‘Emo Revival’ & how ‘Indie Rock’ was already ‘Emo’ (or vice versa)
by Andrew Sacher
Title Fight at Europa in 2012 (more by Rebecca Reed)
“Emo is a style of rock music characterized by melodic musicianship and expressive, often confessional lyrics. It originated in the mid-1980s hardcore punk movement of Washington, D.C., where it was known as “emotional hardcore” or “emocore” and pioneered by bands such as Rites of Spring and Embrace.” [Wikipedia]
If you’ve been closely following along with the blogosphere lately, you’ve probably noticed talk, especially amongst the indie rock community, about an “emo revival.” Some sites, like Stereogum and Buzzfeed, have directly written about the “revival,” whereas others like Pitchfork — a site which has previously derided even the most classic albums of the genre — didn’t explicitly call it a revival, but offered a valuable spotlight on the modern emo scene. NPR weighed in, asking, “Is Emo Back?,” but still some, like Noisey, claim, “There’s no emo revival, you just stopped paying attention.” A writer at NYU Local agrees. Meanwhile, bloggers and local papers, like OC Weekly and Baltimore Sun, are running with this.
All of this attention is only doing the genre a service. As Chad Jewett points out on Half Cloth, “How did you find out about Diary, person born in 1988? Because you would have to have been preternaturally cool to have picked up on it in 1994 when it came out.” In other words, maybe in 19 years someone will hear Is Survived By, and they’ll thank their lucky stars for all these listicles and thinkpieces that pointed out that record and so many other great records. But does the increased attention for these bands (many of which have been around for years) in indie rock circles warrant calling it a revival? Maybe it’s that people are realizing these “emo revival” bands have a lot more in common with indie rock bands than a lot of people thought.
For one reason or another (perhaps because kids who grew up on Drive-Thru Records comps are forming bands now), emo has been sneaking its way more and more into accepted indie rock. Nobody was screaming “emo revival” when Japandroids went from a well-liked indie rock band to one of the genre’s most beloved with 2012’s Celebration Rock, a record full of heart-wrenching lyrics, youthful spirit, and fast, catchy power chords — all common descriptors of emo. (Not to mention it was released by Polyvinyl Records, home to such emo classics as Frame and Canvas, American Football, Look Now Look Again, and more.) Likewise, no one said it when Cloud Nothings‘ 2012 LP Attack On Memory got tons of love from indie rock critics upon its release and went on to appear in multiple year-end lists, including Pitchfork, Stereogum, Spin, and more. It’s an indie record, but one with a heavy resemblance to early Sunny Day Real Estate and similarly emo lyrical themes (“I miss you ’cause I like damage / I need something I can hurt”).
Japandroids at Bonnaroo 2013 (more by Dana (distortion) Yavin)
These records had all too much common with the great emo releases of that year, including Title Fight‘s Floral Green and Joyce Manor‘s Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired. Both of those albums embraced raw production, honest, innovative music, and were not geared towards a radio-pop fanbase, but yet were largely ignored in indie rock circles. It’s essentially what indie rock is, and a far cry from what pop bands tagged as emo like Panic at the Disco, Hawthorne Heights, and Senses Fail were doing. Those pop-emo bands, and countless others, dominated rock radio, MTV, and a major part of the conversation on emo during the mid-2000s, scaring away many indie rock fans and critics from the genre all together. The two weren’t always enemies. Emo kids and indie rock kids both hold equal claim to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Cursive, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, and others. Perhaps part of the split was because it was somehow cooler to look like this than like this.
Title Fight, who didn’t appear on Pitchfork until the-year-of-the-revival despite notable album releases in 2011 & 2012, cited many of the same influences as modern indie rock bands for Floral Green, including Sebadoh, Hum, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth. And Joyce Manor did the same, namedropping Guided by Voices and Weezer’s Pinkerton in interviews. It makes sense that fans who latched on to Japandroids/Cloud Nothings would gravitate towards Title Fight/Joyce Manor. So what makes them so different? Ian Cohen says in his 2013 Pitchfork review of the new Title Fight EP, “You’re more likely to hear electro-pop or major-label bands such as Chvrches or Haim called “indie” more often than Title Fight. How is that? Is it because most of time, genre tags are used to described the perceived fanbase than the music itself?”
