Four Year Strong / Comeback Kid / Expire / Handguns / Heart to Heart Opera House, Toronto ON, January 8

Four Year Strong / Comeback Kid / Expire / Handguns / Heart to Heart Opera House, Toronto ON, January 8
Photo: Rick Clifford
The calm before the storm that was brewing outside — which, for the record, held out for the majority of the pop-punk/hardcore whirlwind contained inside the Opera House — extended into Heart to Heart's set. The band's lukewarm punk rock was undercooked and lacked the vivacity or violent vigour of the bands that would follow.
Handguns shot onto the stage with a relentless energy so many of their peers lose in introspective sad guy bullshit. Soft grunge influences were nowhere to be found, as they recalled bands like New Found Glory and Blink 182. There's a little bit of the Story So Far in there, but modernity isn't the main goal with Handguns. Unfortunately, the vocals of frontman Taylor Eby seemed to catch the nasal congestion — is that even contagious? — of the aforementioned pop punk survivors. Falling somewhere between Jordan Pundik (New Found Glory), Parker Cannon (The Story So Far) and Soupy's (The Wonder Years) less refined, earlier voice, this young vocalist has room to grow and would do well to pay attention to his backing vocalist, guitarist Brandon Pagano. Overall it works quite well, especially with the young crew's penchant for constant jumps and spins that could put most hardcore bands to shame. Seriously, these kids can work a stage.
Their exodus from that podium they had made their own gave Expire a chance to challenge the assumption that hardcore bands can't keep up with young guns. Fortunately, the "Midwest blood" flowing through this Milwaukee group kept them pumped all set. When they suggested, "When the shit keeps piling up, get a shovel," in the title track of their latest LP, Heavy Low, it seemed likely that a few in the lively mosh pit were looking for one to swing around. The title track of their first LP also made a rowdy appearance, as did "Sleep Lost" from their Suffer the Cycle EP, alongside a whole bunch more; they're a hardcore band and none of their songs (save a cover) even hit the three minute mark. It was a crammed set on a big stage — arguably not the place for a hardcore band, but Expire made it work.
Comeback Kid kicked their set off in an equally crammed manner, hardly stopping for a break throughout "G.M. Vincent & I," "Losing Sleep" (complete with one of the heaviest breakdowns of the night), "Do Yourself A Favour," "All In a Year" and "Talk Is Cheap": another qualifier for the most crushing moment. The hometown heroes — sort of; vocalist Andrew Neufeld explained that some of the band members are now based in Toronto — seemed in a light mood; when a call-and-response of "whoa-oh-oh-oh" was conducted with the crowd to kick off "Should Know Better," Neufeld changed his final melody to "Stuu-uuu-uuu-art," which resulted in chuckles from the guitarist and crowd alike. The band plucked heavily from their less heavy selection, which wasn't particularly surprising given the tour, but less material from their first two LPs was a slight sore spot in an otherwise painfully great Comeback Kid set.
Four Year Strong took the stage in front of their appropriated American flag backdrop, complete with the band's logo laid atop the stars. Blasting into "Prepare to Be Digitally Manipulated," it was clear that these Worcester easycore Massters (misspelling totally intended) certainly felt at home in their neighbouring country. The song's synths weren't even missed, with parallel guitar parts covering for the absence of former keyboardist Josh Lyford, as was the trend throughout their set. This was also helped by the full (and loud) mix that built up the band's hardcore foundation and shined lights on their pop punk melodies. "On a Saturday" led into "Tread Lightly," a song off their new EP, during which one half of the vocalist/guitarist team, Dan O'Connor, bounced his way from side-to-side of the stage, throwing his arms up as if hurling a boulder over his shoulders and yelling at the crowd; when a big, bearded man demands it, you go wild, and go wild the raucous crowd did.
"Stuck in the Middle" switched up the influences a little bit, with rock taking the forefront for the lone song played from their 2011 full-length. It was a nice change of pace that continued into the mid-paced "Catastrophe," before the crowd delivered an impromptu "Happy Birthday" serenade for O'Connor, whose only apparent birthday wish was that the crowd bounce for "What the Hell Is a Gigawatt?" Partway through the song, the other half of the vocalist/guitarist team, Alan Day, gave his guitar to tech Pat Benson (also of Polar Bear Club), got in the crowd's collective face and yelled. "Find My Way Back," "Maniac (R.O.D.)," "It Must Really Suck to Be Four Year Strong Right Now," "Heroes Get Remembered, Legends Never Die" and two more songs from Go Down In History — "What's In the Box?" and the title track — were highlights from a set full of them, as was "One Step at a Time," which the band sent out to everyone who had lost someone they really cared about.
After an earlier crowd chant for "Wasting Time (Eternal Summer)," the crowd was assured the band would get to the single. When they failed to play it before exiting the stage, the ensuing encore became blatantly and comically obvious, with excitement and the bright lights building. When Four Year Strong returned, tour manager John James Ryan Jr. joined them with a saxophone to play the synth parts in "Bada Bing! Wit' a Pipe." The song would have made an amazing closer if not for the promised "Wasting Time," which ended the night on a high note nonetheless.