Phillip Morgan ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
If you, like me and the majority of their fans, discovered Baltimore, MD’s Pianos Become the Teeth through their 2011 LP The Lack Long After and fell in love with their sound right then and there, then you were probably quite shocked in early 2013 when Pianos released a surprise single featuring almost completely clean vocals. From there, it was a slippery slope away from the anguished howling listeners had come to know as distinctly PBTT, as clean vocals began creeping their way into their entire live set, finally coming to a head when they announced their 2014 LP Keep You would feature pretty much no screaming vocals at all. Naturally there was a significant amount of doubt that a band so closely associated with pained, hoarse screaming could even pull off an album with clean vocals, but many of their older fans took it father. They declared feelings of betrayal, claiming that the change would ruin the authenticity of their live performance and that the new record would never be “true” PBTT to them.
It’s a shame that sect of fans didn’t come see their album release show only days before Halloween at Middle East, because they may have come to realize how misplaced their fears were. What a lot of people both inside and outside of the post hardcore community seemingly fail to grasp is that screaming alone is not tantamount to emotional depth and intensity. That weight post hardcore is known for comes from the delivery of the vocals and how well the music can match that depth and tonality without gradually losing steam. Pianos understands that, to the degree that they can turn the common paradigm on its head and still craft a beautiful record. The ten songs that make up Keep You (most of which were performed live for the first time at this show) are much more grounded than the band’s previous material, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their intensity or energizing feel. Drummer David Haik is much subtler with his wickedly intricate drumming than before, with the album featuring less sudden breaks and tempo/dynamic shifts, but his patterns haven’t gotten any simpler, just streamlined. The same can be said about the guitar-work of Chad McDonald and Michael York, who ease up ever so slightly on the distortion pedals this time around, but can still make the darker chords as heavy and angst-fueled as ever, and their post-rock inspired dual guitar riffs and spacey textures are still as interesting as ever. So really, the only massive change musically is the shift to using atmospherics to build emotion rather than relying on quick tempo changes, dynamic shifts, and epic howling passages.
Of course, frontman Kyle Durfey deserves credit for stepping way out of his comfort zone for these new songs, and the risk was well worth it. I was worried Durfey may not be able to transfer his singing chops to the live setting, having spent so many years performing scream-style, but that fear died about 30 seconds into the first song. His clean vocals are actually a major highlight of the new record and their live set. His voice has this dark, ghost-like quality while also showcasing an intimidating range and depth to it that most emo singers only dream about achieving. Impressive as it is on the new record, Durfey further transferred some of the technique to the vocals some of their older songs, and the contrast was staggering. Also stepping up this go around is bassist Zac Sewell, who not only contributed the majority of the backing vocals but also brought much more intriguing bass lines into the mix, as the lessening of distortion leaves him, both live and on the record, much more exposed than ever before.
Whatever controversy brews over the new vocal approach, fans new and old can agree that PBTT’s live performance is quite the spectacle. Indeed, however much their music may have calmed down, their live persona is as in-your-face as ever. Haik still sounds like a jet engine behind the drum kit, with even the subtlest fills feeling like thunderclaps, and the guitars follow suit with deadly precision. Meanwhile, Durfey clutches the mic like life support, towering over the mass of people at the mosh clawing at the front of the stage, and jumps in head-on at pretty frequent intervals. All while still belting out every line of every song, Durfey engages the mosh pit directly, holding the mic in for all nearby to join him in his anguish wailing, even crowdsurfing himself during the final lines of “Hiding” before finally laying down at the front of the stage, emotionally drained and more than willing to temporarily allow the crowd brief control of the mic. Yes, drained. Pianos is not a band for the faint of heart, and judging by the crowd’s reactions, neither are their fanbase. There’s not really traditional moshing during their set, but nearly everyone swarms the front of the stage for the entire performance as people close as much of the gap between them and the band as possible, shouting every single word in unison with Durfey and the rest of the band. There are crowdsurfers, but most people are focused on engaging the music, as Durfey’s direct interactions are really quite rare among today’s live performers. It says a lot about the fans’ respect for their musical ability, and the catharsis and emotional release their music gives both listener and performer, exhausting as it is.
Talking to the band briefly after the show, it was pretty clear that it takes its toll on them mentally and physically, as Haik chugged down water bottle #3 of that evening. And yet, the emotional release they enact onstage appears to be what drives them, as I could see quite plainly the immense joy on their faces when people stopped to tell them how amazing they were to see live. Durfey in particular beamed when I complimented his clean vocals, and though he could only manage to give me a half smile and a quiet “thanks dude,” the look in his eyes said it all. Pianos is a band that is constantly trying to push their own boundaries, pouring their soul into their music and live set, and the bulk of their fans seem to resonate extremely well with that mentality. Sure, there was that one belligerently drunk kid in a Panic! at the Disco hoodie who ragged on him for “turning into a p*ssy” on the new record, but after such an emotionally charged performance I’m not even sure that kid registered on his brain. If you’re new to Pianos Become the Teeth, I would recommend checking out their new LP Keep You as well as its predecessor, 2011’s The Lack Long After, in order to get a sense of the full range of their sound, but be warned: Pianos Become the Teeth is not your average 2010s post hardcore band. Their live performance is a force to be reckoned with, but if you’re looking for a truly cathartic performance, this is the band for you. Just be prepared to see a bunch of punks cry afterwards.