The Scope of All This Revival

I attended night one of The Hotelier and Foxing's 10-year-anniversary tour for 'The Albatross' and 'Home, Like No Place Is There.' I had thoughts.

The Scope of All This Revival

"Both of these albums meant a lot to me at one point." It's happening. I'm going to 10-year-anniversary tours where people my age are saying shit like that. Getting wistful about the music we screamed and jumped along to in basements and bars in our late teens and early twenties. And are now paying to see those albums played in full at bigger clubs to older crowds, where everyone's cordially invited to attend by the beckoning hand of nostalgia.

It's a fact of aging. A process every music fan has to reckon with once they approach 30. But I gotta say, it's a little freaky that the emo revival is now having its moment of retrospect. Earlier this year, The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die broke the seal and took their 2013 masterpiece, Whenever, If Ever, out for a celebratory spin around the country. Now, it's The Hotelier and Foxing's turn. The two bands just kicked off a 10-year-anniversary run for their era-defining breakthroughs, The Albatross and Home, Like No Place Is There, and I was there for opening night in Pittsburgh on November 1st.

In 2014, those two bands did a co-headlining tour in support of those same albums. Little Big League, the old band of Japanese Breakfast superstar Michelle Zauner, was the support act. A lot has changed since then. Foxing have pushed forward full-force, releasing three additional, increasingly ambitious albums. They've been vocal about wanting to make their band as big as possible, and the widening scope of their music and the consistency of their touring speaks to that. The Hotelier only released one album since HLNPIT, 2016's sun-drenched Goodness. They toured a decent bit after its release and then slowed to a halt, barely playing or doing anything between 2019 and now.

I've been a Foxing skeptic for a long time. I was the perfect age to get into The Albatross when it came out, but neither that album nor its 2015 follow-up, Dealer, ever made positive impressions on me. I fell for Foxing's post-rocky emo revival peers in TWIABP instead, whose songs were more exciting, relatable and life-affirming (as all great emo should be) to me. In 2018, Foxing released Nearer My God and I felt like the only guy in the room who didn't get it. Again, I was the prime demographic for a fence-swinging-emo-band-uncouples-from-emo-and-makes-grandiose-indie-rock album, but I shrugged it off. I'd eventually see the error in my ways.

In 2019, I saw Foxing play the same room they played the other night (Mr. Smalls Theater) to almost half the amount of people. It was a noticeably sparse turnout for a show at that venue. The band slayed, and the Nearer My God standouts finally connected with me. But the half-empty room confirmed that the album didn't have the seismic impact many of us in the Music Journo emo trenches thought it would. In 2021, Foxing swung again. They released Draw Down the Moon, a transparent stab at the type of festival indie-pop that made faceless bands stars in the first half of the 2010s.

Compared to the dense and ornate Nearer My God, the songs on Draw Down the Moon were narcotically catchy and straightforward. I loved it. I'm not going to say it's Foxing's best record because I think Nearer My God is a more impressive body of work, but Draw Down the Moon is by far my favorite Foxing record. It's littered with propulsive, blindingly hooky songs that capture the wind-knocking power of seeing them live, and also supplied the band with an arsenal of new showstoppers. Sadly, it didn't seem to resonate with Foxing's core base, nor did it break Foxing into the market of aging millennials who still have M83's "Midnight City" on their gym playlists and who describe Walk the Moon as an Indie Band. Some of those Drawn Down the Moon songs could've (see: should've) resonated that way, but they didn't. So it goes.

In so many ways, The Hotelier had the complete opposite trajectory. The Albatross and Home, Like No Place Is There (released a few months later in February 2014) arrived just before the emo revival's second wave began cresting. There was a genuine appetite for that type of music, among fans and critics alike, and both of those records were tangible proof that this scene of buzzy bands who had a reverence for Nineties emo and the ambitious gusto of 2000s indie-rock weren't just blowing smoke. Even though I don't like The Albatross, it's undeniably as much of a landmark record as HLNPIT, and together, I think The Hotelier and Foxing planted a stake in the zeitgeist that would propel the feeling of the emo revival along for another couple years.

