Setting the scene
The energy in the air is palpable at Tubby Dog, one of downtown Calgary’s landmark restaurants.
The mid-sized shop is awash in the neon glow of retro arcade games. Over the speakers, loud D-I-Y punk music blasts frantically. The walls are adorned with framed posters of dancing wieners, each frozen mid-jig with an ever-smiling face.
At the counter, men in toques sell hot dogs covered in an array of outlandish ingredients: from the original “Tubby Dog” (homemade chili, bacon, cheese, onions, and mustard), to the more unusual “PBJ” (peanut butter & jelly, with the option to add Captain Crunch).
But these inventive creations are not why the room is slowly beginning to fill today.
Tables and chairs have been cleared aside, and along the curtained back wall of the shop a makeshift stage has been revealed with an array of amplifiers, microphones, and instruments now being assembled.
Hungry patrons continue to trickle in but are now being asked if they’re here for the show, and if so, the price is $10 a head.
There are four bands scheduled to play this evening: Novelty, an emo/pop-punk band from Calgary; Roseaca, an emotive/hardcore screamo group from Victoria, B.C.; I Hate Sex, a screamo band from Edmonton, Alta; and Heavy Weather, a local band that combines elements of screamo, post-rock, and math-rock.
For many, it is an event that would have been difficult to imagine a few short years ago. However, due to an unwavering dedication among its members, this gathering is determined to deny a genre its swansong.
Making a comeback
Scenes like this are growing in popularity in Calgary and across southern Alberta due to a renewed interest in emotive hardcore — known colloquially as “emo” — a genre that was once considered dying by some, and dead by others.
Sound checks begin. Microphone levels are tested with the usual stuttering format. Guitars are tuned, pondered, and tuned again. The scattered strikes of drums reverberate off the walls like rifle-fire.
The room has reached capacity, and the crowd gathers close in the tight quarters of the hotdog shop-turned-music-venue.
This wall-to-wall collection of young and diverse concertgoers, frozen in anticipation, makes for a captivating tableau; one that differs vastly from the loom of the western-themed Calgarian world outside.
Mark O’Brien, 19, is the lead vocalist and one of the guitarists for Heavy Weather, a Calgary band formed in early 2015 that combines elements of screamo, post-rock, and math-rock. Next to him are two of the groups’ five band members: Will Lloyd, 18, who also plays the guitar, and Shoji “Sho” Blunderfield, 19, who plays the bass. Of those missing are Jasper Kasper, 18, who plays the keyboard, and Ben Hallam, 19, who plays drums.
“Honestly, I find that when I perform in small venues and there’s a lot of people who are really stoked about it, I really get into the performance. Yesterday, when I was screaming off the very end of the set [at Tubby Dog], that was not planned. That’s just me going for it,” says Mark O’Brien, recalling the previous evening.
“I’m really trying to reach the essence of what I was going for in the lyrics or the feel of the song, you know? In larger venues I really can’t get that,” he adds.
“Just being up on a bigger stage and having huge lights in your face, you just lose such a connection with the people in front of you. Being able to see their faces and see them, however they react to it, just kind of gets an energy flowing,” says Blunderfield.
Heavy Weather is part of Calgary’s growing underground emo scene, a genre of music which is characterized by its use of technical musical arrangements, frantic tempo, and passionately spoken, shouted, or screamed lyrics.
Defining their sound
Though O’Brien, Lloyd, and Blunderfield agree that it’s hard to identify themselves by a single genre.
“I mean you can generalize this as being emo or screamo, but there’s influences from so many [genres]. Obviously there’s some post-rock. We have just some straight up post-rock songs, and there’s obviously math-rock influences,” says Lloyd, to which the other two agree.
Post-rock is characterized by its focus on extended instrumental pieces, where the focus isn’t necessarily the vocal accompaniment; math-rock, by its technical structure and irregular rhythm.
The genre of emotive hardcore began gaining traction in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s where bands from Washington, D.C. like the now-defunct Rites of Spring, and Fugazi, on an indefinite hiatus since 2003, took the already-established genre of punk and added emotionally charged and often confessional lyrics.
This lead to a steady rise in popularity throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium, before going mainstream during the mid-00’s, and finally tapering off by the end of the decade.
Rising from the ashes
However, Lloyd, who also co-ordinates emo shows in southern Alberta says he has noticed a rekindled interest in the genre.
“A few years ago [emo] was definitely prominent and there was a really strong D-I-Y ethic, and then I think it really died, like it died hard,” admits Lloyd, acknowledging the resurgence in Alberta to be the result of a dedicated front of musicians and fans, many of whom are from Edmonton.
“I’ve been trying to shove it down Calgary’s throat a bit”, he chuckles.
Another reason for the growing interest in Calgary’s emo scene includes the combined effort of those involved in providing safe spaces, or spaces free from “oppressive bullshit” as indicated by the event’s Facebook page.
Heavy Weather is just one of a growing list of musicians across North America who have taken up the fight to rekindle the embers of the “emo” genre — some coming out of retirement to do so.
Groups such as Illinois-based emo/math-rock outfit American Football, who began touring again in 2014 after a 14-year hiatus; and The Wrens, from New Jersey, who are releasing their highly anticipated new album, yet unnamed, this year after nearly a decade and a half, have gained significant popularity thanks to internet forums and word of mouth.
There are an influx of newer acts in the genre as well. Connecticut-based emo band The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die released their acclaimed sophomore album Harmlessness last year following the success of their debut studio album Whenever, If Ever in 2013.
So far, Heavy Weather has released one self-titled tape comprised of three songs, though they plan to release their next project on vinyl. They’ve recently released a split 7” record with The Hope and The Failure, a screamo/hardcore band from Stockholm, Sweden, reuniting after a 10-year hiatus.
Heavy Weather toured Canada in August, something that Lloyd said they were determined to do.
It is this determination, a shared trait among bands like Heavy Weather and others across Western Canada, that continues to pull the genre of emo back from the brink of extinction.
The editor responsible for this article is Karina Yaceyko and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ben Hallam as Dan. The Calgary Journal regrets the error.