Review: Brand New – Science Fiction

Whenever Brand New makes an announcement or otherwise enters public discourse in some way, you’re almost guaranteed to hear someone reminiscing about their high school days. This is understandable, since Brand New and fellow Long Island emo titans Taking Back Sunday wrote some top-notch tracks that perfectly encapsulated teenage angst. Brand New’s 2001 debut Your Favorite Weapon brimmed with pop-punk energy and was full of lyrical gems like “I hope the next boy that you kiss has something terribly contagious on his lips.” Their sophomore album Deja Entendu took on a more serious tone and tamped down its predecessor’s pop excesses, yet was still full of shout-along choruses and lyrics focused on doomed relationships. Its release in 2003 helped pave the way for the emo wave that dominated the next few years—and despite the band’s new-found gravitas, lines like “call me a safe bet, I’m betting I’m not” still found themselves into many an AIM away message and Myspace profile (doubly so if you grew up on Long Island).

While Brand New could have used their status as one of the preeminent emo bands to continue churning out similarly-styled albums (as their perennial frenemies Taking Back Sunday have arguably done), their 2006 album The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me showed that the band wanted to turn over a new leaf. From the album’s cryptic artwork that lacked any mention of the band’s name, to a tracklist containing two experimental instrumental tracks, to lyrics that quote Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If-” and describe horrific car crashes, Brand New sent a clear message that they had grown out of their teen angst and into a different kind of darkness. In the span of five years, they had gone from opening their albums with “It’s funny how your worst enemies always seem to turn out to be all of your best friend’s best friends” to “Was losing all my friends, was losing them to drinking and to driving.” Singer Jesse Lacey’s voice still erupted into shouts that often escalated into screams, but there was a new sophistication to the music as their instrumentation explored dynamic new territory.

Their oft-overlooked 2009 album Daisy followed this trend while upping the intensity. Whether Brand New were still an emo band was anyone’s guess, but one thing was for certain – if you had been following Brand New this whole time, you’d know they were about much more than high school zeitgeist.

And now, released eight years after their last album, 2017’s Science Fiction is very much the work of a band that is older and wiser, yet no more at peace with the world. To borrow a cliché, it’s a very “mature” album, albeit without all the connotations implying settling. And like its spiritual predecessor The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, Brand New may be showcasing a different side of themselves this time around, one that defies easy categorization into any one genre, but this simply conceals the same turmoil that has always fueled them.

The most readily apparent difference between Science Fiction and the remainder of Brand New’s discography is its overall quietness.  Like most emo bands, Brand New were always willing to include the occasional acoustic ballad to really highlight their sincerity, but this had always been offset by copious shouting and power chord strumming. Now the dynamic is reversed, as somber restraint forms the foundation of Science Fiction. Right off the bat, the opening track “Lit Me Up” sets the tone with subdued, synth-driven notes, scattered guitar plucking, and ominous snare drumming to make a song that seethes but never boils over. Accentuating this are Lacey’s vocals, which lower and raise without ever reaching anything that could be called a shout, even as he sings a chorus of “it lit me up and I burned from the inside out, yeah I burn like a witch in a puritan town.” Much like the Arthur’s fist meme, its rage is palpable yet repressed.

This is likewise the case on Science Fiction’s many acoustic-driven tracks. On “Waste,” Lacey ruminates on the band’s past that the “high school nostalgia” crowd remember so fondly, stating “You and I were stuck in the waste, talking about our salad days – what a damn lie.” “Could Never Be Heaven” and “In the Water” are the closest the band has ever come to actually sounding like a folk act. Yet all of these pale in comparison to the album’s eight and a half minute closing track “Batter Up,” which like “Lit Me Up” never rises above a certain threshold as its four-note melody is played seemingly endlessly. For such a bleak album, it strikes a rare tone of either defiance, acceptance, or both with a chorus of “It’s Never going to stop, batter up/Give me your best shot, batter up.” Some acoustic tracks may be more memorable than others, but one thing is certain: Brand New have never scrimped on ending an album.

Other moments on Science Fiction show that the energetic Brand New of yesteryear still lives on. Despite opening with strumming and whistling that makes you wonder if you’re listening to Andrew Bird, “Can’t Get It Out” builds into the bands trademark shouts as lead guitarist Vincent Accardi joins Lacey to sing a crescendo of “Not just a manic depressive, toting around my own cloud/I’ve got a positive message, sometimes I can’t get it out.” “Same Logic/Teeth” also starts with Lacey gently spinning a tale of self-destruction before it reaches the album’s loudest point as he screams “goddammit you look so ugly, but you sound so lovely.” And when the intensity isn’t dependent on shouted or screamed vocals, Science Fiction draws from the band’s very established ability to get heavy with guitars. “Out of Mana” and “No Control” both do a fine job contrasting their relatively mild vocals with forceful riffs, but “137” blows them all out of the water (no pun intended since the song is about nuclear bombs)  when it goes into one of the band’s most extensive guitar solos to date towards its end. These moments never being Science Fiction to the same frantic places Daisy visited, and you may wish there were more of them, but they demonstrate that Brand New still have the ferocity that drew listeners in over 15 years ago.

If the dynamic shifts weren’t enough to make Science Fiction comparable to The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, the album’s experimental flairs seal the deal. For starters, the album’s cryptic artwork is devoid of any band or album name. Yet more unnerving are the tape recorder samples distributed throughout the album. The first minute and a half of “Lit Me Up” solely consist of a therapist introducing a patient who retells a dream she had, while “Waste” opens with a jarring scream. More snippets appear on the outros of tracks, with the most noticeable being the words “seven years” being repeated seven times at the end of “In the Water.” Your guess is as good as mine as to what the meaning of each of these are. On “Out of Mana” and “No Control,” the track fades out before fading back in with a completely different outro song, making you wonder when the track is really over during the first few listens. While unconventional aspects such as these are sure to be divisive, it is pretty incredible that they’re coming from the same band that once wrote an extended diss track about Taking Back Sunday’s singer.

Much has been made over Brand New preemptively announcing their death as a band, including selling t-shirts that state “Brand New 2000 – 2018.” While it would seem insincere in principle at this point if they continued past this date, stranger things have happened (see: LCD Soundsystem) and Science Fiction is such a great album that fans would more than likely forgive them. Yet a recurring theme of the album seems to be the band reflecting on and coming to terms with their past, and for all intents and purposes it feels like a final album. One thing is for certain though: if Science Fiction is the last we’ll hear of Brand New, it’s one hell of a way to go out.

Rating: 8/10