With The Ringer’s recent emo week, there’s been more than enough conversation around the genre. But with all the rehabilitation around the e-word, its third wave still feels poorly documented. If an older audience gives it any attention, it’s referred to as the hair metal phase before becoming reclaimed at the end of the aughts. It feels very lip service and without the nuance that the genre deserves. What makes this period so fascinating is the dichotomy between what was on the radio and what was happening on the basement level. Major labels began to smell the money and capitalized on this sound, eventually creating what would be called hot topic or mall emo. The production on bands like Boys Like Girls and We The Kings erased any personality, seeking only to service the hook.
There were still notable acts of this wave that still had genuine punk and emo roots. Hawthrone Heights had an early demo when they were still called A Day In The Life that very much feels descended from Jimmy Eat World pre-Clarity. The Academy Is… similarly had an EP that was much more unpolished and knotty that is more of a curiosity than good. The first My Chemical Romance record feels indebted to 90s emo while pushing the genre into the next century.
Just as this boom was happening on the radio, the underground movement of emo was still going. Deep Elm Records carried the torch for 90s emo with their long-running compilation Emo Diaries. And across the country, you began to see the seeds of Midwest emo begin to show up. It wasn’t ubiquitous, so bands would be forced to play mixed bills, playing alongside screamo in a way that would influence the genre going forward.
As a way to document what was happening on the DIY/basement level during emo’s third wave, here is a sampling of bands that would presage what is now known as the emo revival.
Oh My God Elephant
If I wanted one band to encapsulate the proto-revival period for emo perfectly, I would point toward oh my god elephant. After starting off playing music indebted to Modest Mouse, the band slowly inched towards Kinsella worship. Their self-titled EP would perfectly capture this sound and imbued a sense of humor to combat the seriousness that comes with emo. But there wasn’t necessarily a scene for Oh My God Elephant to rally around. Instead, they would play with what drummer Mike Lunquist called hardcore emo bands. It would lead to mixed bills featuring Daniel Striped Tigers, L’Antietam, and other screamo bands in the Massachusetts era. By the time they broke up, the revival was just underway.
Thanks to online forums like r/emo, blogspots like Sophies Floorboard, and youtube, the legend of Oh My God Elephant persisted. Even if it took me years to listen to them, I knew the album art of their seminal 2006 EP. It’s part of the joy of living in the modern age of emo. Albums can become part of the cannon thanks to a small but enthusiastic bunch talking about it constantly. The cult fandom was so intense that Sleepy Clown Records would put out a tape for their self-titled release, along with rumors of a new release.
Halfway to Holland
Before Algernon Cadwallader, there was Halfway to Holland. But instead of leaning on the virtuosic twinkles of Joe Reinhart, we see a much younger version of the guitarist. It’s much more grounded in the tradition of pop punk, sounding like somebody who grew up on a steady diet of Blink-182. At times it’s almost pre-easycore, putting in a little breakdown now and then. Pete Helmis isn’t quite leaning into the shrieking that would typify Algernon. His vocals are clean and not strained at all, partially showing the trajectory that would lead to the 2015 Dogs on Acid record. Ultimately, Halfway To Holland is a peek into what would come for songwriters still finding their singular voice.
Street Smart Cyclist
Where some artists hewed closer to indie rock, Street Smart Cyclist had more in common with the post-hardcore thread of emo. It sounded like high schoolers trying their best to cover Frame and Canvas. Twinkly emo was now starting to emerge in real-time. The 2006 demo was unambiguously pure catharsis; the opener “hoods up” was meant to be sung arm in arm with a bunch of strangers in a VFW hall. But this type of energetic music has an eventual end date, even if it was unknown at the time. Two EP’s and eight songs were more than enough to preserve their legacy, so much that Topshelf Records would issue a discography in 2014.
Newfound Interest in Connecticut
Newfound Interest in Connecticut sits more on the post-rock tree of emo. It makes sense given that it was the aughts when they formed. Combining the beautiful soundscapes of Godspeed You! Black Emporer with post-hardcore was a novel combination. You get to hear the synthesis of the two on Tell Me About The Long Dark Path Home. Songs bleed into one each other, making for a record that’s meant to be experienced in one whole sitting.
Unlike some of the other bands on this list, The Progress is situated at the beginning of third-wave emo. Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American had only come out a few months before the Progress released their self-titled EP. By the time they finally put together their debut, Merit, in 2005, the genre had undergone tremendous changes. But The Progress was always able to exist outside of what was happening on the major label level. In this way, they were not only reinterpreting emo’s second wave but serving as a counterpoint to the ongoing pop boom. And by the time The Progress’ broke up, emo was moving closer to what they were already doing for several years.
The Jesus Years
With The Jesus Years, we’re beginning to see the intersection of math rock and emo in its third wave. The songs on their lone EP are entirely instrumental, but it never feels like virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. There are still legible structures that are more pop-oriented, and I can imagine fitting in vocals without any issues. It never feels like the songs meander — there’s a constant movement that ensures I never feel the song’s runtime. It splits the difference between emo and math rock, showing a template for the genre going forward.
Look Mexico were emo revivalists at their core. They reinterpreted emo’s second wave, mashing it together with indie rock to help create midwestern emo. But at the time, the band didn’t have any big ambitions; They were just responding to the power-pop and sparkle core that dominated the Florida scene in 2004. Finding a band that channeled Braid and American Football was still a novelty. It’s why publications would have trouble describing them at the time, leading to descriptors like indie pop. As the years passed, Look Mexico saw the changes around emo firsthand. Their EP, Look Asp, was released for the essential label Tiny Engines in 2008. And by the time Uniola came out in 2016, the revival they helped start was ending.
Colossal comes from the ashes of 90s Chicago punk. There are a lot of familiar players here, including Rob Kellenberger of Slapstick and Neil Hennesey of The Lawrence Arms. Instead of playing the type of energetic punk music they were well known for, it is much closer to classical midwestern emo. There are mathy guitar lines and even horns interspersed throughout their discography. A Punknews review of their debut record even notes it, saying, “Sure, Mike Kinsella beat them to the punch combining jazz-tone guitars weaving intricate lines with trumpet over top, but now Colossal have perfected the sound and are making it rock harder.”
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