By Phillip Morgan
About halfway through the first track on Pianos Become the Teeth’s third LP, Keep You, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t the same band that wrote 2011’s The Lack Long After. Frontman Kyle Durfey’s trademark hoarse wail is absent (in fact, there aren’t any screams to speak of at all), the tempo and dynamic shifts are less spastic, and the music, while still as complex and dense as before, is not nearly as rough-edged or frenetic as the band’s prior material. Between the somber mid-to-low range vocals and the more mellowed-out approach to sound, there are a lot of instances where Keep You feels more in line with a record by The National than a typical post-hardcore release.
And yet, the gut-wrenching emotion and intensity that Pianos is known for remains completely intact, if slightly transmuted. It turns out that not only is Durfey an immensely talented singer, but his singing chops don’t cost him any of his raw energy. The only difference here is that whereas his previous howling brought a sense of complete despair and anguish, his moody, ghostlike clean vocals betray sheer exhaustion. While not an outright sequel, lyrically Keep You is equally infatuated as The Lack Long After was with Durfey’s grief over the loss of his father to cancer; but this time around, Durfey is dealing with the one aspect of grief he couldn’t bring himself to discuss before: acceptance. While Durfey admits in the opener “Ripple Water Shine” that he’s “still waiting for that drink at Otto’s,” he is tired of the specter of his late father haunting his life or “being so defined by someone dying” and is now trying to reconcile this as a part of his life without not letting it consume him. In that sense, the shift to clean vocals feel incredibly natural, because it’s more than just an attempt to distance himself from his screamo roots; rather, it’s the next phase in his emotional catharsis, as he transitions from raw angst to pained acceptance.
Meanwhile, the slow dissipation of the deep sorrow that once fueled Durfey’s screams is not lost on the rest of the band, who have adjusted accordingly without losing the mechanics that made Pianos Become the Teeth so intriguing in the first place. Drummer David Haik is much more restrained on this record, opting for subtly complex patterns over the bombastic and often chaotic rhythms of his prior work. Despite his more concise approach, the intensity and creativity in Haik’s execution is still very much present, only without the overbearing demeanor that permeated the band’s prior work.
Guitarists Chad McDonald and Michael York continue to expand their post-rock inspired guitar work, capitalizing on the lack of gritty aggression in the album’s dynamics, tempo, and song structure in order to focus on the atmospheric and melodic components of their sound. Even during the louder and more urgent passages, McDonald and York monitor their use of distortion very closely so that the album never loses its sense of calm melancholy. Bassist Zac Sewell has also shown significant growth since their last album, as his bass lines have become more immediate and interesting now that he no longer has a wall of guitar feedback to hide behind.
Keep You marks a departure in Pianos Become the Teeth’s sound from the raw, unhinged post-hardcore palate they had been so closely associated with. But this change is not due to lack of emotional delivery. Rather, the emotions conveyed have grown from complete anguish to bittersweet acceptance, and so the musicians have adapted in response. Keep You is still very much a post-hardcore record; it’s just that the atmosphere of Pianos projects has morphed over time. Some fans will welcome the change of pace, while others will decry it, but there’s no denying how beautifully crafted this record is. Regardless of vocal preference, for those seeking a post-hardcore record filled with unfiltered emotion, Pianos Become the Teeth has once again delivered.
Favorite Tracks: “Late Lives,” “Lesions,” “Ripple Water Shine,” “Old Jaw,” and “Repine.”