Let's get it out of the way. For a few people, emo isn't a dirty word. Not the goth-lite emo of Daily Mail readers' nightmares, but the 'original' emo, the one that instead used to bother the less mainstream readers of Maximum Rock and Roll. At the end of the Nineties they hated emo. And why not? Someone cut the riffs and feel out of the heart of post-hardcore and went all soft on them. Hearts and flowers, salutes, backpacks, tight t-shirts, and fresh faced innocence. Ugh. What was worse, there was a market for it, and God, if there's one thing that isn't cool to punks, it is success that sells. Some of those letters sneered right out at you, and some of the too cool for school columns hinted at their disdain as well.
But there was a moment, around ten years ago that most of the vital guitar albums seemed to be emo. Bleed American. United By Fate. Something To Write Home About. Plucking album titles out of the air is too easy, but that last one was something special. Frankly, it was a warm and fuzzy ball of shiny fur, a My Little Pony of a rock album with some college level angst rolled in. This high water mark was followed by the overlooked and under-rated On A Wire, and later, the somewhat underwhelming Guilt Show.
If The Get Up Kids have left it there, many wouldn't have batted an eyelid. Another band sliding into the memory banks, with more fond memories than bad. A sigh, a 'so what?'. But they didn't leave it there. The Simple Science EP may not have held out much hope for those waiting for the real comeback, but their recent shows assured the faithful the chops were intact. The will was still there. Finally There are Rules has arrived, and while it is by no means a perfect album, it is far better than might have been expected.
Those expectations are played with in the opener, 'Tithe'. While a deep, distorted bassline picks out a sombre tune, a woman reads out a short address in tutorial style German. Nerve jangling, underwater guitar notes ratchet up the tension. No-one could have expected this. Even though within moments we're in more familiar uptempo bouncing off the wall punk territory, the opening of the album suggests The Get Up Kids want more from the listener than to think this is another album dishing up more of the same. They've undoubtedly moved on.
Rob Pope's stint in Spoon has definitely borne some unexpected benefits. Although never a slouch, here his playing is vibrant, strident even. 'Shatter Your Lungs' has an odd, almost calypso feel to it, but hangs together magnificently. The single, 'Automatic' has improved with repeated plays, bass counterbalancing the strongly Eighties production style to good effect. There are questions to be asked on the production and mastering generally, however. The compression on the drums is odd, to these ears at least. That crisp Eigfhties kick sound they were going for throughout is often more of a deadened blast, and sounds like it could even be clipping at points. That could be the limitations of the review format (128kbps mp3), but seems likely to be a stylistic choice. There's a lot more fuzzing and buzzing to be heard here, distortion on the vocals, on the bass. If you were hoping for the sparkling clean, crystal clear sound of STWHA, your hopes will be dashed. But there are benefits to be gained from moving away from the old ways though.
The Get Up Kids of yore wouldn't have pulled off a song like 'Rally Around The Fool'. Before it would have had all the edge and menace of a kitten baring its teeth at you. Now they employ nuanced horror keyboards, digital ticks and big soundtrack guitars working the magic. The mix is a little messier to be sure, but this is deliberate, to disorient the listener, to not let them escape from the ennui and despair inherent in the lyrics. "Rally Round the Fool / We All Fall / The Only Thing That's Left to Say... / It's All Over...". It is a superb track that couldn't have been made if they'd stuck to a safer formula.
While the rest of the album does falter a little towards the end, as a piece of work overall it's one that they should rightfully be proud of. By breaking the rules of what they were supposed to sound like, they've given themselves a second bite of the cherry. More power to them.
7Tom Perry's Score