The Month In Hardcore – February 2020
Somebody grabs the microphone and bellows, “This is hardcore! Love it or leave it!” This person is about four feet away from me, but the bodies are jammed into the living room tight enough that I can’t tell whether it’s a member of the band or of the crowd. (The distinction isn’t really important.) The man’s point, I think, is that the room isn’t going hard enough. But the room is, by any meaningful standard, going pretty fucking hard.
There are few things as soul-cleansing as a good house show. House shows exist in pretty much every genre, but this interconnected network of grimy crashpads is especially important to the punk and hardcore ecology. It’s a crucial part of the experience, for bands and for everyone else. Virtually every member of every noteworthy hardcore band has spent time on the house-show circuit; many are still there. And when you go to these things, even if you don’t know anybody, you feel like you’re part of a community.
On this night in Richmond, the house in question is Crystal Palace, a place that is neither crystalline nor palatial. If you show up halfway though a band’s set, you are not seeing that band. You are, instead, stuck in the crowded kitchen, craning your neck and watching silhouettes of bodies flying in different directions. There are holes in the wall in the living room, and it’s fun to imagine that they’re mosh-related damage, even if they’re more likely the result of somebody clumsily moving a couch or whatever. Above the drum kit, a big plastic Slimer hangs.
After that guy says what he says about loving it or leaving it, the local band Downfall only has one song left. People go off. Downfall, who released a banger of an EP called Dead To Me last year, play a commanding hard-bark take on the genre that riffs on the music of old-school NYHC bands like Madball. If you’re going to a local show, you dream of seeing a band like this. These guys have a following in the area, and they probably know most of the people in the room. People are that much more determined to show out for them, and they are that much more determined to show out for their people. Bedlam ensues.
THIS FEELING INSIDE…. pic.twitter.com/eVBcj8kIdQ
— Downfall (@DOWNFALLVA) August 23, 2019
When Downfall finish up, I see a girl step out onto the back-porch area with blood streaming down her face and onto her shirt, half-bragging that she’s just broken her nose. A few minutes later, she disappears into the house, then reemerges saying that somebody just reset her nose for her. I’m pretty sure she stays for the rest of the show. It’s one of the most badass things I’ve ever seen. People go so hard for Downfall, in fact, that the next band, the scrappy and discordant Kansas City group Devil’s Den, plays to a half-empty living room. Maybe people are still catching their breath. Maybe they’re saving it up for the main event.
Tonight, the main event is Restraining Order, a West Springfield, Massachusetts band that’s been on fire lately. Restraining Order are a rare thing these days: a young hardcore band devoted to music that was presumably made before any of the members of the band were born. Restraining Order formed with the specific intent of making “1982-style” hardcore, and that is what they do. Their sound is fast, and it specifically recalls the frantic, strident sound of early Boston bands like SSD and DYS. (There’s a fair amount of Minor Threat in there, too.) Hardcore long ago branched out and became its own thing, with its own network of subgenres. But Restraining Order still sound like a punk band in the most fundamental sense of the term.
— RTF FTW (@RTFRecords) January 31, 2020
When I type it out, the idea of 1982-style hardcore does not look especially cool. Hardcore has gone in a whole lot of different directions since those frenetic early days, and bands who attempt to recreate the past often come across as faint shadows. But that’s not the deal with Restraining Order. They make this music sound urgent and vital and often a whole lot catchier than you’d think a 66-second song could logically be. Singer Pat Cozens is driven and rabid, like his innards would dissolve if he didn’t scream these lyrics about hating normal people and not being able to function in the world. The rest of the band plays fast but not sloppy. Their songs have force and structure and, usually, some pretty great basslines. They rule.
Last year, Restraining Order released their debut LP This World Is Not Enough, one of the most powerfully satisfying 15-minute albums I’ve heard in years. (I really fucked up by not including it in this list.) Their set at Crystal Palace might be even shorter than that, but it’s hard to tell, since the room immediately becomes a blur of tangled limbs and time sort of warps and distends. In a place like this, Restraining Order’s best songs (“Don’t Really Think,” “Something For The Youth,” “What Will You Do”) hit like absolute anthems. Restraining Order tracks invite and maybe even demand mass singalongs. In Richmond, that’s what they get.
