15 Years Of The Used

author PP date 01/03/16

The Used were formed in Utah fifteen years ago at the height of the popularity of the nu-metal scene just as many other emo/post-hardcore bands were. Emo, as we knew it from its 90s pioneering bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, Mineral, was about to experience a radical shift in style from its indie-flavored, lighter and introspective soundscapes that today are referred to as the original emo sound. Heavier guitars with plenty of distortion and hardcore-influenced songwriting, heavy makeup inspired by the gothic style, and scream-laden soundscapes were about to redefine the genre and effectively draw in young, frustrated teenagers around the world with a promise of mending broken hearts through painstaking screams and easily relatable lyrics.

Early 2000s: Mainstream emergence of emo/post-hardcore

That cocktail wasn't just potent. It was explosive. With the resurgence of quiet/loud dynamics that were ideally designed for building up tension to a climaxing point, the new breed of emo bands merged post-hardcore influence, which up to this point was largely understood as its punk-fueled brethren from Hot Water Music, Jawbreaker and others, with emotionally-charged, almost suicidal lyrics about heartbreak, broken romance, and other issues of growing up as a teenager in today's world.

This was the era when emo/post-hardcore was just on the verge of becoming mainstream. Bands like My Chemical Romance, Hawthorne Heights, Funeral For A Friend, Thursday, Saosin, Finch, and Senses Fail were about to release a group of albums that became the definitive foundations of the emo/post-hardcore genre. "Full Collapse", "Three Cheers For A Sweet Revenge", "Translating The Name", "What It Is To Burn", "Casually Dressed And Deep In Conversation", and "The Silence In Black And White", and "Let It Enfold You" were among key records that perfectly captured the idea of heavy music and emotions walking hand-in-hand together. These were unleashed through heartscraping screams to reinforce the passionate release of raw feelings, often through cliché lyricism that was cleverly masked enough by screams so that they became an acceptable, even a desirable end goal to encapsulate the emotional frustration of teenagers worldwide.

Bert McCracken of The Used (old look)

Enter Bert McCracken's The Used

Emerging alongside this group of bands was The Used, spearheaded by the then emotionally unstable Bert McCracken, whose crazy stage antics quickly brought attention to the band even prior to the release of their self-titled debut album in 2002. With guitarist Quinn Allman and bassist Jeph Howard performing with an equivalent explosion of chaotic passion live, the stage was set for the clean/scream dynamic to take over the world.

With masterful vocal technique and control that ultimately made it impossible for him to scream years later, Bert McCracken unleashed "Maybe Memories" to the unsuspecting public, a song that became an instant emo/hardcore classic and a benchmark as well as a guide for the direction the genre was about to take. Clean vocals that suddenly and unpredictably broke into piercing screams and back again often during the same line, and heart-wrenching screams during key moments of a song that resembled hardcore but which everyone immediately recognized wasn't really a hardcore song were some of the elements that catapulted The Used into instant favourites within the emerging scene. Released in 2002, the record was ahead of its time, and along Finch's "What It Is To Burn", helped define the dynamics for bands like Senses Fail, Story Of The Year, A Static Lullaby, Emery, Chiodos, Silverstein and virtually the entire Victory Records roster for years to come.

With the release of a strong sophomore album "In Love And Death" with its characteristic heart hanging from its neck artwork, the symbolism and the stylistic definition catapulted the release into a gold certification of more than 500.000 albums sold and The Used into mainstream success. By this point the likes of Thursday, Saosin and My Chemical Romance were rising to prominence with their key releases, leading to the formation of massive indoor UK festivals like The Taste Of Chaos, Give It A Name, and others that further bolstered the genre's popularity and brought it to the attention of pretty much everyone involved with the music scene in 2004. Nu-metal was dying, and together with metalcore, a new style of writing heavy music was entering its prime.

What goes up, must come down

But as with most other trends throughout the history of time, what goes up must come down. After a stellar set of years leading up to the late 2000s, emo/post-hardcore became increasingly saturated with seemingly every new band wanting to participate in its wave of popularity. After a series of years with consistently great albums capturing the majority of top positions in end-of-year articles, new bands entering the genre started sounding like derivatives of the existing bands. Secret And Whisper, The Sleeping, Secret Lives Of The Free Masons, Akissforjersey, Aiden, and countless others we've already forgotten about were either too unoriginal or downright taking the style too far (Aiden) to matter for years to come.

