I feel like I need to tackle this as a twofer, which is kinda silly considering there's really nothing linking these albums apart from a general theme. It's not part of a continuing narrative or concept or anything; Off With Their Heads doesn't play a style that's even remotely conducive to such a thing in the first place. But for me, their second and third albums, 2010's In Desolation and 2013's Home are inextricably linked in my mind. I can't hear one without the other, I can't talk about one without also reaching towards the other, they're two sides of the same coin, two representations of the same idea, with enough variation between the two to work both as separate entities and companions to one another.
I've touched on my own depression a handful of times within the context of my reviewing career (Tyranny's Tides of Awakening, Insomnium's Since the Day It All Came Down, and most notably Strapping Young Lad's City) and, fair warning, this is going to be another entry in that loose series I've been weaving over the years, and once again it's barely going to be about the music itself. Off With Their Heads has an incredible knack of cutting right through the bullshit and punching me directly in my soul, and even when I'm in a good place mentally I find myself drawn to these albums as some sort of sombre reminder of how bad shit can be.
I'll touch briefly on the music itself, because I obviously like it. This isn't metal at all, so it's a bit of a break from what I usually write about. It's really simple sub-three-minute four chord punk rock in the vein of The Ramones and some other more obvious bands I'll probably completely misappropriate since my usual brands of punk are the much faster and more technical skate punk/melodic hardcore styles. They seem to be frequently tied to Banner Pilot and Dillinger Four, I dunno, maybe they share some members or something, admittedly I've never looked it up. OWTH exist in a vacuum to me, their influences and connections are irrelevant to me, they're a safe place of sorts where the rest of the musical world doesn't exist. They're generally mid/uptempo and abrasive punk rock with a melodic edge and a penchant for great hooks, that's all I know and that's all I care about. This is why I usually talk about metal, because that's a style I've been so deeply embroiled in for my whole life that I can pick out every tiny nuance and describe it with obtuse metaphors to keep from repeating myself. Here? Nope, it's loud punk and I like it, I don't know anything else, fuck off.
There's one thing I can highlight though, and that's Ryan Young, the vocalist/guitarist that acts as the nucleus of the entire band. The main thing that attracted me to the band in the first place (apart from the excellent hooks) was his voice. Fucking hell man, he sounds like he's been smoking a pack a day since he was a toddler and yet he maintains a soulful melodicism to his extreme rattle. He has the kind of voice that comes from years of sadness and self abuse, the kind of guy who gargles razorblades and washes it down with Everclear and Ambien. I can't get enough of it, everything he says is tinged with this sorrowful frustration, like he's pouring his heart out with every line but also doing everything he can to keep himself from completely falling apart.
Don't wanna feel like this, anxious and angry and hopeless and upset all the time
Anyway, the real core of what brings me here, writing this dual review in the first place, is the lyrical themes that tie together all of OTWH's releases. Young has always been very open about his myriad mental illnesses, and it's reflected in his writing, and it's why I connect with his material so much. Nearly every song is in some way reflective of his depression and anxiety, constantly crying out for help as he slowly self destructs and loses his sense of identity. He has a goofy side that comes out outside of his music itself (see their music videos to see one of the most brutally depressing and emotional songs written in the last decade coupled with visuals of him getting pied in the face over and over again), but trust me when I say it's all the real deal. The band had to drop off a tour with The Flatliners a few years ago after he suffered a nervous breakdown on the road, he's since started Anxious and Angry, a podcast that regularly discusses mental illness (also a webstore/small label(?)), the guy's got fuckin' issues, and it resonates with people who've been there.
Starting off with In Desolation, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is going to take a bit of an optimistic look at things, since the opening tracks sorta veer that way. "Drive" is about running away from your problems, true, but as somebody who used to clear his mind by just driving aimlessly at night, it immediately speaks to a part of me that understands the cathartic release of just taking off in a random direction for a few hours. "Their Own Medicine" follows, being another uptempo rocker, with lyrics that basically say "Everybody who fucked with you in the past can be dealt with today by knocking them the fuck out", it sounds like the album is going to be something of a primer for dealing with your problems.
Then the rest of the album happens.
I hate every second of the god damned day / gimme anything you got I don't care, it's all the same
Starting from "Trying to Breathe", the album just slowly descends further and further down a hole as Young starts to lose hope and basically fall back on his old mantra of "I don't want to be like this but I fucking hate myself so I'm just going to do a shitload of drugs until I die". "Trying to Breathe" basically sounds like a play by play rundown of having a particularly brutal anxiety attack, pleading to make it through unscathed but also just sort of accepting that this might be the end. Everything from here on out reads like a cry for help or a screed of hatred directed squarely inwards. From deep seated familial issues and frustration with inheriting his crippling depression in "Old Man", to the stress of life driving him to medicating himself into as perpetual of a sleep as he can manage in "All I Can Do", to idle thoughts making everything worse in "Spare Time", each passing song is just another uncomfortably relatable bodyblow to anybody who has felt helpless and trapped in their own mind.