Restraining Order have bigger things coming up: a European trip, a tour with Terror and Kublai Khan and Magnitude, a date back in Richmond at the United Blood festival. I hope everything they do has the same energy as that house show. It was some shit.
This is only the second installment of this column, but hardcore lives and dies based on live shows, and I happen to live a short drive away from one of the best hardcore scenes in the country. So I figure I’ll devote most of these columns to talking about those shows, rather than reviewing records or getting into whatever people on hardcore Reddit or Twitter might be arguing about lately. There’s always stuff happening in Richmond that’s worth discussing. And in a couple of months, there will also be United Blood.
As with the first installment of this column, I’m also including a list of hardcore and hardcore-adjacent songs that I like and that came out in the past month. I’m leaving out stuff from bigger, more established bands like Code Orange and Envy, both of whom have new music. (You could argue that I should also leave out new music from bands like Drug Church and Higher Power, since they’re both pretty big, too. But I’m not doing that. Sorry.) Let’s go.
10. Ghouli – “AKA Prozac”
I included this Richmond band on last month’s list, but their Nothing EP came out, and it rules, so now I’m doing it again. “AKA Prozac,” the last song on Nothing, is truly special. I love how it snaps from the cold, evil goth-riff into a full-on sprint, and I love how frontwoman Poe has written something ferocious and immediate about being trapped in an antidepressant haze, turning the word “Fluoxetine” into a throat-shred chant. [From Nothing EP, self-released, out now.]
9. Drain – “Sick One”
Drain, from Santa Cruz, are one of the many hardcore bands currently mining the sound of ’80s crossover thrash for inspiration. But Drain don’t do it the way other bands do. Drain are fun — energetic and absurdist and all-over-the-place while still maintaining a crucial sense of rigor. “Sick One” is fast — less than a minute — but it’s not chaotic, and Drain still make room for a monstrous mosh-part breakdown. Also, frontman Sam Ciaramitaro has a screech-splat delivery that reminds me of Dave Mustaine. I am into this. [From California Cursed, out 4/10 on Revelation Records.]
8. Typecaste – “Traverse”
This shit is heavy. The Boston/Long Island band Typecaste play that real ignorant monster-trudge metalcore brawl music, music for jumping the fence at the zoo and trying to fight an ostrich because you didn’t like how it was looking at you. Their new Between Life EP is the best-recorded thing this band has made yet, so those riffs really sound ready to crush your ribs. The low-bellow/high-scream vocal contrast really works. “Traverse” is a song about leaving your life behind and achieving transcendence. The song itself does that through pure brutality. [From Between Life EP, out now on Flatspot Records.]
7. Pummel – “The Grip”
Sometimes, a band name tells you everything you need to know. Pummel, from Boston, make total blitzkrieg goon music. They’re good at it, too. Pummel sound great when they play fast, and they sound better when they slow down into a dangerous midtempo chug. The drummer, in particular, goes absolutely bugshit on the breakdowns. “The Grip” is the type of wage-slavery anthem that might make you consider chokeslamming your boss through the break-room table. [From Our Power EP, out now on Atomic Action Records.]
6. Buggin Out – “Buggin Out”
Hardcore bands have been coming out with self-titled songs ever since Minor Threat made “Minor Threat,” and it always rules, even when it sucks. You have to love a band that willing to tell you exactly what it’s all about in one sub-two-minute burst of bravado. Buggin Out, who come from Chicago and Milwaukee and who are named after a Do The Right Thing character, don’t take themselves too seriously; there’s a brisk bounce to their music that’s never anything less than catchy. But that doesn’t mean you can play with them. Singer Brianna Bennet, shouting deep in the pocket: “We’re still the crew! You know why we’re here! Put respect on the name! We’re Buggin Out!” And then the merciless breakdown hits, as if to show you the extent to which they are not fucking around. [From Buggin Out EP, out now on New Morality Zine.]
5. Higher Power – “Passenger”
The big news in hardcore this month is probably the release of 27 Miles Underwater, the major-label debut from the Leeds band Higher Power. There’s at least some chance that Higher Power could become huge, at least to the extent that any hardcore band can get huge. They’re strong songwriters, they’re charismatic, they seem like good people, and they’ve got what is, by all accounts, a fun live show. They also have a grand, melodic sound that owes as much to radio-ready ’90s alt-rock as it does to any version of hardcore.
