Monday, June 1, 2009

Rival Schools - United by Fate

There are at least two things I know about Walter Schreifels: 1) He’s the virtuoso guitarist and sometimes singer/songwriter/lyricist behind several of the biggest bands to come out of the New York hardcore scene in the past 20 years, including Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits and Quicksand, and, alongside former bandmate Sammy Siegler (drummed for Youth of Today, Gorilla Biscuits), the founder of Rival Schools and 2) He really likes using pedals.

I mean, if United by Fate is any indication. There are plenty of aspects of note that occur within this album: the supergroup-style collaboration of NYHC mainstays, the cultivation of a more varied and musically eclectic sound for long-time hardcore kids, as opposed to the raw, straight-forward outrage of the Youth Crew days, as well as just a general sense of established maturity that runs throughout United by Fate. But what always jumps out at me each and every time I listen is the guitars: the variety, the experimentation, the way they manage to emphasize both melody and heaviness in their own respective turns. Not only is the guitar work fantastic, but it sets the tone, taking an ambitious hardcore effort and turning it into a concoction that is as much owing to grunge and alternative as it is punk rock. Such a crossover could easily end up going sour in any number of ways, but surprisingly, it works.

Played differently, United by Fate could come off as just another melodic punk album, but then the very sense of maturity that sets it apart would be lost. The song writing would still allow it to stand out, but it wouldn’t sound as new, as fresh. Instead, the guitars are crushing when they have to be, and catchy, even elegant, when they don’t. Bits and pieces of Gorilla Biscuits come through in the underlying song structure, and one can sense a definite melodic hardcore influence on United by Fate, but it isn’t the prevailing influence. Rival Schools’ sound is more reminiscent of mid-90’s post-grunge, except instead of sounding watered down and depleted, like the pop radio hits of that era, they sound a novel combination, both vibrant and aggressive. A good comparison might be to the Matthew Good Band, circa Underdogs, another example of a band that manages to be listener-friendly without giving up its claws.

Guitar isn’t Schreifels’ only contribution to United by Fate though. As vocalist, he performs ably. Schreifels sings with a world-weary rasp, plodding through the slower sections with a sense of beaten down fatigue. This aspect perfectly serves to accentuate the urgency in his voice when the music picks up, as he powers through the heavier, more energetic sections with all the force he can muster. The result adds a human core to the otherwise interesting instrumental arrangements, one especially present on the excellent “Undercovers On”, a somewhat cryptic song about a meeting between two people whose relationship has lapsed. The song is driven by a slow-moving bass line and Schreifels voice matches with all the enthusiasm of grim death, but as the guitars pick up and the song crescendos, the simple tale of two people drifting apart becomes epic in scope, teeming with passion and relatable in sentiment.

Rival Schools’ debut album is a blistering tribute to what grunge should have begat: music which is heavy without being mindless and emotional without feeling feigned. If this is what happens when hardcore kids grow up, then sign me up.

United by Fate


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