Emo is a style of rock that reached its zenith towards the end of the 1990’s; its roots lie in hardcore punk, although emo itself isn’t punk rock; it also owes some debt to grunge, but it isn’t grunge, either. It is an almost exclusively indie-rock phenomenon (although the majors took notice as it grew bigger). It’s also a genre that divides audiences; some love it, and some loathe it.
As the name would imply, emo, at its core, is emotional music; its lyrics are deeply personal, often of a confessional nature. It also encompasses free-form poetry, and impressionistic lyrics. Musically, it can be complex and progressive, with unusual time signatures, noise and feedback, detailed and unorthodox guitar work, and unconventional song structure. Other emo stays closer to its hardcore roots, softening some edges, emphasizing its melodic line, representing a kind of punk-pop.
On the positive side, emo is a less threatening, more musical hardcore which retains an anti-authority, anti-commericial aesthetic; it is perhaps most concerned with ‘authenticity’ and conveying an untainted, uncompromised vision independant of what record labels push for. On the negative side, the emphasis on authentic emotional depth to the lyrics pushes some artists well beyond the boundaries of excess and bathos; some come across as oversensitive singer/songwriters with fuzz boxes.
Taken as a whole, however, emo can be inspirational and spine tingling; challenging music with a lyrical depth that resonates with the common listener.
Tracing its roots, one would have to go back to the DC hardcore scene of the early 1980’s, home to hardcore legends Minor Threat and Bad Brains. “Emocore” was first coined to describe their vocal styles, which were expressive and sung, as opposed to the hardcore thrashers who shouted and barked. Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat formed Embrace, sometimes credited with being the first true emo band, others give that distinction to Rites Of Spring, who recorded for MacKaye’s Dischord label.
Minor Threat was also the flagship “straight edge” band; it promoted a no-drugs, no-alcohol lifestyle. This alienated them from some of the party element in the audience, but it also brought their core audience closer to them; this interaction with the audience, seen as a mark of integrity, became a component of the emo ethic; while straight edge is not part of emo, the idea of audience and band being somehow part of some shared experience is. Consequently, some emo performers actively practice religion, eschewing drugs and drink, while others do neither. Many have reputations of being accessable to fans, and giving them their money’s worth.
Also informing the music were early non-DC indie bands like Husker Du and The Descendants, who produced agressive punk-informed music with subtle complexities and personal lyrics; early emo borrowed some cues from these bands. Husker Du (from Minnesota) in particular left a mark with its extremely influential 1984 release, Zen Arcade, pointing a possible new direction for hardcore to go.
Dischord became the first nexus for emo (still called emocore) in the mid 1980’s; aside from Rites of Spring, they also handled offerings from Dag Nasty, Nation of Ulysses, and Fugazi, featuring MacKaye and members from Rites of Spring. Fugazi were the first real “stars” of the genre; building a career on a platform of integrity, regard for fans, and anti-commercial music, the band gained a large underground following, and helped spur a new post-punk ethic that saw many bands blur the divisions between band and audience; many of the early emo bands kept a door open to fans, and were not egocentric “stars” in the traditional rock sense. Few of the 80’s emo bands gained attention beyond a cluster of local clubs, however, and most were short-lived.
Fugazi carried the emo flag into the 90’s, but it wasn’t until Sunny Day Real Estate made its appearance that emo had a nationally known band with a sizable following beyond the hardcore world. Sunny Day Real Estate can be considered the standard-bearer for emo in the 1990’s sense; emotive vocals over a hardcore roil of guitars, fuzzed and murked up through a grunge filter. Taking on a more progressive approach than hardcore or grunge, Sunny Day Real Estate brought an introspective intricacy to lyrical and musical direction, and spawned a sizable number of imitators.
This is where the controversy over emo comes in. One of hardcore’s essential early missions was to strip away the concept of “progressive rock” as well as the weepy confessionals of the 70’s middle-of-the-road artists. Sunny Day Real Estate and its contemporaries took the aggression of hardcore and turned it progressive again, sometimes getting misty-eyed in the process, which brought derision from the tough-guy faction of the hardcore audience. Others welcomed the possibilities Sunny Day Real Estate presented; it created a road out of the two-chord cellar hardcore occupied, freeing the artists to bring more depth and expanse to the music.
