REVIEW: Hawthorne Heights' "Bad Frequencies"
Photo credit: Hawthorne Heights
Hawthorne Heights had two significant firsts in 2018: first album in three years, “Bad Frequencies”, as well as first album with rising power player Pure Noise Records. The emo/post hardcore band's sound has matured while also touching on elements that brought them mainstream success. There are nods to seminal emo album, 2004’s “The Silence in Black and White” and 2006’s “If Only You Were Lonely” on “Bad Frequencies”: in first single, 2017’s “Push Me Away”, as well as other "Bad Frequencies" tracks “Pink Hearts”, “Just Another Ghost”, and “Crimson Sand”.
The album starts off with the appropriately moody “In Gloom”. The song blends with a wistful piano to create the perfect backdrop for the opening lines “life goes so fast/we’re all just a blurry photograph taken with shaky hands/we’ll burn out too soon/spending our last few years in gloom…” A minute in, the song transitions into a high-energy jam with lyrics that signal the nostalgic theme of the album and gets the listener excited for what’s to come next.
This high energy seamlessly carries over to track two, “Pink Hearts”, which lead singer JT Woodruff told Substream Magazine “was a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun for the fans. We wanted people to be like, ‘ah, this is cool. They’re ready to be back.’” It makes sense, then, that there are references to two singles from “The Silence in Black and White”, one of which is mega single “Ohio Is For Lovers”: “You know you already killed me/you know you kill me well…”. The other is “Niki FM”: “…you play the songs I know”. If that’s not enough feel-good nostalgia, musically, the song is one of the few upbeat ones on the album. It feels like a celebration of where the band came from while still having a good message.
Those with as dark a sense of humor as myself (for reference, the “I am Death!” scene in “Monty Python and the Meaning of Life” cracks me up) will appreciate the harmony in the background vocals as it lends a blithe quality to an otherwise pitch black line in “Crimson Sand”: Rip my heart out and throw it into the ocean/write our names in the crimson sand/maybe I’ll just disappear/at least that’s what I believe/whoa oh whoa oh oh.
This is one of my favorite trends in the alternative/punk scene: it’s so interesting, clever, and almost funny when a song that sounds so happy has deeply dark lyrics. And it’s not just limited to emo/post-hardcore. It can also be seen in pop punk bands: Broadside’s “Who Cares”, Waterparks’ “Gloom Boys”, and As It Is’ “Drowning Deep In Doubt”. The longer I’ve sat with this album, the more this song has risen to the top as a favorite. The opening guitar slaps you across the face in the best way and the drums’ll get your pulse racing.
One thing Hawthorne Heights has always done well is evoking clear images through their lyrics, and the opening to “The Perfect Way To Fall Apart” is no different:
“The moon is full, the air is cold/As I sit here on this rooftop all alone/I pay no mind at what they say/it makes no difference any way.”
The song is about being saying the wrong thing in an argument and being too proud to admit you’re wrong, which is beautifully stated in the chorus:
“Standing with one foot in the fire/I think I've got to the end/but it's been so long/it's been so long/walking with this heavy heart/I got too close to the edge…”
“Just Another Ghost” continues the “Silence in Black and White” nostalgia train (which, lets be clear, is not a bad thing since it’s not a complete retread). Some of the lyrics made me think of that existential crisis I feel like everyone gets to at least once in a career in the music business: “Again and again, I keep having the same nightmare/I used to be younger, I'm losing the hunger/I'm not having any fun/I've made mistakes and I'll take it all back/I feel, I feel so typical/just another ghost from so so long ago…”
No one will tell you the music business is an easy business, but, as with all artistic professions, it’s obscenely hard to not only get paid but also make a living off what you’re doing. The sacrifices, like being on the road say 200 days of the year, also get harder to justify the older and more settled you get or want to get. So it’s easy for thoughts like “what am I doing with my life?” “why?” and “wait, but when did this stop being fun and how do I get that passion back?” to consume you and have you rethinking your career choice.
“Bad Frequencies” is the perfect song to listen to on a rainy day as the guitar is as gloomy as the sky is on a day so bleak. The song starts out slow and Woodruff’s voice is haunting as he croons: “I’ve got some bad frequencies buried in my skull/like a bright red switchblade knife that's never dull…” Then the song almost fades out, but it’s misleading as after a few seconds, guitarist/unclean vocalist Mark Ridenour comes in to scream the last few lines. It does end up feeling like two songs crammed into one but works so well, it doesn’t take away from how great a song it is.
