Side projects are supposed to be fun. They’re supposed to be reasons to fuck around — chances for musicians to get away from the people they’re usually working with and to get loose with a whole new group of people. They’re supposed to be opportunities to explore a whole new genre, to try out ideas that didn’t quite fit with the main band. But nobody told Cameron Boucher. Boucher also leads Sorority Noise, the melodically gut-scraping emo band whose 2015 album, Joy, Departed, was one of the most powerful things that’s come out of that genre in the past decade or so. Joy, Departed was an album about drugs and recovery and death and loss. It was heavy. You might think that Boucher would get a little less heavy with his side-project band. You would be wrong. The first song on Slow Burn, the second album from Boucher’s band Old Gray, is called “Pulpit,” and it ends with these lines: “For the longest time, I contemplated death as the only escape / And the only way to make myself rid of the feelings I have left / I’ve lost too many friends to feel that way anymore / To know that my life is not a continuation of theirs / So I sit at home, and I waste away, and I grow tired of the things I love.” So yeah. Boucher isn’t having a lot of fun here.
From another perspective, though, Old Gray are a total side project. It’s a genre exercise of sorts, and it’s entirely distinct from Boucher’s main band. Sorority Noise are a serious band, a band that packs a whole lot of meaning into every song. But they’re also at least a little bit Weezer-ish. They have big, fizzy pop-punk hooks and guitar riffs that will rattle around inside your skull. If you didn’t listen to the lyrics too closely, you could think of them as a good-time pogo band. Old Gray don’t offer that sort of relief. Their music is stark and clangy and violent, and it tends to come in quick bursts of catharsis. Old Gray play screamo, a genre that’s been given a bad name because of all the early-’00s bands who signed to major labels and cleaned things up in the wake of Thursday. But Old Gray don’t play that kind of screamo. They play the kind I remember hearing in basements in the late ’90s — the kind built from white-hot howls and sudden eruptions of noise, the kind that has its own structure and language. They sound more like early lights Orchid or Pg. 99 than like, say, Finch.
This is a style of music that, when played right, is capable of great beauty, and Old Gray play it right. Closing track “On Earth, As It Is In Heaven” is a powerful example. It starts out sounding like an Explosions In The Sky song, all ringing guitars and empty space. But it doesn’t take too much time. It flares up quickly, without a whole lot of warning, into a bruising physical crash of sound. The recording is hissy and low-tech; there’s none of that brickwalled sheen that came to define the genre’s sound. “Like Blood From A Stone” — which, along with “On Earth, As It Is In Heaven,” is one of the only songs that’s much longer than two minutes — is almost entirely spoken-word, as performance artist William James reads an intense story about self-mutilation in a Wal-Mart break room and psychiatric-facility camaraderie and the color of the sky. For much of the time, the band members aren’t even playing; they’re clearing out for James. And when they do start playing, they inch toward a sudden, furious conclusion — one that lasts only a few seconds before the song ends abruptly. And then there’s a song like “Given Up To You,” 20 seconds of directionless fury that gets across an entire song’s worth of internal conflict. The whole thing is even harder and meaner and messier than Old Gray’s last album, 2013’s An Autobiography, which was plenty hard and mean and messy.
But if Old Gray represent a dive into genre distinct from the one Boucher embraces in Sorority Noise, the sound isn’t one he takes the slightest bit lightly. He’s not just paying tribute to his favorite bands here. Slow Burn is an album made with a zealous sort of intensity. In the liner notes, Boucher writes, “To the listener: I wish this album didn’t have to be written. Please enjoy.” For Boucher, then, it’s an album that simply must exist, painful as it might be. And it’s very painful. Every song — or every song with lyrics, anyway — is about extreme depression or suicide or attempting to recover from loss. “The first time I contemplated death was 13, took a knife from the kitchen counter,” Boucher muses on “Pulpit.” On “Blunt Trauma,” he remembers watching a friend die: “I still think about the body, by the gas station where you lied / A bloodstained body of what once was, just another meal for the flies.” And that one friend isn’t the only one. Later on in the album, Boucher confesses, “I can’t handle any more phone calls telling me another friend is dead.”
This is brutal, difficult stuff, and the music itself is too brutal and difficult to give you any outs. But there is beauty in its chaos and squalor, in giving yourself up to this sort of gale-force sadness. If you’ve lost friends or suffered from the same sort of depression that Boucher so often describes, a record like this feels cleansing and renewing — a letter stuffed into a bottle, one that tells you that you’re not alone in the world. It’s a dark album about dark things, and it’s certainly not any goddam fun. But we all have our low moments, and in those moments, an album like this can be your best friend.
Slow Burn is out 12/9 on Boucher’s own Flower Girl Records. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• J. Cole’s late-breaking surprise release 4 Your Eyez Only.
• Neil Young’s mostly-acoustic, quickly-recorded Peace Trail.
• Ab-Soul’s dense, frantic rap LP DWTW.
• Odd Future member Hodgy’s solo debut Fireplace:TheNotTheOtherSide.
• Yasiin Bey and producer Ferrari Sheppard’s self-titled debut as Dec. 99th.
• Serengeti and Sicker Man’s experimental pop collaboration Doctor My Own Patience.
• Maria Taylor’s dreamy, personal In The Next Life.
• OvO’s rhythmic noise-rocker Futura.
• Enemies’ goodbye LP Valuables.
• Young L’s spacey rap mixtape The Boo Ghost.
• The Pharrell-dominated Hidden Figures soundtrack.
• Stove’s The Meat That Fell Out EP.