The Month In Hardcore: September 2020

Johnny Milano

The Month In Hardcore: September 2020

Johnny Milano

Ten hard new tracks, plus a tribute to late Texas legends Riley Gale and Wade Allison

“I’m sure you guys are all wondering why I’m dressed up as a zookeeper today,” says Riley Gale, frontman of the Dallas band Power Trip. He isn’t really dressed up as a zookeeper, though he might be the only person in the room with a button-up shirt on. But Gale explains it anyway: “That’s because I want this place to look like a fucking zoo right now. I want all of you to come enter this cage, this lion’s den, and act like a bunch of fucking animals.”

Gale is onstage at the This Is Hardcore festival, a Philadelphia institution, in 2016. Power Trip are playing in the middle of the day, after Incendiary and Criminal Instinct and Red Death but before legends like Gorilla Biscuits and Terror and Killing Time. In a few months, Power Trip will release their instant-classic sophomore album Nightmare Logic. They are already carrying themselves like headliners, and the crowd is already responding. On video, Power Trip’s entire half-hour set looks like one of those old cartoons where Bugs Bunny is fighting the Tasmanian Devil but all you see is a dust cloud with different limbs poking out of it.

Gale’s whole speech about his zookeeper costume is a pretty standard hardcore-frontman spiel, albeit an extremely fucking cool one. With some notable exceptions, singers for hardcore bands always want you to act like a bunch of fucking animals. But singers for hardcore bands usually deliver those lines in stentorian grunts, like drill sergeants with indigestion. Riley Gale is not like that. He drawls it out with a sort of honeyed charm. Gale is a smaller guy, with a head full of slightly frizzy long hair and a faintly ridiculous mustache. He still talks to a room full of dangerous and wound-up people like he’s Matthew McConaughey. His confidence is absolute. There’s nobody like him.

On August 25, Power Trip announced that Riley Gale had died at the age of 34. It didn’t feel real then, and it doesn’t feel real now. It’s an incalculable loss. A couple of years ago on the Axe To Grind podcast, Gale suggested that Power Trip should go out on tour with Turnstile and Code Orange. Gale’s idea was that the three biggest hardcore bands in the world — bands with vastly different ideas of hardcore — should unite, trading off headlining duties every night and letting the world know that the future of heavy music was safe. That tour never happened, but if anyone could’ve made it happen, it would’ve been Riley Gale, young legend. Gale was one of the most important people in hardcore — maybe the most important. His sudden, shocking absence is absolutely gutting.

Power Trip pulled off something almost impossible. They came from the world of hardcore — of windmills and breakdowns and VFW Hall brawls and moshpit concussions — and they managed to cross over into the wider world without changing their sound at all. Power Trip were partly able to do this because their style — crossover thrash, informed by late-’80s goons like Nuclear Assault and Leeway and mid-period Cro-Mags — had an appeal that went beyond hardcore and into metal. Power Trip had the chops and the inventiveness to pull that off. They played fast and mean and unhinged, and their records sounded huge. The metal world caught on. How could they not?

By the time the pandemic hit, Power Trip were veterans on the metal-tour circuit — true peers of huge bands like Anthrax and Lamb Of God and the Black Dahlia Murder, all of whom took Power Trip on the road as openers. I would like to think that these bands understood something about Power Trip. Crossover thrash is a cool, fun sound that a lot of hardcore bands have been using as inspirational source material lately. But Power Trip weren’t just making ’80s skate-metal pastiche. They were playing with purpose and conviction and intensity — playing this music like it was the only music that mattered. A lot of that comes down to Riley Gale.

As a frontman, Gale was a force. He had the kind of energy and charisma that you can see from a festival stage or when you’re pushed up against a wall in someone’s basement. Gale never really sang. He barked. But his bark had personality. He had a choppy rhythmic sensibility, cutting right through his band’s thunderous stomp. Gale was able to scream slogans and to give those slogans dimension and life: “We ride as one/ We’re ruled by none/ As long as I’m free, I’ll live illegally.”

By all accounts, Gale also lived what he preached. I never met Riley Gale, but pretty much every single person who ever did spoke of him in glowing terms. Hardcore is a world where shit-talk is practically a sport, and yet I’ve never seen anyone say a remotely foul word about the man. If you were watching the outpouring of grief over his death, you saw it, too — one story after another of Gale offering warmth and support and friendship to people who he didn’t even know. In the world of big-tent metal, where Power Trip ended up, you don’t exactly have to carry yourself with personal integrity. Gale always did. He was an eloquent ambassador for hardcore and for metal, a vocal opponent of oppression of all kinds, and a towering figure who never carried himself with a hint of snobbery. He wasn’t too cool for anyone.

