Release Date: Aug 26, 2014
Record label: 4AD
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
The end came on April Fool’s Day 2013. According to Merchandise, on the day they released ‘Totale Nite’, their band changed forever. In January, frontman Carson Cox told NME their dramatic third album and its mesh of guitars, electronic drums and brass signalled “the end of the book, of everything I knew”.The book began in the 2000s when Cox and lead guitarist David Vassalotti played in hardcore bands in Florida’s Tampa Bay.
Back in 2011, Merchandise frontman Carson Cox pronounced; "Genres are not for us". And it's a sentiment that the group have managed to stand by; defining their career by a wanton reluctance towards definition. A persistent desire for reinvention that seems almost like a perverse nod to the non-conformity of their beginnings in Tampa's hardcore scene.
What comes after the end? That’s the implicit question posed the title to Merchandise’s new album. Their third full-length, it is likely to be the first release of theirs to be widely heard (thanks to new label 4AD) and stands as their first collection to make the ever-present rumbling of hype about them from the East Coast media actually seem warranted. After the End is an “I told you so” record, one that might make some naysayers eat crow, but bands turning out to be far better than expected is just the kind of crow that tastes delicious to music critics.
Since their inception in 2008 we've watched as Tampa five-piece Merchandise have morphed from DIY hardcore punks into reverb-drenched indie merchants on their excellent 2013 mini-LP Totale Night. Now it seems they have once again shed their skin. Vocalist Carson Cox has said their intention with this album was to "re-make ourselves as a pop band" and to a certain extent that's exactly what they've done, albeit with the sensibilities of a band who have experience in skirting the fringes of indie rock.
Floridian trio Merchandise establish an increasingly familiar pattern of self-reinvention on After the End, their third album and first for influential U.K. tastemakers 4AD. The cool, noisy post-punk of their last offering, 2013's Total Nite, has been jettisoned in favor of 2014's most referenced aesthetic: the late '80s. Between the cassette and mom-jeans revival and the myriad young acts aping everyone from the Smiths to Rick Astley, it would be easy to dismiss the Tampa Bay natives for buying into an increasingly visible trend.
Every showy move on Merchandise’s part gives the impression that they at least feel like one of the biggest bands in the world. They’ve some way to go, of course. ‘After The End’ is the Florida band’s first album on 4AD, following years of low-key releases. It also happens to be their first with a drummer (Elsner Niño) and they’ve even added that all-important saxophonist, Chris Horn (also on guitars and keys).
In 2011, musing on how his former peers on the Tampa Bay hardcore scene might view the forthcoming Merchandise album, Children of Desire, frontman Carson Cox was not wildly optimistic. "The punks," he told one journalist, "will probably hate it." Merchandise may never have been a punk band, but Cox and his bandmates were certainly once punks: they played in various hardcore and powerviolence guises in a scene known for its strict ethical code regarding DIY principles and rejecting the mainstream. It's probably stating the obvious to say that part of that code is that you don't jack it all in to form an indiepop band.
Ever since Merchandise earned national recognition in 2012 with their sophomore effort, Children of Desire, they’ve been billed as a punk band gone pop. Sure, Desire had moments of pure noise that recalled their Florida DIY roots, but on the whole, these were pop songs that unfurled over the course of seven to 10 minutes. Their 2013 EP, Totale Nite, continued this trend, but mixed it with swirls of psychedelia, krautrock, and jazzy freak-outs.
There’s something of a throwback feel to Merchandise‘s fourth album, but possibly not in the way their hardcore fans may be hoping for. For, when the four-piece started out, they were thrown together by the Florida punk scene, having previously played in a succession of noise and hardcore bands. And, while Merchandise may never have been truly punk, they were certainly noisy and intimidating.
We tend to measure the speed of 21st-century living by the furious rate of cultural output, but an even more accurate gauge is how quickly once-entrenched ideals can change. To wit, in a July 2012 interview with Pitchfork, Carson Cox of Tampa post-punk outfit Merchandise offered up this definition of success: “There’s a new warehouse space called Cyborg City, where we just played an amazing show. There were a ton of fucking people there.
None of Merchandise's recorded output thus far has done justice to just how much of an asshole Carson Cox is on stage. That's not a slight — Cox and his band come from a world of punk antagonism, yet their records never really managed to capture that kind of discord in song. Seeing the band live, Cox's gilded croon is just as often delivered through clenched jaw as it is from a drunken smirk, a dynamic that's part of the band's charm and what's kept listeners around after 2013's meandering misstep, Totale Nite.On After The End, Merchandise approach much more pop-oriented sounds and structures, allowing them to explore a more charismatic range of emotion that was lost on previous records to a miasma of tape hiss and formless songs.
The musical route most post-punk acts take usually begins with artful spontaneity, possessing little refinement and technique in favor of jagged melodic fragments. Merchandise weren’t any different when they got their start, and it wasn’t until they released Children of Desire that they began to find their true identity, which quickly received high praise for its lawless treatment of coal-black synth pop. It was another nonconformist step forward for the Tampa foursome - not to mention a major treachery for those who had been following their beginnings as part of the local DIY hardcore scene - who willingly obscured any sense of tuneful clarity by drenching their sound with a thick and murky atmosphere.
Tampa trio Merchandise, much like The Horrors, seemingly can’t keep still. Also like The Horrors, they’ve gone grand, dreamy and oh-so melodic on their 2014 LP. For Merchandise, After The End sees the three-piece depart further from their ear-battering starting position. Where they once thrashed around like a cod in a net through hardcore, punk, post-punk, noise pop and rock, as they headed towards the present day they seemingly softened, their edges blunted by the allure of beauty.
This post-punk crew has been a familiar presence on Florida's DIY scene for years, but on its first release with a bigtime record label, you'd hardly recognize Merchandise as the band that was playing ferocious shows in storage units just a few years back. Crescendoing tracks like "True Monument" sound positively lush – at least if you ignore the dopey lyrics about "the cruelty of kindness" and other clichés. Still, some songs, like "Little Killer," maintain the basement-party vibe of the band's earlier work while adding a fresh polish; the heartfelt, musically adventurous "Looking Glass Waltz" stands out as a highlight, save for an odd accordion that might have been best left in storage.
This Google-proof quintet grew out of the fiercely independent punk scene in Tampa, Florida. Now they've signed to a prominent British indie label and announced intentions to remake themselves as a pop band. Very little about their fourth album proper alerts you to their roots or cited influences (Miles Davis, Caruso). This is beautifully produced but ponderous guitar-pop, lacking the spark of their earlier work.
Merchandise knows a thing or two about staying in one place. Though it often seems the band has no love for their Tampa hometown (in an interview with Dazed & Confused, frontman Carson Cox called it a “cultural wasteland”), they’ve spent their entire lives in the Florida city. Drummer Elsner Niño said he couldn’t convince them to relocate. But while the band’s strip-mall surroundings and small home studio haven’t changed, with After The End, their sound has.The band’s third LP (and its first for 4AD) had a lot to live up to, given the game-changing success of Merchandise’s sophomore effort, 2012’s Children Of Desire.
opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS There’s a point just over 20 seconds into the Cure’s “Plainsong,” the opening track of their career peak Disintegration, in which an orchestra-sized synth line suddenly unfurls, swathed by some of the most luxuriantly rounded bass tones ever heard on record. It could be the sound of night reversing into day, a monochrome world turning to color, or maybe the entire earth being tilted off its axis like an upturned snow globe. It also permanently announced the death of any trace of the band’s minimalist beginnings.