Music Notes: Dawn of the Dead


This summer brought a lot of exciting new adventures for me: a musical trip to Paris, a short jaunt through London, several American Horror Story marathons, endless piano rehearsals, a few midnight picnics, countless days at the pool, and, oh yeah, “The Dawn of the Dead.”

That’s right, this summer I saw local Seattle horror-punk band Schoolyard Heroes rise from the grave to perform a reunion show at Bumbershoot, where they thrilled the crowd with operatic vocals, infectious guitar riffs, and plenty of B-grade horror movie references.

Schoolyard Heroes vocalist Ryann Donnelly and bassist Jonah Bergman thrilled fans at their Bumbershoot reunion show this summer.
Schoolyard Heroes vocalist Ryann Donnelly and bassist Jonah Bergman thrilled fans at their Bumbershoot reunion show this summer.
Photo by Maggie Molloy

Now of course, few Seattleites have had the privilege of growing up at Schoolyard Heroes concerts. Throughout high school I must have seen them perform at least a dozen times; Heaven knows I own every CD and almost every t-shirt they’ve ever released (including the ever-popular white t-shirt with a massive red dripping-blood graphic gushing from the neckline).

Yes, you could say I’m a pretty big fan of the Schoolyard Heroes. So as I stood waiting against the stage at Bumbershoot in my emerald green velvet dress and fishnets, I got to thinking about what it is that makes the Schoolyard Heroes one of my all-time favorite female-fronted bands. Here’s what I came up with:

Aside from the danceable grooves, the perfectly punx stage costumes, and the tongue-in-cheek lyrics about everything from plastic surgery to puppet attacks to girls without faces, the Schoolyard Heroes have something else that few other bands have: a lead singer with an operatic vocal range and theatrical stage presence.

Ryann Donnelly has to be one of my favorite frontwomen of all time because she is simultaneously 1) ultra punx and 2) a classically-trained musician. Her background in theatre and operatic arts helped her cultivate an incredible voice that is so commanding onstage. As a classically-trained musician myself, I am always fascinated by bands who can incorporate elements of classical music into their sound and have it work both conceptually and sonically.

In the case of the Schoolyard Heroes, Ryann plays the role of a powerful, dominating, even malicious woman. Supported by her incredible vocal range and her authoritative stage presence, Ryann is able to totally sell all of the band’s pulpy horror-themed lyrics about werewolves, fantastic wounds, and armies rising from the dead. She’s able to sell it because she’s playing a specific character. It’s all theatrical, even operatic; it’s intentionally very dramatic.

Every single element of her persona onstage, from her dresses to her dancing, is very much part of the theatrical story the band is telling through their music. (Confession: To this day, my sense of fashion is heavily inspired by Ryann’s trademark look of feminine dresses, fishnets, and Converse high-tops).

Most of the Schoolyard Heroes’ lyrics are written by their bassist, Jonah Bergman. However, Ryann takes full ownership of them onstage, shrieking and sneering with every word as she floats across the stage, haunting audience members with her passionate eyes and powerful voice.

What makes it so unique, though, is that Ryann is always in charge. She is never the victim singing sad songs about how some stupid boy broke her heart; she’s too busy being the ringleader of a skeleton army. All of the lyrics reflect her position of control over men as she taunts them with her beauty and power.

In “Plastic Surgery Hall of Fame,” she sings of a spooky plastic surgery circus full of mutated women trying to be beautiful. It’s fitting that this track should appear on their final album, “Abominations.” I’d recommend listening to it in preparation for when the Schoolyard Heroes rise again.