From Sunny Day to Brand New: A Brief History of Emo Bands Making Art Rock
As far back as Brand New‘s 2003 sophomore album Deja Entendu, the band started showing ambition to look beyond the emo/post-hardcore scene that birthed them. The pop punk choruses of “Sic Transit Gloria…Glory Fades” and “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” made that album famous, but the post-rocky intro song “Tautou” and the more sophisticated second half of the album hinted at a much different version of Brand New to come. Three years later, Deja‘s 2006 followup The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me came out and it was — and remains — an art rock masterpiece. It keeps all the catharsis and heart-on-sleeve lyricism of Brand New’s early material intact while exploring noise, atmosphere, atypical song structure, and other aspects of experimental rock music.
Brand New weren’t the only band in their scene doing it. Around 2005-2007 is when emo-pop hit its mainstream peak; many of the biggest bands were a far cry from the genre’s punk, indie, and hardcore roots. Perhaps that’s what caused bands like Brand New, Thursday, Thrice, Jimmy Eat World, mewithoutYou, and Straylight Run to make music that was spiritually similar to albums like OK Computer, The Fragile and Ágætis byrjun, and help define a whole emo-infused subsect of art rock.
The sound may have taken shape in a major way around the mid-2000s, but it had its roots in bands like late-period Sunny Day Real Estate and The Appleseed Cast, and it’s been kept alive by modern-day bands like Foxing and The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die. Brand New themselves returned this year with their long-awaited followup to 2009’s Daisy, the excellent Science Fiction, which feels like the conclusion to the art rock exploration they began on Devil and God. In the wake of this album’s release, here’s a brief look at some of the best art rock songs written by emo bands.
Sunny Day Real Estate – “Two Promises” (1998)
Sunny Day Real Estate were never a typical emo band to begin with. Though nearly every emo band of the past 23 years would consider SDRE’s 1994 debut Diary a blueprint for the genre, they themselves have shied away from the term. So it’s really no surprise that, after going on hiatus for two years, they released an album that didn’t fit neatly into any genre. Diary is very much a product of its time, but SDRE’s third and most adventurous album, How It Feels To Be Something On, still would sound forward-thinking if it came out today. Among its flawless tracklist is “Two Promises,” a seesawing song that feels like it would lose its grip if SDRE didn’t have such an airtight rhythm section. Jeremy Enigk’s vocal delivery is part lullaby, part post-hardcore, and it interacts with the music in a way that’s both addictive and unsettling.
The Postal Service – “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” (2003)
After years of fronting Death Cab for Cutie — who, at this point in their pre-Transatlanticism career, were still a true emo band — Ben Gibbard released his sole album with The Postal Service, a collaboration with electronic musician Dntel (which featured vocals on several songs by Jenny Lewis, whose Rilo Kiley released their most emo album a year earlier). Surely taking some influence from Kid A and ’90s trip hop, The Postal Service wrote a glitchy, downtempo electronic pop record that had Ben Gibbard’s hyper-specific lyrics dripping with emo. Opening track “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” remains one of the most interesting songs of Ben’s career, with each new away-message-ready lyric matched by more musical experimentation.
Jimmy Eat World – “Disintegration” (2005)
Jimmy Eat World already took emo in a U2 direction on their 1999 classic Clarity, but the band’s artiest song appeared on a stop-gap EP released after 2004’s underrated Futures. The Stay On My Side Tonight EP (its title taken from a line in “Disintegration”) included a remix of a Futures song, a Heatmiser cover, and just three new songs including the colossal, nearly-eight-minute “Disintegration.” Starting out with minimal, atmospheric backing and pounding drums that function more as a melodic instrument than a backbeat, it’s quickly clear that “Disintegration” is one of the band’s most experimental songs. By the song’s second half, it builds and builds to a massive climax with “Lie lie better next time, stay on my side tonight” repeated over and over. That climax is perhaps the most hypnotic moment in the band’s lengthy discography.