At the same time, the original breakthrough acts were either in the process of disbanding or had totally lost touch with writing great albums. With the sudden breakthrough into mainstream popularity, most bands opted for overtly ambitious, theatrical soundscapes laced with dramatic overreach, thus abandoning the key principles their original success was founded on. There were exceptions, of course (see: Thursday discography), but The Used weren't one of them.

Bert McCracken of The Used - anno 2016

The Used: symbolic of emo/post-hardcore decline

"Lies For The Liars" in 2007 was a good third album, but suffered from lack of longevity and is all but forgotten today compared to the first two albums. "Artwork", which followed in 2009 was likewise capitalizing on the softer, My Chemical Romance-driven "The Black Parade" trend of theatrical songwriting, but is not a release you'll remember songs from today, seven years later. By the time we reached "Vulnerable" in 2012, it was pretty much game over for The Used in terms of musical relevancy. Big money production helped mask the songwriting decline somewhat, but there's no going around that the songs were, as TL put it in his review, suffering from "a severe case of mediocre melodies". Two years later, it's still difficult to trash The Used releases because of reasonably good songwriting on "Imaginary Enemy", but long gone are the days where they caused earthquakes on the scene and released records that are objectively considered as landmark releases in emo/post-hardcore.

Bert McCracken of The Used - gazing into past glory

In this sense, the decline of The Used into a dime-a-dozen theatrical rock/pop band from iconic torchbearer status is symbolic of the emo/post-hardcore genre at large. With years disconnected from the genre classics, young kids were growing up with derivative releases that lacked the innovation and fresh ideas of the older albums, and as they started new bands based with these influences, the more formulaic and predictable the genre became where it today in 2016 is all but a faint memory in most minds. Festivals like Taste Of Chaos and Give It A Name are either gone or a shadow of their former selves, with the former in later years focusing on Ozzfest-style mainstream arena metal bands like Disturbed and Avenged Sevenfold instead.

The Future Is Not Cancelled

But all is not lost. We're currently experiencing the cyclic nature of the music industry, with 90s style emo in the middle of a revival in the underground. The emo/post-hardcore sound in 2016 is mostly dead, however, aside from a few innovative and brilliant late flourishes like The Hotelier, Captain, We're Sinking or the 'wave' bands like Touché Amoré, La Dispute and Pianos Become The Teeth. But these bands don't exactly fit into the emo/post-hardcore mold anyway, at least not strictly stylistically speaking if we are to compare them to the classic quiet/loud, clean/scream dynamics of the early 2000s. Fresh ideas and innovation happening, in other words, although it's too early to talk about a full-scale mainstream resurgence.

Dynamo, Eindhoven

The Used: Revisiting the past

A reminder of the glory days of the genre, with two landmark albums that helped catapult the genre into the mainstream, was the context behind yours truly booking the first available weekend date for The Used's album shows across Europe together with our photographer Philip Hansen. To celebrate fifteen years as a band, the band had scheduled a series of paired dates across Europe, where they would spend two nights in a row in each city performing "The Used" and "In Love And Death" in their entirety front to back:

  • 20-21 February @ O2 Academy, Leeds, UK
  • 22-24 February @ Forum, London UK
  • 26-27 February @ Dynamo, Eindhoven, NL
  • 29-01 March @ Stollwerck, Cologne, GER
  • 03-04 March @ Knust, Hamburg, GER
  • 06-07 March @ Klubben, Stockholm, SWE
  • 09-10 March @ Tavastia, Helsinki, FIN
  • + 1.5 months of US dates in April-June

Dynamo, Eindhoven

We opted for Eindhoven even though Stockholm would've been closer travel-wise because it was a weekend date and plane tickets were relatively cheap from Copenhagen. The event was held over two nights at Dynamo, a youth center and concert auditorium with a capacity of about 550 guests on two floors.

