Hip-hop has its flamboyant symbols of status and success: there's the omnipresent bling, jewel-encrusted pimp cups, expensive grills, high-end automobiles. Punk rock isn't so different, though its status symbols aren't quite as obvious. You're not truly anyone in the punk world until you have a slew of secondary, fan-only releases like DVDs and deluxe-edition albums, a diehard fan club. Most importantly, you need to have a side project. You know, just to show that the kids just can't get enough of you.
With Heavens, The Alkaline Trio's Matt Skiba graduates to the world of big-name punk rockers, launching a side project to complete his portfolio of extended re-releases, live albums, split releases and a signature guitar series. Joining forces with F-Minus' Josiah Steinbrick (who, despite a side-project is nowhere near punk-rock royalty) for the heavily electronic project, Skiba doesn't just expand his portfolio. He pulls off a neat trick: Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Skiba's side project isn't a carbon copy of his original band (a la Lars Frederiksen's Bastards) or an ill-informed, unrelated indulgence (see Bad Religion's Greg Graffin's dalliance in Americana). It's a perfect complement to his work with The Alkaline Trio, echoing some of its atmospheres and themes without relying too heavily on the full-time band's formula.
Steinbrick can take credit for much of that success. Teaming with producer Ben Lovett to pull things together, Steinbrick's songwriting and programming lets Skiba escape from the Green Day and Sisters of Mercy-lite influences that guide The Alkaline Trio to explore less obvious manifestations of the dark-rock formula. With songs firmly rooted in electronics with guitars occasionally stepping in to add extra flavor, Heavens departs from the punk foundations that guide the Trio and F-Minus for a sound that sits somewhere between AFI's cold, electro-rock experiments, The Faint's gloomy new-wave electronics and The Alkaline Trio's most Little-Sisters of Mercy moments.
That yields an album of songs that are solid end to end. Get past the band's ties to punk rock -- which aren't really all that relevant on Patent Pending -- and Heavens stumbled across a sound that ought to make shopping-mall Goth-punks and fans of The Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus and pre-metal Ministry both smile. "Watching You" and "Gardens" let Steinbrick indulge his programmer's sense of timing, with spacious programming that simmers and seethes with pent-up energy. The title track channels everything from the omnipresent Alkaline Trio specter to The Strokes' distorted vocals and the clunky programming of Dntel. It's not all electro-spook on Patent Pending, as shades of the band members' punk past creep in: "Doves" moves from atmospheric electronics to crunchy guitars that trade punk's abandon for more deliberate guitar figures, while "Heather" is a simple dose of smoldering, Goth-clear guitars and Alkaline-esque themes and vocal melodies.
Skiba, expectedly, indulges a few lyrical clunkers that serve mostly to cement his band's ties to The Alkaline Trio's over-the-top moments. Whether singing about a girlfriend painting dying children and hanging out in a cemetery ("Heather"), while Skiba's infatuation with broken relationships, physical pain and self-righteous heartbreak serve to tether Heavens to the emo/pop-punk world.
Skiba's hammy lyrical moments are few and spaced out enough not to derail Patent Pending. Skiba finally has a side project, and more importantly, it's one he can really be proud about. If hordes of My Chemical Romance look-alikes smother dark-punk in an avalanche of cheese and take The Alkaline Trio out with it -- a possibility that seems more likely each passing day -- Skiba's got a job with Heavens. If only all punk rockers' side projects were this catchy, clever and unaffected.
- Matt Schild