#11 – DEFEATER – LETTERS HOME [spotify]
(feat. track – “Bastards” [spotify])
The first time I heard “Bastards” (the lead advance single off Letters Home) I was positively floored by Defeater’s breathtakingly exquisite use of negative space. And breathtaking is the best word to describe it – the sensation of all the air being sucked out of the song, leaving a raw vacuum that shreds apart Derek Archambault’s snarl like meat torn from a bone, plosive pulses of anguish and animus that bloom and quickly burst into nothingness .
It’s a trick repeated over and over again throughout Letters Home – in the midsection of “No Shame,” in multiple parts of “Blood In My Veins,” in “Rabbit’s Foot”’s opening lines – and it never loses its effectiveness. Hardcore is traditionally a genre where passion and intensity are privileged over things like sound quality; loving a hardcore album because of a bunch of little production details seems like the wrong way to be going about things, but that’s where I’m at. I appreciate hardcore as a genre, I like a lot of hardcore records, but it’s rare that I love a hardcore album, and Letters Home broke through that wall for me this year. It’s those small things that really made all the difference.
Small things like the squealing overtones at “No Shame”’s close; the spare guitar riff that springs from the void before “No Relief”’s refrain; the moment in “No Faith”’s intro where you drop into a near-empty room, save a drum kit in the back right corner. There are a number of moments that remind me of Thursday at their best; it’s terribly interesting to me, the way a band like Thursday took hardcore out of its box via sonic innovation, the way Defeater is injecting some of that sonic innovation back into more traditional hardcore. It’s a wonderfully recursive form of crossbreeding, the end is the beginning is the end.
None of this is to downplay the songwriting on the album, not at all. Letters Home, like all Defeater albums, takes place within the story of a rapidly falling-apart post-WWII family in New Jersey based loosely on that of Archambault’s grandfather (this album focuses on the father and his own adolescent experiences), but the sketches of harrowing moments and desperate characters that populate the album are rendered in wonderfully specific emotional detail – they’re powerful even without knowledge of the greater context, though that splash of extra color renders them all the more vivid.
But still, it’s those details that keep me coming back. I haven’t been so enamored with a hardcore track as I have been with “Bastards” (and “Blood In My Veins”) since “Condolences” on Touche Amore’s* 2011 Parting the Sea Between Brightness and Me, and that was hardly a typical hardcore song. And from that start, Letters Home never relents emotionally, even as the heaving sobs of guitars crush down and then lurch back like breaths in and out. And as sludgy closer “Bled Out” unravels its way to a finish by circling back to the album’s start, so do I, nearly every time.
*Letters Home is exactly what’s wrong with all those EOTY lists that made Touche Amore’s Is Survived By their token hardcore pick for the year. Not to cast any aspersions at Touche, they’re a wonderful band in their own right; they’re just not, you know, the only good thing happening in hardcore right now, and I suspect they’d be the first to tell you that.