The Used @ Dynamo, Eindhoven

Support band: The New Regime

The support duty for the entire tour has landed with The New Regime, a handpicked band by The Used. They're relatively little known here in Europe with only two people in the room raising their hands when front man Ilan Rubin asks if anyone has ever heard of the band before. If the name rings a bell, don't be surprised, because Rubin has been involved in Nine Inch Nails, Paramore, Angels And Airwaves, and Lostprophets throughout the years. He's a multi-instrumentalist who has written and recorded all instruments on The New Regime albums, and as such the band is more like a solo project with a few touring session musicians joining for the party. Stylistically, Rubin's sound resembles a mixture between Incubus from their experimental "A Crow Left Of The Murder" album, and Muse's stadium rock only spiced with electronic effects. Indeed, all three musicians on stage have an effects board in front of them, including the drummer, and many of the tracks take a decisively electronic turn at times ("Don't Chase It" being a good example), whereas others are more intricate solo-driven progressive rock.

The New Regime

The two shows with The Used are the first time The New Regime are appearing in mainland Europe, which is why it is a little surprising and disappointing to have the band play an identical setlist both nights despite sporting three albums and multiple EPs in their back catalogue. During the first night, the sound is awfully low for the group, so any power and oomph is noticeably missing on stage. The muted sound does them no favours, but having static and forgettable showmanship doesn't help either, so the first night the reception is weak and people quickly grow tired of the band on stage. The last song features completely unnecessary solo wankery for minutes on end in the middle of a song, which goes nowhere, although here we see the band moving aggressively on stage for the first time.

The New Regime - Ilan Rubin

The second night is a much better experience from the get-go. The sound issues have been corrected, and the band's barrage of alternative rock is louder and thus exhibits a stronger alternative rock feel than the night before. All songs sound more convincing, the audience reaction is much better, which is probably why the band also perform with more energy than the night before. Rubin, in particular, is moving around the stage constantly headbanging, even collapsing down to the floor for dramatic effect during a solo. We're once again interrupted by the ridiculous solo for the last song before it explodes into a great chorus immediately after. Overall, the band were anonymous and almost surprisingly amateurish on the first night, whereas the second night finally revealed the charisma and wealth of live experience Rubin has underneath his belt. The grade, as such, is an overall impression based on two nights, given that it didn't make much sense to review identical concerts separately. [6½]

Night 1 - "The Used"

Though the venue isn't sold out by any means - perhaps only a little over half full by a rough estimate - there's a sense of electric anticipation in the air as the intro sample to "Maybe Memories" begins blasting from the speakers. It's been a long time since The Used have played their original emo/post-hardcore songs given the dramatic stylistic shift in later years, so one of the key questions tonight was how Bert McCracken's voice would handle the whiny emo croons and especially the screams of their older material. That question is answered immediately and it's a disappointing one: Bert simply can't scream at all anymore, each screamed lyric is sheepishly blanked out to let the crowd scream instead, or is taken over by their bassist as we'll come to see later on during the set. It's a shame, because McCracken's emotionally-charged voice breaking into a piercing scream mid-line was one of the signature features of early The Used material and what propelled them into mainstream success among the emo/post-hardcore crowd and beyond. Whether it's a medical issue or what has never adequately been brought to daylight, and scouring the internet for information only shows speculation but no official statement.

The Used

Another key question was how the band's previously intense live performances of old material would look like anno 2016? After all, we've probably all seen those chaotic and insane live performances of their early days where the band rivaled the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan in terms of stage antics. The answer here, too, is a disappointment. A mostly stand still performance all-around, with Bert casually pacing the stage while singing, and blanking out lines while pointing the microphone towards us at key moments. It's like a coming-of-age, mature version of The Used, which is only fortified by his modern short-hair look, where signs of emo/post-hardcore scene are nowhere to be seen neither on Bert himself nor the rest of the band (as discussed earlier - emo is a phase, even for the flagbearers of the genre, it seems).

Now, the above pretty much sums up both my initial prejudices and the actual events as they unfolded during "Maybe Memories", but it does paint the concert in an unnecessarily negative light. Because once you accepted the fact that you can't expect the band perform and bounce around like they did in their teens and early 20s when they're pushing 35, the show appeared to you in a completely different light. Drenched in nostalgia, tonight is about the celebration of the band's 15 years of history, and as such the set takes an interesting and entirely unexpected turn right after the song.