Straylight Run – “Hands in the Sky (Big Shot)” (2005)
John Nolan and Shaun Cooper’s most famous songs may be on Taking Back Sunday’s 2002 debut album Tell All Your Friends, but they wrote their most ambitious music after leaving that band and forming Straylight Run with John’s sister Michelle and drummer Will Noon of Breaking Pangaea (whose singer Fred Mascherino replaced John in Taking Back Sunday). After a 2004 debut album that saw John perfecting the emo piano ballad, Straylight Run went off into way artier territory on the following year’s Prepare to Be Wrong EP. The band were never more simultaneously out-there and gripping as they were on Prepare to Be Wrong‘s single “Hands in the Sky (Big Shot).” It starts out as dark, downtempo pop that isn’t miles away from the above-mentioned Postal Service, and it transitions into militant industrial rock with John giving the most impassioned scream-sung performance of his career. Artistically speaking, Brand New won the BN vs TBS feud, but if John had never left Taking Back Sunday and songs like “Hands in the Sky” (and ”It Never Gets Easier” and ”Soon We’ll Be Living In the Future”) became TBS songs, it would’ve been a much closer race.
The Appleseed Cast – “Sunlit Ascending” (2006)
The Appleseed Cast were a straight-up emo band for exactly one album, their 1998 debut The End of the Ring Wars, which put Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral in a blender and came out with one of the all-time classics of “Midwest emo,” opener “Marigold & Patchwork.” They quickly started experimenting with post rock, math rock, and other more cerebral subgenres on subsequent albums, coming out with some real arty stuff on 2006’s Peregrine. Album highlight “Sunlit Ascending” blends the post/math rock of 2000’s Mare Vitalis and 2001’s Low Level Owl with a pulsing electronic backbeat and just the right amount of U2 influence without overdoing it. It’s sort of a non-cheesy version of the sound Angels & Airwaves attempted on their debut album that came out just two months later.
Cursive – “Opening The Hymnal/Babies” (2006)
By 2006, Cursive had already released two concept albums and one of them made prominent use of a cello in a way that’s still an anomaly for this scene. But their third consecutive concept album Happy Hollow is their strangest, or at least their hardest to digest. It opens on a very high note, with a horn section making up for their departed cellist (Gretta Cohn) and blending with an in-your-face progressive rock guitar riff. Soon, freaky effects come in on Tim Kasher’s voice, and then it goes into creepy, psychedelic, David Lynchian territory. As the slash in the title implies, this song’s a two-parter, and that creepy part leads right into “Babies,” a rock song with a slight Latin touch. If you’ve ever wanted an emo equivalent to Aqualung, this might be it.
mewithoutYou – “In A Sweater Poorly Knit” (2006)
After making a sort of At the Drive-In and Fugazi-inspired post-hardcore on their 2002 debut [A→B] Life, mewithoutYou transitioned into art rock territory on 2004’s Catch for us the Foxes and perfected it on 2006’s Brother, Sister. Nodding back to the art rock/post-hardcore blend that Sunny Day Real Estate helped kickstart in the ’90s, Jeremy Engik sang on two songs on this record and it was produced by Brad Wood, who also did the first two SDRE albums. The album has recurring lyrics, songs that segue seamlessly into each other, three variations of the same song (the “Spider” songs), lush harmonies, and instruments that are atypical of rock records (harp, trombone, melodica). It’s sort of the mid-2000s post-hardcore version of Sgt. Pepper, and like Pepper, the album ends with its most breathtaking song. “In A Sweater Poorly Knit” opens with a wash of psychedelic electric guitars, before turning into a briskly-strummed folk song. From there, the full band, harp, and wordless vocal harmonies come in, truly sounding like something The Beatles or The Beach Boys would’ve done in 1967. Verse two reprises the vocal melody of verse one, but this time there are distorted electric guitars so thick they sound like cellos. Then the harp/harmonies part comes back and this time mewithoutYou take it into even more blissful territory, repeating “I do not exist,” the same line that opened the album.
The Sound of Animals Fighting – “Skullflower” (2006)
The Sound of Animals Fighting was a supergroup with a rotating lineup of members of emo and post-hardcore bands. The core lineup of musicians was most (and sometimes all) of RX Bandits, and among the various vocalists was Circa Survive’s Anthony Green, who takes lead on “Skullflower.” Over tribal drums and very minimal melodic instrumentation, Anthony Green sings with delay on his voice, and one vocal track overlapping another, creating a psychedelic effect that still manages to maintain the pop smarts of Circa Survive. Taking things in an even more far-out direction, Anthony cuts out and Amirtha Kidambi (who has also collaborated with Charlie Looker and Tyondai Braxton, curated at The Silent Barn, and worked as Director of Operations at Issue Project Room) takes over, singing in Sanskrit. At one point there’s a clash of atonal pianos which takes more cues from modern avant-garde composers than from emo bands. Of all the experiments going on in this genre in the mid 2000s, “Skullflower” was one of the weirdest.
