Sounds You Need In Your Ears
Episode 1: BOYSETSFIRE
Nathan Gray – vocals
Josh Latshaw – guitar/backing vocals
Chad Istvan – guitar/backing vocals
Robert Ehrenbrand – bass guitar
Chris Rakus – bass guitar
Jared Shavelson – drums
Not that many people on this side of the world seem to know who BOYSETSFIRE are. Actually, come to think of it, not that many people anywhere seem to know who they are – that is, anybody outside of their native Delaware (and, as I’ve found out, a surprisingly large following in Germany…?). And, honestly, that’s a damned shame.
They’ve been playing as a unit for getting on for a quarter of a century now – minus a little while for the expected hiatus time — offering us their tunes since the mid-nineties. When they emerged, the music scene internationally was pretty fruitful for rock musicians, seeing the rise and fall of the Seattle grunge invasion, and latterly, the venerated battle of Britpop. Anybody my age who is into music will no doubt have fond memories of this time – but very few will have a collection of songs that actually mean much from the period. By and large, the lyrics were about as vacuous and formulaic as they get; not so for the boys in question.
I got pretty lucky in being exposed to them not all that long after they formed, and the way it came about is kind of unexpected. During that period, my parents did one of the absolute best things they could’ve done and subscribed us to cable television – a move that without reproach broadened my cultural horizons far beyond what suburban Brisbane could’ve hoped to. At the time, there was a huge emergence of extreme sports programming surging into the public consciousness at large, driven largely by the efforts of things like ESPN’s X-Games.
One of the programs of note for me personally was one which followed the late Dave Mirra around a bunch of skate parks with a bunch of other pro BMX riders, generally causing havoc at places like the much-lauded Camp Woodward. Much like the music scene of the era, the extreme sports scene was going through a major evolutionary push. Mirra had yet to land his double backflip in competition (a feat he was the first to accomplish), and the sport was more or less about to step into a major boom period.
On the soundtrack for one episode lived a song that I didn’t realise I would still be listening to two decades later with fair regularity – ‘Loser of The Year Award‘. Entering my teens as a generally angry and frustrated outcast, the lyrical content resonated with me in a way much of what was on offer at the time didn’t. I needed more.
File sharing at the time was a proposition fraught with danger; downloading a seemingly innocuous song from the usual go-tos like Napster or DC++ or Limewire was an almost sure-fire way to get 9 variants of the same virus for every 10 files you downloaded… and at least one copy of questionable pornography (at least, that’s the excuse I ran with at the time and I’m intent on sticking to it two-odd decades later) for the remaining ones. How, then, was I going to get my fix of a bunch of musicians from a barely populous state in middle America that had limited distribution channels, and as far as I could work out, no international representation that extended across the Pacific? The answer was surprisingly simple: watch the VHS that I had recorded that particular show onto with enough regularity to literally destroy the magnetic tape onto which it was recorded.
I eventually found a copy of the EP that particular song was lifted from, In Chrysalis, but it was only a small taste of what they were capable of in the grander scheme of things. Coming in at a modest 14:12, it’s not like this was going to stem the tide of wanting to hear their work. Hell, 3:44 of that is just the boys aping Dead Kennedys with their cover of the classic, ‘Holiday in Cambodia’.
There had to be more.
By then, there was 3 long-players and a swathe of EPs from the band to sample from, including several which in fact predate Chrysalis. To my delight, I’d found a grand selection to sample from: their debut offering, The Day the Sun Went Out, After The Eulogy — quite simply one of the finest records I own–and its follow-up, Tomorrow Come Today. To say that these early albums left no perceptible mark on me during my formative years is disingenuous; particularly the middle of the three.
One thing I’ve always been able to count on from them is their lyrics being frustratingly relatable, but in a different way to the usual, “my girlfriend dumped me and I am in a love/hate relationship with my middle-class parents despite them really loving me and giving me most legs up in life that they can” bullshit that found its way onto my playlists at the time. What can I say? I was a terrible emo fiend for most of my teenage years. That being said, a good lot of emo that came from then was also terrible, but for largely different reasons. Sure, it felt personal, but only because I made it feel that way.
With BSF, it’s not like you actually have any choice in the matter of it feeling personal: vocalist Nathan Gray’s barking, frenzied, wailing, and generally frustrated vocals make wholly sure of that. A good portion of the time you’re listening to them, you can’t help but feel a sense of concern for his wellbeing, like, “Oh god, is this guy okay? He sounds quite mad, and possibly in a significant pain.” Now that is emotive music. You listen with a lingering fear that the speakers may start bleeding all over your floor, or at the very least cover it in a decent smattering of saline from a combination of sweat, hatred, and tears.
One of the things that’s always struck me about their sound is that it’s generally ballsmashingly heavy and relentless, but in such a way that you don’t feel exhausted listening to it. Kind of like the heavier tiers of metal discovered that it had a really bad reaction to gluten and then discovered midlife. With a lot of heavier music, it can feel absolutely fatiguing, because you’re constantly being rushed by an endless wall of kick-drum pulses at 1944 beats per minute (which is, incidentally, also the year much of it sounds like being inside of! What a happy coincidence) and seventeen slightly off-harmony guitar tracks. Yeah, that’s cool, but sometimes you just need to sit down and not feel like you’re in a fucking war. For those times, I reach for the BSF.
