An Interview with Jesse Price (Letters to Catalonia, SeeYouSpaceCowboy, Recluse)

A few months ago, I went to go see SeeYouSpaceCowboy play in Las Vegas during their tour in support of Fashion Statements of the Socially Aware, a raging slab of sass and metalcore-indebted screamo. I was previously familiar with Connie through interviewing her (she also did the excellent artwork for this new Letters to Catalonia release and has done art for many excellent bands, such as Amygdala) but I also hit it off with the rest of the band, especially Jesse Price, who is one of the coolest people I’ve met in DIY, period.

Jesse’s other band, Letters to Catalonia, has been one of my favorite screamo acts in recent years, mainly because they’re actually exciting as hell. Their smart, conscious lyrics are split up in vocals shared among the members, all of whom play some of the most pissed-off music in San Diego since Struggle.

Recently, Letters to Catalonia released their first new material since their demo and split with Illil last year, a collection of songs called Fragmentary. Drawing from the political and melodic spirit of bands like Yaphet Kotto and fusing it with the bone-snapping heaviness of metallic hardcore, Letters have crafted an offering that is as dense and rewarding to listen to as it is brisk and exhilarating. Songs like “Manufacturing Optimism” feature guitar breaks that ooze with mournful bliss and the rhythm section absolutely rips (check out the bass during the bridge of “If I Hear One More…”). It comes highly recommended with the You Don’t Need Maps seal of approval.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jesse about Letters, the whitebelt revival, and radical leftist politics. Even if Letters aren’t your bag musically (although they absolutely should be), I highly recommend reading this interview, because Jesse had some incredibly insightful and thoughtful things to say and was frankly a fun person to interview. Check it! My questions are in bold; Jesse’s answers are in normal font.

-Ellie

Okay. So, first of all, thank you so much for agreeing to this. The new Letters to Catalonia is fantastic. How did this new material come together? It’s definitely a bit more progressive than your previous stuff.

Of course! I’m extremely excited to be doing this. Thank you so much! I’m really stoked on how the songs came out. These songs are about 6 months to a year old, Dom (our bass player) and I wrote them right after we lost our original bass player and drummer. I’m glad to hear that you think that the songs are more progressive. Moving forward after the split i kind of wanted to move away from the “whitebelt” thing a little bit and focus more on just being a screamo band with heavy parts.

Yeah, the whitebelt revival has pretty much reached full fruition this past year and it’s cool to see bands who are kind of doing a “post-whitebelt” thing. I’m definitely picking up on a lot of late 90s/early 2000s metalcore influence, especially Blood and Fire-era Zao. Were there any other particular influences on your current sound?

Yeah I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am all about the whole whitebelt revival thing. Obviously, you know I have another band that I get to use all the silly elements of whitebelt stuff in, so i can get all that stuff out in that band. For Letters, I would definitely say that we take a lot of influence from late 90s/early 00s metalcore, Zao definitely being one of the bands that i love from that era. I’d say that influences for our current sound would be June Paik, Loma Prieta, Republic of Dreams, Ampere, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Jeromes Dream, Orchid, Louise Cyphre, Arsen aka Konig Der Monster, I could go on for a while. But basically a lot of German screamo and metalcore with panic chord breakdowns.

I am absolutely all about that shit. It’s so cool to hear metalcore-infused skramz nowadays, especially after a solid decade of metalcore not being “cool” in the skramz scene.

Oh yeah, I got made fun of so bad for liking that stuff as a kid. Now it’s the “cool” thing to to in the DIY scene. The world is stupid [laughs].

Would you mind giving me a little bit of the history of Letters? You guys have been around for a minute now and are one of the hotter acts to emerge from the San Diego scene in recent years, and I find your name oddly prescient given what’s going on right now politically. How did the band itself come about?

So Letters to Catalonia started after the demise of my old band, Recluse, and PJ’s old band, allmywishes. At first it was just Julian and I (Julian was also in Recluse with me), and we were just super into Ampere, June Paik, and Battle of Wolf 359. We wrote two songs, then PJ started jamming with us and we finished writing and recording the demo. Then we wrote and recorded the split with Ilill and went on a tour to SXSW 2016. On the tour and shortly after, some things in certain band members lives started to come up and long story short, it ended up being me by myself. then Dom joined and we started writing our LP. Once we found a drummer we started practicing and playing shows again. We recorded the three songs on Fragmentary and here we are. I saw somebody made a joke on Facebook the other day about us having perfect timing with the release of Fragmentary because it was the same day that all the stuff in Catalonia started to pop off.

Ha! That is perfect.

I definitely lol’d.

That split with Ilill was one of my favorite screamo records last year. It’s great to hear that the band basically fell apart and reformed with a completely new lineup, and still is able to retain your unique voice.

Obviously, your name is inherently political. Do you consider Letters to be an explicitly political band? If so, has that impacted the way you’ve been received in the scene at all?

Hey thanks! Ilill’s side of that split is amazing. I love that band so much and I’m so bummed they broke up. I’d definitely say we’re an explicitly political band. I think the only difference now is we try to be a little less corny about it [laughs]. Honestly it’s really hard to tell. It may have had something to do with Lars (React with Protest) wanting to put us out. If so, I’m stoked because React with Protest is straight up my favorite “screamo” label.

Yes! React with Protest are fucking amazing. I don’t think y’all are corny about it at all; we need more outspokenly leftist bands in the DIY scene, there’s never enough. How do you put your political beliefs into practice with your band and/or in your personal life?

Thanks! I second guess everything I do so that’s definitely part of why I feel that way. In terms of application in our band I definitely take a lot of influence from European anti-fascist bands. I think the way bands like Fall of Efrafa implement anarchism into their music/art is really cool. Our band is definitely egalitarian in terms of the way we make decisions and write music. We try to play as many benefit shows as possible. I always feel like I fall short with my anarchism because I have to work every day to survive and being in two bands takes a lot of time from me so going out and organizing is difficult, along with my social anxiety with even leaving the house at all. I try my best to not take part in consumerism. I practice intersectionality theory in every facet of life and try to make space for others.

As a fellow anarchist I too have the constant feeling of falling short, and I always have to tell myself that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism and that we are always doing the best we can. I can absolutely see the way that you put intersectionality theory into practice. The best way to fight the system is to keep pushing ourselves to become more independent from it every day and to treat other people the way that we would want them to be treated in the society that we envision.

It’s nearly impossible to live a life that is completely ethical. I’ve never met a single person who lives an entirely ethical life.

Kind of building on that, I wanted to briefly touch on something I’ve noticed. I’m always looking at the way that people interact within music scenes, and it’s always seemed that skramz has one of the most notoriously cliquey mentalities in the entire hardcore scene. Having the wrong opinion can be a death knell in the social circle; in a way, I feel like a lot of people pretend to be better people than they actually are for capital within the scene, and so focus on putting others down in order to avoid the focus being put on themselves and forcing them to self-crit and self-improve. Do you agree with this, and if so, how do you navigate that climate?

I agree 100%. I mostly just try to treat everyone like a person and don’t amount people to their scene credentials. I would like to think that I am very critical of myself and always open to criticism, but I can obviously always be more critical of myself. I think people who act like they’re perfect and are always shifting blame, are the people who won’t stick around in the long run and are only interested in being part of the scene for their own selfish gain.

I absolutely agree, and I find that to be very insightful as well, with regards to using the scene for their own personal gain. With that said, how did you yourself become involved with leftist politics, and DIY and hardcore culture in general?

So I started playing in Hot Topic-core bands around the age of 12 and played that style of music for years. I started getting into hardcore and punk when I was 15 but stayed in the metalcore scene until i was 18. Around that time my friends started to also want to start playing punk, so we started a band and through that band I met a lot of the people in the DIY scene that I’m still very close with. I started getting into leftist politics when I was like 19/20. At first I just dabbled in communist literature because at that point “anarchism” was still just for mohawk mall punks in my mind. Shortly after, my friend and Letters’ original bass player, PJ, was SUPER into anarchism and got me into a lot of anarchist ideas. I think at first I really latched on to anarchism through being vegan.

