Pre-emptive apologies to any past generation scene kids who locked eyes with their future beloved or found the inner courage to forgive their father at the center of a Killswitch Engage pit—a more meaningful melodic mosh was just around the corner.
Don’t get me wrong. Anyone with a wrist to pump up and down knows that mid-2000s melodic metalcore fucking rules, with Swedish-style riffing and vocalists that smuggle pilfered Coheed and Cambria-style choruses under death growls. Second-wave melocore groups like Atreyu and Bullet For My Valentine are almost certainly next up on the revival circuit now that nu metal has finally returned to the sewer.
But, also, let’s be real. When All That Remains or whoever add shiny twin interval harmonies to their dual lead guitar parts, it isn’t in search of a more complex emotional palette. What those dudes are chasing is larger-than-life arena pomp, reconnecting a genre born in YMCA basements to a hard rock lineage that doesn’t actually exist. The canniest melocore bands have scored a permanent opening slot whenever Iron Maiden hits the MassMutual Center.
So what happens when a band forgoes all that rock ’n’ roll elevation, instead merging those aforementioned Swedish riffs (not so much the Cambria choruses) with DIY punk’s ethos of communal catharsis? In the case of Hamilton, Ontario’s Counterparts, you get a fanbase so earnestly devoted that when they learned the band’s latest single was about lead singer Brendan Murphy’s ailing cat, his DMs flooded with empathy, and an emergency GoFundMe for vet bills exceeded its goal in a single day.
For new listeners hoping to understand the community this extraordinary band has built, the first best evidence is the incessant, impassioned swell of their sound. Unlike traditional metalcore songs, which can sometimes be dismissed as three-minute journeys to a mosh part, the free floating melodiousness deployed by Counterparts ensures our passions alway remain inflamed en route to—and are ultimately united in—whatever sick breakdown awaits. Detached from the corny pop structures and bombastic uplift of stadium melocore, who would have thought 5-7-8 chug riffs could encompass such multivariate emotional shading?
All the more remarkable: the paragraph above applies equally to the complete, 12-year Counterparts discography! Stylistic consistency is quite the rare accomplishment in today’s upwardly mobile metalcore world, and Murphy knows it.
“We’re on album fucking, what, seven? The crossover alt-metal record, that’s a third album thing. It’s too late,” he deadpans over Zoom before clarifying his intentions. “Converge, Every Time I Die—that’s the model. Maybe they’re not selling out arenas. But they have good shows everywhere they go because they don’t alienate their fans. The same band on each album—refining their craft.”
Murphy’s selling himself short, though. Not only is his sharp, strangled bark the only consistent instrument in a constantly revolving lineup (which just recently saw the return of its original guitarists after a six-year absence), Counterparts didn’t produce the such a beloved discography by shirking evolution. Start from the beginning, and in the album-to-album journey charted by Murphy’s imagistic, often astoundingly esoteric lyrics you’ll find that pleasure rare to any genre: a lead singer developing a totally unique, holistic emotional language in tandem with their band.
Is Murphy embarrassed by Counterparts’ first album, as some artists are of their early material? “To an extent. But I was 19. It should have been so, so much worse,” he says. “I’m literally leaving the studio to go to graduation, going home, taking my gown off, and then back to whatever nonsense I was screaming.”
Nonsense might be overstating it. Though the lyrical positivity of Counterparts debut renders it the happy-go-lucky outlier of their dour discography, Prophets’ hopeful outlook is really only mortifying in retrospect. Since plugging most teenage metalcore debuts into Genius is generally an “only if you dare” proposition, it’s actually pretty impressive. There are TWO respectful breakup songs! One track even quotes Walt Whitman!
In reductive terms, Prophets finds Murphy in his Pure Heroine bag—ascending a generational pulpit and claiming a reflective wisdom beyond his years. The vocalist speaks alternatively to and for the misfit peer group he assembled in Hamilton’s mosh scene, and on the title track explicitly positions himself as a model for how they can all be “prophets in the making.” Though that messianic self-regard would turn rancid in only an album’s time, as a document of Murphy’s formative attachment to hardcore’s expressive potential, Prophets remains evergreen.
“This was before my mental health problems really came to light, so a lot of it I’m like ‘Stuff sucks, but we’re gonna be okay,” Murphy says. “Every record after that, by contrast, it’s like ‘Kill me immediately please.’”
Prophets remains an uplifting, optimistic album recommendable to any downtrodden youth, with the added bonus of some tantalizing midwest emo-isms in the margins. Tracks like “Goodbye Megaton,” ”Digression,” and “Only Anchors” boast nimble, bittersweet guitar lines that amplify the passionate fuzz-pedal surges that follow. I nearly ask Murphy if he’s an Algernon Cadwallader fan, but then he says this of Prophets: “Sonically, I don’t really fuck with it. Those twinkly parts sound fucking weird as hell.”
