Life on the road may seem like an escape, but for awakebutstillinbed’s Shannon Taylor, in between sweaty gigs is ceaseless asphalt upon which to project one’s own disillusionment. “All the things I used to love before/How come they don’t feel like anything anymore?,” Taylor wonders on the San Jose emo band’s second album, chaos takes the wheel and i am a passenger, spending yet another night sleeping on the floor in a strange city. After years of failed starts in various bands around the Bay Area punk scene, Taylor found herself living what was once her dream with the success of awakebutstillinbed’s debut album, 2018’s what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you, but discovered the complicated truth that achieving her goals could only stave off depression for so long. The emo epics on chaos aim a floodlight at Taylor’s inner demons, channeling diaristic despair over riffs that zoom by like yellow highway lines under passing headlights.
As Taylor journeys ahead, numbed by her neverending itinerary, she meets shadowy characters who magnify her sense of estrangement. On “airport,” she recounts her life story to a stranger on an airplane, feeling an uncanny detachment from the drunken adolescent she used to be: “I couldn’t connect to the person I was describing/As if I, long ago, wasn’t me.” When she plays a show, the people she encounters are a balm, until they’re just another person to lose: “clearview” opens during a tour date in Missouri, where Taylor meets a fan who soon after passes away. She mourns by taking this tragedy with her as she performs: “Every chord I strum/You'll always be there.”
The band’s raw, expository lyrics are accompanied by a gnarlier sound. On last year’s split EP with Ohio screamo band For Your Health, Taylor opened with a screeching cry, and her voice only got harsher from there. On chaos awakebutstillinbed push even further into the red, carving scorched-earth melodies through Taylor’s battered bleats. The band’s original lineup—save for bassist Ally Garcia, who gets a quick shoutout on opener “bloodline”—worked with producer Joe Reinhardt (Hop Along, Algernon Cadwallader) and engineer Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Joyce Manor) to build towering catharsis around Taylor’s words. The sprightly, chiming guitar tones of their debut are largely gone, replaced by dense walls of distortion and clear-eyed finger-picked guitar. Taylor too leans into the darkness; her clean vocals always threaten to crack open into a piercing howl.
The band’s amplified sound comes to a head on the eight-minute “road,” the album’s closest thing to a mission statement. Over some of Taylor’s most visually evocative lyrics—“The pavement bathed in the winter’s light/ Betrays an unobstructed line of sight”—the band builds to a feverish peak, guitar refrains lapsing into silence then returning with twice the ferocity. But the song’s secret weapon is its percussion, picking up speed almost imperceptibly until the song takes flight. When the instrumentation slows to a near-stop halfway through, the song changes its tenor from anguish to something like hard-earned hope: “This is what I want,” Taylor says over and over, convincing herself of her desire to continue with her career as much as her audience.
It might be helpful to reframe Taylor’s pain as creative destruction. “bloodline” echoes her last album’s self-effacing title—“Do the people I care about care about me/Or do they see what I see?”—and by the end, it transforms into a life-affirming march forward: “Open your eyes/This is your life,” she sings, backed by a chorus of friends and bandmates. It’s an empowering cry, one that beckons towards inner reflection. awakebutstillinbed learned the hard way that wherever you go, you take yourself; Taylor seems finally ready to step away from the stage and meet that person head-on.
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