Retrospective Review: Schoolyard Heroes – The Funeral Sciences (2003)

Funeral+SciencesA wise person whose name has been lost in my fetid mind once said, “90% of everything is shit, but that only makes the good 10% all the more special.” When it comes to the shock rock genre, however, I tend to find that the statistic jumps up to roughly 99.999%. For those not in the know, shock rock is, at its base level, a subgenre of rock music that prides itself on being all style and no substance to their music.

You can usually depend on shock rock bands to deliver live shows unmatched in their entertainment appeal, and be home to wholly underwhelming and innocuous music. Some of the most popular bands in the genre include Kiss, Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson and the Black Veil Brides, all bands none of you would know of or care about one way or the other without their image and live antics. For all the talk of shock rock being, well, shocking and “so scary”, no band in the style has ever come close to the fear-induction value that non-rock artists like the Haxan Cloak or Animal Collective’s first record manage to achieve without breathing fire or eating their own shit at live shows.

With that said, the subgenre did have saving graces. Tool is commonly regarded as a shock rock group, as are the Sex Pistols, and from the Emerald City, we have Schoolyard Heroes, one of the finest bands the subgenre had to offer. This four-piece was active for a decade from ’99 to ’09, and was most remarkable for their hectic blend of hardcore punk, alternative rock and noise rock, with a clear shock rock influence, most noticeably White Zombie. The group’s debut record The Funeral Sciences was released in 2003, a record that’s still just as visceral and bizarre when listened to today.

Upon a first listen-through of The Funeral Sciences, it may be a bit disorienting trying to keep up with the band, as they are constantly showcasing new styles and musical motifs to play around with. Whereas most other shock rock groups only ever stayed within their one brand of ticking-the-boxes rock music, the Schoolyard Heroes weren’t afraid to venture out and take on completely different territory. Usually I think a record can be severely hampered by a lack of consistency, on The Funeral Sciences these various musical ideas are built onto the punk rock/alternative rock fusion the group presents as early as the opening track, and the constant additions to their sound do a great job of diversifying the album and keep the album interesting to listen to upon repeat listens.

While the Schoolyard Heroes have a lot of fantastic guitar riffs, biting drum sections and varied song structures and styles, what really drives home the group’s dynamic is lead vocalist Ryann Donnelly, whom I believe to be one of the best frontwomen in all of punk rock. There are few punk vocalists – male or female, past or present – that manage to have so much energy and passion in their shouted vocals, while still delivering such a beautiful singing voice when you actually get her to calm down. The only modern-day punk vocalist that I think even comes close to Donnelly is Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy, a band I wish I liked way more than I do. While Donnelly is often accompanied by a second vocalist, Jonah Bergman, she has a lot of time in the spotlight to showcase her great singing voice, most notably on the tracks “All-You-Can-Eat Cancer”, “Boyfriend” and the closer “Sincerely Yours, Jonathan Harker”.

The 37-minute The Funeral Sciences is home to 12 tracks, and the two halves seem to somewhat work as a parallel to each other. While the first half is more explosive and daring, the second half can sometimes feel a tad uninspired and often lacks the ferocity the band excels at.

The first half is home to tracks like “Dawn of the Dead”, which rocks a superbly kickass groove with the main guitar lead, as well as Donnelly’s well-performed clean chorus. Similarly, “Attack of the Puppet People” feels like an almost Fucked Up-esque hardcore song, with Ryann’s rapid-fire vocals and pummeling chorus. Also there’s “The Mechanical Man vs. The Robot from The Outer Limits”, which is by far my favourite track on the album. It’s a song that’s dynamic, bombastic and tastefully ridiculous, and features the best Donnelly and Bergman combination of the band’s entire discography.

In the second half, however, with a couple exceptions, the songs really start to lose their edge in favour of more accessible, less threatening pieces that a casual dad rock station could get into, which to me seems like an awkwardly-placed dichotomy. An album like Danny Brown’s XXX lures in the listener with solid, but familiar-sounding songs in its first half, and then during the second half it busts out its more personal and less approachable tracks. On The Funeral Sciences, though, the abrasive and somewhat unorthodox punk rock of the first half is sanded off halfway through, and what replaces it is anonymous and underwhelming alternative rock, with occasional glimpses of majesty.

The centrepiece to the album “Bury the Tooth of the Hydra and a Skeleton Army Will Arise” sounds indistinguishable from any Halestorm song (though to be fair, the Schoolyard Heroes song at least isn’t fronted by the worst vocalist in hard rock history), and is really only made interesting by the very well-executed guitar solo on the back-end of the song. Instrumentally, “Boyfriend” wouldn’t sound out of place alongside radio singles from Breaking Benjamin or Flyleaf, though fortunately Donnelly’s blunt lyricism and brash vocal delivery breathes life into the bog standard music. Tracks like these could’ve been performed by any other hard rock band, and feel insubstantial when put on the same track listing as “Curse of the Werewolf” and “Attack of the Puppet People”.

Luckily, The Funeral Sciences does end on a massive high-note. Though on a basic level, “Sincerely Yours, Jonathan Harker” falls under the same category as “Boyfriend” and “The Klaw”, the song merges the two drastically different styles in a way that’s both hard-hitting and attentively tuneful. The song has a very slow, establishing intro, and the vocals don’t even come in for a solid 40 seconds or so. From there, Ryann Donnelly’s unclean vocals capsize the song into a momentary frenzy before the choruses put it back down to Earth. The song goes through several different moods and tones throughout the song’s five-minute runtime, which I think ends the album on the right foot.

If you asked me to summarise The Funeral Sciences in one word, I’d tell you to stop being such a twat, but if pressed, I’d go for “spotty”. The good moments on this record are fantastic, but although the weak spots on this album aren’t necessarily bad by any means (except for the annoying and shockingly unfocused “Contra”), a noticeable amount of the album doesn’t play to the band’s strengths as much as it should.

Despite this, the album at large is just raucous enough and just flavourful enough that I can highly recommend it to fans of shock rock, horror punk, and alternative rock alike. There’s something here for everyone, even if I’m not sure how much fans of one style will be able to vibe with the others on display. Regardless, absolutely bangers like “The Mechanical Man vs. The Robot from The Outer Limits” and “Dawn of the Dead” more than make this album worth checking out on their own. You can still pick it up secondhand at places like Ebay, or you can stream it for free on Spotify.

The Schoolyard Heroes dissolved as a band in 2009, though they plan on reuniting for a one-off set at this year’s Bumbershoot Festival. There isn’t any word on whether or not this will lead to them reuniting past that, but I think in today’s PNW music scene, we could really use some new output from this band. They were just such an original and larger-than-life rock group, which we could definitely do with more of nowadays. While I may have hated school with a burning passion, I have nothing but admiration and respect for the Schoolyard Heroes. Rock on.

Your friend,
Jess Casebeer

About Jess Casebeer

The only music critic in the Pacific Northwest, Jess Casebeer is the youngest member of the NorthWest Music Scene crew at age 16. Open to most genres out there, he greatly values reviews that are informative, critical and entertaining. He's kind of like an innerspring mattress: firm, yet comfortable in its own right. Follow him on Twitter @JessCasebeer.