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Soundcheck: Cliffdiver - Exercise Your Demons

The trending Tulsa emo band copes with mental illness through raw lyrics, surreal humor, and lots of saxophone on its debut full-length.

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The light at the end of the tunnel is often portrayed as some pure, weightless clean slate, some sunny finish line to be accompanied by glorious choir and trumpet fanfare when reached. More reasonably, though, it probably sounds something like Cliffdiver.

The Tulsa-based self-described “elevator emo pop” septet is a stirring blend of soul-scraping vocals, riffy skatepark guitars, and smooth jazz saxophone. On paper, it sounds a bit messy — and maybe it is — but it jells into a unique spectacle of fierce catharsis with wholesome overtones. It is the sound of repressed bad memories, acceptance of self-love, and the reflective space that bridges the two.

For years, the band has earned a reputation for writing songs that “get” the struggles of mental illness by baring emotional wounds and confronting uncomfortable truths that nurture self-care. Cliffdiver is also known for its sense of humor, with a track record of surreal, verbose song titles like “You Sir, Are Obviously Not a Golfer” and “The Water Temple Is Filled with My Tears and Now I Am Drowning in Sorrow.” That juxtaposition is key to what makes the band tick, even now that the titles are dialed back for its label debut with SideOneDummy Records.

Exercise Your Demons is the band’s first proper LP following years of hyped EPs and singles, and it’s also the first album release since adding Nightingale’s Briana Wright on co-lead vocals. Joining the rougher full-throttle stylings of Joey Duffy, she matches his power while smoothing his edges and helping Thomas Dony Nickels’ saxophone feel even more at home than before.

All of the familiar themes of alcoholism, failure, and relationship problems are here, and it’s never sounded as good. The glimmering production and range in vocal mixing bring out new dynamics in the band’s songwriting. The performances are on-point, even when they stray from Cliffdiver’s musical center to sneak in mild shades of metal on “Dick Van Yikes,” ska on “New Vegas Bomb,” and alt-rock balladry on “We Saw the Same Sunset.” The tracking is noteworthy, too, with the nine songs rolling one into another with impeccable pacing.

Despite its musical coherence, Exercise Your Demons is quick to point out that it doesn’t have all the answers. Wright and Duffy even describe their lives as a “Wonka boat disaster” at one point. That is what makes Cliffdiver so immediately relatable to many though. It acknowledges that making it through a rough patch is not the finish line. There is often the residue of regret, the scars from pain to be revealed under the light at the end of the tunnel. Healing is a gritty process, but if it’s any consolation, there is a band in Tulsa that can empathize.

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