For fans of: Suis La Lune, My Bloody Valentine, American Football, Ride, Nothing, Whirr, DIIV, Slowdive, Joie De Vivre, XTC, Teenage Fanclub, Sloan, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel and Tamaryn.
Review by Andy Klingensmith:
For me, 2014 was...a vibe, to say the least.
It was the spring I meekly entered my twenties. It was the summer I left America for the first time to study Shakespeare abroad in London for six weeks. It was the winter I first tasted Fireball Whisky and started down a road marked by a tragic weakness for obscenely sweet, obscenely potent alcohol. It was the year I had my first kiss, and perhaps most importantly, it was the year I first heard about an emo band from Sweden called SORE EYELIDS.
Look, kids. Facebook used to be cool. Ok, I guess it never really was that cool, but we used to be able to do cool things on it. Ok, that’s a stretch too, but Pokemon Profile Pic December did kinda go hard as hell. I always chose Delibird, a decisively huuuuge middle finger to the jock bootlicker Blastoise status quo...oh fuck. Is it painfully obvious that I am uncool yet? Perfect, cos see on Facebook, I was able to discreetly, and with great tact and measure, weasel into interactions with people who actually were cool.
My friend Daniel was a few years older than me. He played drums, and he lived at Hariet Brown, one of the only DIY houses in East Lansing, the sometimes green, mostly gray rural town that harbors the tens of thousands of students attending Michigan State University. He was cool. It was through Facebook that he shared a song from Sore Eyelids’ stunning 2014 record For Now. The song was called “En Plats I Ditt Hjärta.” It was the final track on the record, and from the moment Henning Runolf bellowed begging, soaring, “What did I dooooo wrong?,” my life was forever changed.
For what seemed like an eternity, For Now and the 2012 self-titled debut were all I had from the band. It was songs like “Still, I’m Here,” “Apart,” “365 Days of Nothing,” and the criminally short live studio session filmed in Henning’s basement before the release of Sore Eyelids that fueled an affinity for the project that for many years, and for better or worse, I never quite felt with another band. Runolf’s masterful blend of shoegaze inflections and emo picking techniques cultivates a lilting atmosphere that bends and transforms the sonic textures of his music to create something akin to a painting left out in summer rain. The canvas warps, the colors bleed, the wood of the frame sparkles in the refraction of light through water, and Henning’s haunted lyrics concerning isolation, damnation, and social anxiety reverberate through the abandoned sidewalks and porches of the mind.
“What seemed like an eternity” was satiated for a moment in 2017 with Sore Eyelids’ split with факел, an unassuming and admittedly low-energy stretch of the limbs for Henning’s usually bombastic and dynamic take on post-rock and emo music. But now, over two years later, the project has returned to form with Avoiding Life, a glistening albeit perhaps bloated monument to regret, total apathy, and heartbreak. It is a record with a stalwart hopefulness and optimism to be found in its kaleidoscopic arpeggios and heartrending chord changes, something with which Henning and his bands have always thrived, and this confidence is only compromised by one of emo music’s most nervous and wholly pessimistic lyricists and personalities. As the days already begin to darken so early, it’s a warm, miserable blanket to wrap oneself in for the long shadowy winter ahead.
Throughout the span of 'Avoiding Life', there is a wonderful newfound sense of breathy calm and assuredness in Henning’s vocals. These warm tones are highlighted in part by some of the first times in their discography (aside from perhaps the timeless vocal performance of “For Now”) where Henning travels to, and comfortably operates for an extended period of time, in falsetto. The climax of the opener “half gone” stands out particularly in this regard. During another early bright spot, “everything’s a waste,” Henning explores vocal harmonies and key changes reminiscent of other European bands who effectively synthesized melodic, rather than noise-informed, shoegaze qualities and melodramatic pop song structures such as Teenage Fanclub and Ride.
Much of the album has the quality of sitting in a country garden comfortably cultivated for one, sun-drunk and surrounded by glistening azure, blissfully ignorant to fire that is ceaselessly engulfing daffodils and tulips without remorse. The permeating pastoral elements are augmented by the more frequent use of acoustic guitars, which during passages like the intro of “a void in life,” forge connections to jangle pop heaven’s gatekeepers Aztec Camera and post-reunion American Football. However, nearly every precarious bucolic scene is almost always entirely razed by the wall-of-sound glide guitar that has become as much a hallmark of Sore Eyelids brand of emo as it is of the first-wave shoegaze bands led by Kevin Shields’ leash.
Henning’s phantasmagoric guitar work would be nothing if it was not efficiently interpreted by a competent rhythm section, however. While past SORE EYELIDS releases have by no means ever struggled with bombastic percussion and bass playing, 'Avoiding Life' is supported by some truly fantastic bass lines. The tones delivered by Pontus oscillate comfortably between moments of trebley brevity found in high-neck leads (which of course remind one of Peter Hook), heavy, passionate overdriven moments of syncopation like the centerpiece of “i thought i was doing fine”, and the subtle, spacious section that follows. Here, Pontus intuitively takes a step back and resigns to a support role to allow the fragility of Henning’s fluttering leads and ethereal vocals to take center stage.