The question Ian poses in that review seems to be a huge factor in the need some have to cite an “emo revival.” If Japandroids and Cloud Nothings are your kind of indie rock, or punkier indie-approved bands like Titus Andronicus and Fucked Up, or classic bands like Dinosaur Jr, Built To Spill, Superchunk, and Archers of Loaf, chances are you’re going to (or already do) find a lot to like in Title Fight, Joyce Manor, Pity Sex (essentially a shoegaze band), Cloakroom (sludgy slowcore), Placeholder (fuzz rock/’90s-style indie/etc), and many more. And as certain people, like Jaded Punk Dan Ozzi in his Noisey article pointed out, these bands didn’t come out of nowhere. This comparatively underground scene of emo has been co-existing with the mall-emo scene for years, and perhaps it’s getting called a “revival” because of the sudden interest for it from a fanbase who, for the most part, previously ignored anything associated with that three-letter word.
I do think, to some extent, that at one point the “emo revival” tag meant something. Now-defunct bands like Algernon Cadwallader (who have a new band, Dogs On Acid, in the works and whose guitarist Joe Reinhart is now a sometimes-member of Hop Along) and Snowing/Street Smart Cyclist (whose singer John Galm now fronts the excellent garage punk band Slow Warm Death) revived a very specific type of emo in the late 2000s — the math rock-influenced kind done (perhaps most notably) in the mid-’90s by Cap’n Jazz. That sound, which some people bafflingly call “twinklecore,” can be heard in late-2000s bands Castevet, Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate), 1994!, and bands who rose more recently, including The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Dads, and Prawn. But that’s only a small sect of the genre as a whole. I recently said that Brand New‘s 2006 LP The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me is my favorite emo album since Diary, and Devil and God only came out two years before Algernon’s first, 1994!’s first, and La Dispute‘s first. Thursday‘s final record, No Devolucion, came out in 2011 and in my opinion it’s one of their best. The genre had a rough period as it entered the mainstream (but so did so many other genres) but it never vanished.
Touche Amore at Riot Fest 2013 (more by Kirstie Shanley)
Why is it all happening now though? Perhaps with “indie rock’s tuneful death rattle” and “the decline of guitar rock” in effect, with artists like Haim, Chvrches, Icona Pop, The 1975, and Lorde currently dominating the indie rock discussion, there are still people yearning for raw, scrappy guitar rock with DIY ethics and an alternative mindset. And a lot of us are finding that those cravings are satisfied by this large, thriving group of “emo” bands. In his “indie rock death rattle” piece on Grantland, Steven Hyden welcomed indie turning pop as a natural progression, but did point out some may be seeking something less pleasant, which he finds in Touche Amore‘s latest LP, Is Survived By.
Touche’s record, another getting extra attention now thanks to the “revival,” is one of the finest releases of this year, and embodies so many of the key factors of “underground rock.” Its aggression is raw and unpolished, but it’s melodically and dynamically exploring new ground for rock music. Lyrically, the themes won’t be unfamiliar to indie rockers, exploring existential uncertainties (“To swallow mortality is enough of a task / And leaving your mark is just too much to ask”) that aren’t too different from a band like Titus Andronicus (“Okay, I think by now we’ve established everything is inherently worthless / And there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose”). They also happen to be musically and communally connected to post-hardcore bands like Converge and Thursday who have influenced forward-thinking underground rock bands, just as Pavement and the Pixies have.
At The Drive-In at Coachella 2012 (more by Dana (distortion) Yavin)
It’s not only newer bands though. Many now broken-up bands have been reuniting, and getting welcomed back very warmly. It’s no surprise that the much-loved At the Drive-In caused excitement when they reunited, but in case there was any doubt how large that excitement would be in indie circles: They got huge spots on major indie rock festivals like Lollapalooza and Coachella, and the reunion also got notable coverage on many indie sites, including Pitchfork, who weren’t too kind to their classic Relationship of Command LP upon its release but scored it significantly higher upon its April 2013 reissue.
The fact that the idea of “indie rock” is so vague and encompasses so many things, many of which are not “indie” or “rock,” is a great thing, but there are still kids who can’t settle for Chvrches when a past generation got Fugazi. And luckily those kids won’t have to worry. In addition to many of the bands mentioned above, there’s Speedy Ortiz, Waxahatchee, Swearin’, A Great Big Pile of Leaves, Courtesy Drop, Little Big League, Frameworks, Calculator, Iron Chic, Big Eyes, Single Mothers, Sundials, Aye Nako, Worriers, Caravels, Pianos Become the Teeth and so many more that all satisfy a similar craving, whether or not you call them “emo,” “indie,” or a “revival.”
Touche Amore – “Just Exist”
Title FIght – “Be A Toy”
Joyce Manor – “Violent Inside”
Japandroids – “The House That Heaven Built”
Cloud Nothings – “Fall In”
Cloakroom – “Bending”
Pity Sex – “Wind-Up”
Placeholder – “Caught the Crown”