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The Used-Toxic Positivity- Reviewed

-Johnna Sisneros

For over 20 years The Used has been a staple in the alternative rock scene with their quintessential post-hardcore sound and emo-pop-punk aesthetic. Their rough and raucous guitar riffs call back to a simpler time of sweating your emo ass off in all black at a Warped Tour in the middle of July. Whereas the stark emotions connotated by the lead singer Bert McCracken’s longing voice evoke the sharp edge of a cruel existence that was all the rage back in our Tumblr-filled angsty adolescence.

The rock band got its start back in 2002 when the group caught their big break with record producer John Feldmann after the band sent their “Demos From The Basement” to the Goldfinger member. The song “A Box Full of Sharp Objects” caught Feldmann’s ear and he flew the band out to L.A. to find a record label for the up-and-coming band and the rest is really history.

Since then The Used has released nine studio albums in the nearly 24 years that the band has been active. They’ve never shied away from approaching heavy topics in their work and their most recent studio album “Toxic Positivity” is no exception.

Comprised of 11 tracks the album confronts tough concepts such as mental illness, self-loathing, and inner turmoil with classic emo-punk guitar, growly distortions, and an emphasis on high energy subdivided rhythm that keeps the spirits high, even when the lyrical content is approaching subjects that come up when someone feels like they’re in a low place.

The opening track, “The Worst I’ve Ever Been” comes in hot with an ambient guitar distortion that audibly simulates the feeling of falling before the leads' breakthrough with loud guitar and even louder drums, all to suddenly scale back for the cynical opening verse. As McCracken sings about descending more and more into self-isolation, the harsh lyrics are accented with pizzicato strings to give it a maddening kind of feeling, like falling down the rabbit hole or slowly losing your mind in a horror movie.

Upon my first listen I was pleasantly surprised with the sonic homage to the classic mid-2000s emo sound. So many bands from this time in music have attempted to move on to more “sophisticated sounds” and while innovation in music is always wonderful, it's nice to be reminded of the nostalgia that surrounds this subgenre of rock music. The lead-up and verses are well written and the rhythm guitar paired with the lively drums gives the track a driving kind of fury which comes to a climax in the bridge with a wicked guitar breakdown that utilizes sudden fade-ins and outs that build tension throughout the track.

The exact thought I had when the second track “Numb” turned over was “ok we love a rock ballad.” The track comes in with a melodic piano suite in a clear minor chord that tells the listener “This is about to be a really sad song.” Two measures later the languid and desperate vocals of McCacken come in asking if anybody else feels numb, presumably like him.

What is interesting about this track is that it gets away from the conventional verse, chorus, verse bridge, and chorus pattern that structures most songs. In fact, following the first chorus the song enters a frenzied key change in cut time that reflects a completely different sonic flavor of both chronic apathy and visceral desperation. While my initial expectation of an emo-rock ballad was pretty off, the song oscillates in dynamics and even features a pretty good breakdown toward the end of the track.

Throughout the album, there remain some pretty key similarities between many of the tracks that some may feel get a little dull. Mostly written with similar intervals the tracks follow a consistent pattern of deep and dejected lyrics with intermittent breakdowns, and rhythm distortions juxtaposed with simple yet profoundly evocative guitar riffs that I know were shoved through some pretty hefty amps and pedals to create the delightful cacophony featured on the album.

While the album is sonically cohesive, some tracks such as “I Hate Everybody” and “Dopamine” utilize a slightly more bouncy, almost circus-like sound that feels very reminiscent of Melanie Martinez circa 2015 but if she had a power amp and dabbled in hard-core metal.

Contrary to what more pop-punk listeners might feel about the album, “Toxic Positivity” is not a metal album. It comes really close to being one and even reminded me a bit of some really great work that has been coming out of the Metal scene lately, but the difference between post-hardcore and metal is that hardcore music typically has a more melodic edge to it that can be lost in more technical instrumentals that we see in metal and prog metal spaces.

It isn’t a groundbreaking album, but it's a good one. I’d say if Highly Suspect had a baby with Linkin Park the kid would sound a whole lot like “Toxic Positivity” from The Used. Some may find this old hat, but the real ones will always appreciate a really good hardcore album. Birthed in the heyday of emo pop-punk and sticking to their roots, it’s refreshing to see a band follow the age-old (rarely accurate, but in this case relevant) adage of “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it.” There is a power in an artist that knows what they’re good at and sticks to what they know they’re good at. I’m glad that The Used has been able to sustain itself and consistently put out quality music for the past two decades. Here’s hoping for two more decades of rage.


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