mewithoutYou // Pale Horses

 

8.7 BEST NEW RECORD

Run for Cover / 2015

"Do you believe in God?"

That was the first thing Aaron Weiss' father said to any new friend he brought over when he was growing up, the mewithoutYou frontman told Why?'s Yoni Wolf in an interview last year. Then he'd ask for their address and send them mailings from the Sermon on the Mount, the Torah, or the Qur'an. According to Weiss, his father never fully subscribed to a particular creed, but he was fixated on what God's existence demanded of humankind. He passed that fixation on to his son, too. Drawing on his braided-thread background of Judaism, Sufism, and now Christianity, it's been the through-line of mewithoutYou's output over the last 13 years.

Conventional wisdom until recently was that the mewithoutYou's discography was a straightforward progression from hard to soft - the harsh, messy hardcore of 2002 debut [A→B] Life gradually morphed into the full-on folk of It's All Crazy... in 2009. But the band shifted gears on 2012's difference-splitting Ten Stories, and now with the aggressive Pale Horses, the band's trajectory looks bent like a parabola. Pale Horses dispenses with the horns and accordion, stripping coats of paint from the band's sound for a return to the churning post-hardcore of Catch For Us the Foxes.

That move is accompanied by a change-up in the production room, too. Daniel Smith of Danielson recorded the band's last two LPs, and while the freak-folk musician was the perfect choice to highlight their acoustic elements, on Ten Stories he failed to do justice to the heady power of mewithoutYou's harder side on tracks like "February 1878". For Pale Horses, punk producer Will Yip's treatment pulls the drum and bass grooves to the fore again and captures the lightning-in-a-bottle of their more primordial energies.

Michael Weiss, Rickie Mazzotta, and Greg Jehanian (plus new addition Brandon Beaver) deserve huge praise, but Aaron Weiss has always been the ingredient that makes mewithoutYou exceptional. He's famous for his vivid, hyperliterate lyrics and a knack for existential couplets that stick in the mind like a splinter. They're delivered in an odd canter that makes listeners crane in to hear the murmurs nestled between a detached sing-song and throat-splitting screams. Those screams are back in full force on this record, too - the incredible "Red Cow" has one of Weiss' most arresting and unhinged performances ever.

Even a cursory listen reveals that Pale Horses is preoccupied with decline, destruction, and the end. The end of the world, sure, but also the end of a life (his father's), the end of celibacy (Aaron's - he recently wed), and the end of the band. It's fitting that the album opener sounds like a funeral march, or maybe a distress flare illuminating the night sky before drifting back to the ocean and extinguishing forever. Aaron's professorship at Temple University in Philadelphia conflicts with the demands of a full-time band, and he sounds surprised to find himself still performing in mewithoutYou: "A few more songs, a few mores lines. I thought I'd left that all behind".

On Ten Stories, Weiss externalized his contradictory philosophical inclinations into a tiger, an elephant, and a bear, then watched them play out in the aftermath of a circus train crash. Pale Horses dives back inward, and the relocated perspective reveals a mind steeped in Abrahamic religion but always second-guessing it. No one is spared this withering eye, especially not Aaron himself. He castigates his own tendency toward rigidity and black-and-white religious thinking - "I was the ISIS flag design" - but remains skeptical of utopian secularism: "how long before our tails are caught by our 'free' thought?".

That lack of faith in humanity's endless ascent and innate goodness shows up again on one of the album's more serene tracks, the gleaming "Magic Lantern Days". Technological power here is a looming menace, not a miracle - nuclear subs swim the ocean as "android whales", and Weiss ironically transposes a traditional Sacred Harp chorus to hallow the birth of the Bomb instead of the infant redeemer. It's one of several acknowledgments of the thin line between God's judgement and humanity's comeuppance at its own hands - or is there a line? As Weiss sings on album closer "Rainbow Signs": "G-d gave Noah the rainbow sign/No more water, is the H-bomb next time?"

That final track is the one place where the excellent Pale Horses really edges into new sonic territory. It's the heaviest song they've yet recorded, and the sludgy guitars tower like a sun-blotting mountain as Weiss unleashes an avalanche of apocalyptic imagery straight out of Revelation - seals are opened, continents are torn from their foundations, and the sky rolls back like a scroll. But its barely audible coda is the most piercing. Weiss' father died five years ago, but he appears in a dream where the two have merged and walk around together in Aaron's sandals, holding hands using Aaron's own hands, sharing a private joke we're never let in on. On an album concerned with so many different kinds of death, it's a modest nod to an afterlife, the one lived inside of us by those who have passed on.