Moving Mountains – “Alastika” (2007)
Moving Mountains emerged just as bands like Brand New and Thursday had begun experimenting with more atmospheric and slow-burning sounds, and they used that style as a launching point, taking cues from both those bands and The Appleseed Cast to create a sort of emo that was heavy on reverb and long, climactic song structures. A lot of songs on their debut album Pneuma (self-released in 2007 and reissued by Deep Elm, home of The Appleseed Cast and The Emo Diaries, in 2008) fit the criteria of this list, but “Alastika” is perhaps the artiest. Like a lot of their songs, the vocals are low in the mix and only rarely surface, leaving more time for lengthy instrumental passages. The song starts out as a sort of progressive rock song with fidgety math rock rhythms, has an Explosions in the Sky-inspired middle section, and it builds to the kind of crushing climax that Brand New did a year earlier on Devil and God. Guitar effects are all over this song, swirling on top of each other to create a wall of sound that often doesn’t even sound like guitars.
Saves the Day – “Under the Boards” (2007)
Saves the Day were staples of late ’90s and early ’00s pop punk and emo, and — like a lot of bands from that scene at that time — they got scooped up by a major label for 2003’s In Reverie. Instead of capitalizing on the Emo Nite-ready promise of “At Your Funeral,” In Reverie mixed emo with Rubber Soul and, after failing to get radio and MTV play, they were dropped by their major. Saves the Day never made an album like In Reverie again, but they didn’t retreat to the pop punk of Through Being Cool either. They kept trying out new sounds, and in 2007 released “Under the Boards,” which starts out sounding more than a little like Radiohead. Once the drums come in, Chris Conley reminds you that he didn’t abandon his pop punk snarl entirely, but then the band goes into a kind of psychedelic rock guitar soloing that they never did in their pop punk days. If you can’t decide if your favorite album of 1995 is The Bends or Dear You, this song probably hits close to home.
Thrice – “Firebreather” (2007)
At the beginning of the 2000s, Thrice successfully figured out how to blend pop punk and thrash metal without losing the earworm hooks of the former or the punishing rhythms of the latter, but by 2007 and 2008 they changed things up significantly. Those two years saw the release of a four-part EP series, with each EP taking on a distinctly different sound. There was Fire (very heavy rock), Water (trip hop), Air (atmospheric rock), and Earth (folk rock). The Kid A-style Water was the most traditionally art rock, but “Firebreather” from Fire was the best song to come out of the experiment. It’s out-of-this-world heavy but still melodic, sort of a precursor to what Baroness would do five years later on Yellow & Green. At the same time, it has this thick layer of pillowy dream pop blending with all the sludge, almost foreshadowing the Hum revival that the hardcore scene would start in the 2010s. It’s about as good a mix of beauty and aggression as there is.
Thursday – “No Answers” (2011)
Thursday covered Sigur Ros’ “Ný batterí” as a bonus track on 2003’s War All the Time, and that album’s 2006 followup A City by the Light Divided was an atmospheric and highly unique album that left the Warped Tour scene in the dust. They may still be best known in many circles for 2001’s “Understanding In A Car Crash,” but at this point most of their career has been spent pursuing artier ambitions. Those ambitions peaked (for now?) on 2011’s No Devolución, an album with more echoes of White Pony and Nine Inch Nails than of “Understanding In A Car Crash.” Highlight “No Answers” is backed by a wall of industrial synths, with Tucker Rule’s live drums channelling electronic trip-hop beats, and Geoff Rickly favoring gorgeous, soaring clean vocals over his trademark scream/sing combo. When the song does get loud, it’s this unique mix of post-rock, dream pop, and the kind of release that no one can do quite like Thursday. If Thursday do decide to write another chapter of their career, let’s hope it’s as singular and adventurous as the one they left off on.