You could argue it came to a conclusion in 2015 with Foxing's darker, more eclectic Dealer and TWIABP's breathtaking Harmlessness, two albums that are probably more indie than emo. But I think The Hotelier's Goodness is the final Emo Revival album, and the way in which The Hotelier gradually, shruggingly receded into the background after its release is also meaningful. Goodness was every bit as much a form-bending exhaustion of creative energy as Dealer and Harmlessness were, but in some ways it was even more head-scratching. A nudist colony on the cover art, interludes titled after mysterious coordinates, that awkwardly isolated drum beat on "Goodness, Pt. 2", the wiry crescendo in "Sun," the gospel-esque refrain of "You In This Light," and without any screamo parts like on HLNPIT, the band's red-lining peaks of harsh intensity were swapped in for tranquil valleys of minimalist serenity like "Opening Mail for My Grandmother" and "Fear of Good."

In retrospect, the album isn't as weird as I thought it was when it came out, but when Goodness dropped, it felt like a decisive vibe shift. Like the end of one thing and the start of another. And then, just like the pecking snare thwacks that unsurely conclude "Goodness, Pt. 2", whatever The Hotelier seemed to be building toward just...fizzled away. While Foxing doubled-down on their aspirations and delivered two increasingly grandiose new opuses, The Hotelier let fans chew on Goodness indefinitely while singer-songwriter Christian Holden drifted away from music and found great success as a competitive poker player. They never formally broke up or announced a hiatus, but until this spate of 2023 dates, they hadn't toured since 2018, and Goodness remains their final offering.

So there's a lot of excitement for this tour with Foxing. Not only are these two bands performing their most beloved albums (HLNPIT dwarves Goodness in sheer Spotify streams, and The Albatross is clearly Foxing's most enduring work by the same metric) in full, but it's also a quasi-reunion for The Hotelier. Before I arrived at the venue the other night, I wasn't sure which group would be headlining. Anecdotally, The Hotelier's return itself seemed more eventful than either of the evening's promised setlists, but I also wasn't sure how popular The Hotelier actually still are. Especially compared to Foxing, who've remained incredibly active in the years since The Hotelier went off the grid.

The first thing I noticed when I walked in the door was how crowded the room was. It wasn't totally sold out, but for that venue on a Wednesday night, it was the kind of draw that confirmed something special was happening on that stage. The room was filled with the most familiar faces I've seen at any post-lockdown show I've been to. The emo revival vets were out in full force, but there was also a swarm of younger folks who lost their shit and started pitting during the Hotelier ragers. But as for the night's order, Foxing went first.

As everyone in the venue predicted, Foxing began their set with Albatross opener "Bloodhound," and there was an audible rustling of, "aah, yesss", bubbling throughout the crowd. The band plucked away dutifully as frontman Connor Murphy swayed and creaked into the microphone, all while a giant video clip of three white dogs galloping in slow-motion projected on the screen behind them.

For every song, Foxing had a different hi-def video snippet on the screen. At their best, the visuals made the set feel more immersive and special than it would've if they just had a static backdrop of The Albatross cover. There was drone footage of forest treetops, close-ups of honeybees feeding, and horses flexing their manes that popped up during the Nearer My God songs the band played after The Albatross. Those ones heightened the awe of Foxing's most stately musical crescendos, but there were also a lot of [YouTube->search->"trippy videos"] that felt cheesy and forced. At the end of "Bloodhound," the fluffy dog burst into stardust, for some reason, and at another point a disorienting loop of a fractal zoom became so overbearing that I had to look away from the stage to regain my focus.

And I'm not sure whether this was a mistake on the venue's part or the band's, but the videos were all being projected at a width and height that was way too big to fit on the square screen behind the drum kit. At any given moment, half the image was bleeding over onto the brown church walls where it was basically invisible. It felt like a too-perfect metaphor for Foxing's whole story, this band whose grand artistic vision is literally bursting from the containers they reside in.

Awkward visual accompaniments aside, there's no denying that Foxing have the juice as a live band. My biggest issue with The Albatross as a record is that all the moments that should sound dynamically massive sound flat, but live, they really know how to dig into the slow parts and then flick the shovel to splatter the dirt like fireworks when the songs explode. Whenever Murphy pulled out the trumpet the true believers in the audience lost their shit, and it's hard to be a hater when he's bleating, "So whyyyy don't you love me back?" during the towering climax of "Rory."

That said, after the heavy-hitters at the top of the album ("The Medic," "Inuit," "Rory") were done, the crowd's reaction tempered. Even my friends who love The Albatross acknowledge that it's a top-heavy record, and it felt like the room's attention was drifting during the last few Albatross numbers. Its closer, "Quietus," is particularly underwhelming both live and on recording. It doesn't sound like a closer in the way, say, "Dendron" or "Getting Sodas" do, and it caught me off-guard when Murphy paused after that song to thank the audience and announce their transition into the non-Albatross portion of the set.

