Home Music Rediscover: Breathe Carolina: Hell Is What You Make It

Rediscover: Breathe Carolina: Hell Is What You Make It

What a long way Ian Kirkpatrick has come, from producing for alt rock idols (William Beckett, Plain White Tees) to creating the smash lead single to Dua Lipa’s relentlessly popular Future Nostalgia and a likely producer on the new Lizzo album. Midway between the beginning and current stage of his career sits Breathe Carolina’s third album, Hell Is What You Make It. Like Kirkpatrick’s work on “Don’t Start Now” or “Don’t Wait Up,” the draws are obvious and the hooks are tight.

Breathe Carolina emerged around the time of Metro Station, Kill Hannah and the screamo-turned-DJ evolution of Sonny Moore. Shiny Toy Guns’ “Le Disko” or the first half of Panic! At the Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out are like predecessors to 3OH!3 and Breathe Carolina, both of whom found their space between the aggression of screamo and the club sheen of something like LMFAO. By 2011, people wanted to dance, even the emos, and moshing channels dance in its own way. Hell Is What You Make It provided a bridge for fans of both “the scene” and the digital sleaze of Kesha (see: gay guys like me).

The album welds both elements together, pitched tenors soaring above percussion that slaps like a rubber dodgeball. Earlier efforts from Breathe Carolina already possessed their key elements (punky grit, electronic elements), but Hell constructs a more obvious bridge between alt rock and electronic music.

“Wooly,” for example, is an updated version of All American Rejects’ “Gives You Hell,” vindictiveness acted out on a sweaty, crowded dance floor. Meanwhile, Kesha comparisons make sense with “They Say You Won’t Come Back,” an almost goofy synth undulating beneath David Schmitt’s tenor. Schmitt’s croons gain a bit of oomph from Kyle Even’s throat screams.

It is important to remember that a title like Hell Is What You Make It applies to the individual, personal terror that you can be in the world. The line “Lies spread/ Like your legs did” interrupts the smooth, till-that-point reasonable anger of “Take It Back,” and detracts from much more poignant depictions of a relationship soured: “We were golden/ Now it’s just melted down and sold.” Two songs earlier, “Waiting” arrives as a Robyn-via-EDM song, so it could be perfect, but it’s about murder, a recurring theme in their music that you can’t really be surprised at. Truly, what’s overall more surprising is that for how bro-esque the concept is, Hell… aged comparatively better, thematically at least, than something like “Don’t Trust Me.”

It’s a bit more rubbery and less polished than the metallic clangor of today’s pop hits, but you can hear Hell Is What You Make It-type romps reemerging in today’s pop landscapes. The deep, rumbling percussion of a song like “Blackout,” a perfect club banger, is matched in the depths of Charli XCX’s “Gone,” while the lighter, shimmering synths of “Take It Back” foreshadows, of all things, Lindsay Lohan’s 2020 comeback single. Before Charli or Sia swung from light fixtures, “Last Night (Vegas)” delivered a bro equivalent of such antics. And of course, a song like ericdoa and glaive’s “fuck this town” borrows heavily from a sound that truly draws back to Taking Back Sunday. In the journey from TBS to glaive, Breathe Carolina sit almost in the middle, like a warning of what was to come a decade later, and also what qualities will always last.

Almost everyone’s a little bit emo, a little bit problematic and tacky, and most of us like to dance (the last fact means that people typically will enjoy Kirkpatrick’s work as well) – even if one can’t enjoy everything Hell Is What You Make It has to offer, it’s built of qualities that are timeless and reliable.

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