I abhor the term "concept album." What had its birth in the overindulgence of `70s arena rock has become the de facto term for what a band makes when they "mature." Sure, there are artists in the past few years that have actually made albums that tell a coherent story or stick closely to a theme, such as Cursive's excellent Happy Hollow, but for the most part bands misappropriate the term, like on Say Anything's In Defense of the Genre. I'm sorry, but if the concept is songs about your life, it's not really a concept album. Furthermore, if a band actually does succeed at sticking with an idea, it might miss the mark entirely. For an example of this, check out some of the wordy and awkward "only there to tell the story" lyrics and the overwhelming amount of musical filler on Boys Night Out's concept attempt, Trainwreck.
Upon initial inspection of Defeater's debut full-length, Travels, the band seems to avoid most of the trappings I've just laid out about the concept album. Through a nicely economical length of 11 songs in under 35 minutes, the band tells a chronological story set to a driving and desperate hardcore style, much in the vein of Modern Life Is War and Verse. While the MLIW comparison is obvious and will continue to be discussed by others, this feels more like the next step down the path that band began paving before their untimely demise than a straight rip. What set apart MLIW from its contemporaries was their narrative style and tension-building presence, and this is exactly the foundation that Defeater takes and runs with.
What will interest most people initially about this album is, of course, the story. Following a character from birth in 1945 until his death, the opening lyrics set the dark tone to follow: "Unwanted from his first breath, a mother's blessing born, a father's burden worn." From here the lyrics continue in a third-person narrative as we witness the child growing up in a string of unpleasant situations over the span of three songs. The fourth track, "Forgiver Forgetter" features the protagonist at 17 experiencing the turning point that shapes the rest of the story and sets him out on the album's namesake, Travels. Tracks 5-9 follow him through his road life before the album's finale takes him back home to confront what he left behind. Individually, the lyrics work and avoid storytelling cliché. Writing songs that coherently and chronologically tell a story cannot be an easy feat and when taken as a whole, the tale on Travels is raw and moving.
Within the narrative arch, the band sticks to their basic musical approach but takes a nice and wholly appreciated diversion in the middle of the record. During the track "Prophet in Plain Clothes," the lyrics find the protagonist walking through a town where he sees a vagrant playing a guitar and singing on a street corner. The song fades out with the lyrics "'Home is never home,' said the prophet in plain clothes as he strummed his guitar, and he screamed, and he sang…" before it fades into the actual song the bum is singing. It's a short acoustic folk song that reminds me of Bright Eyes, but serves as a good respite from an otherwise overpowering record.
Sonically, the band is muscular and unrelenting. While the recent trend for bands in this style has been to relax into a looser and more organic sound, Defeater takes the opposite approach and relies heavily on their technical musicianship and tight playing. However, even with everything exact at all times, it doesn't lose its emotional impact. Also worth noting is the drum performance by Andy Reitz. While sticking to the songs he still manages to add quite of bit of flash that should excite drum geeks everywhere.
Of course, with anything there are imperfections. Defeater's overall sound is often not easy to digest and requires patience and stamina on the part of the listener. There do exist a few hooks on this record but they are subtle and certainly don't expose themselves upon first listening. In addition, the album sounds like two long songs separated by the aforementioned acoustic interlude, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing since it is telling a story.
While I am usually not exited by the term "concept album" it is clear that Defeater succeeded with this one. It successfully leaves behind the clichés of heavy music and concept album overindulgence and in many ways hits a new artistic peak for hardcore.