Artist: My Epic
Album: Violence EP
In Brief: The follow-up to Ultraviolet is a more visceral, adventurous, and sometimes downright abrupt and startling record that puts the focus on human relationships and the awful things we’re capable of doing to each other in the name of God. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s one of the year’s best recordings precisely because of it.
I don’t really want you to hate this EP. I just thought that would be a fun way to weed out the folks who actually read articles from the ones who comment on stuff after only reading the title. I have a reason for that title beyond just cheap clickbait, I promise.
When we last heard from My Epic, they had put out an EP called Ultraviolet, a short song sequence depicting a man’s journey from doubt and uncertainty, to abandonment of some of his old beliefs, to a place of being more secure in his faith but knowing that it was harder to explain to those who hadn’t been through a similar journey themselves. That EP was deliberately on the slower and more cerebral side of things, despite My Epic’s origins in the heavier, more underground side of Christian rock. The follow-up effort, Violence appears to have been deliberately planned as its flipside – note the almost identical cover art that has simply been hue-shifted from purple to red. I suppose Infrared would have been a more appropriate title for any science geeks out there, but Violence really cuts to the chase of what this much more aggressive EP is all about.
Violence seems to be less about directly pondering the things we say we believe about God, or whatever is out there in the world beyond what human sense can directly perceive, and more about making strong statements regarding the way humans who claim to believe in a higher power tend to treat each other as a result of it. It’s not a uniformly heavy record, but it is often a loud and startling one, and it takes occasional turns into experimental territory with mildly unsettling results. It’s tricky to do this sort of thing while maintaining thematic cohesion, and without the musical aggression being taken as an excuse for listeners to turn their brains off. Within these 7 tracks (yes, they gave us two extras this time, instead of the expected 5!) there is a ton of food for thought, and the band maintains just the right balance between the melodic hooks and riffs, the thrashier power chords and shouts/screams, and the downright weird bits of sonic distortion to keep me engaged throughout. I’d say that my comparison of their sound to Thrice‘s in my previous review holds up pretty well here, with the more aggressive tracks reminding me of Thrice’s more recent offerings in the way that they’re quite muscular, but still being sung rather than shouted, except when a full-throated cry is needed for dramatic punctuation. Listening to this disc after Ultraviolet would be a lot like switching from the Water disc of Thrice’s Alchemy Index project to the heavier songs on the Air disc. The pair of mellower and weirder tracks on this EP are harder to classify, bringing to mind the eerier work of apocalyptic post-rock acts such as Sigur Rós. They cover a lot of ground in roughly 30 minutes of music.
Song-for-song, I’d have to say that I like this one more than Ultraviolet, even though I feel that it’s best listened to paired with Ultraviolet in order to consider the relationship between the more spiritual and carnal sides of the entire project. If the two had been released as a continuous LP, this thing would be a serious Album of the Year contender for 2019 (though I might be tempted to put the Violence set first in that scenario, because Ultraviolet seems like it would work better as the back half of an album than the front half); as it stands, since I don’t consider EPs eligible for that list, it’ll likely be getting high honors on my year-end “Wait, That’s Not an Album!” roundup instead. Either way, it’s become clear to me that EPs are not considered a dumping ground for B-sides or other hodgepodge items in the My Epic catalogue. Don’t write it off just because you’ve never listened to the band before and you’re not sure if an EP is the right place to start. This disc may be short, but it’s all album-quality material.
1. Bloody Angles
The guitar riff to this opening track almost feels like it’s trying to depict a shoving match, as a high note and a low note keep pushing back against each other in 6/8 time, dropping the listener right into the middle of an intense civil war. The battle lines have been pretty clearly drawn, and yet vocalist Aaron Stone seems confounded about which side he’s actually on, which leads me to believe he’s describing some sort of infighting amongst a group that got so ugly, it led to a permanent schism. “When the wounds started showing what we keep to ourselves”, he sings in the second verse, “We turned on each other and it all went to hell.” I’m inclined to think that this might be a fight among Christians, given the question “Are we turning cheeks or tables?”, which quite cleverly juxtaposes two different sides of Christ’s personality: The one that advised us to turn the other cheek when struck, and the one that was so upset about faith being commodified for financial gain that he flipped over tables in a temple. While the mood here is markedly different from “Of Wilderness”, the opening track on Ultraviolet, I’m once again blown away by how striking the lyricism is, and how this one, despite starting off with much more aggression, still has room to build to a thrilling climax as Aaron shouts, “I wan’t hate you! You are not my enemy!” As a self-proclaimed “exvangelical” who is still wholeheartedly a Christian, but still feels the sting of betrayal from a conservative evangelical culture that has grown noticeably more toxic over the last few years, this song really hits close to home for me, because I haven’t figured out how to express my strongly felt differences of belief from those people without giving into the urge to hold a grudge or straight up hate them, which is something I know Christ said not to do.
