It sounds like the most straightforward thing a band can do: expand the horizons of their sound while simultaneously maintaining the thing that attracted fans in the first place. Alas, the history of music is littered with acts that failed to do this because, in reality, it’s actually really difficult. That difficulty becomes even more acute in a genre such as metal or hardcore, where anything considered a concession or a softening-up can be treated as a betrayal of your most loyal fan base elements. Even the most rudimentary scan of comments on a YouTube video can reveal just how personally fans take this kind of thing.
However, for Touché Amoré, the Los Angeles post-hardcore quintet that has established a particularly feverish following off the back of their fine second album, Parting The Sea Between Brightness and Me, that expansion has proven to be a complete success.
Is Survived By sees the band pushing the song lengths out well beyond the two-minute mark (anything longer than three minutes counts as epic length for these guys) and introduces much quieter elements into the mix at times, but at its core, the album remains an emotionally raw, musically accomplished, and truly exhilarating example of its genre. After the triumphant release of Deafheaven’s Sunbather (an album whose cover was incidentally designed by Touché Amoré guitarist Nick Steinhardt), the release of Is Survived By marks the second time this year that an act on the Deathwish Inc. label has hit one out of the park.
Lead single “Just Exist” is an immediate signal of how far the band has come. Over a relatively gentle 3/4 rhythm, vocalist Jeremy Bolm sarcastically unfurls what he admits is his “loudest cliché” before the band suddenly injects the pace and transforms the song into an urgent, panicked meditation on one man’s legacy. Bolm’s habit of writing so vividly in the first person means it is impossible not to filter these lyrics through his own personality, but on this song in particular the superb drumming of Elliot Babin and the inventive guitar work of Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens become completely symbiotic with Bolm’s fevered delivery.
His fearless ability to confront big themes and big emotions on the record can occasionally lead to the odd clunky lyric (there’s not quite enough going on during “Steps” to hide the lyric “there’s promiscuity and devotion / and only one fulfills an emotion”), but at the same time it’s that high-wire openness that endears the band to so many. It might all be a little more cringe-worthy if the music wasn’t so consistently thrilling, but Touché Amoré is constantly finding variations on its musical template to ensure things never get repetitive or boring.
Is Survived By is full of surprises. “To Write Content” turns a potentially labored concept about writing a third album into a song full of intricate and angular guitar riffs before the track mutates into something unexpectedly lovely halfway through. “DNA” features more of Babin’s blistering percussion, which drives home Bolm’s desperate lyrics, in which “You can stay here tonight” becomes “Please stay here tonight.” On “Non-Fiction,” the band proves it can maintain the intensity even when taking away all of the speed and fury of the more traditional circle pit workouts such as found on “Kerosene.”
Best of all are two longer tracks that encapsulate the album’s strengths. The title track that closes the record is also its emotional apex, bringing the album full circle in discussing personal legacy. When Bolm screams, “This is survived by your love” over the top of some soaring guitar work, you know he means it. “Harbor” is even better, a song that begins as a power ballad before slowly picking up the tempo with more intimate first-person observations (“I always envisioned myself as a giver, but as I reflect I’ve left something to be desired”) and then launching into a storming, galloping finale. It might be the best song the band has yet written.
In the end, Is Survived By is the sound of a band operating in perfect harmony. Everyone brings their best work to the table and all of the album’s elements complement each other to create something special. This kind of material can be very easy to get wrong, and it can be just as easy to play it safe and repeat the same old tricks. Kudos to Touché Amoré for avoiding that trap. On the final song, Bolm sings about writing a song “that everyone can sing along to, so when you’re gone you can live on, they won’t forget you.” With the finest work of their career, no one is going to be forgetting about Touché Amoré anytime soon.
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