Revered for being one of hardcore’s most esteemed figureheads that have influenced a new generation of bands, Tampa, Florida’s Underoath has left a musical legacy defined by innovative, progressive songwriting, combustible live performances, and a headstrong work ethic throughout the course of ten years and five iconic records for their time.
I was introduced to Underoath very early in middle school on the coattails of bands like Demon Hunter, Norma Jean, and As I Lay Dying who foreran the Christian underground music scene in the mid to late 2000’s. Those of us at summer camp who were into the edgier side of Christian rock held these bands as royalty, but to be honest, I was never that into Underoath outside Define the Great Line. It wasn’t because I thought the band lacked talent or tenacity, but I craved a different flavor of heavy with bands like August Burns Red (and still do) or Impending Doom. When I put my phase of death metal and grindcore to rest during junior college, the sordidness of hardcore became palatable and a breath of fresh air from the blood caked chaos of the former. Upon discovery that many, if not all, of the melodic hardcore bands I started listening to (e.g. Hundredth, Being As An Ocean, Capsize, Counterparts) list Underoath as a common denominator influence, I began to think that these guys must be on to something. In addition, many close friends in Winona and back home have been bragging about them for years beyond my camp counselors who had their posters hung on the walls of the canteen. I guess you could call my new found fascination with the band, “late,” because of their three year hiatus (which has recently ended), but hey, better late than never. If there’s anything I do know about Underoath, it’s that the band has endured a lot of internal turbulence that would have otherwise broken more inexperienced or less determined bands. They’ve been through it all between uneasy member departures, turnover, and creating music that has had lasting power in a scene underpinned by trends shifting through subgenres like ships in the night. Through it all, I can assume that their massive popularity is the result of staying true to their musical character, but a willingness to experiment through the course of five albums, and hearing all the frustration manifest on record lyrically and sonically.
By the time they reached the end of their Lost in the Sound of Separation cycle in 2009, founding member, drummer, and mascot for Underoath, Aaron Gillespe, left because of tempestuous relationships with the rest of the band. Soldiering on with former Nora Jean drummer, Daniel Davison, Underoath released Disambiguation in 2010. My buddy Andrew first introduced me to this record last summer when I was home in the Twin Cities. This record hits me with a crowbar that their previous albums never seemed to quite kneecap me with (which isn’t to discredit the heaviness of the rest of their discography). Some say it’s the result of the absence of Gillespe’s pop influences, but either way, the circumstances of drug abuse rumors and the weariness of touring galvanized the sound of this record. It has a bark with eleven tracks of bite to go around. I don’t claim to be an expert on their discography outside of Define the Great Line, but in contrast to the former and select tracks I’ve heard from 2004’s, They’re Only Chasing Safety, Disambiguation musically slows down to third gear, leaving room for the band to unleash a kraken of down tuned savagery. As previously stated, Gillespie brought an accessible melodic element to record that is almost like a signature on songs like Writing On the Walls and A Boy Brushed Red Living In Black and White. Chamberlain takes over all vocal duties on Disambiguation, showcasing a stark stylistic difference that lends this album to be darker in subject matter and complimentary to its brute sonic palate that seamlessly comes to fruition on songs like Paper Lung.
The album steps into the octagon, pulling no punches with, In Division. Giving the listener a tenacious litmus test of the impending nine other tracks, this song’s slow moving pace is supercharged with powerful instrumentation and Scott Chamberlain’s ravenous vocals. A Divine Eradication is the first song I listened to on this album and is easily the most blood caked track I’ve heard Underoath write. It’s a sludge drenched juggernaut that sets Underoath’s mission statement on fire and lets it burn all its listeners with an equally catchy and bludgeoning riff, some of the most ferocious vocals Chamberlain lays on this entire record, and a visceral lyrical narrative depicting hopelessness in addiction. Vacant Mouth comes out of the starting blocks looking in the rearview mirror of thrash metal as it blisters into a hailstorm of drums and guitars throughout this song. Paper Lung is the bulwark that silences any doubt about Chamberlain taking over all vocal work on this record. The song starts with easier going percussion and a thick melodic intro that builds up to another slow moving catharsis as Chamberlain sings his heart out to the tune of navigating waning faith. Though this album touts a firey aesthetic there are moments on Disambiguation like Driftwood and Reversal that manage to take a short breath at the surface before drowning all over again in its own ocean of musical and lyrical agony until the record crawls across the finish line with, In Completion.
Underoath was always asked about their spiritual stance through interviews and fan inquiries throughout their career. The band’s musical inclinations and Christian ideology juxtapose them, especially when you consider the brutal honesty reflected in their lyrics that spoke volumes to their personal turbulence. Many say they were spiritually backsliding when this album came out. Gillespie had left, rumors of Chamberlain’s cocaine addiction permeated the fan base, touring seemed to be catching up with them all emotionally, mentally, and physically, and from my perspective… they were trying to maintain an (almost) impossible reputation. Working in a recovery ministry has allowed me to see people navigating rock bottom. Often times, addictions and all consequent bitterness and strife in relationships result from the need to find a way to function. A way to get out of bed. In the case of Chamberlain… perhaps to keep up with expectations. People will do extreme and sometimes self-destructive things to keep with the demands of others. A group of young men trying to figure out God, life, each other, and self on the road with a lot of temptation surrounding them is bound to bring tribulation and struggle. I say this all as a way to bring perspective to Chamberlain’s life at the point of this record. Disambiguation spends 50 minutes looking into a pool of regrets and conflict with Chamberlain’s reflection in the water, and it’s above all else, honest.
Captain of the helm at Glow In the Dark Studios in Atlanta, Matt Goldman, produced Disambiguation in lineage of other underground juggernauts like As Cities Burn and The Chariot. Side note, this guy produced Casting Crowns debut record…. talk about a diverse portfolio. I think that’s actually an impressive resume bullet, because Goldman fuels Disambiguation with rich, organic sounds that bring the boom on this record. The instrumentation is clean, yet organic, the vocals come through crisp, and the heavy atmosphere backdrops everything well.
I’m hopping on the bandwagon late, but as I said earlier, it’s never too late to do anything. Disambiguation is honestly a game changer for me, because I now have a deeper appreciation for what so many other bands I enjoy consider a strong derivative. Disambiguation is a crushing listen that is balanced between chaotic and catchy. I’m looking forward to what’s next for Underoath coming out of their hiatus with their original lineup and going back on tour. If it’s anything like this… bring it on.