By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Capable of Teetering Crushkill Recordings
Using music as catharsis is a dangerous proposition: When it succeeds, you get John Lennon channeling his primal-scream therapy to seethe "I Found Out" through his teeth. But when the artist gets too self-indulgent, you wind up with a simpering twerp who equates the expression of "I'm 17 and I just got dumped" with the emotions from "I'm six and mom won't buy me a Happy Meal." The key for the aspiring dramaturge is to find some universal grievance to write about and then present it in a way that values empathy over panic—the result might not capture the melodramatic mind-state of upset adolescence as well, but graduating from high school into an adult world of stress often requires a similar musical graduation.
Abzorbr might just be the group to hand out diplomas. When the Minneapolis band released the first 300-press limited run of their debut full-length, Capable of Teetering, last September, they didn't necessarily set out to make a CD for jaded, suddenly drinking-age emo kids to turn to after that musclehead gym rat in the Verizon commercial ruined Fall Out Boy for them. Abzorbr don't necessarily fit neatly into the terrain of emo's operatic, histrionic guitar rock; they're closer to the trans-genre amalgamation of other post-rap local acts such as Kill the Vultures and Mel Gibson and the Pants, starting with a hip-hop frame and expanding into a sprawl of ideas that includes everything from free jazz to laptop ambience. The two architects of the group's instrumentation, bassist Casey O'Brien and his brother Graham on drums, wrench a variety of moods out of skeletal samples and taut yet flexible rhythms. If there's any consistency to their sound, it's in the sheer force of the beat, which typically sounds like subterranean tremors rupturing Plexiglas and aluminum.
But this album does pick up where emo slacks off in a definite thematic sense: There's a palpable anxiety in the music, the kind of stress that starts building in people once they realize their problems are a lot more substantial than vague, "no one understands me" self-absorption. During a phone conversation, lead vocalist and songwriter Chris Keller—a.k.a. Kristoff Krane—elaborates about the way stress and apprehension influenced his writing process.
"I was struggling severely with issues regarding religion and identity," he says. "Not an identity-crisis thing, like in high school, but getting close to flaws and examining them to the point of looking at suffering for humanity as a whole." It's an approach that adheres to the philosophy behind the band's name: Originally derived from a line on a track from their first EP—"orphan-born endorphin absorbers"—Abzorbr acts as a conduit for a whole host of frustrations.
Take leadoff track "Sleepy Dreamer," which opens with a half-conscious-sounding mumbled mantra "fall in love, fall asleep, dream forever," and then explodes in a burst of unrestrained, focused frustration over what seems to be a relationship gone south: "The least you could do is show your teeth and fake a smile," Keller sneers, shortly before unleashing a barrage of warp-speed syllables that sound like a hyperventilating answer to Eyedea's gymnastic abstraction. (Keller and Eyedea have collaborated as part of FaceCandy, while Eyedea's experimental punk band, Carbon Carousel, shares a new split EP with Abzorbr.)
Other songs, like "Fist Fight or Flight" ("Your world is smaller than mine/None of it matters anyway") and "Something's Missing" ("I've lost every right connection between everything that seems right/So I guess you've earned the right to invade all my favorite spaces"), aim their sights at a perplexing succession of adversaries—though between Keller's manic, gasping flow and the evasive ambiguity that clouds his lyrics, it seems that though he sets his target outward, he keeps hitting inward.
"[I've been] dissecting my own anxiety, insecurity, guilt, and anger—all those negative things that nobody wants to get close to—and generalizing," Keller says. "Everybody's feeling those—why? Why does everyone have to wake up and wonder what their god is and create this thing, and then be bound to it?"
At the hard-to-grasp core of the album lies the frustrating feeling that those questions might be impossible to answer. In the months since Capable's recording, however, Keller admits to having grown past that stage; he hints that Abzorbr's next album will be more collaborative, improvisational—and significantly more reflective.
"Before, I had this mindset, 'There's walls all around me, and I'm gonna do whatever I can to punch them down.' Now, I've learned that you can continue to punch the wall—but your knuckles are gonna be bloody. So you might as well just sit there and look at the wall and not say anything, and hopefully a part of it'll crumble without you touching it." Though maybe their subwoofers would help.