My first interaction with Underoath was in college, and they terrified me a little bit. Why is that guy screaming? I can’t understand a word he’s saying! Fortunately, this initial listen was via the band’s 2004 album They’re Only Chasing Safety, a relatively pop-centric screamo album, featuring a lot of singing from drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, although the bulk of the vocals came via Spencer Chamberlain’s guttural growls and piercing high screams. Over time, I came to appreciate the energy of the songs, the passion of the vocals–both sung and screamed–and the overall sensibilities of the music. The album rocked and popped at the same time, but the heaviness of the sound covered up the shifty ease of the song structures.
In the albums that followed–2006’s Define the Great Line and 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation–the pop sensibilities of the band’s third record faded more and more, as the sound got both heavier and more sprawling, taking major steps away from verses and choruses in favor of more classical structures, parts and sections, movements and motifs. Some time after Separation, Gillespie left the band, but they added a new drummer, with whom they recorded 2010’s Ø (Disambiguation), the moodiest record in the band’s album since their early black metal days before Safety.
And then they disappeared, playing a short set of farewell tours in late 2012, and played their final show in January 2013. Two years later, they released a documentary about the tour–Tired Violence–that showed a band ending under not quite the best of circumstances, as some members, namely Spencer, wanted to continue, while others wanted to get off the road and spend more time with their families and take opportunities to do other things. Later that year, the unthinkable happened: the band announced a reunion tour, which would feature the playing of both Safety and Great Line in their entirety, a special vinyl release for both records and, perhaps most importantly, the return of Gillespie and the rest of the band who created those records. The announcement was a strange and unexpected occurrence, especially considering the depth of the relationship severing that felt apparent on Tired Violence, and yet there it was.
I went to see the Rebirth Tour at Amos’ Southend in Charlotte, and it was a wild, energetic show, albeit one I watched from the back because the mosh pit frightened me a little bit. I also assumed that was it. But as has often been the case with Underoath, I was wrong about that, too.
Earlier this year, the band suddenly dropped a video for a song called “On My Teeth,” and subsequently shared even bigger news: the band was really back now and was releasing Erase Me, its first album in nearly eight years, in April. Obviously when a band of its size goes away for a long time and then comes back, a lot of questions are asked: Is this a cash grab? What made them go away in the first place? What will new music sound like? Initial responses to “On My Teeth” were interesting, but the opinions of the general public aren’t really of major concern to me at this moment; instead, I’ll say that I was okay with the song at first, but was especially less enthusiastic about the single that followed, the very radio-friendly track “Rapture.” Still I tried to hold off full judgment until the album came out.
April 6 came during Spring Break, so E and I were in Charleston with her family, but on the Saturday morning that followed I found myself mostly alone in the big house we were all sharing. After watching Everton play rivals Liverpool to a 0-0 draw, I decided to get some writing done and throw on Erase Me for the first time. The record kicks off effectively, with “It Has to Start Somewhere” feeling a lot like pretty classic Underoath, especially the They’re Only Chasing Safety era of the band. The two singles–“Rapture” and then “On My Teeth”–followed, and the former continued to leave me at a loss, while the latter felt pretty comfortably mid-career Underoath to me. Then comes the middle of the record–roughly “Wake Me” to “ihateit”–where the radio friendliness, at least a first listen, began to make me feel uneasy. This was not the band that had left in 2010, it wasn’t even the band that released a giant album in 2004, although it did feel like some sort of strange hybrid of most of the band’s history, save for one thing: there were several songs without any screaming at all.
The record ends with a little more traditional Underoath turns, but closes with the moody, piano-led “I Gave Up,” which matches the melancholy and the pace of a song like “Some Will Seek Forgiveness, Others Escape,” although unlike the closer for Safety, the final punch of Erase Me sticks with its softness, ending the album on a dour note. My issue was that upon first listen, I didn’t feel the urge to listen again; I just felt disappointed.
Look, I know what a lot of you are thinking: bands are allowed to change, and should actually be encouraged to do so. And yes, I agree with this. But even for people like myself who consider themselves pretty advanced listeners, sometimes it’s true that emotions take over higher level thinking. The weirdest part about this particular instance is that there isn’t a singular sound I wanted from Underoath, because I like the string of Safety to Separation all a great deal, but for very different reasons ( Ø (Disambiguation) never did much for me, although in going back to it recently, I admit it’s got its charms). I don’t exactly what I expected of the band in 2018, but initially I knew that Erase Me wasn’t it.
A week or so after the release, I finally went back to the album, and soon the ear worms began to dig in. There was something undeniably catchy about songs like “Rapture,” “Bloodlust” and even the silly-titled “ihateit,” and as I began to take in more information about the record itself–like Matt Carter’s podcast with guitarist Tim McTague on the making of the record, or Spencer’s appearance on the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast–I felt compelled to go back to the record, to give it more than the chance my first listen suggested I should.
For various reasons, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where Erase Me rises above my three favorite Underoath records–there are just too many outside factors that are part of the reason I connect with those three so much and they’ve been part of my life for so long, I can’t imagine this new album having that much power–but I am willing to acknowledge that my first impression wasn’t completely accurate. It’s a good album, even if it’s not a spectacular one to my mind, full of interesting sonic choices and featuring a band that finally seems to be on the same page, as weird as that is to say this many albums in. The songs that sound more like alternative rock tunes are catchy, but still feel genuinely Underoath in a lot of ways, and are certainly better than most of what rock radio has to offer these days.
The point of all this is similar to something I considered after the release of the second Colony House album: music as art is tough, in part because of expectations of fans, but also because it’s one of the few mediums where the fan matters almost as much as the artist does. Maybe that means that Erase Me remains a mid-tier Underoath record in my mind, or maybe over the years I learn to love it more for whatever reason. Either way, my ability to grow with artists and to continue to let them do what they think is best is always going to be better.