REVIEW: Frontier(s) – White Lights EP
by Chad Jewett
Contemporary emo, for all its virtues of texture, form, and effervescent youth, has been an almost entirely modest, life-sized renaissance. For every spacious, broadly cinematic band like Annabel or The World Is A Beautiful Place, there are many more like Two Knights or Football Etc. or You Blew It! – groups whose records arrived like used paperbacks, charmingly dog-eared and made to fit the smaller pockets in your knapsack. Most of modern emo’s excesses are those of humanism – the average release from Tiny Engines or Count Your Lucky Stars is more likely to whirl in lovely frustration (the sort a listener is most likely to recognize) than blossom into transcendence. Two Knights’ most recent album, Shut Up, reached startling heights of confessional gorgeousness, but Parker Lawson also saw great peaks as things to “climb” and “jump.” There is Romanticism in today’s emotive punk rock, but it’s studiously earth-bound.
All of which makes the arrival of White Lights, the new EP from Louisville post-hardcore quartet Frontier(s) that much more salient, since, at its core, the five-song record seems to be doing its level best at turning difficult feelings into soaring overtures. The EP is almost constantly in the process of boiling, churning, wringing out its own humidity with rhythms that cycle and re-cycle and re-re-cycle while earnestly climbing. Guitars frequently arrive shaped like stripped wires for spare verses that suddenly expand into rich, magisterial choruses. Singer Chris Higdon, who once fronted second-wave emo greats Elliott, has maintained the scope and poignant drama of that band, a group that ended up best capturing the American existentialism of Sunny Day Real Estate that served as the lunar eclipse to the pop road-map curios of The Promise Ring and Braid. If Nothing Feels Good was full of small-town Americana and afternoon reveries, then Elliott’s 1998 US Songs filmed those expanses under moonlight.
Like Elliott, Frontier(s) are intangibly nocturnal. Songs like “33/3” and “The Low High” are under enough knotted pressure as to seem positively noir-ish. As with fellow Louisville natives Slint and June of 44 (and mid-Atlantic prototypes Hoover and Lungfish), Frontier(s) treat guitars like line-drawings, endlessly choosy over individual notes and looming waves. A title like “white lights” could describe the band’s crafted approach to negative space, the ways in which the EP is as much about proportion and dynamics as it is about narrative or melody. Frontier(s) are endlessly selective and crafty regarding what they decide to illuminate. As with similarly angular bands like Jawbox and Rival Schools, there’s a tart relief in each chorus, if only because it feels like a breath of air in a cloistered room. Guitars and drums don’t clutter the aural field of White Lights — they constrict it.
“Higher Hills” is the only song on the EP that spends any real time in a major key, its loud/quiet see-sawing built to the cool economics of Foo Fighters. Like the recent self-titled return from generational and aesthetic peers Fairweather, Frontier(s) are grasping at something kinetic and fraught — their memory of emo extends to the nervy anxiety and sudden epiphanies of an early 90s mid-Atlantic. Even the brightest moments of White Lights are painted from the perspective of long hallways full of triangle shadows. The record is pure expressionism — Higdon’s pop abilities have been translated into narratives of whittled desperation. The EP begins: “This is the last chance we’ll ever know.” Those are more or less the stakes with which White Lights seems to want to deal. It’s modern emo that strikes one as obsessed with seizing the day.