The Used

"Who in here is a hardcore Used fan?", McCracken asks the audience, before pulling a Japanese teenager on stage who proceeds to literally cry her eyes out as Bert gives her a hug on stage and keeps her there for the huge sing-alongs of "The Taste Of Ink" that follow. Some have indeed travelled from afar to be here tonight (including this editorial staff), and for many of us "The Used" holds a dear place in our nostalgic emo-listening past, even if we have moved onto greener pastures since then. As such, it turns out to be an excellent decision for The Used to go against the grain and pause the set after every single song so that McCracken has time to explain what the songs are about in between: "This is actually a very therapeutic experience for me", he continues, letting us know that these songs saved his life as he was writing and performing them in his early days, and how difficult it is to be playing them again at an older age. He sounds genuine and honest when he thanks us for sharing this experience with him, knowing well that there are people in the crowd who have been in the same position as him, contemplating suicide or self-harm at some point in their lives. In fact, a girl comes up on stage shortly after looking exactly like you'd imagine a cliché, goth-inspired emo teenager to look like, and hands Bert back his glove that he gave her some years ago, letting us know via the microphone that it saved her life, thanking Bert heartily in the process. Sounds ridiculous, I admit as I am typing this review, but it was a surreal moment where the entire venue felt connected to the girl in approving nods or melancholic cheers as I glimpse around me. She stays on for "Sad Days Ago", screaming along to every lyric next to the band on stage, in a theme that persists throughout the show.

The Used

For "Poetic Tragedy", a guy is pulled up on stage, and they are all introduced as 'hardcore The Used fans' to the rest of the audience. This trend continues throughout the concert, and by the time we reach "Greener With The Scenery", the scene must have about dozen people on stage at the very least. Sandwiched in between is a crowd favorite "A Box Full Of Sharp Objects" explodes the venue into a frenzy of mosh pits, with even one karate guy making his way through the opened up space. For pretty much all songs, the crowd erupts into thunderous sing-alongs with key parts of the songs sung back at the band, regardless of the questionable vocal performance vs studio material on scene tonight. The screams continue to be primarily done by their bassist, in lower volume much like tonight's support band so they are almost inaudible in their expression. Shame, because they are in such a prominent role on the album that they deserve more of a spotlight in the live versions.

The Used

The interruption-style continues song after song. Among other things, we sing a happy birthday song to The Used, and get more stories about the songs and what the band means to Bert, before we finish off with an encore with the distinctly more hardcore oriented "Choke Me" from "Shallow Believer" EP, which transforms the set from the soft emo of the last tracks into a hardcore punk type of an atmosphere with vicious circle pits and the whole shebang present in the crowd. It's an interesting style of running the show: the 12 songs and the encore span over 75 minutes, almost double the length of the 40-minute album runtime. It's a treat for the fans, however, because once you get used to the flow, it makes sense as we are celebrating the band's history and this is the best way to embed additional storyline to the intimate experience. The other alternative would've been to play the songs in rapid-fire fashion, and fill out remaining time with newer material, but this way we enclose the two distinct eras of the band into their own boxes (the old and the new, so to speak), which is incidentally also how this scribe experiences The Used's back catalogue. While a performance like this one from 2002 would've been amazing, the calmer and more subdued version feels like closing a chapter that has been left open for many of us for a decade or longer. [8]

Setlist ("The Used" front to back):

  • 1. Maybe Memories
  • 2. The Taste Of Ink
  • 3. Bulimic
  • 4. Sad Days Ago
  • 5. Poetic Tragedy
  • 6. Buried Myself Alive
  • 7. A Box Full Of Sharp Objects
  • 8. Blue And Yellow
  • 9. Greener With The Scenery
  • 10. Noise And Kisses
  • 11. On My Own
  • 12. Pieces Mended
  • --encore--
  • 13. Choke Me (from "Shallow Believer")

The Used

Night 2 - "In Love And Death"

Roughly the same amount of people has crammed themselves into Dynamo as yesterday, with front rows exclusively occupied by young teens wishing to get as close to their idol as possible. Last night's banner of "The Used" has been exchanged with the artwork for "In Love And Death", featuring a heart hanging itself by the neck from a tree in prominent fashion as the only coloured part. Red lights begin circling around the banner as the band enter the stage, and just as last night, the band kick off straight away with a scream-laden emo/post-hardcore classic, "Take It Away". Mosh pits open and sing-alongs begin - just as they did yesterday for "Maybe Memories" - and once again we start by noticing the negatives of the calmer performance and the lack of screams in the soundscape. That the bassist is handling these is fine, but they just need to be way, way louder in the mix given their vital role in the album's core sound. Bert McCracken, being slightly more active tonight than yesterday, flips the bird during every "And I've lost all doubt in a chemical romance" part, which I figure comes with the association to My Chemical Romance, but that's likely just my prejudice against the band playing in.

