It's only natural that Milemarker was one of the first bands to break out of Chapel Hill in the Internet era—though "natural" might be an odd word to link with a band so obsessed with the artificial, the mechanical, and the post-human. Technology and its isolating effects were always Milemarker's great theme, and so it remains on Overseas, out this week on Lovitt Records.
It's the band's first new album in eleven years, and when its comeback tour concludes at Cat's Cradle Back Room on Saturday, newcomers might wonder whether they've time-traveled to 1989, 1999, or 2099. But for old-school local-music heads, it'll inevitably be a trip down memory lane, even though Milemarker sounds surprisingly energized in the present.
When people talk about nineties Chapel Hill indie rock, they usually mean the early years—Superchunk, Archers of Loaf, Polvo. But, believe it or not, the city did keep producing bands throughout the decade. One of the most important and least remembered is Hellbender, a mid-nineties trio that split the difference between its hometown slacker rock and the more svelte, striving strains of West Coast emo bands like Jawbreaker.
Hellbender's relaxed sneer, pretentious proclivities, and depressive furor sound period-perfect today. Archers sniped at needy scenesters and subpar bands, and Pavement took shots at Smashing Pumpkins, but these guys raised indie snobbery to another level with "Song About Some Girls," a pastiche of good-times beer-commercial rock that was as catchy as the real thing. But this was the exception to the rule. Usually, Hellbender trafficked in dark-hued, light-seamed songs with serious, disaffected lyrics that dripped Bukowski. The band left behind a handful of terrific singles and LPs (dig up swan song Con Limón) before dispersing in different directions that all transcended its humble origins.
Singer and guitarist Wells Tower went on to become a pretty famous fiction writer (Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), carrying on the small-town Southern terroir of the Hellbender songs he penned. Drummer Harrison Haynes became a prominent Triangle visual artist and developed the dancey undercurrents of his rock drumming with the influential Brooklyn art-punk band Les Savy Fav. In 1997, singer and bassist Al Burian formed Milemarker with Dave Laney and Ben Davis. They retained Hellbender's emocore foundation, centered on Burian's gruff, sonorous shout and distinct lyrical style—incendiary, incantatory, pun-laden, technophobic—and built on it in bold, startling ways.
Milemarker's roughshod early albums remain my nostalgic favorites. There wasn't much in Chapel Hill at the time like Future Isms, where primitive electronics and claustrophobic noise balanced spacious post-rock. "Robotussin" is a dead ringer for Slint's "Breadcrumb Trail," sparse and shambling, with mumbled lyrics about drinking cough syrup and wandering around Harris Teeter in Chapel Hill. Without sacrificing messy emotion—"You've gotta make allowances for the human factor," as Burian sang on Non Plus Ultra—Milemarker caught a Y2K current from the airwaves and funneled it into clangorous, potent rock music.
That intuition was consummated in 2000, when Milemarker released Frigid Forms Sell via Lovitt and emo giant Jade Tree Records. It was an extensive reinvention; new second singer and keyboardist Roby Newton became a prominent force. With cleaner production, Milemarker's waterlogged electronics turned into hard-edged, gleaming new wave. It was a felicitous moment for such a shift, at the front of the early-aughts dance-punk boom. Vocoder broadsides and aggressive synth patterns tangled with crashing, serrated rock.
The latter then came to the fore on 2005's metal-tinged Ominosity, bogged down by double drummers and string arrangements. The band petered out afterward, its membership scattered through Chicago and Germany. Dave Laney started Auxes, a hard-rocking band reminiscent of his and Burian's Milemarker side project, Challenger. Burian continued the writing and zine-making for which he's as well known in some circles as he is for music.
The reformed version of the band features Burian, Laney, keyboardist and singer Lena Kilkka, and drummer Ezra Cole. Overseas recombines Milemarker's past incarnations while developing things that were latent before. With its needling yet sleek post-punk guitars coursing with flanger, chorus, and delay effects and its retro-computerized accoutrements, more redolent of vocoders and talk boxes than modern tech, the album evokes a winning collision of Les Savy Fav and cult favorites Trans Am.
"Conditional Love" opens Overseas like a thesis statement, its lockstep guitar blasts gradually growing covertly funky with answering squeaks, as a synth arpeggio tightens it all together like a long, thin screw. The vocoder vocals in the verses contrast Burian's naturalistic bellows in the chorus, which adds a layer of timbral tension and release to the rhythmic one.
"The Dreamer" posits Milemarker as a darkwave jam band, with almost seven minutes of spacy guitar and synth effects like stars melting and sliding down the sky. And "Blue Flag" has some great examples of Burian's instantly recognizable singing style, a rhythmic bellow punctuated by hoarse, distended shouts.
Fleeting bouts of silliness from Milemarker aren't new, though you might not expect them from a band styled so gravely. Even as a fan of Frigid Forms Sell, which Lovitt reissued this year, I always had to laugh at the deadly seriousness with which Newton delivered the line, "Turn on the microwave and defrost the world." There are a couple of such moments on Overseas: "I'm super duper with my super computer" probably didn't need to be sung once, let alone chanted repeatedly, and "Untamed Ocean," though a good cut overall, sounds uncomfortably like a krautrock Motörhead at times.
But the highs far outnumber the lows. Locals will be especially interested in "Carrboro," a cynical little number that must have been born on the Weaver Street Market lawn. "At the co-op the water is oxidized and reasonably priced," Burian sings, warning us not to be fooled by "simulacra," an echt-Milemarker word if ever one was.
Of course, Milemarker has always been cunning with simulacra of its own. It continues to seek the real through the artificial on a reunion record, nostalgically redolent of the past and darkly besotted with the future, which evens out into something more vital and contemporary than we'd any reason to expect.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Lost Highway"