Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship.
Most of my favorite bands from high school are reuniting, either for one-off festivals or for total rebirths complete with new albums. The list includes (alphabetically) At The Drive-In, Braid, Dismemberment Plan, The Get Up Kids, Piebald, and Refused, proving my scope of favorites circa 2001 ranged all the way from emo to emo-core with the inclusion of some emo-leaning indie rock and emo-approved hardcore. I should be thrilled about the idea of these groups existing again - isn't Earth a sadder place with less music? - but I'm conflicted.
The reunion tour is so often seen as an excuse to cash in on previous successes that the knee-jerk assumption of such is a tired reaction. I care less about the motivations of the bands and more about the motivations of the audience. I sometimes wonder if the demand for reunions is brought on by negative aspects of fandom, like the inability to move on after a breakup and the reluctance to trust or invest in new artists.
Let me make the disclaimer often necessary in these Better Living Through Music columns: I ain't judging. Many of my friends made the trek up to Chicago for Dismemberment Plan's reunion shows; my main non-monetary reason for going was to give my hypothetical spot to somebody who has not seen the band as many times as I. Such a martyr, I know. But when any of these friends returned, I picked their brains about as many details of the shows as possible. Ditto for my pal who just saw Refused in the Windy City. Remember: living vicariously through your friends is always the cheapest alternative.
In the case of the Dismemberment Plan, an argument could be made that the band is more vital now than the last year of its existence, when it was losing steam live, dragging its tempos, and test-driving songs that would later end up on frontman Travis Morrison's disastrous solo album Travistan. But in most situations, a band's reunion falls short of expectations - some of which, if set by the fans, are impossible to attain. The idea of the band getting back together, of getting to yell "Cut away!" along with At The Drive-In when the group inevitably closes with "One Armed Scissor," is more romantic in thought than practice.
Nobody can fault a group of people for getting together to relive the good old days - especially if they can get paid in the process. Functionally, a fan seeing a reunited group is not much different from a fan seeing a tribute band. But when these resurrected bands start to write songs again, fandom becomes complicated. So much of what makes a band's initial run great is contextual, the way it creates its art in relation to what else is happening in music and society. Furthermore, since most of the aforementioned bands were pre-Internet touring machines, their music was connected to their complete immersion in their lifestyle. Taking a half decade or more off and having the hindsight to see your own band's influence on the shape of modern music certainly affects the writing process, however subconsciously. In most cases, the reunion album is the result of a bunch of people writing songs for the fun of it, whereas its previous albums were meant to contribute to, maybe even change the overall tapestry of music as a whole.
Yet, when a reunited band makes a new album, the group essentially competes against the young guns trying to make their own imprints. There was a time where artists were limited because only so much music could fit in one place, be it a record store shelf or a radio playlist. These days are essentially over, but the listeners' wallets and time are a finite resource.
Whether a fan supports the reunited band through ticket sales or buying its new album, it's often an example of brand loyalty. For every relevant broken up band, there are handfuls groups carrying on their legacies without ripping off the originators. I've often thought that the high energy technical bands coming out of the Hello Sir Records label in Athens, Georgia - specifically Cinemechanica and We Versus The Shark - were the next logical step forward from At The Drive-In and Refused. Cinemechanica doesn't sound like At The Drive-In the way somebody like Thursday does, but it is the only band I've seen capture that intensity. Given the obviously tired performances ATDI put on at Coachella, Cinemechanica is conceptually more At The Drive-In than At The Drive-In is.
In the same way, Tera Melos is today's Piebald, a technical band whose fascinations with pop only make it weirder, and Minneapolis group One For The Team is everything lovable about the Get Up Kids in a modern, non-derivative fashion. Of course, 90-plus percent of fans would rather pay to see Piebald than Tera Melos, which is an understandable travesty in these days of oversaturation and belt-tightening.
Perhaps the appeal of these modern reunion goes deeper than the bands themselves. Seeing Braid again is as much about hearing "A Dozen Roses" live as it is about reminiscing the days of talking about bands with your friends at Denny's, about recalling that gambling thrill of blindly buying a CD and the time investment of religiously spinning it in your parents' car. But seeing these bands again has a limited impact. Expecting magic from a once-defunct band is like expecting Romy & Michelle's High School Reunion at your own 10 year nostalgia-fest.
We cannot relive the past, so let us take these reunions at face value. Let our expectations be realistic and our motivations pure, for fans and bands alike. Memories are powerful, but so is closure. Both are necessary for happy, healthy lives.