CW: This album and review mention thoughts of self harm.
California’s Super Cassette has been putting out music since 2016, but they did not rush to put out a full album until they felt the skill and quality of the product was worth the time, energy, effort, and money that it would cost to produce- and it was well worth the wait. Putting the record out on their own, without a label made the whole process longer and harder, but ultimately, more rewarding. Bringing in Cole Williams to mix the album ensured that it sounded more polished and more complete than their previous singles. In fact, singer/ songwriter Max Gerlock sings the praise of Cole Williams any chance he gets, and says he has become a huge believer in the importance of a great mixing engineer with an outside perspective to mix your music. After listening to the album, I couldn’t disagree.
Typically, when I write an album review, I focus on the themes of specific songs and write about the songs that impacted me the most, and sometimes a little about the album construction. On some occasions, I include a quote or a lyric from a song. This is going to be different. Every song on this album impacted me and I hesitate to neglect any part of this story. I firmly believe that I will be listening to this album in 10 years with the same excitement that I listen to it today.
Continue? feels like a rare themed album, to be listened to from beginning to end, telling the narrative journey of lead singer and songwriter Max Gerlock as they live through depression, anxiety, mental health struggles, suicidal ideation, and ultimately find happiness through community on the other side.
The album starts with the first pre-release single, and the namesake of the album, “Continue?”- a play on the band’s video game themed name and the question asked after a death in a video game, and the far more serious question of whether life is worth continuing, and the thought of ending their life is considered in the lyrics. The song features a driving beat and the occasional synthesized bleep and bloops of a video game while the protagonist laments feeling stuck and trying to move forward in life while stumbling over constant setbacks and the constant desire to give up. The driving, marching drum beat feels like the march of time, never slowing, never giving up, as if time will overtake the narrator, as they try to make it through life as an artist.
From here the album moves to “Path Through the Past”, which was the second single for the album. The song starts off sounding distorted and underwater, before clearing up as the vocals come in. I like this stylistic choice, reminding me of a head fog, seemingly symbolic of the depression and inability for the narrator to pull through with any happy thoughts. Through the song the narrator sings about seeing the world through an interconnected pessimism- a belief that all good things come to an end, everything dies, and even the inevitability that every child will feel depression and insecurity. Seeing the face of a loved one reminds them that they will face “age through the cycles of meaningless toil and spoil every single day”. The song ends on the down note of realization that “things will just get worse”. It feels, at this moment, that the narrator is at their saddest, most depressing moment.
We get to the first notes of “Bones” and the beat has picked up a little. The vocals pick up with a “la-da-da-da” and for a moment we think there might be a break in the sadness, but it’s not meant to be. This is probably the best written song on the entire album, at least lyrically. It is soul crushing and entirely relatable for anyone who’s ever suffered depression. Honestly, I wish I could just share the entire song lyrics instead of reviewing them, because they are perfect, from the start of “dragging my feet, dragging my bones, dragging what remains of the shreds of my soul” to “I feel so homesick, but I’m already home” and “I want to exist, I want to be happy, but everything hurts when you’re maudlin and sappy”. Even the repetition in the lyrics perfectly encapsulate the monotony of living with depression. It’s so beautifully written and so beautifully sung that it’s the only thing that saves me from crying every time I hear it. The hardest lines to get through are probably “I don’t want to die, but I don’t to be alive, I don’t want to be alive, but I don’t want to die”- a depressingly familiar ambivalence about life.
Fortunately, there is a slight reprieve in tone as the next song is “Ember”. It is a little bit more pop and rock, and feels a little happier in tone as the narrator thinks back to their past and remembers being happy as a child. It’s far from an uplifting song as it begins “when I was younger, when sorrow still slumbered”. It feels hopeful as they remember an ember of happiness, through the song they consider how to rekindle the ember, to bring back the happiness and relight the flame. The end of the song features an absolutely powerful guitar bridge that absolutely energizes the song and seemingly brings hope, but the song ends with a re-visitation of the first line of the song, but it is sung lower, deeper, slower, and the hope from the start of the song feels lost. This time, as the line repeats, “when I was younger, when sorrow still slumbered” it feels like a reminder that the sorrow is no longer slumbering, the ember that once burned bright feels extinguished. The chords that close out the song feel like they are implying the same thing as they strum slower and deeper.
Fortunately, following this is another up-tempo song and doesn’t continue the dreary ending of “Ember”. While titled “9 to 5” this is definitely not a Dolly Parton cover. This song brings me some joy, because it is not introspective, rather, it is looking at a source of some of the depression the narrator is facing, looking at the systems that take advantage of us and how we internalize these systems and how they affect us, all set to an upbeat driving pop-punk, indie-rock beat. Great guitar work, some catchy whistling at parts, and beautiful underplayed effects on a synthesizer drive the song forward until I am singing along with the chorus “Idolize a boss that we despise, we waste our only life from 9-5”.
