Illustration by Erik Frobom
The year 2006 would prove to be when emo and scene would hit a total fever pitch. By this time, “emo” was all but a household term. Major labels would do everything in their power to try and find the next My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy, signing bands by the dozen in hopes of replicating success. Despite the later mainstream surge of popularity, these bands would start in the trenches with other bands in alternative genres. Themes of darkness and sincerity along with aesthetic choices in swoopy haircuts became common threads, giving heavier bands and poppier acts common ground to play on the same bills (and what huge tours like Warped Tour make bank on). This burgeoning scene of post-hardcore would birth to Denver, CO’s Drop Dead, Gorgeous, a band that would imbue scene and hardcore with a fresh attitude and take on angst.
Ten years ago last May, Drop Dead, Gorgeous released their pivotal, genre influencing record In Vogue. It’s unlikely you’re going to see In Vogue make any conventional critical list of most influential albums, partly because of elitism towards their genre. Despite whatever perceived corniness there may be, Drop Dead, Gorgeous helped perfect a style of post-hardcore that other bands would model themselves after. When the record came out, it sold 50,0000 albums for their label, Rise Records, an unheard number then that easily put them in the forefront of scene. Where other bands in the scene like Escape The Fate and Atreyu would regurgitate the same testosterone tinged bro-rock, Drop Dead, Gorgeous made their mark by putting teenage narcissism and vulnerability into song.
In Vogue is successful in its compactness, a runtime sitting at around half an hour, and several songs being under two minutes. The record opens up with their career-defining “Dressed For Friend Requests” which literally charts the course of post-hardcore bands to come, like Sworn In and Of Mice & Men. “I first heard Drop Dead, Gorgeous on a Rise Records sampler,” says Brendan Murphy, vocalist for Ontario hardcore band Counterparts. “Seems shortly after that everyone’s MySpace song was ‘Dressed For Friend Requests.’ I feel like kids ate it up because of the seemingly perfect balance between heavy screaming verses and catchy as shit sung choruses.”
There’s a sense of grandiosity in its beginning with a piano-laden opener, an instantly arresting breakdown, sugary chorus, and preparation for more thunderous chug chords in under a minute. It proved to be an unconventional recipe for success, stringing together catharsis and anger in quick strides. The concise nature of the songs forgoed typical verse-chorus-verse song structure, instead feeling like a barrage of ADHD dissonant chords and breakdowns too wrapped up in energy to worry about convention. You can feel the youthful excitement of the music, several members of the band were fifteen years old and no one was over eighteen, the thought process of riffs starting and stopping so quickly making total sense.
Their influence was so poignant, because it bridged the gap between the harshness of breakdown bands at the time, with a willingness to get vulnerable for the greater good of their songwriting. Most evidently, it’s seen in the vocals of lead singer Danny Stillman. His voice was unlike anything the genre produced, capable of switching in and out of screams and meter breaking high pitched melodies in the span of the same song. His high tenor range held an almost-beautifulness, using the slight whine of his pitch to create a subversion in its sound “I think people realized you could do more ear bending screaming, and not just bro hardcore type of screaming. You could be a little more emotional about it and he showed you could do it,” says In Vogue producer Kris Crummett. “I pushed Stillman to sing a little more than I think he wanted to, and more higher stuff. I heard him singing high stuff, and I said ‘You need to push the vocals on this. That song, ’Daniel Where’s The Boat,’ the sung vocals were a first take. He just did it, and sang random lyrics. And we listened to it, and it was like “you like it? I love it. Let’s keep going.” His voice lent itself perfectly for the sass the band eschewed, pointing out the obsessive tendencies other teenagers had with MySpace, throwing it back at them with yells of “you’re just jealous.”
The polishing on the record and clean-chaos wonder would help Crummett establish himself as one of the genre’s most important producers, and would help mastermind some of its biggest records. What helped was his approach on the record, allowing what would conventionally be heavy or abrasive elements on a song be accessible. “It was the first time I tried to make a really polished record,” he says. “I never made a polished heavy record like that, I did a lot more rock type stuff. My goal was to do something over the top polished, and my never doing it before met their end of it being their first record.” Crummett would later help produce records of Drop Dead, Gorgeous’s successors, the energy of In Vogue felt in records like Sleeping With Sirens’ break out record Let’s Cheers to This and Issues’ Headspace, albums that would go onto sell exponentially more than what they were influenced by.
