When you hear “Grammy-nominated”, “Billboard Top 10”, and “Gold-certified”, your mind probably doesn’t leap to heavy music, but all three of these accolades have been imparted on the post-hardcore band Underoath in recent years. It doesn’t take much exposure to the sextet to understand why, though: Arguably, punk rock, metal, and experimental music have never been married with such earth-quaking dexterity, only to, ironically, have the finished product feel so accessible. But, there’s more to the story than that, of course. Underoath, though not proselytizing like the street preachers of old, hold certain spiritual beliefs that inseparably add an element of otherworldiness to their music. When combined with a sound already so punishing, the affect can simulate catharsis, or purging, a washing away not so much of “sin” there are no alter calls here but one’s conception of Christian art, generally. Strip away Underoath’s beliefs and you’re still left with some of the most sophisticated, mind-bending, labored-over heavy music that’s ever been written. Keep them intact, and even unabashed atheists can’t help but be curious about the band’s theological inspiration. How else could you explain their global, “Gold-certified” reach?
In the context of their seventh album, Ã (Disambiguation), the topic of purging is fitting. While on the road in Italy this past spring, Aaron Gillespie, the band’s only remaining original member, announced that he’d be relinquishing his vocal and drumming duties at the close of the tour to “focus on other music and ministry endeavors.” (Gillespie fronts pop rock band The Almost and has recently completed a worship album). For anyone following Underoath, this was unmistakeably significant. The fact that Gillespie was an original member mattered, to be sure, but less so than that his boy-ish, impassioned vocals were a huge part of Underoath’s sound, which since 2002’s Changing of the Times, made room for guttural screaming and singing in near-equal measure. Moreover, though the remaining five would certainly have access to plenty of percussive talent in his wake, Gillespie’s drumming style, frenetic and asymmetrical, isn’t exactly the type of thing you come across everyday. Naturally, then, his departure raised lots of questions as to the direction Underoath would take, if they would continue at all.
It didn’t take long for Underoath to set their fan’s minds at ease, however. Just over a month after Gillespie left, the band announced that former Norma Jean drummer and longtime friend Daniel Davison would be his replacement, a natural choice on one hand and a nod to the future on the other. The band reportedly felt somewhat confined by their creative accord with Gillespie while writing their last couple of records, wanting to experiment more but never really being able to perpetuate those ideas to their fullest extent. With Gillespie gone, and Davison’s distinct perspective and plenty capable talent in the mix, the band were finally given that chance. And as the record shows, to suggest that they took advantage of it would be an understatement: Ã (Disambiguation) is a heavy music triumph.
The record, in many ways, feels like the culmination of a stylistic shift that began on 2006’s Define the Great Line. Its predecessor, They’re Only Chasing Safety, was Underoath’s breakout record, to be sure, but it was coincidentally also their, well, safest. Catchy Jimmy Eat World-esque riffs were tweaked over propulsive post-punk rhythms, as Gillespie’s sung voice became more of a focus than ever before. That trend continued with Define, but the music took a darker, more angular and combustive turn, as the bellow of new singer Spencer Chamberlain began to play more of a prominent role. Likewise, on 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation, Underoath drove into ever-more murky depths, refining a style that was by this point noticeably their own, unrelenting and defiant of classification. That framework is largely in tact on the new effort, except it’s decidedly richer and more vibrant, showcasing each member’s strengths in ways not realized before in Underoath’s decade-old career.
The opener, “In Division”, reveals the band’s resolve from the start, as the often understated programming talents of keyboardist Chris Dudley are situated right up front, a tactic that foreshadows a much greater emphasis on his work throughout the record. The ping-ponging industrialism of the opening sample also conveys a sense of the world Underoath are about to create, one that’s submerged and completely devoid of light, except for traces that skate the surface hundreds of feet above where they reside. Indeed, it’s clear that producers Matt Goldman and Jeremy Griffith worked with the band to assemble a document littered with ghostly nuance, echoing voices and other eerie flourishes that make the collection almost as visual as it is audible, retiring the idea once and for all that hardcore is an inherently limited genre. Look no further than “Reversal”, with its odd, hovering noise, persistent feedback, circular, plodding rhythm and distant chants, to witness that premise completely fall apart.
If you’re worried at this point that Underoath made some sort of high-brow art record, don’t be. Twenty seconds into “In Division”, we’re met with the band’s trademark obtuse brutality, as guitars wind around Davison’s punishing use of the toms before the song hits its dense, Deftones-ian chorus. Similarly, “Catch Myself Catching Myself”, “Illuminator”, “A Divine Eradication”, and “My Deteriorating Incline” are, in their own ways, some of the heaviest songs Underoath have ever written, though also some of the most textured. Bass riffs are regularly cloaked in fuzz, drum hits sporadically muffled or obscured and vocals multi-tracked and manipulated to accentuate the overarching narrative of being buried and maligned, inferring a refreshing degree of intentionality in a genre that’s historically much too uniform.
Elsewhere, the band manage to mete out similar levels of intensity without so much bombast. “Paper Lung” is dissonant and space-y while “Driftwood” is a pitter-pattering, lush nod to minimalist IDM. It’s here that we get the best glimpse of Chamberlain the singer and, frankly, it sounds as if he’s had the job all along. The change from Gillespie is different, to be sure, but the effect is far from jarring. Rather, the sound of singing atop Underoath’s big, complex sound finally feels natural. Gillespie’s voice, while undoubtedly great, is, in my opinion, better suited for the music he’s making now. (So, more records are made and everyone wins).
The proceedings are more volatile on “Who Will Guard the Guardians” and “Vacant Mouth”, as intelligent riffs, electronic passages and ferocious rhythmic flourishes dance around each other in ways that could easily be disorientating if it weren’t for the band’s well-versed penchant for organization. For its part, “In Completion” closes the record as a hybrid of the various styles that comprise it, at once atmospheric and unremittingly massive as Chamberlain clamors, “keep swimming, keep swimming” before the final wash of distortion is pulled back out into the dark abyss, Underoath having been made anew once more.