It’s time for the first installment of my however-many-part series, “Better Know a Hometown Band.” Tonight: Bloomington, Indiana’s Alexander the Great, the Fightin’ ATGs! Despite living in Bloomington for going on five years now and being heavily into music, I admit I don’t go to enough shows (I’m getting to be quite an old dude). I always dug Alexander the Great’s tunes from their first EP on their MySpace but for some reason their gigs always eluded me. I was also oblivious to a new-ish Bloomington label, the appropriately-named Crossroads of America. While Bloomington already has kickass indie labels in Secretly Canadian / Jagjaguwar / Dead Oceans, this one actually signs honest-to-goodness Bloomington bands, so big ups to them.
Now that I get to sit down with their debut full-length, I realize that ATG hearken back to a not-too-distant era of music that I hold quite dear: the hard-hitting, breakdown-loving, dissonant-chord-pummeling rock that bands like the Get Up Kids, Piebald, Hey Mercedes and the Anniversary ruled my world with in the early aughts. ATG make it their own by adding horns (employing a full-time horn player in Pat Beard wins points with me) and well-placed auxiliary percussion, and they stretch the sound to utilize both folky and electronic elements.
The Piebald comparison came to me almost instantly with lead singer Bryant Fox (bassist of another Bloomington band, husband&wife; review coming soon) reminding me a lot of Travis Shettel in timbre and also in the overextending of his range. Hopefully it doesn’t lead to throat surgery with Fox. Anyway, I like his style, though it is a little ‘retro’ or what I will dub ‘second-wave emo.’ Much better than this shit they call emo today, in any case.
ATG know their sweet spot and they hit it square on songs like “Mapmaking Outlines,” which focuses on synths, powerful drums and large vocal leaps. They take a surprising turn to acoustic guitars in the verse, and then change tempos to bounce along with a catchy brass countermelody. “Don’t You Forget It,” after a quick lull, busts into a bridge with a total Motion City feels-so-right synth line with the gang yelling the title at the top of their lungs. “Tree of Knowledge” zips along nicely at the beginning but the real payoff comes when the end breaks down under the triumphant trumpet call.
While ATG will sound comfy, cozy and familiar to many of you with their overall sound, they avoid stagnation. “Late Night Rockit’s,” referring to my favorite greasy hole-in-the-wall pizza place, takes a folky tangent with layers of plucked then furiously-strummed string instruments. The lyrics get a bit emo, just nearly dodging overdoing it despite lines like "How many drinks must you consume / Before you’re ready to finally love me too?" “Postcard” has a multi-metered breakdown in its main riff, with squealing synths hovering above. The instrumental “Dusk” is all clean electric hammer-ons and smooth bass chords. “Cabin Fever” is also instrumental, this one trying out drum machines under sleigh bells, with synths and reverb-laden guitars carrying the tune.
Alexander the Great will be a welcome sound to many of you bummed that the above list of bands are mostly extinct or on some sort of life support. They mix things up enough to not be a complete retread, though they could probably stand to focus and/or refine their tangents. Jimmy, let’s put Alexander the Great up on the big board! OK, I don’t have a big board. Sue me.