La Dispute has never been a band prone to settling. The five-piece from Grand Rapids, Michigan, is responsible for some of the most uncompromising, experimental hardcore music of the last decade. From their 2008 debut (in their current formation) Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair, to 2011’s Wildlife, to 2015’s Rooms of the House, La Dispute have continually pushed themselves to find new ways to portray some of the most difficult and universally affecting subject matters. Casting a wide stylistic net that includes – but isn’t limited to – jazz, blues, spoken word, screamo and prog rock, La Dispute have developed a sound that, while constantly evolving, is unmistakably theirs.
A lot of structural change has taken place around the band since Rooms of the House that has forced them to adapt. La Dispute has always kept a tight grip on their own reins. Their first two records came out on Californian independent label No Sleep – trusted home to many of the bands they cut their teeth alongside – while Rooms of the House was released through their own label, a subsidiary of Vagrant records. After Vagrant was bought out by BMG in 2014, the band found themselves looking for a new home, ultimately finding one in Epitaph. Their fourth full-length, Panorama, is the first fruit of this new relationship.
Recorded between November 2017 and August 2018, Panorama is in many ways a continuation on a theme. It’s a highly ambitious and deeply affecting body of work that filters narrative storytelling through a personal lens, like a set of Joan Didion essays set to music. It’s heavier and weirder than previous efforts, taking the intensity of Wildlife and the patience of Rooms of the House and using them as pillars upon which to build something new. And, in doing so, they have broken through their own ceiling and set a new one.
Panorama has not been without its challenges, both creatively and practically. Only three members were living in Michigan when they started writing, with drummer Bradley Vander Lugt now living in Australia. Out of necessity, the incubation period for ideas began with back and forth over the internet, but the bulk of the writing had to be done together in their hometown of Grand Rapids. So, finding a time when Brad could make the trip with his family, they blocked three months off to write and rented a studio space to work 9-5 through the week.
For over two months, they worked in separate rooms on individual tracks based on a rough concept and outline that Jordan had put together. They had around seven tracks finished when they came to the decision that no one was happy with them. With only the weeks before Brad was due to fly back to Australia left to work with, they scrapped everything and started all over again. “In general, I think working apart when we were all there together was a waste, but I think we had it in our heads that there was a direction we should be going. That we needed to pick up where the last record left off and push further in the direction of quieter, more structured songs, but that never felt right,” Jordan says in retrospect. “Feels a bit silly to say, but when we started over we all more or less just went by instinct. What happened felt right, and that's really where the record started.”
Panorama is the spiritual successor to Wildlife in that it takes a snapshot of the city Jordan grew up in. While Wildlife darts in and out of lives like a news broadcast, telling separate stories that reveal a broader connection of human suffering, Panorama zeroes in on events that have taken place in a particular neighborhood. Rather than looking at the connection between strangers, as Wildlife does, or putting the connection between two people in a relationship under a microscope, as with Rooms – Panorama traces the emotional atmosphere of a place through its own history, like someone rifling through old archives of newspaper clippings. As if, by doing so, they will find the key that unlocks answers to questions about themselves.
Most of what happens on Panorama takes place on the route Jordan and his partner would drive from their home in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids to the city of Lowell, where she grew up. Everywhere along the drive are places where, in varying degrees of recency, people have died: a pond where a man drowned walking home in the winter, multiple places where people crashed driving drunk or were killed in car accidents, and one place where years prior a city worker found a Jane Doe decomposed. Panorama is intended to be a wide angled shot of that drive, with the stories of those tragedies becoming focal points that create a larger narrative, but it’s also tethered to reality more than Wildlife or Rooms of the House.
While Wildlife and Rooms both saw Jordan playing the role of a fly on the wall – a detached narrator, creating realistic fictions through which tragedies are explored – the writing process for Panorama found him inadvertently talking about his own life. The physical act of traveling through those spots every day, with someone else, inevitably caused them to take on their own significance. “The more I thought about the stories the deeper the relation to her life became, and to our life together, and the more personal the record became,” Jordan says.