“Mohawk mall punks” is such a perfect description of the annoying people I hate being conflated with, thank you so much for that description. You brought up veganism. Is being vegan a moral thing for you? I know that to me being vegan just seems like a natural extension of anarchist politics, and most far leftists I know are vegan or vegetarian.

I’d say it’s a moral thing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the type of vegan that thinks people who eat meat are pieces of shit, but I personally don’t want to eat meat or dairy because I think animal cruelty is fucked up, I don’t want to support those industries, and it’s terrible for the environment.

Yeah, absolutely. I think it, like DIY and anarchism, is just a natural ethical conclusion to the way we want to live our lives.

Alright, I think that’s all my questions. Anything else you want to add? Lesser known artists you want to shout out? Trap songs you’ve been bumping lately? Thank you so much for participating again, I really appreciate it!

Our LP should be out early next year, we’re doing a west coast tour with Senza in February/March. Honestly, shout out Senza, they are amazing.

Trap songs I’ve been listening to lately:

I don’t know if [Mykki] is necessarily trap but it’s similar and I’ve been listening to it nonstop.

Of course, this has been great! Thank you for having me!

Check out Letters to Catalonia’s new release, Fragmentary, on Bandcamp and feel free to give them some love on Facebook as well!

And hey, while you’re at it, if you like my material enough, why don’t you give me a follow on Facebook, or Twitter, or Tumblr?

Advertisements

EP Premier: Commander Salamander- Gross October

Artwork provided by the incredibly talented Oli Knowles.

After many months of not updating, I am extremely excited to announce that my first post upon my triumphant return is a premier of the new Commander Salamander EP, Gross October. I’m aware that it was dropped by surprise last night, but this is the official “announcement” of its release, as it were.

Commander Salamander are a self-described sparklepunk band from Fairfax, VA. They play a mixture of aggressive pop-punk with math rock-influenced guitars and harsh, throaty vocals to create what is one of my absolute favorite releases of this year so far.

Guitarist/lead vocalist, Claudio Benedi, lights the tracks on fire with his hard-hitting, intricate lead lines as well as his unique vocal style. Songs like “Lord Beer Me Strength” and “Gross October” rest on the strength of his performances, climaxes and bridges hitting like lightning strikes and vocals careening across the music with conviction and power.

The rhythm section is nothing to sniff at, either. Liam Crone’s agile, rubbery drumming coalesces with the more hardcore-influenced bass of Fernando Moyano in order to provide a bone-crunching bottom end, aided in no small part by the crisp, punchy production of Ryland Heagy of Origami Angel. The overall atmosphere of the EP is indebted to his production work, a perfect balance of clarity and fuzziness, showcased in the more ambient moments, such as “Yr Not Ramona Flowers, Yr Knives Chau.” The band themselves mirror this balance, veering from the rocket-science-precision and tight rhythm work of “Skeletor’s Revenge” to the frenzied, ferocious climax of “Really Expensive Toss” with aplomb.

The bottom line is that this record is incredible and you are doing yourselves a grave disservice if you sleep on it. You don’t want to be the person ten years from now, listening to the next generation waxing poetic about bands they never got to see, and have nothing to say when Commander Salamander’s name inevitably comes up. Listen now or pose forever.

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’m A Complete and Total Sell-Out.

First of all– this blog has a Facebook page now! Go like it!

Second of all, it’s official: You Don’t Need Maps is now on Patreon. If you like my work at all, please consider becoming a patron. This is demanding work that is the opposite of financially viable, and I would literally cry if someone became a patron of mine. Thank you very much in advance.

I will now be advertising my Patreon in an extremely aggravating manner at the end of all of my posts, until we reach my (for-now) highest goal of $1000 (which would mean that I would begin making a documentary on the history of emo, metalcore, and post-hardcore from the basements to the stadium– get stoked!).

I truly appreciate everything, from the people who have followed me since the beginning (the people from /r/emo and my good friends at The Latest Pit Beef especially) to the people who have encouraged me to take this more seriously and continue to create the kind of in-depth content that I pride myself on.

I love you all, and I hope that I continue to make the engaging writing that you all have come to expect from me.

An Interview with Connie Sgarbossa (SeeYouSpaceCowboy, Flowers Taped to Pens, René Descartes)

When you’re involved in DIY hardcore, you get the chance to meet a lot of cool people. That said, Connie Sgarbossa, the vocalist of SeeYouSpaceCowboy and alum of skramz superstars Flowers Taped to Pens and the stellar René Descartes (who just released their last recorded material, which rips and you should listen to it immediately), among others, is one of the absolute coolest people I’ve had the pleasure of talking to. They granted me the opportunity to interview them for You Don’t Need Maps, and of course I jumped on that chance, because Connie is super talented and interesting to talk to. This was a great, enlightening conversation, and I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed having it. My questions are in bold; their answers are in regular font.

So, first of all, I’d like to ask you about SeeYouSpaceCowboy. I listened to that demo a few weeks after it was posted on bandcamp, and it’s very much a departure from your more melodic work with previous bands like René Descartes and Flowers Taped to Pens. What prompted this stylistic shift?

Well, I think it started from hearing releases like Bludgeoning Subculture Aficionados Demo Tape by The Cambodian Heat and the final Caust EP. I was enthralled by the return of this sound. [I’m] a huge fan of Me and Him Call It Us, Drop Dead, Gorgeous, and the Red Light Sting; along with that I had always secretly wanted to be involved in a metalcore project. So when I moved back to San Diego from San Francisco I met up with Taylor from Recluse and we started SYSC with my little brother Ethan, and then added Jesse from Letters to Catalonia.

It’s super interesting that you cite Drop Dead, Gorgeous as an influence right alongside Me and Him Call It Us and the Red Light Sting. I guess it’s become socially acceptable for DIY bands to admit they were influenced by scene bands. There are a few bands playing this style right now besides you guys, like .gif from god, for example; why do you think it’s being revived right now?

I mean yeah, totally, I think it’s tight that i don’t get as many weird looks for admitting I love Someday Came Suddenly by Attack Attack!, haha. Ummm, I am not sure, I guess people just decided that we all liked those bands for a reason and that it’s a great sound to build off of. On top of that nostalgia seems to be a very powerful thing these last few years, haha.

Yeah, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about DIY hardcore, it’s that it’s super cyclical; things that were once for “posers” slowly become “authentic,” and trends come in go in phases. But for being part of a genre that seems to always be looking into the past, it seems like you’ve kept moving forward; just how many projects have you been involved in?

I think it speaks to how the superficial the scene/members can be in general. I think it’s ridiculous to even waste time assessing whether something is “authentic” or if someone is a “poser”, just make art and enjoy what you enjoy.

Well, counting some short lived high school projects, I have been in 7 projects that actually recorded and released something.

I know you just released the final recorded tracks by René Descartes; I thought they were all excellent. The bandcamp description said that it had been meant for a split, but that it never came to be; is there any story behind that?

Thank you.

Well, we recorded those tracks 6 months ago and they were meant to be a split with my friend’s band, but they never got a chance to record their side.

Did they break up before they could record any of their material?
From my understanding they just kinda stopped doing anything and started doing other musical projects, at least I think that’s what happened if I am remembering it correctly. I also just wanted the project to be done, so I asked if we could just release the tracks on our own and they were cool with it.
I’ve noticed that Flowers Taped to Pens seems to be the most popular of the bands you’ve been a part of; that band appeals to quite a wide audience, in my opinion, and I still hear people asking if there’s going to be new material from them. Do you have anything to say about that band’s legacy or their place in the scene?

Not really, haha, it was just a high school band we used as a way to cope with all the changes in our life happening/looming on the horizon. I mean I am happy that people are still into it and even liked it when we were around, but it’s kinda just a past part of my life at this point.

