When a band switches their style, there are usually two distinct reactions: “I love this,” or “I hate this.” When a band cuts out part of what made them so notable in the first place, it’s almost always the latter. Last year, Baltimore screamo outfit Pianos Become the Teeth released a split 7″ with hardcore band Touché Amoré. Each band contributed one song and, while Touché‘s was good, Pianos really stole the show. “Hiding” was almost entirely devoid of frontman Kyle Durfey‘s trademark screams, replaced by his tremulous singing voice. The band behind him had dialed things down considerably as well, with cleanly plucked notes falling into place over plodding drumming – a far cry from the band’s ordinary brand of post-rock influenced riffs over blast beats. It was a bold move for the band, writing something so outside their wheelhouse. And it was the perfect precursor to Keep You.
Keep You, the band’s third full-length, already had large shoes to fill: The Lack Long After, their sophomore album, was unanimously critically acclaimed upon release, and with good reason. It was a stark and heartbreaking account of Durfey’s father’s death, with poignant lyrics meeting beautiful instrumentation and impassioned vocals. Keep You contains all three of those things that made Lack so loved, just not in the same way.
The band didn’t want to be “so defined by someone dying,” but Durfey is still, understandably, a bit upset over his father’s death – he’s “still waiting for that drink at Otto’s,” as he confides in The national tribute opener “Ripple Water Shine,” still expecting to meet his father at his favorite bar. But he’s getting better, as there’s a faint glimmer of hope to be found in songs like “Repine,” in which he promises “your wick won’t burn away.” He’s not lost his talent for writing affecting lyrics in the least – nor has he lost the passion in his voice. A line like “I wear a stock smile so well / I’m doing just fine” or “And mind you / I can hold my breath forever” would hits just as hard crooned as it would shrieked.
Which brings us to the vocals. There are a few moments when Durfey returns to his older vocal style (I’ll elaborate on these moments later), but aside from that, every single word of every single song is sung. Durfey’s voice is the exact opposite of his screaming – it’s soft, it’s quivery, it just sounds fragile. It fits perfectly over the band’s newer, more “traditional” sound. (Not that the music on Keep You is generic or derivative, because it’s neither.) His voice shakes wit every word he says like each one’s the most important thing he’s ever said – and it very well may be. But it’s not an unpleasant sound, not in the least. In fact, Kyle Durfey proves throughout every minute on Keep You to be a surprisingly adept singer, as if “Hiding” alone wasn’t proof enough. The times he does scream, it’s sparing, to add to the effect and the feeling that the shift in vocal styles is natural – it’s unpredictable when he’ll do it, and it feels more real that way. His shouts in “Old Jaw” elevate it from simply the album’s best to one of the band’s best tracks. When he screams on the bridge of closer “Say Nothing” (a track I’ll revisit in a moment), it’s wholly unexpected, and it truly adds to the cathartic feeling of the song.
But Kyle Durfey’s vocal style isn’t the only thing to separate Keep You from the rest of Pianos’ back catalog. See “Late Lives” for the most obvious example, a song dotted with strings and piano. It’s likely the most easily accessible song Pianos Become the Teeth have ever written, and it wouldn’t even necessarily sound out of place on alternative radio. The downbeat “Traces” is another, quieter and slower than anything they’d released prior. It’s also the best showcase for Keep You‘s unsung hero: David Haik, whose drumming is always interesting, no matter how paced and melodic the song. Not that they’re all paced and melodic – don’t think for a minute that this band has forgotten how to get loud. Mainly, they’ve just decided to make you wait a bit longer for the payoff. “Say Nothing” demonstrates this well.
The seven minute closer is broken up into a few distinct parts, each one capitalizing on a different aspect of the band; it starts off softly, a logical proression from the preceding song, “The Queen.” It’s pretty, and it’s a slow build. Now, while they may never write a better closer than The Lack Long After‘s “I’ll Get By,” “Say Nothing” proves they’re still going to try. When “Say Nothing” collapses on itself three minutes in and Kyle Durfey screams – really screams, in a way not heard at all on the album until that point – that he’ll just “say nothing some more,” it hits in a similar way to “I’ll Get By”‘s declaration that “I want to swallow / I want to stomach / I want to live.”
The last two minutes of the song are comprised of fading guitars, giving you some room to breathe after the previous forty-two minutes of catharsis. It’s a reprieve you’ll need. While Keep You may not be quite as emotionally draining as the band’s sophomore effort, it’s a powerful album nonetheless. It’s proof that Pianos Become the Teeth can be successful in creating a genuine, moving, beautiful album without sticking to their normal sounds and heaviness. It’s truly proof that they are a multidimensional band. Does it top their previous material? It’s a bit early to say. But even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t need to – Keep You is a masterpiece in its own right, and it’s truly the sound of a band growing into themselves.