Continuing with the series that our own Jason Blevins and Dave Jackson have done here for TPL Culture, I wanted to share my thoughts on the album that changed my life. You can find Jason’s here and Dave’s here, they’re great reads.

When writing about music that has defined, shaped, and even saved our lives, I think we are often drawn to the music we grew up with. Both in my personal life and as a musician, I am still heavily influenced by the music I swarmed to consume in the mid to late 90’s: Green Day, Blink 182, Rancid, Saves the Day, and New Found Glory amongst others. A strong influence of punk music with variations of pop punk and emo mixed in. It was the exact match to my personality as a kid: high energy, questioning authority, being reckless often for the sheer sake of fun and excitement, often not caring to consider the consequences of my actions. Did I choose the music because of how it related to me, or did the music shape me subconsciously into who I was?

Then came the early to mid 2000’s wave of emo and hardcore: Underoath, Senses Fail, Thrice, Taking Back Sunday, Brand New, and Thursday just to name a few. Again, an interesting discussion of which occurred more: was I drawn to the music because of how it related to who I was, or did the music more so shape me? Between eight grade and my freshman year of high school, I began to suffer from depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, this was not often talked about back then the way it is today. Now, thanks to social media and millions of brave souls who are now willing to have an open conversation about such things, there is much more open communication. I was often dismissed as just “being a teenager” and essentially left to “suck it up”. I’m not here to explain the circumstances or struggles I went through.

I’m happy to talk about it with anyone if you have gone or are going through the same thing. Or anything. Please. Reach out. It’s important. You are not alone.

Regardless, I did the best I could, and the aforementioned bands were the only people who seemed to be telling me, or better yet, singing (and screaming) to me that they were going through similar things. I wouldn’t say they necessarily told me it was okay or that it would get better, but at least I knew I wasn’t alone. Strength in numbers was no longer just some phrase, it was a lifestyle. That strength came from friends, marching band, the local music scene, and much more. It truly allowed me to come out of my shell and begin to truly exist.

Unfortunately, even having a plethora of music I had identified as relatable to the struggles of my mid to late teens, I continued to struggle with my depression and anxiety into the mid to late 2000’s as I went on to college. At this point I attempted a few different methods of coping with my issues, some more practical and accepted than others. I am not one to often identify with traditional means and dealing with my issues proved to be no different. Therapy and counseling were not for me, and while substances were temporary solutions, I longed for stability.

Music was my outlet from basically 2002 onward and was the only thing that kept me going in college. I began playing in bands in 2004 and joined marching band/indoor percussion the same year. The combination of the two gave me purpose, structure, and most importantly at the time for me, distraction. My entire life has been about keeping my plate full so that I am not consumed by my thoughts that occur when I am alone and doing nothing. Music allowed me to make friends, become a leader, and release my energy and emotions in one of the most powerful ways possible. I’m sure this is the case for many people, that’s why music is such a universal language and is so powerful in uniting people of all walks of life.

That’s where the album that changed my life came in…

Like I said at the start, I think most people would often draw to music from much earlier on in their life when speaking of its impact on them. Four Year Strong is not my favorite band. Rise or Die Trying is not my favorite album. Top 5 in both aspects for sure, but that is not the point here. The point is the impact that it had. Four Year Strong is commonly referred to as “Easycore”: a mix of pop-punk and hardcore along the lines of Set Your Goals, New Found Glory, and A Day to Remember to name a few. Anyone who knows me knows I was immediately entrenched in the Easycore movement. I turned all my friends onto it immediately, played in bands that emulated the sound in our own way, and attended every show possible to stand amongst friends and participate in cult like group chants.

Start The Takeover!

Rise or Die Trying begins with a warning: sirens going off in the background amongst bells ringing, giving a calm before the storm reminiscent of the North and the Unsullied staring down the Lannister forces as the bells of Kings Landing rang right before Daenerys Targaryen laid waste to the city via dragon fire. Oh, by the way, spoiler alert!

“The Takeover”

start the takeover
this is your last warning
our time has come and we’re going straight on till morning
just turn up our soundtrack
and we’ll keep singing out loud
we’re going straight on till morning
start the takeover

The album continues forward with a total of 11 tracks of pure energy (14 if you have the Deluxe version), it never takes a break, never lets you breathe, keeping you busy the entire time, just like I needed to be. The difference was that to this point, for most of my life listening to music there was often so much pain, angst, and emotion in the music I listened to. I related to that. I connected to that.

