By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo. 1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
Three songs into their set, Mineral—billed as "The Parking Lot"—took the enraptured crowd at Austin venue Mohawk back to their jarring and raw debut album The Power of Failing. "It's been so long since I've been by myself… And I need this more than you will ever know" blared frontman Chris Simpson, just a few blocks from the site of their final show before breaking up almost two decades prior. It was sort of a last rehearsal before embarking on a world tour starting in 2014 that saw their unprecedented popular demand forcing them to extend for almost a year. There were a hundred or so people there who had waited in line that day to ensure entry, and besides a shared love of emotionally taxing music from the 90s, many of them had something else in common: They never saw Mineral when they were first around.
This month marks 20 years since four "pizza boys gone rock" from Austin-via-Houston, Texas released The Power of Failing on now long-defunct but iconic emo-hit factory Crank! Records. With a raw production and Simpson's over-burdened, emotionally needy vocals, for many, they were the logical next step from Sunny Day Real Estate or Christie Front Drive, both of which had begun laying the groundwork for this new melodic and emotional brand of hardcore some years before. But with Sunny Day Real Estate in constant flux, and Christie Front Drive nearing the end of their run, it left the door open for Mineral to succeed them. Though less "post-hardcore" than the aforementioned contemporaries, sonically, Mineral also embraced the radio alternative of the 90s.
As the record opens on "Five, Eight & Ten" with the lyrics "The humble and righteous and meek are teaching me whose will to seek," it seems as though Simpson is preparing the listener for a Sunday school lesson, but the reality is more dismal. The obvious Christian nuance throughout the album is clobbered by the unshakeable specter of doubt. Doubt in the faith he was raised in, doubt in himself, doubt in love, and doubt in life.
On "Slower," lyrics like "staring into a perfect golden sunset and thinking about how you sold your soul to send the rain away" may sound like a peak "emo cliche" to the modern ear, but in 1997, it was fucking revolutionary. While punk and hardcore had always been an avenue for a youthful expression of rage and dissatisfaction, it was somewhat unusual to hear lyrics about personal pitfalls and insecurities. Mineral was the embodiment of what bands like Embrace and Rites of Spring set in motion more than a decade earlier. The Power of Failing was one of the first records released in 1997, and Mineral set the tone with their bold and vulnerable approach.
Gone was the tongue-in-cheek irony and blasé detachment bestowed on the world by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Sonic Youth. It was time to wear one's heart on one's sleeve, and few wore it with more abandon than Simpson. Before sensitivity was a commodity used to sell clothes at Hot Topics across America, words like "She folded up her fears like paper airplanes, and lost them in the trees" were balladry for the young and lovelorn post-punk set. And as silly as it sounds now, to many, it was therapy.
And this form of therapy couldn't have come at a better time. With grunge's death knell firmly cemented with bands like Creed dominating the charts, and punk on its way to dorm room ratification, displeased youth needed their champion—their unfiltered and unsullied underground scene. And many found comfort in Mineral's sincerity and lack of pretense. Additionally, the simplicity of three-chord punk had grown tiresome, and sonic experimentation within limited abilities became indispensable. Punk wanted to grow up.
Musically, The Power of Failing was no less dramatic than its subject matter. Guitarist Scott McCarver's shrieking leads added dynamic to the melodies, though the jagged interplay between the guitars and bass that Mineral became known for was not yet as developed on this album as on their follow-up, 1998's EndSerenading. With more feedback and bar chord-heavy choruses, the music on The Power of Failing is punk in structure, with the "loud-quiet-loud" dynamic in full use. The youthful naiveté makes it the favorite of many, with Simpson and company not yet having the maturity in songwriting and performance that would keep them from making many of the mistakes that fans adored on this record. Subsequent releases and projects, like Simpson's and bass player Jeremy Gomez's later band, The Gloria Record, would take this melodic approach but trade raw emotion for learned restraint.
On The Power of Failing, Simpson's singing is forced and often misses the note. His struggle to match his vocal abilities to his sentimentality is in part endearing and honest, and in part a frustrating wreckage. There's an ugliness there that some people can't deal with. It's easy to wonder how someone who heard first heard it 20 years ago at the age of 16 might feel about it if shown this record for the first time today. We'll never know, but the fact that Mineral's legacy only keeps growing is a testament to the power of this unhinged debut.
Mineral's tours before disbanding in 1998 were modest endeavors: 50 to 100 people crammed into tiny venues across the country. But 17 years after their last gig, they sold out theaters across the world and added a co-headlining tour with fellow 90s legends Hum. The so-called emo revival, which continues to flourish, has also been kind to many of Mineral's contemporaries like Braid, The Get Up Kids, Piebald, and many others who have had successful reunion tours. With the exception of American Football, who only played 12 shows and released one album in their existence and now play sold out tours year-round, few seem to have benefited as heavily from it as Mineral has. Their reunion tour added new cities daily. Mineral fervor multiplied exponentially over the nearly two decades since their departure.
And it's not just the OG bands cashing in. A slew of new emo bands have popped up via labels like Topshelf and Count Your Lucky Stars. Shit, even rap has gone emo. And while it's unlikely to imagine Lil' Yachty bumping The Power of Failing, there's an argument to be made that this somehow led to so called emo-rap.
Though they imploded before recognition came the first time around, bands like Death Cab For Cutie and Pinback have Mineral to thank for much of their sound. And perhaps it's bands like the latter referencing Mineral that kept their name alive, creating new fans every year. It's hard to say how far they would have gone had they trudged on and fulfilled their major label contract (they signed to Interscope just before fizzling away). Maybe Mineral would have ushered in an earlier era of mall emo. But on the album's closer "Parking Lot," Simpson sings: "I wouldn't mind if you took it all away today... I wouldn't even miss the pain." Which perhaps is proof that the spotlight would have been unbearable all those years ago.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.