Sorority Noise

“Maybe I'm not the person that I never wanted to be,” Cameron Boucher affirms as the music quells momentarily beneath him, before roaring back scuzzy, peppy, and potent. The lyric is my personal selection for the emotional climax on Sorority Noise’s sophomore studio LP, Joy, Departed, but it’s only one of an abundance of choice quotables from the album that succinctly depict the perspective of those with a mental illness. Boucher himself struggles with bipolar disorder, and across the project’s 10 tracks he offers a detailed reflection of the emotional terrain of his psyche, both the pitfalls and the redemptions. Yet while Joy, Departed brims with cathartic urgency, the music is so tightly wound that its magnitudes don’t truly reveal themselves until you see the band let them loose on stage, as they did last Thursday at San Francisco’s Swedish American Hall.

The crowd for the performance was notably thin, perhaps filling about a third of the venue’s capacity, yet it was immediately evident that some 95% of those in attendance were die-hards. With that in mind, these fans made a convincing case for quality over quantity. It only took about half of set opener “Corrigan” for the scattered spread of audience members to densely clump together into a fervent mass of perpetual moshing. This energy never faltered throughout the night, yet it morphed alongside the set list as the band offered dynamics in mood and approach. Where the reaction to the springy “Nolsey” amounted to essentially agitated pogoing, the audience respectfully held still as they patiently absorbed the gentle rotations of “Either Way,” a newer song off of the band’s It Kindly Stopped for Me EP that was written in response to one of Boucher’s close friends committing suicide.

In spite of the somber nature of the subject matter and the unflinching way in which Boucher spills his lyrics like journal entries never meant to be reread, Sorority Noise put on a wildly uplifting show. Part of this is because Boucher doesn’t fearfully allude to the darkness and try to escape, but rather burrows himself in it until he learns to wear it as a addition to his identity. Yet it’s also because of the sonic influences the band incites: While their duct-taped guitars and alternatingly reedy-chunky tones offered a punk impression, their attitude and that of the crowd was pointedly classic rock. As the band members strummed their guitars in wide windmill motions and shot into the sky with their legs kicked high, those in the pit threw their fists up along side them in synchronous rhythm.

But unlike most rock and roll performances, Sorority Noise’s set seemed designed to operate without pause, with songs bleeding into one another like conflicting, overlapping emotional tides. The feedback from the previous song often lingered long into the next track, and the moments when silence was offered from the stage were either induced from momentary equipment malfunctions or Boucher addressing the audience apart from his lyrics. He chose to do so prior to unleashing the anthemic “Using” by speaking openly of his bipolar disorder and the friends he’s lost to mental illness over the years. Prior to launching into the muted downstrokes of the song, Boucher concluded his brief speech with a gentle reminder that “you have a life worth living,” and to live that life “as positively as you can for the friends you lost.”

Boucher has earned this optimism, having faced his own illness and come out prepared to fight again when he needs to, yet whilst watching a number of his friends lose the battle and the chance to ever take it on again. The resolve it must take to be able to offer such positive platitudes makes each hit with a much greater significance. This is heavy stuff, but carrying that weight makes you stronger. And as I worked alongside Boucher in exercising my own demons throughout the show, I came to a point where I’d never felt lighter.

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