On the subject of support, the backbone that is provided through Joel’s drumming is also wonderful, and a crack-whip for the anxious stop-and-go playing style that Henning often employs. His cymbal work is perfectly suited for Runolf’s use of the tremolo bar, adding another windswept sonic layer to these moments of swaying, and the presence of reverb-soaked tambourine interspersed through the quieter moments of the record is also a welcome nod towards the delicate baroque qualities of 'Avoiding Life'.
I contacted Henning prior to my writing of this review in the hopes of connecting with him to discuss the new record and to document his role in a chapter of emo history that, in my opinion, is sadly under-reported. He seemed wary of my intention to ask questions about the emotional content of his music, and understandably so. I can barely talk about anything I create without promptly scanning the room and diligently noting the location of the nearest unsharpened pencil, used plastic fork, or pathogen-ridden nail to gouge out the entirety of my fucking eyeballs. Being transparent and open about certain things is very difficult, but Henning ultimately accepted with the qualification that his response may be slow.
Ever a tad too eager, I immediately shot off my questions in an email, riddled with foolproof apologies for being so prodding. I buckshot wildly at the topic of Suis La Lune, the legendary screamo band that Henning fronted until its dissolving in 2018, and waxed poetically upon Sore Eyelids’ past, present, and future records.
Drunk with power, I of course had fanciful daydreams of creating the quintessential companion piece to SORE EYELIDS’ music. Our nations would rejoice under the banner of my trailblazing rock music journalism. A couple of weird scene kids would recreate V-J Day In Times Square. William Bonney would reunite and also I’d find twenty extra bucks in my bank account. Just small stuff, you know?
About three weeks later, I woke up one morning to a message from him on Instagram saying that he had realized he actually didn’t want to do the interview. Thankfully, I was already in bed. By the grace of god, the shades were already mercifully drawn. I dropped my phone and moaned towards the adjacent kitchen, worlds away as it glowed warmly with the morning light of a pale winter sun...
“Ok Google, play “I’m Going to Do It” by Giles Corey.”
My voice cracked as the machine hummed to life and I cowered in the baptizing void that was the sanctuary of my blankets. My hopes were shattered, and my pride just a little bit bruised. In reality, it was indeed something that I was half-expecting throughout my interactions with Henning, who during our correspondence struck me as deeply introverted.
I slowly popped my head out from the darkness. Like a turtle with a trendy fringe, I pushed my matted hair from my forehead and gazed into the light, into the air that I was forced to breathe. Broccoli, cold on a child’s dinner plate.
“Respect,” I said, and pressed on.
I promise you, it is devoid of any sort of spite or snubbing when I say that Sore Eyelids, at this stage in their career, has one disadvantage to their brand of misanthropic shoegaze. Perhaps indicative of Henning’s eventual declining of my interview, something that leaves me wanting is a sense of accountability and grappling with the oh-so-eternally-cosmic “Why?”
On “i thought i was doing fine,” Henning sings:
“The years go by but I just stay the same
I try so hard but I can't see a change
Can never tell why I feel this way
So disconnected and far away
Inside my head
I'm full of doubt
I never know what's eating away
inside my head, it's always a mess.”
At my ripe old age of 25, it is simply not enough for me to be sad anymore. There is no closure in sadness. I want to know why I am sad. I want to know what made me sad. I want to know if I am ever going to stop being sad. If I’m not, I want to know why again. If I am, I want to know how. But maybe that’s just me. Sore Eyelids writing another record about being sad is of course a reason to celebrate itself. To not be satisfied by someone’s art is not to trivialize it, and by no means do I have any sort of right to take someone’s unwillingness to publicly discuss topics such as trauma, depression, and anxiety personally. But, what’s perhaps most heartbreaking after all these years and these now three records, brimming with frustration and self-doubt, is that Henning still feels this way.
On Avoiding Life, he takes the car for a spin. It’s a wonderful ride, and the company is great, but these streets are all the same. The same sad houses, the same weathered doors. The same faces that hide in the dark of windows, and the same shadows that prey upon the lawns. Seasons pass over an empty home, and though it may not be justified, we grow old.
I was deeply humbled to receive even a response to my initial message from Henning. Christ, I still have the crumpled white package posted with Swedish stamps with which he sent me a t-shirt a few years ago packed safely under my bed (I told you I wasn’t cool). The fact that we were graced with a new SORE EYELIDS record in 2019 was a delightful surprise to cap off a wonderful year of music during an otherwise miserable year for humans. As long as bands like this continue to be a presence in the emo scene, maybe we can save it from the likes of the new generation who are, with reckless goddamn abandon, accidentally turning it into indie rock.
Avoiding Life is a beautiful record. On the surface, one sees the reflection of Henning’s deepheld sadness. It lives within the body of SORE EYELIDS’ catalog and ethos. For some, it might be enough to stare, to sip, merely to revel in these so often shared feelings of insufficiency and insecurity. It’s part of our culture, but there’s part of me that just won’t have it. There’s a part of me that just wants to reach into that damn pool and catch Henning by the collar and shake him and his beautiful wet golden hair and ask “Why are you so sad?! Let’s talk about it! People always feel better when they talk about it!”
But that’s not always true, and it’s ok that some people don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes merely acknowledging depression through art is bravery enough.
I’m thankful that Henning told me that he didn’t want to answer my questions, and I’m thankful he made a record that...well, a record that explained why.