It should have been obvious to anyone at this year's installment of the Warped Tour: In young-punk circles, black is the new Mohawk. More and more underground bands and fans are rebelling against the rise of pop-punk and emo to mainstream status by delving into darker, heavier, more cathartic and overtly metal-influenced sounds. The resulting visceral-yet-moody style is known as screamo or metalcore. The resulting look blends new-school piercings and haircuts with the Goth-meets-rockabilly presentation pioneered by Social Distortion's Mike Ness 20 years ago; these days, a lot of shows at Orpheum and the State Theatre look like a Cure fan club meeting was strafed by a particularly shiny barrage of shrapnel.
A lot of the bands riding this cresting youth-centric wave have appropriately cheery monikers. Poison the Well. From Autumn to Ashes. Shadows Fall. I Thought My Girlfriend Understood Me But It Turned Out She Didn't So Here Are 12 Songs About Killing Her, or whatever.
So it's understandable, then, that a group of lads calling themselves Scatter the Ashes, and exhibiting a bent for dusky-hued fashions, might find themselves identified with this whole deal, at least superficially.
"Yeah, accidentally, by the name and such," confirms drummer Dillon Napier. "But we don't sound like any of those bands at all. We sound like a totally different scene, though a lot of people assume we're doing that kind of thing."
Now, nine times out of 10, when a member of a band that closely resembles a bunch of trendy acts says his band doesn't sound anything like those other acts, that member is full of shit. In this case, however, it's the truth. Napier and his Nashville cohorts (singer Daryl Stamps; guitarist James Robert Farmer; and bassist Matt McCord) have put together something that, musically speaking, bears strikingly little resemblance to the shape of punk to come. Or to punk at all, for that matter.
"We definitely try to do things differently. I guess you could say we don't really respect that stuff; it's not really what we grew up on," Napier says. "We always feel kind of out of place in that scene."
I'll admit that Scatter the Ashes' Epitaph Records debut Devout/The Modern Hymn nearly ended up in the exponentially growing pile of screamo releases that I've yet to trudge through. Since the beginning of the year, I have consistently received more records arguably belonging to that genre than any other. I saw the band's name and the dreary cover art, assumed Epitaph was getting full-on into the metalcore game, and set it aside for future visitation. ("Yeah, well, I guess it's true — you can't judge a book by its cover," Dillon replies dryly when I tell him this.) It was word-of-mouth that led me back to the disc, and to one of the most intriguing sonic signatures I've heard this year from a band even remotely associated with nu-punk.
Devout/The Modern Hymn is a New Wave album for an alternative scene that's seen a hell of a lot since then. While bands like Interpol ably echo the sense of crashing grandeur and poetic cool, Scatter the Ashes recalls the fact that Bauhaus, The Police and U2 were once frenetic, impassioned, raw-nerve pioneers, punk bands in spirit if not in sound. But that's not to say the full-length is at all dated. Rather, it carries that tradition of iconoclasm up through the present day — a gutsy, atmospheric effort by young men who listened to records from the '80s alongside Radiohead and At The Drive-In, and digested it all enthusiastically.
Napier says that Scatter the Ashes' textured sound is nothing more or less than the group maturing to the point where they decided they could be a band like the bands that blew them away.
"When we first started off, we were going for a kind of heavier, metal-type sound. We were 17, into metal and punk stuff," he remembers. "But our guitarist brought in some effects, and a lot more elements started coming out in our songs — all that stuff we used to listen to started coming out, as opposed to thinking we couldn't ever sound like that. It just rubs off on you. We've really evolved, more so than a lot of the bands around us."
The album displays this evolution's most recent phases, in a backward sort of way. The songs that comprise Devout's final third are markedly heavier and more hardcore-influenced than the rest. It's a nice effect, building from the more expansive, ambiguous stuff to the meaty, riff-driven material. But in reality, the disc's final songs are its oldest, and from a prior iteration of the group's style.
"We tried to make the album flow as well as possible we tripped around, had fun with the track listing, but it really wasn't all that thought-out. We just felt it flowed like that," says Napier. "And we didn't want to have our heaviest song as the first track on the album. You get a good feel for who we are up front, then you get surprised. We're all about that, surprising the listener. It keeps it interesting."
Does this mean that the listener should infer that the disc's more experimental and effects-laden tracks offer a look at where Scatter the Ashes is headed from here?
The drummer agrees that it does, but points out that the band is constantly moving forward — by the next record the band could be miles from fare like the delay-saturated "Caesura."
"I think we're getting a real crash-course in songwriting. We're probably going to have 30 songs for the next album — the new stuff is going to be a far step ahead," Napier says. "We're always looking to better ourselves. Every new song has to be an improvement."