Analyzing and appreciating the sub-genre of loud emo rock often means focusing on mood and a band’s ability to walk the line of emotionally intense lyrics without venturing too far into the cliché. Catchy guitar riffs and closely miked drums define good emo music from there. Almost an afterthought on many of these albums, meanwhile, is the concept of vocal acumen.
North Shore gloom rockers and Lowell regulars Bystander cast all that aside, however, on their latest effort, crafting a spectacular album in many ways focused on delivery and presentation of gripping vocals.
Seven tracks long, Nothing Matters dropped May 17th and marks the band’s third record release since their debut EP in 2016. Augmenting what was already a complex discography of screamo, ambient rock, and even dream pop in some places, Nothing Matters is an artful amalgamation of what seems like every dark and or brooding genre of music popularized in the past thirty years.
Songs like the opening track, “Pout,” command comparison to emo rock titans Brand New. Punchy plodding drums, and complex guitar parts built around the layering of simple riffs and chord progressions suggest that comparison from the instrumental side of the song. But indeed, it’s the vocals that cement the likeness.
The voices on that track are soft and often distant before building into equally distant yet suddenly loud and desperate screams. As the drums and guitar drive the song forward, those vocals and a general mixing style that emphasizes fuzz and reverb also slow it down. This creates a fantastic experience for the listener who effectively observes a song in battle with itself, stretching, crushing, and then beating itself throughout its three minute run time.
While this mood of violence and desperation pervades many parts of the record, Bystander continues to hop through genres and vocal effects, never again returning precisely to the mood established on “Pout.”
Track two, “Tobacco,” opens with guitars that echo the glide guitar sound popularized by 90s shoegazers My Bloody Valentine. While that effect dominates the first few measures of the mix, vocals jump to the forefront at the outset of verse one when now talk-sung lyrics splatter out of speakers like rap lines.
Even as the screams return, Bystander retains this songs spitfire cadence, only breaking that with the comparatively drawn out, beautifully harmonized screams of its choruses.
From there, songs like “Rat” and “Deer Gloom III” play with classic grunge tropes of prominent basslines and general hard, heavy and slow sonic footprints.
“Deer Gloob III” especially also features some of the most violent heavy metal vocals on the record, beautifully teeing up the jarringly quiet “Tar” which immediately follows.
“Tar” features prominent acoustic guitar parts and cleans off many of the filters previously tacked on to this record’s vocals. Indeed, the vocals on that track are clean but mumbled, giving listeners a much needed moment to catch their breath after scream singing and head banging along to the first 15+ minutes of Nothing Matters.
Hardly an acoustic band and hardly interested in burying their vocals completely, however, Bystander fittingly does not let their record end on such a mellow note.
Instead, they end with the epic “Grief,” opening up their drums by abandoning that aforementioned closely mixed sound in favor of a big resonant one. The drums drive the song, but the electric guitars cast aside on “Tar” also come roaring triumphantly back into the mix. Then, of course, as the vocals sit subtly mumbled early, they punch the listener in the face with screams as the song climaxes on top of math rock-esque finger tapped guitar parts.
While heavy metal never went anywhere, its many offshoots including hardcore emo and screamo have shrunk in popularity in recent years. Brand New not only ended its career, but did so with its most intimate record in Science Fiction. Bands like the Blood Brothers that drew heavily from Led Zeppelin style old rock have also broken up while classic teen emo bands Sleeping with Sirens and Pierce the Veil have taken long breaks in between records and pivoted to pop stylings respectively.
No, emo and screamo genres are not dead. But they’ve gone dormant. On Nothing Matters, Bystander has done the difficult; they’ve made great music that not only pays homage to screamo’s past, but also acknowledges its present. These are the songs a depressed giant listens to as he wakes from hibernation. These are the songs, built from their vocal and melodic skeletons that stand solidly both independently and collectively within their record. And these are songs that deserve to be heard far and wide.
~ Dakota Antelman