Sound: Have you ever been on a roller coaster? They're great fun. They throw you around, surprise you with sharp turns, drop you from great heights, and occasionally leave you hanging upside down for a while. A roller coaster is exactly how Defeater's debut album Travels feels, sonically and emotionally. It whips you around, knocks the wind out of you, and leaves your head spinning. The key difference is, however, that this album doesn't waste any time getting up to speed. It just leaves the platform at 100 miles per hour.
On Travels, Defeater display their uncanny ability to play with your emotions through music. While some hardcore bands write music to make people move, and others write music to enforce a message, Defeater write each and every note with the intention of telling a story. Yes, this album is fast, aggressive, and even chaotic at times. But it is never any of these things without reason. So it's quite fitting that this is a concept album. The record tells a story of a boy born into a poor family after World War II to an addict mother, alcoholic father, and an unaccepting older brother. But more about that later.
Every band member, particularly guitarist Jay Maas and vocalist Derek Archambault, worked together throwing ideas back and forth to create this album. Then every bit of it was reworked to fit around the central story. What you get out of this is less of a collection of songs and more of a hardcore musical. It's seriously a soundtrack to the protagonist's life.
For a hardcore album, the music is pretty varied. One song will be fast and frantic, another will be slow and melancholy, some will be melodic, and some will be dissonant and hectic. There's even an acoustic folk-ish bit on the second half of Prophet In Plain Clothes (don't worry, it all relates to the overall concept).
The guitars are the bulk of what makes the album so coherent and expressive, but the rhythm section definitely deserves a mention. The bass really packs a punch, thanks to the crisp and even production. The drums are really amazing, though, in my opinion, because they really do so much to enhance the mood of a specific part of a song. For instance, the multiply the tension of the approaching train in Everything Went Quiet tenfold, and they foreshadow upcoming calamity in Forgiver Forgetter. In Prophet In Plain Clothes, the drums set a walking pace for the song, which really works, considering that the first words are "he walks these streets, collar up to the snowfall..." The attention to detail to little things like this is what I really think makes this band so great. // 9
Lyrics: Travels is a concept album, which, as I said, tells the story of a man's life growing up after World War II. The lyrics read like a short story. Sometimes in concept albums, the lyrics are meant to be lyrics and they risk sounding stupid without the music behind them, but not Travels. Even without the music, the lyrics sound natural, almost like free verse poetry. But it ends up not being as classy as poetry due to the traditional hardcore vocals. Derek provides most of the vocals on the album, with a standard hardcore shout that is thankfully easy to decipher. Occasionally guitarist Jay provides some backing vocals to give some variation.
Right from the beginning of the album, the lyrics set the tone for the 11 chapter epic that follows. "Unwanted from the first breath. A mother's blessing born, a father's burden worn..." Immediately, there's a sense of conflict. The first three songs do an amazing job of characterizing the main character's mother, brother, and father. By the time these songs are over, we've already formed opinions on who we like and who we really don't like. It's like a book already.
The fourth song, Forgiver Forgetter, is where one of two climaxes in the album are, and is really where everything starts to pick up. Sonically, it isn't the most pleasing track (being all frantic and chaotic), but it's meant to be that way because it reflects the lyrics perfectly. I think this song is really one of the best examples I can think of for a band using the music and lyrics together to tell a story, which is why I really want to discuss this track in particular. The song starts out with random power chords and spastic drum fills and our protagonist waking up scared in the middle of the night overhearing his father yelling at his mother. As soon as he scrambles out of bed and decides what he's going to do, the music gains similar composure. The music escalates, accompanying a fistfight between the father and son, until eventually the son ends up beating his father to death with the one thing he loved the most: his bottle of whiskey. Derek screams "he caught his eye as he took his last breath and that vice went to his head again and again" while the instruments pound away rhythmically, and with each note, each hit of the drums, each time Derek shouts "again", I see the main character pounding away with the whiskey bottle, perfectly in sync with the music.
Everything stops briefly, and for a second, you think "Dear God, what has he done?" Which is precisely what his mother yells to break the silence. In the story, everyone is in a state of shock, disoriented. The music sounds the same way. Everything has slowed down, and the guitars play dizzying leads. I realize that I'm discussing the music an awful lot in the lyrics section, but the music is just as important to the story and the lyrics as the lyrics themselves are. Just like how post-rock bands create walls of emotion through instrumentation, so do Defeater.
The rest of the album tells the second half of the story. Our unnamed subject leaves town and lives life on the road for several years before returning home. I don't want to go too far into detail about what happens through the rest of the album because I don't want to spoil it, but I will tell you this: this ain't no fairy tale. On the second half of Prophet In Plain Clothes, Derek sings in clean vocals for the first (and only) time on the album, and for a guy who spends his days shouting into a mic, he actually has a really good singing voice. // 10
Overall Impression: Let's get something straight. If Travels was a book, I'd read it. Heck, I might even read it twice. If it was a movie, I would enjoy the hell out of it and then claim that the book was better so I could look totally hip and intellectual. Then I'd say the album was better than the book just for the irony. I'd look twice as hip and intellectual then. But the great thing is, it doesn't need to be any of those things. Every time I listen to the album, I listen to the lyrics and I think about the characters. I wonder about what goes on through their heads. I visualize everything as if it actually was a movie.
When I was a kid I used to visualize every song that I heard as a story. If I couldn't do that, it just wasn't fun to listen to. But when I started playing guitar, I started listening to different types of music for different reasons, and I lost some of my appreciation for storytelling in music. But when I found hardcore, and Defeater specifically, that part of me came alive again.
As interesting as the story is, I never even bothered to check out the lyrics until about the third or fourth time I listened to the album. Up until that point I was satisfied with just the music. But of course, I eventually caught on to a pattern in the lyrics, which is how Travels quickly became my favorite hardcore album. The lyrics can stand on their own as a short story, and the music can stand on it's own as a soundtrack. Together, though, I just think it's near perfect. I really don't have much to complain about (except for maybe the intro to Debts, which isn't to my liking, but that's just me being picky).
I figure if you want to check out this album, try listening to the first three songs: Blessed Burden, Everything Went Quiet, and Nameless Streets. If you absolutely hate what you hear, at least read through the lyrics. You won't get the same effect, but it makes for a nice quick read. If you like it, or even if you're slightly indifferent, I recommend listening to the album at least once while reading the lyrics. If nothing else, at least you'll get a good story out of it. // 9