Cursive, “Vitriola”

Back in 2003, it was my senior year of high school and I was finally working at Hot Topic. It was a shitty job, mainly because A) I was still working another part time job at the local grocery chain and B) I was a holiday hire which just sucked. But I did get a sick discount. I wasn’t making much money but I could at least afford to buy the cheap compilation CDs that seem to come out every month. One of them was Take Action! Vol 3. The Take Action! compilations brought together a bunch of disparate record labels to raise money for suicide prevention and the 2003 edition featured two of my favorite bands: Poison The Well and Every Time I Die. The second disc of the compilation was mostly pop punk, indie rock and garage rock, stuff I wasn’t really so much into at the time, but the first time I gave it a spin, one song stood out starkly: “A Gentleman Caller” by Cursive.

That song and their sound was utterly, mind-blowingly alien to me. The intensely discordant blasts of horn and guitar stomp, bass crunch and thudding drums that open it sounded a bit like some of the post-hardcore bands I listened to at the time (Glassjaw especially) but Tim Kasher’s feverish vocals and the song’s woozy, darkly melodic beauty enchanted me immediately. A couple years later they’d release The Difference Between Houses And Homes, a compilation of their early material that defined the band for me: raw, discordant, aching, deeply wounded and lodged firmly in the mode of late ’90s post-hardcore that I was so fond of.

A year later, the band would release Happy Hollow, a breakthrough album for them. I went to Borders to look for it and heard, via their CD listening station, the song “Dorothy At 40”. It didn’t quite sound like the same band; “Dorothy At 40” still had the intensity but Kasher’s vocals weren’t so feverish and had more control, and while the music itself was just as intense, it was more conventional and a bit disappointing. Up until 2015, I had mostly forgotten Cursive. Then I saw that they were coming to Saint Louis. And touring with, of all bands, Coheed & Cambria??

Intrigued, I attended the show and was utterly rattled by how hard Cursive rocked. They were definitely a post-hardcore band still, despite my impression of their evolution after Happy Hollow. I was fortunate enough to chat with head songwriter & frontman Tim Kasher at the merch booth and despite the fact that I was clearly a casual fan, he really engaged with me. Their tour was in support of recent reissues of their earlier albums Domestica and The Ugly Organ, but Tim convinced me to take home both Domestica and their (at the time) newest album, I AM GEMINI.

Domestica and I AM GEMINI are radically different albums. I AM GEMINI is a concept album (not their first), almost rock opera-like in its narrative scope, with a crunchy, creepy, delirious sound formed in collaboration with prolific producer Matt Bayles, best known for his work with Mastodon and ISIS. It’s immersive but also maze-like. Domestica, on the other hand, is an album best known for perfectly marrying the divergent worlds of post-hardcore inflected emo and indie rock. It has the angular, piercing angst of bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Jets To Brazil but also the rich, colorful beauty of Saddle Creek’s distinctive indie rock aesthetic.

Now, three years after Tim helped me understand that Cursive encompasses an entire spectrum of genre, aesthetic and emotion, they’re back.

And, weirdly, the album they’re returning with feels like, for once, Cursive might not be trying to evolve. Instead, it sounds like they’re trying to blow up the outside world. Vitriola isn’t as raw as Domestica, but it’s also not quite as conventional as Happy Hollow. It’s not as involved as I AM GEMINI and it’s somehow even more agitated than The Ugly Organ. A lot has been said, in other discussions of Vitriola, of how it reflect our current world, especially in these United States. But what it sounds like to me is the entirety of the band Cursive bearing down as hard as they can in an attempt to blow up the outside world and form a perfect diamond out of the coal of everything they’ve done before. Tim still eschews the throat-scraping of early Cursive but he still imbues his weary, wild phrasing and melody with tones of fury and disdain. There’s almost no empty spaces on Vitriola, with the exception of mid-album interlude “Remorse”, though calling it an interlude does it no justice at all; it’s a heartbreaking, soaring eye of the storm packed with swooning piano, graceful strings and waves of tremolo guitar distortion. It’s the best argument for Cursive as as a post-rock band I’ve ever heard. Even Tim’s vocals are, well, not soothing, but at least darkly sweet.

But that song is not this album. The entirety of Vitriola is driven by a backbone created by Cursive’s other founding songwriter and bassist Mike Maginn, who stands out even more on Vitriola than on any of their other albums (except perhaps the Burst And Bloom EP). His bass tone is surprisingly heavy throughout but when the songs (often) surge into a frenzy, it’s his lunging assault that defines their intensity. Assisting him is returning and founding drummer Clint Schnase, whose thudding kick drum and lockstep patterns add a yet more heaviness to the pounding rhythms.

Long-time guitarist Ted Stevens isn’t necessarily overwhelmed on Vitriola. Instead, Ted (and Tim’s) guitars strike out from the static, typically chugging along and then jaggedly shrieking or stabbing outwards. If you listen closely, you’ll hear faint, dancing wisps of guitars fading in and out of the mix; in this way, it’s an album that rewards close listening, even though it appears on first listen to be all unsubtle ire.

But there are two elements that easily float above the churn of the album’s density; Tim’s voice and the cello of Megan Siebe. It’s the deeper playing of Megan’s cello that also amplifies the album’s low-end tumult but she also brings the sometimes sweet, often aching voice of the strings into the melodies of each song. The ending of “Pick Up The Pieces” and the opening of “It’s Gonna Hurt” are mirrored wonderfully by her work. And, much to my surprise, it seems Cursive has a keyboard player (Patrick Newbery) who, alongside Megan, creates the distinctively haunting, lurid tone that colors the entire recording, tinging each track with morose flourishes of piano and synths.

Tim’s vocals and lyrics on Vitriola are the perfect marriage of angst and elegance. He still sounds anxious but he sounds, at times, almost resigned to the great disappointments and admissions he makes throughout. When he yells “You know it’s gonna hurt” it’s not a threat or a warning. In his delivery, there’s no possibility of escaping the pain or a desire to. He’s stating facts.

Vitriola feels like a statement. It’s one of the boldest albums the band has produced, loud and brash and packed to the teeth with weaponry. It’s not that there’s no subtlety or depth; in fact, it’s busier than many of their best works. But it also feels sharply focused and critical. It’s angry, but it’s an anger channeled. I think, back in 2006, if this had been the album that came out instead of Happy Hollow, I would’ve proudly declared Cursive one of my favorite bands ever.

That’s a statement I’m making now.