ALEXISONFIRE and ATTACK IN BLACK at the Reverb (651 Queen West) tonight (Thursday, December 14); with FUCKED UP at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne) Friday (December 15); with ST. ALVIA CARTEL at the Opera House (735 Queen East) Saturday (December 16); with FUCKED UP at Kool Haus (1 Jarvis) Sunday (December 17); with BOYS NIGHT OUT at Kool Haus, Monday (December 18); with CANCER BATS at Kool Haus, Tuesday (December 19). All shows sold out. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
When Alexisonfire talk about their audience, they sound like worried parents.
It's all about the welfare of "the kids." Make sure they have a good time at the show. Keep ticket prices low so they can afford T-shirts. It's like punk rock social services.
And why not? Those kids are the reason this screamo unit from St. Catharines can sell out a six-night stand in Toronto.
But artistically, that teen fan base is a bit of an obstacle. It's one reason why the screamo genre and Alexisonfire don't get a huge amount of critical cred.
"NOW Magazine called it a shit record," laughs guitarist/vocalist Dallas Green, referring to a review last summer of their latest disc, Crisis (Distort).
"We get a lot of bad reviews based solely on the fact that we have singing and screaming," says singer George Pettit. "Reviewers write it off as screamo, like we're the new pop punk."
"But it doesn't bother us at all. It makes us happier," says Green a bit unconvincingly. "They don't remember what it was like to be 14, 15 and 16 and not know everything about music and not be the coolest kid on the block. We're very happy to be playing to kids that age who maybe don't know everything yet about music."
If SOCAN scans, ticket sales and a Juno mean anything, the band, including guitarist/vocalist Wade MacNeil, bassist Chris Steele and drummer Jordan "Ratbeard" Hastings, hasn't been too affected by negative blurbs. But this isn't Chad Kroeger we're talking about. For young guns coming out of the hardcore and punk scenes, industry backslapping doesn't mean a helluva lot. As much as they may refute its importance, you can tell the artistic credibility issue nags at them.
"A lot of bands that do the scream-sing dynamic play up all these weird angles, dressing like vampires and making it hokey, which takes credibility away from the genre," says Pettit. "It gets on me sometimes, but I'm not going to give up because some guy doesn't like my record."
Agreed, critics tend be uptight, often out of touch with young tastes. But as Pettit says, somewhere along the line the genre did become polluted and harder to take seriously.
When AOF's first video/single, Pulmonary Archery, became an unprecedented heavy rotator on Much back in 2002, the scream-sing thing was just starting to percolate. If anything, the sight of Pettit, a skinny kid with Brian Jones hair and large glasses, screaming his lungs out signalled a welcome sea change from what the mainstream media were advancing.
But five years later, after an endless parade of makeup-covered, alternative press-touted, neo-goth jocks trying every teen-luring gimmick in the book, it feels a bit played out. While imprudently dumping formulaic pap into the genre stream, they managed to leech the genre of its potency.
The challenge for Alexisonfire is to push their music to a point where it rises above the rest.
Crisis, their third album, makes a convincing case that they've done so. Its tone is darker than the first two, and Pettit, Green and MacNeil's songwriting skills have grown stronger and more confident, each further realizing his vocal potential. Pettit's throat-burning is better enunciated, Green's melodies continue their soaring refinement, and MacNeil's husky voice has improved dramatically since Watch Out (Distort), their second record.
Missing is the bratty sense of humour evinced in Watch Out's matinee horror graphics or yuk-yuk song titles like Polaroids Of Polar Bears. Instead, Crisis radiates a sense of impending doom, from cover sleeve images of blizzard victims to songs like This Could Be Anywhere In The World, which laments a decaying urban landscape.
"The songs are definitely darker," says Pettit. "We don't have any songs about go-karting or Linda Blair. I didn't want to make a political record, but it almost felt irresponsible to be telling kids everything is fine right now.
"It was important to make a record about shit that gets you down sometimes. Catchy pop songs about fictitious girlfriends and shit like that, kids don't need to hear that."
Also a factor on Crisis is the emergence of individual personalities and diverging musical visions, possibly upsetting the group's cohesion and stability. As tastes and creative aspirations evolve, the principal songwriters have grown more aware of their capabilities.
Green, Pettit and MacNeil all have side bands for music that doesn't fit within Alexisonfire's parameters. Pettit joined forces with members of Fucked Up and Attack in Black in a raw punk project that's set to release a 7-inch single; McNeil's guttural piano rock project, the Black Lungs, also has a record slated for release; and Green's monstrously large acoustic-based City and Colour was a massive hit this past summer, with the potential to eclipse Alexisonfire's popularity.
Green denies that all this extracurricular activity exposes dissatisfactions within the group, but he admits City and Colour's ready acceptance by those who discount Alexisonfire made him uneasy.
"When I put out Sometimes, people couldn't believe a guy from a screamo band could put out a record that was soft and acoustic," says Green. "They thought I was leaving the band or distancing myself from heavy music.
"I felt guilty a lot of the time with City and Colour," he goes on, "but I never put Sometimes out with that intention [of making it appear that I was leaving the band]. Its success just happened and was a nice surprise for everybody. I never let it take priority over the band."
"It means we all have really eclectic tastes in music," agrees Pettit, regarding the side bands. "Alexisonfire is a really fun band to play in; it's energetic and about having a good time at shows. I wanted to start a punk band because I listen to a lot of punk music and wanted to try my hand at guitar. Wade started Black Lungs because he had some songs that weren't necessarily Alexisonfire songs."
"It's not that we're not getting something from [Alexisonfire]," continues Green. "It's that we all love different types of music. We know what we want to do with Alexisonfire. We're not going to completely change our sound because one
person wants to go in a certain direction, so side projects let us express ourselves in a different outlet and go a different way. It's great, I think. It makes you miss the band."
And if there were no other reason to stay together, do it for the kids.
George on touring a lot
George on career aspirations
Dallas on six nights in Toronto