I had to listen to 27 Miles Underwater a bunch of times before I decided whether I even liked it, but within a couple of days I came around to the fact that I love it. Higher Power have a sense of groove that I don’t hear much from any kind of rock band these days. It makes a difference. And Higher Power, like labelmates Turnstile before them, have a gift for making aggressive grandeur into something fun and approachable. I’m highlighting “Passenger” here for a bunch of reasons. The singles “Seamless” and “Low Season” didn’t come out in the past month, so they’re ineligible, and the other song I really like from the album, the half-acoustic power ballad “In The Meantime,” isn’t even remotely hardcore. But also, “Passenger” has a monstrous buildup to its final chorus, and it’s got drums that sound like “When The Levee Breaks” if you played the Led Zeppelin IV LP on 45. [From 27 Miles Underwater, out now on Roadrunner Records.]
4. Change – “Beyond”
You ever think about how Gorilla Biscuits’ “Start Today” has a fucking harmonica on it? I think about that sometimes. Hardcore is a pretty rigorous, circumscribed genre, and yet there’s still a lot of room to play around within its borders. “Beyond” is the one of the first songs from the difficult-to-Google Change, the new Seattle straight-edge band from former Betrayed frontman and Champion guitarist Aram Arslanian. For most of its two minutes, “Beyond” is driven, righteous, extremely well-executed grown-man youth-crew hardcore. And then there’s this wacky breakdown that turns halfway into reggae which absolutely should not work and yet somehow does. It’s a damn magic trick. [From Closer Still, out soon on React! Records.]
3. Drug Church – “Bliss Out”
“Bliss Out” comes from the same sessions that produced Cheer, the Albany band Drug Church’s excellent 2018 album, but it’s not a throwaway. It’s a bleak and mordantly funny tale about frontman Pat Kindlon’s ill-fated visit to a fortune teller. Kindlon is one of the three hosts of Axe To Grind, the hardcore podcast where all three hosts go deep into hardcore-scene intricacies like they were sportswriters, so I’ve gotten pretty used to this dude’s sense of humor. (If you like this column, I recommend that podcast without reservation. I’ve learned a lot from it.) But even after Cheer, I am not used to Drug Church’s ability to make crushing-but-hooky music that has some of the same sickly ugliness as ’90s noise-rock, a sound that precious few people have managed to master since Amphetamine Reptile went dormant. [Standalone single, out now on Pure Noise Records.]
2. Mutually Assured Destruction – “Rose Chamber”
In last week’s column, I spoke highly of Ace Stallings, the Richmond guy who books a ton of the local shows and who runs the Richmond Hardcore Shows Instagram. (Speaking of band frontmen with podcasts, Stallings’ interview show Forum Of Passion is another thing you might like if you like this column.) Stallings is one hell of a frontman. He spent years leading Break Away, and now he’s started the new band Mutually Assured Destruction. They released a three-song single last year, and their new Fever Dream EP just came out today. It’s fucking great.
Stallings can really sing, something that most hardcore singers don’t even try to do. He can do the commanding-bellow thing whenever he wants, and he does it a lot. But when he really lets loose with his voice, he hits big-wail ’90s Danzig/Life Of Agony notes. The band, which includes the former Down To Nothing/Fire & Ice guitarist Ryan Groat, can slow things down and play with authority, knocking out massive blues-sludge riffs. The whole thing just crushes. “Rose Chamber” sounds massive in a way that few hardcore songs do. [From Fever Dream EP, out now on Edgewood Records.]
1. Initiate – “One In The Same”
I kind of can’t get over how good Initiate’s Lavender EP is. It’s just 11 minutes long. It doesn’t really attempt anything new or even different beyond a brief acoustic instrumental, and even that has been done a million times before. But Initiate, who come from Southern California and who sound like it, play straight-ahead ’90s-style hardcore with so much verve and spirit that it all feels new. Some bands hew to genre conventions because they don’t have imagination, but some do it because those genre conventions represent the quickest, strongest ways that they can let some shit vent. Initiate belong in the let-some-shit-vent category.
“One In The Same,” the last track on the EP, rips so hard that I’m not even mad that it’s not called “One And The Same.” It’s absolutely masterful, from the berserker-rage vocals to the breathless-sprint rhythm section to the motherfucker of a guitar solo. Even the breakdown is fast. I love this shit so much. [From Lavender EP, out now, self-released.]