Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Revisiting Poison the Well: Kyle Murphy Wears Girls' Pants and Youth Large T-Shirts

Back when I was in high school, I was into a breed of music I would now classify as "not that good," or "shitty," but there are a few bands I am extremely proud to recall as early influences: The Receiving End of Sirens, Kevin Devine, Trophy Scars, Bear vs. Shark, and there are some other good ones too, I swear. During a recent discussion of 90s hardcore with fellow Flatted Third writer Ben Goodheart, I was reminded of the fact he doesn't care for the "chugga-chugga" hardcore. This first came up in discussion when I played Poison the Well on our radio show last year. I loved Poison the Well in high school. Opposite of December was probably my most played record freshman year - the record kicked off my metalcore phase, one that unfortunately led to the Vannas and Underoaths of the world. But I guess my venture was honest, yet somehow ended up misguided. So, when news of a double reissue, both Opposite of December and Tear from the Red in the same gatefold, was announced on Rise Records' website -- LOL, I know, Rise Records -- I flipped a shit and ordered it, though I couldn't joyfully share this news with Ben.

With Hurricane Sandy approaching, I thought I would venture through Poison the Well's discography - well, the records I listened to in high school - in order to get me pumped for this double reissue; a joy that only I could indulge in. I spent the entire day listening to the band that started one of my worst fashion decisions: girls' pants and youth large t-shirts.

The Opposite of December (1999)
I was reminded just how "chugga-chugga" they are. But then again, this is the band that made it popular; they may not have been the first, though they are often cited as bringing it to everyone's attention, beginning the spiral into a thousand shitty derivative bands. "12/23/93" is a kick in the teeth from the drum fill that starts it all off, but it's what happens at 1:08 where you notice a difference between every other band and Poison the Well: there is a clean chord, followed by another ear beating dose of hardcore, flowing into that misnomered "emo" singing that countless bands have copied, finally ending with a mix of everything coming before it in the song. This mix of everything is what enticed me - the fact that a band could be heavy as all Hell, then flip a switch and become the anthesis, and end with two contradictions sounding somewhat natural together. The second song "A Wish for Wings that Work" introduces spoken-word lyrics -- I had never really heard anything like this before, so by the second song, I was completely blown away. This was everything I wanted but didn't know existed. The whole album lasts less than a half-hour, so it makes sense that I've heard it about two-hundred times and counting. "Nerdy" is still my favorite song, but over time I have come to appreciate every song on here equally, being able to spot future influences in my on guitar playing and the music I listen to now.

The Follow-Up
Tear from the Red (2002)
I have read many times how rushed this record was. And the pressure shows, although not as much as the exhausted effort to follow up what was being considered a genre-defying record, nearly three years later. The sophomore record is usually a tell-tale sign of how a band will progress in the future, if there is a future -- it is why I only expect two albums from a band to consider them noteworthy. With the way December ends, light chords and fading screams, it sounds like a band running out of energy, assuaging its own legacy. "Botchla" kicks off Tear from the Red with the signature singing and chords, a prelude to ensuing chaos. Poison the Well continues to exercise its heavy/light formula on this record, one they popularized. And "Botchla" is a great opener, but "Lazzaro" seems determined to kill any momentum. It's one of my least favorite songs of theirs, and certainly exhibits the quickening deadline the band must have felt. Thank god for "Turn Down Elliot" and its breakdown, a familiar, welcomed sound for the band.  The song builds momentum back up and the album is back on track, right? Not if "Horns and Tails" has anything to say about it. The band's first acoustic song that launched a thousand closers simply blows. I hate this song, well, I haven't always hated it - it made a great freak-out AIM profile quote. But this is what most fans always fear: the inevitable acoustic break from an otherwise brutal band. This break in the record is exactly what Tear from the Red suffers from: unexpected inconsistency. I understand that it may have been rushed, but you could easily trim about eight minutes of fat from a record that's nearly a minute long than its predecessor and still have a full-length. 

The Major Label Debut
You Come before You (2003)
It's what every fan fears - the band you loved has sold out, signed to a major label. Tear from the Red ended on the same note that started it. A record that was rife with simply bad, lazy songs, Red had every fan worried. Little did anyone know, Poison the Well weren't dead yet, and a major label wouldn't ruin the band forever either. Shot out of a fucking cannon, "Ghostchant" opens the record. It is an amazing hardcore song, raising all lowered expectations. It's well constructed, paced, and original, yet still very much Poison the Well. It's certainly telling of the music still to come on You Come before You. The rest of the album is just as strong and fresh as the opener, flowing beautifully from song to song -- I don't want to go too far into detail here, because I want to inspire you, the reader, to listen to it with somewhat fresh ears. Surprisingly, and still a pretty new concept to 13 year-old Kyle Murphy, there are even elements of post-rock on this thing: "The View from Here", "A Bandaged Iris", and "Sounds like the End of the World". And although it lacks the impact of The Opposite of December, You Come before You is a much better record, Poison the Well's best. I will still revisit this record whenever I'm sick of mewithoutyou.

Though the band went on to release two more albums -- 2007's Versions, 2009's The Tropic Rot -- I had since moved on from the metalcore phase of my life, thankfully. They're both pretty good releases, but they'll never sound the same as the first three records did. 2012 saw a lot of really good screamo records from the likes of Birds in Row, Suis La Lune, and Loma Prieta, and I was reminded of Poison the Well in a lot of the mentioned band's music, all albums coming out over a decade after December. So, maybe I wasn't so wrong about this band and can add them to the list, though I'm certain I listened to a lot of shitty other bands aping off Poison the Well, all while wearing girls' pants and youth large t-shirts. The fact that the first two records are being reissued together is somewhat bittersweet - having Tear from the Red forever bound to December - but at least The Opposite of December will be added to my collection, except now I have to wait for news of a You Come before You reissue.

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