Between the intros I wrote for Showbread’s No Sir, Nihilism is Not Practical, and the first half of the Anorexia Nervosa series, I think I’ve done an okay job in describing the history behind today’s album: Age of Reptiles.
But this is a topic that’s been somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 7 years, and I never had the proper vehicle to address it. Now, more than half a decade after its release, and 5 more albums since this one, I think this is the right time to get a little misty and reminisce.
The follow-up to No Sir, Age will go down as the band’s most divisive record. In the gap between those two records, from 2004 to 2006, Showbread changed drummers and also the direction of their style.
The segmentation created by Age is one that has always confounded me, both as a music fan, and of Showbread. The best way I know how to describe it in retrospect is that a lot of fans of the band were disappointed that Age deviated so strongly from its spastic predecessor.
Consider the time period when Age was released. I’ve written at length about the Tooth & Nail roster of that era. Those were the “Golden Years” for the label, and it’s one that will never be replicated.
As lead vocalist Josh Dies wrote about in the band’s autobiography The Joke That We Play on the World: No Sir was a misnomer. It was something of a happy accident, and one that may have ended up backfiring on the band.
It was released at a time when that brand of brash, abrasive screaming was the sound to have. The legacy that Refused created was captured and reimagined by a number of different acts during this period, namely bands like The Blood Brothers, At the Drive-in, The Fall of Troy, Fear Before the March of Flames, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and others.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention here that post-hardcore and the dreaded “screamo” tag were influenced by bands like Saetia, Pg.99, Orchid, Hot Cross and others.
Here’s the thing about it though: Showbread didn’t want anything to do with those subgrenres. Even before No Sir, they had written and released Goodbye is Forever and Life, Kisses, and Other Wasted Efforts – albums that from a production standpoint left a lot to be desired due to their shoestring budgets, but were every point as brazen. Tooth & Nail was the monetary vehicle that allowed No Sir to sound as good as it did.
But the genre is in a lot of ways, pretty limiting. In my estimation, I don’t think the band wanted to be stuck writing No Sir sequels till they were grey. Why would anyone want that?
So here’s where the divide happened: Age was more than a few steps removed from the constant shrieking. It was delicate- at times, even soft (“Sing Me to Sleep”).
In stepping away from screaming, Showbread fans were downright pissed.
When first single “Oh! Emetophobia!” was released unto the masses, a lot of the following that the group had amassed abandoned the group. Left for dead, really, only acknowledging No Sir from that point forward. This is evidenced by any number of “They made an album after that?” cracks you can find on your selected social medium.
I found this to be completely asinine because Age of Reptiles is a fine album, and I think it stands up to No Sir, an opinion that not too many people can proclaim. Each has its own strong merits. Though I will admit, I was shellshocked when I initially heard the song. Sure, there’s a bit of yelling, but “Sampsa Meets Kafka” it was not.
I think the proper term for those fans who were not mad by the band’s transition to a more, shall we say, ‘refined’ sound, would be “let down.” Shoot, somewhere in here there might even be an argument to be made about the literal age of their audience, and the lack of availability for this type of music for kids so sheltered in the faith; the so-called “youth group rotation.”
This disappointment was steeped in their hunger for more of the same. Showbread fans had been given 13 tracks of sheering raw rock, and they wanted more. Could they really be blamed for that? No Sir lives on for many (including myself) as one of the top 5 Tooth & Nail releases ever.
The bigger picture here is twofold: first, the sustainability of such a caustic genre as this and whether the band’s members want to continue making that type of music for an indeterminate number of albums.
But, more importantly, it calls into question our expectations as listeners.
Dies addresses that they were caught in a bit of a catch-22: wanting to write and create music that wasn’t a mirror image of No Sir would kill off certain sects of their fan base, but allow them the artistic freedom (or free doom, as it were) to expand into different subgenres, revealing the group’s true fans along the way.
I feel this warrants a look inward. Why do we as listeners expect our favorite artists to make the same type of music over and over again? To do what we want them to do?
