Modern Life Is War got a lot of praise during its short existence as a band and every ounce of it was fully deserved. Its debut album, My Love, My Way, was an introduction to the band’s mid-tempo approach, but never felt as if Modern Life had cemented its identity.
It was torn between sticking to a traditional hardcore approach and building upon the foundation that so many had already perfected.
After two years of touring and writing, Modern Life returned with Witness, an album delivered fully on the promise that had been hinted at all along. As soon as Witness was released, it was lauded as a modern classic. Modern Life managed to make a social commentary into something timeless. While many in punk and hardcore often date themselves to a specific time period, vocalist Jeff Eaton found a way to speak to modern disillusionment (as if the name wasn’t hint enough) in a literary manner that only adds to the album’s dark atmosphere. “I’ll assassinate the stars of all your bad dreams/I’ll be all yours just as long as you stay here with me/’Cause I don’t wanna be alone when these walls start closing in,” is yelped in Eaton’s signature vocal style. It makes lines such as those from “Young Man on a Spree” seethe with utter despair and exude isolation.
Packed full of moments that consume the listener, Witness comes as close to vulnerability as a hardcore album will allow. By replacing rapid executions with broodingly dissonant guitars, every song builds and often refuses to allow for any sort of cathartic release. “Marshalltown,” the band’s ode to its Iowa hometown, is forged upon Eaton’s signature lyricism, but displays Modern Life’s ability to bring subtlety into its songwriting.
Guitarists Matt Hoffman and John Eich spend most of the song lying back while the rhythm section accompanies Eaton before weaving their parts together into an absolutely punishing payoff. Drummer Tyler Oleson executes every beat deliberately, never adding a single unnecessary hit while bassist Chris Honeck creates a mood without ever overstating his presence. At the song’s climax, Eaton declares “I say to all the young wild ones/For you/Yeah, on your way up/The world isn’t against you, my dear/It just doesn’t care,” and before any resolution can be found, it abruptly concludes leaving the listener in the wake of Marshalltown’s decay.
Even with Witness being packed full of tragedy, the brief flicker of hope that follows “Marshalltown” proves to be a moment of much needed exuberance. “D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” is the only song capable of pulling one out of Witness’ weary grasp. It’s an uproarious anthem that never relents. While still lyrically dark, it sees Eaton shining a light upon the beauty found within the hardcore community: “A ragtag army and we’re sick in the heat/We’re not pretty and we’re not rich/We’re gonna hafta fucking work for it!”
Despite the noticeable tonal shift, it doesn’t feel out of place on Witness. Its inclusion is essential to why the album works so well. It would be easy to project disenchantment from start to finish, but “D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S.” keeps Witness from wallowing in the circumstances surrounding it.
Yet, the intense reality that surrounds Modern Life during the creation of Witness is truly inescapable. The album is bookended by “The Outsiders (AKA Hell Is for Heroes Part I)” and “Hair-Raising Accounts of Restless Ghosts (AKA Hell Is for Heroes Part II),” both of which create two of bleakest hardcore songs ever recorded.
“The Outsiders” opens with haunting guitar work before the rest of the band crashes in with an aggression that sets the tone for the rest of Witness. It is here Eaton lays out the thesis from which all songs will follow. “You’ve gotta turn this despair inside out and turn it into your way out.”
Eaton’s lyrics address the concern of isolation in the hardcore community as well as his destroyed hometown, “We feel like we’ve been left in the wind to die in the dust/With no one speaking to us/So we are speaking up.”
By the time Witness’ final track rolls around (the second in the “Hell is for Heroes” saga), it feels like the entirety of the album is being summarized in one five-and-a-half minute burst. “Hair-Raising Accounts of Restless Youth” is exactly what the title implies, addressing all the concerns raised by Eaton and the few characters established during Witness. “See, I’m just a factory worker’s son from a railroad town/And yeah, I can feel the steel mills rust/But I’ve been doing my time and I’ve been thinking about getting out.” Exemplifying the struggles of human existence: war, economic decline, death, stagnation, etc. It creates something moderately triumphant out of this negative space, culminating in Eaton’s final words, “Our rebel hearts will turn restless ghosts/They can never truly kill us and we will never truly die.”
For a brief moment, Witness turned Modern Life into hardcore’s top dog. Shortly after the album’s release Hoffman and Honeck departed from the band, possibly leading to 2007’s follow-up Midnight in America feeling less than complete. In 2008, the band announced its break-up and played its final show on April 26 in Marshalltown. At that show, all of Witness was played, albeit out of sequence, but in that final gesture it said something about both the band and the record. Not only would Modern Life Is War always be remembered for Witness, but even when the album is taken out of its sequential order it will remain one of hardcore’s finest works.