2. White Noises
The first track from this EP to be released turned out to be the heaviest of the bunch – it’s got a crunchy mid-tempo groove that is thick with repetitive power chords, but it’s really the vocal assist from Norma Jean‘s lead singer Corey Brandan that pushes it into screamo territory. (Speaking of bands that used to have unfortunate names: Norma Jean used to be known as – and I swear I’m not making this up – Luti-Kriss. YOW.) It’s a strong enough blend of groove, melody, and full-on aggression that the song actually flows quite well despite its repetitive nature. Once again, it’s the strong lyrics that really sell it, as Aaron and Corey team up to vent their frustrations with people who are only interested in shouting their opinions so loud that they haven’t left any room to listen. It all just becomes an awful, meaningless noise, with no room for intelligent discourse and no hearts actually being changed. Each of the verses ends in a similar line: “You don’t think”, “You don’t speak”, “You don’t see”. The most intriguing lyric comes in the third verse when Aaron sings “Speak of your faith like it’s proof/Well, you love conflating the two.” That seems to be the entire problem from Ultraviolet in a nutshell – it’s a lot easier to trumpet one’s own beliefs as if they were clearly observable facts before those beliefs have actually been tested and the person has been humbled by all the things they thought they knew, but actually didn’t. As Corey’s screams reach a fever pitch near the end of the song, he’s gotten so angry that he may well be saying some of the very same things in frustration that are pissing him off when he hears them from the other side: “May God judge you swiftly for the damage you’ve done/There’s a special place in hell for the things you’ve become.” But at the end of it, he decides it’s better to just sever all communication due to how toxic this relationship has become: “You have nothing to say to me!/So I have nothing to say to you!” The unbridled anger is at once chilling and cathartic. I know I’ve felt this, and felt shame over it, but also not known how else to respond. The song doesn’t appear to imply that the “white” in “white noises” has a double meaning related to race, as recent songs called “White Noise” by Steven Page and My Brightest Diamond have. But the prevalence of xenophobic and downright white supremacist attitudes in cultural spaces that identify themselves as “Christian” has become especially disturbing of late, so it’s definitely a symptom of the overall problem being described here, as it’s one of the biggest things we’ve all been yelling at each other about. Is it good to call racism out? YES. I can’t imagine it ever being right to stay silent about such a thing. Is it right to hate and wish God’s wrath on people who espouse racist views? My heart and my brain do not agree on the answer to that question.
3. Spit and Blood
This is one of the two more experimental tracks. There’s an incredibly sad-sounding sequence of piano chords that repeats throughout, gradually growing more distorted and lower in pitch as time passes. And there’s a crackling, static-drenched sound effect with some distorted bass in it that repeatedly wipes across everything. It’s a screwed-up sound collage that I find at once off-putting and genuinely intriguing. I’m strongly reminded of a few tracks from the Sigur Rós album Valtari here, which is emphatically not a record that I enjoyed, though if this were a Sigur Rós song, it would easily go on for six or seven minutes, while My Epic wisely limits their experiment to three and a half minutes. There are only three verses of lyrics here, with a strong metallic distortion applied to the vocals as well. They describe a landscape being soaked in the titular spit and blood, which sounds pretty gross, but I thing what we’re witnessing here is a once prosperous land rendered barren by the violent war that took place, and now anything that might bloom from the ground really has to struggle to break through all the muck. It’s hella bleak, guys. Not my favorite song on the record, but it has an important place in the narrative.
4. Black Light
You know what color a black light actually emits? Ultraviolet. Ooh, thematic resonance! This is another mid-tempo grinder with lots of jarring, bent power chords slamming the listener about, that doesn’t pull any punches in its lyrics. Aaron is singing to someone who is clearly suffering, and he sounds downright livid at other people who have tried to give this person false comfort with the most cliched religious platitudes -Everything happens for a reason, this could be a blessing in disguise, God won’t give you anything more than you can handle, et cetera ad nauseum. Aaron’s point of view is, quite plainly, “No good god would cause a thing so ugly.” So when he screams out “I hope you hate it!”, it’s not because he’s trying to goad the person into having a nervous breakdown or anything like that – he just thinks they’re better off being honest with their grief instead of swallowing it, even if it means being mad at God or questioning the religious dogma they were raised with that tries to insulate them from any expression of doubt. I’m pretty sure that this song was meant as the flipside to Ultraviolet‘s “So Be It”, because that song expressed confusion over what was a curse and what was a prayer, whereas this one seems assured that the curse is the prayer. I guess the logic is that even if you’re at a total breaking point where you’d rather cuss God out that ask for God’s mercy, that’s still some form of communication, and it’s certainly more honest than praying the things you’ve been taught a “good Christian” is supposed to say when you don’t actually believe them. I’ve certainly been there! It’s not like God doesn’t know what I’m actually thinking anyway.
