense that the most visible and accessible indie label would be one of hardcore's most influential by the dawn of the '90s.
Many histories of emo skip straight from Fugazi to Sunny Day Real Estate's shot-heard-round-the-world debut, 1994's Diary. But that's missing some important stuff: Besides all the noisy, abrasive bands that popped up in San Diego in the early '90s–mini-Fugazis, if you will, only way more aggro and spastic–Fugazi had a true contemporary in the city: the algebraic yet ballsy Drive Like Jehu. Just as influential, though, was Los Angeles' Sense Field. Signed to the noted hardcore imprint Revelation, Sense Field beat Sunny Day Real Estate to the Fugazi-meets-Smashing Pumpkins punch by, oh, three years. An arty, weird little band from the Chicago suburbs with the willfully dumb name Cap'n Jazz started releasing hard-to-find 7-inch singles in 1993, followed by an equally obscure album in 1994 that was the Holy Grail for hosts of emo kids before being reissued as Analphabetapolothology in 1998. In the meantime, Slint's ominous post-rock had influenced emo via bands like Dischord's brooding Hoover, even as the pop-oriented Texas Is The Reason made the typically rickety, shaky emo aesthetic suddenly sound accomplished and arena-friendly.
I could go on all day, but I'll spare you; in a nutshell, elements of emo combined, split, and recombined in dozens of mutant configurations throughout the '90s. By the end of the decade, emo–seriously, you can take this to the bank–was one of the last standing infrastructures of punk spirit and practice, as much as they ever truly existed in the first place. DIY venues, labels, and zines formed a self-sufficient network that had zero to do with anything other than emo. Certain indie-rock acts like Archers Of Loaf and Elliott Smith were definitely accepted and loved in the emo world, but for the most part, a kind of purism–even an elitism–had settled into the scene. Emo kids were proud and protective of what they'd built and maintained, especially in the face of punk's continuing exodus to the mainstream.
Major labels had already tried and failed miserably to turn the pop-punk fringe of emo–namely Jawbreaker, Seaweed, and Samiam–into moneymakers. If a toweringly catchy band like Jawbreaker couldn't thrive in the fertile alt-rock soil of the '90s, how in the hell could a far quirkier, less rock-oriented band like The Promise Ring ever hope to survive such a transplant? (To The Promise Ring's credit, they never took that particular bait.) Even Jimmy Eat World's first major-label albums, 1996's Static Prevails and 1999's Clarity, totally tanked at first. By 2000, though, Clarity had, against all odds, become a phenomenon; as with punk and grunge, the underground had bubbled to the surface, and the kids of America were ready for this "new" emo they'd been hearing whispers about–even if they didn't realize that emo originated before many of them were even born. Unlike punk, emo hadn't been widely catalogued, chronicled, and critiqued by the music press. And before the Internet became integral to most music fans' everyday lives, emo was a kind of Catch-22: It wasn't easy to find out about unless you became part of it, and it wasn't easy to become part of unless you knew what it was about. In 2000, though, all that was changing. Fast.
Which (finally, sorry!) brings us to Engine Down. It's a full circle, really: Based in Richmond, Virginia, mere miles from emo's widely accepted D.C. birthplace, the band had released a 1999 debut, Under The Pretense Of Present Tense, that had Cap'n Jazz's nerdy, alliterative wordplay built right into its title. The music, though, was classic D.C.–even if Dischord itself had already moved on, with the funky The Make-Up ready to call it a day and the upstart Q And Not U poised to push emo into the dance-punky new millennium. At this point it's probably a good idea to drag the term "post-hardcore" into the discussion. Engine Down surely hated to be called emo; from Rites Of Spring on, all emo bands hated to be called emo. After all, it is a pretty retarded word. Post-hardcore more or less served as an aesthetically correct euphemism for emo, although it eventually took on a harder, darker, less melodic connotation. And, of course, "hardcore," post- or otherwise, sounds just a wee bit tougher. But emo is as emo does–and Engine Down was pretty much the epitome of emo circa Y2K, just as the genre was morphing into something else entirely. Remember, dudes, denial is the first sign.
That said, Engine Down's second album, 2000's To Bury Within The Sound–produced by J. Robbins of former Dischord powerhouse Jawbox–is about as good as emo gets. It doesn't quite measure up to Hoover or Sunny Day, but it sits almost exactly between the two: Combining the former's gnarled rhythms and bruised riffs with the latter's pinched-larynx sensitivity, it's second only to Cursive's first major work, Domestica, when it comes to emo releases from that year. To Bury's opening track, "Retread," pretty much says it all; over a tense yet languid buildup propelled by cello and an almost Beatlesesque progression, the song leaps into a 5/4 rhythm that writhes and shudders like an impaled animal. Technique aside, it's a gorgeous, haunting song that embodies what the greatest emo bands all the way back to Rites Of Spring do: sadness and anger. Not just sadness. Granted, it's a simple friction–but when it's done right, that play of emotional extremes can be stunning, and even subversive. Throughout To Bury Within The Sound, singer-guitarist Keeley Davis submerges images of loss, betrayal, panic, and regret in a desperate yet perversely confident expression of power over them. Counter to the popular perception of emo, Davis isn't wallowing in his emotions–he's naming them, distilling them, and bending them to his will. If that's emo, well, so was John Lennon.
Of course, the meaning of emo has changed significantly in the eight years since To Bury Within The Sound. But that's okay. People, scenes, and even words move on, and everyone hated the name "emo" in the first place. It would be some small cosmic vindication, though, if the world at large gained a better understanding of what emo once was–even if it means they wind up hating it even more. Former Punk Planet writer Eric Grubbs has a book in the works titled Post: A Look At The Influence Of Post-Hardcore 1985-2007 that looks promising, although it understandably will focus more on the heavy-hitters of the genre. Engine Down wasn't a major player in the scene, and the group suffered from being stuck in a wildly transitional era for emo that left most of the old guard in the dust. But that doesn't make To Bury any less powerful. Rather, the album is one of those very rare creatures: an enduring and even kinda timeless emo masterpiece.
Current whereabouts: Engine Down released two decent albums following To Bury Within The Sound before breaking up in 2005. For a band that was relatively overlooked during its existence, its members have gone on to big things: Davis now plays guitar in the ex-At The Drive-In outfit Sparta, and drummer Cornbread Compton joined Cursive last year. Davis and fellow Engine Down guitarist Jonathan Fuller also played with Davis' sister Maura in the short-lived, very promising Denali, and the siblings have since reunited in a new project (with Compton) called Glös. Gotta keep it in the family.
Album availability: Out of print on vinyl–and the LP isn't quite collectible enough yet to pop up often on eBay. To Bury Within The Sound is readily available, though, via download and on CD. In fact, I bet Lovitt Records has a box or two in the back room somewhere they'd be happy to sell you at a discount.
Key track: "Retread"