Fest has been announced, and with that, so have Crusades’ last shows. Here at Dying Scene, we love Crusades and wanted to give them a proper send-off. Read below for a career retrospective and click here for more information regarding Crusades and Fest. And if you’re local to them, expect a hometown goodbye at Ottawa Explosion Weekend Festival in June!
Following in the footsteps of Refused, Fugazi, Jawbreaker, and a thousand other greats, Ontario punk act Crusades have decided to join the long list of good ones in the sky. That’s right, after eight years of activity, Crusades is fucking dead. The split comes amicably; and realistically, is inevitable. It’s the difference between opening act and classic, between living and (fucking) dead.
For the fans, they’re playing their last shows at Gainesville’s Fest, running their course towards a poetic end. Leave it to Crusades, a group so adept at commanding the dark, to dictate their death. And, looking at their catalog, there’s never been a better time to die. Their final album, This is a Sickness and Sickness Will End was a masterpiece, a melding of every influence they called their own, as well as an ambitious expansion to their core sound. If you feel even a little sad about Crusades disbanding, ask yourself: how many bands get to leave this mortal coil with a perfect catalog?
Crusades’ first release dates back to 2010, a four song self-titled EP. In punk rock, we idolize the raw and rugged early years of a bands life, when their youthful wiles take them to our holiest tenets: loud and fast. Songs like “Becky,” show a group of musicians as comfortable with punk singalongs as they are with a mournful palette. It’s at once heavy, crushing, but also spritely, and when coupled with Dave Williams’ lyrical content—as obfuscated, florid, and damn-near biblical as it sounds—Crusades becomes a beast with no immediate family; a far off cousin of Radon and Joy Division, born out of a lyrical concept never similarly explored. But, they don’t stop there, with each release they get bigger, heavier, and more intelligent. To say Crusades is a great band is to only say they started good and kept getting better.
Crusades formed organically, despite the loftiness of its concept. Drummer Jordan Bell reports it as a simple meeting of minds, saying: “Skottie and I have known each other, and been playing in The Creeps since 1999. We met Dave and Emmanuel through an event called Rock ‘N Roll Pizza Party here in Ottawa (a now defunct weekly DJ/live music night in town). The four of us chatted at some of these shows— and all decided we’d like to get together and try writing some music together.”
From the very beginning, Crusades was a project, an idea. Satanist pop-punk, sans camp (in retrospect, this label actually began to eclipse the music itself, guitarist Emmanuel Sayer lists the invented subgenre as his sole regret). What Crusades started was actually as in-line with the times as they could be without being derivative—whatever they did, they did so with unmatched earnestness. Punk rock was in a new melodic period that drew on the undercurrent of 90s punk acts like Jawbreaker and Hot Water Music. Earnest was in. Serious men with serious problems—often with plaintively emotional vocals—was the norm. Crusades came into this world as a concept band, and then delivered their material with not only stark seriousness, but intellectual dialogue.
The Sun is Down and the Night is Riding In came onto the scene in 2011, opening with ritualistic drums drunk on Old World black magic—a soundtrack for a witch burning. Ears perked up and people listened. Here was something different, and more so than ever, it was filled with punk energy. This was fast and catchy Gainesville-by-way-of-Ottawa punk rock, if there was ever a time the satanist pop-punk log line was accurate, it was with their debut.
This was Crusades at their most stripped down, at their most traditional sounding, so it’s easy to see this iteration of the band as a sort of stepping stone to greater things, but the songs on The Sun is Down stand-up to the rest of the bands catalog with ease. Bassist and singer Skottie Lobotomy, when asked what his personal favorite song was, said he considers “Attic” to still be among their best. Drummer Jordan Bell had similarly kind things to say in regards to “Dreamers,” saying, “It’s one of the first songs we wrote, one that kick started this entire band—and still one that people love screaming along to when we play it.”
If there was one universal consensus with the reviewers, it was that Crusades was an incredibly unique band. In the first news story DyingScene.com published on the band, Dave Buck wrote: “Crusades is one of the hardest signed bands to find any information on. Different? Yes. Punk rock? Definitely.” The album caught people’s attention, but it was still a debut, and Crusades was still a mystery.
Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment With Greater Fear Than I Receive It was my first exposure to the band, and in the wake of that album I wrote a effervescent review that stamped five stars on top of it, canonizing it, at least for me, as one of the greatest albums of 2013. At the end of the year, it was number five on my top ten, my last words on it read: “I thought I had seen everything 2013 had to offer, but Crusades blew me away and reminded me that under-the-radar is still the best place to find challenging, interesting, and fun music.”
Challenging, with Crusades, is a constant. Despite their pop-punk leanings, this was a band that assembled with a purpose. They came together as a concept band, packed their music with meaning, and packaged it in a way no one expected. Crusades is an inherently difficult band, and to overlook that fact is to overlook the core of their music. With Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment, the band began to realize their inherent ambition through their art. Where The Sun is Down was a sonic test run, a mock-up to be sure the pieces fit, Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment was the final product, everything their debut hinted at, brought to you in high-definition surround sound. Their sound was cleaner, expanded, more metallic and melodic, but still firmly rooted in the barking punk rock that forms their foundation (look no further than “The Torchbearer,” to see Crusades at their mid-period punkest). But, with all these musical developments, there still was the question of structure, and it was the answer to this question that transformed Crusades from a quirky melodic punk band to visionaries.
It is a simple truth, that a concept band will eventually sire a concept album. But concept albums are not new. Indie rock has long wrestled the concept album away from the opulence of prog rock, and punk rock has had its own share of classics using the format; just ask Husker Du, Fucked Up, Green Day, and Titus Andronicus. Crusades didn’t transcend by imbibing in a more extravagant format, they did it with more extravagant subject matter.
Formed under the pretense of writing anti-religious music, Crusades was no stranger to big statement pieces, but even more than the concept album, atheism has been a standard feature of punk rock. With Perhaps You Deliver This Judgment, they deliver something heady and unexpected: a concept album about Giordano Bruno, an anti-christian martyr of the Italian Renaissance, burned at the stake for speaking against the Catholic Church. In an interview with The Link, singer Dave Williams says, “Bruno’s story actually came to me as a result of a lengthy obsession with Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate and Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s novel The Club Dumas.” While no doubt some fans found the albums’ aims pretentious, in retrospect, there’s no better subject matter for a concept album. Here, we have a historical figure who paid dearly for his revolutionary thinking, who correctly theorized a a great many ideas ahead of his time, who embraced science and rationality over magical thinking—and did so in an unforgiving time, where the Church was both monolithic and unforgiving of dissent. Bruno’s famous words earn their place as the album’s title, a chilling response to his judges: “Perhaps you deliver this judgment with greater fear than I receive it.”
The reviews lauded Crusades and their driven, focused writing, tackling bigger and more complex subjects than their peers. Amanda DeKalb (For the Love of Punk) said it best in her review, “Crusades are on a mission, and it’s not from God.”
They found their audience in local shows, on diverse bills, and in Gainesville, FL—host to punk rock’s largest pilgrimage, known as The Fest. With an audience of like-minded punks, steeped in the forward thinking and diverse roster of their then-current label No Idea, Crusades had found a home within the scene, coupled with an audience that could appreciate both Radon and The Holy Mountain; an audience that adored bands like Hot Water Music and the Lawrence Arms, whose literary references served as an adhesive between two punk worlds: drunken, cathartic singalongs and high-minded art.
With the classic loud and fast narrative at play, it’s easy to lionize the first album as the raw and volatile classic—the purest form of the band. Then, the sophomore album, among the more open-minded and melodically inclined fans, as the refined favorite—the album that ages the core elements into something sweeter, something more accessible, but still inherently authentic. What Crusades would do next was keeping with their upward trajectory, the next logical step on their sonic staircase, and without a doubt, their masterpiece.
This is a Sickness and Sickness Will End is the band at its most bombastic, enriched, and emotive. The influence of dark hardcore is felt abundantly, strings and arpeggios add a delicate, ethereal touch to riffs that’d feel just as at home on a Tragedy record. The extremes are more defined, the highs are higher and the lows are crushing—and the lyrics are more personal, more vulnerable than ever.
