I owe what you’re about to read to my friend Ben Murray. Ten years ago, just after this record came out, Ben was in Des Moines with his band Light This City. They had just blown the roof off Vaudeville Mews, and we were hanging out after the show when Ben started telling me about A Wilhelm Scream. He knew I was into bands like Strung Out — fast, melodic punk bands with intricate guitar work — and he basically forced me to go out the next day and buy Career Suicide. He was 100% sure I would love it, and though I don’t usually let people tell me what to purchase, I trusted this wild young man’s rantings.
I have stayed in touch with Ben, mostly through the work of his fantastic bands Heartsounds and Wilderness Dream (they both put out new records this year, and you should get into those immediately). But even if he had just stopped playing music completely, I would feel forever connected to him because he was right: I fell head over heels for Career Suicide the very second I played it. This was the same year I finally bought an iPod, and my favorite feature of the iPod was how it would show me on iTunes how many times I had listened to certain songs. My favorite songs of that winter got 6 or 7 plays, while all of the songs off Career Suicide got something like 16 or 17. I simply couldn’t stop.
I became fixated on how A Wilhelm Scream wrote their songs, as it seemed infinitely more complex than anything I had ever tried on my own. Guitarist Trevor Reilly apparently wrote most of it, but none of it could be done without a collective group being firmly on the same page. “5 to 9” begins with sharp stop-and-start dynamics, then takes off into the punk stratosphere, and at the very end of the song the band seems to be unanimously unsure of how to finish this thing. It’s like three little parts that flail around and then fade…and then they get one last little blast in before it’s done. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so terrifyingly precise.
The centerpiece of the record is “The Horse,” a nearly-five-minute epic that shows absolutely everything A Wilhelm Scream can do. A blazing-fast intro gives way to dizzying finger-tapping from bassist Brian Robinson as Nuno Pereira and Reilly harmonize over him, and then Robinson goes to playing a simple bass rhythm as Reilly and other guitarist Christopher Levesque play that same crazy finger-tapping riff in harmony. A couple choruses go by, followed by a stirring 90-second instrumental middle section. Then as Reilly and Levesque do a whole new finger-tapping riff that makes your head spin, Pereira sings an impossibly steady string of maladies and medications meant to show (what I think is) the hubris of a manic episode: “Foal scours. Paralysis. Puncture site abscesses. Sodium pentobarbitol. Euphoriants. Glutamine. Zithromax. Cialis. Celebrex. No one is safe ’til my horse wins again.” The effect is exhilarating.
Pereira co-writes the lyrics with Reilly, and simple pop-punk cadences and topics are not enough for them. Pereira’s natural grit behind his voice would make it impossible for them to write love songs anyway. Thus, A Wilhelm Scream’s songs are often snarky word jumbles that tell you a hundred jokes and riddles before you can even realize what is happening. “Jaws 3, People 0” is a showcase for Pereira’s ability to cram as many words as possible into two minutes. I pored over the lyric sheet on this song and actually challenged myself to learn every word. Ten years later, I can still do it, and it’s so fun, especially because many of these lyrics are lowbrow nonsense: “And like a drunk spills Boone’s on his varsity letter, can we forgive a ship of fools for what they don’t know better? I guess not. Man, I hope he’ll piss himself.”
I also need to call special attention to “Our Ghosts (Contemporary/Consensual)” and its middle section that absolutely floors me every time I hear it. I get goosebumps and do weird things with my body. In the video here, it starts at 1:05 and only lasts 20 seconds, but in that short time they fit a dizzying array of words in there — words that are so satisfying to have roll off my tongue along with a start-stop riff that then gets a melodic octave riff on top of it. Moments like these that create a literal feeling of magic within me are difficult to explain, so I’ll just hope that I’ve done it justice.
And I have that same hope for how I’ve talked about Career Suicide as a whole: I hope this makes at least some sense to you. To most people, this is just an obscure pop-punk band with a singer they don’t like very much. Some might look at me and be like, “Uhh, you ranked this thing 20 spots ahead of like, Led Zeppelin and Van Morrison and shit? That’s super weird.” And yes, it is. But more than probably any of the next 15 records I’ll discuss before the end of 2017, Career Suicide is a prime example of what it is to be in a small minority of fans who worship and adore a record because it struck every right chord within them, and dozens of listens later it continues to provide that same resonation. I’ll be in my late 60’s, trudging into my local YMCA to get on an elliptical I hate, but if I put on A Wilhelm Scream, I guarantee my arthritic ass will get moving a little bit harder. Some drugs never get weaker.