It is no coincidence that emo has found its way back into hip hop. This is not just because trends recycle every decade or two, nor is it due to an up-spike in heartbreaks or late-night sneak-outs. It’s because goth-rap has a former emo icon, behind the scenes, quietly pioneering the way.
I’m talking about Adam McIlwee, otherwise known as Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. Back in 2005, McIlwee co-founded the legendary pop-punk group Tigers Jaw. Until his resignation in 2013, he was the infectiously dissonant voice of longing for millions of teens and pre-teens alike. After he left, the band moved on, but McIlwee seemingly fell off the map.
With Tigers Jaw still in the spotlight, McIlwee started his career over. He stayed under the radar, but would occasionally perform toned-down acoustic sets at local coffeeshops and nightclubs in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. In some cases, it seemed like he knew the name of everyone in the room. On the mic, he talked to his friends about the generously lent flannel that he planned on returning, or he’d outwardly recall an inside joke. During that time, most of the songs he played were new, unreleased, and unrecorded, but occasionally, he’d belt out an old Tigers Jaw cut. McIlwee’s charm lies in his abundant awkwardness, and his peculiar new path only added to the mystery.
Eventually, McIlwee began releasing music again; only this time, everything was different. Under the moniker ‘Wicca Phase Springs Eternal,’ he dropped the first wave of emo-trap crossovers, clipping with distortion, angsty as ever. Around that time, Wicca Phase and some likeminded friends founded THRAXXHOUSE, a pre-cursor to GothBoiClique.
Embracing the naivety of pop-punk, Wicca Phase chose mixtape titles such as Outside Yr Window and Abercrombie & Me. In reference to modern trap, nearly every instrumental featured snappy hi-hats and thunderous 808s, but the lead melodies were those of emo songs and dance tracks from the mid-2000s.
Wicca’s aggressively auto-tuned voice dazzled through glitzy instrumentals from fellow THRAXXHOUSE collaborators.
Much of it sounds like the soundtrack to a futuristic prom where you can only take your ex.
Somehow, it all fit. The angular, synthetic nature of dance music was being fused with hip hop, pop-punk, and emo, all at once, for the very first time.
The title track from Wicca’s 2015 EP Shut My Eyes samples “Drown” by Citizen, a former label-mate of his. During his humble coffeehouse shows, McIlwee played an acoustic version of “Shut My Eyes” every so often. Also, during that time, he performed a song called “Icebreaker,” which, 5 years later, appeared on his 2017 EP Raw and Declawed. Tigers Jaw anthems bled into Adam McIlwee ballads, and McIlwee ballads bled into Wicca Phase Springs Eternal songs.
In early 2016, Wicca Phase released his fan-favorite LP Secret Boy. This album delicately strings together attributes from each of his personas to create a vivid reflection of his life over the past few years. The sound is grand yet humble, and homespun yet glossy. Every song is a highlight, and as a whole, it ages like wine.
In October of 2017, Wicca Phase played a rare acoustic show in Los Angeles. He perched awkwardly in a flimsy metal chair, played his guitar and sang, just like he did back in 2013. Longtime fans recognized this as an incredible opportunity to see an Adam McIlwee show, not just as a former member of Tigers Jaw, but now as emo-trap titan Wicca Phase Springs Eternal. Mid-set, he did something completely unexpected.
People chatted amongst themselves as McIlwee delivered his patented inter-song banter. In typical fashion, he didn't announce the name of the next song, he just began strumming. With an uneasy grin, he uttered, “Let’s see how this goes…” He continued shifting chords as some fans slowly realized what was going on. When the first verse kicked off, a few, thoroughly overjoyed voices screamed along as the rest of the crowd stood in confusion. The song was “I Saw Water” by Tigers Jaw. Nine years after it’s release, multiple rebirths later, and one new poly-genre down the line, there he was, summing up a decade of unthinkable innovation with a single song.