There really are two schools of emo; those who remain stripped down to the essence, like neo-Fugazi’s and the progressive school, who followed Sunny Day Real Estate, and to a lesser degree, Weezer, whose Pinkerton album was another key 90’s release. The genre reached maturity in the late 90’s, spawning a large amount of bands; some of them found relatively wide audiences, most remain cult bands. Noteworthy among them are Jimmy Eat World, Joan of Arc, Braid, Texas Is The Answer, At The Drive-In, and Modest Mouse.
Following the post-grunge alternative rock explosion of the early-mid 90’s, rock’s momentum waned somewhat, and as the 00’s rolled in, there were few significant “movements” happening; emo was one of the few genuine rock movements to peak as the new decade began.
Some important/influential emo artists/songs include:
1. Fugazi: Waiting Room
Fugazi is immensely influential, not just as musicians, but as scene creators, providers of the $10 CD and $5 show, and through their famous work ethic. While their music is not well known among mainstream listeners, it is a rare punk listener who doesn’t know of them, and this track in particular. Irresistably bass-driven, with great double vocals from Ian MacKaye and Gary Picciotto, with giant crashing choruses, this represents the seeds of the genre, as well as a good place to begin with Fugazi. Fugazi was formed in 1987 by Ian MacKaye (ex-Minor Threat, ex-Embrace) and Piciotto and drummer Brendan Canty from Rites of Spring; Joe Lally played bass. “Waiting Room” was from their 1988 debut EP, Fugazi.
2. Sunny Day Real Estate: In Circles
Formed in Seattle in 1992, and having recorded for Sub Pop records, Sunny Day Real Estate are often mistakenly pigeonholed as grunge; in fact, they had little in common with the grunge scene, and are now considered the first of the 90’s-era emo bands. The band itself has one of the more unusual histories in recent rock music; formed as a three-piece featuring guitarist/vocalist Dan Hoerner, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer William Goldsmith, the band didn’t really develop an identity until the addition of a fourth member, the somewhat mysterious vocalist Jeremy Enigk. The band only released one photo to the press, never played the state of California with all four members present, and ultimately broke up in 1995 after Enigk found religion. Mendel and Goldsmith then joined Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana band, Foo Fighters, but reunited with Enigk in 1998 for two more Sunny Day Real Estate albums before disbanding the group for good in 2001. “In Circles” is from their 1994 debut, Diary, which is one of the genre-defining emo albums; essential listening for fans of the genre.
3. Modest Mouse: Interstate 8
Modest Mouse was formed in 1993 in Issaquah, WA, and originally recorded for K records, specialists in twee-pop and owned by Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening. While Modest Mouse shared many of the lo-fi characteristics of the twee-pop bands, their more aggressive, punkier approach combined with a wistful, almost eerie lyricism put them firmly in emo territory. Leader Isaac Brock was only 22 when the Interstate 8 album was recorded in 1996, but he has a world-weary way with lyrics, many of which come across as profoundly sad. The title track “Interstate 8” leads off the album, and features Brock’s morose singing and playing to good effect. Atmospheric in the right places, and well constructed, this is another fine example of emo from its peak years. After years in relative obscurity, Modest Mouse finally hit big in 2004 with their equally somber Good News for People Who Love Bad News album, which peaked at #18.
4. Jimmy Eat World: For Me This Is Heaven
Jimmy Eat World’s four members go back a long way; singer/guitarist Jim Adkins, drummer Zach Lind, singer/guitarist Tom Linton, and bassist Mitch Porter met in kindergarten. Formed in Mesa, AZ in 1994, the band released a few indie singles before Capitol records took notice and signed them in 1995. Their best known song is the catchy, ringing, melodic hit “The Middle” from 2001, but their emo influence is better heard on their earlier material, most notably the 1999 album, Clarity. “For Me This Is Heaven” is included on that album, but actually was included on a 5-song EP released in 1998 on Fueled By Ramen records. Like a number of emo bands, Jimmy Eat World bristles at the tag, and indeed have outgrown it. But in their early years, their cloudy-weather vocals and instrumentation fit the bill.
