Underoath’s ‘Define The Great Line’: A Retrospective


Released: June 20th, 2006 (Tooth & Nail/Solid State)

It could be argued that truly great albums are often cyclical in nature. Narrative themes weave throughout one another; lyrics constantly reflect and distort their own meanings across differing phrases; individual songs combine to form an intricate, cohesive pattern outside of their own singular structure, gaining greater depth as part of the larger whole; the last track fades off into the background, only to bleed subtly back into the first, allowing the listener to leave the album on repeat in perpetuity, coming full circle over and over and over again.

To understand the importance of ‘Define The Great Line’ — the fifth album by (at the time) Christian metalcore titans Underoath — it becomes necessary to explore the band’s history and evolution, in order to fully grasp the album’s position within the rapidly changing musical landscape that was the mid-2000’s.

There’s a profound sense of purpose to the harrowing scream discharged by vocalist Spencer Chamberlain in the first few seconds of the bludgeoning opening track, ‘In Regards To Myself’, which pleads with the listener to “Wake up! Wake up! This is not a test!” And in an often overlooked and prophetic twist, the song ends with the same vocal line and gut-wrenching delivery: “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! And step outside your box.” This link reveals two important themes, namely ‘faith‘ and ‘departure‘, and these themes will become crucial to resolving the true scope of Underoath’s greatness.

Despite their most well-known release — the hugely successful, post-hardcore classic ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ — being released two year’s prior in 2004, Underoath already had three full-length albums under their belt, having formed in Ocala, Florida by then vocalist Dallas Taylor (who’d later go on to form Maylene & The Sons Of Disaster) and guitarist Luke Morton in 1997.

It’s easiest to delineate Underoath’s career into two distinct halves: pre-Chamberlain and post-Chamberlain, who joined the band in 2003 after Taylor was asked to leave the band, right before the band entered the studio to work on their next record. By the time of ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’s release, only half of the current sextet had performed on the band’s previous record, ‘The Changing Of Times’ (lead guitarist Timothy McTague, drummer/clean vocalist Aaron Gillespie, and keyboardist Christopher Dudley), and only Gillespie remained as part of the band’s original line-up, which would change come his departure in April of 2010.

The mid-2000’s represented a curious point in musical history, where the aggression and catharsis of punk, hardcore and metal was being infused with the commercial choruses and pop sensibilities of the mainstream. Band’s like Thrice, Silverstein, Thursday and Alexisonfire had already achieved their own versions of success with similar formulas earlier in the decade, which only served to provide fertile ground for the more polished and refined sound Underoath showcased on their fourth album, to propagate and blossom within the music underground. Returning to producer James Paul Wisner (Paramore, The Academy IsDashboard Confessional), who had helmed all of the group’s previous records, Underoath moved further into a melodic, emotional post-hardcore direction with ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ and the album was a veritable break-out success. To date, the album has been certified Gold within the U.S., selling over 1.4 million copies, and these achievements most certainly helped to propel Underoath forward as a crowd-pulling, headline act for years to come.

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Interestingly, it’s exactly this level of commercial, crossover success which marks the progression and evolution of Underoath’s later albums as all the more striking. Singles like ‘It’s Dangerous Business Walking Out Your Front Door’ and ‘Reinventing Your Exit’ became Myspace page signatures and rallying cries for the disenfranchised, youth hoards that would gravitate in mass to the ‘emo-pop’ or ‘screamo’ genre tags of the time. Yet there was very little within the ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ that hinted at the carnal, discordant and pummelling juggernaut to come.

However, precursors to this sonic development can be found by looking at Chamberlain’s previous outfit, Floridian metalcore group This Runs Through, and their penchant for intricate melodies, spoken word sections and rhythm-focused breakdowns, reminiscent of staple acts like Hopesfall, Misery Signals and the criminally-underrated 7 Angels 7 Plagues. In fact, the special deluxe edition of ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ also includes a bonus track entitled ‘I’ve Got Ten Friends and a Crowbar That Says You Ain’t Gonna Do Jack’, which would appear on various compilations and a later vinyl release of the record. This track is noticeable for two reasons: first, the presence of Chamberlain’s more distinct, guttural vocal range firmly integrated within Underoath’s sonic framework; and second, the group showcasing a preference for dissonant, staccato guitar riffs.

The first real taste of ‘Define The Great Line’ came two weeks prior to its release in the form of the single ‘Writing On The Walls’: a cacophonous exercise in modern metalcore, in the vein of scene heroes like Botch and label mates Norma Jean. This track awarded a Grammy-nominated music video and helped to usher in one of the most drastic stylistic changes in Underoath’s entire career.

Define The Great Line’ would go on to debut at #2 on the Billboard 200 charts with nearly 100,000 copies sold in its first week; hitting sales levels that were simply unprecedented within underground heavy music circles, let alone from a band so profoundly and humbly Christian. Fans were enamoured and infatuated with Underoath’s darker, more visceral sound, while most critics were stupefied by the band’s avant-garde left turns, with Aaron Burgess from Alternative Press describing that “the end result is transcendent,” and that this album “sounds like a group-therapy session put to tape.”

Thematically, the notion of departure was evident in both the musical direction and lyrical content of ‘Define The Great Line’. When asked specifically about the album’s title, keyboardist and programmer, Chris Dudley, provided this explanation:

“Defining that line for yourself between becoming the man or the woman that you want to be, and the man or the woman other people want you to be.”

