Vulture Hound Music is looking back at 10 albums which turn 10 years old in 2017. This week Dan Withey looks back at Poison The Well‘s fourth full-length album, Versions…
Portsmouth, November 25th 2004: As the crowd disperses from a packed out venue, I’m stood waiting to grab a chance to speak to some of my idols. The Wedgewood Rooms had just played host to a phenominal double header – The Dillinger Escape Plan and Poison The Well. Dillinger were top of the bill, having just released their first full length album with ‘new’ vocalist Greg Puciato, Miss Machine. It was an album that started their ascent to progressive metal core royalty. Poison The Well, on the other hand, were at a bit of a crossroads.
A year previous they had released what many people saw as their ‘accessible break through’ record; You Come Before You. It was their first (and only) release on a major label, having signed to Atlantic from legendary hardcore label, Trustkill. You Come Before You was an album that added a melodic (and oh so polished) backbone to the hardcore elements of their 1999 genre defining debut, The Oposite Of December. Whilst the gritty and raw emotional edge had faded somewhat, it was still an absolute triumph – much more so than their middling sophomore effort, Tear From The Red. However, a year after its release chief lyricist and guitarist, Derek Miller, quit the band, seemingly at odds with the rest of the band over the direction they were heading.
It was a departure that could have seen the end of the band, however, despite a relentless touring schedule and personnel change, Poison The Well carried on; joining good friends The Dillinger Escape Plan on their European and U.K tour just a few months later. And all seemed well… until the 25th of November 2004…
As I waited to do my fan-boy thing, shyly hanging around by the side of the stage at the end of a frantic evening, I witnessed something that no emotionally imbalanced 19 year old should witness; one of my idols crying… I don’t know exactly what caused PTW guitarist and founder, Ryan Primack to have tears in his eyes, but it appeared he and vocalist Jeffery Moreira were having a ‘civil disagreement’. It was by no means a heated exchange, if anything it looked like an acceptance of defeat. FUCK!! Was i witnessing the break up of my favourite band?! The departure of Derek Miller came as a bit of a shock, but surely everything was okay now? I mean, the gig I just witnessed was every bit as brilliant as I had come to expect from the band. How could they split up now?!
Well, they didn’t (not yet anyway). Two and a half years later they released Versions; the follow up to You Come Before You and their first album post-Miller. It was probably the most accomplished, complete, and near perfect album the band could have possibly made.
Versions was so different to what came before, yet it had everything you wanted from a Poison The Well record. It was technical when it needed to be, yet never far from a memorable vocal melody. It was ferocious and heavy, but never afraid to embrace dynamics and venture into quieter moments. Much like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Poison The Well weren’t constrained by the obvious trappings of hardcore and metalcore, they fully understood how to express emotion in multiple forms; light and dark, soft and hard – but it just so happens that their ‘hard’ was prettyfuckinghard.
Kicking off with ‘Letter Thing’, Chris Hornbrook’s urgent, machine-gun snare introduces an absolute monster of an opening track. The frantic pace doesn’t let up until the track’s mid-point, where Primack’s sustained, slacker guitar simply jams over Moreira’s trademark aggressive shouts. The whole thing breaks out again, led by Hornbrook’s relentless drumming, before coming to a sudden stop at the two minute, thirty second mark. Already you can sense a new lease of life, a slightly different, darker sound in comparison to You Come Before You and Tear From The Red; the urgency behind Moreira’s voice and Hornbrooks drumming, and the new guitar tones coming out of Ryan Primack – it’s definitely Poison The Well, but not as we’ve heard before.
We get a mix of the heavy and softer edges on the second track, ‘Breathing’s For The Birds’, demonstrating Moreira’s deftness when it comes to vocal control; brutal to sweet in a blink of an eye. But it’s on track three, ‘Nagaina’, that we really get to see the full extent of the band’s progression. Honing in the softer, post-hardcore elements they attempted on Tear From The Red, we also get more of that slightly slacker, Americana guitar tone. It all adds up to track that feels like the soundtrack to some death march out into the desert somewhere, rather than just painting another image of a sweaty tightly packed gig venue. This is the point where Poison The Well truly transcended their hardcore roots and moved into something bigger, better, and altogether timeless.
We still get moments of all out aggression on tracks like ‘The Notches That Create Your Headboard’, ‘Composer Meet Corpse’, ‘Prematurito El Baby’, and ‘Naive Monarch’, but we also get more of those surprising moments too with ‘Slow Good Morning’, ‘You Will Not Be Welcomed’, and ‘Riverside’ – the latter even featuring trumpets towards the end of its slow building, track long crescendo. TRUMPETS! ON A POISON THE WELL RECORD! And not the Reel Big Fish kind either, this is some dark Mariachi shit going on here (think desert execution).
Finishing off with ‘The Second Day Of The Rest Of My Life’ – another track with a long, slow build filled with contrasting soft and hard edges – Versions closes on a bed of guitar feedback, almost like the band performed a mic drop at the end of the recording session, as if to say; “you didn’t expect that, did you?” Well back in 2004 after that Portsmouth show I didn’t even think there would be another Poison The Well album, let alone something like Versions – yet two and a half years later here it was surpassing everything the band had done before.
It was an album that captured each member at their career best; Jeffery Moreira had never sounded more brutal and angelic, while the guitar work of Ryan Primack delivered a sound and tone beyond just typical hardcore shredding. However the heartbeat/engine/SOUL of the record emanates from the man behind the drum kit. Chris Hornbrook’s array of complex drum grooves, from ferocious to intricate, drives Versions through every dark shadow and blistering high with absolute precision. As a band, Poison The Well were showing absolutely no signs they we’re a fractured unit.
Maybe the adversity in and around the release of You Come Before You spurred them on. Maybe they had to dismantle in order to re-form, re-focus, and re-capture that ‘thing’ that made them stand out from the metalcore crowd. Whatever the band did in those years after Millers departure (and Ryan’s Portsmouth tears), it worked. Not only that but it worked again two years later in 2009 with Tropic Rot. Following the pretty sound formula Versions laid down, it never quite surpassed its predecessor, but still comes a very credible runner up in the race for the best Poison The Well album.
Tropic Rot would end up being the band’s final album before going on a hiatus in 2010. And although they did get back together for some live shows in 2016 it remains to be seen if they will record any new music.
Derek Miller on the other hand went on to form Sleigh Bells, incase you were wondering, and just to show there were no hard feelings he even joined Poison The Well on stage last year in New York for a rendition of You Come Before You opener, ‘Ghostchant’. Which was nice.