Phillip Morgan ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Providing the template for other narrative-driven post-hardcore bands like La Dispute, Defeater, and Take One Car, mewithoutYou has grown into one of the most influential acts from the 2000s. In a time when a good chunk of the emo and post-hardcore scene was more concerned with eyeliner, screaming with all the raw emotion of a muppet being strangled to death, and callously glamorizing suicide, the Philadelphia quintet offered a refreshing dose of unassuming, cerebral post-hardcore that never hesitated to challenge its fans. But sometimes their auteuristic ambitions stretched into polarizing territory, like with their heavily folk and art-rock influenced 2009 LP It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright! and their follow-up, 2012’s Ten Stories, failed to fully rekindle their early goodwill despite opening with a direct sequel to one of their most famous songs (likely because an album concept centered around lost circus animals can be a tad distracting).
Yet they’ve soldiered on, reintroducing the manic, raw mewithoutYou of yore through the Tenth Anniversary Tour of their breakthrough 2004 album Catch for Us the Foxes, and it appears reconnecting with their older material on such a deep level left an impression that followed the band all the way into recording their newest record. Released in late June via Run For Cover Records, Pale Horses is simultaneously the mewithoutYou album longtime fans have been craving and a surefire lightning rod for the latest batch of newcomers, because it’s the first album they’ve made in years that feels like a totally organic progression. There are no quirky gimmicks here, no accordion-fueled folksy overhaul, no grand epics about circus animals miraculously surviving a trainwreck. Pale Horses is simply five seasoned musicians doing what they do best… and also attempting to reconcile the eventual end of everything.
The band’s knack for hypnotic melodies and drums remains one of their greatest strengths, and judging by how many of these song end on moodier, downplayed sections rather than a final, anthemic chorus, it’s fair to say mewithoutYou knows it too. In fact, often those final subdued reveal themselves as the song’s last minute chorus (“D-Minor”), or turn the entire main idea on its head (“Watermelon Ascot,” “Birnam Wood”). Sure, there are faint traces of typical song structure as they alternate between quiet and loud sections, but even there they manage to slip in slight variations to keep you from completely settling in. In lesser hands that could be an album-breaking annoyance, but they pass by far too quickly and quietly to completely disorient you. Unless it’s intentionally jarring, like the sudden tempo shift at the end of “Birnam Wood,” but even then they keep you hooked with darkly alluring melodies and beats worthy of an Addams Family house party.
Of course, returning in full force on this record are the cryptically beautiful narrative lyrics of frontman Aaron Weiss. Back when Pale Horses was first announced, he said the album is just as much about personal disaster as global, citing it as “the most unguarded record I’ve ever been a part of,” and while his delivery is more or less the same with the multiple mics for different vocalizations (subdued monologue, clean singing, shouting his head off, etc.), there is a clear emphasis on the confessional side over the intellectual side this time around. Fear not, he’s still wrapped up in esoterics, drawing from parables across multiple religions to craft his own narratives of self-reflection and discovery, but those subtexts are even more subdued now than before (because even when you reference four or five faiths in songs that often call the whole institution itself into question, you’re apparently still a “Christian Rock” band in the eyes of the people). Rather than dwell on how the apocalypse shall cometh, Weiss instead wonders if he can truly grow attached to anything knowing all he cares about will one day fade. It’s a haunting question no one can answer (a point he frequently acknowledges), and while his words may still feel nearly impenetrable upon first listen, the imagery he invokes and the passion behind every word at least get your foot in the door, allowing you to decide for yourself if you want to dig deeper.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band hasn’t changed all that much, not that there was ever any need for them too, but their precision has sharpened tremendously from their years together. With Weiss commandeering pretty much all the vocal duties (there aren’t any background chorus lines this time around), guitarists Michael Weiss and Brandon Beaver find themselves free to crank up the distortion again, injecting the record (and probably the band overall) with a much-needed adrenaline shot that’s long been missing from their sound, to say nothing of their ever winding melodic ability. Bassist Greg Jehanian also steps out of the background more, delving into more dynamic and even jazzy grooves from time to time. As always, drummer Rickie Mazzotta is a creative and technical monster behind the kit, arguably the biggest contributor to the mesmeric nature of their headier passages as well as the battery that keeps the band energized both live and in studio.
Opener “Pale Horse” introduces the entire record with, “Pale horse songs of a slow decline / Sideshow words if the songs don’t mind / A few more lines, the oil and the wine / I thought I’d left that all behind,” and it’s fair to say that before this record many of their fans agreed. Having spent the past few years resigned in the belief that the mewithoutYou that helped shape contemporary post-hardcore was long gone, Pale Horses is a most welcome surprise for the diehards and an excellent launchpad for everybody else. It’s not exactly a collection of catch-all summer anthems, but then again mewithoutYou have never been that kind of band. They do what feels right to them, and though that mindset has led to more than a few missteps, it’s refreshing to see them back at the top of their game, apocalyptic musings and all.