There’s a band called Low. They can be described as playing ambient or drone or shoegaze. Recently, the group stirred up a bit of controversy when, at a festival date, they took one of their lengthier songs – the 14-minute “Do You Know How to Waltz?” – and transformed into an epic, half-hour version that served as the entirety of their set. One single song.
At the end of the song, lead singer Alan Sparhawk (great name, by the way) spoke the only words of the evening: “Drone, not drones.”
So, it’s a political move, right? Punk rock, right?
The problem is that, much in the same way Showbread fans were disappointed with Age of Reptiles, Low fans who came to the set expecting them to “play the hits,” so to speak, were left wanting. This was a festival, after all. The summer fests mean huge crowds who wouldn’t normally get to see certain bands, overpriced tickets, dreadful heat, and woefully compacted sets.
For Low fans, to see the band use their set as a vehicle for a political statement was blasphemy.
Or was it?
If you paid a lot of money to see one of your favorite bands at a festival, and they went off the rails with an unexpected song decision, or, I don’t know, an impromptu poetry slam, how would you react?
Of course there is something to be said for playing to your audience. At the end of the day, unless you’re Bruce Springsteen, musicians make music to pay the bills. It’s a job. Yanno, for money and such. To pay the bills. Breaking into the cult-like subset of perennial radio play is so rare anymore.
I won’t claim to know how to toe the line between maintaining artistic integrity and pleasing an audience. And I certainly don’t envy those who attempt to do so.
There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here. One is that we shouldn’t hold fast to our expectations of bands and artists because it leads to inevitable disappointment. This, it would seem at this point in the Internet age, is an impossible task. Once the hype machine takes hold of an album or artist, forget it. It’s done. No level of success or form of entertainment, not one, sees a product that is universally accepted and appreciated by all who come to know it.
The other lesson is along the same lines. At the end of the day, it’s up to the artist to either placate or innovate.
I’m disappointed in the fans of Showbread who left by the truckload because of this album. It’s not something I can control, and I know there’s untold number of factors that went into it, with a lot of it due to the type of audience we’re talking about here, but man: those who didn’t stick around to appreciate Age of Reptiles missed out.
Opener “Naked Lunch,” so-titled after the disgusting and nonsensical William S. Boroughs novel of the same name, incorporates many of the elements that Showbread fans came to, yes, expect: raw rock with dueling vocalists played atop a fuzzy, underbelly of keys (played on a keytar no less). “Pachycephalosaurus,” too.
“Your Owls Are Hooting” is the first track to so blatantly dismiss the band’s previous signature sound. As a song that bides it time, I’m tempted to call it a slow burn, but that would imply that it transforms – something it just doesn’t do, content to meddle in mid-tempo for almost 4 minutes.
And that’s okay. Over the course of 10 tracks, Showbread did what they wanted. They always did what they wanted.
Age of Reptiles is centered around a reptilian theme, with various references made to dinosaurs, snakes, lizards, et al., in song titles and lyrics. At face value, it’s an amusing gimmick from a band known for any number of varying shticks and outlandish stage costumery.
In this way, the group attempted to play to both their younger, youth group-y crowd, as well as their more mature audience (read: I guess just me?).
On a deeper level, Dies manages to write insightful, thought-provoking, biblical allegories using the reptilian allusions. This culminates with the eponymous “Age of Reptiles,” a 10-minute mammoth that also contains the hidden track “Age of Insects.” As they have done with their other albums, “Age” is straightforward worship song, one that may stick out next to its oddball brethren (Emetophobia, after all, is the irrational fear/phobia of vomiting).
Therein lies the mission statement of Showbread. They did what they wanted. If that’s not punk rock, I’ll turn in my membership card right now.
Years later, I feel better now that I’ve said my piece about this album. Make up your own mind. But remember, if you don’t like it, you’re wrong.
From Age of Reptiles, this is “Centipede Sisters” –
Standout tracks: “Pachycephalosaurus” and “Dinosaur Bones” and “The Jesus Lizard”
Weakest track: “Sing Me to Sleep,” I guess.
RIYL: Raw rock.