SKILLET w/, Red Gazelle & RedHook Big Top, Luna Park, Sydney Thursday 15th November, 2018 …
There are two common paths down which the average pop-punk band will saunter, come a certain point in their timeline: one is that of the Warped Tour mainstay, a creative stagnation so void of effort that only nostalgia tours will draw them a crowd (see: New Found Glory, Simple Plan). The other is that of the major label shill, where dollar signs replace deliberation and daytime pop radio becomes an oasis (see: Fall Out Boy, All Time Low). But alas, The Wonder Years have proved a rare exception to the rule. On LP6, the sextet trade punk jumps for passion and push-pits for raw, virtuous power. They’ve all but shed the hyper-melodic veneer that cracked them into the mainstream, in its place a stickling terrain of searing post-hardcore, pastel indie and sharp, no-bullshit rock flavours.
At the forefront of Sister Cities is its stark and bombastic storytelling. Somewhat of a concept album, chronicling the two years of adventure that followed 2015’s No Closer To Heaven, the band use opaque musings of life on the road to paint vivid and often volatile scenes–even without the album’s companioning book of photos and poetry. Dan “Soupy” Campbell wants us to feel his heartbreak in every jagged and emotionally beaten flutter in his vocals. His jetlag is crushing in standout cut We Look Like Lightning, and when he hesitantly plods off a cliff south of Sydney (When The Blue Finally Came), we’re to feel the anxiety ripple through our fingertips. And with a soundtrack flooded with pounding drums at points of chaos and pensive bass in times of reprise, it’s hard not to drift into the daydreamy ether with Campbell and co.
Sister Cities isn’t just The Wonder Years at their best: it’s The Wonder Years at their most polarising, their most calculated and, perhaps controversially, their most deftly adult.
There’s no incline to this emo rollercoaster, either. When the LP kicks in with the fiery rumbles of Raining In Kyoto, we’re teleported instantly to the humid streets of a claustrophobic inner-city Japan, a tinned cappuccino nestling on our lap beside Campbell as he mourns his late grandfather. We never met him, but galloping guitars and a battered yell fuel a sympathetic rage inside us–life is fucking cruel, and Campbell’s granddad will be sorely missed. Pattering snares amplify the rain soaking down our shoulders; sludgy bass tones poke at our lethargy.
It’s their shortest album yet (in terms of tracklisting), but across a tight 11 cuts, The Wonder Years explore their widest scope of sonic traits to date. There’s an ineludible rush of energy on the title track–a rumination of the band’s unexpected tie to the Chilean DIY scene–dissociative lucidity on Flowers Where Your Face Should Be and a mosh-worthy cavalcade of harsh, battered wails on Heaven’s Gate (Sad & Sober), a plausible callback to their 2015 opus. But despite so much going on, Sister Cities never once even borders on bloated. In fact, atmospheric melodies and an emphasis on space make it the band’s most lowkey offering. Every last note is crucial to the mix, all six of the band members (especially keyboardist Nick Steinborn) utilised with meticulous sensibility.
In a way, it feels like this where The Wonder Years have to peak. Sister Cities is the type of art that only emerges after years of trials and tribulations. It’s their Sol Invictus, Material Control and Erase Me all rolled into one without the marring of a lengthy hiatus. Perhaps subconsciously, it’s the album that Philadelphia’s finest have been chipping at for over a decade now, and after five albums ranging from laughably bad to stunningly beautiful, they’ve finally cracked their own elusive code–because Sister Cities isn’t just The Wonder Years at their best: it’s The Wonder Years at their most polarising, their most calculated and, perhaps controversially, their most deftly adult.
It’s them at music’s best.
STANDOUT TRACKS: Raining In Kyoto, We Look Like Lightning, Sister Cities
STICK THIS NEXT TO: Sorority Noise, Citizen, Balance & Composure