Second Look: Strata – Strata Presents the End of the World

Strata are no longer making music together, but back when they were, I saw them share bills with the likes of Finger Eleven, Chevelle, Smile Empty Soul, and Trapt. Uh-huh. Trapt. These are bands that, as indie snobs (yes, I’m haphazardly bunching us all together), we tend to scoff at*, much less cover here on this site. But hang with me for a minute. Hear me out.

* I can’t offer very many straight-faced endorsements of these bands, but I do feel compelled to stress that, in the case of Finger Eleven at least, you shouldn’t get too turned off by preconception or what you might have already heard (you do remember “One Thing,” don’t you?). Their first two records, 1997’s Tip and 2000’s The Greyest of Blue Skies, are actually quite good, especially if you’re contrasting it against other radio-ish alt-rock stuff. That said, you should totally avoid their most recent albums, Them vs. You vs. Me and Life Turns Electric.

The band formed in 2001 under the guise of Downside, but by 2003 they’d changed their name and then a year later had their first album, a self-titled release, on record store shelves (Sam Goody!). That album, which ended up contributing a song to Madden 2005 and The Punisher soundtrack, is what lured me to the band. The simplicity and generic nature of some of the lyrics — “I am on the brink of losing everything/Hanging on the edge of every word she says/And you were never there/You were never there” forms the intro to “Never There (She Stabs)” — is probably enough to make a Sufjan Stevens fan’s head explode, but sophistication is secondary in this case. The fact is, the music sounds fantastic. The production is spectacularly smooth for a debut, the hooks and climaxes are undeniable, and from a composition standpoint, Strata is a hell of a lot more Lateralus than, say, We Are Not Alone. Don’t let the nu-metal, post-grunge, alt-rock tags deter you.

Three years after the release of their debut, the band dropped Strata Presents The End of the World. Instantly, the band’s sound, structure, and lyrical composition — actually, everything — took a jarring left turn. The new album sounded like… well, kind of like an indie rock record (okay, fine: an “indie rock-ish” record). The hooks were still prevalent and the production was just as clean, but the nu-metal skin in which the band had previously slithered had been completely shed. In lieu of fist-pumping, anthemic rock songs, the band went atmospheric, building a foundation on the juxtaposition between light instrumentation and oftentimes dark subject matter. “Cocaine (We’re All Going to Hell),” for instance, is a poppy dance tune aesthetically, but the lyrics themselves are about a girl fascinated with the club scene who goes home with someone, overdoses, and then has her corpse disposed of like a bag of raked leaves.

The End of the World subtracted a lot of the cut-and-paste lyricism of their debut in favor of a more narrative-oriented songwriting method. “Poughkeepsie, NY” tells the story of an encounter with the embodiment of Satan in a dank New York bar, while “The New National Anthem” is an onslaught against the war in Iraq, a critique of those who stand to gain the most from the bloodshed, and an assertion that patriotism is defined by more than just flags and yellow ribbons (which is absolutely true, by the way). “Hot/Cold (Darling, Don’t)” is a little bit campy (“Look at the map on the wall/Put your fingers on where we are/No matter where I go we’re just an inch apart”), but it doesn’t feel like the product of a formula. Throughout the record, even the weakest of words are forgiven in the name of strong sounds.

Of course, this new approach should have come as no surprise. In 2006, the band’s singer and creative force, Eric Victorino, released his first book of poetry and prose, Coma Therapy (The End of the World features a track of the same name). Around the same time, Victorino began a loose partnership with Giovanni Giusti, who at the time produced beats under the moniker of Nozebleed*. Their demos were far more reminiscent of Death Cab for Cutie’s work than anything Strata had ever put their name on, foreshadowing what was to come for Victorino’s band.

* Victorino and Giusti are now known as The Limousines. “Very Busy People” marks their most recognizable track to date and, if you haven’t already, it most certainly begs hearing. Full disclosure: I reviewed The Limousines’ debut record, Get Sharp, back in the summer of 2010 and when Giusti came across it, well… he wasn’t happy. It wasn’t a particularly offensive review (in my mind), but it wasn’t glowing either. I’d forgotten all about that altercation — can you really call a spat over Twitter an altercation? — until midway through this writing. The past is the past, but it seemed to warrant mentioning. And no, I won’t be linking that review.

About six months after the release of The End of the World, Victorino left the band to explore other creative endeavors. Ryan Hernandez and Adrian Robison, Strata’s guitarist and drummer respectively, would go on to form Beta State, who released their debut album, Stars, in September 2010.

The one thing that most certainly will not be a part of the experience for someone listening to The End of the World for the first time is the nostalgia that I get from it on a personal level. Strata dropped their first album when I was 19. They just happened to be opening a show for another band (whose name I can’t even remember now) and I was dragged along by a friend. At the time, my music tastes were still forming*. Save for the timeless stuff, there aren’t many bands that I listened to then that I still enjoy now. But Strata’s music still resonates for me. It doesn’t necessarily provide the literary or emotional depth of a Hospice or The Monitor (to pull examples out of thin air), albums that stimulate the more mature parts of my brain that didn’t exist eight years ago, but it certainly helps my mind escape to a place and time where things were a little bit easier, where the constant, swarming pressure of adulthood wasn’t relentlessly poking at my ribs.

* Consider that in 2004, when I was 19, the internet hadn’t yet become the platform for music discovery that it is today. MySpace (which was really the first popular social network for teenagers and young adults) and Facebook were just getting off the ground, Google wasn’t a publicly traded company until August 2004, and indie music giant Pitchfork was more or less a seed. Music downloading was just taking off, but you had to do it one corrupted, screeching track at a time. To make things worse, I vividly remember introducing friends to The College Dropout that same year, so I wasn’t exactly surrounded by people on the cutting edge of music, either.

Every now and then I wonder about the icons of music that were lost at a young age, before their talents ever had a chance to fully bloom. You know the names. Each time, I end up asking myself whether or not their passing was ultimately a good thing for their legacy. Don’t get me wrong; their deaths were certainly not “good.” But there’s something to be said for the way in which death can crystallize one’s prominence, preventing a star from tarnishing and keeping the questions about what would have and could have been forever ignited. A band calling it quits and fading off into the sunset (relatively, at least) provides a similar function.

As such, Strata Presents The End of the World made for an excellent note on which to walk away, a testament to reinvention. Years ago, seeing them open for bands that have gone on to sell out arenas and saturate radio waves (and maybe even accrue less than glistening reputations among the probably-smaller-than-you-think artsy, hardcore music fan population), I recall thinking to myself, “man, how are these guys not more well-known?” These days, I’m content to hit play on what became their final record and enjoy not just the unheralded addictiveness of the music, but the soft solace that comes with knowing I’m in on something that so many others seem to have let slip past.