Define The Great Line

Underoath - Define the Great Line

When Underoath took their brief intermission on their 2016 Rebirth Tour, the banner behind Aaron Gillespie’s drum kit fell to floor, revealing the wind-swept dunes of 2006’s Define The Great Line as 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety’s final notes still reverberated around the venue. I stood on the delightfully shaky floors of Atlanta’s The Tabernacle, my favorite venue, and felt all of the memories of the upcoming album wash over me. Five years later, they’re still just as vivid.

The weekend before Define came out, my high school sweetheart and I ended our relationship. I “lost” my best friend, her sister, in the same fell swoop. I handled it all with the maturity of a sixteen year old boy, which is to say, I threw myself headfirst into very loud, very angst-ridden music. “In Regards to Myself”’s refrain of “What are you so afraid of?” became a rallying cry when I could bring myself to stop listening to Emery’s “The Ponytail Parades”… I know my flaws.

Like many of you reading this and reminiscing with me on this album, I’d already heard the leaked version of Define. I knew that something immensely more huge than Safety was coming. By this point in the album rollout, I’m pretty sure MTV had also already premiered the whole album on their website, “Writing on the Walls” played nonstop on Steven’s Untitled Rock Show, and I’d (probably) set streaming records on Underoath’s PureVolume page if things like that were tracked back in the aughts.

The day Define came out, MySpace announced a Secret Show (remember those?) with Underoath and Sullivan (remember them?) in the Tampa Bay Area where I lived and had grown up—also Underoath’s hometown. One of my buddies stood in line for hours to meet them at Hot Topic at the mall leading up to this show while the rest of my friends drove across town and got us the free tickets, even though we’d just seen them less than a month earlier at Cornerstone, Florida. We all received a special poster with Underoath under a stylized Gasparilla pirate ship—our hometown heroes over our hometown icon. I still have it framed to this day.

Three days later, Joan Jett said, “My good friends in Underoath are up next!” as the notes of “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” still reverberated over Vinoy Park at my first Warped Tour. My parents’ generation of rock star introducing mine. Without my parents and their ever-expanding love of music, I never would’ve developed a passion for music. Spencer roared onto the stage and that hometown crowd, and this hometown boy, once more gave into the euphoria. The next day, the local paper had an overhead shot of the crowd estimated at 20,000 people in front of that stage while the rest of the festival looked empty.

Underoath we’re the unlikeliest next candidates poised to take over the world out of the Warped Tour scene when you take in what their music actually sounded like. My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy were doing victory laps around the world at this point, Taking Back Sunday and AFI weren’t all that far behind, and Paramore were waiting in the wings… but the summer of 2006 was all about Underoath. 98,000 first week sales and #2 on the charts behind Nelly Furtado… it’s hard to think of a heavy, non-legacy band doing equivalent numbers these days. It was even harder to think of a band in Underoath’s genre doing those numbers back then before they did it.

But if you were around this music scene in 2006, you probably know what happened next.

A few weeks later, Underoath dropped off the tour and Spencer went to rehab. 2018’s Erase Me’s “Hold Your Breath” reflects back on this time: “Alone at the top of the world, I forgot it was safe down below, I used to be so afraid.” There was famously beef with Fat Mike from NOFX. Underoath’s Christianity constantly was brought up. Multiple Alternative Press covers and interviews breaking down everything that happened. Somewhere along the way, people forgot that Underoath was a band made up of human beings. The vitriol against Underoath on certain message boards, ahem, during this time led to many people even not acknowledging their fandom—something seen with large portions of that music scene at the time. Thankfully, this part of message board culture isn’t nearly as prevalent. Or maybe I just don’t care anymore. I was sixteen years old and worried about being cool, and now I’m thirty-one and know I’m not, but I’ve always kept my love of Underoath on my sleeve.

Fifteen years later, I’m still here and thinking about what Define and that chaotic summer still mean to me. There have always been “better” bands than Underoath, and many “wiser” music consumers than I have been quick to tell me about them—but there has never been a more humanly invested band than Underoath by my reckoning. To attend an Underoath show was to, excuse the reference, feel a sense of connected rapture. Thousands of screaming fans knowing every word like they wrote them themselves—and they probably did, on their skin, in their diaries, on their Myspaces… They’re not the perfect live band, but they’re the live band that’s near impossible to beat. They demand your attention, and your respect, more than any other performing act I have ever witnessed. They leave every single drop of energy in their bodies on the stage.

