Reach the Sky frontman Ian Larrabee and guitarist Chris Chasse are scarfing down tacos at Burrito Max in Kenmore Square while trying to come up with an adequate description of the music they’ve been playing since forming the popular Boston hardcore band in ’97. It’s hardcore, that’s for sure — but after that things get tricky.
“I was doing an interview with a guy from the New York Press and he thought we were an emo band,” says Larrabee with a smirk. “He kept asking me about the history of emo. You know, ‘Did it start with Weezer?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I tried to tell him it started with Samiam.” Seriously, he adds, “We’ve been called emo from day one. That’s fine. From our first demo to now, there’s always been songs that are more melodic. And if people don’t think we’re emo, they think we’re youth crew based on the fact that we played lots of shows with Ten Yard Fight and In My Eyes [both now defunct], who were traditional hardcore bands from Boston. Not that there’s anything wrong with youth crew, but I didn’t think that was where we came from.”
Reach the Sky’s influences have always been all over the hardcore map, but you couldn’t possibly use words like “emo” or “youth crew” alone to describe the group’s second disc, Friends, Lies, and the End of the World, which hits stores this Tuesday on the Chicago punk powerhouse Victory Records. (The band will open the sold-out late Dropkick Murphys show this Saturday at Avalon; they’ll also play an official CD-release show when they get home from the Dropkicks tour in May.) Listening to it, though, you can understand why they’re one of the few bands around who don’t mind being called emo. That’s because they’re emo only in the original technical sense of the term, which stems from the introspective hardcore of ’80s bands like Dag Nasty and Rites of Spring. In other words, they’re still playing hardcore, not crossover radio rock like most of today’s emo bands.
“We’ve never completely pigeonholed ourselves into one style,” says Larrabee. “I wouldn’t say that we’re redefining anything, but I think we’ve finally defined who we are. I think when you hear Reach the Sky, you know what you’re going to hear, and this is the record that shows that.” Indeed, Friends is a more fully realized effort than the group’s debut full-length, So Far from Home. But they didn’t get this far without a lot of hard work: in the four years they’ve been together, Larrabee figures the band have played almost 400 shows. “We’ve had a lot of bandmates come and go over the years. A lot of people couldn’t keep up with it. I can understand why. We really sacrifice ourselves for it. We’ve only been a full-time touring band since March of last year, but before that we spent two and a half years of being on the road every single weekend. That’s been who we are and how we’ve made this thing work for ourselves.”
All that time on the road paid off when the band hooked up with Victory, which released the aptly titled So Far from Home in late ’99. “Ian McFarland from Blood for Blood [the Boston hardcore favorites who’ve released two albums on Victory] called them up and was like, ‘You gotta get into this band,’ ” says Larrabee. “We had played Chicago before and they knew who we were. Because we play with such diverse bands — Hatebreed, Skarhead, Shutdown, that’s their family — they were able to ask people, ‘Hey, what’s the story with these guys? Are they good?’ They weren’t the only people we talked to, but it was the best option for us. They’ve done a lot for us. We don’t ask for much and it works out really well.”
Reach the Sky underwent a significant line-up change between So Far from Home and Friends when bassist Dan Tammik, who had written most of the band’s music, left. Second-guitarist Brendan Maguire switched to bass and Chasse took over songwriting duties. The difference is apparent: Chasse’s guitar parts are far more intricate than they were on the first album, and there are even a few quiet melodies on the new disc. “Everything else was just four notes per riff,” explains Chasse, the band’s resident emo guy (that’s him with the Get Up Kids shirt on in the CD booklet). “It’s not that anymore. It wasn’t that Brendan couldn’t keep up, ’cause he could. But I’m writing the riffs now, so I don’t feel limited. I don’t have to worry about teaching anybody else.”
The band recorded the disc in DC with ubiquitous Boston hardcore producer Brian McTernan, who has worked with them since their first demo. They spent three and a half weeks there, as opposed to the 10 days they spent on the first record. “This time, we weren’t as overwhelmed by the process of making a record,” says Larrabee. “The first five days, we auditioned our songs for Brian. He doesn’t just push record — he gets really into it. If there’s a sound that he thinks he can get, he’s gonna get it out of you. He beats the shit out of you. Previously, I thought we relied on him too much. This time, we relied on him as a fifth guy. When Metallica goes into the studio for a year, they write the songs with the producer. The songs were already written, but we just kind of tweaked them with Brian. His help is immeasurable.”
There’s no doubt Friends has some of the catchiest music Reach the Sky have written. On standout tracks like “This Sadness Alone” and “A Year and a Smile,” pummeling tempos co-exist with anthemic choruses and the occasional moment of cheerful resolution. Throughout, Larrabee continues to address confusion and inner turmoil with an upbeat sense of determination. “That’s been a defining thing about who we are. We’ve always had lyrics like that in songs with mosh parts that you want to kill people to. A lot of bands, their message is politics. Our songs are about universal emotions. These guys write songs that hit me on a level, and I’m not going to sing about something I don’t care about.”
Although they don’t harbor any rock-star fantasies, Reach the Sky are psyched about the opportunity Friends gives them to branch out into other segments of the punk world. “The first time around, we didn’t think that people who were into anything but mosh and hardcore would be into us,” says Larrabee. “But we found out even with the last record — which is really straightforward hardcore with big breakdowns and all that stuff — we were still able to play the Warped Tour and play with wimpier bands and it came off. We played the Palladium in Worcester a while back with Face to Face, New Found Glory, Saves the Day — emo bands. About 20 kids came up to me afterward and said, ‘We never heard of you before the Warped Tour.’ I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve been around here forever.’ Playing the local stage the last two years at the Warped Tour really helped us out. We realized it wasn’t just traditional hardcore kids that were going to get it.”
As it turns out, that realization had a profound impact on the making of Friends. “We didn’t intentionally make the new record more accessible,” Larrabee explains, “but we were like, ‘Hey, these are the songs that we really want to write. Now we know that we can actually do it and be secure in doing them.’ It’s not radio music, but I think it’s possible we could take it to, like, a Snapcase level. We’d never do anything to impede that. They don’t live well or anything, but they do their thing and they live off it. This isn’t forever, we know that. It’s just a hardcore band.”
LIKE REACH THE SKY, Diecast are a Boston hardcore band who formed in ’97. Since then, they’ve been highly visible on the local scene with their tough-guy metal hybrid, releasing an EP called Undo the Wicked on Connecticut-based Samson Records in ’98. Now, with their first full-length, the bludgeoning Day of Reckoning, just out on the Jersey-based Now or Never Records, the band are stepping things up. They’ve been on tour most of the winter with hardcore and metal veterans like One King Down, All Out War, and Dying Fetus. And they’re about to head out with the Jersey death-metal band God Forbid on a tour that will wind up at Bill’s Bar for their belated CD-release show on April 2 (the original February date was snowed out).
“We play to hardcore kids because we like the crowd participation, but our music has always been more metal,” says singer Colin Schleifer. On Day of Reckoning, the group take a crack at every heavy-music subgenre they can think of, from the youth-crew hardcore of the title cut to the extreme-metal outbursts of the opening “Disrepair.” They make their most intriguing move on “Singled Out,” which melds super-heavy beats to a radio-friendly chorus in a way that brings the anti-everything commercialism of Slipknot to mind. As a whole, the disc sounds somewhat disjointed, but the songs are solid and there’s no doubting the band’s skill.