Watch Out! endures as a fascinating document of tension and contradiction by a band on the cusp of commercial success.
“Let’s redefine, what it means to MWHEAALH!”
People are always wishing for the next “Seattle moment.” Specifically, people around here are always wishing for Toronto’s “Seattle moment”. That idea has been tossed around recently, with Buzz Records acting as Hogtown’s resident Sup Pop. I assume the idea was tossed around during the halcyon days of Torontopia, too. That comparison seems to hold more water due to the legitimate ubiquity of Broken Social Scene and their adjacents. That said, there is a very key difference between Seattle in the early 90s and Toronto in the early 00s: the Seattle boom was made by freaks for the children; Torontopia was made by the cool kids for other cool kids (as much as 20-somethings are kids). One week after BSS released You Forgot It In People, a band from down the road in St. Catharines, Alexisonfire, released their self-titled debut, sparking what was actually the closest thing this region ever had to a “Seattle moment”.
It may be hard to recall now given their stature, but Alexisonfire were (are?) a weird band. Even out of context, it’s surprising these guys became so bloody popular. Within context, it’s even more surprising. Greg Nori snot-punk and Nickleback-backed dick-rock was the norm on both the radio and on MuchMusic. Or maybe, because of those circumstances, it’s not surprising at all. That’s because Alexisonfire was for the children. They seemed relatable. They weren’t tough (looking), and were rebellious in sound, but not in their antics. These five guys from down the road had feelings, and so did I.
The first time I heard Alexisonfire, I saw them as well. Legend has it that without an actual record deal Alexisonfire broke MuchMusic’s afternoon request show, MuchOnDemand, who had never before had to bend to the will of an army of fans. While I had definitely seen videos for songs from the band’s debut, it was the video for “No Transitory” from 2004’s Watch Out! that really blew my head off. It was among the most simple of the band’s videos up to that point, but so effective, because the song really speaks for itself. There is so much drama in Dallas Green’s singing, so much catharsis in George Pettit’s screams. The music is furious and technical. It’s over the top in all the best ways. Every transition sounds like a challenge to anyone trying to pin them down. It was inspiring, as were many of the bands that followed Alexisonfire through the wormhole they created.
While Alexisonfire may have sparked the revolution and Crisis brought the band to their commercial summit, Watch Out! endures as a fascinating document of the tensions, could-have-beens, and contradictions that come when a band straddles the line between creative expression and commercial success. It’s an intense and satisfying push and pull between hardcore verses, weird time signatures, arena rock choruses, and gang vocals. Pettit has said that during the recording of their sophomore effort, there were questions about what his role would be going forward. Seeing as he was sharing vocal duties with the Adele of screamo, this wasn’t too surprising. We get a glimpse of what that alternate reality might have looked like on the Pettit-free, never-played-live, “Side Walk When She Walks”. It amounts to what is essentially a beefed up City & Colour song and highlights just how essential the beauty and the beast aspect of Alexisonfire is to their power. A big thank you to whoever fought to not have it released as a single.
There are so many moments on Watch Out! that are among the most deeply embedded in my musical memory. Chris Steele’s swirling bass riff during the bridge of “Accidents”; George Pettit screaming “razor-WHY-AHRE” at the end of “Sharks and Danger”; the “Control” riff; and perhaps most indelible, Dallas Green’s ascending “tomah-ah-ah-ah-ahoooOooow” during “No Transitory”. It’s as cathartic an album as I can remember hearing that is also easy to sing along to. The album is not bogged down by the thinly-veiled misogyny that permeates so much of the emo made during its third wave. Instead, the lyrics are introspective, littered with literary references, tackle addiction (“White Devil”), mental health (“Sharks and Danger”) how sweet hardcore is (“Get Fighted”) and the joys of Go-karting (“Hey, It’s Your Funeral Mama”). Less explicitly, a lot of these songs are about looking out for and supporting one another and being there for the people you love. I think this atmosphere of empathy and camaraderie might have just been the secret sauce that made Alexisonfire the behemoth it became. It’s a cliche, but these songs do make you feel less alone. It’s ok to be weird, it’s ok to freak out, it’s ok to be sensitive, and it’s ok to have fun.
What makes Watch Out!, and Alexisonfire, so special is the tension that’s created when Green, Pettit and to an extent Wade MacNeil blend their voices. Striking the right balance between singing and screaming is difficult and has rarely been done as well as Alexisonfire does it. That tension (and I can only assume, Green’s album with Pink) is what lead the band to briefly disband at the turn of the last decade. Bands breakup, I get it, but it did feel like Alexisonfire were finally growing into their own skin and realizing how they could mature beyond the sound that made them a household name. Time has shown that punk may take hold of people at a young age, but actually producing punk does not need to be a young person’s game. Watch Out! ands the surrounding albums may always be what Alexisonfire fans hold most dear, but I for one welcome the new material that seems imminent from one Canada’s most influential bands. Let’s face it, there will only ever be one “Seattle moment”, but for a few years at the beginning of this century in Southern Ontario, Alexisonfire captured the same fervour and electricity that came out of the Pacific Northwest in the early 90s. The rest of the world may not have noticed or cared, but those who were touched by the band and their contemporaries won’t ever forget.