One of the most famous paintings of the Romantic period is Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818). In historian John Lewis Gaddis' view, this image of a lone man gazing out at a landscape covered in mist conveys both confidence and powerlessness.
"The impression it leaves is contradictory," Gaddis wrote in The Landscape of History (Oxford University Press, 2002), "suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both."
The cover of Milemarker's latest release, Overseas (Lovitt Records, 2016), drew inspiration from Friedrich's painting, changing the man to a robot with a light bulb for a head. The band didn't know about Gaddis' interpretation, but bassist-vocalist Al Burian could see parallels between it and the spirit of the album.
"Yeah, definitely," Burian told Boise Weekly. "Trying to keep a brave face while gazing into uncertainty. And I guess we're probably in a similar time period to the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. The extremely rapid pace of technological change and that kind of thing gives a lot of people that 'Is it exhilarating or terrifying?' kind of feeling."
Combining old themes of alienation and social decay with a new emphasis on compassion and perseverance, Milemarker's first album in 11 years manages to sound both exhilarating and terrifying. Impose Magazine called Overseas "[the band's] most groundbreaking and fun work yet."
Now based in Germany, Milemarker is touring the U.S. behind Overseas now. The post-punk quartet will play Neurolux Tuesday, Feb. 21, with Atlanta, Ga.-based alt-rock group Big Jesus and local melodic hardcore band Stepbrothers.
Composed originally of Burian, singer-guitarist-keyboardist Dave Laney and drummer Ben Davis, Milemarker emerged from the rock scene in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1997. The group would go through numerous personnel changes and eventually relocate to Chicago. Along the way, Milemarker would earn recognition for combining raging post-hardcore with new wave synthesizers and lyrics portraying the industrialized world as a degrading horror show.
In a 2016 retrospective for Noisey on Milemarker's seminal album Frigid Forms Sell (Lovitt Records, 2000), Jason Heller explored the band's influence on other post-hardcore groups.
"Milemarker never got much credit for it," Heller wrote, "but they were pivotal in shifting the scene's perspective when it came to a broader instrumental palette. From there, The Blood Brothers, The Faint, and countless others picked up and ran with that idea. At the same time, the delicious sense of cognitive dissonance that Milemarker cultivated was lost once keyboards became standard issue in post-hardcore. But it bears remembering how bracing, thought provoking, abrasive, and downright oddball Frigid Forms Sell sounded on its release."
Looking back on Milemarker's earlier work, Burian has some misgivings.
"There's a line between being socially critical and not looking away from the dark side of things—you know, there's sort of a line between that and going over into negativity or just [saying], 'There's no hope,'" Burian told BW. "I would say with music in general, my idea of what I'd like to get across—or what we hopefully get across—is a little more constructive."
Milemarker achieves that goal on Overseas. The defiance and outreach of songs like "Untamed Ocean," "Blue Flag" and "Recognition" balances out the angst of "Conditional Love," "Luxuria" and "Supercomputer." The music adds more uplift: The catchy riffs and supple beats on Overseas make it the most accessible album in Milemarker's 20-year history.
Part of the credit for the less abrasive sound on Overseas goes to the chemistry between Burian, Laney and Milemarker's newest members, keyboardist-singer Lena Kilkka and drummer Ezra Cale.
"It's funny because Milemarker [always had] a lot of drama and wigged-out people and a lot of intra-band tension fueling it," Burian said. "So it's strange now to be playing in this lineup [where] everyone gets along well and there isn't that underlying thing."
Laney and Burian had worked with Cale and Kilkka on separate projects while living in Germany. The two American musicians had different reasons for moving away from the U.S.
"For me, I've got family in Germany," Burian explained, "and I always was drawn to the city of Berlin. It just ended up being the next place I moved to after Chicago. For Dave, he got married. ... He decided he wanted to keep a relationship going with this person. That involved moving."
Though older and calmer, Milemarker won't slow down anytime soon. The band has shows scheduled through this summer.
Whatever comes next, Burian and company will face it full speed ahead. The chorus of "Untamed Ocean" sums up their resolution best: "Don't talk to me of the tides. / Don't speak to me of your fears. / Open up your mind, let's sail, we'll disappear."