They’ll Find A Way To Pull Stars Down
This should hurt to admit, but I'm actually oddly proud: I was once an emo kid. Probably still am according to some. But as you may hopefully know, emo didn't use to mean eyeliner and tight pants. No, back in the late 90s, the term referred to bands like Mineral and Sunny Day Real Estate who were lumped together because their singers wore their hearts on their sleeves (or had what Rock Band 2 tells me when I play a Jimmy Eat World song, "urgent vocals") and their guitarists didn't exclusively strum monotonous power chords. Ultimately, it was just as confusing and catch-all as it is today, but usually applied to passionate guitar-led bands that were also well-respected in the critical arena (hell, a SDRE record was Pitchfork's favorite of the year way back when).
While I'll admit there are similarities in today's Fall Out Boys and My Chemical Romances, not many bands still practice this in its true original form, which often was less pop-punk and more reflective rock. But one band is still consistently reliable quality-wise and still churns out the stuff my youth was made of: The Appleseed Cast. Now on their sixth full-length release, Sagarmatha, and on tour in support of the album, I had the pleasure of continuing my tradition of catching TAC live in concert here in Minneapolis at the Triple Rock Social Club recently. The Kansas band's performance was as mind-blowing as always, conjuring up a deep appreciation for their catalog both past and present. I would be remiss to not share the caustic beauty that is The Appleseed Cast's discography with y'all. Take a listen and let us know what bands are still around after six records that you still respect (I honestly can only think of a couple other names):
End Of The Ring Wars [1998, Deep Elm]: So of course for band whose longevity is their strength, the freshman effort is going to be a little rough around the edges. It's not the album that got me hooked to the Cast, but it amazingly still holds up, especially when placed aside the band's subsequent offerings. Singer Christopher Crisci's voice is yelpy to the nth degree, but still works on almost every track because he packs so much intensity into his delivery that we can't help but believe in what's he's singing, even when we can't understand him (which will be a theme if you pay attention). What rises above the debatable vocals, however, is the instrumentation at work here. The guitars are raw and dirty, but also incredibly powerful. As are the drums, whose frenzied delicacy only become more virtuosic as the band progresses. If that's not enough for you, check out the closing instrumental, which brings a flurry of sax and brass to the mix, positively busting the roof off the mother. The opener, "Marigold & Patchwork", however, is still my favorite example of the outfit's ability to mix both the calm and the chaotic within seconds.
Mare Vitalis [2000, Deep Elm]: But here's where my obsession officially began. Deep Elm used to be home to a bevy of old school emo artists, some good and some terrible, but TAC is by and far the best thing they've ever brought to the record-buying public. I took notice when I found this after I got my first delay pedal for my Gibson SG in the 11th grade. I had never realized a guitar could sound so deep and resonant until I heard this record, plugged in my newly acquired pedal, and started immediately ripping off every single guitar lick on this record. The band at this point had obviously begun to realize their vision of creating booming and melancholic ambient rock songs that never bored or depressed their audience. It's quite a feat they managed to achieve, but every single song, from the jubilant "Fishing The Sky" to the rousing "Santa Maria", does this in spades. In the end though, if I had to choose one song to highlight for you, it's "Forever Longing The Golden Sunsets", which, despite its pretentious title, is probably the most honest and genuine sounding rock song that came out in 2000, a year when the genre's popular kids were confused about whether to stick with post-grunge or give rap-rock a try. I can't express how grateful I am for finding TAC that year.
Low Level Owl Vol. 1 & 2 [2001, Deep Elm]: And just when I thought it couldn't get any better, and just a little more than a year later, the band I had fallen in love with put out their career behemoth double-disc masterpiece. It had the relentless guitar and cymbal work of Vitalis but added a layer I didn't even know they needed: dreaminess. Intercut with sprawling instrumentals ("Sunset Drama King") and experimental (yet still heavenly on the ears) tape manipulations ("Birds Of Paradise"), the Cast took what made their last record so phenomenal and challenged themselves and their sound rather than just refine the sound they had seemingly found the last time around. The results they came back with are so staggeringly gorgeous and hypnotic that it literally feels like you're catapulted into a dream world of clouds and stars, and as the standout track "Steps And Numbers" proclaims, they're just waiting to be pulled down and cherished. The risky move of doing a double-disc release (and oh how the discs transition between each other - Corgan can suck it and bow down) for both an independent label and artist catapulted them to official stardom in the indie circuit, with AllMusic calling the group "America's closest answer to Radiohead", and when I saw them for the first time the next year, Madison's student union outdoor pavilion flooded with fans clamoring to hear these songs as the sun set in the background. It was quite the spectacle - one I'll never forget and ranks even higher for me personally than the Pixies' first reunion show.