As a result, Panorama is less lyrically direct than previous efforts. Tracks like “In Northern Michigan” and “You Ascendant” feel more abstract as he leans into the fantastic, otherworldly material that flashes through Wildlife. Elsewhere, more narrative tracks like “Rhodonite and Grief” and “Views From Our Bedroom Window” are interspersed with spoken-word tone poems that disrupt the perspective – viewing their stories through a prism, rather than a single pane.
This wandering lyrical approach is borne out of the music itself. When the band opted to scrap their initial material and follow their instinctive push rather than reason their way to the next step, the result was a desire to create something “more ethereal, layered, dreamlike, fantastic from a sonic standpoint” than before. You can see this approach demonstrated beautifully throughout, as the band delves into new sonic territories as well as expanding on familiar ones.
The spectral electro-leaning instrumental “Rose Quartz”, which opens the album, will perhaps come as the most surprising to long-time fans, while tracks like “Fulton Street I”, “Anxiety Panorama” and “You Ascendant” will feel a little more familiar as they drag the darkness of Wildlife into harsher places. Elsewhere, the relaxed, bluesy sound they dipped into on Rooms of the House finds new life in “Rhodonite and Grief” and “There You Are (Hiding Place)”, while “Footsteps At The Pond” is the closest to straight-up indie rock the band has ever come, evoking Brother, Sister era mewithoutYou.
Panorama is perhaps La Dispute’s most diverse album so far, carried by their strength as musicians both individually and as a unit. Bradley Vander Lugt’s precise, textured drum patterns; Adam Vass’ sonorous, driving bass lines; Chad Morgan-Sterenberg’s crisp, fretful guitar work – they all react to one another instinctively in a way that feels like a jam session in places, particularly on more somber tracks like “In Northern Michigan” and “Rhodonite and Grief”.
Panorama is also their first album written and recorded with Corey Stroffolino, who has been a touring musician with the band since Rooms of the House, taking over from Kevin Whittemore. Their abilities fit together like a perfect parts of a puzzle, knowing exactly when to settle into the rhythm and when to pierce the foreground; when to build into a cacophony and when less is more.
Despite its intuitive feel, Panorama was a difficult project to start and to finish. Although recording for the album began in November 2017 and the music was done by April 2018, it took Jordan until August – including several separate solo trips from Seattle to the studio in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania – to finish writing lyrics and tracking vocals. By the end, he was sleeping in a spare mixing room in the studio, spending entire days more or less locked in the same room. At one point, producer Will Yip (Turnstile / Quicksand / Tigers Jaw) was taking naps on the couch in the control room while Jordan wrote and rewrote lines until he was satisfied, filling several notebooks front to back with different versions of the same few lines.
“It was… stupid,” he says of the process now. “I spent a lot of time trying to understand why I was having such a motherfucker of a time, and I’m still not entirely sure I've arrived at the reason. Partly, I think, the music required more from me. The parts are more challenging, more outside of the box then the songs on Rooms in particular, and I didn't want to shortchange the work and creativity of my bandmates. There's always the anxiety of falling short of them for me, but it felt stronger this time. There's the general anxiety, too, of making something permanent. Of committing to a thing finally and forever and never being able to do anything about it.”
It can be difficult for punk and hardcore bands, in particular, to evolve and maintain momentum simultaneously the longer they stay active. At a time of economic uncertainty, and with the music industry not being lucrative as it once was, creativity and reality are often at odds with each other. In spite of this, La Dispute has maintained the same attitude they started with. They are a band figuring out, as we all are, how to live meaningfully while also trying to make meaningful art without compromise. Panorama, then, is another chapter in a discography that tells everyday stories in a remarkable way. It takes you deep within the heart of the world we live in, which may not always be a comfortable or comforting place to be, but at the very least it’s a reminder that we’re not there alone.