Late last year, the sophomore full-length from Baltimore hardcore quintet Pianos Become the Teeth The Lack Long After was released to isolated yet extremely passionate acclaim. Such is the lot of many fantastic hardcore releases, which inspire devotion in pockets rather than droves—and, it’s worth noting, often relish in this outsider appeal. Pianos Become the Teeth is far from a typical hardcore band, however. For one, they have some rather…impressive fans. At a farewell show at D.C.’s 9:30 Club in December, Thursday frontman Geoff Rickly sang Pianos’ praises and called The Lack Long After the best hardcore album of the year, something which the genre veteran should know a thing or three about. For another, there’s their actual sound. Overt melodicism aside, they aren’t afraid to let their songs breathe a bit. It would be no tough task to fit three or four Touché Amoré cuts inside of one track from Pianos. This is not a value judgment on either group—merely a note on what is distinctive about the latter.
And indeed, The Lack Long After suffers no scarcity in well mapped-out mini-epics. Rarely a song on the record dips below the four minute mark, and some go well past five. In a genre so (ostensibly) reliant on fast and frantic bursts of fury, the numbers may sound counterintuitive. It’s but one credit among many that Pianos can play with tempo, tone, and dynamics enough to avoid ever becoming boring—something which could not be said of their (still quite good) freshman full-length, 2010’s Old Pride. Songs such as “Good Times” easily oscillate from bludgeoning distortion to understated melody to a just-this-side-of-placid rhythm section outro with aplomb. Meanwhile, the band’s heavy indebtedness to post-rock is on full display on the song-long crescendo that is “Liquid Courage” (which even culminates with some Explosions in the Sky-style tremolo picking before crashing down crushingly and incredibly on “Spine” [competing with “Shared Bodies” for the title Most Sonically Intense]). The ease with which drummer David Haik transitions from tactful and subdued to full-on assault is bolstered by the work from guitarists Michael York and Chad McDonald, who manage to muscle in tactful (and tasty) moments of melody amidst the maelstroms. Check the gorgeous intro to “Such Confidence,” or the gravity-slide conclusion of “Sunsetting.” Bassist Zac Sewell is also up-to-task (“Good Times” again), but often suffers from being overpowered by the weight of the upper-register.
Still, for all the ample musical prowess on display here—and ample it is—the record’s truest strength comes from the lyrics and vocal delivery of Kyle Durfey. The Lack Long After is a concept album (another relative rarity in hardcore, unless you’re Defeater) dedicated to Durfey’s father, who lost his life to multiple sclerosis. The topic is not entirely new to the band—it was the subject of Old Pride’s heartbreaking “Cripples Can’t Shiver”—and while that song was an absolute emotional highpoint of said album, it was also quite draining. It follows, then, that devoting an entire release to such material runs the risk of being overwhelming. It is. But it is also cathartic. The album-length processing of grief is just as exhausting as should be expected—but if ever a subject warranted such treatment, this is it. From the ruminative opener “I’ll Be Damned” and the painfully confessional “Liquid Courage” (“She misses the regimen / she misses the annoyances, / the free time is bittersweet” is just a perfect encapsulation of mourning in the wake of illness; just perfect) to the furious cocktail of anger and denial in “Spine” and the immaculately-crafted, qualified closure on closer “I’ll Get By,” Durfey screams about the emotional toll of the tragic story in a rough howl that is only sparingly melodic. It’s the only way to do the words justice, really.
The Lack Long After is a success from about every angle. Musically, it is both immediate and rewarding to repeated listening, which often reveals the delicate melodic sinews underlying the surface-level aggression. The voice-shredding meditations of Durfey expertly embody the close-to-tearjerking lyrics, which in less honest hands could easily have become rote or facile. But the sheer range of emotions explored (paired with the obvious burdens of despair and anger, there’s acceptance and even a remembrance-rooted happiness) and the wholly, devastatingly relatable way in which these depths are plumbed prevents any hint of redundancy or falseness. Ditto the fact that, despite the lengths of the songs, the album as a whole never outstays its welcome. It makes its point in eight tracks, just shy of 40 minutes. It is not an insult to say it feels much longer, just as it is not to say it’s for the best that it ends when it does. The variation across the tracks may not be immense (song-long experiments like “Liquid Courage” and “I’ll Get By” notwithstanding), and perhaps those who haven’t gone through the loss of a loved one may not feel the same visceral, gut-level reaction. But for those who have, and with apologies to Mr. Rickly, The Lack Long After isn’t just a fantastic hardcore record. It’s just fantastic.
The Lack Long After is available from local merchant The Sound Garden in Fells Point for $9.99 or national chain Best Buy for two dollars more. It is also available from all major online retailers, including directly from label Topshself Records ($10). Pianos Become the Teeth is set to embark on a European tour in July, but are mainstays at local venue The Ottobar, so listeners would do well to keep their eyes and ears peeled come late Summer.