5. Braid: My Baby Smokes
Braid are frequently cited as one of the classic early 90’s emo bands. Their history is somewhat convoluted, with numerous line-up changes, but their mainstays were singer/guitarist Bob Nanna and drummer Roy Ewing, who met via a tape-trading ad in a rock newspaper. “My Baby Smokes” is from their second album, The Age of Octeen, released by the Mud label in 1996. An unpolished, energetic effort, the album and song feature rough, punky, almost garage band style guitars, and Nanna’s vocals, which ranged from a mumble to a shout to actual singing. “My Baby Smokes” builds from a quiet rumble, with rolling drums and barely audfible lyrics before exploding into wall of sound noise and wailing vocals. A good band, they never sold enough albums to keep going, and broke up in 1999.
6. Texas Is The Reason: Back And To The Left
Named from a line in a Misfits song, Texas Is The Reason was formed in 1995 in New York City, and briefly seemed destined for great things, before in-fighting among the members led to a break-up after only one 1996 album. Vocalist Garrett Klahn has the kind of voice that you could either hate or love; nasal and occasionally shrill, but also warm and inviting. With all members veterans of various hardcore bands, Texas Is The Reason had both the clang of hardcore and the prettier intricacies of emo. “Back and To The Left” is the best distillation of their varied influences from their lone album, Do You Know Who You Are?; melodic, enthusiastic, energetic, and angular, it is textbook emo. One of the best selling releases ever on Revelation records, the band disbanded in 1997, just as they were being courted by the majors. Like several emo bands, members Norm Arenas and Chris Daly actively practiced religion; in their case, Hare Krishna.
7. Pedro The Lion: Of Up And Coming Monarchs
Pedro the Lion began as a group, but its lineup never managed to hang together, and ultimately the moniker came to represent just one musician, David Bazan, of Seattle. Lyrically, Pedro The Lion specializes in love songs/relationship songs, sometimes about people, sometimes about God. A practicing Christian, Bazan writes from the viewpoint of repentant sinner, wringing his hands over indiscretions that would make your average hardcore or metal band smirk. It’s Hard to Find a Friend is a delicate and tender debut album, with sophisticated lyrics punctuated by remarkable detail and clarity; Bazan delivers them in very sincere voice. In some respects, his obsession with detail puts him in league with obsessives Brian WIlson and Daniel Johnston; however, his music most closely resembles lo-fi pioneers Sebadoh crossed with folk-rocker Hayden. “Of Up And Coming Monarchs” leads off It’s Hard to Find a Friend, and sets the mood.
8. The Promise Ring: Red Paint
Formed in Milwaukee in 1995, The Promise Ring became one of the most popular emo bands of the late 1990’s. Poppier than the hardcore-derived bands, they, along with Jimmy Eat World, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Braid represented the more accessable wing of emo. 30° Everywhere was their 1996 debut, and it is one of the most tuneful offerings from an emo band. The band evolved over the years; following the melodic punk-pop of their early recordings, they developed a rootsier sound in their later years, before disbanding in 2002. “Red Paint” from the debut captures them as they were bridging punk to pop, and merits a listen.
9. At The Drive-In: One Armed Scissor
At The Drive-In, from El Paso, TX, formed in 1994 and specialized in upbeat emotional melodies with an aggressive punk undercurrent. In an odd twist, they were signed to Flipside records after a show that only 9 people turned out for; they released the band’s debut album, Acrobatic Tenement, in 1996. “One Armed Scissor” is by far their best track ever, from their 2000 release, Relationship of Command. Featuring a snarling vocal by Cedric Bixler, shattered guitar, and alternately rolling and ticking drums, building to an enormous, cathartic chorus. The album reached #1 on Billboard’s Heatseeker’s chart, but the band split into two in 2001, with Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez forming Mars Volta, and guitarist Jim Ward, drummer Tony Hajjar, and bassist Paul Hinojos forming Sparta.
10. Weezer: Buddy Holly
Weezer was one of the most popular post-grunge bands of the mid-90’s, and scored big when their debut, Weezer, reached #4 in 1994. Famous for their nerdy image, Weezer drew from Kiss and Cheap Trick for inspiration as much as from punk. Their clever videos helped propel them to instant stardom, which created a backlash of sorts; some dismissed them as posers reliant more on promotion than musicality. Chief songwriter Rivers Cuomo essentially took over control of the group for their next album, Pinkerton, which was specifically not promoted though the use of visual gimmicks. While it didn’t sell as robustly, peaking at #19, it garnered far more critical respect than the debut, and stands as an emo watershed. “Buddy Holly” is from the 1994 debut, and was their breakthrough; it peaked at #17 in 1994.
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