In 2014, a little while after the release of their debut album Manifest Decimation, my friend Brandon Stosuy, a former Stereogum staffer, booked Power Trip to play at his Show No Mercy showcase during SXSW. The big bands were all playing outdoors at the Mohawk — Skeletonwitch, Pallbearer, a particularly wild Trash Talk set. But Brandon pulled me aside early on and told me that I needed to make sure I was in the smaller indoor room when Power Trip played. “They’re like the Texas version of Trash Talk,” he told me. “Kids go nuts to them.” I should’ve already known this, but I hadn’t been keeping up with hardcore very well. Brandon was right. Kids went nuts to them.

I never got around to seeing Power Trip again, and I don’t really know why. Last November, Power Trip played in Richmond, not too far from me, and I didn’t go. They were playing with High On Fire and Devil Master and Creeping Death, and I think I convinced myself that the show was too metal, that I should wait for them to headline a hardcore bill instead. And I like High On Fire and Devil Master and Creeping Death. I’m a fucking idiot sometimes. It’s just that Power Trip seemed like they’d always be around, like they’d only get better.

Power Trip released their last single, an absolutely bugnuts ripper called “Hornet’s Nest,” as part of the Adult Swim Singles series in 2018. (They released it as a proper single themselves last year.) It rules. At the beginning of 2020, Power Trip dropped what would be their last song of Gale’s lifetime — a cover of NYHC greats Outburst’s 1989 banger “When Things Go Wrong,” part of an Outburst tribute compilation. At the beginning of this year, Power Trip played the second edition of their hometown Dallas festival Evil Beat, headlining a bill that included metal legends like Carcass and Vio-lence. Just before the pandemic hit, they were touring Asia; their last show, as far as I can tell, was a February set at a warehouse in Bangkok.

Even after the pandemic hit, Gale stayed busy. He teamed up with Fucked Up’s Mike Haliechuk and Jonah Falco to form Masterpiece Machine, an industrial rock side project that released one really great two-song single. Gale also sang on “Point The Finger,” a fuck-the-police anthem from Ice-T’s long-running and hardcore-influenced metal band Body Count. Body Count’s album Carnivore came out just before the pandemic, but the “Point The Finger” video arrived in May. In the clip, we see Gale at home, pointing a shotgun and screaming hard. Even alone, in his own living room, Gale looked ready to lead an army, or to invite us all to act like a bunch of fucking animals. We won’t see anyone like him again.

A couple of weeks after the news of Gale’s passing, we got more bad news from the same part of the world. Wade Allison, guitarist for the thrashy Austin hardcore band Iron Age, had also died. Iron Age started a few years before Power Trip, and people in Texas revered them as deities. (I saw Iron Age once at SXSW, and they destroyed.) A band like Power Trip couldn’t have existed without the precedent of Iron Age, just as a whole ton of newer bands couldn’t exist without Power Trip. It’s another gut-punch for a hardcore world — and a Texan scene in particular — that really didn’t need one. Allison wasn’t as prominent as Gale, but he’s another person who everyone seemed to like. Iron Age were a mighty institution, and people only ever had good things to say about Allison.

Hardcore is a precious thing, and it can be fragile. It’s a support system as much as it’s a genre of music. Hardcore shows can be a pain in the ass. It’s usually not easy to get to them. A lot the time, they’re in basements or living rooms or dingy warehouses. You generally can’t just hang out and grab a beer while watching some bands. Instead, you have to be jammed into one of these spaces with a whole lot of physical, violent people. You could get punched in the face, by accident, just for standing there. People go because it’s an outlet — the kind of thing that, once you find it, you viscerally need it. Those shows aren’t happening now. The support system, at least at the moment, doesn’t exist in the same way. When it returns, some truly vital people won’t be there.

Moments are transient. I’ve got a lot of regret about all the time I spent away from hardcore, not paying attention to what was happening around me. I’ve had some amazing experiences in that world. I could’ve had a lot more. God only knows how that world will look when it gets a chance to return. But if you’re reading this column, I would advise you to take full advantage — to experience whatever you can while you can, and to appreciate the people who are bringing those moments to you. Those moments don’t last, and those people won’t be here forever.

10. Rated X – “Out For Justice”

Out For Justice is already the best Steven Seagal movie — the one where Seagal talks in a fake Brooklyn Italian accent and goes to war with a coked-up mad-dog mobster and beats up a whole pool hall full of goons. And now “Out For Justice” is also the best song on the first album from Rated X, the new band from former Violent Reaction frontman Tom Pimlott. This is great simplistic knucklehead-stomp music. Pimlott sounds like a guy who’d get thrown through a barroom window in a Seagal movie, but only after getting at least one punch in. [From United Front, out now on Painkiller Records.]

9. Victim Of Your Dreams – “Crucified”

I know absolutely nothing about this band; all Google will tell me is that they’re from Little Rock and that they’re probably named after a song from the one-man black metal project Xasthur. But this is one of the best death metal-influenced hardcore songs I’ve heard in a long minute. (Or maybe it’s one of the best hardcore-influenced death metal songs — tough to tell nowadays.) It’s a brutal and unrelenting lurch that sounds a bit like Converge staging a Satanic rite. [From Victim Of Your Dreams EP, out now on Wretched Records.]