The Used

After the initial shock wanes down once again, it becomes easier to highlight the positives of The Used's performance starting from the pop-oriented "I Caught Fire" onwards. The same format applies tonight as yesterday: each song is followed by a pause, where Bert either tells us something about the songs or talks directly to the crowd as if this were a punk show. It creates an intimate setting of us, instead of us and them, where the band exhibits a down-to-earth and honesty-driven attitude in the polar opposite of their theatrical later albums. "Hands up!", Bert screams and the crowd transforms into a sea of hands waving back and forth during the song, before another pause where we meet a couple who've traveled all the way down from Brazil just for this show. They are invited on stage - both of them wearing The Used band merchandise - and are told to make out for the entire duration of "Let It Bleed". A ridiculous premise which turns out to be a chilling emotional moment as they do exactly as instructed, only breaking away from each other during the chorus to stare each other in the eyes and sing back their favorite lines for each other, together with the rest of the venue which has erupted into a mass trampoline in the meantime, with echoing sing-alongs encompassing the venue throughout the song.

The Used

"All That I've Got" was originally written about Bert's dead chihuahua, but tonight the song is dedicated to David Bowie given his untimely passing recently, continuing the theme of explaining the background of each song from yesterday. It's a soft pop rock track that is in dramatic contrast to "Listening" that arrives a little later, which instantly breaks the venue out into a dangerous looking circle pit with energy as intense as you tend to see at hardcore shows. Pretty good for a washed up post-hardcore band, wouldn't you say? Likewise, "Sound Effects And Overdramatics" features a hardcore style, brutal looking pit given it's down-tuned riffs and scream-laden soundscape (split between non-screams and support from the bassist). It's the best song tonight both in terms of showmanship on stage - which is aggressive and energetic - and in terms of the crowd dynamic which explodes into a frenzy one more time.

In comparison, "Lunacy Fringe" and its acoustic guitar is both a lull and a chance for some breathing room for the pit warriors, but in all honesty, it's one of those songs that isn't all that interesting on record nor live. It does function as an interesting contrast against the ravaging "I'm A Fake", which starts off with a lengthy spoken word emo poetry section, that tonight is screamed passionately by the glove girl from last night. She does an impressive job in performing the build up to the aggressive song, which finishes off "In Love And Death" in great fashion.

The Used

If anything, the song reminds us all how good The Used were at songwriting back in the day, because the encore song "Pretty Handsome Awkward" is where things started going from with artificially inflated soundscapes and nothing saying theatricals replacing actual songwriting on albums that followed. And although "In Love And Death" isn't quite as good as the debut album, it's still up there as an emo/post-hardcore classic that helped shape the genre. That much is clear both from its breakout success but also from tonight's nostalgia-induced versions of the songs. The few weaker songs are overwhelmingly dominated by the strength of the majority of the material on the album, so just like last night, the initial disappointment about not meeting the same excessive chaos and unpredictable weirdo band as during the early to mid 2000s is replaced by a sense that we've now closed a chapter that has been waiting to be closed for quite some time now. [8]

Setlist ("In Love And Death" front to back):

  • 1. Take It Away
  • 2. I Caught Fire
  • 3. Let It Bleed
  • 4. All That I've Got
  • 5. Cut Up Angels
  • 6. Listening
  • 7. Yesterday's Feelings
  • 8. Light With A Sharpened Edge
  • 9. Sound Effects And Overdramatics
  • 10. Hard To Say
  • 11. Lunacy Fringe
  • 12. I'm A Fake
  • --encore--
  • 13. Pretty Handsome Awkward (from "Lies For The Liars")

Photos by: Philip B. Hansen

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