For Underoath, ‘Define The Great Line’ had come to represent a firm line of demarcation within their own career; there would be the time before this album and all that came after it. Choosing to step outside their own box, the group went with the production team of Matt Goldman (As Cities Burn, The Chariot, Anberlin) and Adam Dutkiewicz (Killswitch EngageAugust Burns Red, Parkway Drive) over Wisner, to achieve a sound that spoke more to the raw and primal energy of their grand live shows. While the record’s first half featured tracks built firmly off strong choruses and the ‘honey and vinegar’ relationship between Gillespie’s serenade and Chamberlain’s throat shredding antics (like the soaring textures of ‘A Moment Suspended in Time’ and future single ‘You’re Ever So Inviting’), the album’s mid-section provided plenty of moments for Underoath to branch right out and diversify their sonic range.

On the elegiac and ambient electronic instrumental ‘Sálmarnir’ (the Icelandic word for ‘Psalm’), a Bible passage is read aloud in Russian, asking worshippers to “Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.” Guitarists McTague (lead) and James Smith (rhythm) take a brief respite from their punishing, dissonant attack to craft a beautifully resonant, droning post-metal epic on ‘Casting Such a Thin Shadow’ — a track which features the use of e-bow effects, and sounds like it could have easily featured on an ISIS classic like ‘Panopticon’ or ‘Oceanic’.

Arriving at perhaps the album’s standout moment, the hyper-kinetic ‘Moving for the Sake of Motion’: a fierce and suffocating barrage of anguish, which rips into the eardrums with a fusillade of drums, crashing waves of austere guitar, and Chamberlain yelling to “Brace yourself!” while Gillespie wails “Oh my God!”, in a perfect execution of stop-start dynamics. The track’s bridge and crescendo builds and builds off Gillespie’s and Chamberlain’s overlayed vocals, all before collapsing under its own weight and dissolving into a barrelling avalanche of roaring screams and growls. The experimentation on ‘Define The Great Line’ served to showcase the full breadth of Underoath’s musicianship: Gillespie’s drumming came off as positively inhuman, punctuating each track perfectly and providing a strong rhythmic backbone for McTague, Smith and bassist Grant Brandell to weave an intricate web of sonic chaos around Chamberlain’s man-possessed vocal performance and Gillespie’s melodic counterpoints.

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Lyrically, the major overarching concept on ‘Define The Great Line’ can be seen as one of faith; an existential crisis that loomed over Chamberlain and the group, as the vocalist battled with depression, anxiety, intra-personal relationships and crippling substance abuse. Much of which would later become the crux of 2008’s ‘Lost In The Sound Of Separation‘. Now, the consequences of these are all well documented, as was the band’s brief “break up” in 2006 while on Warped Tour, and one only has to take cues from the album’s song titles, as compass needles for the listener’s orientation.

Exploring his relationship with God, ‘Moving for the Sake of Motion’ finds Chamberlain manifesting that sense of apprehension and confusion through literal metaphors, describing “That’s the problem/We never speak to Him/Our closing walls have caged us in,” before dialling up a sense of schizophrenic dizziness with panned left-right vocals between himself and Gillespie. This is further emphasised by lines like “Don’t stop breathing/The walls have just begun to spin.” This theme gets further development in ‘Writing on the Walls’ and ‘Everyone Looks So Good from Here’, where Chamberlain’s crushing realisation that “We walk alone, back home” is met by a rush of clarity that only pulls him further under: “I’ve been swallowed up alive/Shut down/Building from the inside out/I can finally walk through the walls.” For the pummelling mid-section stomp that follows, with “I swear/I’ve slipped/Right through the cracks in the floor,” all but shrieked from his lungs before a seismic breakdown, a closer study reveals earlier references from Chamberlain to personal depth and physical perfection, like his reference to becoming “a stick figure illustration” in “a picture perfect scenery” on ‘Casting Such a Thin Shadow’.

And so in many ways, ‘Define The Great Line’ can be viewed as a singular narrative, focusing on a journey as the vehicle for transformation. On the epic album closer ‘To Whom It May Concern’, Underoath’s lyrics focus on how we “walk” through life, and the “beaten path” that we have chosen (or how others may have chosen for us). Chamberlain declares that “in this place, we’re all as good as dead…end cycle,” while Gillespie’s croon affirms that it’s “not the end of the road for you.” This confluence between finality, ambiguity and eventual destination (the song title itself references the letter-style address of ‘In Regards To Myself’, providing a shortcut to the album’s opening), lends itself all the more strongly to the record’s overall themes and conventions.

Ultimately, two more full-length records would follow for Underoath: the previously mentioned 2008’s ‘Lost in the Sound of Separation’ and 2010’s ‘Ø (Disambiguation)’. The first of which would see Underoath stretch their musical muscle into new found territory, leaning on work of contemporaries like Coalesce, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Cult of Luna, while the latter would see the eventual departure of Gillespie from the band to pursue other musical endeavours. When they finally disbanded in 2013 off the back of a short farewell tour, Underoath would feature no original members, and one of the most diverse and sonically engaging catalogues in heavy music; a beautifully rendered copy, free from an original point of reference.

In terms of Underoath’s career, ‘Define The Great Line’ is their line in the sand and is arguably their magnum opus. It solidified the band’s vocal style and musical approach, setting the template for their live shows, the countless years of touring and their further musical output. It’s an album that saw six young men at a crucial crossroads, mid-way through the most stable and consistent portion of their life as a heavy band, and ultimately choosing to take the darker and more emotionally rewarding path to crafting a true, metalcore classic.

With the band recently announcing their reformation, and this year marking the tenth anniversary of this album’s release, it’s only fitting that ‘Define The Great Line’ becomes part of Underoath’s rebirth. No longer a dead-end cycle, but arriving full circle.

Underoath will return to Australia next year for a small run of shows, performing both ‘They’re Only Chasing Safety’ and ‘Define The Great Line’ in their entirety. Tickets are on sale now through Destroy All Lines, and you can read our recent feature interview with Spencer Chamberlain here

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