It’s May. A lot of reviewers write during this month about those summer albums that will define the next few months for America’s youth: the sky-high vocals and enormous hooks that will erupt from car stereo systems and overflow out open windows and into hot and humid summer air. Balance & Composure’s first full-length record, Separation, doesn’t have those airy, lightweight melodies that normally accompany beach trips or patriotic fireworks displays. It does, however, have one extremely important intrinsic quality to it – it’s probably the best record released in 2011 so far.
Separation is Balance & Composure’s third release on No Sleep Records, but the first time listeners get to hear a full record from the Doylestown, Penn., natives. With the release of their Only Boundaries EP in 2009 and a split with Tigers Jaw last year, listeners became frenzied fans of the band’s loud-quiet-loud-quiet-really loud brand of indie rock in a hurry. But even if you include Balance’s self-released I Just Want To Be Pure EP into the mix, Separation still almost doubles this group’s discography. Since people call me a critic, I was supremely interested in evaluating how the band’s consistently steady sound would hold up over the course of 12 tracks.
Separation doesn’t just live up to the self-earned standards that Balance & Composure have given themselves by releasing good music in the past, it takes those standards, writes them all on a piece of paper, burns it to ashes and writes a book on how this genre should be done. It’s difficult to define adjectives that accurately convey Jonathon Simmons’ complex vocals or the depth behind the guitar work that Simmons, Andrew Slaymaker (best name or best name?) and Erik Peterson throw down. While those enormous hooks aren’t found here, Matthew Warner’s bass and Bailey Van Ellis’ drums constitute one of the more underrated rhythm sections in the underground, providing plenty of excitement on their own without needing to be launched into the very forefront to do it.
From the very first seconds of “Void,” listeners hear the intensity Separation brings. Things start off with the cleaner side of Simmons’ bipolar yet perfectly complementing vocals, which range from seemingly effortlessly uttered to obviously passionately screamed. “Found out everyone is shallow / No depth, the ugly seem to follow / Blinded void, gaping hole / Weed out the visions you saw / Speak out, you talk for us all,” begins the record, diving right into serious subject matter from the outset. The intensity of “Void” accurately foreshadows the dark, wintry moods of this entire release, but leads into two of the more accessible numbers on Separation with the title track and “Quake.” On the former, Simmons’ vocals lead the way before stepping out to let the guitars and drums speak for themselves. By the end of the track, Simmons’ first real fiery screams are launching listeners into cavalcading musicianship. Meanwhile, the chorus of “Quake” shows why the band chose to release this track to the masses first.
Part of the reason why Separation comes across as a coherent unit is because of the tracks that deviate away from Balance & Composure’s normally relentless pounding of 90s grunge and today’s punk. The mid-tempo breathers give listeners a chance to catch their breath while still showcasing impressive musicianship all the while. “Stonehands” is the major mid-tempo jam on the record, while “More To Me” comes in disguised as one of those songs before culminating into a notable explosion.
Balance is at its best when it’s playing as loud as it can and Simmons is screaming out cutting lyrics. All aspects of this band’s sound are essential and well-executed, but the quiet and cleaner parts really just make the louder and dirtier parts more enjoyable. “I Tore You Apart In My Head,” “Fade” and “Patience” are the best at being deafening, which is why they are the most essential tracks from this record. Each of the tracks are highlighted by something a little different; “I Tore You Apart In My Head” has perhaps the most relatable set of lyrics on the record, while “Fade” is the best example of the kinda-quiet to very-loud style and “Patience” just comes off as a catharsis all in itself. Meanwhile, closer “Defeat The Low” isn’t too shabby on its own, keeping up blow-for-blow with the other heavyweights on Separation.
Upon first listen, Separation is a devastating record. Without having heard this much Balance & Composure all at once before, long-time listeners will probably feel a mixed soup of emotions throughout the album. By the end of the outstandingly enjoyable 48 minutes and 24 seconds, perhaps the most evident emotion will be an overwhelming sense of, “Where the hell did my expectations just get shot to?” After the crater-sized impact of the first few listens is where Separation really starts to shine. As all great records do, this album finds its niche and thrives there. Throughout time, the role of this record might shift as both Balance & Composure and its listeners grow older, but the quality of Separation will make it forever relevant.