Emo’s first wave was born of the D.C. punk scene in the late 1980s, where it was tagged “emotional hardcore,” before it eventually crept into the Midwest by the early '90s. Here, the genre’s lyrics weren't about distaste for the current political climate—they were narratives of personal trials and heartbreak. The guitar-heavy sound evolved from the loud, fast and aggro of East Coast hardcore to more palatable power-pop hooks and math-rock angularity. Vocals were noticeably untrained, but endearingly earnest.
In this second wave of emo, the niche-but-influential scene was defined by Chicago-based bands such as Braid, Cap ‘n Jazz, Ghosts and Vodka, Joan of Arc, American Football, and the Milwaukee band, The Promise Ring. The coterie of musicians provided the infectious, DIY soundtracks to the Midwest teenage underground throughout the decade, via short runs of 7” singles and LPs released on regional labels, such as Polyvinyl Records in Champaign, IL, back when mail order culture was king.
By the early aughts, the term had been co-opted by suburban fan kids with a commercial agenda, such as Fall Out Boy, and Plain White T’s in Chicagoland. This third-wave emo eventually became a dirty word—synonymous with overproduced histrionics and a self-conscious, navel-gazing aesthetic sold in Hot Topic retailers nationwide.
As its original Midwest practitioners moved on to other projects, the movement’s LPs seemed lost to the record shelves of '90s teens and college radio stations, doomed to collect dust as the third-wave’s sheen rendered emo an increasingly embarrassing and invalid term.
As pessimistic as that all sounds, a new crop of bands and young fans are proving that all is not lost for emo in Chicago. In the last three years, groups comprised of original members of the Midwest’s scene, as well as bright-eyed young upstarts, have exploded on to the local, national, and even international scene to honor the roots of the DIY movement. It can’t hurt that the '90s are en vogue.
A group called Into It. Over It., one of the fourth wave’s best, celebrates the release of a hotly anticipated (and quite good) new record, “Intersections,” this Friday at Schubas. You can stream the full album here.
To mark the occasion, here’s a guide to some of the best of emo in Chicago, a new local genre (again).
Bandleader Evan Weiss is an o.g. (original gangster) scene insider, having played in a few influential punks acts in the mid-to-late '90s such as Up Up Down Down. Currently, he shreds in more fourth-wave acts than can be counted on one hand. His mostly solo vehicle Into It. Over It. is his strongest, and collects the best sonic touchstones of the era, from vulnerable, front-and-center vocals to melodic guitar noodling.
Another solid, power-pop leaning Weiss vehicle (here, he's on the bass) collects original scene king Mike Kinsella of Cap ‘n Jazz and American Football on drums and Matthew Frank of Loose Lips Sink Ships on guitar.
The quartet of newcomers from Rockford, IL deftly embodies the revivalist sound, with earnest vocal crescendo and stair-stepping guitar lines that explode and retract.
Braid frontman Bob Nanna returns with this updated interpretation of his former band, which helped propel emo from the Midwest to national and international waters. Their/They’re/There guitarist Matthew Frank appears here, too.
Another quartet of newcomers influenced by the first Midwest emo has made waves in the underground, packing DIY spaces and basements for the last couple of years.
Inspired? Nostalgic? These Chicago fourth wave acts are worth a spin, too:
Into It. Over It plays Oct. 25 at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave., schubas.com; $16