 

Like I said earlier, it seems that you’re always interested in moving forward. On the subject of the scene as a whole, to me, it’s always seemed like one of the more progressive scenes, but I’m sure it has its problematic aspects like any other. Do you ever feel pressure in regards to representation of queer and marginalized folks in your music or stage presence?
When it comes to representation, it comes down to a fine line between representation and tokenization. I don’t personally feel pressure to be involved in things as some form of representation and try to stay away “forced representation” scenarios, though I do feel like it’s important to do what you can to include marginalized individuals in the scene. Like I said it comes down to that fine line between representation and tokenization so I think it’s kinda tricky thing to address within the scene.
You said that there is a fine line between representation and tokenization. Would you care to elaborate on that?
Well when everyone talks about having more representation in the scene and bringing more marginalized individuals, there seems to be two reactions, one being people (usually people who are not marginalized) will say that there already is representation/inclusion in the scene and will bring up big band x,y, and z. I think that this is a form of tokenization, being that those bands are being put forward as symbols and a way for people to detract from the issue by saying “hey marginalized people, you may still be a minority in the scene and under threat, but look at these bands! You feel included now, right?” which is bullshit in my eyes. I personally think to bring more representation into the scene for groups we need to just make things more accessible/welcoming, working with people to make them feel safer and more comfortable. I consider myself lucky that I feel as comfortable as I do in this scene being a queer individual, because I know for a fact that is not a feeling that is echoed with a lot of other queer individuals and other marginalized folks.
So you would say that as a queer, nonbinary person, you feel comfortable and welcomed in the scene? If so, that’s wonderful. Are there any words you have for marginalized people who feel a lack of representation for themselves within the scene?
With the people and collectives I have been involved in, yes. When I go on tour or interact with other groups I definitely have some initial concern that is usually overcome after talking with them. Hmmm, all I can say would be I guess make art, get involved if you would like, and reach out to people. If a collective is truly rooted in DIY or is a safe(r) space you will most likely find they will be welcoming.
Are there any up-and-coming bands that you want to shout out?
Letters to Catalonia of course, Heritage Unit is bringing elite emo to Kali, Fuck White God for holding down the lower Bay grind scene. There are a bunch more I could mention but it would go on and on and on, haha.
Yo, thanks for giving Fuck White God some recognition! I love those guys. Just one or two more things before I let you go– first, I ask everyone this question, but how did you get into DIY hardcore?
They are awesome! Well, I guess it kinda started when i went my first show at The Ché Café. It was 2009 and Ceremony was playing with some other punk bands. My friend took me to the show and I remember being blown away that modern punk bands existed and they were actually way better than the shit from the past I had been listening to. So after that for the next year or two me and my friends would take the bus down to Che to see crust punk shows or whatever was playing every weekend. Eventually i started my first shitty hardcore band and went to a collective meeting to play a show there and after that we learned that it was volunteer run and so we started going to meetings and volunteering at shows rather than just going to them.
If someone were to ask you how they were to get into their local scene, what would you tell them?

Find your local DIY show spot, if it’s a collective find out when thenmeetings are, go to them, and start volunteering if it’s an option. If it’s not a collective just try to get to know the people who are booking/putting them on. Most important is just meeting people and getting to know those who are already involved the scene. I am sure they would also have more to say on the topic with each specific situation.
Solid advice– that’s pretty much what I did, too. And one final question: when is SeeYouSpaceCowboy putting out a full-length?!
Hmm, I am not sure about a full length, we really haven’t put much thought into that yet. As of now we are planning on doing a little spring tour tape for SXSW, but outside of that nothing concrete. Wish I had a better answer haha.
I’m just glad to know you guys are still together– skramz bands have an average lifespan of three months, haha. Well, thank you so much for talking with me! It’s been a good conversation. Any final words you want to add?
Haha, oh yes. Hmmmm, not really, thank you!

How to Be Cool: A Primer On Kittencore

I know what you’re thinking. “I already read your State of the Scene Address, and I’ve already done my best to copy the Skramz Elitist in your emo dork article; how much cooler can I be? When will I ever be true enough to not be regarded as a poser?”

The truth is, you will always be a poser. At least until you get into kittencore.

I can see you already, scratching your head, eminently puzzled. “What on earth is kittencore?” you ask, on the verge of tears because of your own poser-dom. Allow me to explain, gentle reader, what kittencore is.

(Timeline by Grizz).

Kittencore is, to put it in the most simple terms, screamo music made by young kids– usually around 16 to 18 years of age– who haven’t broken in their screams yet. Therefore, they sound high-pitched and mewly, like kittens.

The progenitors of kittencore are widely agreed to be Portraits of Past, who put out a demo in 1993 as well as a split with Bleed, which featured agonizingly high shrieks that remain unmatched to this day. “Journeyman” and “NYC” are probably the apex of these screams. In many ways, it could be argued that Portraits of Past invented the archetypical screamo vocal style. The Reach Out/Honeywell split is also widely regarded as influential in the invention of kittencore-esque vocals.

The style was developed further throughout 1998-2000, featuring a who’s-who of popular, well-remembered skramz bands, such as The Spirit of Versailles, I Have Dreams, In Loving Memory (whose ferocious style often gets them tagged as “kittenviolence”), …Of Death, Rue Morgue, and the debut album of Love Lost But Not Forgotten, all of which feature this type of vocal style as well as quite young members.

However, kittencore didn’t really come into its own as a genre until 2002, with the advent of what I like to call kittencore’s Holy Trinity: Oh, You Skeleton!, Phasma Phasmatis, and Seeing Means More (disclaimer: I am friends with Alex Bigman, but that has no bearing on Seeing Means More’s place within the kittencore pantheon).

I’ve always loved the part at the end where you can’t tell whether the vocalist is shrieking or it’s just piercing feedback.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-3-23-12-pm

Only 341 listeners on last.fm? Now that’s what I call elite kittencore!

Oh, You Skeleton! are probably the most “kvlt” of the kittencore bands. Not much is actually known about them; laughably, it has been postulated on last.fm that they are from Germany (they are from Philadelphia). It’s unfortunate that they are so unknown, because they could actually write some killer fucking riffs. Their demo is worth tracking down; eight or so years ago I had it on a burned CD-R (along with a comp track by September, some random songs from Atmosphere’s Overcast!, and some Tenacious D bootlegs from ’96), but I think it’s relatively easy to find now.

Phasma Phasmatis are one of those bands that the CMHWAK forums always cream over; this may be because Chris, their singer/guitarist, used to post a lot there, circa 2010 (jigsawchris, what up). Funny enough, they were set to record a split with Oh, You Skeleton!, but it fell through completely and both bands broke up less than a year after forming. Short-lived bands are easily the norm in screamo, but kittencore bands usually bring it a completely new level. More to the point, Phasma were excellent songwriters, which is probably the key to their lasting popularity.

If you can get ahold of any material Seeing Means More put out before 2006, it’s apparent that their earlier stuff is far less indebted to metalcore than their later stuff. Seeing Means More were basically just babies when they began in 2002 (they even had a keyboardist, how cute), and so slotted in neatly to the kittencore scene. I’ll be honest, their later material, especially their Clouds Obscured to Hearts LP, is far superior, but their early scrappy energy is enjoyable and fun. Also, Bigmin went on to some fucking great bands, including the highly elite power pop outfit Fight Fair (“Jeromes Dream Orchid 10-inch skull split UH”) and his new project, Ghost Spirit, which hasn’t released anything yet, but I can personally tell you absolutely fucking rips.

If there was any kittencore band that vied for the status of the three I’ve just mentioned, it’s Vincent Black Shadow. Nowadays they are so woefully obscure that even YouTube can’t find them, but if you manage to track any of their stuff down, “Dearest Despondency” and “Broken Promises” are sick.

There’s also a ton of other bands that never got anywhere and then disappeared: Eclipse of Eden, She Notes the Chariots, and Deadseraphim, for example. Besides the Spirit of Versailles, the entire Init Records roster could qualify, as well, especially Dispensing of False Halos. And of course, no discussion of kittencore is complete without mentioning the popular Johnny-come-latelys in iwrotehaikusaboutcannibalisminyouryearbook.

