Underoath – Voyeurist
Released: January 14, 2021
Spencer Chamberlain // vocals
Aaron Gillespie // drums, vocals
Timothy McTague // guitars
Christopher Dudley // keyboards, samples, piano
Grant Brandell // bass
James Smith // guitars
Ask me what my top three Underoath albums are. Go on, do it. In this order, and without hesitation, I’d pick: Define The Great Line, Lost In The Sound Of Separation, and Disambiguation. If you had asked me what my top four albums were, like those lazy “share 4 albums that blah blah blah” Twitter posts that we all can’t help ourselves with, I’d lock in: DTGL, LITSOS, Disambiguation, and Voyeurist. For Underoath’s latest, and ninth album overall, is just that compelling. This is the sound of a fired-up, super confident Underoath writing and playing like they’d never get another chance to. Given the state of the world, I don’t blame ‘em.
It’s an incredibly interesting album that the band describes as “hi-def violence.” When you properly break down how it sounds, how these songs operate, that self-applied tagline makes perfect sense. The uprooting heaviness of their severely underrated 2010 LP shakes throughout, as does elements of those classic pop-metalcore mannerisms from their famed 2000s era. Then, with a far heavier lean towards synth-heavy experimentation, samples, and glitch goodness, as well as the hyper-polish that permeated the full-length that reinvented their entry, 2018’s Erase Me, this is hi-fi carnage. Voyeurist works because of how grand it is, for just how produced it all is, and in how skilfully it was compiled together. Underoath couldn’t have made this album at any other point in their career.
Voyeurist sees the band learning from and understanding their biggest records, borrowing something from each to create one of their most gripping and complete records to date. The people who will tear this album apart, the people who won’t understand it, will be the ones who go in with already preconceived notions of what another new Underoath album should supposedly sound like, how it should all supposedly flow. (Or they’ll be the ones who have no clue who Underoath are and why they’re so important, like certain reviews of Voyeurist from other Australian music outlets that have made me want to beat my fucking head against a brick wall.) Don’t be one of those people.
Voyeurist is one of the most aggressive but weirdest records yet from Underoath. It’s this potent mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar; an album that is very much them but also a strong progression of their artistic visions. That balance, and how it’s treated here, is one of the things I love most about the record. To some degree, and as much as I liked it, I feel like this is what Erase Me should’ve been. It’s tense, it’s dynamic, it’s weird, it’s Voyeurist. It’s fucking Underoath, man!
Enough foreplay, let’s talk about the album’s five singles first. (I’m not one of those weirdos who slates albums for having too many singles. Like, oh no, just wait for the album to drop and stop hearing the singles, goober.) Opener ‘Damn Excuses’, the first single from this Underoath record, is such a head-rush. It has quickly become one of my favourite songs of theirs in the span of just a few months. This is chaotic and noisy post-hardcore, Underoath style, all the way down. It accurately recaptures the punchy and heavy DNA of Disambiguation so well. In fact, Voyeurist is very much like that now 12-year-old album spliced with their previous LP. The angular guitars from James Smith and Timothy McTague slice and dice, and when complimented with the flowing percussion of Aaron Gillespie and Spencer Chamberlain’s no-bullshit lyricism and hearty roars, it’s a volcanic and digitized first taste for what is a violent and synthetic album.
A self-reflective attack on their religious past, on individuals and institutions that demand people look upward but never inward, ‘Hallelujah’ cries “cut the lights, face yourself. We’re not dreaming, this is Hell.” Further evidence? The songs visualizer is set in a chapel setting of sorts, even making use of choral vocals for its hook. Head-scratching comparisons towards Bring Me The Horizon – I can only guess due to the songs straight-forward chug parts and choir additions – were expressed on its release but it’s actually closer to old Underoath. Let’s never forget this seminal UO song uses hymn gang-vocal chants to incredible effect, or the very post-metal chord progressions heard in ‘To Whom It May Concern’ and ‘Casting Such A Thin Shadow‘. (Two sorely overlooked gems off their 2006 opus; the former is some terrific ISIS worship.) There’s just lots of little things about ‘Hallelujah’ I enjoy. Like how Chamberlain abruptly cuts off the choir’s mantra before the final breakdown; his burly “OH’s” dropping on the downbeats like his younger self would’ve done; the dark synths flowing underneath the dual guitar lines. This attentive sonic detail is something that pervades into the rest of the record and how it’s written, Underoath being masters of it by now.
Keyboardist and sampler Christopher Dudley is a key writer for the band, just as much as Chamberlain or McTague are. His musical additions to Underoath’s sound became more abundant and noticeable as time went on, especially during these post-reunion releases. On ‘Cycle’ you can hear his distorted glitches and keyboard effects adding murky ornamentation to this grim metalcore arrangement that’s all about repeating patterns, an overarching theme of the record, something this song itself plays with structurally. Regarding its most notable aspect, Ghostemane’s feature, who also comes from alt and metal scenes, I don’t know how I feel about it. I’m not a huge fan of his – ‘‘Lazaretto’ is a certified banger, though – and out of all the artists that could’ve had the honour of featuring on an Underoath song, this is who we got? Upon its release, Chamberlain said that he heard a cadence for the bridge that the band didn’t themselves possess, and I’m not sure how well that’s turned out in the final product with Mane. Factor in how the mix for this particular track has a lot of different parts fighting for the same space, something that’s not an issue at any other point on the record even at its most brazen, and this one is just messy.
