As every author and filmmaker knows, the best dramatic tension comes from pitting opposing forces against one another. West Side Story culminated in a Sharks vs. Jets rumble. The Who-inspired film Quadrophenia illuminated England's eternal mods vs. rockers debate. Heck, even the Bible featured a holy-rolling, plague-filled conflict between the Israelites and the Egyptians.
On today's musical mean streets, there's similar drama taking place between mainstream emo and its underground-dwelling offshoot, screamo. It often boils down to whether your preference is for angst-riddled melodies or an angst-riddled racket, but fans of each genre are nevertheless more than happy to fight for their preferred method of catharsis. In fact, vocalist Johnny Whitney of the noise machine the Blood Brothers experienced this sonic turf war firsthand during his band's recent stints as the opening act for crusty rockers the Used and the hardcore-favoring Glassjaw.
"The thing with the Used and Glassjaw is that they bring out a lot of the -- like -- high school jock crowd," he says. "Especially on the Glassjaw tour, somebody would tell us to get off the stage or call us 'faggot' or whatever. This one show we played in Houston, somebody passed a note onto the stage that said, 'You suck' and then 'Gay,' underlined three times, while we were playing. It was so, so funny."
Whitney laughs at the feeble frat-boy dis, but there's no denying the polarizing effect his music has on people. After forming in 1997, the quintet -- which also includes co-vocalist Jordan Billie, guitarist Cody Votolato, bassist Morgan Henderson, and Mark Gajadhar on drums -- released two speeding blasts of discordant noise-punk, 2000's This Adultery Is Ripe and the following year's March On Electric Children. The group then thrashed around the country with such like-minded souls as the Locust, Arab on Radar, and Lightning Bolt, among others, before inking with I Am/ARTISTdirect for their latest disc, Burn Piano Island, Burn.
The aural equivalent of having a root canal with a jackhammer, Piano Island is light years beyond the two-minute explosions on the Brothers' previous albums. In fact, thanks to a newfound instrumental complexity, the band's smackdowns often come across as free jazz imagined by art punks. Sedate acoustic guitar ("The Salesman, Denver Max"), dramatic tempo shifts ("The Shame"), or abrupt a cappella interludes ("Cecilia and the Silhouette Saloon") augment the Brothers' traditionally frayed guitar riffage, rhythmic intricacy, and vocal-cord-shredding screams.
To draft this assault, the group enlisted nü-metal kingpin Ross Robinson, the head of the I Am imprint. Although at first the Brothers were leery about working with the man responsible for unleashing rap-rocking hellspawn Limp Bizkit upon an unsuspecting public, the band soon found that its fears about becoming Fred Durst doppelgängers were unfounded.
"It was just basically meeting him and hanging out with him [that changed our minds]," Whitney says. "And having him explain his philosophy on producing and where he stands in accordance with what he wants to do as far as music now -- essentially, realizing that he wasn't going to try to make us into something that we didn't want to be."
This included leaving the group's notoriously surrealistic lyrical sketches intact. While some of Piano Island's phrases are head-scratching ("I packaged my heart and Fed-Ex'd it to the octopus queen"), its clear critiques of excessive affluence -- "All your luxury/All your well-hidden trash/All your empty wine bottles disguised as class" -- are things of grotesque beauty.
Indeed, the Blood Brothers' macabre words never become merely crass placeholders -- something that Whitney, who pens most of their lyrics, strives to avoid.
"In a way, the lyrics are something completely separate from the songs, because I don't really think of the songs when I'm writing the lyrics; I just kind of do it as something completely separate," he explains. "[But] I'm really fond of music that has elements of storytelling in it, and so, in tandem with the music, I try to make it a story around the song. Some of my biggest influences are Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave and stuff like that, and they all implement that sort of lyric writing."
Decidedly contrary to the dour demeanor of these songwriters are the Brothers' live shows, which are legendary for their pummeling energy -- and for degenerating into onstage mayhem. During one particularly memorable show, when they opened for the Faint in Columbus, Votolato accidentally broke his guitar over Whitney's head during the very first song. Whitney promptly started bleeding everywhere and eventually needed six stitches -- but not until after the show went on as usual.
"We played the whole set after that, after a little break," he remembers. "But it was one of those things -- a lot of times when you're opening for another band, people are just ready for you to get off the stage, so they can see the band they came to see. I had all this blood all over my face, and nobody really cared. I think the people probably would have preferred that we stopped playing."
Nevertheless, he notes that their aggressive live act has produced some converts -- "There's been a lot of that, with people who have never heard us, then seeing us with a bigger band, and then coming to see us when we play on our own."
But whether or not any of these newfound fans have permanently switched allegiances to the screamo side of the street, Whitney wants them to open their minds to the possibilities created by the Blood Brothers' onslaught.
"I just hope that people feel inspired after they see us," he says. "Because the music that we play . . . I consider to be very nonconventional, compared to a lot of what's going on in mainstream music right now, and I hope that people realize there is an alternative to radio rock. It's all right to do something different."