This is absolutely fucking dreadful.

At some point, this terrible prog band called Oscar Explores the World Outside hijacked the term “kittencore” to refer to their awful, pretentious brand of pappy shit, and it’s somehow become the most widely-recognized application of the word. This is absurd and disappointing, and my hope is that by publishing this article, the classical meaning of kittencore will become more popular and better-known. Sure, it means that I am now a bit less elite for sharing my knowledge, but if that’s the price to pay for re-popularizing the term kittencore, I’m willing to do it.

Starting around 2013, there’s been somewhat of a kittencore revival: bands from the San Diego clique like Flowers Taped to Pens, Nayru, and Meryl Streaker; RVA bands like Swan of Tuonela and Kaoru Nagisa, who somewhat overlap with blackened skramz; close neighbors Weak Wrists; and many, many more, who are reviving this absurd vocal style, although not all of the members meet the requisite age requirement. This is perhaps because 16 year olds nowadays are smart enough not to listen to terrible music like skramz. Either way, I’m just happy that whispy shrieks are back in vogue once more. If you’re underage and are unlucky/miserable enough to be into skramz, do everyone a favor and start the next kittencore band. Maybe you too will one day have 341 listeners on last.fm. One can hope, right?

On the Subject of Sass

I don’t have anything to say in my defense for the ridiculously long gap there’s been between posts. I had a post written about the history of the emo twinkle, and my computer completely wiped it out. I started writing a post about Justin Pearson, but I couldn’t focus on it and gave up. I am completely inept in regards to maintaining a consistent blog, and no one should ever depend on me for anything remotely considered “frequent” or “scheduled” or “on a regular basis.”

With that out of the way, let’s talk about one of my absolute favorite genres of hardcore: SASS.

One of my favorite websites, the dearly-departed Stuff You Will Hate, covered this subject a while back. Unfortunately, because the Internet is not a fair place, Stuff You Will Hate is gone without much of a trace; here is the only remaining vestige of the article I can find. Nonetheless, the author does a fairly excellent job of breaking down the history of sass and spotlighting both the bigger bands as well as some deeper cuts. What I find more interesting, however, is the wide range of sounds and styles that have been influenced by sass.

In case you’re too lazy to read the article, here’s the general gist of sass: Inspired by fashion-conscious yet pretentious post-hardcore bands like Nation of Ulysses and the mid-90s Spock Rock scene in San Diego, several bands in the late 90s and early 2000s started writing songs with handclaps and vaguely danceable beats, while maintaining a spastic edge. There were lisping vocals shouting incredibly erotic lyrics over chaotic guitar runs and keyboards. There was flamboyant, homoerotic clothing and behavior, meant to challenge tough-guy hardcore’s oppressive heteronormativity as well as the PC crowd’s stifling lack of ability to have fun. There were bands like the Blood Brothers, the Red Light Sting, Black Cat 13, and An Albatross. Al Burian was in a sass band. Some bands crossed over with spazzy screamo, most particularly the last Orchid record (whose members went on to the resolutely sassy Panthers), Hands Are…, J.R. Ewing, and After School Knife Fight. You would be correct in assuming that the more chaotic contingent of sass bands had a good amount of crossover with mathcore bands and audiences.

Sass was looked at as a complete fad at the time, and just about nobody knows what I’m referring to when I bring it up nowadays. It’s very interesting to note, though, that sass has had a far broader impact than one would expect, and not just because sass legend Justin Pearson invented the gunshot wound hairstyle. For instance:

A. Dance-Punk

All those bands from the early 2000s that sounded like Gang of Four with a cleaner production sheen were basically ripping off sass bands. Hot Hot Heat actually started out doing splits with the Red Light Sting. !!! and the Rapture released albums on Gold Standard Labs and Gravity, respectively, which were two of the bigger labels associated with sass’s look and sound (along with Sound Virus). Take a minute to think about that: !!! were on the same label as the Locust. And before you dispute that the Locust were sass, consider that Justin Pearson pretty much invented the entire look and sound of the sass scene with the Crimson Curse, and the Locust are just a more aggressive, avant-garde version of that. These bands started out with a style that was inaccessible and slowly sanded down the edges as the mainstream became more accepting of it.

Then there were bands like Q and Not U, who were clearly aping sass bands’ lisping sneer and grating danceability, but were slightly more committed to the world of the underground, perhaps because they came from the same scene as Nation of Ulysses. Joined by their Dischord compatriots Black Eyes and Omaha weirdos the Faint, they formed a style that could be referred to as “girlfriend-sass” (I use the term ironically): closely related enough to hardcore to retain credibility, but accessible enough that you wouldn’t get weird looks for listening to them in public.

Anyway, obviously the kids who were jamming out to the Killers and Franz Ferdinand were completely oblivious to records like Let’s Get Serious or Sex Is Everything, let alone had ever heard of A Trillion Barnacle Lapse or xVincent Price’s Orphan-Powered Death Machinex. But the sound was leaking through nonetheless, polished for mainstream appeal and spritzed with enough of an affected aesthetic to garner hipster approval. Related: the post-punk revival of Interpol and the faux-noise rock of Death From Above 1979. This is all kind of adjacent to the Dim Mak phenomenon I discussed here, wherein the hype indie rock bands of the early 2000s were composed of kids who had dropped out of the DIY hardcore scene in favor of more Brooklyn-approved pastures.

The apex of sass-derived dance-punk came when Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo started Head Automatica. Palumbo’s vocal style is directly lifted from the Blood Brothers in both of these bands, but Head Automatica provided a pop-oriented, danceable backbone that nonetheless took quite a bit from the likes of the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower or These Arms Are Snakes. The fact that Daryl Palumbo was involved in both of these projects is significant, because one of the other main facets of sass influence was post-hardcore.

B. Post-Hardcore

Bear in mind, I’m not exactly talking about scenecore; there will be more on that later. But the sass scene had a particularly large effect on the post-hardcore scene, mainly through the guitar work and the vocal work. Bands like At the Drive-In had very sass-derived vocal work, especially on Relationship of Command, and I already mentioned how Daryl Palumbo essentially ripped off Johnny Whitney and Jordan Blilie’s delivery. Refused were an important band in that they combined snaky rhythms, flamboyant vocals, and electronic elements with a hard-hitting, more straightforwardly hardcore bent on The Shape of Punk to Come. These three bands and their noodly, progressive songs are probably the most significant in the development of future post-hardcore bands; I would throw Thursday in there as well, but they have little-to-nothing to do with sass and so are not relevant to this conversation, instead being more responsible for the mallcore bands like Alexisonfire, Silverstein, Senses Fail, and Hawthorne Heights that had good cop/bad cop vocals, but not much to do with metalcore.

One of the more overlooked, pioneering bands of this era were Frodus, who described themselves as “spazzcore” and prided themselves on their explosive climaxes and Shelby Cinca’s frayed, destructive vocals. By the time of their final album And We Washed Our Weapons In the Sea, however, they had developed into something a lot more subdued and groovy. At the beginning of their career, they were aping the Boulder band Angel Hair, and by the end of it, they were taking more from the VSS, the sass band that Sonny Kay formed after the dissolution of Angel Hair. Although Cinca has reigned in his pipes a lot more, it lacks sass’s slurring sexuality. However, the evil bass groove and the spiraling, dueling guitars are completely sass.

The style of post-hardcore that became prominent in the mid-00s with bands like The Fall of Troy, Saosin, Circa Survive, Chiodos, and Dance Gavin Dance are applying the foundations laid by these bands to a more expansive type of song structure, and thus all the Swancore bands like A Lot Like Birds, Sianvar, and Tides of Man are indirectly influenced by sass, whether they know it or not. What neat lines we can trace, right?

C. Scenecore

Most prominently, the sass bands (and especially Justin Pearson) had a flamboyant, fashionable aesthetic that influenced not only the screamo bands of the time but also the straight-edge hardcore kids in Orange County bands such as Bleeding Through and Eighteen Visions, who took that look and applied their beauty school skills to it to create something far more elaborate: fashioncore. The look we think of as scene today can be traced directly back to Eighteen Visions in most instances; see my post here for more details.

