by Michael T. FournierGarrison spent the late nineties and early years of the twenty-first century in a space that rewarded bands for playing the game, boxing themselves into tiny little spaces for the benefit of a listening base that had by and large grown fat and lazy. Fanzines died, casualties of web pages that had huge bandwidths but didn’t say a damn thing. It was all about the look, the presentation, and the soundbytes provided. What kind of a band are you? Make it simple, make it clear.
Garrison made it honest, made it contradictory and tough and heartfelt and silly and jagged and never made it divisible by a trend or style. They progressed lyrically and musically, and they never put out a bad record.
Maybe that’s why you’ve never heard of them.
Or maybe it’s because music that isn’t easily pigeonholed doesn’t move units. So, then: the fonts, the images that got them lumped into a genre that was already stretching thin under the weight of critical mass.
The mid-nineties found the two cofounders of the band in similar places despite their disparate geographies. Ed McNamara lived amongst the industrial detritus of Worcester, Massachusetts, where he played math-emo epics with his band Iris (along with Guy D’Annolfo, Garrison’s first drummer). McNamara was also the driving force behind the all-ages art/show warehouse that he named simply The Space. Over the course of five-plus years and three incarnations, McNamara and a heady group of volunteers hosted national heavy hitters such as Metroschifter, June of 44, and Thurston Moore while simultaneously providing a tolerant, nurturing all-ages stage for bands from across New England, one of the few consistent, pre-drinking-age venues for the area’s punk and hardcore scenes to gain steam. Bands from the then-nascent Hydra Head label were frequent visitors, as were various acts from Big Wheel Recreation and Espo Records.
In New Hampshire, Joe Grillo practiced obscure time changes in a warehouse practice space with his emo-math-metal band Stricken For Catherine. The New Hampshire music landscape at that point was fairly barren: tons of hippie jam bands playing the UNH campus and Newmarket’s Stone Church; a few pop-punk bands, the Queers and Sinkhole among them, playing the Elvis Room, Portsmouth’s all-ages punk coffeeshop. Despite the seeming lack of middle ground, Stricken For Catherine’s oblique imagery and calculus riffs managed to draw crowds. The band relocated to Boston in 1997. By the summer of 1998, McNamara decided to focus his energy and attention on being in a fulltime band and moved east to 3 Wadsworth Street, a stalwart band house in Allston, Boston’s rock epicenter. Garrison practiced and solidified their inaugural lineup (featuring D’Annolfo and bassist Andy White) as Grillo’s epic emo band wound down their career with the staggering Letters Not Sent. Stricken For Catherine played their final show on June 28, 1998; Garrison played their first the following day.
Grillo and McNamara had been playing for more than a year before their first show. The angular, mathy confines of post-rock had driven both of them back to pop music. They wrote an initial batch of songs that shed many of the intricacies of weird time in favor of heavy, streamlined rock with tinges of pop. The influence of playing years of post-rock was still there, evidenced in rock-solid musicianship, occasional tempo/paradigm shifts, and challenging arrangements, but the initial songs were direct enough to fall under the loose umbrella of post-punk, though not signifier-specific enough to be further pigeonholed.
Garrison’s records still sound fresh after all this time. Take “Serious Heavy Drama,” the first track on the band’s Revelation Records debut. The band’s vocabulary is established quickly: impossibly poppy interstellar Morse Code guitar leads over sheets of beautifully off-kilter post-noise as the rhythm section rumbles, stops, and accents. Metal shavings and remainders from forgotten equations carry and fleck as the EP gently steamrolls to a close. A Mile In Cold Water, Garrison’s first full-length, continues the evolution/experimentation. “Is That A Threat?” swings like a marching band at halftime, “Fuel” howls desperate lament, and “The Dumbest Angel” ticks off coded messages to angry aliens as the kids in the pit try to figure out how to mosh in 5/4 time.
The first two Garrison records had the kids scratching their heads—a band carving out more of its own space with each album on a label that specialized in putting out by-the-numbers hardcore. In the late nineties, if it wasn’t hardcore, it was emo for lack of any better name.
Be A Criminal, Garrison’s second LP, is a landmark of ambition, narration and precision. The band’s early material was ambitious and willing to take (largely successful) stylistic chances. “Criminal,” though, cuts out all the gristle, leaves nothing but amped bare bones in an album-length meditation on criminal behavior in all its myriad forms. There’s not a wasted second in the album’s twenty-eight minutes; each song explores a new illicitness, makes the listener reconsider the notion of law. Pirate radio, as discussed on “Recognize An Opportunity,” is illegal, but the homogenization of the United States is not only legal but encouraged, as discussed in “Know The Locale”: “Each town’s a pop-up stand of everything you need. / Even our accents sound the same. / The crime is fear / A celebration of the words we knew but lost / Called dumb down day.”
The nature of bureaucracy and red tape, prostitution, back-alley cover-ups, plagiarism—all set to a soundtrack that alternately ponders and blazes. Garrison’s music had evolved to the point of cohesion, seamlessly blending the best elements of math rock, pop, shoegaze, and post-punk into a whole that would have been stunning even if there hadn’t been a thematic arc connecting everything on the record. The album’s loping storyline yields new threads on each listen, hidden webs that tie each song together, rewarding you for repeat spins as the band dictates the viewpoints of multiple narrators, daring you to intuit who’s singing and why. J. Robbins’s production generates sonic dividends as well, as nuances and textures continue to reveal themselves over time.
The band’s next two records followed the previously established template of cohesion in a schizophrenic study of both form and function. Two sister EP’s were released, each exploring sonic sides of the same coin. Each EP stands on its own, but the two work better as a unit.
The Model was the first of the pair to be released, a five-song foray into huge sound. The record features the cleanest, biggest production of the band’s career, highlighting Garrison’s guitar pyrotechnics and pop songwriting while maintaining a jagged post-punk sensibility. The title evokes the irony of Elvis Costello even as it tips its cap to the premier scenester dive in the band’s hometown of Allston.
The second EP/flipside, The Silhouette, is the gritty counterpoint to The Model, covered with gutter trash and hopped up on the cheapest shit out there. “Come On Die Young (No Seriously)” works both as a hardcore song and as a parody of one (especially the bit in the middle where McNamara croaks out a convincing solo of nonsense syllables that almost sound like actual lyrics). “God Is Not On Our Side” features keyboards, reprised on “The Closer,” a through-the-wringer distorto-synth-skronk reinterpretation. Once again, playfulness in the title-- The Silhouette is more gritty, less luminous than its counterpart.
Garrison disbanded in early 2004 after playing close to four hundred shows in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Founders Joe Grillo and Ed McNamara are now playing in Gay For Johnny Depp and Campaign For Real time, respectively (and respectfully).
- The Bend Before The Break
- A Mile In Cold Water
- Be A Criminal
- The Model
- The Silhouette
See the official Garrison site
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