The band played four songs during that section; three from Nearer My God ("Grand Paradise," "Lich Prince" and "Nearer My God") and one from Drawn Down the Moon ("Beacons"). In my opinion, all of them are abundantly stronger than anything on The Albatross. Even so, the response from the room felt tepid. A few arms shot into the air during the NMG knockouts, but I was one of maybe five people (including two of my friends) who visibly knew the words to "Beacons," a magnificently catchy love song that, in a different timeline, Foxing would be plowing through during an awkward day-time set at Coachella.

It was clear that the Foxing fans in the room were mostly there to hear The Albatross, but most of that room was there for The Hotelier. I didn't see a single soul leave after Foxing's set, and before The Hotelier had even played their encore, there was already a sizeable line forming at their merch booth. You didn't have to wait to go up and snag Foxing's Albatross merch.

In many ways, The Hotelier's performance was the photo inverse of Foxing's. After taking their time to casually tune and mic-check, everyone expected the first words out of Holden's mouth to be "o-PEN! The! CURTAINS!". So we were thrown when the band actually began with "Goodness, Pt. 1", and then played a mix of songs off Goodness and their first album, It Never Goes Out, before getting into the main course. I'd say those tracks garnered about the same reaction as Foxing's Albatross songs. People were murmuring along to the "sustaaaain" part of "Piano Player," and old-school cuts like "Vacancy" and "Weathered" got a few heads bobbing. But the response wasn't crazy.

Once "An Introduction to the Album" finally arrived, a shaky-voiced chorus of fans joined Holden for all the song's wordy verses. From that point forward, there wasn't a single track that caused eyes to glaze over. I hadn't seen The Hotelier since 2014, when they opened for Modern Baseball and Tiny Moving Parts at a small club in Rochester, NY, a few months after HLNPIT had dropped. The record had some internet hype at that point, but I only recall a small cluster of scenesters who were upfront singing along. Obviously, a lot of time has passed since then, but the 2023 show was a totally different experience. The devotion of the audience was palpable. I know that record pretty damn well and there're still so many lines that I just mush-mouth through because the phrasings are dense and tricky. I was put to shame by people who unconsciously recited every syllable, the way people sing when they've heard a song a thousand times before, and will go on to hear many thousand times more. These are songs that will live with people forever.

Unlike Foxing's set, the focus was almost entirely on the band. The projector screen lit up at the top of their set and displayed some VHS-quality footage of a deer puttering through woods, but then it went blank until the HLNPIT tracks began. Even then, it flickered on and off, showing glimpses of the word "home" being scribbled on a house, or some shaky-cam footage of flowers and bramble. Foxing used cinematic shots from above the treetops. The Hotelier used scrappy home footage of someone gently rustling through the forest floor. I can't think of a better analogue for their two diverging career paths.

Overall, I think the bands' contrasts complemented one another. Murphy gave sincere speeches in between every few songs, earnestly reflecting on the band's past, what The Albatross has allowed them to do and the first tour they did with the Hotelier. Holden seemed more relaxed and chipper. I didn't expect that. If anything, I think the Hotelier's last major maneuver, 2016's Goodness, was the most sincere, utopian and esoteric album from the Revival. When that record came out Holden was living in an anarchist commune. I wasn't sure if he was going to get all new-age on us up there, or if he'd just be aloof and standoffish. It had been years since The Hotelier toured. Would their nerves be visible? Are they just going through the motions? Is this tour a testing of the waters to see if they even want to be doing this at all anymore?

It seems like they genuinely do! Despite their time away, the band — now a five-piece — sounded incredibly energized onstage. Holden joked in between songs and displayed the type of cool composure that you usually only get from year-round touring musicians. At one point he earnestly remarked, "I'm having fun!" and quipped about how underrated the concept of fun is. "Fun" isn't a word I'd use to describe songs like "Your Deep Rest" and "Housebroken." "I carry around this weight of broken hope" isn't a "fun" lyric. Sure, they have an album called Goodness, but it's more of a search for joy and meaning than a celebratory bask in pure ecstasy. It's bright, hopeful, beautiful — but not fun.

But yeah, he's right. Seeing The Hotelier was fucking fun. Scream-singing, "I called in SIICK/From your fUUUnerAAAl" is fun. Seeing a bunch of young twenty-somethings mosh to "Life in Drag" is fun. Undulating back and forth to that wonderfully swung rhythm of "Housebroken" is fun. Seeing that band play some of the saddest music I've ever heard was fun.