Death Becomes Them
Coming from a band that's known for playing hotheaded punk -- aggressive, but ever mindful of the importance of melody -- Wretch Like Me's ambitious new album, I Am Become Death, is a little disconcerting.
"You kind of get bored playing three chords," says singer Abe Brennan. "It's kind of a full-circle thing, because the band I was in before was very ambitious musically.... It was still rock, but those musicians were going for it. The stuff they did, compared to this record, was way out there. So we're kind of in the middle. We're kind of going in that direction again; it was a conscious decision to be a little bit more ambitious musically."
In the three years since the release of Wretch's last album, the Fort Collins group has seen its share of trouble, including internal conflict -- which led to the departure of three members and the arrival of two new ones -- and physical turmoil: In 2000, guitar player Trevor Lanigan was diagnosed with a vicious brain cancer and forced to retire for a year. You would expect Wretch to approach a new recording from a different perspective, considering it's now basically a completely different band. Now playing as a four-piece, Wretch currently consists of Brennan, guitarist Lanigan, drummer John Hernandez and bassist Matt Regan, who also plays with the Fort Collins band Kip Nash.
Still, reasonable explanations aside, the change in Wretch Like Me's music is striking.
"It kind of takes off where the more rock-and-roll stuff left off, and it goes in another direction with some weird, kind of trippy stuff," Brennan says. "It's a space jam."
Not quite. As part of the brain trust behind the Owned & Operated label, founded by the Descendents' Bill Stephenson, Wretch Like Me is linked both historically and sonically with the breakneck punk-rock tradition that booms down from the nether regions of Poudre Canyon country. I Am Become Death is its third full-length release, and Wretch is aligned once again with labelmates including All and Someday I: The three acts, along with the label's Armstrong, are currently touring the United States together.
Yet Brennan and Lanigan's willingness to experiment with form doesn't have local roots. Their previous endeavor, My Name, came out of the early-'90s Northwestern music explosion. The Tacoma-based band released two albums (including 1992's Megacrush) on the prominent Seattle indie, C/Z Records. After immigrating to Colorado and forming Wretch, the pair decided to pursue a harder sound that was more attuned to pure punk pop than to My Name's artier instincts. While Wretch's 1997 debut New Ways to Fall was promising, 1999's Calling All Cars is a masterpiece on the edgier end of the punk-pop spectrum -- one that twists together hardcore, pop melodies and hammering rhythms.
In addition to creating two quality albums, Wretch built a formidible live reputation. In concert, Brennan leans far out over the pit as he sings, daring the audience to hold him up as he stares down anyone bold enough to flip him off or even make eye contact. At any given moment, he might flop over backward in a frenetic near-seizure as he bellows out his rants, all shredded vocal chords and verbal bashing.
In other words, Wretch Like Me is not likely to get lost in space. The songs on I Am Become Death are powerful and full of the booming, bright Les Paul sound Lanigan is known for. But they also reward the more adventurous listener. Soaring guitar breaks are layered with raspy, railing vocals that occasionally go on echoing walkabouts in Perry Farrell-land. The atmospherics hover over a solid base of staccato beats and gleefully nihilistic vocals, carving a rough-hewn sound that's new but still familiar.
The album is loosely -- very loosely -- built around some prophetic words recited by Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist known as the father of the atomic bomb. After witnessing the first successful atomic test in 1945, he reportedly quoted an ancient Hindu text: "I am become death, destroyer of worlds." That bone-deep decree is worked into "Trauma," a song about a man who returns home at the end of the day to discover that his daughter has killed herself. The ancient phrase becomes a father's lament for what he has done -- or not done -- to cause the horror he sees before him.
"We were going to call the album 'Trauma' after the song," Brennan says. "But then I came across that line, and thought, 'That's way better.' It's kind of the center of the whole art concept, the layout and everything. It's basically about a guy who comes home to find his daughter has committed suicide in the bathtub. But we still wanted to tie [Oppenheimer] into the song, have that be the germ that sparked the whole concept of the thing.
"That quote is just so badass; that's such a gnarly image, so it all just tied in for me," he adds. "Of course, the guy blames himself."
Despite the heavy themes and imagery crouching in the darkness at the heart of the record -- the cover art includes ultra-close photos of soft, pale flesh and a limp hand hanging over a tub, for example -- I Am Become Death does have its lighter moments. The free, joyously mindless nature of punk occasionally bursts out in a volatile rush. "Yet Another Reason to Hate Easter" is a eulogy for Joey Ramone: "A 6'3" monster in your neighborhood/With a sugar sweet stick for America's eye/So wrong/Can't believe you're gone." The song even comes complete with a thinly veiled "gabba gabba hey" at the end.
"I think [the Ramones] were a big influence on anyone who played rock music after 1976, whether they want to admit it or not," Brennan says. "That song was more directed at the big old magazines that ignored them for their entire career, and then all of sudden they're putting him on the cover and putting them on their 'best band' lists." Besides, he adds, "We're punk rock; you've got to put a little vitriol in there."
I Am Become Death has plenty of that. The opening track, "Eccentric Hundredaire," is a biting but hilarious screed against the American tendency to equate economic productivity with spirituality: "Got your hopes and plans and no idea that you're grist for the mill/You know that pushing paper and counting beans is considered a skill/So you'll be fine," Brennan sings on the song.
"It's basically just a rant against fundamentalist Christians and, I guess, the Republican power structure in our country," he says. "It's the whole capitalistic nature of what we've become and where we're going, not only domestically but in our foreign policy as well. I guess the eccentric hundredaire is someone who gets by on what they need to get by on, and who doesn't need a billion dollars to feel all right. The glory is doing something that provides happiness that doesn't necessarily require you to be a billionaire."
In places, Brennan's vocals show more polish and nuance than they have on previous efforts, melding nicely with the expanded musical forms Wretch now employs. His occasionally smooth, almost sweetly crooning singing style recalls his and Lanigan's former band.
"'Would Be Elegy' is by far the most My Name-y song we have on this record," Brennan says. "I used to sing like that a lot, so it's kind of natural to go back to that. It's new in the sense that this is a different band, and this band is a lot more rock than My Name was. I tried to back off and not scream it as much and just let the melody carry the song, as opposed to a gnarly vocal, or whatever."
Brennan also isn't afraid of letting others get involved in the creative process. When he found himself getting sick of his own voice, he enlisted the help of friends from Owned & Operated.
"I kind of looked around for a couple of different influences on some of the melodic parts, because when you've got one guy writing all of the melodies it can get pretty stale," he says. "I just wasn't happy with what I had. I thought we could do better, so I asked Jon [Snodgrass of Drag the River] and Stephen [Egerton of All] to help out. Jason [Livermore], our old drummer, produced the record and engineered it -- he did an awesome job. He contributed probably 65 percent of the backing vocals. I specifically asked him to do that, because he's really good at coming up with parts, and that's not really my strong suit."
The approach appears to have worked. On I Am Become Death, Wretch displays a musical maturity only hinted at previously, a commendable feat considering the logistical difficulties the band faced prior to production. After so many years at it, Brennan seems almost resigned to the unease inherent in his line of work.
"I reached this realization several years ago that, as long as it's fun, that's cool, but as soon as it stops being fun, then it's time to get out," Brennan says. "The other realization is that, chances are, I will probably never make a significant living at this. It's important to at least be aware that that's most likely going to be the case, so I better be able to operate under those conditions. Not to say that I've given up. This business is so weird; I've seen bands go for ten years and barely scratch out an existence and then get their break, or whatever. But I'm not counting on that."
"With all the troubles," he adds, "there's also been a lot of good fortune."
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