I have seen Beyoncé and Taylor Swift command a stadium of 70,000 and I have seen Celine Dion hit the high note of “My Heart Will Go On,” but the crowd sing-a-long of “drowning in my sleep” from “It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door” is still my singular favorite live moment of any live music event I’ve attended.

I’ve seen Underoath breakup. I’ve seen Underoath reborn. I’ve seen Underoath with and without Aaron Gillespie. I’ve seen Underoath after a radio hit. I’ve seen Underoath in five cities, nine venues, and three states. I’m adding a venue, city, and state come September when I see them headline Furnace Fest—a big reason that I decided to write this retrospective now instead of at the twenty-year mark. The only tour I’ve missed within reasonable driving distance since 2006 was while I was studying abroad in Italy my junior year of college—regrettably the one where Thursday played Full Collapse as the supporting act. To understand this level of devotion, I just have to state it plain: Define The Great Line means everything to me. Let me try to give you some insight into why.

“In Regards To Myself” is that song that makes me want to tear down skyscrapers with my bare hands. When they open a show with it, there is not a motionless soul in the place. It’s a perfect introduction to the album: Spencer Chamberlain unleashes the first of many barrages against himself. But he also strafes himself with hope. As someone who suffers to that horrible disease depression, sometimes it matters to find something that embraces the darkness within while strafing yourself with hope.

The heartbreaking thing in looking back on this album is knowing the hope that peppers Define was a carefully constructed façade, an illusion, a stick figure in an illustration. “I was lying when I said I was looking north; I was too scared to show what I am,” Chamberlain wrote on 2008’s “A Fault Line, a Fault of Mine”—directly contradicting Define’s “To Whom It May Concern”: “Set your sights to the North. Press on. This is not your escape.”

I used to draw the lyrics “we’re nothing but hollow vessels in search of what makes us alive” on my forearms with sharpies, waiting for the day I could tattoo them on my skin. I still haven’t done that, but I think about getting an empty jar or two permanently marked on my skin from time to time to represent those words. My parents had recently divorced, I’d lost my girlfriend, and my best friend and the lyrics later in the song of “everything around me is crumbling at my feet” became a cry from the depths of my soul.

I’m not the best person when it comes to talking about the actual music. I took guitar lessons and some basic music theory, but that wasn’t where my talents lay. But music hits me harder than most people. I can scoff at the producer fired from the album for wanting to axe the drum into to “Moving for the Sake of Motion,” but I couldn’t tell you a good reason why that intro had to be there other than the fact it rips. I don’t know how to write the retrospective that shows the legacy that Define the Great Line had on heavier acts that came later, but I can tell you that I haven’t heard a heavier song I love more than “Returning Empty Handed” since 2006—a song that’s been a prayer, a cry for help, a cathartic release.

Even reading over this retrospective, I don’t know that I’ve said enough—or the right thing. I haven’t mentioned four of the band members, despite the fact that watching Chris and Tim perform live is one of the most enthralling things you will ever witness in music or the fact that Grant and James anchor the band through sheer stalwart normalcy.

This is my third in a series of fifteen-year retrospectives of my top three favorite albums of all time. All of them turned fifteen in the midst of a global pandemic violently throwing our lives off-track. I’m not the person I was at fifteen and sixteen when I first heard those albums, but they stayed with me until I’m now thirty-one with a host of way more adult problems. At the end of the day, that’s what we want out of our music: something that stays with us as we grow—and Underoath has been the most faithful. Many of the artists I listened to in 2006 are nostalgia listens for me these days… but not these songs. Not these albums. Not this band.

In “Casting Such A Thin Shadow,” Spencer screams out, “I can still stand if you lend a hand to brace me.” Except, unlike Spencer on this album, I can’t do this on my own. After a decade of depression, broken dreams, and a lack of hope: I need music. I need my friends. I need my family. I was never the one most likely to, but neither was Underoath, and yet, despite our own intentions, inventions, and vices… here we both still are. Here we both still stand.

See you boys in a few months. I can’t wait. Maybe I can finally meet you and thank you in person this time. But if not, I hope you see this and know there are thousands of thankful fans with a myriad of stories just like me.

What about you, reader? What does this album mean to you? I’d love to know.