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Thursday, Dec. 27, 2007

Cougar Den's All-Ages Screamo

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December 27, 2007

The thrill of a good punk song is that it's combustible and could ignite at any time. With screamo songs, however, there's never any doubt about when they'll ignite. They arrive pre-lit.

This can be a trap for some screamo acts, whose songs tip their hand immediately, then conclude without further surprises. The better screamo bands, however, pack their music with twists and turns, and seem to genuinely revel in the challenge of playing within the conventions of the genre.

The young Milwaukee group Cougar Den, for instance, distinguishes its songs with rich textures and subtle mood shifts. There's plenty of thrash and ample screaming, obviously, but sprightly guitar lines navigate the listener through the land mines, guiding them to the more tuneful passages. The dynamic guitar work also keeps listeners on their toes. A squirrelly, almost whimsical riff could slow down into something fuller and more pensive, or it could just as easily morph into something more dissonant. The songs give no advance warning.

Cougar Den's spry, nuanced take on screamo is a revelation made more surprising by how young the band is. Its three members founded the band two years ago, when they were just 16 and still in high school. They've long been active in the all-ages hardcore scene—drummer Kelsey Kaufmann has been booking shows since she was 14—and they've quickly become fixtures at house parties, basement shows and all-ages venues like the Shorewood Legion.

"There's something special about Milwaukee's scene," says guitarist Justin Schmidt. "There's just a lot more energy, a lot more heart in this scene. It's not just bands playing bars on the weekends; it's bands going out on tour, setting up shows and bringing other bands to town."

Cougar Den winds down 2007 with an all-ages house show on Dec. 30 (see their MySpace page, www.myspace.com/cougarden, for more details), and is preparing for a characteristically busy 2008. They plan to record a full-length follow-up to their 2006 debut EP, which was produced by Call Me Lightning's Shane Hochstetler in February, and release it in March on the Sioux Falls, S.D., label Init Records, just in time for a March tour.

"The next album will probably have a little more edge than our EP," Schmidt says. "We're getting more into writing harder things … it seems like we've all grown as musicians to become more technical."