Praise’s New Album Finds A Flash Of Color Between The Extremes
Singer Andy Norton on rejecting nihilism, paying homage to his melodic hardcore heroes, and the veteran Baltimore hardcore band's rousing, empathetic All In A Dream
Hardcore music can get pretty black-and-white with its worldview. Some bands howl about nihilism and betrayal, others about positivity and motivation. It’s no coincidence, though, that Praise’s new album All In A Dream is represented in its artwork with a burst of color. “No more world in black and white,” vocalist Andy Norton sings on its title track. “This world is in full color.”
“I love the late ’80s youth crew stuff, like Youth Of Today and the Revelation catalogue, [but] as a depressed teenager listening to that, that wasn’t how I felt. I wanted to be happy and view the world in a super positive light, but that wasn’t my reality,” says Norton, 39. “So when I started writing lyrics, I wanted to write in the middle, which is where I am. I’d rather see the world in full color.”
This is always Norton’s intention with Praise: meeting himself where he’s at, making his songs a genuine extension of himself. “Every choice we make is just to be honest with ourselves,” he explains. Praise aren’t a punk household name like their Baltimore cousins Turnstile and Angel Du$t (they share a drummer with both bands in Daniel Fang), but they’re longer-running than either, having formed in 2009. Fang’s busy schedule keeps them quiet between albums, but their back catalog is well worth exploring, and All In A Dream — their third record, out this Friday — is a standout piece of introspective, melodic hardcore.
When Praise formed, it was in the aftermath of Norton’s brother’s death. He had played in bands for almost a decade, most notably the straightedge group Champion, but Praise was the first he fronted, and it became an outlet in which he could process his grief directly and truthfully. The band’s identity was solidified a few years in, when Anthony Dye came on board as guitarist (their lineup is filled out now by Austin Stemper on second guitar and Chris Bavaria on bass). “Playing melodic stuff is never really the coolest thing to do, so it was hard to find [members]. But as soon as I met Anthony he was like my musical soulmate,” Norton says. “He was just able to articulate what I was thinking. So it was like, okay, now that there’s someone who can actually play guitar, let’s dig into the Dag Nasty, Rites Of Spring, Embrace stuff.”
They did so on 2014’s Lights Went Out and 2016’s Leave It All Behind, both of which featured raw explorations of grief. Writing All In A Dream became a source of frustration, as Norton tried to push himself to write about new topics and perform in new ways; he doesn’t consider himself a great writer, nor a great vocalist. “When you’re trying to be vulnerable and honest, it’s real easy to sound like an idiot. I’m constantly being like, ‘Is this too earnest? Is it just silly?’ I had to get down that wall. But if you look at all the bands that [influence Praise], like 7 Seconds, Rites Of Spring, Embrace — those lyrics are essential.” It was such an arduous process to write songs that felt worthy of that legacy that Norton almost burned out entirely. “A year and a half ago, I was convinced that this was it. Even recording the record, I was like, ‘This isn’t gonna happen again, I don’t have this in me.’ But the end goal is just so rewarding, and now I’m like, ‘Maybe I could do another one.'”
The album begins with its title track, which was Norton’s attempt at emulating the life-affirming hardcore of his heroes 7 Seconds. It’s a song about hope, love and kindness in the context of an undeniably dark world. “All In A Dream, it came to me / Visions of love, of a true beauty”, Norton sings. “I can’t write about war or politics, but [the title track] was my attempt at writing about the world from my own personal experiences,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to write a hopeful song about the world, but also attempt to be realistic. I think I am optimistic, but it absolutely takes work.” Other tracks like “Return To Life”, “Suddenly Human” and “Limited Sense of Possibility” see him making an effort to look beyond nihilism, to embrace his life in its good and bad.
There are darker songs; “Peace of Mine” and “A Life Unknown” address painful family dynamics in the wake of grief, and “Eyes In The Dark” is a diary of Norton’s experience with clinical depression. But in the context of hardcore, it’s notable that this isn’t a record defined by aggression or anger. While he sings with passion, he deliberately chose never to scream or yell in the vocal booth; and even in his most despairing lyrical moments, Norton seems to be on a tangible search for empathy and understanding. “To me it’s like, if you just accept that the world is dark and are miserable about it and project it onto other people, what’s the point? If I’m gonna go on and I’m gonna push through all this awfulness in the world, I wanna do something good. I wanna project joy and kindness on people.”
A repeated line on “Limited Sense Of Possibility” insists, “People aren’t one thing, we can grow.” That’s something that Norton applies both to his own life, and to his musical philosophy within Praise, allowing the band to follow whatever sonic threads they want to without feeling limited by the tag of hardcore punk. “I’m defined by the death of my brother, right? When people see me, that’s what they see. We limit ourselves to just being put in a box and pegged as one thing, and that’s not reality. And I think it’s dumb. People have so many layers, and have so much to offer each other. And hardcore to me is about not limiting yourself. I’ve been doing this a long time, [so] I want to continue to move forward and explore the unending possibilities of what you can do with music.” It’s an attitude for which Baltimore hardcore has come to be known; from big acts like Turnstile and Angel Du$t, to smaller ones like Truth Cult, bands from the area have made waves over the last half-decade by playing their own freaky, undefinable versions of hardcore.
“I think maybe in the beginning people didn’t give the Trapped Under Ice/Turnstile/Angel Du$t guys as much credit as they should have, but you’ve got some really brilliant guys and genius songwriters in there. And they’re showing people all over the world, myself included, that you don’t need to pin yourself to one thing. They’re opening doors not just in terms of how you measure success, but in terms of creativity in hardcore music,” Norton says. That said, what makes Praise different is that they’re interested in not just pointing fans forward, but back in time too. It’s deliberate that they wear their influences on their sleeve; they hope to give others the keys to explore hardcore’s rich history. “I care very deeply about the bands that inspired Praise, who made me wanna do this. If someone is like, ‘Yeah, the Praise record’s okay, but I heard Hüsker Dü or Egg Hunt or Rites Of Spring or 7 Seconds as a result of Praise, and those bands are my favorite bands,’ then I’m just as happy. We want to share the huge umbrella of melodic hardcore and punk music with people, and I hope that people can find the joy in it that I have.”
And if Norton sees things differently from some of his predecessors, it’s not out of a lack of love for them. Praise’s whole existence is really a love letter to hardcore and the lifelong spark it’s given Norton. “I have parents who are for the most part pretty wonderful and gave me a lot of good direction in how to treat people, but I think that Kevin Seconds and Gorilla Biscuits and Youth Of Today all helped me a lot too. And I’m thankful for it. It’s helped shape my life, and I think it’s made me a better person.” All In A Dream is the kind of record that could easily do the same for a kid discovering hardcore for the first time, and bring a burst of color into their world.
All In A Dream is out 5/6 on Revelation.