In 2008 and 2009, Coatesville, Pa., was victim of bizarre, cruel trauma. Within that period, the small town with a population of about 10,000 was subject to some 44 arsons within its city limits. The damage was in the millions of dollars, several families were displaced because of destroyed homes and one woman died. The arson problem got to be so bad that the police force was increased; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives became part of the investigation to find the perpetrators and a state of emergency was declared in January of last year.
Arrests trickled in (most suspects were in their twenties), but most startling was perhaps the inclusion of Robert Tracey, Jr., a then-37-year-old Coatesville fire captain who was accused of starting two fires. He made a plea deal in November 2009 and admitted to setting one fire and trying to ignite another.
Fred Mascherino, a guitarist and vocalist who has done stints in Taking Back Sunday, Breaking Pangaea and The Color Fred, was captivated by the drama unfolding in his hometown.
“I was in a Mexican restaurant in my town and they had a TV on,” Mascherino says. “It was CNN and they were talking about how they had just caught these two boys who confessed to a few of the fires. It really sickened me that this little depressed field town I had never expected to get any national notoriety (gained some) for something as awful as the approximately 40 fires. That night, he penned his first song about the arsons. Soon, he’d write more and became “pretty much obsessed” with the saga. The resulting work would be collected on Terrible Things, last August’s debut from Mascherino’s new band of the same.
Accompanied by ex-Coheed and Cambria drummer Josh Eppard and ex-Hot Rod Circuit guitarist/vocalist Andy Jackson, Mascherino presents Terrible Things’ debut as a concept album shaped around the Coatesville arsons. The record’s liner art is splayed with images relating to fire: a dollhouse ablaze, an extinguisher and fireman’s hat standing stoically in an empty room and other confusing images of flames.
Lyrically, it’s much more difficult to discern a story. Mascherino doesn’t thread a full narrative through the album, instead focusing on feelings of anxiety and distrust likely stemming from the arsons. The most overt reference to its subject matter appears in “Up At Night,” encapsulating the record almost halfway through with the lyrics, “Burning, burning bright, our eyes wide open/I bet you could see our town from space that night/We keep on all the lights/We keep them burning bright/The fires, they return/They couldn’t tell us why/We keep on all the lights/That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Throughout, the trio maps out hooky, soaring AltRock. It doesn’t mine any new territory, but it moves competently and peppers enough shifts and twists through the songs to remain interesting. “Not Alone” has gang chants and an At the Drive-In-style intro, while the downtrodden words and upbeat motion of the chorus on “Revolution” only need a couple of listens to implant the thoughts into your brain.
Mascherino and company originally formed the band with another member and took the name Initials until some circumstances swiftly forced them to shed both. (Today, they’ve recently been joined by bass player Brian Weaver of the band Silvertide.)
In fact, Terrible Things is a band built of the idea of change and fluctuation. Three of Mascherino’s compositions were originally intended for his other bands: the main riff of “Revolution” was written for Taking Back Sunday; “Been Here Before” was going to be a faster song for The Color Fred; and “Lullaby” was initially released by Breaking Pangaea. Even Mascherino purposely approached the group’s sound in a different way from his other bands.
“I grew up on Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty and even Van Halen,” says the guitarist. “I wanted to go more straightforward Rock and less connected to a particular scene. The people who listen to my previous work, it will be recognizable because it’s still me writing a lot. Other than that, we tried to stay away from a particular style. ‘Let’s try to make great songs and not worry about whether there’s a dance beat or a screaming part.’ ”
What’s ultimately affected him most, however, was being inspired by the crimes within Coatesville. Mascherino’s already discussed the possibility of still working with this band in 10 years, and his experience here might mark a turning point in his lyrical approach.
“I look back on some of my past work and I’m glad that (this record) got me out of the typical things that we write about, like boyfriends and girlfriends and broken hearts,” he says. “It’s helped me grow as a writer to have more of a serious subject to write about.”
The Terrible Things play Mad Hatter Wednesday, Jan. 19, with Bayside and The Sleeping. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.