For decades, the concept of the American Dream has felt like an immutable entity that burst into existence fully formed. But even those concepts that get hammered into society until they become inescapable cliches were constructed from a distinct sociopolitical perspective--a breakdown in the system that post-punk outfit Seriously pick at on their latest, Built Environment, due February 2023 via Earth Libraries. “There are inherent inequities woven into the American Dream, in the ways it was designed, how it was sold to us,” insists bassist/vocalist Chayse Porter. “We want to pull back the curtain on the complacency, vanity, and follies of rugged individualism that sprawl through the suburbs.”
The trio of Porter, Jonathan Crain (guitar/vocals), and Michael Harp (synth/guitar) set that anxious eye immediately at their target with the album’s paranoiac opening track, “Dark Room”. Here and throughout the album, Porter’s bass rains down like chunks of cement onto icy waves of guitar and drum machine, dark new wave harmonies emerging from the mix.
But for every ounce of grit, Seriously know how to balance with Talking Heads funk as on “No Salvation”, or bleary-eyed Talk Talk-esque synthpop, as on “With Delight”. That latter song’s ability to weave acoustic strumming in through the midst of raindrop synth plinks, church bells, and drum machine claps highlights Seriously’s eye for clever pop pleasures. Similarly, “Monument” charges forward on head-banging square-wave riffs, a pure adrenaline shot to the heart. “In the cracks, something grows,” the trio repeat as the track reaches its peak, only to leap off and soar unencumbered. Later, “The Architect” bounces grandiose percussion rolls with wobbly ‘80s bass and samples of bird calls for a slice of oddball chill, a playful meditative moment of escape.
The band’s careful push and pull between the voices and the synths and drum machine add a layer of steady momentum. More than a musical choice, that iconoclastic duality is drawn directly from the trio’s lived experiences. All three members of Seriously were born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, though Porter now splits time in San Francisco, and the album draws its themes from the increasingly entangled dualities of that journey: past and present, North and South, and relentless capitalism and the hope of the DIY scene, where all three have spent years managing venues and art spaces, booking shows, and playing in bands. “Built Environment observes the insularity that technology introduces, the frailty of modern landscapes, and the manufactured dependencies we all crave—what we now know as the American Dream,” Porter explains.
That conflict plays out in the boiling energy of these songs, each of which redoubles live band verve with intensifying electronic structures. The songs were steadily road-tested and rewritten as Seriously rolled across the country, and then strengthened by engineer Brad Timko at Communicating Vessels studio in Birmingham. Recorded and mixed entirely analog to tape, Built Environment employs complex layering while retaining a raw, organic edge. “It was an adventure employing ancient equipment in a studio setting,” Porter says. “Some things, like our Alesis HR-16 drum machine from the mid-’80s, proved to be quite fussy when translating to tape. It took at least 2 full-weekend sessions just to capture that.”
That work pays off on propulsive songs like the standout “What if the Dream Comes True?”. The jagged interplay between vocals and guitar carries the weight, while a wash of synths stretches out limitlessly. Even the six-minute title track feels entropic in its constant pushing at the edges, a smoldering core buoyed by an ascending chord progression.
After decrying the pains of life under the oppressive assumptions and inequalities of America, closing track “Under the Boot of God” offers a painful reminder. “Are we made to suffer/ At the hands of others/ Under the boot of God?” the trio wonder, before twisting the knife just a little deeper: “The god we made ourselves.” It’s a heady cry, one that deserves the thoughtful treatment received here and the repeated unraveling that will follow after the last chorus fades. But yet again, Seriously deliver that subtle pang in a starry night tableau, flashes of whistling, glistening harmonies, and shimmering guitar. In that way, Built Environment draws the listener in closer and closer only to reveal that the one twisting the knife has been yourself all along.