The Lack Long After: Pianos Become The Teeth’s Haunting Triumph

The Lack Long After utilizes a single, stark image as its cover, devoid of any text or ornamentation. As stated in Pianos Become The Teeth’s blog, this image is a reenactment of lead vocalist Kyle Durfey’s father’s sick bed, the bed where he spent his last days as Multiple Sclerosis slowly took his life. A mirror is propped in the window, positioned to offer the prone man a view of the outside environment, a reflected image of the world that passes by just outside. The gatefold LP opens up to reveal a hazy view from a rocky shore on the left face, another simple, bleak image, hinting at the tone of the album to come. The right side shows lyrics and credits typed in an elegant, light typeface against a white backdrop. Turning to the rear of the album shows the culmination of the three image series, a shot of an empty bed. One side of the bed is still wrinkled – it is apparent that someone was laying there not long ago. Bearing the album name and track listing, this image essentially is The Lack Long After: it is emptiness, a vacancy where something once was, where something should be. That something, as the cover suggests, is Durfey’s father.

The Lack Long After chronicles the process of loss and despair with agonizing detail. It is driven by Durfey’s passionate vocal styling and lyricism as he explores the depths of the pain he experienced as he watched his father wither and eventually pass away at the age of 57. The album examines life, death, loss, coping, and recovery without an ounce of pretense or the veil of metaphor. It is direct, often uncomfortably so, in displaying the struggle of overcoming the crushing sorrow of losing a loved one. Hauntingly beautiful and incredibly real, this album sets a new standard for honesty in music.

Despite the genuine passion, conceptual brilliance, and impressive musicianship poured into this album, many will still turn away from Pianos Become The Teeth’s latest release. This is because The Lack Long After is, for all intensive purposes, a screamo album. That word brings to mind a bevy of negative connotations. For many, it is the defining term applied to the disastrously misguided Hot Topic emo scene of the mid 2000’s, all black eyeliner and swooped bangs. Others still might relate screamo to the scenecore of today, a bastardized combination of heavily processed screamed vocals and cheesy autotuned synth-rock. Technically speaking, the original genre of screamo that Pianos Become The Teeth take their influence from is far from either of these common associations.

The origins of the term screamo can be traced all the way back to to the late 80’s Washington D.C punk scene, or at least what came out of it. Bands like Rites of Spring and Fugazi emerged from the hardcore scene and earned a name for themselves by incorporating hardcore influence with more emotionally driven songwritng in contrast to the highly political punk scene. The new terms “emotional hardcore” and “post hardcore” were applied to these bands. Emotional hardcore was eventually shortened to emocore, and then emo. In the mid 90’s, bands influenced by these new styles began to incorporate more yelled and screamed vocals into their music. As a result the genre of “screamo” was popularized by an underground punk community lead by bands such as Envy and Funeral Diner. This scene was characterized by an attempt to maximize the emotional impact of punk music with raw vocals, meaningful lyrics, and dynamic, often post-rock influenced instrumentals. It is from this genre that Pianos Become The Teeth take their inspiration. Their last record, Old Pride, was hailed as the savior of a genre gone awry, a throwback to a time before the mass corruption and dilution of screamed music. Finding themselves in the midst of a new screamo revivalist movement certainly hasn’t slowed Pianos Become The Teeth down, as from the first song of The Lack Long After it is clear that they have now taken the next step. The cohesive, driving concept of the album and the urgency and intensity of their music have catapulted them beyond the levels reached by the original screamo pioneers into their own wholly unique realm.

Side A of the beautiful sea-colored vinyl begins with the swelling drone of clean guitar feedback that ushers in the opener, “I’ll Be Damned.” Fast paced punk drumming and angular chords drive the first section of the song, with Durfey’s wailing vocals soaring above the aggressive musical platform with sentiments of regret and loss. The song transitions into a bridge lead by frenetic drumming, and concludes with a driving climax that finds Durfey acknowledging his vulnerability and musing on the afterlife, screaming “Well that ending, it was just too hard to take. Is it better than Clapton, did you see your father’s eyes? I know it’s wishful thinking, hoping this won’t always kill me, but if you saw yours then I’ll see mine.”

