If Alkaline Trio is truly the savior of punk rock, if the band really lives up to its rabid, fan-fueled glorification, you wouldn't know it from talking to Dan Andriano. The bassist/vocalist sounds rather indifferent speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Boston. Given the hurdles the band had to overcome to get here, perhaps Andriano deserves some respite. Alkaline Trio's recently released fifth album, Crimson, arrived in the wake of the band's Punk Voter tour, a national punkstravaganza that rocked hard but failed to dethrone George W. Bush. And this past winter, Andriano's songwriting partner, singer/guitarist Matt Skiba, broke both arms in skateboarding accidents, almost derailing the album's release.
Clearly, those debacles inspired some of Crimson's brooding angst. The surprise is that they didn't deter the Chicago natives from recording their most rousing, mature effort to date. "We're always trying to evolve our songwriting without changing it," Andriano says. "We never want to go into a record saying 'We need to write more songs like this' or 'This is what people want to hear. '"
Crimson is vivid, macabre fun. Alkaline Trio's stark contrast of heavenly melodies and hellish prose has never been more potent. The colorless, Dickensian album cover is amplified by the elegant, gothic piano introducing "Time to Waste." Soon, the classy keys are slashed by a razor-sharp torrent of start-stop guitars and militaristic drums. The bloodletting -- lyrically and musically -- quickly gets under way and barely lets up for the next 40 minutes.
While beer-soaked benders fueled most of AT's early records, the band has replaced sophomoric antics with a penchant for morbidity first offered on 2001's From Here to Infirmary and bettered by 2003's Good Mourning. Crimson is far more visceral than earlier works, screaming bloody murder at virtually every turn. The ballad "Sadie" -- invoking Manson family member Sadie Mae Glutz -- features passages like "a scream that's curdling the blood they found on you." The flanger swaths of the midtempo "Burn" include Skiba brilliantly belting, "Everyone learns faster on fire/You live and you burn..."
The album was a "Hotshot Debut" at Number 25 on the Billboard Top 200; horror fans will relish the material, though Andriano insists, "There is a lot of tongue in cheek there, some venting of frustrations. But generally, the lyrics are very introspective." Though the band vainly attempted to thwart a Dubya re-election, Andriano says politics aren't elemental to the music. "We all feel very strongly about political ideas and social issues, but that's not really who we are as a band."
Since joining Alkaline Trio in 1998, Andriano has found comfort as a loyal foil to Skiba, who formed the band a year earlier. "Luckily for me, I never think anything that Matt does is shit," the bassist says. With its third drummer, Derek Grant, joining prior to Good Mourning, the band's lineup, sound, and dapper image are set. "I love writing songs with Matt and Derek," Andriano says. "We definitely are all a big part of writing. We each just get an idea down that's a very simple pop structure with what we feel are solid melodies."
With all members married or engaged and scattered throughout the United States, Alkaline Trio assembled parts of Crimson through electronic communiqué and mail. Returning producer Jerry Finn, whom many fans derided for "overpolishing" Mourning, provides solid guidance. His previous credits include Blink-182, whom AT is often pigeonholed (or more appropriately, cornholed) with under the dreaded "pop-punk" label. Andriano -- an avowed Smiths, Smashing Pumpkins, and Led Zeppelin devotee -- argues that the association is coincidental.
"One of our goals in music has never been to be compared to anybody," he says. "I think we all, in a certain respect, like Blink and the songs they write." But beyond sharing a producer, Andriano doesn't swallow the comparison. Crimson is lush, keyboard-driven, and intellectual, with the band channeling its anger into Poe-like poetics, a contrast from the three-chord hysterics of Blink.
Even as purist detractors blasted his band online for abandoning its roots with the stylish Good Mourning, Andriano's learned to brush off the talk. "When we made our last record, people talked shit about the fact that I got married," he says. "It's strange that some kid thinks he knows me because he listened to my album. But it's just something I'll never concern myself with."
The vaunted punk-rock hierarchy -- or Alkaline Trio's place in it -- means little to Andriano. "Not to sound jaded, but I just don't like a lot of the stuff we get associated with," he contends. "I don't know if I'd really consider us a punk-rock band. I'm personally not a big fan of labels in general. It just hinders everything. A good rule of thumb I've lived by is if there's a new genre term, like 'screamo' or 'pop-punk,' generally those bands suck."
Andriano's ideology has helped sustain Alkaline Trio beyond hype, hurt, and backlash. That endurance just might make the band saviors after all, though they could probably care less.
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