Sonically and superficially, the bands that initially used MySpace to launch their careers took from sass bands liberally, from the mathcore of The Number Twelve Looks Like You and Daughters to the so-called “white belt scene grind” of See You Next Tuesday. Of course, these bands were obsessed with the idea of chaos in music, but in a very real way this came directly from the chaotic sass of An Albatross (iwrestledabearonce are essentially doing a tired, flailing impression of An Albatross). Of course, this eventually deteriorated into run-of-the-mill “zaniness,” but for a time, it was really quite bracing.

I also should note that much of the stereotypical “emo” aesthetic associated with bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy came largely from Gerard Way copying the look of the New England screamo bands he saw live, like Orchid, Neil Perry, and Jeromes Dream, who all rocked the Spock look. Pete Wentz, on the other hand, was pretty blatant about just hopping on the fashion he saw taking hold in Orange Country, but Fall Out Boy’s popularity poured gasoline on the spread of it.

As these looks became more and more popular among teenagers, a new wave of bands emerged on MySpace, like the Devil Wears Prada and Drop Dead, Gorgeous, who played keyboard-laden “poser” hardcore with an incredibly flamboyant image. Sound familiar? Although musically these bands owed a lot of Norma Jean and Poison the Well, it was impossible to deny that the vestigial sass elements left their mark. And of course, these bands begat more bands, creating the Southwest deathcore style (Suicide Silence, Job for A Cowboy, et al) as well as every derivation of scenecore you can think of (from the hairmetalcore of Escape the Fate to the crabcore of Attack! Attack!).

D. The Sassy Screamo Revival

So there you have it; pretty much everything you hate about hipster and hardcore culture today comes from the sass bands of roughly 1998-2003. Fortunately, I’m happy to say that even the most despised trends have cult followings, and sass is no exception, probably due to its incredibly close proximity with and influence on the aforementioned New England screamo bands, as well as the bizarre “in-between” bands, like Ultra Dolphins.

However, there seems to be a re-emergence of the sound (but not aesthetic) of those early sassy screamo bands, like the Wolfnote. What’s strongly apparent is the presence of grindcore influence, a relatively new skramz trait, as well as a post-ironic reverence for the classic era of sass. The nostalgia seems ironic at first, because of how young the kids in the band are, but one listen to the music they play cements their sincerity.

The premier sass revival band is Gas Up Yr Hearse!, a particularly chaotic band from the Midwest who use a lot of weird rhythms, panic chords, noisy feedback, and an ostentatious stage presence. They’ve done records with Coma Regalia and are relatively tight with RVA blackened skramz bands like Swan of Tuonela and Kaoru Nagisa, so they are fairly popular as skramz bands go, but they have a defiantly offbeat sensibility and a strong sense of humor.

Speaking of RVA bands, .gif from god is a fantastic little outfit that has absolutely mastered the art of sassy song titles. Better than their sass is their ferocious breakdowns.

The other sass revival band gaining traction is SeeYouSpaceCowboy, a self-proclaimed “sassgrind” band from (where else?) San Diego, featuring members of Letters to Catalonia. Clearly, they flaunt their influences much more obviously than Gas Up (their bandcamp tags include “white belt” and “San Diego”) but they are very clever songwriters and have a boundless energy about them.

Another promising act was the Cambodian Heat; they also refer to themselves as “sassgrind” (and in fact coined the term), but unlike SeeYouSpaceCowboy, they are from Michigan and thus imbue their songs with a palpable sense of flyover-state rage. They’re probably the best in this microgenre, along with Gas Up. They were also usually a two-piece band, so that’s cool.

Black Knight Satellite are a great band that seem to take from the shrieky high-pitched skramz of …Of Death as well as the Red Light Sting (with whom BKS share the hometown of Vancouver, BC). The guitar work is mesmerizing and the drum work is steady and pulsating. Apparently their next release is supposed to be even sassier, so color me excited.

What should be immediately apparent is that these bands willfully self-identify as sass, which would be absolutely unthinkable just five years ago. I personally am proud to be living in a time where young people feel comfortable grabbing onto a willfully obscure fad in underground music from nearly twenty years ago in order to feel special; it reminds me that there will always be hardcore kids, and that hardcore kids will always have an influence on broader society. So please, if you know any more sass revival bands, do not hesitate to let me know. I eat this shit up, obviously, and I could always use more material for my “Weird Sex” playlist.

With that said, welcome back, everyone. I hope to be writing much more often from here on out, but in all honesty, who knows? Just enjoy the update while it lasts.

“World Peace Can’t Exist”: A History and Analysis of Right-Wing Attitudes in the American Hardcore Scene, Part One

 

Spoiler alert: Hardcore has been partially conservative since its very inception.

Hardcore, which is an extreme form of anti-establishment music that naturally attracts anti-establishment political extremists, has had roots in both fascism in radical leftism from the very start. Take the early hardcore scene in Los Angeles: on the one hand, there were bands like the Germs, who wrote explicit communist anthems, and bands like FEAR, who wrote songs like “The Mouth Don’t Stop.”

“Let’s have a war– give guns to the queers.”

Granted, even rightist hardcore has given voice to marginalized people, such as the all-black and explicitly homophobic Bad Brains, and the wide swathe of Latinx individuals who have been involved in hardcore from the very beginning, like Roger Miret.

It’s not so easy to distill hardcore into left and right sections, though. In one sense, the scene is just a microcosm of American culture at large, just with more extreme personalities. In another and probably more accurate sense, though, hardcore is mostly composed of kids trying to figure themselves out. The racial anxiety of hardcore is well-documented, from the defensive righteousness of Minor Threat’s “Guilty of Being White” to the ironic detachment of Black Flag’s “White Minority” (immortalized by the Puerto Rican Ron Reyes on Jealous Again).

So why is hardcore this way? And what are some of the key components that have made it such a consistent element of the scene? That’s what I’m hoping to figure out in this article.

A few rules: No RAC or white power bands, as that is too obvious and is really more of its own, separate thing, disconnected from the broader hardcore scene. I want to talk about the hardcore scene at large, because I find its conservative elements to be far more insidious. I actually really enjoy the vast majority of the bands I’m writing about here, which makes it more important to dissect the issues at hand. Also, I’ve restricted the focus to America, because that’s what I know best. Yes, that means we are not talking about Ian Stuart or Skrewdriver.

So without further ado, let’s begin.

Part One: The 80s

Hardcore was pretty much invented by disaffected suburban teenagers in Los Angeles. A majority of these kids were either wiry nerds or thick-necked surfer dudes. While most of the early hardcore scene could be described as apolitical (aside from the Dead Kennedys, who formed in 1978), there were still a lot of shitty attitudes about women, the LGBTQ community, and occasionally other races.

The Descendents were well-documented sufferers of Nice Guy Syndrome, but they weren’t above a little immature homophobia either. Neither, for that matter, were the Adolescents, although I’m sure they would be uncomfortable with being put in a political box. As far as statements go, the muscular bad-boys in T.S.O.L. never got past the broad rallying cry of “Abolish Government,” but they didn’t avoid creepy implications of rape in songs like “Code Blue,” nor was lead vocalist Jack Grisham ashamed to half-jokingly refer to himself as a rapist in American Hardcore. Keith Morris may have smartened up some later in life, but he was still a hormonal teenager at one point.

If your subculture is primarily composed of young, able-bodied, cis, straight, white boys, you’re going to get a lot of problematic politics. Although the West Coast (and to a lesser extent the Midwest) bands were instrumental in establishing the scene in the early days, the scene that we have today is closest in nature to the D.C., Boston, and New York scenes of the early-mid 80s. All the hardcore clichés (straight-edge, crews, brotherhood, thuggishness, jock attitudes, needless violence, intense political activism) come from these three scenes.