From this opening track its clear that Pianos Become The Teeth’s vocals are significantly different than the bulk of screamed vocals due to Durfey’s use of pitch. His vocal style sits somewhere in between singing and screaming, as even the harshest of his vocals maintain a keen sense of tone and melody. Occasionally Durfey’s voice breaks, transitioning between a pitched scream and anguished singing in the course of the same vocal line, or even the same word. This gives Pianos Become The Teeth a breadth of vocal range and emotional expression unfamiliar to most bands in their genre.

This technique is especially evident on the second track, “Good Times”, which finds the band showing admirable restraint in the use of more subdued guitar parts and post-rock influenced drum rolls. The lighter instrumentation allows them to crescendo to a powerful melody that fully showcases Durfey’s vocal capabilities as he describes the emotional and physical toll the death of his father took on him. The tempo picks up with “Shared Bodies”, the most punk track on The Lack Long After and the song that focuses the least on Durfey’s father. It instead broadens the scope to an examination of lost relationships. The climax comes about a minute and a half in when the fast paced song comes to a sudden, jarring halt. A single clean guitar arpeggio persists as Durfey repeatedly belts “But I think that I felt more inside you than I would have liked”, a forlorn message to a long-since abandoned lover. A swell of feedback leads this urgent reprieve into an explosive full band breakdown that releases the built tension with dramatic resolve, a standout moment in an already exemplary album. The side rounds out with another less aggressive piece, “Such Confidence”, where Pianos Become The Teeth’s rhythm section takes charge behind a repeated guitar motif and Durfey’s somber lyricism.

Side B starts off with the emotional heart of The Lack Long After, the slow burning, 4 minute build that is “Liquid Courage.” The song begins with a simple, booming drum beat that echoes as if its being played in a large, empty room, giving the track an eerie sense of space.  After over 30 seconds of just drums, a soft cymbal crescendo leads in the guitars. Floaty, reverb-soaked post-rock melodies carry the song forward as the drums subtly build off of the original hypnotic beat. Suddenly, almost halfway through the song, Durfey’s voice cuts in with a crash of cymbals and a delivery so full of emotion that it’s difficult not to be taken aback. The lyrical passage is brief, but it stands out as one of the most painfully direct vocal deliveries on the album.

“On the day you died,
I cut my hair for the funeral,
and on memorial day, I started drinking
because it got kind of hard just sitting there thinking
about Mom all alone in that house,
and I’m too far away to do our lunch dates,
she misses the regimen
she misses the annoyances,
the free time is bittersweet.”

The song continues to build in true post-rock form after the last line of vocals, and tremolo picking and drum rolls carry the song directly into the explosive opening of “Spine.”  Another heavier track, “Spine” is driven by a palpable sense of urgency and desperation. The aftermath of loss is regarded with forlorn resignation, as Durfey reminisces on the first Christmas after his father’s passing. The line “life goes on, because it has to. These things, they never leave, they stay with you,” stands out as grim summary of Durfey’s coping process.

“Sunsetting” continues the album with another uptempo track. Lyrically the song finds Durfey exploring his memory and lamenting on the images that are all he has left of what was once a human being. The song closes with a powerful, heavy outro that features some exemplary slide guitar work. The final track on the album, “I’ll Get By”, begins with soft drums and volume swells before bright arpeggios and cymbals ring in to carry the song forward. Durfey’s singing is rife with passion as he rounds out the album with a reminiscence on the subjects explored through the duration of The Lack Long After. Although sonically lighter than the majority of the album, the  sorrow is still palpable. Durfey offers a sorrowful sense of coping, singing “It seems we all get sick. We all die in some no name hospital with the same color walls. And I guess that’s fine.” This line seems to be the only hint of acceptance left for the listener at the conclusion of The Lack Long After. From an album so full of such dense, dark emotion, perhaps this grim realization is all that would make sense. It is a resignation to life, loss, and death, an acknowledgment of mortality, and a haunting finish to a beautiful album.

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