Labels seem to matter a lot these days; in fact it feels like every week a new subgenere is invented, heralded and, usually, quickly forgotten. Although they were born out of the hardcore scene, for the past five years Boston, Massachusetts' Defeater have challenged the conventions of the genre by crafting music that takes an old-school formula and pushes it in new and ambitious directions without sacrificing an ounce of aggression. Case in point is the band's third full-length Letters Home, the culmination of these efforts and sonic evidence of a band who are at their musical and creative peak.
For Letters Home, Defeater enlisted drummer Joe Longobardi, who proved integral in the writing and execution of the album and also injected the band with palpable energy. "This is definitely the most comfortable I've felt as far as writing music together and a lot of that has to do with Joe," says guitarist Jay Maas, who along with vocalist Derek Archambault, guitarist Jake Woodruff and bassist Mike Poulin make up Defeater. "Joe is a songwriter straight-up so he understands kick drum should be exactly where it has to be; he's super talented but he's not self-indulgent and he's always evaluating what serves the music overall instead of what's just flashy," he continues.
The writing for Letters Home began when the band returned from Australia in 2012 and Maas. who is a successful recording engineer in his own right that's produced every Defeater album, started compiling dozens of hours of drum tracks which would eventually serve as the foundation for the disc. "I feel like we're all getting better as songwriters and we operate independently as one organism now, so we had a really cohesive understanding of what we wanted to accomplish with this record," explains Maas. "We asked ourselves what we loved about our first couple of records and realized they were a little bit simpler, so we kept that in mind when putting together these songs."
From the driving, melodic opener "Bastards" to the relentless attack of "Blood In My Veins" and the carefully controlled chaos of "Rabbit Foot," Letters Home is an album that will inevitably help the band, who embarked on the 2013 Vans Warped Tour that summer, expand their fanbase without pandering to their audience. "We've been writing songs for almost two decades and we like a lot of pop-oriented music so I think as a band Defeater is getting to a point where we can write a record that embodies that while maintaining the honesty that's inherent in the music," Maas explains. "We're still being ourselves, we're just being the best songwriters we can."
Lyrically Letters Home sees the band continuing an ongoing narrative about a working-class family living in post World Wold II America, although the story revolves around the patriarch of the family this time around. "I'm not influenced by bands who have done 'concept' albums as much as I'm inspired in a literary sense by writers like J.D. Salinger and Cormac McCarthy," Archambault explains when asked how this concept came together. "I love American Gothic Fiction and I tried to capture the descriptive nature of Salinger in the way that he can make the most boring ten minutes in an apartment the premise for an amazing story because of the way it develops."
Because the album is about a character with a backstory that involves war and destruction, the band knew going into it that Letters Home had to be heavy, and although it has its unexpected moments of calm before the storm such as the shimmering guitar intro to "No Saviour", for the most part the album is an exercise in catharsis that's mirrored in Maas' production. "I built a new studio that's professionally designed and acoustically treated, so we didn't have to fight any sonic limitations," he explains. "It really made sense to make this a heavier record and by working with Defeater and producing other bands, I was able to take everything I've learned and apply it here in a way that made sense."
Admittedly Letters Home has its share of dark moments (try not getting goosebumps when Archambault sings, "I gave away my faith when I gave my brother a coffin"), but despite the bleak lyrical content there's an overarching theme of hopefulness that permeates the album as well as the band's current outlook as well. "I would say unanimously we're more proud of this album than anything we've ever done so I feel like regardless of how it's received, we feel like 'mission accomplished.'" Maas adds, "At the end of the day it's the five of us playing music together and that's why we got into hardcore in the first place, because there are no rules."
Letters Home is much more than a hardcore record, it's a concept album that explores the concepts of loss, family and love in a way that transcends genres and the chances that Defeater take on the album both musically and lyrically will undoubtedly inspire bands who play various styles of music on a visceral and artistic level. But enough talk: Letters Home was meant to be listened to, so cue up "Bastards" and let Defeater take you somewhere new yet familiar, where the only limitation is their collective imagination.
Derek Archambault - Vocals • Jake Woodruff - Guitar • Mike Poulin - Bass • Joe Longobardi - Drums