Washington, D.C., although not exempt from kinda-racist thugs like Iron Cross, was probably the one of the first bastions of true progressiveness in the hardcore scene, accompanied by (surprisingly) Texas and (unsurprisingly) San Francisco. There’s a reason that D.C. was the home of Revolution Summer as well as the longest-running chapter of Positive Force. Perhaps because so many kids in the D.C. scene were related to politicians, the scene tended skew towards the left as a reaction to the extremely conservative government of the 80s.

Boston bands like Negative FX, SSD, and DYS (the latter featuring Dave Smalley, a prominent “conservative punk”) were the earliest proponents of “militant” straight-edge, a faction which beat people up for holding beer and eventually morphed into hardline in the late 80s when Sean Muttaqi got ahold of it. Straight-edge always lent itself to a sort of strident Puritanism, regardless of the intent of the original batch of DC kids– Boston hardcore proved that it could be taken in a scary, violent direction. Choke, the vocalist of Negative FX and later Slapshot, is one of the most notorious jock assholes in hardcore. And even the bands that weren’t straight-edge were pretty right-leaning.

The mild racism and “I miss the old days” nature of this song makes me feel sad and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, in New York, the left-leaning elements of the early 80s scene (Reagan Youth, for example) was giving way to apolitical and right-wing attitudes as metal began to bleed into the scene.

Not all metal is right-wing. Thrash metal, for example, tend to be at the least left-of-center in regards to subjects like war, to say nothing of Red & Anarchist Black Metal or the proclivities of certain varietes of grindcore, but those are all aggressively punk-influenced. However, I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to suggest that metal has a strong anti-left bent. And I think metal’s occasional thick-headedness had an incredibly large impact on the 80s NYHC scene. And while it’s given us some undeniably sick bands, many of whom shaped hardcore as we know it, as well as some strongly left-wing bands, it’s also given us a wealth of lyrics and attitudes that are pretty harmful.

If you don’t think this song, from Agnostic Front’s breakthrough crossover album, is kind of racist, you’re straight up wrong.

This is the song that inspired me to write this article. Age of Quarrel is probably the most influential hardcore album of all time.

“Pay ya’s fuckin’ rents.” The opening rant is this close to class-consciousness and working-class anger, but sails right into conservative dumbassery. The song is sick, though.

I should also mention the youth crew scene, which was a glowing beacon of positivity, but even that wasn’t immune to some shitty attitudes. In addition to its boys club nature, it also spawned the likes of the Youth Defense League, who were actual Nazis, and often involved in a lot of street violence. Ironically, their sister band was Warzone, who resented the racist skinhead faction that came to form a large portion of their fanbase.

I think that the biggest issue present here is that they were all just kids who didn’t really know any better. Add to that the generally oppressive culture of the ’80s (which, like it or not, permeated every facet of American culture), as well as punk’s capacity to shock and offend (which at times overran its potential for positive social change), and it’s no wonder at all the early hardcore scene ended up the way it did.

The original punk scene was already white-dominated– while I don’t think the vast majority of 80s hardcore bands were incredibly racist, I do think the fact that the Bad Brains were viewed with such a mixture of awe and fear says a lot about the isolation from outside culture that these suburban kids experienced.

I think it’s especially interesting that the Bad Brains were far more accepted in the slums of New York than in Washington, D.C. Although the D.C. scene became more and more progressive as time went on, and the New York scene became proliferated with skinheads and the everyday race wars occurring on the NY streets, for a hot moment in the early 80s, things were switched around, because D.C. clubs couldn’t handle an all-black bands causing riots and the homeless misfits in New York welcomed everyone with open arms.

Outside of the cultural factors inherent to both cities, I think specifically Revolution Summer (and particularly people like Tomas Squip, a radical anti-apartheid activist, having a more pronounced presence in the scene) and Harley Flanagan becoming a skinhead (bringing all his sycophants along with him, effectively turning NYHC into an organized attack unit) were the two events that flipped the stances of these two distinct scenes.

As for the attitudes towards women and the queer community, I put that down to one thing (not including the Bad Brains’s Rasta-fried ideology): the scene was composed of sheltered, sexually frustrated suburban kids. The early punk scene was practically invented by women and effeminate weirdos, but when it started polluting the suburbs, something got lost in translation. Yes, there were gay people in bands, like the explicitly progressive Texas bands MDC, the Dicks, and the Big Boys, but they got such shit for it, constantly (especially Biscuit of the Big Boys, who initially revealed the Bad Brains’s homophobia).

I’ll be honest, I’m hard-pressed to remember many women in bands at all. Many were in charge of zines, record labels, and photography, but they were very underrepresented compared to both the original punk scene and the 90s scene. In American Hardcore, Stephen Blush refers to most of the women in the hardcore scene as “nasty, ugly trolls” in contrast to the “big-haired bitches sucking dick backstage at metal shows.” I think this says all there needs to be said about the general attitude the original hardcore scene held towards women. The scene was just a bunch of dudes slamming into each other with their shirts off. The explicit homoeroticism and the lack of success many hardcore dudes had with the ladies needed to be mitigated by the constant usage of women as sexual symbols, either denigrated constantly or put on a pedestal, when they were sang about at all.

And of course you have straight-edge, which I’ve discussed as absurdly puritanical, but also lends itself nicely to fear of women, queers, and other people different from its target audience, in addition to demonizing people who suffer from addiction.

As far as actual politics goes (outside of social attitudes and behaviors), I think it’s safe to say that almost every hardcore band in the 80s fucking hated Ronald Reagan. Even Canadian bands like D.O.A. got in on it. Literally every flyer had some desecration of Reagan’s face on it. Ian MacKaye specifically avoided mentioning Reagan in his lyrics to avoid dating Minor Threat too hard, but Reagan Youth sure had no issue with it, and neither did the Dead Kennedys. I think this has more to do with broad anti-establishment themes in punk rock than actual disgust with regressive, reactionary Reaganism, which did a lot of damage to the black community, American mental health infrastructure, and people suffering from drug addiction.

The suburban scene, aside from being fascinated with nuclear war and loving the way the president looked with a bullet hole crudely spray-painted on his face, was almost resolutely apolitical, preferring to write songs about skateboarding and fucking corpses over any kind of political discourse. The more urban scenes were too mired in their own struggles to think of the broader political implications, resulting in the diatribe that Paul Bearer delivers at the beginning of “Just Can’t Hate Enough” earlier in this article– proletarian frustration turned towards activists rather than the bourgeoisie causing the problems.

At the end of the day, I think that the 1980s hardcore movement needs to be looked at for what it really was: a bunch of confused kids trying to figure themselves out. It’s equally important to recognize that growing up in the 80s practically required one to be socially reactionary, unless you were particularly well-educated or had progressive parents. Just because these kids were rebelling against their nuclear family structure doesn’t mean they didn’t internalize those values. More than that, every single one of these kids were involved in the scene because they were angry; more often than not, if all that rage was going to be pointed somewhere, it was gonna be at whatever seemed different and scary for that kid. Punk’s transgressive tendencies could only take them so far.

But the hardcore of the 1980s was drastically different from the hardcore of the 1990s, the 2000s, and today. This was just part one of an ongoing series where I will trace the history of conservatism and reactionary attitudes within the American hardcore scene, picking apart the root causes as well as looking at, in some ways, how far we’ve come. I’m excited to embark on this journey, and I hope you’re excited to read about it. Don’t be scared to tell me I don’t know shit in the comments, either– just be mindful of my rules and be prepared to back up your position with facts. With that said, let’s not forget to have fun either and remember what hardcore has always been all about– calling about bullshit.

#tbt to when STEVE AOKI did a split with ENVY and YAPHET KOTTO

Most of my readership is surely aware of Skrillex’s past as Sonny Moore, the singer of mallcore sensations From First to Last, but they are probably not nearly as aware that famed electro house musician Steve Aoki was a prime figure in the screamo scene of the late 90s/early 00s, playing in bands and even writing record reviews for HeartattaCk.