“I am no longer the prophet I once claimed to be!” Murphy howls on “I Am No One,” setting two simultaneous standards that will remain constant from this point on: intertextual referentiality and abject misery. At this point in the catalog, you begin to realize that— like many great bands— the Counterparts discography breaks down into “We” albums, where the energy is externally directed, and “I” albums, where it’s more personal and internal. Prophets was the former. The Current Will Carry Us is very much the latter.
Even so, the passage of time hasn’t made this bitter pill sophomore effort much easier to swallow. The rejection of communal uplift is one thing. It’s amusing to hear from Murpny, for instance, that the savage breakdown of later day setlist favorite “The Disconnect” (“I HATE THE WORLD AND I HATE MYSELF”) was once a bitter line in the sand for Counterparts’ positive hardcore fanbase. But I must say that, in Murphy’s first attempt at chronicling inner pain, the young man lost his grip on broader lyrical resonance. The vocalist would never again sound so defensive and uncertain— as though unaware that misery might be rendered in terms as communal as optimism. If you open a track screaming “WHY DO I NEED TO JUSTIFY MY OPINION,” don’t be shocked when the pit feels a similar lack of motivation.
“A lot of people who had been close to me suddenly decided hardcore was childish. It really bummed me out, like ‘this was what I thought we were all gonna do with our lives.” Murphy recalls of the emotional abandonment that informed The Current. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck am I? Why was anyone listening to me in the first place? Jesus fucking Christ! I’m 19 and I scream for a living!’”
More than any other record in the Counterparts catalog, The Current really benefits from knowing its historical context: the teenage prophet who has lost his flock. Keep that in mind and tracks like “Jumping Ship” and “The Constant” retain a certain value as necessary temper tantrums, with Murphy belligerently committing to the culture he loves when all available evidence was pointing him elsewhere.
As though informed by the standoffish lyrics, the record is sludgy and amelodic without the saving grace of additional heaviness. The drums are frequently mixed so close to the guitars that both instruments cancel each other out. According to Murphy, this was somewhat intentional. After the band was rushed into the studio by Victory Records, they decided that having “no production at all might be kinda cool.”
We’ve reached it—beloved fan favorite, U.S. breakthrough, and emo scene crossover all in one. And indeed, Counterparts as we know them today really do begin here. No more sonic complaints henceforth—levels god Will Putney has remained behind the boards ever since—and with tracks like “Decay,” we hear the band finally figuring out how to seamlessly incorporate ambient textures and chorused guitars as respites from furious chugging. Blessedly gone as well is the Fat Wreck Chords-style skate punk drumming. (Drummer Kelly Bilan, present on this record and its follow-up only, replaced Ryan Juntilla; Bilan was booted from the band for domestic assault in 2016.)
But all that pales in comparison to one innovation: Brendan Murphy’s discovery of poetry.
“This was the first time. Rather than be like, ‘this bad thing happened, here’s a song about that,” I realized people are only gonna relate if I drench the specifics in ambiguity.” Murphy recalls. His formative lyrical inspiration? Perhaps surprisingly: chain-compressed synthpoppers Purity Ring.
“The way Megan James used all that body imagery was incredibly impactful,” he explains. “It made the feelings she was connecting to more vivid by virtue of being, just like, really gross. What’s nastier than our bodies?
Murphy’s endless physicalization of his emotional state is the singular constant that dependably sets his words apart—a shorthand so enveloping it eventually turns back on the very act of, y’know, being a hardcore vocalist. In Counterparts songs, Murphy’s “lungs are [his] shields,” he is “being bled dry by [his] own conviction,” and the hurtful words of scene haters are “like rope, tied around [his] throat.”
In a way, though, The Difference Between Hell and Home is actually Counterparts’ most earthbound release—approaching everyday concerns with warm humility—which perhaps explains its bleeding-heart fandom. In terms of attitude, it’s certainly the band’s least metal album, the one with the friendliest guitars and most clearly audible vocals. The proggiest song here—multi-phased epic in miniature “Debris”—perversely applies its widened lens to the most mundane of tragedies: the death of passion in a relationship.
“I like that album, but it kinda lumped us into a scene where we didn’t belong,” Murphy says. “Somebody showed me a ‘modern emo’ list, and it had Citizen, Turnover, and us. I was like, ‘We’re the only fucking band in that group with fucking breakdowns.’”
“A calm rushes over me, as I picture my corpse.”