“Skylark” starts off with heavy hitting guitar that’ll jolt the listener awake like the coffee it references. It mellows after the intro and allows the lyrics to paint some stunning pictures: “Like coffee on early mornings/late night struggles/the skylark sings me to sleep…”, “sun begins to change our skin/we’ll glow again soon” and “Skylark sings sad lullabies/killing time behind my eyes…”
The guitar at the beginning of “Edge of Town” evokes a feeling of nostalgia that conjures images of playing outside during the summer as a kid. The lyrics and vocals match that nostalgic sound. There’s an element of maturity that creeps in during the second verse and wipes the rose-colored glasses clear though: “Out on the edge of town/I lost everything that can never be found/gone with the daylight my youth had died/time is running out/running out, out on the edge of town…” This is characteristic of the album as a whole as well, layering that nostalgia with the wisdom that only comes with adulthood or experiencing traumatic events.
“Starlighter (Echo, Utah)” will be relatable for anyone who’s struggled financially or mentally, especially because of how frank it is: “I spent last summer falling apart…” and “I spent the weekend sleeping in my car/burning bridges, I went way too far/I looked death in the eyes and I got too close…”.
Musically, it’s another one that’s surprisingly upbeat given the lyrics, though it does also chronicle the feeling of take-no-prisoners strength that comes when recovering: “I saw the sunrise breaking over the coast/pushed myself to the limit and didn't explode…”
“Push Me Away” is another song that’ll be instantly relatable, with the chorus saying: Push me away/hide me in the closet/if you’re afraid of who I am/who are you to push me away…”
Musically, the song starts off angry and in-your-face and then the vocals come in with an assertive tone. “Push Me Away” was written about political division driving people apart, but the good thing about it is that the lyrics can apply to just about any situation: people, especially ones closest to you, not accepting you for your sexual orientation, trying to push their religious beliefs on you, or trying to force you into a life that you don’t want because of something they’re missing.
The first time I heard “The Suicide Mile”, I wondered exactly what that was and if it was a physical place. I think it’s more of a figurative place as this is what Woodruff had to say to Alternative Press:
We [Woodruff and some acquaintances] were all having an open conversation about anxiety and how it can make you feel like you’re living with a loaded gun. This song is about being open with your feelings and sharing your feelings when you feel at your worst. It’s OK to feel a little out of the ordinary and not feel like everyone else. We’ve all felt alone, we’ve all struggled and I think we can do a better job at reaching out to people.
These lyrics aren’t as straightforward as Starlighter (Echo, Utah), at least until the chorus: “I turn my back against the sun/spend sleepless nights with a loaded gun/the demons in my head keep me alive/broken and beyond repair/a useless fear that keeps me quiet here/I'm just trying to survive on the suicide mile…” but this song could still provide solace to those like myself who struggle with mental illness as the lyrics are inspired by a real experience (there’s a disgusting trend in the alternative/punk scene where some bands with younger fan bases lyrically pander or are otherwise disingenuous about their experience/image to sell records/merch/tickets, as parodied here).
Musically, it’s appropriately slow, plodding and showcases Woodruff’s voice, who goes into his upper register for the chorus. Ridenour’s screams are also a nice touch as he drives the anguish of the lyrics home.
Lyrically, “Straight Down The Line” seems to be about standing up for what you believe in and, again, the band shows off their storytelling prowess here. Musically, it sticks to the clean/unclean vocals/instrumentation post-hardcore formula. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though as the song still sounds good and manages to avoid clichés – it just doesn’t stand out as much as the others.
“Pills”, musically, is just as discordant as the lyrics are jarring. Whether it was intentional or not, there’s a nod to one of the band’s influences with the lyric “I’ve always been such an easy kill”, from Jimmy Eat World’s “Kill”, off 2004’s “Futures”. When I first heard this song, I got that it was about drug use, but I thought it was the narrator talking to just one person who was struggling with getting and staying clean. I thought it was a solid story and way to end the album. Then I read Woodruff’s interview with Alternative Press about the stories behind the songs and appreciated it even more.
He talks about the opioid crisis in Ohio, where the band’s from, and his wishes for the song: “I think we’re too good at making excuses or feeling this problem is too far gone, but really, there’s always hope. I hope this song can at least get one person moving in a better direction before it’s too late.”
Great imagery, well-written lyrics, music that perfectly sets the scene, and the nostalgia all collide and combine to create excitement about one of your favorite high school emo band’s releasing a new album that’s smashed and exceeded all expectations. You can buy or stream "Bad Frequencies" or here.