Looking back at Counterparts' first record, 'Prophets,' ten years after the fact.
For metalcore fans, the 2000s were a wild ride. Swept up in the wide-ranging, turn-of-the-millennium cultural transformation propelled along by the proliferation of the Internet as a musical conduit, demographic shifts, and the inevitable rise of social media, the often-maligned sub-genre rose from veritable obscurity within existing hardcore and metal communities throughout the decade to become a worldwide juggernaut.
In just a few short years, third-wave metalcore acts broke through the elusive mainstream ceiling to land on traditional media platforms like radio and television across the globe. Others comfortably secured Top 200 Billboard placements and successfully garnered Grammy nominations, while many graduated from sweaty basement shows and All-Ages town halls to push their careers into the coveted arena rock landscape.
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And yet, as the 2000s drew to a close, metalcore was at a crossroads and change was in the air. The established old guard — Killswitch Engage, Avenged Sevenfold, Caliban, Unearth, Bleeding Through, Trivium, As I Lay Dying, Bullet For My Valentine, Shadow’s Fall, Atreyu — were all facing the prospect of creative stagnation and diminishing returns. Elsewhere, the burgeoning sub-genre of deathcore was well and truly ascendant, with acts like Suicide Silence, Whitechapel, Carnifex, Job For A Cowboy and Thy Art Is Murder pushing the disparate influences of metalcore into new sonic extremes. A quick survey of landmark releases from 2009 demonstrates the rift present in the state metalcore at the end of the decade, while also highlighting the sub-genres new guard, who would eventually rise in the vacuum of the looming 2010s: Architects’ ‘Hollow Crown’; A Day To Remember’s ‘Homesick’; The Devil Wears Prada’s ‘With Roots Above and Branches Below’; For The Fallen Dreams’ ‘Relentless’; Asking Alexandria’s ‘Stand Up and Scream’; We Came As Romans’ ‘To Plant A Seed’. All of this is to say that no one expected one of the last great metalcore records of the 2000s to come out of Hamilton, Ontario in early 2010.
Enter Counterparts. Originally founded in 2007 under the names Brigade and Sharia, the Canadian quintet would release their debut full-length album ‘Prophets’ through Verona Records on February 23rd, 2010, while most of the band’s members — bassist Eric Bazinet, rhythm guitarist/clean vocalist Alex Re, drummer Ryan Juntilla, lead guitarist Jesse Doreen and lead vocalist Brendan Murphy — were still finishing high school. With the support of then-manager and label head, Silverstein frontman Shane Told, ‘Prophets’ became the initial launch-pad for Counterparts as an established act, with a hectic touring schedule taking them across Canada and the United States.
However, to truly understand the influence and impact of ‘Prophets’ on both the metalcore scene and band themselves, we need to narrow our search down to three key band releases. As Murphy notes, Counterparts have always tried to “emulate the late 90’s to mid-2000’s metalcore sound, [specifically with] bands like Misery Signals, Poison The Well, Shai Hulud, etc.” Reflecting on the band’s early years in an interview with Exclaim magazine, Murphy goes on to detail the appeal of those groups mentioned above and how their influence factored into the creative process for Counterparts:
“Poison the Well and Misery Signals were always able to have super melodic elements and depth alongside simple, hard riffs. It’s better to take that route than be a fucking scientist with your music. A lot of bands think they hit [the] ceiling and need to change it up, switch producers and go record with fucking candles in the dark. We will always try to do the same thing and be better at it…. You don’t have to try and turn the world upside down.”
Across ‘Prophets’, the impact of these two groups is profound and direct, and it’s these notions of authenticity and consistency which have gone on to define landmark albums like 1999’s seminal ‘The Opposite of December’ and 2004’s ‘Of Malice and the Magnum Heart’. The rhythmic time changes, clean choruses and driving power chords on tracks like ‘A Plea: A Promise,’ ‘Sturdy Wings’ and closer ‘Digression’ recall Poison The Well at their most visceral, fist-pumping and cathartic. Meanwhile, the sheer technicality and staccato bludgeoning of heavy hitters like ‘Isolation’ and ‘Only Anchors’ make the Misery Signals worship an obvious touchstone. While instrumental numbers like opener ‘The Reflex Tester’ and ‘Carpe Diem’ don’t quite reach the blissful heights of a song as transcendent as ‘Worlds and Dreams,’ the group still show an ear for beautiful melodic passages throughout ‘Prophets,’ most notably on the mid-point of the Fallout 3-inspired ‘Goodbye, Megaton’ or the outro to ‘The Sanctuary’.
