By Hannah Wisterman
Artist: Pianos Become the Teeth
Album:Wait for Love
Label: Epitaph Records
Release Date: February 16, 2018
When we last saw Baltimore post-hardcore band Pianos Become the Teeth, it was on the final lingering notes of Keep You, a gut-punch of an album. Lead singer Kyle Durfey’s father had died of multiple sclerosis years earlier, even before their sophomore album The Lack Long After, but Keep You still rang of grief and all its side effects, from anger to pining to the way we stare at death’s aftermath and try to make sense of it. Lyrically, it was one of Pianos’ most difficult albums, but the release marked an enormous shift in style: Durfey sang the entire album clean, not a single scream in earshot. For a band whose grittiness hung in league with La Dispute and Touché Amoré, Keep You was a risk to say the least. On Nov. 8 of last year, the band released their first single from Wait for Love, “Charisma,” and answered the murmurs of longtime fans—where do we go from here?
The answer is up, in more ways than one. “Charisma” proved that Pianos Become the Teeth would do what a band should always hope for: make each album sound distinct, but maintain a signature sound. I daresay the opening chords of “Charisma” almost echo Keep You’s opening track “Ripple Water Shine,” which had a message of easing back into joy after trauma. “Charisma,” in contrast, is sheer hope and happiness, no (or few) holds barred. In an extremely helpful note to fans, Durfey implied that this particular song was about the birth of his new son, whose arrival to the world has undeniably shaped this album. But while uplifting, the song isn’t particularly dynamic, giving way to a slight worry that Pianos might be starting to stagnate.
Consider that fear destroyed. Even just in tone, Pianos Become the Teeth have taken a huge step forward toward something suspiciously like optimism. The tone shift reflects in a sound shift, taking Keep You’s comfortably post-hardcore instrumentation and making it bolder and bigger and frankly, happier. I would be remiss not to talk about one of the superstars of the album, drummer David Haik. Haik’s work is astonishing in its ability to both ground the album and give it a serious interest element. The drums in Keep You took a backseat, but in Wait for Love, the drums are an absolute joy to listen to. Not only are they turned up and brought forward, but Haik gets to do more complex work, not just keeping time but adding character. Haik’s percussion is the first thing you hear when you hit play, and if you pay attention, you’ll notice they’re part of what gives those first few tracks such forward momentum.
The momentum changes direction at the fourth track, “Dry Spells.” Sure, the album is largely about new life and moving forward from a difficult past, but this wouldn’t be a Pianos album without some melancholy. “These spells, pure hell, dry as bone; and I fold your dress, I howl, I drown in depravity,” Durfey sings, in a song seemingly about making love to his wife (commendable in itself) but also significantly about the painful yearning he feels for her when they’re apart. It’s something many, many musicians write about: he’s on the road, he misses his wife. But of course, since it’s Durfey, you feel that message hit you in the pit of your chest where it aches and stings. That’s one of his many talents—something about his voice and his words makes his music go right to the deep parts of your psyche.
The melancholy only gets stronger from there. “Dry Spells” goes into “Bay of Dreams,” one of the most abstract tracks on the album, part of a stretch of songs that describe crushing difficulty. I mention “Bay of Dreams” in particular because it’s potentially the band’s biggest departure from the norm to date. It’s slow and soft, with a remarkably simple and unobtrusive melody. There’s an ambient wash over it, with a lulling rhythm reminiscent of tiny waves washing up on a beach. It’s not at all what longtime fans would expect them to make, but it’s rapidly become a fan favorite, and for good reason.
“Bay of Dreams” also exemplifies a motif that turns up over and over in the album: water. There’s around a dozen references to water or bodies of water in the album, including the Magothy river area in Maryland, the Gulf Coast and countless more unnamed examples. Could be nothing, sure, but let’s not dismiss it so quickly. Durfey’s referenced water plenty in the past, but it seems to take on a particular theme in Wait for Love. Plenty of the references go back to the bodies of water separating him from his wife, but in the more innocuous lines, it’s important to remember certain connotations: water of the womb, water as a symbol of rest and healing, water as something constantly fluid and moving. Also significant are the roughly half a dozen references to blood—with the birth of Durfey’s son juxtaposed with the loss of his father, the idea of bloodlines and blood heritage is certainly central.
Nowhere is that more clearly presented than in the album’s closing track, “Blue.” “Would you believe it? I’m a family man now, and here’s your boy’s boy,” Durfey sings, addressing his father’s memory. From that context alone, the song becomes the most heart-wrenching on the album. Durfey puts it best himself in the album note: “It’s missing your father while becoming one yourself.” It’s a pain so specific and deep that it’s unmistakable. It brings the album full circle with the rest of the band’s career. Their albums have consistently tracked the path of suffering to death and now, to life, with Durfey’s father and deep familial love playing the catalyzing role.
That journey hasn’t always taken the same path, and it’s important if you’ve heard Pianos Become the Teeth’s earlier work to go into Wait for Love understanding that the band is continuing to go in new directions. The band doesn’t sound as heavy as they used to largely because that’s not who Durfey is anymore, or who any of them are anymore. Their tone has calmed down and matured, they’re going for introspection more than visceral catharsis—and Kyle Durfey has cut his hair short. In keeping with their maturity and instrumental development, this is an album that grows on you, so I recommend listening to it a few times through to appreciate the melody work and the mood. I still don’t know where Pianos Become the Teeth will go from here, but having listened to this album, I’m willing to wait and find out.