So begins perhaps the definitive Counterparts album, where all the singularities hinted at in prior albums finally coalesce into a certain style. I’ve always said you can measure the confidence of a metalcore band by their pre-breakdown mosh calls—perhaps the zone of most potential goofiness in all of heavy music. In the cojones department, few will ever top Murphy setting off demolition derbys in the pit with “I! HOPE! YOU! CHOKE! TO DEATH!”
“We put that out, and people were immediately like, ‘You want to choke somebody?’” he recalls. “I was like, ‘No, not literally, dummy. It’s a fucking metaphor for lying—they choke on their lie—ahhhh you don’t get it.’
In fairness to those fans, Tragedy Will Find Us is almost entirely written in metaphor. This is the album where the overwrought Murphyisms truly take their delightful hold, to the point where you could make fun of the guy if he weren’t so obviously brilliant. His “chest collapses from the weight of a fictitious ghost.” We’re instructed to “dig into [his] wounds” and “pull out a lucid dream.” A lover is cautioned to “stay safe in [Murphy’s] breath” despite the fact that, by his own admission, “[his] lips are sewn shut by [his] own indecision!” Also, for reference, his “organs are dark and miniscule compared to [hers]” (this is, of course, a break-up album).
But, for me, the most important line is the simplest: “Forgive me for who I’ve become these past few years.”
Murphy has basically shot down this theory, but I like to think of Tragedy as the final chapter in a four-album character arc. After a long period in the wilderness, the erstwhile teenage oracle has returned to reclaim his place upon the hardcore altar—once again ready to speak authoritatively for the misfit community. Except he’s no longer a prophet of positivity. No, Saint Murphy is fully reborn as a poet of pessimism, self-actualized in self-loathing, giving of his assailed body for the catharsis of his downtrodden audience. It’s all in the album title. Tragedy Will Find Us, so find comfort in doom.
This brings us to the second most important line, taken from “Tragedy”: “I’m not a mortal/ I’m a metaphor for moving forward.” Gorgeous, right?
That said, this is the worst Counterparts album cover. Murphy says it was an attempt at ripping off Sunbather.
This is the best Counterparts album cover. The band took a photo of a cool structure they passed in Tokyo and only found out it was a public toilet after they’d plastered it on thousands of records. Them’s the breaks!
You’re Not You Anymore was—and, by some distance, remains—the band’s fastest, most aggressive release. It’s not just the dizzying speed, either. Listen to that production! The bass was already chunky as hell and yet somehow the drums have eaten it—massive, booming, world-conquering drums. It’s a testament to Putney’s studio wizardry.
At this interval, your average metalcore band would foresee press notes declaring “their heaviest album yet” and cease all creativity with the downtuning of the lowest string. What’s remarkable about YNYA is that not only did Counterparts say “fuck that,” penning bigger choruses than ever and tumbling in various notes of funky eclecticism besides (Multitracked group vocals! Distant, bottom of a well vocals! Guitar Hero whammy board shit!), their restlessness might actually make the album heavier. In this dense circle pit of sound, the group’s already estimable anthemic heft is bolstered to astronomical proportions.
“We toured Tragedy and realized, as good as those songs are, they’re almost too intelligent. Live, they were kinda boring,” Murphy explains. “It’s like, okay—people know we can deedle around on a fucking fretboard. Let’s make our shows more fun, bring on the big mosh parts and singalong shit.”
If that makes YNYA sound a little hollow compared to the thematic plumbing we’ve gotten used to…well, that’s a fair complaint! As the previous-album-referencing opening line suggests (“DISCONNECTING VEINS IN ORDER TO RELEASE MY TRAGEDY”), Murphy is going to willfully cultivate misery if he has to. Yet even here, Counterparts still found space for the most viscerally immediate track of their career. Inspired by his anger at the sexual assault of one of Murphy’s friends, “Thieves” finds him reconciling with his emotions by imagining how he might have purged it in Biblical times—when society doled out justice by “removing the arms of unrepentant thieves.”
Three B-sides—one from Tragedy, two from YNYA. “Monument,” the fan favorite, is about as close as Murphy has come to writing a song that’s literally about his corporeal complex (you guessed it, his body is the titular monument, soon to be “folded in half like the blank pages that will taunt [him] to [his] face”).
But if you ask me, the real deep cut treasure is “We Forgive”—the starkest sonic outlier of the band’s modern period. Built around a riff that strikes me as very old-school Dischord Records post-hardcore, the track is a direct response to the “Choke” controversy. This time, it’s Murphy himself who’s asphyxiating from “no practice speaking [his] sentences.”
