The Anniversary

Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me Turns 10

Deathwish Inc.
2011
Deathwish Inc.
2011

By 2011, post-hardcore had become a meaningless term. What had once denoted a style of music that pushed the boundaries of the genre it came from was now, in many ways, codified and commodified into something sleek and polished, the likes of which hardcore had initially willed itself into existence to spite.

But to only think of post-hardcore in that sense was to ignore the hyperactive underbelly that had always existed in the DIY community. The ’90s and the aughts had seen underground hardcore operating within its own vibrant and self-sustaining ecosystem even as many of the bands it nurtured were rocketing to greater heights. The advent of the New Tens, however, represented a boiling point where that same underground world, thanks to the exposure and interconnectivity granted by websites like Tumblr and MySpace, was beginning to invade the same spaces that had once mercilessly co-opted its sound and ethos.

The Wave was a semi-jocular term, referring to bands that worked within the sonic cross-section of uncompromisingly independent and abrasive ’90s hardcore and the kind of warmly melodic sensibilities and accessible vulnerability that had turned emo into an explosive juggernaut at the turn of the century. La Dispute, Pianos Become The Teeth, Defeater — these are borderline household names now. But the band that was the most searingly direct in its approach, as well as the band that held its ’90s screamo touchstones closest to its heart, was Touché Amoré.

Springing forth from the same fertile California DIY hardcore soil that had birthed soon-to-be-legendary contemporaries like Ceremony, Loma Prieta, Dangers, and Punch, Touché was a singular beast. At first glance, they were easily defined by frontman Jeremy Bolm’s sandpapery voice — outwardly harsh but capable of delivering lyrics with the utmost clarity and conviction — and a bracingly snarky attitude that revealed itself in song titles like “Hipsterectomy” and “WeHateFredPhelps.com,” a loving holdover from the days of smart-ass song titles and lyrics courtesy of the likes of Neil Perry and Palatka.

But a closer look revealed an uncommon depth to their songwriting, both in their mournful guitar melodies as well as in Bolm’s lyrics, which could be witty and withering or self-lacerating and beautifully neurotic in equal measure. On both their self-titled 2008 EP as well as their debut album, To The Beat Of A Dead Horse (which characteristically ripped through 11 songs in about 18 minutes), their calling card was “Honest Sleep,” a song that began with the piss and vinegar of a classic emoviolence track but coalesced into a hauntingly memorable shout-along about sleep deprivation, loneliness, and the kind of conflicted relationship with your hometown that was normally reserved for pop-punk bands like Fireworks and Man Overboard. Yes, Touché Amoré was an aggressive band, but they had deep melodic hooks and a cracked, weathered relatability coursing through their veins. It was only a matter of time before a bigger audience caught up to them.

After a lengthy, brutal touring regimen as well as a split EP in 2010 with likeminded compatriots La Dispute, Touché Amoré found themselves on Deathwish Inc., the label founded by Jacob Bannon of Converge (in many ways, the godfather of hardcore’s tortured artist archetype). It was the perfect home for Touché — a label known for artistic integrity as well as for releasing some of the most impassioned and depressive hardcore bands of the previous decade, such as Modern Life Is War, the Hope Conspiracy, and Blacklisted, all of whom seemed like natural forerunners to the sound that Touché trafficked in.

The timing was right as well — 2011 was a year that witnessed watershed releases by the aforementioned La Dispute (Wildlife) as well as bands like Title Fight (Shed) and, if you could squint your eyes enough to include them, The Story So Far (Under Soil & Dirt). All of these records were proving that creatively heavy and melodic post-hardcore with intensely confessional and sincere lyrics could cross over to a wider audience that was starved for authentic self-expression. It’s no coincidence that this was an era in which Suburbia I’ve Given You All And Now I’m Nothing by pop-punk’s resident literary luminaries the Wonder Years experienced a clear overlap in listener demographics with declarations of metallic hardcore war like Harms Way’s Isolation and Foundation’s When The Smoke Clears. In many ways, Touché Amoré were sonic representatives of that section of the Venn diagram.

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me — released 10 years ago today — became such a successful and acclaimed breakthrough. What made Touché’s second album truly special was the fact that it earned every single bit of that success and acclaim. Parting The Sea is a masterpiece of restraint; refusing to depart from their whiplash-inducing song lengths, it consisted of 13 discrete movements that clocked in at about 20 minutes total. The production, courtesy of Ed Rose (he of Black Lodge Recording, coincidentally co-owned by members of ’90s emo-pop legends the Get Up Kids), is distinctly autumnal: crisp and dry, capable of conveying the warm glow and melancholy ebullience of the chords that announce signature opener “~” as well as the bleakly cold atmosphere of late-album standout “Condolences.”