One thing that I always mention about depression is that it's not as romanticized as it is in popular media, with the weepy days of grey overtaking life. There are a variety of moods you experience, just like any human being, it's just that the bad ones tend to take precedence. City covers this better than pretty much any album ever written, but there's another common theme that pops up throughout In Desolation, and that's that there's somebody that Young clearly cares about more than anything. There are shades of it all over the place, but it's addressed more specifically in "I Need You", "I Just Want You to Know" and most obviously "My Episodes", where he expresses endless thanks to some unnamed person for keeping him as grounded as he possibly can be. It's actually kind of heartbreaking when put in the context of everything else he says throughout the album, because as much as this person does for him, he's still a hopeless wreck who seems to constantly flirt with just giving up on life entirely. And god damn if I don't understand that personally. I'm in a good place right now, I have a wonderful fiance who makes every second of life worth living, but you can't ever make the bad shit go away entirely. I have bad days/weeks all the time, I can't even begin to count the amount of times I've wanted to just fucking bail on everything and drive until I hit a coastline and then dive the fuck in. This shit is hard, it never goes away, no matter how good your life is at any given moment, it could always come back when you least expect it. I keep it inside most of the time, I try to be as strong as I can, but it's not easy, and it's extremely draining.
I think that's why the final track, "Clear the Air" has so quickly rocketed up the rankings of what I'd consider to be my all time favorite songs. It so clearly captures my greatest fear, pouring my heart out, laying everything bare for the world to see, and in doing so scaring away the only person who keeps me sane. The track plays out like a confession, with Young spilling his guts in a way that's so personal and understandable, and it builds from a quiet acoustic song and ultimately climaxes in an explosion of of emotion. Every single line is something I've said to myself at some point, something I've practiced and ultimately pussed out of admitting to anybody, every admission of irrationality and broken plea for help has played out in my head as some hypothetical conversation with my loved ones verbatim. When the song finally explodes, you can feel every ounce of desperation, frustration, hopelessness, sadness, and confusion in his voice when he finally switches from his calming clean voice that he seemingly struggles to maintain to his trademark rattle as he screams "God DAMMIT I'M FALLING APART". It should be cathartic, but instead is desperate. "Don't leave yet / I haven't gotten to the part that explains it all", it sounds like it was all in vain for him. Instead of finally making everything make sense, this person who does so much for him just... can't take it anymore and leaves. Holy shit that's terrifying to me, I can't imagine being in a situation like that, it's one I'm always afraid of experiencing myself. Even though I know damn well that my special someone will stay by my side, because we've been through so much shit in terms of dealing with our own personal demons and have only come out the other side closer than we were before, I'm always waiting for that other shoe to drop. "Clear the Air" is the narration of my nightmare scenario, and yet it's become one of my favorite songs of all time for the same reason I love The Catcher in the Rye so much. I see a lot of myself in Holden Caulfield, and it doesn't paint a pretty picture. I see a lot of myself in Ryan Young, and it's a really fucking dark reflection.
I thought I'd get older and it'd go away / but it only gets worse and causes more pain
There are two themes that seem to recur most often throughout the duration of this one, and one is the concept of "home" and what it means to Ryan, which could be viewed through the lens of a punk rocker always on the road with no permanent place to lay down for the night, but personally I view it through the lens I view all OWTH with, that being depression. On my worst days, I can find myself laying down in my own bed, in my own bedroom, with my only thought being "I want to go home". That's been an experience I've dealt with my whole life, from being an angsty teenager with then-undiagnosed dysthymic disorder to being a grown-ass adult living in his own apartment with the woman he proposed to. I think that's because "home" is, to me, and I suspect to Ryan as well, a place where none of this shit matters. A safe space where you can finally be happy. Depressive thoughts and ideation is like a haunting, a demon that you can never truly escape. It will always find you, no matter how far you run or how happy you are, it will always catch you. It will always find where you are and it will snatch you in its clutches and refuse to let go until your brain stubbornly acquiesces and produces the proper chemical to eradicate it for a time. I can be "home", and still want to go "home", because "home" is a place where I've finally eluded that haunting for good. Everything that makes me happy is here, but I'm only "home" like 60% of the time. I never know when I'm going to want to cut ties and run to some elusive nowhere that finally acts as the "home" I've always dreamed of. The sad reality is that "home" may not be a physical space, and as long as I have this stupid abnormal depression-brain I will never truly be there.
The other recurring theme is that of repeating the past, usually in the form of self destructive habits. This one I can't relate to quite as strongly on a personal level, since despite my storied history of bad decisions, I've always managed to avoid any sort of drug dependency or addiction to self harm, which is what most of these references seem to allude to, but it's hard not to place yourself in Young's shoes here. There are countless references to things being so much worse than last time, or being unable to keep from bad habits, or thinking you'll finally get it right this time only to be disappointed, and each time he sounds more broken than the last. Young is not only struggling to find his "home", he's struggling to even keep himself alive and coherent enough to truly care about finding it. Like always, there are moments of clarity where it seems possible, like for example "Come Find Me", but more often than not he finds himself wallowing and lost, like "Stolen Away" and "Shirts".
