Imagine achieving more than you ever dared hope from the unforgivingly nasty business that is rock ’n’ roll, only to spend every day wishing it would all go away. That’s more or less where the members of Alexisonfire found themselves at the tail end of the touring cycle for 2006’s Crisis. The album—the third from the St. Catharines, Ontario, quintet—hit number one on the Canadian charts, cementing the group’s status as heavyweights on the North American screamo scene. In the Great White North, Alexisonfire found itself headlining 4,000-seat venues like the Forum in Vancouver, amazing considering the band has never been anyone’s idea of mainstream-friendly. And doubly amazing considering that, just five years previous, the group was playing grimy community halls and shitty basement gigs.
But for all it had accomplished, Alexisonfire—singer George Pettit, singer-guitarist Dallas Green, guitarist Wade MacNeil, bassist Chris Steele, and drummer Jordan Hastings—wasn’t having much fun as it crisscrossed North America.
“I think we just kept going and going and touring,” says MacNeil, on the line from home. “We were on the road long enough that it was just taking a strain on us, being together. And when you’re on the road that long, you start getting weird about stuff that doesn’t make any sense or matter in the slightest bit. Because you’re at arm’s reach with the same five guys every single day, you start getting mad because somebody puts the sun visor down in the front of the van when it’s really sunny. When it goes overcast and they don’t put it back up, that makes you mad for some reason.
“It’s the littlest things,” he continues. “Like the way George coughs. And I’m sure there’s a million things that I do that drive everyone nuts. Those things, when I repeat them now, sound so insane. But they were bursting us at the seams after nine months.”
Even though MacNeil swears today that things never reached a breaking point, after the Crisis tour the guitarist hinted in a radio interview that Alexisonfire was set to unplug the amps for good. Time would, however, offer some perspective, with the bandmates’ various side projects—Green’s City and Colour, MacNeil’s Black Lungs, Pettit’s Bergenfield Four—providing a further opportunity to get away from the pressures of their main gig.
Ultimately, Alexisonfire would decide it wasn’t done yet, reconvening to give birth to 2009’s excellent Old Crows/Young Cardinals, an album that’s arguably the best of its career.
Released last summer, the 11-track outing finds the group overhauling the sound that put it on the map of the screamo nation, much of the credit for that going to Pettit. Alexisonfire’s first three records—including its benchmark-setting eponymous 2002 debut—famously found Pettit screaming like someone being hosed down with Circa 1850 paint stripper. On Old Crows, he’s still determined to do maximum damage to his vocal cords, except that he now seems like he’s living on a diet of Marlboros and unwashed gravel and taking his cues from hardcore icons like Henry Rollins and Ian MacKaye.
When Alexisonfire started talking about a follow-up to Crisis, there was no problem agreeing it was time to move beyond screamo. And coming to a consensus as to how they would mix things up wasn’t hard; increasingly unimpressed by the cookie-cutter aggro acts they often shared festival bills with, MacNeil and company began rediscovering the brilliance of acts like the Misfits, the Clash, and Black Flag. It’s no surprise, then, that Old Crows is built on a foundation of all things punishing and loud, from the panzer-strength kickoff “Old Crows” to the broken-bottle thrasher “Born and Raised”.
“I guess we started to think about punk records that we listened to when we were young,” MacNeil says. “The way George’s vocals are these days, he definitely has that kind of [hardcore] vibe, which is cool.”
The result is an album that, amazingly, actually holds its own when stacked up to classics like Black Flag’s Damaged or the Misfits’ Earth A.D., especially when you consider what passes for punk in 2010. If you’ve ever wondered what hardcore sounded like back in the glory years, proceed directly to “Sons of Privilege” or “Accept Crime”, both of which smell like a time when Ronald Reagan was president and SST Records was the most bad-ass record label in America.
Still, what might impress most on Old Crows is that Alexisonfire had no interest in clawing its way out of one corner only to paint itself right into another. So as thrilling as the thermonuclear bruisers are, the band is just as devastating when pushing itself. Consider “The Northern”, a lumbering postpunker that works a black-skies guitar riff, riptide organs, and hypnotherapy vocals with powerful results.
“We tried to focus on things and make them a little bit simpler,” MacNeil says. “When we started out, we would try to make everything totally chaotic. Now we’re focused on writing songs that people can sing along to and dance to. There’s more of a feeling, as opposed to an assault.”
Which might be another way of saying that, as bludgeoning as Alexisonfire is on Old Crows, the group sounds nowhere as psychotically enraged as it did on early singles like “Pulmonary Archery”. If that’s a reflection of where the band’s members are at these days, that alone should make those long stretches on the road more tolerable this touring cycle, even when the driver stubbornly refuses to put the sun visor up.
Alexisonfire plays LiveCity Yaletown on Tuesday (February 16).