I was 10 years old when I first heard about the 27 Club. My mom and I were driving in the car, and the radio DJ aptly alluded to it as Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” faded out. I was at a curious and impressionable age, so I had a few questions. My mom did her best to explain an overdose in a 10-year-old’s terms — how drugs took the lives of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison; each at 27 and in that order. At home, when I thought my parents weren’t paying attention, I stole into the office to look up the departed musicians. I read about Brian Jones being pulled from the bottom of a swimming pool and Kurt Cobain shooting himself with a 20-gauge shotgun. I realized, for the first time, that any of us can go at any moment. And as I approach that cursed age, their deaths confound me even more.
Death is the only immutable aspect of living. It’s simultaneously quotidian and earth-shattering, and we all cope with it differently. Sometimes grief consumes us — Dave Grohl didn’t want to play or listen to music for a while after Kurt Cobain’s death. Sometimes, we reimagine our grief, and of it comes great art. Following the deaths of several family members and close friends, Patti Smith recorded the immaculate Gone Again. “About a Boy,” the record’s third track, is a tribute to Kurt Cobain.
At some point, everyone tumbles through impossible questions, like why some go at 27 while others die at 100. ANFANG, the Chicago-based fourpiece, asks these questions on its new EP, Tunneler.
Like so many artists before her, Andie Zaragoza, ANFANG’s lead vocalist, lost a friend too young. After her best friend died in high school, Zaragoza tried to put her grief into words, and then she put those words to music. “Soulless Betty,” the first track on the EP, is the manifestation of this effort. The track’s haunting guitar line and raw lyrics, “Leave me here I’m dying / Ain’t no starting over,” evoke images of a 16-year-old girl, powerless in the face of death.
But the death of a young friend isn’t the only experience that the EP speaks to. The five-track Tunneler is a journey through the five stages of grief, with depressive ballads bleeding into rage-induced screamers. If “Soulless Betty” is the dying teenager, then “Ghost Ship” is the friend left to grapple with her mortality. Zaragoza wails, “Borrowing diluted time / I’ll take control of what is left of my roving life,” over ethereal harmonies. Nick Rissler’s panicked drum beat conjures a sense of urgency, a race to live enough before time runs out.
Zaragoza’s soaring notes on the chorus are moans of grief: “I’m volatized / My peers are dead.” The lyric is reminiscent of something Pete Townshend said during an interview for Time’s “History of Rock N’ Roll:” “Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon, the list is fucking endless… they might be your fucking idols; they’re my fucking friends. They’re dead.”
Emerging from grief’s trench requires concerted energy, and few make it without scars. “Fair Fight,” is about this battle. At the onset, a revving engine charges into a power chord — the sonic equivalent of pep talk — as Mark Tonai plunges into guitar riffs right out of a Rocky movie. It’s a boxing match: “Tell me does it hurt / Promise I won’t pull my punches.” But it’s also self-reassurance: “No don’t cower home now / It’s gonna be a fair fight.”
“She,” is the EP’s solemn exhale. The guitar line warbles and reels, unsure of its footing, while Christian Newman’s bassline throbs beneath it all, an augury of something bubbling up. I imagine ANFANG in their rehearsal space, switching from the blood-pumping “Fair Fight” to the somber “She” and the emotional whiplash that must cause. This whiplash, of course, is how grief manifests. We hype ourselves up, crumble and start over again.
ANFANG starts over again with “Hora Burros,” an angry deluge of aural stimulation. It’s the track that most resembles metal, with emphatic beats and heavy distortion. “Oh lord, oh lord what have I done / Who is this soul who I just hung,” Zaragoza cries over a cacophony of clashing parts. In lieu of providing some sort of resolution, ANFANG basks in the dissonance on this last track.
Given the current state of the world and the ubiquity of death, we’re apt to seek a healthy dose of don’t-worry-be-happy. Tunneler offers no such encouragement; after all, there’s no sixth track to tell us everything will be okay. And if ANFANG’s garage/grunge sound isn’t for you, listen to the lyrics. They are, in my opinion, simply a treat.
Sometimes, leaning into grief provides catharsis. For 23 minutes, Tunneler lets you be that angsty 10-year-old, discovering all that’s unjust in the world.