This was different. When I listened to Rise or Die Trying, I wasn’t listening to it because it felt the way I did. To the contrary, the album was how I wanted to feel and what I needed to hear. It had this bright, bouncy, optimism that I was so hungry for. Dual vocals in perfect harmony over bright punchy riffs, powerful fast and heavy drums, and a poppy lead synth line often driving forward the melody. The first time I listened I was still trying to wrap my head around what I had stumbled across, and I never really was able to recover before I was hit by the fourth track on the album…

“Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die”

No, The Sandlot didn’t change my life. Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die did however. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. I’m not here to tell you Four Year Strong reinvented the wheel or anything. However, at the time, I was still fairly young and a lot of the elements they implemented into their music were new to me for the most part. Heroes was no different. A big open drum groove and guitar intro quickly is vanquished by a rapid fire double bass sixteenth notes that lead into what I can only describe as a “hardcore march” of sorts. Following a simple verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure for the first half of the song, it’s the bridge where my world ultimately was flipped on its head.

My own shot of Four Year Strong performing Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die in Philly in 2014

Sad enough to say that
Alone I could barely light a match
But together we can burn this place down.
Sorry about the mess
But when we team up, team up
We always seem to bring this place to the ground

Until that point, I had never wanted to just hug all my friends as hard as possible and also fight an entire group of strangers for fun. I’m aware that in hindsight, the concept of friendship in Easycore has become a running joke, and rightfully so. However, at the time, everything was so new, and I hadn’t really listened to anything that gave me this “call to arms” kind of feeling. It not only made me feel like I could be positive, strong, and achieve on a personal level, but it gave me this feeling of empowerment for my entire group of friends and family as well. It may seem crazy, but it was a very real feeling at the time.

My band Kids These Days covering Four Year Strong – Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die

Maniac (R.O.D.)

One of the only tracks on the album that doesn’t have a major key/poppy vibe to the start, it is a fitting closer to the album. Maniac comes in with a two-step intro immediately diving into a very punk, gallop kind of feel. The chorus of the song is again, another “call to arms” sort of moment, in a huge half-time breakdown kind of feel, not often used for a chorus, but perfectly tuned to the mood of the song.

So let me tell you it’s cold out there at the top of the world
You’re left alone and scared with nothing to hold
You’re beaten black and blue when you could have been gold
So let me tell you it’s cold out there at the top of the world
Here at the top of the world.

I’ve always heard that the good die young
There’s little time left to prove them wrong
You burned the bridge that you walked here on
Here at the top of the world.

Again, the use of group chants creates this feeling that it’s “us against the world”, and when I listen to this song still to this day, my thought is always “the world doesn’t stand a f***ing chance”. Then, once again, the bridge just takes the song in an entirely different direction and begins to lead the army. Your army.

Here at the top of the world
Here at the top of the world

Rise or die
Here at the top of the world
Rise or die
Here at the top of the world

My own shot of Four Year Strong performing Maniac (R.O.D.) in Philly in 2014

It’s a weird combination of emotions looking back at how this album changed my life. It’s funny in a way, thinking of how Easycore basically flamed out and became so “memeable” and created so many jokes about local scenes. I embrace the sort of extinction that occurred and welcome all the jokes and what not that have come of it. However, I still regularly listen to many of the bands of this era and a lot of these albums are still some of my all-time favorites.

More importantly than any of that though is the lasting impact on me as a person. These albums, Rise or Die Trying most importantly, shifted me from often feeling sad and hopeless and listening to music that related to the feeling but provided little comfort or hope for change, to someone who found an outlet that provided hope, optimism, and a sense of camaraderie, friendship, and strength.

It’s fitting that despite the drop-off from the Easycore genre, Four Year Strong is still around today, still writing new music and playing these classics too. For me to take away these foundations of my current persona from them and to know they have preached and practiced the same and have outlasted many of the others who attempted the same, just further strengthens my connection and reassurance in the message I took and obtained.

Rise Or Die Trying shaped my drumming style, influenced the bands I would play in and have so many unforgettable experiences with, and help me make an essential shift in my overall mindset day to day that cannot be understated. It helped me to understand how powerful music truly could be. I went from simply listening and relating to people who wrote about similar things to how I felt, to using a message being sent as motivation and taking action. Truly, Rise Or Die Trying was a call to arms for the rest of my life.