Two Conversations [2003, Tiger Style]: After the last release(s), no one thought the Cast could top themselves. Unfortunately, the skeptics were mostly right. That's not to say this album is a throwaway at all, however. Quite the opposite, actually - like Vitalis, every song is jam-packed with muscle, and the production here is actually top-notch in comparison to the band's first two records. Unfortunately, the lyrics become discernible here, both in that you can actually hear what Crisci is singing and he's telling much more of a straightforward story about a break-up rather than dabbling in exuberant metaphors like he usually does. But just like Low Level Owl was a ballsy move, to follow up your breakthrough release with something so guileless and bereft of mystery is laudable. It's almost as if he and his bandmates said, "You like that? What if we strip it all down so you only see our skeletons?" That's badass, in my opinion. And it still turns out to be remarkably enjoyable, with guitars that perk and swerve ("Hanging Marionette") and percussion that's at once ruthless and intricate ("Ice Heavy Branches"). "Fight Song" is the album's climax, and while yes the words you're hearing may sound trite, the fierceness of the song's consummation is unforgettable and will chill your spine. Woops, now Crisci and co. can see your skeleton.
Peregrine [2006, Militia Group]: Okay, so by this point it's no surprise when TAC comes back with a release, especially three years later (the longest interval between albums for the band), and they have yet again reinvented themselves. What might have made this record get lost in the shuffle though, other than coming off a release that was largely dismissed by the indie circuit, is that the reinvention here is both subtle and uncomfortable. Rather than stay big and pungent in sound, they stretched out their tempos and got even spacier with an effects-laden soundtrack vibe, only sprinkling the ardency here and there with dedicated reserve. This is probably the first time you can use the adjective "mature" with the Cast, though they always have been, just never afraid to liberally apply the rock and the sadness to hit their emotions home. If you're able to appreciate innovative (sometimes to a fault) production work and meandering guitar freakouts (and clearly I am), songs like the instrumental "The Clock And The Storm" and the acoustic-sprinkled "Here We Are (Family In The Hallways)" should fit nicely on your iTunes playlist. Every song trickles gently into the ear, with unexpected moments of controlled wildness, and ends up leaving you with a satisfied (just not blown away) air about you. "Sunlit And Ascending" is as close as they get to flexing their abilities, and naturally, is my pick for the album because of it.
Sagarmatha [2009, Militia Group]: Finally, we end with the band's latest release, which is just as much responsible for this written revisiting through TAC's past as is my latest excursion to see them live. After Peregrine, I had honestly started inching away from their music, not because I didn't care for it but because it just felt good, not outstanding. But when I, with absolutely no expectations whatsoever, put on the headphones and pressed play on this, I almost immediately (and completely prematurely) called it the record of the year. Then I remembered I had also listened to releases by Telefon Tel Aviv and P.O.S. and had to backpedal. But still, hearing what is definitely the band's culmination of everything they've done up until this record totally floored me. It's epic, it's energetic, it's harmonious, and it's pensive. It includes a trace of every aspect of the Cast that wowed me as a teenager, as a college student, and as a real live adult. And while I don't see myself ever declaring it better than Low Level Owl, it's definitely their best effort since that record. "As The Little Things Go" contains elements that are both profound and modest and "South Col" is simultaneously aggressive and introspective, but despite that, the brief ditty "The Summer Before" is my current favorite. It might be because it's the most life-affirming or because it's the perfect balance of hazy and pretty, but really, I don't know yet. The best thing about this band is that ten years from now I can listen back and enjoy it just as much as I do today.
Chris Polley teaches high school English, often with his hair disheveled and a glint of crazy in his eye, in the Midwest's greatest city, Minneapolis. He rambles on and conducts discourse with friends and strangers about the horrific beast that is pop culture over at The Blogulator.