Dead Poet Society
Spinefarm (CD, LP)
By Luke Madden
Dead Poet Society need to take a xanax, or two.
It’s been five years since Dead Poet Society’s last full-length release, Axiom, a claustrophobic and aggressive album that makes the listener feel like the walls are closing in. On their new album -!-, however, we now see the walls closing in on the band. Gone are the days of youth, arrogance, impunity and fearlessness for the L.A.-based foursome. Self-doubt, anxiety, unwanted introspection, consequences and regret are here to stay. That’s not to say that the band is down for the count. With a familiar bluesy and brash sound bleeding through, Dead Poet Society know in the world's chaos they’re going down with the ship, and will play their hearts out before they sink below the waves.
The opening song "futureofwar" oozes its way out of the spoken-word intro with droning guitars that feel like a pyroclastic flow-slow, unstoppable and destructive. A jagged guitar line then slices and mutilates its way through the drone, with the efficiency of a cruel weapon that the name of the track suggests. The hypnotizing side-stick drum patterns feel like sand whipping your eyes as the ominous guitars puts you in some far away country fighting some pointless and brutal war.
Angst permeates all of -!-, but it’s pointed inwards. On the interlude —"-gopi-" — we get one of the band members asking a woman for her thoughts on a new song, and she certainly tells the band how she feels. The vitriol she spits sounds like a bitter boomer who stopped listening to music in 1979 and complaining about today’s music. But she isn’t the only one who’s had it — it sounds like the band has, too. On Killers-reminiscent ".AmericanBlood." the vocalist, Jack Underkofler, aches and moans, asking himself what he’s doing with his life and “tries to keep his head up” with the pounding drums echoing the his frustrations. The roaring melodic guitars sound like the guitarist is five seconds from breaking down and crying, too. To nurse their pain, they trash a hotel room like rockers do — or at least that's the image that is conjured when listening to "intoodeep" It seems like their only escape is in writing pit-in-your-stomach induced bass lines, tom-heavy drums with a razor sharp attention to dynamics. Underkofler’s lyrics suggest that he’s escaping his inner turmoil by embracing the chaos around him.
Every band ever has talked about how isolating, disorienting and lonely touring can be, with members leaving families and their everyday lives back home. Well, I "Never Loved Myself Like I Loved You," sounds like the band members are asleep in their hotel beds dreaming about all the things that they are missing. In this case, the band is mourning a lost love. The verse, full of gorgeous yet aloof guitar lines, steady as a heartbeat bass, drums that fail to mask the depth of their emotions and vocals that sound like Underkofler is trying to say everything he should have said to her. And just like that, the chorus wakes up the dreaming band members, reminding them that there’s no getting her back, and worse: they have a sound check at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow.
"SALT" and "lovemelikeyoudo" see Dead Poet Society doing their best Joker impression; a deranged, robotic and spidery one at that. All the angst, frustration and loss has finally turned Dead Poet Society into a cold and robotic husk of itself. Discordant and unpredictable guitar lines arch over ice cold and metallic vocals with the drums trying their best to get out of the way of the seething bass line. Has Dead Poets Society lost it? Is the band doomed to be a soulless husk as displayed in these songs?
No, I don’t think so. Interlude "-JU-" (my biggest complaint with this album is the spelling of these song titles) features a presumable band member, remarking that playing music for him is an expression of his feelings that allows for anyone to tap into what he is feeling. Catharsis on a grand scale, if you will. Then on album opener "-!-," someone also remarks on the importance of authenticity in music. Well given that Dead Poet Society use -!'s 43-minute run time as a therapy session, the band is finally able to let go of their inner demons, evading the possibility of soullessness that rears its head on "SALT" and "lovemelikeyoudo." And telling their fans who they really are and how they are feeling is pretty authentic. But all of this isn’t to say that the band are back to normal. The spectral acoustic track "haunted" shows that the problems are still there, but self expression keeps them at bay. Dead Poet Society are clearly broken, but for now, certainly not defeated.