REVIEW: Underoath reunite – and reinvent – on new album “Erase Me”

Reunion albums can typically go down one of two distinct paths. After years away from releasing music, many bands pick up right where they left off before their breakups, making up for lost time by either returning to their roots, or by continuing to progress the sounds of their most recent material. This is a respectable path, and gives successful bands who may have been gone for several years or more the ability to reconnect with their old fanbase while still pushing themselves artistically. However, once in a while a major band will reunite and go down a very different path. Channeling the members’ changed musical visions and life experiences in their years apart, these bands attempt to redraw the core boundaries of what they stand for artistically and sonically. The resulting works are less reunion albums than they are “reinvention albums”.

Underoath’s Erase Me is decidedly a “reinvention album”, carrying all the potential triumphs and pitfalls that come along with that label. Eight years after seemingly closing out their long and diverse career with 2010’s Ø (Disambiguation), the most unrelentingly brutal and moody album of a discography which had turned increasingly towards those attributes, the Florida metalcore titans have returned with what can only be described as a hard pivot away from the direction they had been headed pre-breakup. Erase Me is genuinely unexpected coming at this point in Underoath’s career, because it dares to shine a light in the midst of their thematic and musical darkness, giving the band’s sound a greater dose of pop accessibility and melodic drive than they’ve had in well over a decade.

Opener “It Has to Start Somewhere” immediately strikes a balance between familiar and fresh. Driven by an excellent riff by lead guitarist Timothy McTague, the track carries a great deal of the old Underoath spark, but also establishes how Erase Me will differentiate itself from the band’s three previous albums. Producer Matt Squire immediately makes his presence known with an overall cleaner instrumental tone, and much greater emphasis on Chris Dudley’s keys and synthesizers, with sonic elements that hearken back at times to his early work with The Receiving End of Sirens more than a decade ago. Lead vocalist Spencer Chamberlain also places his clean vocals at center stage, utilizing his signature screams only at certain points rather than having them dominate the track. Immediately setting up the album’s themes of internal and external conflict, addiction, and loss of faith, Spencer memorably opens the record with the passionately sung lines: “If my tongue is the blade/Then your hand is the gun/One of us ain’t going home tonight”. The overall effect of these changes is a sound that leans much more towards post-hardcore and alternative rock than it does to metalcore. Yet the band’s sound benefits from this fresh approach, allowing their trademark energy to still dominate while also balancing a much greater emphasis on melody.

Perhaps surprisingly, much of the other ten tracks on the album push these new sounds even further to the forefront, and Erase Me undoubtedly contains many of the most pop-oriented tracks of Underoath’s entire career. “Rapture” and “Wake Me” are both bouncy rock radio-ready numbers that contain no trace of screamed vocals, and arguably are more comparable to Spencer’s post-breakup band Sleepwave than anything Underoath has recorded in the past. However, greater instrumental dynamics and well-placed vocals by returning drummer/vocalist Aaron Gillespie (in his first album with the band since 2008) place the tracks firmly above Sleepwave’s similar work, showcasing the band members’ well-rounded musical talents and strong songwriting chops. Despite some occasional plunges into run-of-the-mill alt rock tropes (the painfully bland hook of “Bloodlust” is a notable example), most of the album manages to strike a careful balance that feels genuine and relatable, with the lyrical content and vocal delivery elevating nearly every track.

Elsewhere, “Hold Your Breath” proves that the band still has a bite despite their newfound pop accessibility, balancing hard-hitting verses (complete with excellent screams from Spencer) with a stadium rock hook that immediately gets stuck in the listener’s head. “Sink With You” contains some of the best instrumental work on the album, with a pounding riff being balanced by Chris Dudley’s synthesizers, which are a consistent highlight throughout the album. The track builds to a crushing breakdown in its finale, one that is sure to please longtime fans and new converts alike. Standout track “No Frame” proves that a band like Underoath going softer doesn’t have to equate to complacency or boredom, as the track is one of their most experimental to date. Chris Dudley shines like never before, as his electronic beats accompany Spencer and Aaron’s restrained vocals, slowly building the song to an epic climax. This track is perhaps the best example of something the band would have been unlikely to attempt at all on previous albums, and yet succeeds wildly due to its fresh approach.

Erase Me will undoubtedly prove to be an extremely polarizing release among Underoath’s core fanbase, who had passionately embraced their shift towards greater aggression and technicality on 2006’s Define the Great Line and the two albums that followed. However, those who immediately jump to cries that this is no longer the same band would be cherry-picking Underoath’s history, and vastly understating the importance of their breakthrough album They’re Only Chasing Safety. Despite a greater emphasis on screams, that album wasn’t far removed from the dominant accessible post-hardcore of other early-to-mid-‘00s bands like Silverstein and From First to Last, and it remains by many metrics the band’s most successful record to this day. Underoath have always been distinguished from many of their metal contemporaries by their talents for both moody aggression and pop melodies, and it should not be overly surprising that after so many years apart, the band’s pop tendencies would rise up stronger than ever before. In a recent interview with Musicfeeds, Spencer stated, “I just made one rule while we made this record which was: ‘That’s not Underoath enough’ could not be said anymore.” That mantra of change and musical openness is what helps propel Erase Me to success, and makes it the rare “reinvention album” which sticks the landing.

Rating: 4/5