Home Music Rediscover: Underoath: Define the Great Line

Rediscover: Underoath: Define the Great Line

Every band has a defining record that establishes an artistic paradigm. What’s less common is for a record to embody it from day one, from its name to every follicle of its sound. Underoath’s Define the Great Line is absolutely that record. The impact this album had on Christian music, screamo and post-hardcore continues to resonate, and its execution remains a standard bearer 15 years after its release.

Underoath is a band defined by jarring transitions. Some fans still wish the band stuck with the metallic edge of its first two albums or the unique hodgepodge that was The Changing of Times. Each of those albums brought line-up changes, but replacing ex-vocalist Dallas Taylor with Spencer Chamberlain was the biggest—making 2004’s They’re Only Chasing Safety a good time to play it safe. The album’s poppy hooks and accessible songwriting brought Underoath to the top of the ‘00s screamo wave and even earned gold certification. Against all odds, Define achieved comparable success, even though it’s a much heavier and cerebral outing.

After expanding their fanbase, Underoath took full control of their vision for this album. The difference between Safety’s single “Reinventing Your Exit” and Define’s “Writing on the Walls” is night and day. Besides the dissonant textures and punishing low end, Chamberlain diversified his harsh vocals with overbearing bellows and anxious wails. Underoath managed to feed Norma Jean’s skronky, chaotic metalcore sound through a filter of expansive, hypnotic passages and a dash of melody. It’s that daring diversity that makes this record so indispensable within the “mall screamo” umbrella.

Even Aaron Gillespie’s singing takes on a harsher cadence—less hooky and more emotive. His drumming also takes on a more bodacious form, as shown by the iconic double-bass roll at the beginning of “Moving for the Sake of Motion.” In fact, Underoath fired their producer at the time for suggesting they take that drum roll out of the song—another example of these guys going against the grain. When the industry pushed them to play it safe again, they went the opposite way and wrote some of their most intense songs ever.

Keyboardist Chris Dudley took on more of a sound design role for Define. The depth of his contributions permeate the album, inconspicuously filling every sonic crevice and giving Define its power. He’s a key part of “Sálmarnir” and “Casting Such a Thin Shadow” transcending the usual instrumental interlude. Both songs not only complete the album’s ever-flowing, conceptual feel, but create immersive, potent soundscapes. The latter goes full post-rock, developing glacial chords and explosive drums over dancing arpeggios, but it wouldn’t have this impact without Dudley’s synthetic support.

Define the Great Line certainly has the makings of a musical monument, but not at the expense of frenetic intensity. Opener “In Regards to Myself” goes straight for the jugular with a nasty, discordant riff, and it really never lets up until it glitches out and makes way for “A Moment Suspended in Time.” One of the friendlier tracks on the record, Aaron’s singing here gets more time to shine. It also shows how much guitarists Timothy McTague and James Smith and bassist Grant Brandell can bring to the table. Their ability to work leads and layers into more spacious passages remains just as engaging as their savage hardcore attack.

Though Underoath now distances themselves from Christianity, this album’s impact on Christian music remains palpable. Considering the band’s roots in the spirit-filled hardcore scene of the late ‘90s, Define has a much more nuanced take on faith. Where old Underoath wrote pro-life anthems, cuts like “There Could Be Nothing After This” grapple with inner struggle much more relatably: “We’re nothing but hollow vessels/ In search of what makes us alive.”

To fit inside your mold/ Would be to sell myself short, Chamberlain screams at the start of “You’re Ever So Inviting.” This line has a real-life connotation for Underoath, in that Define succeeds because it defies expectations. The album ticks so many boxes that classifying it as simply metalcore, screamo or post-hardcore seems reductive. The album’s lyrical themes of soul-searching and wanderings pairs well with the number of styles Define juggles. “Returning Empty Handed” almost feels like stream-of-consciousness as it progresses from tumultuous mathcore to soaring post-metal, yet the transitions remain deliberate and precise.

Dynamic extremes never feel out of place on Define, because Underoath’s songwriting chops excel at bridging stylistic gaps. The ferocious assault of “Everyone Looks So Good from Here” would sound entirely disconnected from the contemplative, slow-burning closer “To Whom It May Concern” if not for that conceptual throughline. Instead of throwing a bunch of styles together, Underoath knows when to gun the metalcore throttle and when to marinate on the minutiae of their musicality. This is why Define can feature some of the band’s heaviest songs as well as its most imaginative.

Wash away what they thought of you/ And press on, press on” … these parting words not only encapsulate the album’s harrowing, yet hopeful lyrics, but also the importance of this album to Underoath and alternative music in the ‘00s. Instead of worrying about whether Christian bookstores would stock their album, or if a seven-minute closer with dreary singing would alienate the MySpace crowd, these guys pulled out all stops and made a truly incredible album. Fans can argue for personal favorites all they want, but Define the Great Line is the moment Underoath really started believing in themselves.

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