The distinct constant throughout all Counterparts releases is Murphy’s tenure as lead vocalist and lyricist, the genesis of which can be traced back to one unlikely influence: the criminally underrated, Christian melodic hardcore band Saints Never Surrender; and more specifically, their second album, 2008’s ‘Brutus’. In a 2011 interview with Juice magazine, Murphy lists the Fort Wayne, Indiana act as one of his biggest musical influences, alongside groups like Converge, A Textbook Tragedy, and A Sight For Sewn Eyes. And all the hallmarks of Murphy’s vocal style are present on this record: impassioned screams (‘Protector’); a consistent, off-beat cadence (‘Companion’); the contrast between mid-range bark and low-range punctuation (‘Mapping The Years’). Throughout ‘Prophets’ — and his career with Counterparts and END writ large — Murphy continues to expand on this style, with poignant, sincere delivery and heart-on-sleeve lyricism (‘Digression’), and the incorporation of Re’s backing vocals and blood-pumping vocal chants (‘A Plea: A Promise’).
Perhaps the biggest outlier between ‘Prophets’ and the rest of Counterparts’ later releases, is the overwhelming sense of youthful exuberance and positivity found on the record. A cursory glance at the band’s album and song titles to date suggest a number of recurring themes: the passage of time; tragedy; loss; heartache; trust; mental health and personal growth. When asked in a Reddit AMA about whether his feelings ultimately influence the writing of his lyrics (an asinine question, to be honest), Murphy responded by saying:
“I think looking back on writing with a different mindset than when you wrote it is inevitable, you feel me? When I go back and read the ‘Prophets’ and ‘TCWCU’ lyrics I'm like ‘God damn, what was I thinking?’ But if you progress over time, your writing will show that. Nobody knows everything at 18/19 years old. I just write how I feel at the time. The songs serve as a coping mechanism at the time and a memory to look back on in the future. I may not agree with [those] lyrics anymore, but I meant them when I wrote them.”
It's a sentiment which makes the positive messaging on tracks like ‘A Plea: A Promise’ (“If you answer this calling/I promise you that we will remain true to ourselves/And we can put this all behind us/Confide in us, and we'll confide in you/And together we are unstoppable”) and the album’s title track (“We are all prophets in the making/And our legacies are beginning to unfold... I know exactly who I am/And I know exactly what I will become”) all the more resonant and inspirational ten years on.
Ultimately, ‘Prophets’ stands out and above other metalcore records of that time for three reasons: a sincere love and respect for the late 90s/mid-2000s metalcore sound that came before it; inventive and captivating songwriting; and an overall production quality (courtesy of engineer Jordan Valeriote) that makes the record sound just as melodic, heavy and powerful as it ever did back in 2010. Fast forward to 2020, and despite label switch-ups and a revolving door of lineup changes, the group are stronger now than ever, with the release of their sixth album ‘Nothing Left to Love’ in 2019, relentless international touring, and close to 200,000 monthly listeners on Spotify. While Murphy and Re (who returned to the band in 2019 after a six-year absence) remain as sole members from the ‘Prophets’-era lineup, Counterparts have proven themselves to be the definitive contemporary flagbearers of melodic hardcore, and a highly-influential actor in the ever-popular metalcore revival sound throughout the 2010s. And the attentive listener will find traces of their impact and influence in the sounds of groups as diverse as Polaris and In Heart’s Wake, to Napoleon and Renounced.
With so many other acts jumping on the anniversary tour bandwagon, should we expect a ‘Prophets’ tour from Counterparts in 2020? According to Murphy, the answer is a resounding “nah”:
“I ask why? So 30 kids from Barrie can drive up and have a great show? So some guy in Thunder Bay can say he remembers ‘Sturdy Wings?’ If we did that, no one outside of Southern Ontario would care. It’s still a cool record that put us on the map, but too much time has passed. ‘The Opposite of December,’ ‘Of Malice and the Magnum Heart’ and [Parkway Drive’s] ‘Killing With a Smile’ make sense. Those records are timeless. ‘Prophets’ wasn’t huge. It took us from empty shows to shows with 20 people.”
And while that might come as a bummer to some (myself included), at least we’ll always have ‘Prophets’ as a “coping mechanism” and a “memory to look back on in the future.” As Murphy declares on ‘Sturdy Wings’:
Consider this a thank you/For helping us to mold our future selves.
And your words alone are not enough to destroy our commitment.
This is where I belong/This is where we belong.