“I was like, ‘Okay, I apologize, that was rash. I hope that it’s me who chokes, speaking without thinking like a dumbass,’” Murphy says. “And hey! The person I wrote ‘Choke’ about, we’re cool now! She and I dated again.”
When Murphy says that this is the Counterparts album that, aside from Prophets, captures him in the happiest mood, I believe him. It’s not that this is a bad album, but it feels a bit canned and directionless compared to everything prior.
“I was having a really hard time writing,” Murphy recalls, regaling me with stories of songwriting sessions that went long into the night, leaving his bandmates with nothing to do but endlessly re-record drum parts while they waited for him, “How do I make a Counterparts album without some fucking terrible shit happening to me?”
As a result, this is as “We” as Murphy’s music gets, and also as shallow. Each fist-pumping, ostentatiously melodic anthem is the self-evident product of a songwriter no longer able to use himself as a vehicle, straining for surefire ways to connect with a metal audience. I almost want to believe the record was intended as a deliberate throwback, seizing upon mass nostalgia for those crowd pleasing melocore tricks of yore. There’s no denying these are the band’s most popular songs on streaming services—impressive for a pre-pandemic record the band wasn’t actually able to extensively tour.
One can almost hear Murphy struggling with his lyrics and inspiration; Nothing Left to Love is what happens when a one-of-a-kind lyricist switches on autopilot and his lexicon begins shuffling pet themes at random. One groan-inducing stanza on “The Hands That Used to Hold” might even set some sort of hardcore record for poetic regurgitation, cycling through Murphy’s three signature images—the body, the breath, and the grave—in the space of three consecutive lines. Detached from any rooted passion, Murphy’s gothic fixations bring to mind nothing so much as the poetry of bored suburban teenagers; the lofty, death-obsessed ponderousness of it all.
Thankfully, the band didn’t drop the ball in one crucial arena—the album closer is as much a highlight as all their previous title tracks. “Nothing Left To Love” is straight up emo post-rock a la early Foxing—the first track in their catalog with no hardcore elements of any kind. It’s a great song.
Let’s start with that cat song, “Whispers of Your Death.” Like the album title suggests, Murphy had made a premature peace with the departure of his beloved Kuma, but there’s no note of that retrospective certainty. Instead, “Whispers” is present tense and desperate—the sound of a man struggling to will his feelings into a legitimate healing force. There isn’t a song in Murphy’s catalog so devoted to another individual.
“It’s my first real, well, not quite a love song, but definitely the nicest thing that I’ve ever written,” Murphy says. “There’s a lot of uncharted territory here, but at the same time, this is the record I would play for someone who has never heard our band before.”
A Eulogy for Those Still Here is the first Counterparts album without a single “We” on it, the first that leaves the band’s passionate audience as a completely implied presence. Even before the howling mosh call “I SEE NO GOD IN ME” heralds the massive breakdown at the end of “What Mirrors Might Reflect,” you can tell that Murphy’s really at war with himself. He’s leaving us out of this conflict because he’s not sure he should have ever brought us in. The vocalist has always been one for lacerating introspection, but never has his inner journey felt so freighted by real-world stakes. It’s been a decade since Murphy screamed that “HIS GREATEST FEAR IS AMOUNTING TO NOTHING” and now A Eulogy finds Murphy finally doing that mental math, adding up everything he’s directed his creative expression towards ever since.
“I tried to approach it like it was the last Counterparts record,” Murphy says. “I’m not saying it is, but it’s how I’d like to be remembered if going out is where we’re going.”
And if they do go out this way, it’ll be on a dazzling career high, with innumerable highlights. “Unwavering Vow” somehow makes the desire to murder another human entirely relatable. There’s the chorus of the title track, where we find Murphy mimicking those shiny twin interval harmonies by duetting with himself for the first time ever. “Sworn to Silence” has one of Murphy’s best body lyrics of all time: “Tear into my throat and gather for yourself the final act of charity I wasn’t fit to give!” And of course I’d be remiss not to mention “Skin Beneath,” an emo post-rock song that calls back to “Nothing Left to Love.”
And at the end of it all: “Mass Grave of Saints.” When Murphy tells me this is his favorite Counterparts song of all time I’m not inclined to quibble. All I ask is whether the song’s symbolically loaded final image—the singer standing above a coffin, watching it close—portends the end of the Counterparts story or the start of a new chapter.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m too exhausted to think about the next fucking thing. But when I look at what we accomplished with this record, I don’t think I’ll ever think ‘All right, let’s try and top this,” Murphy says. “Of course if people REALLY love it, and we’re huge now and I can pay off my credit cards, yeah, obviously, we’re never gonna break up. Melodic metalcore forever, you fucks.”