Armor For Sleep – ‘The Rain Museum’

By Ian Kenworthy

We’re going to talk about concept records so let’s choose a concept for this review; time capsules. Think about it. They’re an ideal way to describe an album; a brief period in an artist’s life, written, recorded and captured. Listen back and you can hear the creative process, the time it was created, even the band’s age. Enter Armor For Sleep. After reforming they’re back with ‘The Rain Museum’ and, guess what? It’s a concept record, their first in fifteen years. It’s a long time to be away and literally everything has changed.

After cracking open the capsule, you’re hit by a wave of nostalgia; it’s the original line-up, it still features Ben Jorgensen’s striking voice, it’s the same sound – heck, it appears to be record they could have made fifteen years ago, displaced in time. Yet, this isn’t a grubby old relic to gaze upon fondly. The band’s place in the world has changed but the music means something different, and that’s important in understanding why their fourth record is so great, other than it being twelve of the strongest songs the band has ever written, of course.

Back in the mid 2000s every band was trying to leap on the My Chemical Romance bandwagon. You could describe their sound as a ‘nu-emo’ , the era of music that wasn’t really emo, it was sad rock, but sold itself as such. Armor For Sleep stood out; all their albums were built around a concept and this is where we meet their magnum opus, 2005’s ‘What To Do When You’re Dead’. Even a glance at the title explains why it was popular. Nu-emo fans, dressed in black, wore their hearts on their sleeve and sang songs about dying; it couldn’t have been more appealing. Plus, it was atmospheric, filled with rocking songs, subtle guitars and followed a story, and it’s a template for what they’re doing here.

The ‘Rain Museum’ broadly follows two acts, the first is stacked with big, radio-friendly songs. ‘How Far Apart’ and ‘See You On The Other Side’ are ideal alt-rock singles; a little too awkward to be called pop songs but catchy enough so you can quite easily be hooked in. While the album’s second half isn’t shy of large choruses, it leans more heavily on electronic piano ballads, shifting soundscapes and swelling guitars like on ‘I’m Not Myself’ and ‘Rather Drown’. They’re still rock songs but they create an expansive and varied palate, one that isn’t short of ideas. And speaking of ideas, one of the album’s striking features is lead guitarist PJ DeCicco. By approaching each song from a different angle he makes them feel unique without smothering out the other band members. On ‘Spinning Through Time’ and ‘World Burn Down’ he plays big standout lines to fill the space and hook you in, but his work is often quite subtle, sitting the background to add texture like on ‘A Teardrop On The Surface Of The Sun’ where he creates a wall of crackling warmth that effectively captures the song’s aesthetic.

Interestingly, the band’s demise was triggered when their record company told them not to make a concept record, so it’s unsurprising they returned to that approach. Time weighs heavily over it, every single choice has been forced by the passage of time, and yet because the band has regrouped it feels like the perfect follow-on from where their career ended. In this context songs like ‘Whatever Who Cares’ are bleak, but the emotions they capture help broaden the album’s scope.

The band’s 2007 record ‘Smile For Them’ revolves around a Truman Show idea of celebrity and living under other people’s gaze, and its themes play a lot better in the era of social media. The style it’s presented in, however, often feels overblown and nigh-on hysterical, so in many ways ‘The Rain Museum’ is a reaction to it. The concept is more grounded and is based on a short story written by Ben Jorgensen at the time of their aborted follow-up, depicting a post-apocalyptic world where the weather was broken and memories of the past were kept in a museum; it is, essentially, a time capsule.

Jorgensen returned to the story during the 2020 lockdowns and finally completed it last year, in a world wracked by droughts and wildfires; you couldn’t ask for a more timely concept and works as a loose songwriting framework. Each song is structured to follow on, creating a satisfying and thoughtful record but one more like ‘The Black Parade’ than anything King Crimson might have put out. To be clear, this isn’t a bad thing but it feels more like a laser-focused album rather than an epic journey.

While Jorgensen doesn’t address it directly, it’s not hard to see ‘How Far Apart’ with its references to “fields of our youth” and chorus of “I don’t even know you now” is addressing his fans – after all his bandmates have reunited, it’s not about them. Like all the songs here it might be about a museum in the future but the central hook is relatable. As another example, even when he’s directly singing about environmental collapse he makes a big deal of the line “I won’t let go of you”, and that works perfectly in the context of ‘Nu-emo’. It’s canny and thoughtful and self-reflective rather than self-absorbed, making it more mature. Also. many of the songs are from a perspective from which they’re addressing a place in the world rather than desire, yet can be read both ways.

Jorgensen’s singing voice is all about personality. Songs like ‘See You On The Other Side’ use rawness to effectively to transmit emotion and throughout the album he allows a slightly uncomfortable croon to take hold when he needs the lyrics to bite, making many choruses memorable. It’s the slower, softly-spoken ‘New Rainbows’, however, where his tone of voice really shines. It retains the personality as it becomes lofty, weaving around the atmospheric backing to create an intense sense of yearning. You might also be reminded of Something Corporate in the way he sings on ‘Rather Drown’ so fans should also find much to enjoy here.

Technically, ‘The Rain Museum’ is comeback record, and sees the band in a new context, one severed from expectations and probably even their fanbase, thus it’s unsurprising that it has a lot in common with their biggest record. Reverting back to the darker lyrics, the structure and even the style it feels like they’re doing something new but similar. The upshot of all this is that although songs like ‘In This Nightmare Together’ hark back to the band’s most popular material, they work better in new context. It’s an honest, heartfelt emo ballad that capturing the band’s magic, also showing that they’ve grown without losing what it was that made them special in the first place. You also find that ‘Rather Drown’ mirrors their classic song ‘Walking At Night Alone’ in its style, and this is a great choice for new listeners and old fans alike.

Returning to our theme, ‘The Rain Museum’ is filled with interesting ideas that time has only made more relevant. The return of My Chemical Romance and resurgence of their genre means it’s the ideal time for a comeback, and with their more accomplished record Armor For Sleep are well placed to capitalise on it.

Focused and playing to their strengths ‘The Rain Museum’ is heartfelt and angsty without feeling fake. You might think you’re digging up a time capsule, but this is buried treasure just waiting to be discovered.

IAN KENWORTHY

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