One criticism made consistently against Crusades is their perceived pretension. Their lyrics are complex, making used of the sort of heightened English more at home in a poem by Donne or the prose of Cormac McCarthy. This heightened, ironically biblical language, is undoubtedly part of the band’s identity, but also serves as a chasm between the listener and artist. In punk rock, words are meant to be as pared down as the music, direct and confrontational. With Crusades, they may be confrontational, but they are also decidedly poetic, alluding to atmosphere just as much as action. But This is a Sickness and Sickness Will End brings a new dimension to their catalog, with lyrics grounded in something more universal than philosophy, but also, the root of the process: death. Hearing songwriter Dave Williams work through grief, while reckoning mourning with a godless world pushes Crusades to a different tier of songwriting. Accompanied with their lush arrangements and bolder sound, This is a Sickness was the album they’d been waiting to write.
In my review of This is a Sickness, I describe their sound as “an amalgam of dark music,” going on to say: “Crust punk, post-punk, metal, hardcore, and of course, pop punk, are all key components of Crusades’ sound. This is a Sickness... sounds huge, menacing, and melancholy, driven by ethereal melodies and sharp and intriguing structures.” On first listen, it was Crusades’ flirtation with heavy punk and hardcore that caught my ear. Heavy riffs crash and descend, flanked by soaring melodies or savage hardcore barks, arpeggios or percussive chugs—the way the band played with heaviness reminded me of the work done by the likes of Tragedy, His Hero is Gone, Remains of the Day, and Nux Vomica—outwardly abrasive bands that served their hardcore with minor key melody and an ear for experimentation.
Still, in punk, and with any songwriting-first music genre, the song is god. And here, the songs are among the best Crusades have ever written. Opening with the muscular and eerie “1590 (Swiftness Never Ceasing),” the album deftly introduces Crusades’ expanded range on the bones of a punk rock stomper. “1828 (Father of Waves)” feels the most emotionally unhinged, anchored by spritzy drumming and an open throated vocal delivery. This is a Sickness seamlessly ticks between heavy and soft, imbuing the album with a persistent volatility. When I asked Jordan Bell what his favorite song of the Crusades catalog was, he couldn’t help but mention “1846 (Once Drinking Deep),” a song full of quiet arpeggios and building drums, tugged forward with a crooning vocal line, before exploding into loud chords and a plaintive melody; in his own words, “it’s a beautiful song— and something different from anything else we’ve done.”
I distributed a questionnaire to the members of Crusades before I sat down to write what I was going to say in the end-all, be-all of Crusades articles. I wanted an insight that could frame the band, their music, but most importantly, their individuality. Poets, writers, musicians, philosophers—we elevate them with words loaded like weapons; but a band is made up of people—laughing, crying, hating, loving people—and the story of a band is just the story of people working together. I sent my questions in hopes that I could see Crusades not as three albums, but as four men.
Of all the questions I sent, the simplest ones showed me what I couldn’t see through vinyl grooves. The regrets were fringe and esoteric, the memories were golden. Each member was proud of the work they did, coming together to make something no one has before. They didn’t share petty arguments or songs they wished had made it to wax—when the book is closed, they remembered having a singing audience, totally enraptured.
I talk extensively of the dichotomy between the blue collar vision of punk rock and the art-school leanings of its early days. It all works, but there’s a lot of distance between Fred Perry polos and Andy Warhol. You have folks with grand aims of fully conceived capital-A Art, and you have songs meant as the bedfellow of cheap beer and the end of a work week. But, there is a middle ground, and more people walk it than you think—poets, writers, musicians, philosophers—anyone who wrestles those mantles for the sake of the fight. Crusades is a band of men, who managed to pull together their passions and perspective and meld it with four lifetimes of musical influences. They came together from the very beginning with a job to do, a distinct purpose, and I think it’s this workmanship that shines brightest through their music. Art is a lofty distinction, it’s hard to quantify, both distancing and nebulous. But work, work can be measured by time and energy. Here, it can be measured in three great albums and a host of fans who know the words by heart. It’s the bridge between the factory and the gallery, the process of construction as much as creation.
Crusades hanging their hats while the hanging is good is a continuation of this theme, the hard work that goes into being a DIY band, as financially thankless as it is, still obeys the rules of work as much as art. Crusades came together with a distinct vision, and had the tenacity to see it through. Now, in their final hour, they count down with no ill-will, comfortable in the work they did, happy to end their catalog as a whole with a sense of finality as conceived and cohesive as their albums. They leave us to join a litany of ex-bands whose names have sewed themselves into the conversation for all eternity, and they do so by choice, ending this chapter, not with a whimper, but a period.
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