In addition to Stillman’s singing, the other most immediate element of the band’s signature sound would be its inclusion of synthesizers and pianos as supplement to the rest of the music. Piano interludes and outros were common palate cleansers in between crushing feats of breakdowns, but it was a rare sight for it to mix in the same song. This was thanks to their keyboardist Aaron Rothe, who had chops that sounded like he better belonged in a symphony than in a sweaty club. On top of the classical compositions, interlaced in several songs are undercurrents of synth-texture, giving extra melody to breaks of space in songs like the record’s closer “The Show Must Go On.”
On paper, the band was set up to breach through the limitations of their genre, but the band’s energy was slowly depleted. A year after In Vogue, the band signed with Suretone Records, a now defunct subsidiary of Interscope that had a roster including The Cure, Angels and Airwaves, and Weezer. For their follow up record, the band’s management had organized the sophomore effort to be produced by Ross Robinson, who was dipping his toes into post-hardcore and metalcore with previous production work on From First to Last’s Heroine and Norma Jean’s Redeemer.
The result was 2007’s Worse Than A Fairy Tale, a record that heavily diverted from the band’s prior work. Gone was the tongue-in-cheek sass of tracks like “Bullets are Scene,” and in its place was an eleven-track concept record around the confessions of a serial killer. It proved to be a dense album for fans to get into and its appeal wasn’t as easily made with In Vogue. “[The record] was kind of a failure financially,” says the band’s later guitarist Jacob Belcher, who joined the band in 2010. “They had such high expectations because In Vogue did so well, and they did that record and saw a huge slump in sales and attendance. After that, I think they wanted to get The Hot N’ Heavy out as soon as possible.”
The Hot N’ Heavy would see the band expand their original sound into their most complex work, songs were written smarter, resulting in real radio contenders like “Two Birds, One Stone.” Despite the shot of energy into songwriting, the renewed interest in the band would slowly die down. After a 2009 headlining tour with He Is Legend, the band would enter a cycle of endless touring with diminishing results. For one of their last tours in 2010, the band was urged by management to do a tour playing In Vogue front to back, in order to regain the attention of fans, although it failed to do so. “We would be with bands on tour, even headlining bands would be like ‘In Vogue is what got me into music, it’s what made us a band.’ And then we did the In Vogue tour and no one even came out,” says Belcher.
The band quietly ended in 2011, their fourth record never materializing. “The intent was to expand out of ‘scene,’ they wanted to stop touring with half the bands we toured with, and we didn’t want to cater to that crowd. By that time kids had lost interest, it had been two years since the last record. We separated from Artery, we didn’t have a label, our booking agent dropped us, so we didn’t have anyone behind us. It just kind of dissolved and that was it,” says Belcher. Today, the trio of Danny Stillman, Aaron Rothe, and Danny Cooper play in the pop-electro trio 888, who recently signed a deal with Island Records and have racked up thousands of plays on Spotify for their lead single “Critical Mistakes,” which came out earlier this spring.
Dissolution aside, In Vogue’s influence would make itself felt in future generations of bands, infecting post-hardcore with its attitude and exploratory, electronic side which later manifested itself in nearly every band in the genre. It also served as an example of the fickle nature of the scene at the time. Fans got behind them just as quickly as they deserted them; if a band ever made a misstep, their style and attitude would be cannibalized and recycled by other bands. Today, bands like Sleeping With Sirens and Motionless In White have taken the foundation Drop Dead, Gorgeous laid out, and iterated upon its structure, allowing them to play to huge venues and global audiences, continuing on the genre of music. In Vogue still remains an important piece of scene’s history, a model of polished chaos, a simultaneous vulnerability and attitude that bands will continue to sculpt themselves, years after the band came to end.
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