La Dispute – “Woman (in mirror)” (2014)
La Dispute may have earned themselves a reputation as the sappiest band in The New Wave of Post-Hardcore thanks to generous use of “DARLING!” on their 2008 debut album, but that album also had complex progressive rock song structures, frequent dynamic shifts, and a speak-sung delivery that echoed mewithoutYou. Over the course of a series of spoken word EPs and songs like the “Weird Fishes”-esque “Safer in the Forest/Love Song for Poor Michigan” on their 2011 sophomore album, La Dispute flexed their art rock tendencies several times throughout their career, before perfecting them on 2014’s Rooms of the House. One of that album’s highlights, “Woman (in mirror),” is a showcase of how La Dispute can wear their influences on their sleeves while also sounding like no one else in the world. “Woman (in mirror)” kinda sounds like mewithoutYou meets Radiohead meets jazzy indie rock, with a vocal delivery that’s sorta never exactly speaking or singing? It wouldn’t be so tough to describe if it didn’t sound so original.
Foxing – “Indica” (2015)
Foxing’s 2013 debut album The Albatross was artier than your average “emo revival” album — it had trumpets and falsettos and always reminded me a little of The Antlers. But it was also built for the moments where the crowd would yell lyrics like “SO WHY DON’T YOU LOVE ME BACK?” and “SHE SAYS… YOU DONT LOVE ME YOU JUST LOVE SEX” back in Conor Murphy’s face. Its 2015 followup Dealer was a noticeable reaction to songs like that, a much more complex, subdued album that really takes time to sink in. One of its many highlights is “Indica,” a song that starts off as a slow, quiet, minimal song, and never aims for the build-up-and-release that you might expect it to. It’s fleshed out at times by a little snare drum, a little trumpet, a little piano, and that’s about it. Otherwise it’s just a clean electric guitar and Conor’s attention-demanding lyricism. When you tune out the world around you and listen to this one, it’s actually more intense than the crowdpleasers off Foxing’s debut.
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die – “I Can Be Afraid of Anything” (2015)
The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die came out of the first wave of emo bands to revive the Kinsella Family Tree‘s influence for a new generation, and they quickly proved themselves to be one of the strangest, ever-changing, and unpredictable bands in this whole wave. (Of all the Kinsella bands, that kind of makes them most similar to Joan of Arc.) Their second album, 2015’s Harmlessness, looked far beyond ’90s emo and took sounds from all over the place. It’s an album where one song could never tell the whole story, but the seven-minute “I Can Be Afraid of Anything” comes close. It starts out as a sort of eccentric indie rock, with a thick wall of guitars, bright synths, and shouted vocals. Then it briefly revisits the math-emo of the band’s early days, before going into the “I really did dig my own hole, and I’m climbing out!” section that sounds as uplifting musically as it does lyrically. Then a post-rock explosion leads into a driving, high-spirited Broken Social Scene-style section, fleshed out by gorgeous strings. If you’ve never heard this song, that summary should give you an idea of what to expect but even talking about it in these terms is reductive. There’s so much going on and the song shifts gears so many times without any awkward transitions. You kind of just have to listen to it.
Brand New – “Same Logic/Teeth” (2017)
Devil and God may remain Brand New’s masterpiece, but in hindsight, it didn’t defy its genre the way this year’s Science Fiction does. Science Fiction bears little resemblance to emo and post-hardcore, instead sounding like a psychedelic blues/grunge/slowcore hybrid that still manages to sound like no one other than Brand New. It works as both cerebral, highbrow art and as music you can lose yourself in viscerally. It’s a highly ambitious album, and those ambitions peak on “Same Logic/Teeth.” It has Brand New’s folky side, it has their love of Modest Mouse-y note-bending, and it has a couple doses of heavy prog riffing. The “Same Logic” portion of the chorus has some of the more angelic harmonies ever recorded for a Brand New record, while the “You’re just an actor / ain’t no doctor” portion has Jesse Lacey’s scream at its most piercing. The “Goddamnit you look so lovely…” bridge begins with vocal effects that give it a psychedelic edge, and it ends with Jesse’s screams turned back up to 11. Without even pausing to take a breath, the “Teeth” suite begins, and it’s maybe the most romantic pop moment of Brand New’s career. “Same Logic/Teeth” is nearly in Song Cycle or Rock Opera territory. It reminds you that, while many bands make comebacks to recapture their classic sound, Brand New made one to look forward.