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By the Throat

Pianos Become the Teeth wrest screamo back from latter-day crapcore nonsense

Christopher Myers
Pianos Become the Teeth (with Kyle Durfey, second from left, and Michael York, far right) try to give screamo a good name.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 6/9/2010

Pianos Become the Teeth CD-release show

Charm City Art Space, June 11

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The visceral satisfaction of listening to a dude tear out his vocal cords over melodic or otherwise weird hardcore music isn't a terribly easy thing to explain. The word for said sound, generically, is screamo. And legend has it the tag started off as a diss or joke--kinda like "crabcore"--and got taken over by the music's proponents. Because, really, who in the hell cares what a thing is called, or if people think it sucks or is overwrought or corny?

It feels good to listen to. It's music that makes your heart race, or at least race in a different way. In its original, non-bastardized state, screamo is also about the least ironic music you can subject yourself this side of probably gospel or empty-bottle country or street rap. There's not much else to it, nothing deeply conceptual or earth-shattering. A screamo band isn't going to wind up on Pitchfork or in the jukebox at the Club Charles. It's more hip than oil drilling, but not much more marketable.

Adding to the screamo PR crisis are a handful of bands that specialize in being downright creepy, such as Attack Attack! or BrokeNYCDE, that scream vowels into microphones over crappy electronic programming or crappy metalcore. Which gets called "screamo," and really has nothing to do with the experimental hardcore variant that started making itself known about two decades ago, and which Baltimore's Pianos Become the Teeth explore fervently.

"Nine times out of 10, people don't know what real screamo is," PBTT guitarist Michael York says in an early evening interview at a Station North bar. "When MySpace now has a tag that says 'screamo' and every band that sounds like My Chemical Romance puts that in their profile--it's a bummer. It does suck, but I'm not, like, hellbent on really caring what other people think."

So says every band, however cloaked in to-the-minute hipness--but PBTT is a band that sounds and feels so naked on its debut full-length Old Pride. And not in the sort of Xiu Xiu drama-kid way, but in old-school emotion-via-melody and volume: simple lashes of sad guitar eke out a careful balance between hardcore gnash and spare, swollen postrock climaxes, giving up to thunderous cascades of pretty grandiosity. Careful dynamics: It's not something new or revolutionary, but it's worth passing up the logic that something good has to be.

There isn't really anyone else in Baltimore making this sort of music anymore. In bands such as Pg. 99, or even Washington D.C.'s post-hardcore universe, heavy emotional music practically ran the scene--or at least a scene--in the Mid-Atlantic about a decade ago. Today, PBTT concedes there's only a handful of people locally that follow them. "We do way better outside of Baltimore," York says.

"You don't see bands like this headlining a big tour," he adds. "We're playing DIY house shows, which is something we love to do. [But] unless you get an 'in' or something like that, you don't get much bigger."

At the same time, the band points to the relative success of an emotional hardcore/screamo peer from Los Angeles called Touché Amoré that's been picked up for tours with big names such as Converge and Strike Anywhere. "There's definitely a revival, I think," vocalist Kyle Durfey says. "It's starting to come back a little bit. But you need to expand on it more and more, do something different. It's like, screamo in 2010, what are you going to do with that?"

At least one thing is getting the music to kids before the above-mentioned blankcore crud does like at house shows and punk clubs such as the Charm City Art Space. Emotional hardcore can be music that people grow out of, at least a little, so survival depends on stoking a new generation of fans. In the 2000s, Virginia's screamo standard-bearer Pg. 99 evolved into a band called Pygmy Lush, which spent most of a recent album playing suicide-folk songs with nary a throat strained.

"The bigger our name gets, the younger our crowd gets," York says. "Most of my favorite bands have been broken up for 10 years. I remember barely even knowing what this genre was when I was the age of some of these kids. It's a really cool thing. This is a genre of music that's not very marketable.

"These kids are finding it and are OK with coming to some shitty basement and hanging out for a few hours watching bands play."

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