Personal Space vocalist/bassist Sam Rosenthal can still remember the April evening in 2002 when he stepped out of his “Blink-182/Warped Tour phase,” as he describes it, and into a Fugazi show in Holyoke, Massachusetts, jettisoning his 14-year-old self and entering an entirely new musical universe. “I barely understood what good music was then,” Rosenthal remembers. “[Fugazi guitarist and vocalist] Guy Picciotto spent the whole time rolling around on the stage just acting like a weirdo, and I thought it was incredible. It was so much stranger than anything I’d [ever seen].”
In their respective teenage bedrooms in Connecticut and New Jersey, Rosenthal and his future bandmates Henry Koehler (guitar), Alex Silva (guitar), and Jesse Chevan (drums) were listening closely as Fugazi and their 1990s D.C. punk contemporaries like Jawbox, Shudder To Think, and Dismemberment Plan used hardcore as a jumping-off point for new ideas. These were bands who were as happy pummeling listeners with brainy, heavy grooves as they were indulging in pseudo-operatic singing, confounding dynamic shifts, ear-bleeding dissonance, and pop choruses lifted straight off XTC albums.
Years later, Personal Space has bent those influences—along with alt-rock concept albums like Weezer’s Pinkerton and the Mars Volta’s De-Loused In The Comatorium—into the eight songs of their debut album Ecstatic Burbs. Loosely based on stories and scenes from the suburbs where the now-Brooklyn-based quartet grew up, the album makes an emotional impact matched perfectly by adventurous, genre-shifting rock ’n’ roll.
Opener “An Evening … (With Mr. Brontosaurus)” immediately sets a high bar (“It was an experiment in writing a song that never loops back in on itself,” Rosenthal says with a laugh), with six distinct, stylistically unrelated sections. “Offering” streamlines the approach with an addictive guitar melody and a “la la”-enhanced chorus, while the seven-minute “A Weekend With … (The Horsehead)” evolves from brisk, jazzy verses into a full-on Krautrock jam. “I’ve always liked concept albums and have a few weird ones in my history as a musician,” says Rosenthal. “There’s actually a Men In Black concept album in my past. Once we had this idea about Ecstatic Burbs [being a concept record], everything just became more cohesive.”
Koehler, the guitarist, adds that Ecstatic Burbs is Personal Space’s bid to stand out in a crowded field that seems caught in a cycle. “There’s so much garage, punk, and psych stuff, especially in Brooklyn, and that’s cool, but how many three-chord, three-minute songs can you listen to?” Adds Rosenthal, “When you depart from a known form and take it to weird places, the listener can be like, ‘Oh yeah, I see what’s going on!’ They don’t feel like they’re just rolling down a mountainside.”
The band’s classic-meets-new sound has already made them some prominent fans. Jason Pettigrew, the editor-in-chief of long-running punk and hardcore magazine Alternative Press, says he’s thrilled to hear bands like Personal Space referencing a strain of post-hardcore that has rarely reared its head in the 2010s. “After enduring the often impenetrable bluster of hardcore, there was this new school of thinking that went far to expand life after the genre,” he remembers of the ‘90s scene. “Bands started exploring the polarity of dynamics, space, straight-up noise or all three. That a new generation of bands like Personal Space are embracing their historical antecedents allows listeners to access possibilities that never really got their due the first time around.”
To get the album out, Personal Space cold-emailed North Carolina label Tiny Engines in January with their demos. They got a call back two days later from the label’s co-founder Will Miller. “To hear a debut record like [this], that sounded so confident and accomplished, was impressive to say the least,” says Miller of the quick turnaround.
Although they still lack a manager or a booking agent, Personal Space is planning its first real tour for early 2017. “I personally am kind of anxious about playing quiet, slow songs live,” Rosenthal admits, “so we front-load the heavy material and bludgeon the audience until they submit to our whole idea of a band.” Fair enough, but with music as good as theirs, it may be less of a bludgeon and more of a soft nudge.
Personal Space play a release show for Ecstatic Burbs at Sunnyvale on November 18.