Remember when today’s middle-aged working stiffs were once young Generation X-types who were wearing ironic T-shirts reading “FREAK” or “LOSER,” words that mirrored their grunge-centric ennui? Then there was one band who made that pervading nihilism even more stylish by rocking black shirts with the word “zero” in silver glitter. But while the z-word has the capacity to taint test scores, bank balances and attempts at self-actualization in ways no other common integer can, it does represent more positive ideals. Consider the terminology used by project managers to herald the beginning of a big project: Year Zero. What’s the numerical equivalent used when someone uses the metaphor of “hitting the reset button” on their lives and/or careers? That’s right: zero.
For the members of Hawthorne Heights, the word (or number) isn’t the providence of losers, nor a bastion of stylish disconnection. Zero, the fifth album from the Dayton, Ohio, outfit, represents a positively incandescent future. Now aligning themselves with Red River Entertainment, Hawthorne Heights—singer/guitarist JT Woodruff, guitarists Micah Carli and Mark McMillion, bassist Matt Ridenour and drummer Eron Bucciarelli—are rising above their post-hardcore roots in ambitious measures. Overseen by producer Brian Virtue, Zero marks a wider breadth of the band’s capacity to create compelling work, regardless of the social implications found in certain music subcultures. (Translation: Team HH tossed the punk-rock rulebook into a wood chipper.)
“When people hear Zero, they’re going to be hearing a new band,” Eron Bucciarelli beams. “What we’re trying to accomplish is to reinvent ourselves and not be so attached to our history. I think there are elements of Zero that pay homage to Hawthorne Heights’ past, that we should by no means attempt to ignore. To a certain degree, we are the same people that wrote The Silence In Black And White. We’re just older now.”
While many of the participants in America’s post-hardcore sweepstakes have toiled in the underground with a mere modicum of success (if any), Hawthorne Heights achieved much in their 12-year existence. Since their inception in 2001, the band made heads swivel with their brand of melodic post-hardcore heightened by the interplay between frontman Woodruff’s “clean vocal” and the late rhythm guitarist Casey Calvert’s screaming. Their 2004 debut, The Silence In Black And White was not only a benchmark for the band (the release was certified gold-status), but also for the attendant “screamo” aesthetic both critics and fans credit the group with bringing into the forefront. 2006’s If Only You Were Lonely repeated gold-selling success for the band, further establishing them as a dynamic live act.
“I think for a lot of people, Hawthorne Heights were that bridge band that got people into more commercial acts like Green Day and Blink-182 to transition into more underground music,” Bucciarelli opines. “For one reason or another, we were people’s first introduction to screaming in music. So for better or worse, that’s one of the main things people think about our band. Maybe our contribution to the larger canon of underground rock is to be a segue into that underground world.”
After the untimely passing of Calvert in 2007, Hawthorne Heights carried on as a quartet, issuing two more full-length albums, Fragile Future (2008) and Skeletons (2010). But after extricating themselves from their last label deal, the band returned to the roll-up-your-sleeves, DIY aesthetic that got them on the post-hardcore radar all those years ago, recording, distributing and marketing two EPs Hate and Hope. “When we made those EPs,” Bucciarelli begins, “we had a chip on our shoulder. But all the while that we were angry, we still had a lot of confidence in ourselves and our ability to make music our fans wanted to hear. We were definitely a lot more optimistic for the future.”
In addition to marking a significant growth in the band’s artistry, Zero also represents the culmination of how Hawthorne Heights conduct themselves as a unit. Knowing full well that today’s bands are businesses through and through, each member was assigned a certain aspect of the band’s affairs, from recording and mixing, booking tours, merchandising and promotion. After playing with the band live for three years, longtime friend of the band Mark McMillion would become an official member. (“It made sense to have him with us,” figures Bucciarelli. “He’s a great guitarist, he can sing, and it’s nice to have another set of ears in the studio.”) The band decided that the follow-up release to their two EPs would be conceptual, with a story arc. “We wanted to make a grand album, something we’ve never done in our entire career,” says the drummer. “We focused on what songs would work toward supporting the story line, as opposed to front-loading the album with all the ‘best’ songs first. At first, there was some hesitation in the studio. ‘This is kinda weird.’ ‘Is this possible?’ We all came together and assured ourselves that we just had to commit to it in order to make it happen.”
The backdrop of Zero takes place in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future where a totalitarian government (the Coalition Of Alternate Living Methods, aka CALM) systematically drugs the populace in order to keep them docile. The central protagonist awakes one morning to find his whole life completely decimated, as if he was dropped into the middle of a desolate vista of scorched earth and wasteland. The hero has to battle the government—as well as the constant barrage of memories that haunt him—in order to find answers. While the song-cycle format is an interesting departure for Hawthorne Heights, the songs are still vibrant, even when dissected from the greater concept. Tracks like “Memories Of Misery,” “Darkside,” “Golden Parachutes” and “Anywhere But Here,” contain equal measures of pop sensibility, as well as lyrical heft. But there are also touching and unnerving moments at play: The acoustic melancholy of “Hollow Hearts Unite” is a mix of altruist sentiment and helplessness colliding. The title track sports Woodruff’s wounded vocal and a guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on a David Gilmour album. “Lost In The Calm” is a deathbed spectator trying to cope, set to a rapid beat that mirrors the song’s urgency. When you consider the current controversy surrounding the activities of corporations intersecting with government (stick “Monsanto” or “fracking” in your search engine of choice and see what happens) futures, Zero doesn’t sound like contrived fiction. In his role as both recording artist and doting father, Bucciarelli genuinely worries about these constructs.
“Some of the themes [found on Zero] factor into my daily thought processes of things, moments like, ‘Should I give my daughter this kind of food to eat,’ and on top of that thinking, ‘What can we do to stop this from happening?’ it’s kind of scary to most people, and that’s why a lot of these ideas have been branded as conspiracy theory—nobody wants to acknowledge it in a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil kind of thing. If some listeners associate some of the themes from this record to real-life situations and it opens their minds up, I think that’s definitely a good thing.”
It’s also a good thing that Hawthorne Heights are still out there. As one of the founding names in the foundation of post-hardcore/contemporary punk, the quintet are reinvigorated and ready to go where their new vision will take them, from the stage of this year’s Warped Tour to the rest of the world. It might sound like a self-deprecating quip, but the truth has a much greater resonance: The sum total of Hawthorne Heights’ parts equals Zero. And it’s far more valuable than mindless slacker nostalgia.