Reinventing Their Exit: Reflections on the Music of Underoath

Kiel Hauck explains how a metal band redefined a genre, confronted spirituality with masterful artistry, and changed his life forever.

As a music writer, it goes without saying that music is my passion. I grew up obsessing over it, pouring myself into listening and learning, though I never possessed much creative talent myself. I was fascinated by my mother’s record collection, featuring the likes of The Beatles and the Beach Boys. We spent countless hours listening to the albums of Genesis, Queen, and Michael Jackson as I scoured the inserts for lyrics and insights into their production. Though my tastes changed with age, the concept of consumption as a pastime remained– life experiences had yet to provide a need for something deeper. But there came a time, as there does for almost everyone, when a band would provide more than a soundtrack – it would provide clarity, understanding, and hope. My band was Underoath. For many, the recent announcement of the Tampa sextet’s impending disbandment came as no surprise. Joining the likes of Thursday, Thrice, Alexisonfire, and others, Underoath has decided to nail the final boards to the shop of screamo and walk away. The writing has been on the wall for many post-hardcore giants for a while now – the scene has shifted, leaving little room for the original innovators. Generic metalcore outfits now come a dime a dozen, playing cheap versions of the music that took the Warped Tourby storm and landed many heavy bands in the offices of major record labels. But this piece is not a lament for a band saying good-bye too soon. Instead it’s a celebration of a band that made the most of the time it had. This scene comes with a shelf-life, and Underoath took full advantage of every second.

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I first crossed paths with the band’s music in the summer of 2004 on a friend’s recommendation. I purchased They’re Only Chasing Safety on its release day, and for the next two weeks the CD did not leave my car’s stereo. I was enthralled. Drummer Aaron Gillespie’s singing collided with the screams of front-man Spencer Chamberlain, creating a fire and ice back-and-forth conversation. In addition to Chamberlain’s tortured chronicles, the band’s knack for creating a sonic landscape custom fitted to the story was second to none. Even without accompanying words, the narrative told by the band’s instruments proved captivating. The dueling guitars of Tim McTague and James Smith could transition from poppy to crushing in moments, backed by the bass rhythms of Grant Brandell and the eerie synth and keyboards of Chris Dudley. The band paid homage to hardcore predecessors like Glassjaw and Zao, but they also infused pop melodies and electronic sounds that added alluring complexity to the music. That summer, everything seemed to change. Previously, attending emo or punk shows usually meant hole-in-the-wall venues or dimly lit, smoky bars. Seemingly overnight, bands like Underoath, My Chemical Romance, From First to Last, and the like were playing in sold out concert halls while more and more bands came out of the woodwork, following in their footsteps with their own brand of melodic hardcore. For anyone who passionately follows music, there’s nothing quite like being a part of something as it happens. Even so, I had yet to experience the full impact Underoath would have on my life. In the latter half of my college years, for varying reasons, I felt crushed under the weight of a depression that manifested itself in self-hatred and self-mutilation. While this could be chalked up to youthful angst, it began spiraling into an illness that affected my day-to-day life and drew serious concern from my family and friends. I didn’t know anyone dealing with the same things I was going through, so my explanations for harming myself fell mostly on deaf and confused ears. The worst thing to accompany depression is the feeling of being alone. That’s about the time Underoath released Define the Great Line. The album itself was light years beyond what the rest of the post-hardcore world was creating, but that didn’t sink in for me until some time later. No, in the moment, the music itself came alongside me and quite literally screamed its understanding into my ear. Not only did Spencer Chamberlain’s lyrics connect with me in the most intimate way I could imagine, but the entire presentation of the album neared perfection. The music told a story full of intensity, pain, and at times, gentleness. It was supported by beautiful artwork depicting a deserted and lost traveler fighting himself to the death. These things created a perfect storm that lowered my guard and allowed me to breathe. The album’s final song, “To Whom it May Concern” seemed as if it was addressed to me, with Aaron Gillespie’s pleading vocals reminding me that “at the end of the road, you’ll find what you’ve been longing for” and “I know, ‘cause my feet have the scars to show.” For the first time, I didn’t feel alone. Someone understood.

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It would be trite to claim that Underoath’s music somehow saved my life or made me a better person, but its importance in my journey cannot be understated. Underoath didn’t offer me the solution to my circumstances, nor did it need to. I had enough of those voices to fill a stadium. Instead, the band’s music allowed me permission to feel pain, knowing I was not alone in my flawed state. Later on, when my faith-related doubts began causing my comfortable worldview to crumble, Underoath once again proved valuable; not with answers to all of my questions, but with affirmation in my searching. 2008’s Lost in the Sound of Separation is a crash course in self doubt, as the album’s chilling repeated opening lines of “I’m the desperate / and You’re the savior” are much less a declaration than the frightened pleading that those words might be true. After the shocking departure of Gillespie in the summer of 2010, the band roared back with the help of former Norma Jean drummer Daniel Davison and what would be their final album, Ø (Disambiguation). Perhaps their most challenging and experimental release, Disambiguation provided the bookend to the most difficult period of my life, as well as one of the most impressive and important runs the genre has seen. Chamberlain’s haunting croons of “So follow me to the empty ocean / We can watch the city descend behind the skyline / On our backs, we float away / And forget about the way it used to be” on the album’s final track echo my own personal trials left behind as well as the graceful exit of one of the most influential heavy bands of the past decade. Underoath opened the floodgates for the post-hardcore genre, with a massive influx of bands pouring onto the scene citing their influence. But none of them ever captured my attention in the same way. In a genre filled with cookie-cutter bands adopting a similar recipe to express their own mode of formulated angst, few seemed as genuine and authentic. Underoath was angry for all the right reasons, yet still took the opportunity to place those emotions in their proper context and find resolution. It’s hard to imagine a thinking-man’s band in the context of most post-punk genres, yet Underoath exemplified a constant maturity and ability to delve deeper into the frightening concept of self, both sonically and lyrically. This endeavor redefined what a genre could sound like, and shattered the expectations for the success of a band that refused to fall in line. As a music listener, Underoath challenged me to think harder about composition and what actually makes a song or an album complete or meaningful. As a Christian, they confronted my fears and encouraged me to face my doubts with joy and acceptance rather than defeat and despair. As a human, they provided peace in the midst of pain and understanding in the midst of confusion. In a very real sense, Underoath shaped many important aspects of the person I am today. I am constantly reminded to think harder and more intentionally about not just the music I consume, but how I view myself. Certainly, we are met along our journey by the things that move us due mostly to uncontrollable time, place, and circumstance. However, I am forever glad and grateful to have been met at the right time along my own journey by Underoath.

Kiel Hauck, the events editor for PopMatters, is an avid music lover, sports fan, and writer. He received his bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and has spent seven years as a disk jockey. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for Sphere of Hip Hop, Feed Magazine, and Christ and Pop Culture.  Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his imaginary pet, Hand Dog.  You can follow him on Twitter.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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