Never before had Elliot Babin’s drum work sounded so clear, so hard-hitting, so effusive. The twin guitar attack of Nick Steinhardt and Clayton Stevens is the definition of lockstep — both are masters of measured balance, carefully blending minor-key atavism with borderline-twinkly overtures, so that neither ever overwhelms the other. The secret weapon is the driving bass work of Tyler Kirby, who operates in the liminal space between lead and rhythm, often subtly guiding the direction and tone of each song with aplomb.

Of course, the star of the show is Bolm, whose vocals had matured into a devastating roar that was as articulate as it was emotionally bulimic. He has often spoken of his struggles with depression and especially social anxiety, which makes his ability to lovingly sculpt the minute details of those struggles all the more impressive. He had given himself and all the kids like him a name and a place on “Honest Sleep,” but it’s on Parting The Sea that he dissects his and their emotions with a surgeon’s scalpel and the consideration and candor of a dear friend. “I’m not a provider, I’m a center divider” he proclaims on early standout “Pathfinder”; it’s no small irony that such a succinct declaration of deteriorating friendship became one of the biggest communal rallying cries at Touché’s legendarily intense live performances.

The centerpiece of Parting The Sea is the seventh song, “Method Act,” an idiosyncratic, brutal, and honest meditation on the impact of social anxiety, both emotional and physical. It’s not enough for Bolm to describe driving for hours alone and avoiding incoming calls for fear of human contact — the beauty of “Method Act” lies in its powerhouse climax. As the performance of the band reaches a cacophonous fever pitch — Babin’s drums sounding like a heartbeat during a panic attack while the guitars approximate an ear-ringing white noise — Bolm elucidates the stomach pain and nausea of anxiety and adds the keenly observed detail of “look[ing] to the floor to keep concentration.” It’s a powerful moment, and one that sometimes feels like the culmination of the album.

Of course, that would only be true were it not for “Condolences,” which was, to this point in Touché’s discography, a complete anomaly. While Bolm does not shift from his signature scream, it is muffled and pushed down in the mix, which makes the entire song sound like he is desperately pleading for someone, anyone to listen to him from inside the hole that he’s dug for himself. With spare piano accompaniment (courtesy of Babin), Bolm rhythmically, heartbreakingly recites a short poem imagining his own funeral. It’s stunning to realize that there’s really only seven lines of lyrics; in the moment, “Condolences” feels like an entire world. The power of the song is self-evident — it’s no surprise that on their victory lap live album, 10 Years/1000 Shows, it’s given a crushing full-band makeover in order to match the intensity of the crowd’s sing-along. If DIY hardcore and emo are about catharsis, about the breaking down of boundaries between artist and audience, it’s hard to argue that Touché Amoré didn’t manage to distill the concept to its platonic ideal on “Condolences,” in spite of (or even because of) its sonic disparities with the rest of the form.

Parting The Sea Between Brightness And Me partly works because of that lack of distance between artist and listener, but it also works as a cohesive piece of art because of its self-contained nature. Every song flows from one to the next like a river — sometimes smoothly, and sometimes with all the stress, paranoia, and fear of trying to swim against the current. The chaotic dysfunction of “Method Act” spills so naturally into the gloomy opening chords of “Face Ghost” that it still takes the listener by surprise when the latter explodes into its true self. It says something that even within a discography as unique and unimpeachable as Touché’s, the tracklist of Parting The Sea reads like a greatest hits: The vast majority of the album’s songs are tentpoles in Touché’s setlists to this day, and even the songs that get comparatively less playtime (“Wants/Needs,” “Home Away From Here,” “Crutch”) still feel colossal in the context of the album.

Bolm has said that the album is something of a concept record about the collapse of relationships and the comfort in solitude that comes from touring, but really, it reads like a treatise on fighting the urge to give up. On “Home Away From Here” he says that “It’s just I have this problem where I wanna be everywhere I’m not” and details the struggles of not being able to eat or pay rent; it sounds almost monumental and triumphant amidst the despair. The final lines of the album are “At the end, I swear I’m trying,” and it’s that perseverance that speaks to those who feel as though they’ve only ever known what it’s like to be at the bottom or at the end of their rope. Parting The Sea is an album for a subset of people that will exist in every generation. Regardless of whether Bolm thinks it’s best for everyone, no one is going to forget about Touché Amoré when they’re gone.

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