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Dumpster Diving with A Billion Ernies

July 16, 2009

Dumpster Generation by A Billion Ernies is a hard-hitting album that rarely lets up from start to finish. If you’re not familiar with the band, their sound is a mix of ska and hard rock. Think Emery or Chevelle meets Streetlight Manifesto. It’s standard rock instrumentation, plus trumpet, trombone, and a vocalist prone to bouts of screaming. A Billion Ernies maintain a relatively raw sound – not quite garage rock, but not all that far from it, either.

The album opens with “Two Kings” and “Used Up.” They’re actually a little softer than other songs on the album, with more of an emphasis on the ska influence. “Two Kings” is a little heavy on the bass, and almost anthemic at points, then transitions into a much harder rock tonality about 2:00 in. “Used Up” has a little more of the same, with powerful vocals and backup vocal hits. There’s a driving, upbeat tempo, with periodic screaming and brass (trumpet and trombone, if you’re curious; typical ska instrumentation, though I definitely hear saxophone as well, which is a little less common).

Also good are “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” and “Idea12,” which display a broader range and more versatility than other songs on the album. “The Existentialist’s Apprentice” starts off with a cool guitar lick and drums; it’s less metal or hard rock and more light ska. That’s all relative, of course – everything on the album is harder than most ska groups, like Streetlight Manifesto or Suburban Legends. “Idea12” has a cool beginning with some Latin influence. Lyrics start with, “Another day / another dollar / another eight hours of feeling used/ This is not where I’m supposed to be” and add great tone. This is one of the better examples of their sound, with broad style and energy that varies from a quiet opening to a loud, bombastic chorus, with great use of all of their instrumentation. At around 2:00, it breaks down into hard rock that’s strangely reminiscent of early Blindside (certainly not a bad thing to remind me of).

Unfortunately, A Billion Ernies sometimes goes a bit far into the hard rock territory, losing the ska edge that makes their sound unique. Songs like “Point-Click” default to generic hard rock and screamo, which I found a little disappointing. It feels more like rock that just happens to have a few brass musicians hanging around. The album also drooped a little at the end, with songs like “Athiest” and “Addict” failing to impress me. It is worth noting that it ends on a positive note; “Thanks” is an acoustic piece, borderline singer-songwriter business. It’s got a very raw, back-room unpolished feel to it, with strong lyrics that proclaim, “Count your blessings / You’re still alive, who knows / Your mother could have killed you / Before you arrived / What a world.” I found it an interesting and welcome way to end the album.

Dumpster Generation is a solid release, though not everyone will find it appealing – hard ska-rock is definitely a niche genre. I found much of it to be enjoyable, but a wider range and more exploration of alternative sounds would have been welcome. Too often a song would devolve into mindless screaming. I’m all for hard stuff, but without reason it becomes a little self-indulgent.

I realize this is all a little muddled. Frankly, that’s because I’ve got mixed feelings. Consider this a “yes, but…” recommendation. It’s a good album, but I would like to see more variation and innovation from A Billion Ernies in the future.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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