5. Spit It Out
The pummeling drum rolls and much faster pace of this song inject a much needed dose of fun into the record just when it needs it most. This is still an angry song, in keeping with the record’s theme, but it’s got the most dizzyingly delightful rhythmic punch of anything I’ve heard from the band thus far, and probably the record’s strongest melodic hook as well. Fun fact: There are two bodily fluids that are each mentioned in two different song titles on this album. This is the second “spit” song, though this time I don’t think it’s literally referring to saliva – it’s just taking another sledgehammer to the facade we try to put up that says we’ve got it all put together, when as the previous song had just stated, that sort of dishonesty does us no good. The band is really passionate about hammering home the notion that honesty is the best policy with this pair of songs, though I think “Black Light” was more about honesty before God, and this one’s more about honesty with each other. if the conviction that Aaron came to on Ultraviolet was that it was better not to act like he knew things that it turned out he didn’t, then that means he can’t lie to a friend and tell them everything will be alright when what he really needs to say is that he’s not sure where God is or how things are supposed to work during this difficult time when a person’s previous belief system has been left utterly shattered. But he’s gonna be there for them, and if this is the thing that finally capsizes their ship, he’s determined to go down with them so that they won’t have to do it alone. One of the best damn rock songs of 2019, in my opinion.
I’m not really sure what the best musical comparison is for the second experimental track. This one isn’t as deliberately abrasive and haunting as “Spit and Blood”, though it does still have highly distorted electronic percussion, still a bit static-like in nature, but this time using it as a softer rhythmic pulse, almost like sending a message off into the dark void of space, hoping someone will be there to receive it. The vocals are artfully auto-tuned to the point where they’re pretty hard to make out at times, and they turn out to be a repeating mantra of sorts: “React, regret, despair, forget/It gets heavier each time.” Midway through the song, the song pulls out of its nosedive and the words become a bit clearer through the haze, now a brighter reflection of themselves: “Revise, collect, refine, begin/It gets lighter each time.” While musically, the structure of this song is quite repetitive, making it run on a bit longer than it really needs to, I find it fascinating that the band is once alluding a to process of deconstructing and reconstructing one’s faith. Violence has been more upfront about the utter terror that, for a lot of us, is inherent in letting go of things we once thought were core beliefs, and existing in a state of freefall where we don’t even know where there’s a bottom for us to eventually hit. Yet eventually, new beliefs do solidify and begin to fill that void. It’s not a fun process, nor is it one that can be rushed, but there is a lot of healing in it once you turn that corner from “heavier” into “lighter”.
7. Bad Accent
I mentioned in my review of Ultraviolet that I sometimes got songs confused because a few songs had similar melodies or vocal cadences. Here, I feel like that happens with the guitar riffs instead. This is a deliberately lopsided song, moving back and forth between a more melodic 4/4 and more of a jarring, syncopated rhythm as heard in “Bloody Angles”. That makes the riff to this song really remind me of “Bloody Angles”. Maybe this is intentional, as a bookend to the record, but no matter how I slice it, this feels like a weird ending. This is the least angry of the rockers on Violence, though it still has some teeth – its lyrics are just a bit more confessional, noting that all of us have a tendency to claim we know more about God than we actually do. The observation that we’re all trying to pronounce the same name, just with a terrible accent, is actually kind of humorous (though I’m not sure it was intended to be). I guess it’s the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel – get too cocky about how much theology you think you know, and God (or whatever he/she/it/they wants to be called) turns around and shows you you’re not even getting it past, like, a second grade reading level. I really appreciate Aaron’s use of alliteration here, as he lets off one last bit of steam about the blowhards who don’t leave any room for mystery in their belief systems: “They confuse and conflate/Rebuke and relate/Double down or disavow/Why can’t they remember now?” But the reason that I say this ultimately isn’t an angry song is because it actually comes to a surprisingly harmonic conclusion (in the musical and lyrical sense): “When you sing, I may not know this song/But it rings out really lovely when I hum along.” After spending most of the album raging against the heavens and a good chunk of mankind, he’s finally managed to hear a signal amidst all the noise. I still think this track makes for a weird and abrupt ending, if one were to approach Ultraviolet and Violence as Side A and B of a complete album. This is why I think that musically, it would flow better to listen to Ultraviolet first – get the heavy stuff out of your system upfront, let “Bad Accent” leave you on a cliffhanger that then picks up with “Of Wilderness”, and end the experience on the trippy, ethereal “Two Nights”. But then again, thematically speaking, I feel like we need Ultraviolet to understand the deconstruction process a bit better before digging into the parts of Violence that might sound utterly rebellious and destructive without that context. It’s your call, I guess. In either order, both discs are highly recommended.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Bloody Angles $2
White Noises $1.75
Spit and Blood $.75
Black Light $1.75
Spit It Out $2
Bad Accent $1
Aaron Stone: Lead vocals, guitars
Jesse Stone: Drums, backing vocals
Jeremiah Austin: Bass
Tanner Morita: Guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Nate Washburn: Guitars
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: