Square and Compass, How to Escape
I’m not trying to take credit; honest, I swear to God I’m not. But when I first put on emo-throwback band Square and Compass’s new full-length, How to Escape, I couldn’t help but give myself a little smile and think, “yes; they listened!”
Why? Well, because back when yours truly reviewed the quintet’s debut EP, I liked three out of four tracks a hell of a lot and slammed the fourth pretty harshly, and I ended the thing by declaring that if they’d keep it all raw and loud, they’d be set. And while it’s just plain goofy to think it’s anything to do with what I wrote back then, it seems the band did just what I was hoping they’d do, and leave the more experimental, proggy stuff by the wayside in favor of loads and loads of raw-yet-melodic rock.
So when intro track “Imminent Demise” comes on, and those twin guitars charge in out of the darkness right before the whole thing explodes, I want to punch the roof, because it’s a full-on, no-holds-barred blast of emo fury, and it’s the absolute perfect way to start. Unfortunately, at 1:14, it’s also too damn short, a blink-and-miss-it little chunk of awesome I just want to rewind and play over and over again; I catch myself wishing it’d stick around a little while longer, at least.
But hey, that’s not to say that what follows isn’t nearly as great, especially seeing as the next track is the dangerously smart “Détente,” which melds thoughtful, erudite indie-rock lyricism with snarling, melodic, emo-tinged guitars. The music makes me think of Braid, no question — the Illinois emo icons are the easy touchstone for most of How to Escape, which is cool by me — but lyrically I’m reminded of more subtle, sarcastic Aussie band Blueline Medic beyond anything else.
After that is the slower and more sinister-sounding “Ever After, Disaster,” with its sliding, metallic guitar line, but then there’s another album highlight, “Hacksaw,” which is surprisingly driving and Superchunk-ish, albeit with a desperate, curled-lip snarl to it. This one’s the one that’s stuck in my head the most, I think, out of the whole album — the chorus is bitter and hopeless but catchy as all hell, with a riff worthy of Jawbreaker in their prime.
Speaking of Jawbreaker (or, now that I think about it some more, maybe Jets to Brazil), there’s also “Pile of Bones,” a rare sweet, relatively gentle track that comes off like the former band circa Dear You, or maybe some of Braid’s slower moments. When singer Thomas Heard howls, “Our bodies are repeating politicians / but they’re the only things we’ve got to hold onto,” it kills me.
Further on, the band revisits “Hamlet’s Conundrum,” a track from the first EP, reworking the song so if anything, it comes off more epic and high-flying than the original — and hey, that’s no bad thing. On the heavier, angrier side, there’s “Golden Retreater,” which sees the band channeling their hardcore roots into something threatening and misanthropic, with those guitars pounding away while sneaking in a melody beneath the noise.
Something similar happens on “How to Escape,” which again brings Bob Nanna and company to mind, and where drummer Jacob Warny and bassist Jack Sananikone lead the rest of the band in a turbulent, storm-tossed waltz while guitarists Tommy Grindle and Todd Spoth roar and surge across the surface, shifting effortlessly from crushing distorted rawk to delicate melodies.
Throughout How to Escape, I’m awed by the guitar work, honestly; Grindle and Spoth sound like what I’d always wished and hoped I could sound like, back when my intensely-untalented self was in a band. They’re like the band I heard in my head, way back then, a band I couldn’t ever bring out of my skull and into actual life, for whatever reason. I hear “Time is a Blacksmith,” with those awesomely nimble guitars playing off of one another, and damn, I wish that could be me.
At the album’s end comes another highlight, although it’s not one that makes me want to jump around so much as break down and cry. “1123” is raw and naked and heartfelt like a punch to the gut, all full of vitriol and undirected anger, bitterness, and pain about the loss of a loved one (a parent, maybe?). It’s obvious time’s passed, but the wound’s still wide open and can’t be easily patched up with booze or tears; as Heard knowingly declares, “But that Johnnie Walker / can only numb so much pain.”
In that closing track, the band comes as close as it’s possible to come to the idealized epitome of Everything That Was Ever Good About Emo — and I don’t mean “emo” the way the current crop of guyliner-wearing proto-glam-rockers mean it, but rather the original style of music, where what’s important is taking what’s in your heart and not just wearing it on your sleeve but scraping it across your guitar and pushing it out through speakers and mouths. It’s affecting and awesome, and I want to hear it again and again.