Over the years, their sound has in many ways stayed fairly static and true to its roots: the riffs are still pretty much the same mix of melodic hooks peppered amongst distortion and harmonics to make even the best of barfights jealous, the drums remain largely driven by altered rudiments and surprisingly melodic, and the vocals are reliable enough to set your watch to. Make no mistake though, this isn’t all to say that their sound hasn’t progressed or evolved and that somehow this means their proficiency hasn’t grown. Quite the contrary; it’s been refined into something more – something altogether somehow more compelling – in much the same way that a straight razor blade is refined into a prison shiv. After literally quarter of a century of doing the same thing, to remain so faultlessly resistant to the deleterious evolution that arguably killed off many of their contemporaries isn’t just impressive, it’s enviable.
I still remember the first time I heard their song, ‘Rookie‘, lifted from After The Eulogy. Where ‘Loser of The Year Award‘ had filled me with a sense of the same defeat that I felt burning in me as a dejected and disaffected preteen, ‘Rookie‘ filled me with a sense of something very different. Instead of feeling meek and deflated and almost trying to brush off being crushed in a wave of apathy like the former, it filled me with this seething disgust and fury that has been broadly unmatched since. It was kind of this huge, “You may consider me to be insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but I’m going to do my damnedest to make sure that you do not forget who the hell I am when I’m gone.” It’s screaming at you to pay attention. And I liked that. Being an outcast teenager made it resonate in a way that was sort of like a second baptism.
The intervening years have seen them release several more albums – two of which have come since they reformed from hiatus in 2010, although their most recent original work, the eponymous Boysetsfire, arrived still some years ago in 2015.
Where its forebear, While A Nation Sleeps… was awarded almost universal critical acclaim when it arrived in 2013, the eponymous offering was somewhat more polarising, for reasons that still remain largely indescribable to me. Those that loved it properly loved it, but those who didn’t were left a little sore. The recipe hadn’t changed – the lyrics still contained the scathing cynicism of the works before them, the music itself was still fairly relentless and still sounded pretty much as it always did – it’s just that the scene going on around it had changed.
That’s the thing though, after two decades of steadfastness and success inside of the circles they found themselves rolling in, what benefit does it present to start tweaking what goes into it for the sake of doing so? If you’re going to shake things up in any meaningful way, you better have a good reason to do it. Our heroes, as it turns out, really do not.
Much of that consistency has arisen from a more-or-less unchanging line-up prior to fairly recently. Guitarists Josh Latshaw and Chad Istvan have been with Gray since the start, with original drummer Matt Krupanski only leaving the ranks in 2013. Since then, there’s been a number of faces in the supporting cast, offering mostly a touring group for their extensive European stints on the back of the last handful of albums. The overall appeal has remained more-or-less untarnished by these changes, maintaining a fairly true representation of the sound that the ‘old boys’ of the group had spent the prior two decades cultivating.
In writing this, I’ve taken myself on a tour through the records I listen to less out of the collection, and I’m left with pause wondering why I give them less air-time. Is it mere nostalgia that compels me? Like that one t-shirt that’s well and truly long past its prime, that we know should go to the nearest bin without relent, and despite something newer and better, they just fit in a way that’s familiar. It definitely doesn’t make the others any less or worse, it just means that reflexes tend to prevail, and old habits definitely do die hard.
Probably the most satisfying discovery in doing that run-through of the catalogue that I’d not noticed so apparently before, is that even after two decades, much of it still sounds surprisingly fresh. In a world of horseshit autotuned within an inch of its life – even in the more hardcore end of town – it’s a surprising cool breeze to ride high on. It’s a nice refuge to hide behind the walls of for a few quiet moments of fury and revel in men entrenched thoroughly and fully in their craft.
I missed out on seeing them in 2013 when they toured as part of the Hits & Pits festival when they played two shows in my native southeast Queensland, all because I was too sick to actually physically move. Few regrets in my adult life have sat with me quite as heavily as that one, at least in the musical arena. The best one can hope for, for now at least, is to take a wander through the fairly large collection of live reissues that followed their 20th Anniversary shows in Berlin. But that feels somehow hollow. It’s not feeling the sweat of furious rage lapping at your face in a shitty West End bar while not entirely sober and definitely not entirely giving a shit.
Really, there’s only so much you can say on the topic of the band. This originally started out as an impromptu album review to celebrate After The Eulogy and the lasting impact it’s hard, but somewhere along the way I had to pull back and just go with what felt natural. Picking one and only one album out their collection is unfair to both them and myself. It’s actually above all else unfair to you, the audience who I hope – pray – will find a similar appreciation in their repertoire somewhere.
And so, I leave you with the parting recommendation to do yourself a kindness and indulge. It doesn’t really matter where in the collection you find yourself fall, just that you do it at all. You owe it to your ears.
Feature by Benji Alldridge