Five-Eight comes out the other end

Nothing fails like success, and what a spectacularly successful failure Five-Eight has been. Which is to say, after nearly seven years of misfortune, the band was due for a change. And with its new self-titled album, the Athens trio redeems the promise of its three early-'90s albums — momentum that was lost due to a bad label deal, a subsequently disappointing album, the departure of half the band, the dissolution of singer/guitarist Mike Mantione's marriage and the death of the band's former manager, Jimmy McLean.

Despite Mantione's angst-ridden, punkish self-analysis preceding emo by a half-dozen years, a move from Atlanta-based indie Sky Records to former CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff's Velvel Records — which also signed locals Michele Malone and Ultrababyfat in a bid to become a major indie before folding a couple of years later — netted only empty promises and the mediocre Gasolina! in 1997. With 2000's The Good Nurse, the band turned away from its raging rock sound to a more supple, arranged sound. But, beset by personal issues and Mantione's child custody battle, the band was unable to support the album with a tour.

Now, more than 20 years after Mantione and bassist Dan Horowitz began playing together, and 15 years after forming Five-Eight, they've released an album worthy of their energetic live shows, bolstered by the best set of songs Mantione's ever written. Without toning down the self-flagellation that drives the lyricism, Mantione displays a measure of perspective that leavens his dark tone.

"The songs were deeper than they had been in the past," says Mantione. "Songs like 'Lousy Decision' and 'I Don't Give a Damn' might create an immediate understanding of what's going on, but there's another layer to what's happening that has perspective, a sense of humor and self-awareness. It's better not to know what you're writing about — one hand shouldn't know what the other hand is doing — especially when it's jerking wildly."

A self-described "accidental concept album," Five-Eight opens with "Criminal," a parable about a car accident, which elucidates how what we fear perversely draws us closer to it. Closing with the line "so deeply scared of dying that we die," it's followed by the punchy pop of "I'm Still Around," which surveys the wreckage Mantione never expected to survive; and then rumbling rocker "Magnetic Fields," which belatedly acknowledges, "I can't hide from myself." Thus unfolds a cycle of songs dealing with alcoholism, being a 40-year-old rocker and the end of Mantione's marriage. The album adds a crispness and precision that's heretofore been missing from Five-Eight.

The new qualities can be traced to the growing maturation of the band's drummer, Mike Rizzi, who joined Five-Eight prior to The Good Nurse. Complaining that Rizzi hit his kit "like a sissy," Mantione set upon a campaign of abuse he likens to toughening up your little brother through repeated beatings.

"When we're playing live, I will wait for him to make a mistake, then I'll glare over at him. And as the night goes on, each time, as his anger builds, he'll play harder and louder," says Mantione. "The problem is it makes me more self-conscious about my own playing. But it's turned Rizzi into a powerhouse."

The other key to Five-Eight's renewal was its intense work with mixer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr., Redd Kross), for which the band shelled out its own money, increasing both its commitment and level of rancor.

"I've been playing with Dan for years, and I know exactly what he's going to say," the autocratic Mantione says. "He probably wants, for once, to have a say in the mix, but I was tired of his comments and offered him $20 to shut up for one song. He said, 'No way you're going to buy me off for $20,' and Agnello said, 'How about $45?'"

Like the album, which "is trying to process the nagging suspicion that something irrevocably bad has happened, and still come out the other end," Five-Eight has emerged not just intact, but better for the seven plagued years.

And as Mantione says of that time of pain and misfortune, "It beats 40 years in the desert, right?"

Five-Eight plays the Virginia-Highland Summerfest (Virginia Avenue between North Highland Avenue and Park Drive), Sat., June 5. 7 p.m. Free.