“I want you to know, I’ll get by. Always barely scraping, with just a hunger, a heart apart. It’s a hell of a thing.” Such were the parting words of Pianos Become The Teeth’s last full-length The Lack Long After. The closing track of that record, “I’ll Get By” eschewed the band’s cynical, snarling post-hardcore for a more plaintive, elegiac tone and a near six minute rumination on the nature of grief.
In some ways, then, we should have seen the band’s newest record, Keep You, coming. Furthering the trend, seen on “I’ll Get By” and the band’s 2013 single “Hiding,” towards seething, mid-tempo laments, Keep You finds the Baltimore quintet exploring different textures and tones they have never ventured into before. The resultant musical output is quite simply one of the most
Perhaps the most noticeable shift in the band’s musical delivery is the complete one-eight vocalist Kyle Durfey has made in his vocal performance. Durfey’s yelp-like screaming style had become a signature of the band’s records, but he eschews nearly any screaming from his arsenal here, instead opting for a melodic approach that suits the laid back arrangements of Keep You‘s more appropriately.
The most striking thing about each Pianos Become the Teeth record is is lyrical content though. Durfey has become masterful at emoting and relating through his songwriting, and the last few Pianos Become the Teeth records seem to be written as a step-by-step guide to the Kübler-Ross model of Grief. It’s pretty common knowledge to fans of Pianos Become The Teeth that Durfey’s father’s passing away after a battle with Multiple Sclerosis informed much of the songwriting on The Lack Long After. As a result, there are examples all over The Lack Long After of the first three stages of grief. Denial, the first stage, drips forth in “I’ll Get By”: “I chose what I wanted to be in that age of chasing sand, / the age of believing in everything.” Anger seems to be directed at everyone and everything on that record, as Durfey screams on “Spine, “On Tuesday I got the call, that damn phone call I’d been bracing for all week. No, don’t say it… I watched her wet your lips and couldn’t do a God damned thing.” And, finally, there seems to be examples of the bargaining phase, such as in “I’ll Be Damned”: “I’m pleading for one more time with what I know now, / I’m begging for the same flake to fall twice for the first time.”
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that Keep You seems to have picked up right where The Lack Long After left off, exploring the final two stages of Durfey’s grief: Depression and Acceptance. The album Durfey acknowledges the necessity of him fully succumbing to his depression in order to move forward, as he sings on “Repine,” “What are we without that end?/ Without that death? That darkness?” But it’s the album’s first track, “Ripple Water Shine,” in which Durfey explicitly states his acceptance of the grief and his desire to overcome it, reaching the final stage: Acceptance. He sings, “I’m still always slowly waiting for what follows, / for what I’ve learned about being so defined by someone dying and for thinking before I speak, /hoping for something bigger, / but it’s a size I cant teach,” and there is certainly a hopeful connotation to his words.
That’s perhaps the most intriguing measure of Keep You, the fact that it seems to so honestly portray this element of the grieving process. Keep You‘s songs have a simultaneous elegiac and hopeful dichotomy to them that is striking. For every line in which Durfey sings, “every April I’m reminded about those bright flowers they talk about,” there is an accompanying contrast- in this case the mournful, “every May I’m reminded that it’s better buried in black and white.”
But this portrayal wouldn’t mean anything if the album it appeared on wasn’t any good. Luckily, Keep You is also phenomenal musically. Drummer David Haik seems to have benefited the most from not having to push the pace quite as much. These slower-burning songs have ostentate his intricate drumming technique moreso than any of the band’s previous work. His work is especially impressive on “Traces,” which has an awesomely complex, but repetitive drum beat which is just hypnotizing to listen to. The guitar work is equally complex, as the layering by Chad McDonald and Mike York transport the listener to another, more ethereal, place.
Perhaps the only problem musically is that Durfey is still relatively green at coming up with melodic runs due to his previous screaming history. As a result, a lot of the same melodies are recycled from song to song, which, over the course of a 45 minute album, has a tendency to make the songs run together. It will be interesting to see where his vocals go on the next Pianos Become The Teeth- whether he returns to his previous delivery tactic or if he pushes his vocal ability even further and increases his range.
Even with that minor qualm as an aside, Keep You is still a captivating release from a band who, unbelievably, might still be on the way up. They have proven themselves equally capable of exploring expansive, textured emo as they were at incendiary post-hardcore. What is left for Pianos Become the Teeth to conquer?