Following an enormously influential album wasn’t going to be easy, so Alexisonfire did something very different with Old Crows/Young Cardinals.
Coming up with a successor to Crisis was never going to be easy.
There’s a reason Alexisonfire is one of the most beloved hardcore bands in Canada. It took me a while to finally come around to their music; it took seeing them live to truly understand their power. Before Crisis, it was easy to marvel at the stark contrast between George Pettit’s scream-at-the-heavens vocal style and the beautiful way Dallas Green sings. Crisis, however, brought Wade MacNeil to the forefront as the third head of the beast, and seeing them live is to see these three distinct vocalists push and pull hardcore music into different directions.
2006’s Crisis catapulted Alexisonfire to new heights. The album managed to distill everything great about Alexisonfire. There were far less musical meandering and shorter song lengths as a result; every song felt like the right amount of time to spend with it. Its influence on a slew of bands from Silverstein to Cancer Bats eventually presented a problem: how the hell do you follow it up while setting yourself apart from the imitators?
In 2007, Pettit, already hinting at a new direction, somewhat infamously said that his band wanted to be the one that killed screamo. Fast forward to 2009 and Alexisonfire’s “knife” to the genre: Old Crows/Young Cardinals. Though maintaining the energy that makes their music so infectious, Alexisonfire took bigger risks with their form on Crisis’s follow up. Surprising to many was how Petit modified his vocal style, finding the sweet spot between singing and screaming, but that wasn’t the only or most significant change.
Most of Old Crows/Young Cardinals is a hallmark of hardcore music, of course. Alexisonfire has always been a band that broadly bucks at the establishment, singing of how the common man is repeatedly broken by forces beyond his control and rallying against injustice. There are, however, two distinct departures from Alexisonfire’s more familiar fare. The first, “The Northern,” has its heavy moments but relies less on guitar and more on organ. The song — drawing inspiration from an old spiritual, “Roll, Jordan, Roll” — features MacNeil and Green as its primary singers; the lyrics are mostly repetitious, referencing a great judgment coming their way. It’s a spiritual that only Alexisonfire could interpret. The second departure is closer “Burial,” which is largely guitar-less. Green softly sings of a seemingly never-ending winter and his subsequent paralysis because of it. Until “Burial”, I didn’t think it was possible that Alexisonfire’s singers could harmonize so well.
Aside from the musical departures, there’s a lot of not-so-subtle subtexts referencing the band’s desire to grow. The chorus of opener “Old Crows” makes this very apparent: “We are not the kids we used to be / Stop wishing for yesterday.” Alexisonfire had changed, and this defiant chorus drove it home right from the get-go. “Born and Raised” references the band struggling to come to grips with its identity and trying to move on. “Heading for the Sun” could also be about the band trying to get itself out of the death throes of screamo music.
There’s a lot of righteous anger and imagery simmering on Old Crows/Young Cardinals. “Midnight Regulations” feels like a spiritual sequel to “Boiled Frogs”; there is much fretting about the average person, the kind of person who works hard just to survive, with no relief in sight. “No Rest” reverses the old cliché of “no rest for the wicked”; in real life, “No rest for the blessed / Long life for the wicked.” There are some stunningly vivid images of death and decay in “Young Cardinals”: nicotine babies born without spines; a sea god; bones of tyrants burning in a fire. Not all of the anger works on this album, however; the lyrics of “Sons of Privilege” are remarkably heavy-handed, even if the chorus is pretty catchy. Where lyrical intentions are less clear, there is a lot of mosh-pit fare to be had. “Emerald Street” and “Accept Crime” are both remarkably fun songs, the latter with not one but two screams of “1! 2! 3!” in the first 30 seconds.
For an album that Pettit is certain some fans didn’t understand, Old Crows/Young Cardinals was a solid farewell for a band that redefined what hardcore music could be. The album’s restless energy felt like a sign that “the only band ever” would one day return. It didn’t take long for the band’s breakup to become the opposite of that; fittingly, almost ten years after Old Crows/Young Cardinals, Alexisonfire returned in 2019 with new songs “Familiar Drugs” and “Complicit.”