Closer ‘Pneumonia’ was written about McTague’s father passing, becoming this droning seven-minute finale that is wrought with loss. The panning and lingering ‘80s synth that evokes a flat line, the left-right alternating hi-hats, the sparse and yearning guitars that feel like old ‘Oath, the meadow-wide atmospherics, the higher-pitched vocals that slip in from Gillespie – there’s so much happening here. As a single, it might have been a weird choice, but when consumed in chronological order with the rest of the record, it’s a perfect climax. One of planet-cracking, post-metal impact. With pummelling weight and emotional ultra-heaviness, the band puts all emphasis on a heads-down, riffs-up approach for this song’s finale that is clearly meant to evoke the passing of life into whatever comes next: “As I drift to the brightest black. Weightless, lifeless, endless, no way back.”
Low down-pitched voices on ‘Numb’ come as a surprise, but new little explorations and additions like that only add to Voyeurist rather than subtract. I could joke about “oh but it’s not a Linkin Park cover, you guys”, in light of providing anything of substance, as if anyone was actually thinking that based on the song title, let alone a band of Underoath’s size actually doing that on-record, but I won’t. Here, Gillespie is knocking out busy beats and snare rolls while singing high during its inspiring chorus, one that makes me feel like a teenager again, nailing that vocal chemistry with his fellow cohort like the Underoath of old so bloody well. Seriously, it’s like the natural modern-day replication of the same parts he’d have done back on 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety. Add in the band operating under the very same idea for their respective parts, eventually dolling out a wild finale, and it’s fucking glorious. With songs like this, Underoath authentically bridges their lauded history and their present strengths, going beyond just making Erase Me 2: Electric Oath-aloo.
Now to the rest of the album that’s yet to be heard by the public, starting with ‘I’m Pretty Sure I’m Out Of Luck And Have No Friends’. A lengthy title that wouldn’t at all look out of place circa 2004-2008, like this oldie or this bit of insanity, it’s a jarring third cut. Especially so early in the track-listing, beginning with twinkling piano notes, a dial-tone operator sample, and an unsettling electronica mood, one of the weirder and more sublime songs of Underoath’s career manifests. This ghostly ether of synths and effects swirls around equally abstract singing and screaming over a simple rock-solid beat, slowly building towards a crunchy, odd-time bout of crushing brutality with metal guitar licks, slow-moving grooves, and Chamberlain’s low bellows. Remember how I said this was jarring? Well, once a few listens have been undertaken, which I highly recommend for Voyeurist, it all falls into place. This is the kind of album that would be phenomenal when played live in full.
Halfway in, we get what sounds like a really decent Erase Me B-side, ‘Thorn’, big rock refrains and all. Somewhere between the light catchiness and dark heaviness dynamic that this band excels at, we find even more solid vocal chemistry between Underoath’s two leading men, dry and washed-out production between the electronics and percussion that helps ground everything (see the final section) and it’s modulated, melodic bridge that is just pure elation. This one’s a grower, not a shower, but after a couple listens it’s now a personal go-to of mine for the record. Which is the mindset I really want to drum into everyone reading this: longing for the exact same Underoath of old is pointless and foolish. Move on, I have, and Underoath themselves have too.
A subdued, shadowy duet piece between Gillespie and Chamberlain, ‘(No Oasis)’ is an atmospheric, bleak and creepy little piece. Like some horror-movie score was taped over an Underoath VHS. Once there was no frame, but now there’s no oasis, one of the more curious interludes Underoath have ever cooked up. Giving further credence to how the band are dying to play this album in full at live shows, begging you to experience it one sitting if you can. By itself? Eh. But in context of the whole record? Essential.
Right back into the action we dive, with ‘Take A Breath’, which is led by some of the thickest, borderline-sludgiest riff and rhythm work of their career. Again, strong Disambiguation vibes in the instrumental. Each bar just makes me feel I’m being hammered into the cold earth. (Shout out to Grant Brandell, his bass sounds monolithic). As drums stutter and harmonics fire off, Underoath enact the kind of over-driven and off-kilter post-hardcore that originally made them scene legends, just informed by where their tastes in rock and metal have travelled since as they’ve matured as people and musicians. With more Gillespie/Chamberlain interplay (love to see it), the song’s dynamic pistons between spatial eeriness and full-frontal metal crashing forward like tidal waves.
The weird Christian types that get uppity at Silent Planet for swearing will get big mad at this one’s F-bombs from Chamberlain on ‘We’re All Gonna Die’. And good, I say; they can all die mad about it. ‘We’re All Gonna Die’ is a slamming, urgent rocker demanding we all stop pretending to be alive and fully live with purpose. Do away with fakeness, get back to the desert of the real (yes I watched The Matrix again recently, how’d you know?) and all that good shit. This is going to be one of the big sleeper cuts of the album. It’s over-flowing with classic Underoathisms: groovy riffage, Gillespie and Chamberlain trading blows, gut-churning low-end and slower, half time pulses when the band pulls the trigger on those towering choruses. The emphasis on how the thickened bass, oceanic synths and large-scale guitar all work in tandem is probably the smartest it’s ever been for them, too.
With Voyeurist, Underoath are talking about how we are all voyeurs peering into each other’s lives, sometimes indirectly, sometimes with consent, and other times not so much. Something that’s only been exacerbated via the internet, boredom, COVID-19 cancellations, and lockdowns. It’s an album where the longer you stare at it, the harder it stares back at you. Thankfully avoiding the boomer-esque pit-falls when offering commentary on today’s tech-heavy, social-media saturated landscape. It’s really refreshing, given how so many bands fumble that topic. What’s also refreshing, too, is how dominating Underoath sound across the widescreen chaos of Voyeurist, one of their best records.
Underoath – Voyeurist tracklisting:
1. Damn Excuses
3. I’m Pretty Sure I’m Out Of Luck And Have No Friends
6. (No Oasis)
7. Take A Breath
8. We’re All Gonna Die
Voyeurist is out Friday via Fearless Records – pre-order here (got mine, don’t miss yours)
Review By Alex Sievers