Defeater at the Rock and Roll Hotel

Boston hardcore band Defeater bring their '40s era narrative to the Rock and Roll Hotel in DC. Photo: Defeater

WASHINGTON, August 28, 2013 — For a hardcore band to have any sort of longevity at all, the members must possess some sense of direction. Plenty of good hardcore bands release one strong, purposeful album that puts them on the musical map. But most burn out on the genre, either disappearing or turning into something completely at odds with their hardcore origins. In their recent appearance here at the Rock and Roll Hotel, Defeater proved they have no intention of burning out any time soon like others in the genre, though at times it’s felt like that might actually happen.

The best of hardcore is strengthened by the performers’ anger and aggression. It’s not necessarily directed at anything or anyone in particular. Instead, this fury is vented on personal, societal or political concepts both large and small. That’s probably why screaming has become such a strong component within the genre.

The best hardcore bands and albums are, in fact, releases for whatever is a frustration for the band, whether it’s a small personal detail in their lives or a problem with the world at large.  This is why so many hardcore bands burn out as they age. Intense, unrestrained anger and aggression is usually a young person’s game.

As the individuals in a band grow older, then, it’s increasingly hard for them to maintain this kind of furious authenticity. Defeater has a legitimate way to get around this impediment. But then, it was already obvious that they might be ahead of the normal curve with their first album “Travels.”

The general conceit behind the Boston quintet is a story that takes place during World War II.  The narrative the band has concocted is based on the war journals of front man Derek Archambault’s grandfather. Over the course of three full length albums and one EP, the band details the lives of various characters taking place both overseas in war torn Europe, and also chronicles the malaise that sets in Stateside from people affected by the same war.

There’s a startling amount of material for Defeater to mine with this approach. Because it’s focusing so heavily on real emotions – even if derived from decades past – and strong narrative currents, the band’s intensity never feels forced.

How, exactly, would Defeater translate this unusual material during their live performance at the Rock and Roll Hotel? That’s is always a concern when a band so heavily focused on narrative performs live. The reason is simple. After recording 40 songs’ worth of a story over several years, it’s difficult to follow the same track as the albums follow in a live setting. It’s a lot of material to cover.

This problem is especially daunting, given Defeater’s knack for performing short, traditional hardcore sets. Do the songs lose any of their impact when taken slightly out of context?

The good news is that Defeater has managed to pull this trick off. Since the songs carry considerable emotional weight on their own, the transition to a live setting never really takes away from their impact. It’s great to hear these songs within their original, larger context. But live performances of selections doesn’t change the effect of songs like “Dear Father,” which concerns the problem of carrying the weight of expectations from generation to generation. 

In other words, these songs still work on multiple levels, whether in or out of context. Nothing feels out of place.

Of course, none of this would matter if Defeater didn’t pack a sonic punch as well. Defeater’s output is more akin to a post-hardcore environment than what people most regard as the  traditional hardcore scene. This band just happens to play harder than you’d expect.

And of course we also have Archambault’s screaming vocals, always shouted out in seeming desperation. These outbursts alternate with the growl that can emerge, especially on the opening lines of “Warm Blood Rush” and the closing of “Bastards,” both of which are played straight without accompanying instrumental elaboration. 

In addition, the band isn’t afraid to throw in dueling guitar melodies that further diversify the sound they’re putting out. While this never lightens effect of their output, it does blend in an unusual amount of texture that isn’t often heard in this genre.

Defeater’s unique drift from the hardcore scene doesn’t stop there. Since their set is typically arranged as a short burst rather than a sustained set, it comes across like a thumbnail of the band’s total output. They only touch upon the variety of their total discography.

However, even in their “short burst” set they did include some major substance. The last four tracks of their second album, “Empty Days and Sleepless Nights,” almost act as a separate EP as they perform four acoustic songs. Defeater made sure to include this aspect of their band’s sound by playing one of these tracks, “But Breathing,” in the middle of their set. It’s a song that’s as touching and heartfelt as the rest of their set is intense.

Defeater is a band that clearly keeps the long view front and center. They’re trying to push the boundaries of what audiences expect the modern hardcore scene to be. This direction would lack an impact if they weren’t able to find a way to push forward while still retaining their hardcore core.  Their live shoe at the Rock and Roll Hotel here was ample indication that even half a decade, they haven’t lost a bit of their passion and intensity.


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Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer.  He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years.  Currently he lives in Vienna, VA.   He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.

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