Jon Simmons wears his influence on his sleeve–literally. The leading vocalist/guitarist of Balance and Composure sports a tattoo squarely on his muscle in honor of Neutral Milk Hotel's 1998 classic, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Hell, Separation's cover art, unintentionally or not, hints at it as well, even if the sun replacement references the thematic, skyward tilt of its contents. Still, it's somewhat ironic, then, that he's the literal interpretation of an oft-used metaphor that only used to describe his band.
Okay, granted, the band's first proper full-length, Separation bears a handful of isolated moments that show its influences bleeding through: Nirvana's moody, nasal reverberations murmur in "Fade" and opener "Void"; Simmons' self-referentialism in gorgeous ballad "Stonehands" features an exaggerated stress of the "e" in "me," a clear paean to Jeff Mangum's unique enunciations; the opening riff to "Galena" lifts that of Jawbreaker's "Chemistry"; and late entry "Echo" refits Brand New's "The No Seatbelt Song" into a newly unnerving frame.
That being said, Balance and Composure have crafted an astounding and often depressing full-length debut that is otherwise theirs and theirs to own. Separation is a heady, physically and emotionally draining 48 minutes of raw introspection and alternately vague soul searching, a smooth yet bitter blend of alternative/indie rock and post-hardcore. It's practically a workout–thick and often overwhelmingly dense, drawn out to deliberate proportions. It moves with a dark and unpredictable atmosphere, stacked with layers of intertwining guitars, booming drums and the occasionally showy, rhythmic trick, all balled into an effortless, continual rustle by producer Brian McTernan that's nonetheless compelling at every lowly and commiserating turn.
The opening quarter picks up steam as it goes along, winding from the uncomfortable cynicism of "Void" through to Simmons' remote optimism and sprained dynamics of the title track, and finally to the serrated, throat-searing chorus for the appropriately titled "Quake". Simmons never really seems to overstep his lyrical boundaries, and his intermittent moments of scathing simplicity seem to impossibly just work, like in the chugging/twinkling/anthemic "I Tore You Apart in My Head": "Fuck what you told me. / It all leads to smoking / alone in my room in the end." Or in "Echo": "I've been great these last few days. / Oh my God, who gives a shit anyway?"
Even in lesser cuts like "Progress, Progress" come an arresting moment, this one being where the guitar suddenly sprawls into a post-rock spiral and Simmons' vocal approach transitions to a miserable mutter. By the time the band reach the final third of the record, they've actually hit their stride. "More to Me" is a heart-wrenching contrast of the strained and the restrained, from Simmons' refrain of the sketchy metaphor ("I'm a wounded man on top of trees") to his bipolar remission ("Keep it inside, / and swallow / whatever it is that keeps you warm. / Hold it back, / for what's to come might crush you. / I take it back..."). It tumbles forth through one overpowering section after another, while the aforementioned followup, "Echo", is simply chilling through and through. "Echo" is the emotional low of the album, but also one of the artistic highs, marinated in just the right flavor of haunting reverb, and following it with the record's most aggressive cut, "Patience", provides a perfectly jarring transition.
Separation is an exhausting practice, riddled in catharsis and grinding tension. Balance and Composure always conveyed a certain level of tribal melancholy with their past material, but they've rarely employed it with this much thought and deliberation, nor as much originality. Brilliant.