The long, melodramatic band name. The expansive and oft-shifting lineup. The grandiose, post-rock-infused approach to emo. The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die have always been about going big. So it was surprising when, after releasing their third full-length Always Foreign in 2017, they went home.
Always Foreign arrived into a moment when the “emo revival” TWIABP had helped to spearhead was running out of steam. Many of the key bands in emo’s so-called fourth wave were breaking up or disappearing into indefinite hiatuses. The critical zeitgeist moved on to new sensations. It did not help that Always Foreign, despite the hot political rage at its core, could not help but feel a bit restrained and underwhelming compared to Harmlessness. As the years rolled on and TWIABP remained quiet, it stood to reason this band might call it quits too — especially after the departure of several members, some acrimoniously, and the release of 2019’s career-spanning comp Assorted Works. Lots of groups go four years between releases, but there was enough speculation about TWIABP’s future that they felt compelled to inscribe “We Never Broke Up and We Never Will” in the liner notes to their new LP.
That album, Illusory Walls, finds the Philly-based unit reduced to five members: David Bello on lead vocals and guitar, Katie Dvorak on lead vocals and synth, Steven Buttery on drums and percussion, Josh Cyr (the band’s sole remaining founding member) on bass and backing vocals, and production maestro Chris Teti on “guitar, vocals, bass, and programming.” Structurally, they are as close to a “normal band” as they’ve ever been. But returning past their scene’s expiration date with a scaled-down lineup has not in any way hemmed in this band’s ambitions. If anything, this is TWIABP’s heaviest, proggiest, most audacious release to date. If Always Foreign was their Local Business, the more straightforward letdown following the breakthrough masterpiece, this new one is their The Most Lamentable Tragedy, scaling up the old bombast in every conceivable way.
The band documented on these 11 tracks is instantly recognizable as The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die: the scene-setting reverby arpeggios; the intertwined impassioned wails from Bello and Dvorak; vivid, surrealist lyrics about prevailing, against the odds, over depression, hate, and all manner of world-weariness; the peaceful coexistence of slow-build grandeur and pop accessibility. Some tracks, like “Queen Sophie For President,” surge with an urgent sweetness resembling Great Grandpa. Others, like “Trouble,” soar like Sunny Day Real Estate channeling Built To Spill. Bello’s piercingly melodic tenor continues to evoke a plucky underdog forging ahead through storm after storm, and Dvorak’s more conventionally pretty soprano always shows up just when Bello might otherwise begin to grate.
The things they say with those voices are consistently remarkable. It can be easy to miss most of the lyrics when they’re caught up in such a sweeping soundtrack, but TWIABP deserve credit for churning out lyrics as immersive and stirring as the music — stuff that, similarly, might come off as pretentious if it wasn’t so artfully executed. They continue to be brilliant at painting scenes, like the breathless getaway in “We Saw Birds Through The Hole In The Ceiling,” and crafting manifestos, like opening track “Afraid To Die.” Often the album reckons with environmental, emotional, or economic catastrophe, sometimes all at once: “Ohio river stomachache, pray DuPont, our water is safe/ If we don’t die out here on the grass, we might one day be middle class.” Sometimes they can’t help but laugh at how fucked everything feels: “We might take our lives too seriously/ What else is comedy, but acceptance of the real/ When you can’t afford the hospital/ And the ground is all banana peels?” But there’s always a glimmer of hope with this band; they have not forgotten the tricks they perfected on 2015’s anthemic career highlight Harmlessness, not least of all that ability to conjure triumph out of desolation.
At the same time, the difference in feel between the last couple albums and Illusory Walls is pretty stark, mainly because TWIABP have never sounded more metal than they do here. Ferociously technical guitar riffs rip through track after track, high in the mix as if spotlit. Lead single “Invading The World Of The Guilty As A Spirit Of Vengeance” features finger-tapping straight out of Guitar Center. “Died In The Prison Of The Holy Office” turns neo-classical at the end, in a way that evokes Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Carol Of The Bells.” Beyond the shredding, there’s a chaotically noisy girth to many of these songs that verges on black metal at times. “Your Brain Is A Rubbermaid” puts the Emperor in Godspeed You! Black Emperor — admittedly a weird thing to say about a three-minute song with a brightly tuneful Dvorak lead vocal. And then there are the last two tracks, fraternal twin epics that run 15 and 20 minutes respectively, towering over Illusory Walls and maybe even the band’s career to date.
