The world of post-hardcore and screamo tend to follow a similar parallel to black metal, being either forgettably silly and lacking self-awareness or completely emotionally devastating. Tapping into that universal well of anxiety and despair to draw up something pure and genuinely transfigurative seems to be a feat reserved for genre greats like Pianos Become The Teeth, Defeater, and Touché Amoré. With Modern Grotesque, Rhode Island’s Dreamwell feel poised to join that pantheon.
The group wastes no time setting the stage for their listeners. “What Does It Mean To Live In A Grotesquerie?” opens with slow, sorrowful strumming accompanied by the distant shouts of vocalist Keziah Staska in a dreamy, disorienting swirl of delay. The trance is broken as quickly as its set, with “Painting Myself a Darker Day” bursting through a swell of rippling chords and feedback with uptempo aggression and panicked breakdowns. Keziah’s delivery here strikes that perfect balance between emotive abrasion and dramatic recitation that all good screamo hopes to nail. “Sayaka” follows suit, channeling the post-hardcore push-and-pull of LITSOS-era Underoath to perfection as it builds and builds to an anthemic, heartbreaking climax.
Lyrically, here and throughout the whole record, the common theme of all good genre cornerstones is explored in wide, stark strokes: acknowledging the sickening knot of anxiety, neuroses, and trauma that fights to drag us all under and working to overcome it. Forward motion is often the secret ingredient separating the good albums from the great in this way. Writing the musical equivalent of wallowing in self-pity is easy. It’s also boring. Confronting a lament with strength and awareness is inspirational, and it takes deft hands to translate that musically in a way that tangibly impacts its listeners. Dreamwell makes this feel easy.
The rest of the album is as gripping as its opening tracks. Engineered in part by guitarist Aki McCullough, twinkly leads and panic chords dance along the left side of the mix while the riffs and rhythms barrel along the right atop bright drums and warm bass. In its pensive moments, Modern Grotesque teeters into shoegaze territory. Not to lose its sense of balance, tracks like the eponymous “Modern Grotesque” flirt with shades of sludgy post-metal, drawing a surprising comparison to acts like Mouth of the Architect in its final act. There are an abundance of home-hitting, quotable lyrics, and album closer “Sisyphean Happiness” features some of the best:
“I’m looking for something new in my life. Something more worth shouting into the light. But if I don’t have sorrow, all I have is hatred. And I think the world has enough of that.”
Dreamwell’s sophomore album caught me off guard, in that I didn’t expect it to instantly become the new skramz classic I’ve been waiting for since Pianos Become The Teeth’s 2014 hit Keep You. There isn’t a single wasted second among its ten tracks, navigating the waters between discordant grit and lilting harmony with a steady hand. If you’ve been avoiding the genre in recent years, Modern Grotesque establishes Dreamwell as a frontrunner in the new wave of young bands bringing fresh energy to an aging scene.
Modern Grotesque is out now, head on over to the Bandcamp page above to grab it!