Sunny Day Real Estate are emo's best-known standard bearers. Predictably, their influence on earnest, guitar-wielding young men remains pervasive. They've spawned a million and one knockoffs, most of which aren't fit to carry their wounded torch into battle, but regardless of the carnage left in their wake, their place at the epicenter of that most derided of genres remains unchallenged -- whether they want it to or not.
Their indelibility notwithstanding, it seems erroneous to suggest that The Fire Theft have emerged from the SDRE's ashes; Enigk, Mendel and Goldsmith have simply discharged founding guitarist Dan Hoerner and continued onward as a trio. Though painful, the rebuilding process has obviously been a cleansing experience for the remaining members; they were never going escape their preeminent legacy as a unit, so jettisoning Hoerner was essential if they were to ever start anew.
They've shed their punk rock skin, and consequently, the group's self-titled debut is colored by the sweeping orchestral flourishes of Enigk's solo work and the prog-influenced bombast of The Rising Tide. Granted, nothing on display here is entirely new, but other than opener "Uncle Mountain" -- a textured flurry of tribal drumming, stark piano and wintry distortion -- very little here even vaguely resembles the unmitigated ire of days gone by.
Enigk's sky-melting voice still echoes a lifetime worth of torture, jubilation and redemption, but the softhearted sonic palette upon which his words are now spread diffuses the eternal resonance that marked the best moments of SDRE's tumultuous, albeit extraordinary career. The passion that once seeped from the group now appears manufactured; the narrow complacency of "Chain" barely registers anything beyond a sigh, while the smarmy, would-be paean "Sinatra" sinks in a sea of its own bland disillusion.
It's rather telling, then, that the album's most awe-inspiring moments are completely bereft of Enigk's signature cry. The loping, backwards-spinning "Summertime" suggests a lost Piper at the Gates of Dawn interlude, while the boiling "It's Over" churns along on a primeval Led Zeppelin stomp, with William Goldsmith doing his best Bonham over cascades of roiling guitars and twisted-oak bass figures. The untitled album finale is a thirteen-minute bliss-out worthy of Slowdive themselves -- all delayed, washed-out guitar drone and sycophantic flutter.
The group's bequest is both a gift and a curse. Although it has already been, and shall continue to be, an uphill battle, The Fire Theft have verified that life beyond Sunny Day Real Estate is a viable (if not wholly meaningful) proposition.