8. Wide Man – “Beckoned With”

These motherfuckers know how to write a riff. Wide Man come from Denver, and their sound is a pretty traditional strained/sincere crunch. It sometimes teeters on the edge of the generic, but it moves, which saves it. There’s a real sense of rhythm in the way they hit those downbeats. When that blazing solo ends and the singer hits the grunt-scream, I want to run through a wall. [From The Chilling Crush EP, out now on Bad Mouth Recordings.]

7. End Game – “Hourglass”

“Clawing at my skin! Tearing at the seams! No matter what I do, I can’t seem to breathe!” Been there, buddy! End Game, from Calgary, have found a healthy outlet for their anxiety. They’ve put it in service of some satisfyingly ignorant fight music — guttural thrash that kicks ass when it gets fast and then kicks more ass when it slows down. As the song fades out, we hear Doctor Manhattan lament that he’s tired of these people, tired of their lives. But if Doctor Manhattan ever got this pissed off about it, he would’ve destroyed the entire universe on the first page of Watchmen. (Also of note: End Game have a song called “Above The Law,” which is maybe the fourth-best Steven Seagal movie. You can learn about a hardcore band from its taste in Seagal movies.) [From Demo 2020, self-released, out now.]

6. Broken Vow – “Expiation”

There are few sounds that I find quite as viscerally exciting as the tingling, ringing guitar tone on the intro of this track. I tend to associate that sound with Guy Picciotto, but thousands of hardcore and post-hardcore bands have used it over the years. It almost always means something great is going to happen. In the hands of Connecticut’s Broken Vow, that sound foretells a wave of desperate, galvanizing sincerity: “If we continue the complacency, we will write our own demise!/ The only step left is liberation!/ Liberate!” When you put it like that, it sounds so simple! [From Demo 2020, self-released, out now.]

5. Dead Heat – “Know More Pain”

Dead Heat, from Oxnard, are some of the greatest inheritors of the crossover thrash sound that Power Trip and Iron Age helped bring back. Last year, Dead Heat’s Certain Death album made me want to cut off my own head with the edge of a skateboard. Earlier this year, Dead Heat kicked out their drummer over sexual abuse allegations. They’re back now, with a new drummer, and working on a new album. Their first song since Certain Death is a wild-eyed, reverb-drenched sprinting shredfest that hits like an adrenaline needle to the heart. [From Nardcore For Life compilation, out now on Indecision Records.]

4. Reserving Dirtnaps – “Blood On The Walls”

Nobody likes every kind of hardcore. Everyone who loves the genre has a few beloved subgenres and a few subgenres that just never click. Personally, I don’t generally have a whole lot of time for deep-grunt shit-your-pants heaviness. But there are exceptions. Reserving Dirtnaps, from Memphis, play down-tuned beatdown music with verve and commitment and personality, and they sound like bulldozers careening down the interstate at 150 miles per hour. On “Blood On The Walls,” they get guest-growls from Patric Gardner, frontman of Baltimore’s Queensway, one of the other heavy hardcore bands I really like. This one has some serious kick. [From Another Disaster EP, out now on WAR Records.]

3. Regrowth – “Lungs”

I’m not even sure how the debut album from this Italian group ended up in my Bandcamp feed, but I am very happy that it did. Regrowth come from the island of Sardinia. They’ve never played a show outside Italy, or if they have, I can’t find any evidence of it. (This band did not pick a name that’s very search-engine-friendly.) But somehow, they mastered a grand, theatrical late-’90s melodic style that just knocks me out. Their album has a vast, hungry reach to it, and they sound like they should be playing huge rooms. Maybe, one day, they will. [From Lungs, out now on Goldmine Records/Nothing Left Records/Fresh Outbreak Records/Home Mort/Fast ‘N’ Loud Records.]

2. Zulu – “Now They Are Through With Me”

Zulu is the one-man project from Los Angeles resident and the Bots/Dare drummer Anaiah Lei. As Zulu, Lei makes frantic, furious music about racism and Black identity. Zulu’s music just about bursts with anger and tension, putting jagged and disorienting Converge-style mathematical shit-rippery to work at laying out the jagged and disorienting realities of Black American life: “You took a people, turned them inside out/ Up against their own kind.” On “Now They Are Through With Me,” Jesus Piece’s Aaron Heard shows up to add his bellow to the maelstrom. It lasts for one minute, before everything dissolves into a sample that I should recognize but don’t. [From My People… Hold On EP, self-released, out now.]

1. Amygdala – “Where Have All The Windows Gone”

The San Antonio band Amygdala made my favorite hardcore album of 2019. On Our Voices Will Soar Forever, they mashed screamo and crust and black metal into an overwhelming ball of raw-nerve anger and fear and hurt. Their music is political in only the most personal and immediate kind of way. The first song that Amygdala have made since that album’s release is a vast, ambitious eight-minute epic, an oceanic mass of wounded rage. It’s stunning, and it’s overwhelming. [From Shut It Down: Benefit For The Movement For Black Lives compilation, out now.]

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