Album Review: Defeater – “Letters Home”

Of all bands said to belong to The Wave, I always found Defeater to be the least noteworthy. While I’ve always appreciated their commitment to storytelling through song and have found myself enjoying a handful of their tracks, I never considered them to be anymore than a hardcore band. Having listened to Letters Home, I can close the door on all of my past critiques and wonder what the hell I was talking about. Letters Home is an album as musically fascinating as it is lyrically. Defeater is a hardcore band, but on Letters Home I hear them pulling from everything hardcore has inspired and then some.

Despite being entirely screamed (a fact of which I’m thankful, as I wasn’t a fan of Defeater’s acoustic tracks on Empty Days and Sleepless Nights), Letters Home is a catchy album. The vocals are filled with rhythmic hooked, drawing the listener in with their cadences. While it’s no secret that hardcore can often suffer from its own brutal momentum, frequently devolving into homogenous sameness, Letters Home thankfully has a well-developed sense of dynamics, with each song having enough character to stand on its own and apart from its peers.

“Bastards” is driven by strong riffs and a huge chorus that made me think of “Quiet the Longing” from Empty Days and Sleepless Nights. Unfortunately, it feels a little too big at parts, almost as if its pandering to a larger audience– this palpable sense of Here’s Our Single Syndrome is a little off-putting, but thankfully the remainder of Letters Home feels more raw. “Hopeless Again” has a great staccato rhythm to its vocal delivery that feels sharp enough to cut, but musically it is just as gripping. Near the midway point, the band drops the hardcore and transitions into a softer, more sparse soundscape that hearkens back to mid-90’s emo, before ultimately returning to their heavier sound. The busy, but not dominating fretwork on “Blood in My Eyes” is a character in itself. It punctuates the ends of lines with distorted blasts of trebly sound and retreats to a chug when needed. The winding lead that reappears over the course of the song is a subtle tool that doesn’t call unneeded attention to itself, instead working together with the other instruments to form a complete sound.

“No Savior” is one of my favorite songs on Letters Home, a different sort of song for Defeater that opens with soft piano before exploding into the pummeling hardcore passion the band is known for. “No Savior” is interesting because its musical structure mimics its lyrical and emotional content. The song deals with the loss of a brother and accordingly it opens with all the grief stricken rage you’d imagine it should, permeated with blind desperation. But, it’s the track’s second half that completely sold it for me, acting as almost an opposite of the screamo dynamic (loud to soft, rather than soft to loud)– it’s meditative and mournful, and as the music becomes less overpowering, the vocalist’s screams come off all the more isolated and alone. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking arrangement that gives the song a huge sense of dramatic weight.

What I heard when I listened to Letters Home was the musical equivalent of pure emotional release. Rites of Spring is as apt a comparison as any, and in many ways Letters Home feels like a direct descendant of the emotionally volatile and aggressive nature of emocore. No matter the comparison, Defeater wrings emotional responses out of their listener deftly, using the context of a narrative to allow the audience to find their own resonance with the material. Letters Home is representative of hardcore doing what it does best– breaking its own rules for the sake of progress.

4.5/5 Stars

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