Settlefish – Dance a While, Upset

Dance a While, Upset

On their first US tour, playing with other Deep Elm bands as part of the label’s Too Young to Die effort, Settlefish may have provoked the most buzz. Most fans hadn’t heard them, other than, perhaps, their one song on an Emo Diaries comp., and the people I talked to were pleasantly surprised by this Italian band. Led by Canadian singer Jonathan Clancy – hence the easily distinguishable English vocals – Settlefish has an edgy sound that fits comfortably in the indie rock canon yet has a sound all their own, likely developed because of their distance from the American indie/emo scene.
Clancy’s voice is not smooth and tuneful, for the most part, but it’s a highly effective voice, just gruff enough to carry the more intense moments and emotive enough to power the quieter moments. The band incorporates layers of edgy guitars – four of the five members are credited on guitar – along with highly proficient rhythm work. Upon first listen, the band sounds like a more noisy version of their emo cousins, but that’s a good example of why Settlefish is highly deserving of multiple listens.
The true power of Settlefish’s songs comes through after you get by the fact that they’re playing loud and intense. Perhaps it’s in Clancy’s voice where you get the sense of what “emo” should really mean, even with rather cryptic lyrics. Perhaps it’s in the use of so many guitar parts that work together so well, or the addition of double-bass and even horns at times. But I think it’s the band’s quieter moments, often in the middle of their intense songs, where the brilliance comes through. Gruff and urgent, yes, but also deeply personal.
There’s been comparisons drawn between Settlefish and At the Drive-In, and that’s due to more than the fact that Clancy’s curly mop-top is reminiscent of ATDI’s afros. The highly technical yet angular and intense sound of many of Settlefish’s songs brings to mind the best of At the Drive-In. “Blindfold the Leaves” is a perfect example, especially when Clancy’s almost shouting. “Camouflage Iris” is about as hardcore and cacophonous as this band gets.
But the band isn’t an At the Drive-In clone by any means. Many of the songs draw little such comparison, and these are the band’s best songs. Opening with “Breeze,” amidst a flurry of wailing guitars and layers of distortion, the album kicks off on a high note. This opening track, even with all its noisy layers, still has the feel of a slower, more moody song, and the multiple guitar lines that run throughout and the use of trumpet help carry that feeling. Even better for the more personal feel is the almost eight-minute “On Symmetry Pebbles,” a brilliant song that starts slow and soft and builds, becoming an incredibly powerful song without resulting to high-powered energy and screams. If anything, this is more powerful and intense than most hardcore songs I’ve heard.
“Measures Can Divide” is perhaps the best example of the band’s unique voice. Much more melodic than other songs, it features melodic guitar lines over a blazing wash of guitar in the background, creating an interesting dichotomy. The song may feel more familiar to fans of Archers of Loaf than At the Drive-In. And the 10-minute “Northern Town” is a shocker, in that it feels nowhere near 10 minutes. A slower song, it showcases a much more moody feel, through both a sparser guitar approach and Clancy’s vocals. The song drifts off, quieter and moodier, then builds in urgency for the blazing last three minutes of the song.
Settlefish have a split EP planned with Desert City Soundtrack, another Deep Elm band that confronts the typical emo cliché and turns it on its ass. Both these bands are taking tried-and-true formats but developing their own highly unique sound, and both do it in an edgy and intense way. Settlefish may be the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year for me. These songs are deep and personal, highly effective and powerful even – and perhaps most – in their quieter moments. The music isn’t always precise – sometimes the guitar has a kind of loose feel that may be due to the production, but it seldom detracts from the song as a whole. This is truly an amazing album that just gets better with multiple listens. Cheers to Deep Elm for discovering this Italian band and bringing them to our attention.