“Super-group” Rival Schools’ 2001 debut, United by Fate, was a sub-genre album in a pre-micro-scene era. Whoa. Too much critic jargon? Let me explain. Those who knew Rival Schools’ lineage from hardcore acts Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today to “post-hardcore” acts CIV and Quicksand were part of a small community. The band received modest exposure on MTV, but was not destined to be “that band,” let alone one you “heard about.” The specificity of the group’s appeal worked in its favor by currying fervent praise, but hardly expanded the fan-base. The band recorded some unreleased follow-up material and gradually fizzled out. In a strange way, the band’s rollercoaster ascent and descent mirrors the rapid life-cycle of today’s Internet-born hyped bands and hyper movements.
Rival Schools reunited in 2008, much to the acclaim of a specific group of fans. The resulting album, Pedals, could have been called “Welcome Back to the Tribe;” it is a nostalgic blast for a certain brand of heavy rock. While stadium-ready versions of this music have since become popularized through pop-rock acts like Dillinger Escape Plan and Fall Out Boy, Pedals is feels pegged to the minor league legacy of its debut and that era.
Fans of Rival Schools circa United by Fate have plenty to cheer about. The up-tempo “Eyes Wide Open” sits comfortably alongside “High Acetate” — both stir together a basic rock beat with chunky and chewy melodies. “Big Waves” provides the half-time pogo anthem that “Good Things” brought to the band’s debut. And lead single “Shot After Shot” is an acceptable representative of Pedals’ aggro-rock side, much as “Used For Glue” signalled the opening salvo of United by Fate. Most surprising is singer/guitarist Walter Schreifels’ cryogenically frozen voice. Tonally, it is remarkably the same. And it still conjures the late-‘90s guitar rock tropes: a hint of rasp with an undercurrent of hurt and a whole load of prettiness.
Pedals’ most distinguishing feature is its greater sense of space. Ian Love’s love of ringing guitars echoes across the album and provides much-needed breathing space between the meaty riffs and big beats. As such, the quieter moments of “Wring It Out” are just as important as its frenetic parts. The band also introduces trace elements of dance music to polish the aggression down, like the skittering disco hi-hat on “69 Guns” and the drum machine claps buried underneath the chorus of “Choose Your Adventure.” To be clear, the album does not engage with dance-rock of the DFA variety. Rather there are modest nods to modern rock’s club influences. These accents are often subtle and barely audible at times, but provide Pedals with more dimensions than the relative blunt force of United by Fate.
Therein lies the problem with Pedals. It is an album that will mostly be heard relative to United by Fate. Rival Schools’ debut seems insurmountable — at the time of the album’s release it captured the momentum of hardcore (both the music and the scene) graduating into a synthesis of aggressive beats, forlorn melodies and maturing ideals. Pedals’ arrival a decade later is more than just late. Late is when you show up to the party just as it’s ending. Pedals is like returning to your old haunts a generation later to find your people long gone and replaced by a familiarly young, yet strangely alien generation.