Those last two songs… hoo boy. The World Is could have returned with just those two tracks, called them an album, and no one would have flinched or complained. These are two incredible pieces of music, sprawling in scope yet densely packed with sound and self-referential Easter eggs, each one a journey unto itself. Both of them instantly rank among this band’s finest achievements. First comes “Infinite Josh,” with a title that calls back to the band’s 2011 EP Josh Is Dead and music that keeps stacking upon itself, building ever skyward in prismatic echoes and choreographed lightning. “Our dreams get drowned in a river of present needs,” Bello repeats in one of the album’s most affecting metaphors. “The years float by like fallen leaves.” Bello’s poetic imagery moves along the horizontal axis, yet the music behind him keeps moving vertically, intensifying as it goes. It’s like watching all creation spiral upward into oblivion.
Then, just when you thought they could not push themselves to more gargantuan extremes, there is “Fewer Afraid,” a grand finale that also works as an overture of sorts for the band’s career to date. It begins with rising drama and rousing oration by Christopher June Zizzamia, a spoken word artist who toured with TWIABP in support of their collaborative EP Between Bodies in 2014. Eventually Bello is singing about evacuating the entire human and animal population from this dying planet, and the riffs are bobbing and weaving and dipping and diving, and a modest string section is hitting like a whole goddamn orchestra. “You believe in a god watching over,” Dvorak sings. “I think the world’s fucked up and brutal.” As the layers pile on and the tension spills over into release, Bello and Dvorak’s voices join together in one last burst of self-mythology: “The world is a beautiful place, but we have to make it that way/ Whenever you find home, we’ll make it more than just a shelter/ If everyone belongs there, it will hold us all together/ If you’re afraid to die, then so am I.”
From its massive scope to its resilient humanist idealism, “Fewer Afraid” conveys just about everything this band has ever excelled at. If TWIABP were seeking a capstone for their career, they could not do much better than this. Particularly when paired with “Infinite Josh,” it could easily be the sound of a band sticking the landing on their entire discography. Yet if those liner notes are to be believed, this crew has no interest in stopping, and Illusory Walls is no concluding statement. Good. The world needs bands this over-the-top, this in love with their own vision, unafraid to whip up a racket as big as their feelings and ideas and fully capable of bringing it to pass. However long it takes them, I cannot wait to hear them try to top this album. But for now, I’m going to enjoy this latest attempt.
Illusory Walls is out 10/8 on Epitaph.
Other albums of note out this week:
• James Blake’s Friends That Break Your Heart
• Shannon Lay’s Geist
• Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World
• Don Toliver’s Life Of A Don
• W.H. Lung’s Vanities
• Efterklang’s Windflowers
• BADBADNOTGOOD’s Talk Memory
• Sam Fender’s Seventeen Going Under
• Lala Lala’s I Want The Door To Open
• Karen Peris’ A Song Is Way Above The Lawn
• Porches’ All Day Gentle Hold !
• Natalie Hemby’s Pins And Needles
• S. Raekwon’s Where I’m At Now
• Ladyhawke’s Time Flies
• We Are Scientists’ Huffy
• Banoffee’s Teartracks
• Church Girls’ Still Blooms
• Trivium’s In The Court Of The Dragon
• Former Prince Rama member Taraka Larson’s Welcome To Paradise Lost
• Jerusalem In My Heart’s Qalaq
• Kowloon Walled City’s Piecework
• Dillon Francis’ Happy Machine
• James Arthur’s It’ll All Make Sense In The End
• John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live In Seattle
• Spiritual Cramp’s Here Comes More Bad News EP
• Fauness’ Maiden No More EP
• Battle Ave’s self-titled EP