Rest in Peace: Schoolyard Heroes

January 25, 2010 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

I just learned recently (though apparently, this happened back in November…I just don’t use MySpace much anymore) that the Seattle horror-punk group Schoolyard Heroes have broken up.

The news was a huge surprise and disappointment to me, as SYH have been one of the defining bands of my musical taste for years, but also one of the most influential in my own lyric writing and stage performance. The band’s statement on their MySpace is pretty vague and doesn’t give much information as to why the Heroes are being laid to rest. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with them, here’s the story of how they came to be…

The band was formed in 1999 when their members met while attending a private school. Their first songs, with titles such as “Mononucleosis” and “My Sister’s a Hooker” included shrieking vocals and tongue-in-cheek lyrics from frontwoman Ryann Donnelly, the powerhouse mouthpiece of the band. Donnelly studied opera for years, including her time at the University of Washington, and included what she learned in her training in the Heroes’ music.

The band released their debut album in 2004, a fantastic and eclectic collection of songs known as The Funeral Sciences. Standouts from this album included such numbers as “Attack of the Puppet People,” “Bury the Tooth of a Hydra and a Skeleton Army Will Arise,” “All-You-Can-Eat Cancer” and closer “Sincerely Yours, Jonathan Harker.” The album contains various different elements, with songs ranging from hardcore to sunny pop to straight punk. The dueling “sometimes opera, sometimes screaming bloody murder” vocals of Donnelly and her growling male counterpart, bassist Jonah Bergman, provide an exceptional contrast that makes each song even more powerful.

The band’s second album, 2005’s Fantastic Wounds, took their trademark operatic punk to a whole new level. Donnelly decided to make her singing style a bit more sharp and high-pitched, trading in screams for intensely high melodies and harmonies that can give you chills. The music got even harder and riskier as well and the band wrote some of their best tracks, including “Panic in the Year Zero,” “They Live” and “The Girl Who Was Born Without a Face.”

If you couldn’t tell from the song titles, the band had a huge passion for horror movies and writing lyrics about zombies, burning children, possession, monsters, amputations and blood…lots of blood. In fact, these cringe-worthy lyrics, which quote everyone from Shakespeare to Charles Manson, landed the band in hot water with their third release, 2007’s Abominations, the band’s most epic record to date, which spawned singles “Dude, Where’s My Skin?” and “The Plastic Surgery Hall of Fame.” Both songs got music videos; “Dude”‘s was so graphic (Donnelly spends almost thirty seconds cutting out her tongue) that complaints caused it to be taken offline after just one day (it’s back now, watch it here). This wasn’t the end of the complaints, however; concerned parents in Seattle even went so far as to call the band a Satan-worshipping cult and created a petition to get them off the stage. They threw out their kids’ CDs and t-shirts and tried to ban them from going to shows.

However, these outrageous parents didn’t realize that the Heroes are some of the nicest musicians you’ll ever meet. Bergman created a clever response to the petition, saying “If you wanna take our cd’s and shirts from the hands of your children due to our lyrical content, that is your prerogative as a parent. While you are at it, make sure that your kids do not read Dante’s Inferno or Shakespeare’s Macbeth in their English classes (I hear they talk about hell and witches! Oooooo!!!!).” I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ryann twice and the entire band once. They were so sweet and grateful for every fan that came out to see them and dance with them.

And man, did they put on unforgettable shows. Donnelly flails around the stage in cocktail dresses as if she’s having seizures and will lean into audience member’s faces to scream her obscenities, all the while never missing a note.

^ A video I took of SYH at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA on 1.25.08 (a year ago today!)

She is a true performer and a true inspiration for any girl who dreams of fronting a band. In fact, I think watching her live performances is really what drove me to want to do this as well.

Though the news of the band’s breakup was upsetting for me, I was comforted by reading that Ryann and Jonah have already formed a new band called Blood Cells and are currently playing shows and writing new music. The tracks on their MySpace page promise a continuation of what made Schoolyard Heroes the most vicious and blood-thirsty band around.

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