Neil Dowd explores how one band is fighting a battle against the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
As It Is have become one of the most recognisable names in the United Kingdom’s pop-punk scene. Formed in 2012 in Brighton, the band is made up of guitarist and vocalist Benjamin Langford-Biss, bass guitarist Alistair Testo, drummer Patrick Foley and lead vocalist Patty Walters.
Though the band have been together for six years, Patty Walters had been regularly uploading cover videos from as early as 2009, building up a following of 400,000 subscribers and getting over 3 million views with his most successful content. He has since stepped away from YouTube following the bands’ signing to Fearless Record, around the same time that the band revealed they would be releasing their debut album titled Never Happy, Ever After via Fearless.
Since then the band has released a total of four EPs and three albums, with songs like Pretty Little Distance, Winter’s Weather and Dial Tones from their first two albums now being regarded by many as renowned hits within the pop-punk scene at the time. So when they, at the height of their career, announced a complete change in musical direction through a series of Instagram and Twitter posts from Walters’ account, the one question on the mind of fans everywhere was; why?
The Great Depression is the band’s third full-length album. It is a concept album which focuses on the themes of mental health and the societal romanticisation of depression throughout. The album’s title is derived from the severe economic depression of the same name that occurred in the 1930s in the United States, although the album’s namesake refers more to a psychological depression as opposed to an economic one.
The main concept behind the idea was suggested by guitarist Benjamin Biss and follows the story of a narrator whom the band refer to as The Poet. The album follows The Poet’s struggles with depression and the band have stated that the character is one that they feel they can relate to on some level; being a typically normal, married man living life like anyone else. As the album progresses, the severity of The Poet’s depression becomes so high that he begins to talk with his mind’s depiction of Death. He speaks to Death in the same way he would speak to his wife, neither Death or his wife acting as a clear protagonist or antagonist, but both offering their solutions to his problems. His wife desperately tries to show him the beauty that life has to offer and ask him to stay with her, whilst Death is trying to take his suffering away, with both characters trying to do what is best for The Poet. The End is the closing song of the record which lyrically conveys The Poet’s frustrations with the events occurring across the album, leaving The Poet’s story unfinished. In their official announcement on their Facebook page, the band wrote “This album is about asking questions rather than offering answers, exploring the lines where consolation and glorification collide, and asking if art is too subjective to offer a universal solution.”
The drastic change in musical styling that is prominent in this record was subtly hinted at in their older works. For example, when looking at the middle section of No Way Out (a single from their second studio album Okay), the band’s emo-rock/ post-hardcore influences begin to subtly show, in the form of roaring, distorted guitar riffs and Walters’ raspy, shouted vocals. However, it is also important to note the shift of lens in regards to Langford and Walters’ lyrical writing style. Formerly self-described as ‘happy/sad pop-punk’, the band were renowned for combining typically up-beat, ear catching instrumentals with introspective and often self-loathing lyrical content. Furthermore, whilst themes of mental health were still prominent in earlier releases, this record takes a step back in order to give commentary on the topics discussed as a whole, instead of speaking from their own experiences. The Wounded World was the leading single from this album. Lyrically, this track discusses The Poet’s views on the state of society and the dystopia he predicts we will fall into, due to the ever growing influences of technology and social media. In an interview with Rocksound Magazine, Walters expresses his concerns regarding these issues, stating “It’s terrifying to think that kids are growing up feeling validated by their social media likes, numbers and engagement. I think that’s going to breed an entirely new type of person who thinks completely differently.” The music video also depicts these ideas as present-day headlines and technologies are displayed in exhibits as the warning signs of an impending disaster, with the band acting as tour guides and exhibits trying to warn the viewers, much like The Poet does through the music.
Ultimately, this track puts the responsibility of our society’s nature, to be guided by misinformation in a way that is totally void of open-mindedness or empathy, on the listener in a plea for us to change our ways.
Whilst The Stigma (Boys Don’t Cry) feels more detached from The Poet and his story, it is one that definitely deserves its place on this album. Thematically, this song and the music video do what the title suggests, touching upon the topics of toxic masculinity and the societal expectations placed upon us by gender. In statements posted from the band’s Twitter account, the band stated “The eponymous stigma is that sense of shame associated with showing and expressing”, going on to assure their audience that the showing of emotions and expression of a person’s true self is acceptable as it is “real and human to do so”.
The music video for this track also does its part to portrays these ideas, using a military commander character and setting as a metaphor for the societal pressure for people to shadow their emotions, with scene showing the phrase ‘man up’ being written onto a whiteboard. This metaphor is progressively taken further throughout the video, with gut-wrenching scenes of Biss’ face being forcefully dunked into water as the commander scrubs his face screaming “boys don’t wear makeup!”. This imagery of something different to the societally ideal body portrays the pressure many feel in regards to appearance and gender. The song aims to directly dismiss these ideologies and act as a rally against these dangerous stereotypes. As expressed earlier in this piece, the musical and creative elements that make this band are not the only thing to have adapted with this record. So with that said, it is time to touch upon the final part of the band’s evolution: their fashion. As a band, As It Is are no strangers to thematically fuelled aesthetics. In 2017, the band’s second studio album Okay was released which featured an aesthetic heavily influenced by the 1950’s. The main theme behind this record is the idea ‘that it’s okay not to be okay’ and discusses the topic around mental health from Patty’s experience, following his struggles with mental health whilst touring in earlier years. The album’s artwork depicts a woman happily riding her bicycle past a row of brightly coloured houses on a summer’s day. However, in the basket of her bicycle, there is a bomb with the album’s titled carved into it, which the woman does little to acknowledge.
This metaphorically depicts the themes of the album as it highlights the tendency to bottle up and ignore dangerous emotions, pretending to be fine without facing feelings and the danger that can have on your mental health. During this time, the band’s fashion fittingly portrayed the 1950’s aesthetic of the album. The staple component to this aesthetic was a plainwhite, slim fitted t-shirt, tucked into their jeans. This would be paired with either a short sleeved, open shirt or black leather or denim jacket, with the collar of the denim jacket being pushed up as an additional touch. It is also
worth mentioning that Patty also opted for the quiff hairstyle during this era. These fashion choices were in keeping with the theme of the album as it portrayed a modernised, clean-cut version of the Greaser style that many rock’n’roll bands adopted during the 1950’s.
Much like their sound, the influences for the fashion and aesthetical aspects of The Great Depression era can be traced back to the hardcore and emo scene of the early 2000’s. When looking at photographs of bands like My Chemical Romance and Finch, it is impossible not to deduce that the band were aesthetically inspired by these bands. The first thing to note when analysing the change is that black has become the staple colour across the majority of the clothing; with Patty even opting to grow his hair out to cover most of his face and dying his hair black in the typically emo style. The outfits are also more formal in this era, mainly consisting of black jeans, a formal shirt in either black or white with a black jacket, blazer or cardigan to support the look. Ben is the only exception to the jacket rule, instead opting for a black shirt, jeans and tie with white stripes and white suspenders to finish the outfit. These changes are appropriate for the release as it highlights the ‘darker’ turn that there music has taken whilst also adhering the connotations of the genre.
The topic of whether the musical or visual stylings of As It Is are to your tastes is one thing, but this bands ability to resonate with their loyal fanbase and potentially pave the way to starting meaningful conversations on the topic of mental health is something that can only be commended; and I for one have nothing but the utmost respect for that.