It's not the same as it was last time / It's so much worse, it's something that drives me out of my mind
Like I mentioned, In Desolation is so brutal because he recounts all of his demons in painstaking detail despite having an outlet of hope right next to him, but it's also a stark contrast to the band's earlier work as well as this one. Their previous releases (particularly the EP Hospitals and debut LP From the Bottom, as well as the ten quadrillion splits they appeared on around 2007) were all equally as hopeless and despondent as Home, featuring cheerful ditties like "Die Tonight" and "Fuck This, I'm Out", which also helps keep the theme of returning to past pits, most especially thanks to the track "Janie", which originally appeared on one of their millions of 7" splits six or seven years prior.
I haven't outright said it yet, but once we hit their biggest hit song here, "Nightlife", it's impossible to avoid any longer. Part of the reason that these lyrics hit so close to home is because there is precisely zero pretension involved. Absolutely nothing is dressed up in flowery metaphor, it is all just blunt, brutalist realism spelled out in plain language. You could argue that something like that just constitutes bad lyricism, but really it's just Young cutting through all the bullshit and getting straight to the point. These lyrics may not be clever, but they're no less powerful. "Nightlife" is probably the best example of this besides the monumental "Clear the Air" from the previous album. The song is already potentially the tightest two and a half minutes in modern punk, but the plain nature of the lyrics just cut straight to my fucking core. It's another plea for help, presented like an admission yet again, like most of their songs, and even though there's an implicit admission of "I can't stop drugging myself to death" here, I still know I've said and felt every last syllable of what he's laid out here. It's just... I dunno, fucking simple and relatable. It hits a wide target and cuts deep. "I wear it all on my sleeve and everyone sees no matter how hard I try / I've never felt worse in my whole life". It closes on him just repeating over and over and over again that he feels like this every night, and it rips me apart because fuck so do I. No matter how happy I am, I'll never shake that defeatist misery. I'm good now, I know I am, but there's that niggling little fuck in the dark recesses of my brain that just wants to get up and abandon everything. I've never buckled, and I don't think I ever will, but at least once per night I'll have to subconsciously tell myself to shut the fuck up and allow me to be happy.
I know I'm sick, and I'm not right / I'm so fucking tired of living this life
One of the few musical points I can accurately point out is that Home finds itself just as sonically downtrodden as the lyrics at times. Yeah there are some uptempo hook generators here in "Seek Advice Elsewhere" and "Start Walking", but there's also a lot more downbeat and mellow, and dare I say, minimalist, tracks here as well. "Don't Make Me Go" is an out-and-out ballad, "Always Alone" and "Come Find Me" are much slower interpretations of regular old punk songs, and "Stolen Away" takes it as far as it can feasibly go, being a very slow song consisting entirely of minimalist percussion and slow palm mutes. If sped up to 2.5x speed it might sound like a normal song, but here's it's just a sad confession on quaaludes, and really fits the despondent lyrics as well as any punk song ever could. It's kind of interesting in it's execution, but I do admit that it saps the momentum of the album a bit. So if we're going to stay on the surface and look at this purely as an album to listen to as opposed to an expose on the depths of depression, Home is weaker than In Desolation on this front. It's no less tight, but it's there.
No plans for children, no plans for growing old
At the end of the day, I lied a little bit when I said I listened to Off With Their Heads as a reminder for how bad it can be some 3200 words ago. Really, that's not true. I listen to City as a litmus test to see how I'm doing and to remind myself of high school, I listen to The Crimson Idol and Since the Day It All Came Down just as a soundtrack to mope, but I listen to In Desolation and Home because it reminds me that I'm not alone. There are other people out there who feel the same way I do, and they're still chugging along. Ryan Young is a disturbed individual who clearly struggles to get by every day, but he still runs a successful band/label/podcast and is able to share his story in a way that most people can only dream of. He fights his demons, and sometimes he loses, and that's okay. It's okay to fail sometimes, it's okay to show your weaknesses and spill your guts. Life is unfair, but it's worth living. People are there for you, I'm here for you, I've gone through this shit too and I don't want anybody else to suffer through this shit with nobody to reach out to like I did for so long. I think this is why Chester Bennington was so revered and why his suicide hit his fans so hard. He spoke to them the same way Ryan Young speaks to me, and if Young ever loses his fight the same way Bennington did, I'll probably react the same way Linkin Park fans reacted. The point is that Off With Their Heads manages to speak to a terminally depressed person like me in a way that acknowledges the problem, and while they offer absolutely no respite or ways to finally escaping it, they let me know that I'm not crazy, I'm not broken, I'm not a faulty human being. I'm merely that, a human being. And so are you, and so are all of us. We can get through any of this shit, but it's okay to delve deep into why we're so fucked up and be honest with ourselves.
I love all of you, stay strong, nothing is unbeatable.
RATINGS: Obviously not important%