Album Review: Home Is Where – the whaler

[Wax Bodega; 2023]

When the world is as bad as it currently is — always self-cannibalizing and leaning toward destruction – how can anyone create art with a free conscience? If you care enough, your art should be a reaction to the things that weigh heavy in your head and heart, personal or global, even if doing so is a painful task — gut-spilling even. Home Is Where’s Brandon MacDonald (vocals) and Tilley Komorny (guitar), both trans women residing in Florida, have no choice but to care — their livelihoods depend on it as they continue to bear the brunt of the state’s draconian legislation. So it is no surprise that their consequential fear, anger, and hopelessness all permeate their new album, the whaler, with explosive candor and unsightliness.

In their short existence, Home Is Where have carved out a uniqueness characterized by constant writhing, growing, and shedding of skin to reveal a beautiful final form. This has not only been the case for the band’s uneasy folk and punk sound, but for the words that center it. Often gruesomely poetic, the images and phrases churning within Home Is Where reflect the need to break free and the desire to express identity in earnest — as if the mere title of their last record, I Became Birds, couldn’t make that more apparent. However, on the band’s follow-up, unbridled expression and boundary-pushing are out of necessity, but this time, made far more abstract and evocative as their eyes fixate on the world at large. 

Maybe to an even greater extent than on I Became Birds, the words of MacDonald rest within the impossible space of poetic grotesquery. And no track is plastered with as much spilled guts as the record’s bookend sister tracks, opener “skin meadow” and the closer “floral organs”, where intestines hang like tapestry in trees and later “braided together” to tell a tale of inner strife – of killing what you once were in order to to escape present monotony.

Regardless of interpretation, MacDonald leaves listeners transfixed by her incomparable ability to paint images of extreme shock — not to shock, but to convey something deeply authentic and relational. There’s little hope within the record, if any. But it’s not entirely void. Miraculously, the unsettling scene of “spitting teeth into each other’s mouths back and forth until we make a smile” is sure to elicit a twinge of warmth in the heavy chest cavities of listeners as they hang on to this picture, imagining companionship, mutuality, and community amidst the suffering all around.

Whether it’s weeds excavated from one’s spine, wedding dresses sewn from regurgitated semen, or even dead deer drowning in a pool, to say the whaler’s unpleasant visual fragments offer more gore than a classic grindhouse film would be a massive understatement. It’s enough to make Cannibal Corpse squirm yet spun with a whimsical touch that would make a body horror imagist like Jeff Mangum blush. But no matter how much blood is shed or, simply, how much hope is lost, the breastplate has been removed, and ribs have been cracked asunder. the whaler reveals a big ol’ beating heart for all to bear witness. 

Though sometimes superseding the feral music itself, Home Is Where have yet again delivered the exact lyrical intensity to match their impulsive post-hardcore ferocity. And with just the right amount of midwest and alt-country quirks still very much in the fold, the band remain one of the most unique and vital acts of emo’s fifth wave. Just don’t expect something drastically different musically from what the band has offered in the past.

Their style has been refined, however. Komorny’s incredible guitar talents twist and bend toward front and center with considerable prominence, while noticeable attention is given to the ghostly sound of singing saws, harmonica, and MacDonald’s agitated cries as they slice through dread with authority. Simply put, the entire musical decorum of the Home Is Where sound is gloriously present and unmistakably them on the whaler. Cuts like the mourning “whaling for sport” or the seasick punk of “skin meadow” could easily be extracted from this project and injected back into I Became Birds, but what differentiates this batch of songs is the lyrical intensity and conceptuality that has somehow become noticeably more striking and even likelier to be etched upon bodies in ink years from now.

Acting as the record’s thesis of never-ending entropy, the destructive “everyday feels like 9/11” – if it wasn’t clear by title or biting refrain – entraps listeners in an unceasing reality dictated by a watershed moment in American history that refuses to be history. The following “9/12”, naturally, offers what comes next. The thing is, it’s only a mirage. How can anybody return to work when death and abuse run amok? In America, it frolics. In Florida, where the band calls home(?) it’s even worse — especially for the countless trans lives ignored, abused, and eradicated by state-sanctioned persecution. 

“There’s no room in the ground for [us],” MacDonald so defeatedly admits on “nursing home riot”. Who could blame her for feeling defeated? Her home denies her. Rejection, dejection, and haplessness — there’s no end to this factual, cyclical horror story; it keeps going, told with guts spilled out for the gutless (“skin meadow”) to see and hear, only to then be ignored.

I can sit here and try to dissect the vivid language that runs thick through the whaler, but to give the boundless turns of phrases that saturate the record definitive meaning or interpretation would limit their power. You can get the gist of the themes that perforate throughout, but the truth is, you can never fully decode a Home Is Where song. But almost always, and most importantly, you’ll come away with a deep, inexplicable array of emotions without the need to define what is spoken, screamed, or howled. the whaler will make you furious; it will make you feel and assuredly interrogate your own heart. That’s emo music, and it is most definitely Home Is Where.