The final song on the first half of the album is “Ulcer”, another introspective song, this one about the toxic relationship with themself and self medicating in ways that make problems worse, and self perpetuating a cycle- exacerbating the problems they hope to cure. The line “My ulcer grows with every drink I knock down I just feed the very thing that tears me up” perfectly captures this narrative. The energy in this song gets chaotic, the pacing shifts more times here than any other song. It feels like the chaos of trying to drink away the problems and the pain of the ulcer have been made manifest in the song, through the sporadic use of the synthesizer. (As an aside, Max has now been sober from alcohol for 6 months as of this writing).
The next track is the first song on the B side of the vinyl and marks the second half of the record, and there is a significant tonal shift. “Bastille Day” was released a few years ago, and was re-recorded and mixed for the album. This has long been my favorite Super Cassette song, and this version is even better than before. This feels like the B Side to the “9 to 5” from the front half of the album. While the previous song focused on the internalization of the monotony of selling your soul for labor, this song looks at the same problem, but begs the working class to rise up and overthrow their capitalist lords. The idea of addressing the problems that are the causes of your problems and struggles as opposed to just internalizing the issue is powerful. Meanwhile there is a driving marching rhythm to the song that I imagine to be the solidarity of the working class coming together. Aside from having my favorite themes and great lyrics, this version of the song features multiple guitar solos that floor me every time I hear the song. They are added perfectly and executed flawlessly in a song that is otherwise devoid of significant guitar work, which really makes them stand out.
But the second half of the album is not all about solving your problems or being joyous. Depression doesn’t just end when you flip a switch or put on the second side. “Someday” is a bit of a reminder of that. The song feels a little more muted than many songs, a feel that was in the first two tracks, that I associate with having a cloudy mind and being depressed. The line “I’ve been abused by my own pessimistic views” is another example of introspective realization. The problems that have led to the depression have been exacerbated by their own thoughts. This leads to the song actually being hopeful. The chorus of “Things go wrong before they go right, maybe someday stars will align” hints at a glimmer of hope- a realization that depression isn’t permanent. They are still hedging their bets with the use of “maybe”, but the slight hint of optimism feels more promising than it did in “Ember”.
Unfortunately, this hopefulness is not long lasting as the next song deals another blow. “Ghost” is a song that deals with the loss of a close friend, survivor’s guilt, feelings of loss and sorrow, and memories of a friend who has passed. There are ethereal qualities through the song, and a cascading harp like synth that highlights portions of the song, like the lyric “why didn’t I save you? Why is it I let you suffer in this worse than silence, cries unheard, a quiet violence? I’d like to say your soul is home, but death’s a melody made monotone”. This song can feel crushing at times, especially with its placement within the album. The second side of the album feels like it is about recovering, and finding happiness, but death comes at its own time. Death doesn’t care about whether or not you are recovering, and growth is not linear. The song, placed right after a song about optimism, smacks you and hurts and causes an ache that is fitting for the subject matter.
The song following this is “Sliver”, a song that reminds me of Spring, of things beginning to bloom, of new beginnings. It starts off slow, just a simple piano and vocals, and the first words feel like the darkness of depression is still with us- “Every day, a sliver of what made me happy seems to fade away, just a trace…”. But then the final line of this intro is joined by the drums and guitars and an uptempo melody “But something better finally is standing in its place”. A nice short guitar bridges us to the next verse and it feels welcoming, allowing us to explore genuine happiness within the album for the first time. The song is pretty and we get lyrics about finding peace within us even in the darkest moments. There are parts where the music builds and swells, where we get more guitar solos. This feels like the first song on a new album, an album that is no longer about depression, but hope and happiness. The darkness is still present, but it’s pushed into the background.
The final two songs are very interconnected, thematically, with “Islands” and “Continent” where the latter maintains the themes from the former, but on a larger scale. Islands starts with a clapping rhythm and feels very uptempo and upbeat. They are the clearest songs on the album, all of the distortions that I associated with a mental fog are absent from these songs. The first lyric is “where I’m going to, and where I’m coming from are one”, and this is the best thesis for the song. A happy realization of an interconnectedness. The theme from this song is very similar to the theme from “Path Through the Past”, except this time the they are no longer being “abused from their pessimistic views”. Where before they looked at anything and realized all good things must end, in “Islands” they realize and bad things come to an end- that the impermanence that takes away every good moment also cleanses everything negative. My favorite lyric in this song is “who I wanna be and who I hated once are one”. There is a realistic optimism in that sentence that doesn’t feel artificial and it feels sustainable. There is no erasing or denying the negative and self loathing or depression, but an acceptance that that will always be a part of the whole, but who you strive to be is also a part of that, and it moves forward towards something bigger and better.
“Continent” picks up exactly where “Islands” drops off- they were originally written as one song, and yet this song is even more optimistic. Where “Islands” looks inward for a connectedness through your life, “Continent” reminds us that we are a part of a society, and “We don’t face this alone, the parts compose a whole”. There is a special promise in knowing that we have other people we can learn to lean on, to lift us when we are down, and to share our joys with. The keys in this track really help share the mood, and the guitar and drum rhythm to close the album feel like they could go on forever. It feels like it carries this happiness extending indefinitely.
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Written by Gimpleg