The hilariously earnest official Ebullition website describes them as a “mixture of classic early ’90s hardcore influences such as Merel and Iconoclast combined with a more modern screaming vocal assault. Their lyrics are extremely political.”

This Machine Kills was probably the most popular of Aoki’s projects, although he was also in bands like the more straightforwardly Dischord-esque Esperanza and the prog-screamo (think along the lines of I Would Set Myself on Fire for You and Wow, Owls!) the Fire Next Time, both of which are severely under-appreciated, in my opinion.

I really love Steve Aoki’s early hardcore records because they are so politically motivated. While it’s easy to fall into the trap of making fun of the idealistic leftist politics that so much of the 90s hardcore scene traded in, I think Aoki’s status as an Asian-American lent these bands a certain potency and authenticity that many similarly-styled bands (besides maybe Los Crudos and Spitboy, among sparse others) lacked.

This song is called “The 21st Reason to Kill Pete Wilson,” and it’s pretty explicitly about the shitty politics behind Proposition 21.

Esperanza, in particular, embraced racial tension wholeheartedly in both its lyrics and its presence, going so far as to print t-shirts that said “Fuck Your Privilege” and quoting Zapatista manifestos in their liner notes. Naming the band Esperanza (which means “hope” in Spanish) just adds to the defiance. Stuff like this was really what paved the way for things like Orchid putting Angela Davis on the cover of their self-titled.

Aoki also runs Dim Mak, a label that has gone through quite the journey throughout the years; it started out releasing records by indie-hype bands made up of ex-punks like Pretty Girls Make Graves, the Kills, and the Icarus Line and is now the home of Borgore and the Chainsmokers.

What I find of special note, however, is the three-way split that This Machine Kills released with Bay Area anarchist screamo act Yaphet Kotto and Japanese post-screamo innovators Envy. It’s a pretty fascinating snapshot of the last legs of the 90s DIY hardcore scene. All three of these bands played a style of music that, to me, personified late-90s hardcore more than any youth crew or tough-guy band, but it seemed like the latter was gaining much more steam. Metalcore had become pretty much the go-to image for “hardcore” in everyone’s heads, leaving bands like This Machine Kills to lick for scraps at the bottom of the barrel.

A 3-way collaboration song that is simultaneously the most pretentious and the most fucking awesome thing I have ever heard in my life.

In hindsight, it’s painfully obvious why Aoki decided to jump ship and start doing electronic music– it is massively more profitable. It’s also pretty much the trajectory for any hardcore musician that grew into a moderately successful, Pitchfork-acclaimed indie act (see Wes Eisold in Cold Cave or Justin Pearson collaborating with the Bloody Beetroots).

Speaking of the Bloody Beetroots, this is the more recent hardcore side project that Aoki formed with one of their members. It’s more straightforwardly “hardcore,” but it’s still pretty dope.

It’s definitely interesting to examine how many successful people have roots in the hardcore scene. As Mike Mowery once said, “Behind every successful business is a hardcore kid.” Therefore, it should come as absolutely no surprise that so many of us have become so well-known (and ironically, much of their hardcore past forgotten). In any case, I’m pretty proud of how far so many of us have come; to me, it seems just as much a product of our DIY-nurtured networking skills, hustle, and practicality as the talent of the individual players. Plus, with so many of us in positions of power, we are in a perfect place bring the fucking system down. ¡Viva La Zapatistas!

A Brief History of BLACKENED SKRAMZ

 

I’ve always thought that more black metal nerds should be into screamo, and vice versa. Black metal, as far as I can tell, is to metalheads as elite-tier skramz is to emo/hxc dorks like me. Shitty recording value, high-pitched shrieks, and an exceptionally desolate and bleak atmosphere are hallmarks of both, and you are way cooler if you have any of the bands’ recorded material on cassette (bow before me, for I own–or did at some point– both Three Days ‘Til Christmas and The Rope In Our Hands Stretches for Miles on cassette).

If you needed any further convincing that crossover between the two genres is a no-brainer, look no further than the fact that there is an entire subgenre of black metal known as Depressive Suicidal Black Metal, featuring artists like Make A Change… Kill Yourself, Consider Suicide, and I’m In A Coffin. These guys make Neglect and No Comment sound like Good Charlotte, let alone bands like I Have Dreams and Saetia. The current spate of screamo bands copping aesthetic and sonic influence from black metal makes perfect sense. Why didn’t anyone think of it before?

Well, the short answer is that it totally has been done before, just not necessarily in this streamlined of a way. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, there was a group of Canadian bands, including Human Greed, Drift, One Eyed God Prophecy, and Union of Uranus, that no one was quite sure how to categorize because they sounded equally at home in a large variety of scenes. These bands pulled together the vocals, dynamic build-ups, and melodies of 90s emo, the apocalyptic heaviness of crust, the drumming of grindcore, and the guitar work of the second-wave Norwegian black metal stuff to create a unique wall-of-sound effect that left people with bleeding ears and an expanded political consciousness.

The climax to this song is absolutely amazing– their vocalist sounds like he’s about to cough up blood.

Somewhere along the line I think these bands kind of got swallowed into that whole “emoviolence” thing that erupted in the late 90s and early 2000s– bands like pageninetynine, Jenny Piccolo, Usurp Synapse, To Dream of Autumn, Orchid, and stuff like that (who are basically all ripping off Floridia/South Carolina bands like In/Humanity, Reversal of Man, Combatwoundedveteran, Assfactor 4, and Palatka, but that’s another story). I think one of the big differences between these two sub-factions is that the emoviolence stuff knew it was ridiculous and so it always had a kind of self-aware streak of humor running through it, while the blackened Canadian stuff took itself incredibly seriously. Additionally, the emoviolence stuff leaned pretty heavily on the disorienting “discordant off-kilter clean guitar picking/THROAT-SHREDDING BURST OF NOISE AND BLAST BEATS” dichotomy, while the Canucks had some longer songs and more intricate structures. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of both, but they seem so clearly demarcated when looking back on it.

Of course, these bands seem a little safe and tame when you compare them to more modern iterations. This album by Celeste came out in 2006, and it’s pretty safe to say that it’s ground zero for the more modern iteration of this sound, although it’s less recognized due to the band being from France, so everyone forgets about newer bands and keeps fawning over out-of-print Anomie and Weep vinyl. Despite that, the album is actually really fantastic, and you can see how most of today’s bands can trace their sound back to them.

Another early band was the Bay Area outfit Bosse-De-Nage, who had a demo out as early as ’06 but didn’t really get popular until they did a split with blackgaze darlings Deafheaven. Most of the “hipper” kids in the scene consider them overrated, but I beg to differ. I’d argue that their blend of Drive Like Jehu and Darkthrone is much more interesting than anything Deafheaven has done, and I like Sunbather.

The church choir at the beginning of this LP is actually unsettling.

I’m really not sure when exactly We Came Out Like Tigers shifted their sound from a more straightforward screamo approach to the full-throated terror they were known for, but they were definitely the popularizers this sub-scene, seeing as they’ve been around since 2007 or so. What jumps out at me is the incestuous nature of the musical influence; whereas the Canadian bands seemed like they got their first tastes of black metal vis-a-vis the blackened crust scene, Tigers sound like they were skramz kids who accidentally started listening to hip USBM bands like Panopticon and Ash Borer, many of whom sound like they have a lot of hardcore influence themselves.

Check out the ending of this song from American black metal band Woe– fucking gang vocals? In a black metal song???

At some point a few years ago, the lines between crust, black metal, and screamo started blurring, leading to a sound that is in equal turns stridently politically outspoken as well as catastrophically punishing. For example, listen to this split. In it, we can hear black metal being incorporated into both Flesh Born’s high-pitched, defiantly minimalist, borderline grindcore sound as well as Cara Neir’s more carefully orchestrated (and conventionally melodic, just by a hair) post-hardcore. It’s worth noting that although none of the aggressively progressive kids in the band would admit it, both of them at times sound like an ADHD version of Burzum’s Filosofem (minus the keyboards and the undercurrent of white supremacism).

