[Image Courtesy of No Sleep Records]
No Sleep Records, 2013.
by Chad Jewett
Before you read too much further here, take another look at the title of State Faults’ newest album, Resonate/Desperate. That slash between the two words implies a relationship, like two figures in an equation; either one of opposites (hot/cold, good/evil, new/old), or one of synchronicity (six of one/half dozen of the other, win/win). Yet the ideas of Resonance and Desperation only modify, they don’t echo or clash. Indeed, “Resonate” is a verb, “Desperate” is an adjective; but the title wants us to read the latter like the former: an action to be taken, either with or against resonance. Even the poetic-license rhyme of the words “Resonate” and “Desperate” seem to ask us to perform Desperation like an action. Maybe this is a good way of thinking about the sharp, diamond-honed precision of this record, which feels almost absurdly complete in its exactness, in its absoluteness as a piece of loud, angular, expressive art. Emotionally-intelligent hardcore music has been around long enough that both resonance and desperation have to find ways to overcome a fairly exhaustive set of standards. Really, if you want to resonate, if you want to newly connect at all odds, good luck doing it with loud, fast music. Because that’s all it’s ever existed for; emotive punk music has become over-determined. The way to make it express, as opposed to simply exist, is to let it matter again. By 1974, everyone knew the deal with Phil Spector, and Bob Dylan, and Sam Cooke; you need Bruce Springsteen to remind you that all of that stuff had near-operatic consequence. You have to find new ways to make it resonate; you need to make it desperate, all over again.
For State Faults, this means an almost futurist crispness, a severe sharpness of angle and clean line. This honed linearity is actually surprisingly novel in this current state of contemporary emo music, which has spent a little too much time on a limited idea of its own past (an issue I mentioned with the similarly innovative and excellent new album from Foxing). “Meteor” begins how you wish every punk album would, with feedback and gallop-beats and a voice that pitches itself up instead settling for a safe middle. Hardcore still has some evolving to do, and that Jonny Andrews sinewy tenor washes away the macho and replaces it with the lithe and vulnerable constitutes progress. I’ve elsewhere compared Andrews’ screaming to Blood Brothers, and I think that’s important for what it at least tends to foreclose, which is an idea that this sound is all about brute strength. On “Meteor” all this loud extroversion seems to be a lot more about absolute expressionism – about a volcanic bloom. The same goes for penultimate track “Amalgamation.” On both tracks, Andrews’ voice softens the forcefulness of the track’s forward advance, especially when combined with the post-punk wash of mid-song guitar flourishes (which also show up in second track “Wildfires”); think of how T.S. Eliot likened spring, with its Arcadian blossoming, to psychic-emotional exhaustion. It’s beauty that’s expansive. “Ultima,” at least in the moments where it balances Andrews’ screams with glass guitars, makes the title literal: Resonating desperation. Somehow, even though I’m sure these songs will inspire the physical power-imbalances that are moshing and circle pits, I don’t think the music itself calls for that. I think it calls for contemplation, which only looks less kinetic, less energetic.
“Wildfires” closes out its early volume and acceleration, which is fun if not revelatory, with a pristine cool-down, literally re-defining a “breakdown” to something more like a “falling apart.” The pieces come way one at a time, and you picture something like the dropping-off of leaves. Andrews shapes his screams into hooks, as much about rhythm as they are about repeatability (another Blood Brothers strategy) and production florets of sonar bleeps and beds of harmonies beneath screams of “misery” show a band thrillingly confident in its balance of the studio and the physicality of performance. I’m reminded of albums like Stay What You Are – records that found a happy medium between subtle additions of Hammond organ and the like, and concentration on perfecting the version of these songs you would see when they came to your home town. This also means a band who is supremely confident about the batch of songs they’re committing to tape, as State Faults very much seems to be. I still look forward to a hardcore record that uses the studio as an instrument the way that Refused did, but the number of dudes who claim they prefer Songs To Fan The Flames of Discontent over The Shape of Punk to Come might be all the explanation I need as to why more bands don’t throw out the rule book.
But at least State Faults is willing to entertain similar ideas of punk’s potential flexibility. “Spectral” shows off some Berlin-era Bowie moodiness before it returns to starker volumes, but rather than immediately jumping ship to land at the same old forcefulness, State Faults rides this groove for an admirable two minutes. The balance has been entirely re-situated, with the aggressive serving the expansive for a change. Elsewhere, it’s only Jonny Andrews’ voice that makes “Diamond Dust” all that different from an indie-pop song. Not indie-rock; indie pop. The verse’s guitars, courtesy of a routinely-excellent Michael Weldon, curl in ascent and descent, metabolizing the mid-2000’s indie obsession with Afro-pop sounds in a way that I’m sure no one could see coming (seriously, if you played the pre-chorus leads to more of a lilt, you’ve got Graceland material), and even when the louder chorus comes around, the guitars limn themselves not in brute chords but spry upper-registers. This is bright, playful music that provides framing contrast for Andrews’ powerful, powerful voice in a way that heavier treading can’t. “Disintegration” maintains the theme, with screams set over jangle and spaciousness, committing to a pairing of beautiful desolation rather than using it for cheap volume-punch contrast. “Luminaria” also has a much better ear for rhythm than 90% of what we’d call State Faults’ contemporaries, especially salient in Andrews’ album-wide ability to package phrases in such a way that their very meter makes them hooks. It’s a hip-hop approach to language really, and if State Faults often asks us to look a little closer for innovation and polycultural influence, at least the results surprise. The album closes not with barn-burning shows of force, but with spectral harmonies above an almost samba-like beat (drummer Jared Wallace and bassist Chip Kelley deserve a lot of credit for finding every opportunity to make hardcore groove — no easy feat), leading into post-rock spaciousness and a lone, sentimental piano, echoing its last note as if in coy self-awareness of that fact that the album ends up “resonating” in a way neither you nor I expected.
This is still an emotional hardcore record. It’s economical, and often sanded-down at the edges, and under 40 minutes, and gets most of its charge out of loudness. When it isn’t innovating in a way that lets go of hardcore’s strictures, the album thrills with its ability to feel so damn essential. Because, at the end of the day, you won’t find a better progressively-emotive punk record this year — both because it has such a craftsman’s handle on its sound, but also because Resonate/Desperate showcases an innovator’s knack for knowing how to re-shape and re-contextualize. In its finest moments, State Faults’ newest album abandons distinctions and forsakes genre for the utter sake of humanism, played for sheer volume.