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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Underoath's Innovative Metalcore

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The problem with success is that people want to repeat it. Too often bands focus more on the end than the process. And in attempting to replicate a triumph, they lose track of the creativity that first made the music interesting.

That's how most metalcore slipped into rote predictability, and the Florida sextet Underoath could easily have fallen into that trap after their breakthrough 2004 release, They're Only Chasing Safety. The album's big choruses and polished production counterbalanced or even outweighed the thundering bottom end, screeching vocals and feral guitar, making it an unexpected sensation, but that record's increased pop tone and crisp sheen wasn't a recipe the band wanted to follow. In the years after its release, several members have expressed surprising disdain for that album.

“When we finished the record we were all perfectly happy with it—the discontent kind of came after,” guitarist Tim McTague explains from a New Jersey tour stop. The new outlook, he says, was the result of growing older and getting “more experimental with our musical taste, and wanting to write less conventional stuff.”

A key element in their evolution was the addition of vocalist Spencer Chamberlain, who replaced former frontman Dallas Taylor during the writing of Chasing Safety. Chamberlain, as a new member brought in after the album was already half-written, didn't want to make waves. Consequently his impact wasn't truly felt until 2006's follow-up, Define the Great Line.

That album mothballed the most overtly catchy aspects in favor of a less sledgehammer brand of pretty/loud tension. Ambient moments abutted the bruising throttle while avoiding the typical “soaring vocal then thunderous breakdown” template. The band focused on greater finesse, showcasing subtler textures and pace than metalcore's typical dynamic sine wave. Leading the charge were Chamberlain's versatile vocals, equally capable of clean and dirty parts.

“Even on They're Only Chasing Safety he did stuff we didn't think was going to be possible on those songs with Dallas,” McTague says. “So he kind of stepped in and stepped up the bar immediately. But then on Define the Great Line he really shined, and has continued to on every record.”

The difference in sound wasn't as pronounced for 2008's Lost in the Sound of Separation, as the group consolidated the advances of their last great leap. However, another change was coming. In April 2010 drummer/vocalist Aaron Gillespie announced his departure. While the move wasn't surprising, the timing (mid-tour with writing for the new album nearly finished) was. They replaced him with Daniel Davison (of the band Norma Jean) and found themselves stronger for it.

“He was definitely unhappy and not feeling anything we were doing, really for a long time,” says McTague, alluding to Gillespie's preference for poppier sounds. “It was cool to not have that creative resistance of someone wanting something regardless of whether the song's going to benefit from it or not. Suddenly we could do whatever we wanted. It was like, 'Let's kind of revisit anything and everything,' including a lot of long-overdue ideas and tangents.”

The result was Ø (Disambiguation), a darker, dirtier, looser and more expansive album than anything Underoath had previously attempted. It ranges from the dense, Converge-like throb of opener “In Division” to “Driftwood,” a spacey, quieter, electronics-addled track more suggestive of Radiohead than Glassjaw. Bookended by louder tracks, “Driftwood” makes them seem that much more intense by comparison.

“'Driftwood' is one of my favorite songs on the record,” McTague says. “I would love that to be a bigger dynamic in the future. I think that song is a breath of fresh air of where we're going and where we've been.”

While continual change and progression is important to Underoath, change for change's sake is as big a trap as maintaining the status quo. It's a matter of balancing these impulses while remaining true to the intent behind the music and what the songs call for.

“It's not how the music sounds, but what's the honest intention behind it,” McTague says. “You can write the weirdest, most eccentric record, but if you're just trying to be eccentric, that shows through. We always want to push ourselves but also balance pushing ourselves with letting the song be the song and not having it suffer for the sake of pushing yourself.”

Underoath headlines a 7:30 p.m. show at the Rave on Wednesday, July 27, with Times of Grace, Stray from the Path and Letlive.
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