State Champs’ Kings of the New Age artfully improves on what makes pop punk captivating

May 31, 2022

State Champs’ Kings of the New Age (2022) is an anthemic punk album ready-made for summer—all while being a life-affirming, thoughtful dive into issues of love, loss, paranoia, and moving on. 

The Albany, NY pop punk quartet—lead singer Derek DiScanio, guitarist Tyler Szalkowski, bassist Ryan Scott Graham, and drummer Evan Ambrosio—have already captivated audiences nationwide with three albums of alluring love ballads, catchy breakup songs, and head-banging meditations on present struggles and future goals. Their first full album, The Finer Things (2013), received critical acclaim and brought State Champs a place at the Vans Warped Tour and the chance to tour with punk heavyweights including the Wonder Years and We Are the In Crowd. Their star has risen ever since.

In Kings of the New Age, the band yet again racks up sparkling collaborations, packs convincing imagery into ambitious lyrics, and stitches vulnerability into earworms. This time, though, State Champs ditches the slicker and sometimes slower notes of Living Proof (2018) for grungy power chords and choruses that won’t let up. The album doesn’t just beg to be blasted out of car windows—it also intends to turn heads when that happens.

The opening track, “Here to Stay,” confidently answers DiScanio’s worries in “Crystal Ball” (2018) that the band may not be worth the effort. The song is full of riffs that tug hopefully at the listener—its grungy motif makes you want to jump around just a bit—and loud declarations that the band is doing this punk rock thing for life: “no matter how far it goes / The world will know that we’ll keep singing like always.” 

But “singing like always” hasn’t been easy for DiScanio. In “Eventually,” he opens up about his recent struggles with mental and physical health, including paranoia and a failing voice. DiScanio explained that “writing this song motivated me to take the necessary steps to get my mind and body back to a healthy place.” The song’s dark power chords, fast verses, non-stop drumming, and, frankly, epic chorus draw up images of furious scribbling, of an anthem of self-reflection being poured onto the page. The song’s self-confidence is earned through DiScanio’s intense personal reflection on his struggles, making “Eventually” the album’s standout song and a goalpost for the pop punk genre.

Treading back onto the familiar musical terrain of a relationship gone wrong in “Everybody but You,” State Champs throws in a sweet twist: to get over the breakup, “turn the music up louder / Tell everybody come through / Cause I’m having a party, / invited everybody but you.” The song expresses that sentiment in two speeds: slower verses for frustrating interactions with an ex, and hyped-up choruses and impatient power chords for the post-breakup party, with all the band’s friends. One of those friends, Neck Deep’s Ben Barlow, sings a bridge that is emo, forceful, self-referential, and even funny—true to his strengths. This breakup song, both musically satisfying and emotionally gratifying, will make heads nod and feet tap.

State Champs can even make the ambiguity of a situationship exciting. “Fake It” begins with plucky verses and ends with DiScanio charismatically promising to figure his ambiguous relationship out as he goes along: “We’re more than the words that we say in the end / We bend and we break so there’s something to mend.” Making a song that is both thoughtful about love and exciting in its presentation is one of State Champs’ biggest strengths as a pop punk act.

“Half Empty” is a proper punk ballad; the song’s piano and strings, reminiscent of All Time Low’s 2010s orchestral punk experiments, set it apart from the album’s other tracks. The song, about former lovers realizing they need the other, already feels longing enough when DiScanio sings, “I’m the glass half empty of every drink / You’re the other half of me.” But, when Against the Current’s lead singer Chrissy Costanza joins him in belting out those lines at the end, it’s hard not to feel butterflies.

The best of the love songs, no contest, is “Act Like That.” The muted opening lets DiScanio’s vocals shine. There’s something compelling about his laconic verses: “seems fine, feels right. / That kind of feeling you want your whole life,” and there’s an electronic tinge to the music that makes the song almost sugary. State Champs saved the song’s muscle for guest star Mitchell Tenpenny, a country pop singer whose addition to the album no doubt took the scene by surprise. Tenpenny’s bridge, “I’m thinking that you can save me / But still you’re telling me maybe / It’s making me crazy,” is a tour-de-force that refreshingly switches up the tempo of the song. His closing duet with DiScanio is the outburst of raw feeling the song deserves.

“Where Were You” sees State Champs return to the more rock-heavy sounds of Around the World and Back (2015). Verses like “something about you was electric / but now you’re pulling the plug” that highlight DiScanio’s command of imagery within tight verses are undoubtedly impressive. Yet this vintage-style song of love and loss feels out of place in an album dedicated to showcasing the band’s capacity to evolve into newer sounds. “Sundress” belongs in that same bucket: while its lyrics creatively sketch a story about a straining relationship, and while the Four Year Strong collaboration adds heart to the song, it treads no new musical ground.

But State Champs is still keen to show that they’re evolving musically. Their closing anthem, “Some Minds Don’t Change,” builds quickly into tight verses, complete with DiScanio hitting high notes and minor keys. The guitar solo is entirely distinct from the sonic profiles of Around the World and Back (2015) or Living Proof (2018). The verses, too, hint that these musical innovations intend to decisively break from the fans more enamored with the band’s old work than with the band itself: “We were on to something great / But you had no patience to see what’s in store / And if I can’t change you still / I don’t think anyone else will.” If only the drawn-out rock chord that ended the song didn’t have to end the album.

Pop-punk is evolving quickly and State Champs has to keep up. Scene leaders like Waterparks and Stand Atlantic are each pushing the genre’s boundaries in innovative directions, all while relative newcomers including WILLOW and Meet Me @ the Altar are successfully carving out and defending a place for women artists and artists of color in the scene. At the same time, the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, YUNGBLUD, and blackbear are plugging punk’s drums and guitars into hip hop-influenced tracks. State Champs—a white male quartet—look like relics in comparison, especially considering that Kings of the New Age does none of these things.

But Kings of the New Age is the band’s attempt to say that they’re still here, that they’re still killing it. “It’s us having that ego, and not being the humble, grateful, thankful, young band anymore,” DiScanio told Kerrang!. “We know we’re good at this shit. We know we’ve been here this long for a reason and we wanna showcase that.” And, in this listener’s opinion, DiScanio is right: this is a pop punk band at the top of their game.

If pop-punk has a core, it’s in thoughtful verses and angsty bridges backed by guitars and drums; it’s in the songs that call out to the unsatisfied, the songs that find home wherever friendship and love are. That’s the feeling that State Champs is defending. 

The few good-but-not-particularly-impressive songs on Kings of the New Age are overshadowed by the album’s lyrical and musical artpieces—tracks that beg to be played in mosh pits and on summer drives, tracks that make even the unsatisfied among us feel like there’s something more worth aspiring for. State Champs give listeners an avenue through which to process failing love, budding relationships, mental and physical struggles, and letting go. And, in doing so, State Champs reestablish themselves as the vanguard of a genre that, like its listeners, can’t settle down.

Voice’s choices: Eventually, Everybody but You, Fake It, Act Like That

Advait Arun
Advait was the Voice's Editorial Board chair in Spring 2022 and the magazine's sometimes-cartoonist. In his free time, he's reading and listening to lots of punk rock. And drinking too much coffee.

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