The first 30 seconds of Distorted Greetings, the 1995 album by Burlington rock band Envy, could serve as a microcosm of the entire record. An arpeggiated guitar run cuts through the speakers like fine shards of glass. With crystal tones played at the edge of tempo, the opening strains of "Bloodboy" impart a pensive mood. Then, just at the height of anticipation, the song explodes. Overdriven guitars and bass rumble in a dark, unrelenting groove, punctuated by bursts of punishing drums. A squealing guitar riff on loan from the Pixies creates a torrent of disorienting noise before receding behind vocalist Matt Hutton's rasp. Distorted greetings, indeed.
It's a classic opening to a signature record from the mid-to-late-1990s Burlington music scene. And it sets the stage for a blistering half hour to follow — the alt-rock blast that is "Bomb," the bleary-eyed power ballad "Falling In and Out of Sleep," the hazy, wistful jangle of "Sunday." Melodic and heavy, few bands melded light and dark, angst and redemption, sound and fury quite like Envy.
It's unlikely that many have heard Distorted Greetings since 1995. Though it garnered modest attention outside of Burlington, it wasn't widely distributed And no one has heard Envy play live since the band's cofounders — Hutton and lead guitarist Sean Toohey — moved to Boston and launched a new band, the Red Telephone, in 1996. That changes this Thursday, July 28, when Envy regroup for a show at the Monkey House in Winooski. (Pro tip: Get there early for openers Barbacoa. It's a safe bet the surf-rockers will dust off their instrumental version of "Bloodboy," which was recorded for the late '90s Good Citizen comp, Burlington Does Burlington Vol. 2.)
The Envy reunion comes on the heels of what Toohey describes as "a bit of nostalgia in the air about '90s music in Burlington." A slew of notable BTV bands from that era have appeared recently, including Guppyboy, Drowningman and Belizbeha. Another band with Vermont DNA, the Essex Green, returned to perform at this year's Waking Windows festival before embarking on a Scandinavian tour. Add to this the recent release of High Water Mark: The Rise & Fall of the Pants, local filmmaker Bill Simmon's documentary on '90s darlings the Pants, and the accompanying Higher Ground show.
"That was part of the inspiration [for the reunion]," Toohey says in a recent conference call with his wife, drummer Ann Mindell, and Hutton. Not on the call is Envy's second bassist, Julia Austin (ex-Zola Turn), who will play the reunion.
"It's been 21 years, so it would have made more sense last year," jokes Hutton about the timing. "But really, why not?"
The Red Telephone released a record, aptly titled Places You Return, last year following its own hiatus of 14 years. At least one Envy song, "Sunday," was part of their early repertoire. Other than that, no one in the band has played Envy material for two decades, and Hutton, who still lives in Boston, says he hadn't even heard it again until recently. The front man doesn't own a copy of Distorted Greetings and had to burn the album from the digital masters in order to rehearse. Fortunately, Toohey reveals he's had several boxes of the CD in his Shelburne garage.
"I can probably get you one or two, Matt," he quips. Toohey adds that the record — and, if he can find them, copies of two earlier cassette releases (including one under the band's original name, Venus Envy) — will be available as freebies at the show.
Hutton notes that it's been surreal to return, musically speaking, to mid-'90s Burlington.
"It's like going back to a younger self and vicariously reexperiencing what you were feeling at that time," he says. "I thought I was the same person playing that music, but it's a younger self with much more immediate emotions."
Envy's angsty bent, given scratchy voice by Hutton, is apparent throughout Distorted Greetings. On "Imaginary" he sings, "I can't imagine who I am / It's not the same as who you are / I still imagine that you think / you see the differences so far." Behind him, Toohey, Mindell and original bassist Melanie Nunnink rumble through serpentine, minor-key riffs that owe a debt to the likes of Sonic Youth and Sunny Day Real Estate. It's not hard to imagine Hutton mulling lyrics while listening to Stone Roses and Yo La Tengo albums at Pure Pop Records, where he worked in the '90s.
"It struck me how urgent it sounded," says Toohey of the album. "I had forgotten what it was like to be that age and filled with that kind of angst. And that immediately reappeared."
"It's so loud and noisy and, yes, urgent," adds Mindell. "It's really exciting."
As Simmon explores in his Pants doc, the close-knit local rock scene in the 1990s had an air of destiny about it. Especially with so much attention on Phish, and alt-rock and grunge dominating the airwaves, it seemed inevitable that someone from Burlington would break out.
Envy were on the shortlist of candidates to do so, along with bands such as the Pants, punkers the Fags (fronted by a young Eugene Hütz, now of Gogol Bordello), Chin Ho!, Wide Wail and others. At one point, Envy were on the cusp of signing to Big Star drummer Jody Stephens' label, Ardent Studios. But that deal, and the presumed breakout, never materialized.
"There was a sense in Burlington that there was something bigger and that we could be a part of that," says Toohey.
"There was a kinetic energy that someone would break out," chimes in Hutton. "But sometimes the anticipation is more exciting than the actual thing."
He would know.
The Red Telephone were stylistically similar to Envy, albeit with somewhat softer and more refined pop edges that revealed the band's affection for bands such as the Byrds, the La's and Big Star. Those influences had been present in Envy but somewhat obscured by their noisier aesthetic. After building a following in Beantown, the Red Telephone landed on Warner Bros. Records. They released a self-titled record in 1998 and toured nationally with the Goo Goo Dolls and others, before getting lost in the major-label shuffle.
Hutton and Toohey hung up the Telephone in 2002, before reemerging last year. Hutton presently writes fiction and teaches English in Nashville. Toohey is a lawyer and plays in a new band, the Nancy Druids, with Mindell, who is a social worker. Austin works for NRG Systems in Hinesburg. Now they're digging even deeper into their musical past, and Burlington's, by reconstituting Envy — at least for one night.
"It's been such a blast to revisit these songs after 20 years," says Toohey. "I've missed them. Hearing them again is such a thrill, and I'm psyched to be playing with these guys again."
"Yeah," Mindell adds. Then, deadpanning, "I just don't know what to wear."