When Two Inch Astronaut released their 2014 LP, Foulbrood, it was difficult to fathom how such a massive sound came from two guys. Now that they’re joined by Grass Is Green bassist Andy Chervenak, the original lineup — drummer-cellist Matt Gatwood and singer-guitarist Sam Rosenberg — expanded its sound once again. Personal Life sees the Maryland band at both their most aggressive and melodic. Their past has proven they’re pros when it comes to switching moods mid-song. Instead of a single change-up two-thirds through a track, they bounce between poppy punk and snarling post-hardcore, catching you off guard but never halting the overall mood of a song. Those tricks are still up their sleeves, but Personal Life sees them do away with epic breakup lyrics in favor of musings on day-to-day tasks — and tackling the mundane has rarely sounded so appealing.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Personal Life revives the post-hardcore punk of the late ‘80s very well. That much is inevitable; with J. Robbins of Jawbox producing the album, Two Inch Astronaut find themselves in a sonic box buzzing with the positives of every Nomeansno, Minutemen, and Flipper song. As foundational as those bands are, their output, when revisited, can be a bit cookie-cutter, all noisy chords and half-yelped lyrics.
Two Inch Astronaut cherry-pick the best of the bunch, though, and then then dive into their own territory. With only a week in Robbins’ studio, the trio forced themselves to race through material, eliminating the potential of overthinking songs or futzing with instrumental parts. The resulting rawness straps itself to their unbridled energy. “Sexual Prince of the Universe” and “Good Behavior” layer on thick grit to draw a darkness from their bass tones. The latter syncs its rhythm section with the guitar remarkably well, as if challenging each other to a distorted pop dance-off where trickling guitar and drum fills are the must-learn moves. It’s the kind of experimentation that separates generic rock from innovative reworking, likely a result of the band writing more collaboratively on this LP than others.
Personal Life takes notes from the emo-as-pop-punk sound of the early ‘00s, too. It’s split into two clear categories: Rosenberg’s emo vocals and weary punk guitar. On quiet cuts like “A Happy Song”, his singing fits snugly between a baritone version of the delivery of Casey Crescenzo of The Dear Hunter and Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, both of whom are often admired in secret despite having — ignore the urge to roll your eyes — talent. Then there’s Rosenberg’s guitar melodies. The album’s vivacious title track spirals around in a drunken frenzy, complete with hand claps and gutted yells, while barreling forward with his simplistic hook and air-guitar-worthy solo. The bits and pieces that make the early ‘00s of pop punk so fun are here too. Even “Topper Shutt”, a slow-burning cut about escaping corruption while still holding a candle to it (“See all I want is to be good and to get credit for my sins”) feels like a high school bummer anthem. Think Vagrant Records at its best, not Fueled by Ramen at its worst — though, there are several guitar riffs on par with From Under the Cork Tree here.
The album’s narrative glues these two styles together. There’s a strange comfort in realizing that songs about trivial struggles are more relatable than the unending throw of material out there about broken hearts and mental barriers. Here, it’s all prescription labels, nutrition facts, and crumpled $20 bills on the way to the liquor store. “If you spit high enough, then I could catch it right in my mouth,” Rosenberg sings on “Good Behavior”. The richness of those details occasionally sees cushioning from Gatwood’s cello, as on “Andy’s Progress Report” and “Good Companion”, bringing to mind their early days.
No track sums up their blissful melting pot better than “At Risk Student”. What starts like End Hits-era Fugazi unfolds into a combination of knotted guitar and abrasive bass before claiming a lean chorus. Then, in the song’s final moments, it lights itself on fire with its chaotic rhythm section while still staying polished. It’s rare to come across post-hardcore this decade that feels more innovative than it does reminiscent. Not only does Two Inch Astronaut’s album create a comfort within its styles, but it keeps playing with chords and tempos until you feel like you’re playing with that sonic Play-Doh, too. On Personal Life, they hone in on that identity and sharpen its edges, rolling out an album that’s simultaneously the most referential and the most original of their career. Maybe more bands should get this personal.
Essential Tracks: “Good Behavior”, “Personal Life”, and “At Risk Student”