Amskray enters the void and emerges wiser and more resilient on debut LP “Die Happy”

“To fear death is to fear life, for they are intertwined and inseparable” —Tibetan Book of the Dead

“You think that you can’t fly / but you can
cut your tether / you are getting close to the end” —  Amskray “Meta (Gaining Loss)”


Words by Jason Lee

Death! It’s not something we talk a lot about on this blog cuz let’s face it death is a real downer. And if music does anything for humanity it’s to lift us out of the muck for a few minutes and give us hope or inspiration or pure escapism at least. Just look at how many songs are called “Live Forever”. Music is a life force designed to keep us going—even after death in some cases like when Lil Peep declares “bump Lil Peep / when I die, I’ma haunt you” on his posthumous album Live Forever. And even when modern-day popular music does confront death directly, hope and inspiration and escapism are still often the order of the day.

For instance there’s the countless songs and entire LPs focused on coping with death, ranging from Kanye’s 808’s and Heartbreak to Raphael Saadiq’s Jimmie Lee, Nick Cave’s Ghosteen to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked At Me, which no matter how despondent give comfort and even some measure of hope in hearing others wrestle with unthinkable loss and emerge out the other end with a work of terrible beauty and empathy, a stylized piece of art in other words, which holds true even when artists face their own mortality on “terminal illness” albums ranging from Sharon Jones’s Soul of a Woman to David Bowie’s Blackstar it seems.

Notably, on the latter, the Thin White Duke (now even thinner and whiter, sorry!) even turned his death into a sort of art project, keeping both the album and his illness a secret until he could make his show-stopping exit.  This aesthetic approach applies equally to entire death-obsessed genres like goth and whole swaths of metal. Goths dress like living corpses cuz it looks cool. The music may be “depressing” but it’s equally ethereal, often danceable. Bands like the Misfits treat death like a slasher movie complete with a kill count full of gnarly demises. Heavy metal makes death, well, metal. 

But where’s the album that rather than denying, defying, or anesthetizing death confronts it head-on? Not someone else’s demise, mind you, but our own. Where’s the record that can help us achieve liberation in the moment of death and fulfill our potential as spiritually awakened beings. Despite being avowed heathens, we’ve long sought a musical equivalent to The Tibetan Book of the Dead (a book meant to be read out loud btw) taking on death in a hard-rocking but plain-spoken musical format minus all the layers of projection, escapism, symbolism, etc. not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.

And now at long last we’ve found it with Die Happy (n.b. no goth or metal album would ever use this title seeing as we’re all supposed to die miserable and alone!) which is the debut album by the quartet of New Jersey-based post-hardcore vets known collectively as Amskray (Pig Latin for “scram” which is exactly what we all do when we die!) and just to be clear we oughta add a disclaimer here that the band themselves makes no such grandiose claims for this record (all the grandiosity is ours!) and in fact they’ve explained elsewhere the title comes from the songs on the album percolating in one form or another for over a decade meaning that the members of Amskray can at last “die happy” now that it’s finally out…

…but it’s also self-reportedly about “living and what you do with your time here” to quote the band’s lead vocalist and lyricist, guitarist and head songwriter, Don Scherr, and with many of the songs directly alluding to death and with the aphoristic nature of some of the lyrics (re: false idols, “monuments [are] built / to keep our stories misread”) and songs with titles like “Cosmological Notions” we still feel it’s a pretty valid comparison. 

Take for instance the Buddhist-like attitude towards suffering and beauty and mortality heard on “In the Garden”—arguably the centerpiece of an album full of epic moments with Amskray’s core foursome bolstered throughout the album by a squadron of brass and string players and a “Die Happy choir”—which builds from its opening couple minutes full of wind chimes and hypnotic deep-groove bass playing and muted guitar arpeggios and percolating synths to a majestic brass-and-electric-guitar interlude as the song winds its way between heavy and etherial sections which only forestalls “pay[ing] the price / of always getting / what you want” before emerging into the song’s denouement where it sounds like you’re entering a sonic vortex or portal of some kind with lyrics about not only accepting but celebrating one’s ultimate fate:

Would you forfeit your power
For the soil, the seed, the stem and the flower
You can lay me there
Beneath the soil and leafy plants
Let me be given
Let me be given

…and perhaps not since the glory days of …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead have we heard a post-hardcore album as flat out “symphonic” and musically diverse as this one with chamber pop,  folk rock, proggy psych, yacht rock, and dub reggae (the head-nodding “Antidentity”) thrown into the mix with post-hardcore or “progressive indie rock” if you prefer, serving as the perfect foundation for a record that finds solace in the eventual end of it all cuz what’s more “hardcore” that death but possessing it’s own unique beauty too in the form of sumptuous musical textures, melodies and harmonies, dynamics and so on…

…so take the journey if you’re so-inclined (like you got any choice when it comes to death!) and speaking of journeys we’ll close by noting how Die Happy is possibly laid out in reverse order (one last theory!) much like a Christopher Nolan movie or Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void which itself is based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (!) seeing as the album’s opening track is the short, coda-like “Die Happy Reprise” [emphasis ours] sung in four-part harmony (one last point of comparison for this album is the Beach Boys during their adventurous, deeply strange late ’60s/early ‘70s phrase where they touched on everything from psych to folk to prog) with the second track “Vice-Versa” sounding more like an epic album-closer and the album-closing “When The Sun Is Down” opening with what one might expect to the be the first lyrics on the album (“I’ve spent my life / searching for answers / but I still haven’t found them“) and “Die Happy” proper not appearing ’til near the end…


released April 5, 2024

Don Scherr – Vocals, Guitars, Percussion
Jake Hughes – Keyboards, Vocals
Brendan Lee – Bass, Vocals
Chayse Schutter – Drums, Percussion, Vocals

Produced by Don Scherr
Mixed by Kevin Ann Dye
Mastered by Mike Kalajian
Engineering by Brian DiMeglio, Kevin Ann Dye and James McCaffrey
Artwork by Linzi Silverman

Yuma Uesaka – Saxophone
Joe Gullace – Trumpet
Ben Karas – Violin
Eric Law – Cello
Yuka Tadano – Upright Bass
Pravin Thompson – Guitar
Chris Paprota – Drums

Dan Boest, Adam Rehman, Reed Silverman, Kasey Porter,
Kevin Rinn, Christian Seda, Peter Scoma, Phil Corso,
Matt Sullivan, Zack Mongillo, Dan Hernandez, Maria Hassell

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