Both of the above bands hail from Texas, which seems to have an inordinately strong blackened screamo scene. Also from Texas are the absolutely crushing Amygdala, whose album Population Control is in contention for my favorite hardcore record of the year. It’s absolutely riveting feminist, anarchist, racially-conscious music that knows exactly what it wants to do from the opening sample (all these bands really like samples). The closing track, “Counteractive Activist,” combines an eerie intro with intelligent, savage lyrics and a devastating extended climax– the perfect way to close out an album that sounds in equal measures sad, furious, exhausted, and impassioned.

Although these are probably the most popular bands in blackened skramz right now (well, We Came Out Like Tigers broke up a while back, but they got pretty big), there is a surprising number of these bands, all of whom are worth checking out: Dawn Ray’d, which is more straightforwardly black metal but features ex-members of We Came Out Like Tigers; Madrid’s Eros + Massacre, who sound almost pissed off enough to be powerviolence but lack the tempo changes; Michigan’s recently-deceased Old Soul; and this band, which literally doesn’t have a name. There are many others, but I don’t have time to list every single one. Just know you ain’t shit if you’ve never seen any of them play at Saint Vitus.

This scene is surprisingly vibrant for such a microscopic niche. Only in hardcore could an aesthetic as inaccessible as “screamo mixed with black metal, but for radical leftists” could find as loyal and supportive an audience as it has. I personally am really, really digging this scene, and I advocate that you check the bands out and support them in any way you can. They truly deserve it; the kids in these groups are really some of the most passionate, dedicated, inventive musicians working in the DIY punk community today. Hella mass tight bros. Good dudes, backed hard.

BLACKENED SKRAMZ: PENNSYLVANIAN HUNGER

TWINKLY EMO BANDS STAY OUT

Do You Remember Early-2000s Mathcore?

Sometime between the fertile experimentation of the 90s noisecore scene (featuring the likes of Botch, Cave-In, and Deadguy) and the explosion in popularity of Gothenburg-flavored melodeathcore circa 2004 (see Shadows Fall’s The War Within, Unearth’s The Oncoming Storm, and Killswitch Engage’s The End of Heartache), the majority of the underground metalcore scene was focused in one of three directions (excluding more hardcore-oriented variants like screamo, powerviolence, and youth crew revival, among others, all of which were essentially niche genres with built-in audiences who only occasionally crossed over into the metalcore scenes).

On the one hand was the tough-guy hardcore that made Terror and Hatebreed household names, which nowadays constitutes the majority of straight-ahead hardcore. On the other hand, you had bands like Shai Hulud, Zao, Skycamefalling, 7 Angels 7 Plagues (and later on, Misery Signals), Hopesfall, Codeseven, Drowningman, and Poison the Well, who all fused hardcore song structures with a heavily melodic streak of progressive metal (and occasionally clean vocals).

Lesser known, but still fairly popular, was a particularly chaotic brand of hardcore that split the difference between late-90s screamo, metallic hardcore, and particularly noisy and harsh derivations of grindcore, free jazz, and even avant-pop. Being that today is Election Day, I find that I am unable to bring myself to listen to twinkly emo, librarian-rock, ambient hip-hop, or anything else that could conceivably serve to calm down. The only thing I need is chaotic, art-damaged MATHCORE out the ass. None of these bands are particularly obscure picks, but they’re all the cream of the crop.

In 1999, The Dillinger Escape Plan came out of fucking nowhere with a completely unprecedented sonic attack. Calculating Infinity had its forebears– most notably Jes Steineger’s guitar acrobatics on Coalesce’s 1997 classic Give Them Rope— but nobody had pushed the song structure wackiness as far as Dillinger did. Take this track, for example; the opening chug riff is almost a guessing game of “What fucking time signature is this band playing in?” before devolving into a melange of skronky almost-but-not-quite hxc riffs and tightly controlled jazz runs. Guitarist Ben Weinman and drummer Chris Pennie are so in-sync here that it’s legitimately a little scary, and they’re both on point.

Dillinger were from New Jersey, an area which became a breeding ground for these bands. Dave Witte, potentially the greatest drummer of all time (and the man behind the kit for legendary bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains), played in one of Jersey’s finest mathcore exports, the endlessly nutty Burnt By the Sun.

Speaking of East Coast hardcore bands with the word “Sun” in the name, we can’t talk about mathcore without talking about Daughters, the outgrowth of the more straightforward moshcore band As the Sun Sets. Towards the end of their run, ATSS were getting more and more experimental and zany, which set the tone for the debut LP of the members’ follow-up band, Daughters. Canada Songs is 10 songs in eleven minutes, and it is pure fucking chaos straight-through. Although not as resolutely challenging as, say, Psyopus, Daughters took their guitar pyrotechnics to the next level by playing this whole album without actually strumming any chords, only tapping and sliding. The drums are also almost frightening. One thing about Daughters that sticks out to me is how loopy their song titles are (see: “Nurse, Would You Please Prep the Patient for Sexual Doctor”). While there were artists with similarly clever song titles in the past (Botch’s “I Wanna Be A Sex Symbol On My Own Terms” and Drowningman’s “Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline,” for example), Daughters really took it to the next level by pushing past the dark, sarcastic humor and into straight-up non sequitur free association (inb4 LOLSORANDOM), which, married to the non sequitur-esque music, seemed like a perfect fit.

Oh, hey, look, another mathcore band from New Jersey, how odd. The Number 12 Looks Like You were unique in that, although their song structures were still just as off the fucking wall as any other mathcore band, most of the riffs they mashed together had some semblance of accessibility, as well as an occasional straight-up mosh sensibility, which made them a good degree more popular than a lot of their peers. Additionally, they had a very “sassy,” proto-scene fashion sense and stage presence that could more aptly be compared to flamboyant post-hardcore bands like An Albatross and The Blood Brothers than any of their contemporaries. Number 12 were a strong spiritual precursor to both the MySpace fashion sense and musical vocabulary (bands like iwrestledabearonce and See You Next Tuesday are essentially playing more polished versions of Number 12’s excellent debut, Put On Your Rosy Red Glasses).

Many of the more creative and interesting mathcore bands were on the B-level, like this band, Sincebyman, who released a few records on Revelation Records and seem to be forgotten. They merged a bit of the electronica sensibility pioneered by Ink & Dagger and the Refused with resolutely churning, lurching song structures, and vocals that sound like they were taken from an early 90s release on Gravity Records. The resulting fusion is pretty fascinating, and definitely way more ahead of its time than it’s ever given credit for.

How on earth Fear Before the March of Flames became so popular I will never know, because they have some of the most willfully bizarre guitar work I’ve ever heard, making up for in oddball riffs what they lack in sheer technical virtuosity (although don’t get me wrong, they can still play their asses off).

The Great Redneck Hope had really fucking good song titles, and their music was suitably chaotic, but overall, they were one of the bands that had less substance and so just weren’t as popular as the A-listers. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun and their screwball sense of humor is refreshing as hell. I definitely have a soft spot for them, but there’s a reason they aren’t much remembered anymore.

Okay, maybe they’re not strictly mathcore, or even that overtly chaotic, but much like their brothers-in-arms Norma Jean/The Chariot, Every Time I Die remain committed to pushing more straight-up metalcore into ever noisier and interesting territory, structurally and sonically. For example, this song, which has fucking handclaps. They also had a very sassy aesthetic, which lent itself to popularity in these proto-MySpace days when everyone was on James Hart’s dick for looking like what we would consider a “scene queen.”

Representing the more “true” hardcore spectrum, we have Breather Resist, who were signed to the Deathwish roster. Their sound was infinitely more indebted to traditional 90s hardcore, but they had some really fucking entertaining songs, like this one, and a majority of the material off Charmer.

Coming in at the very tail-end of the scene (they released their debut LP in 2005, pretty late to the party), are Heavy Heavy Low Low. They’re not amazing, but they represent the full subsuming of this particular subgenre completely into MySpacecore. Take one look at these guys’s hair and tell me that none of them ever went down on Melissa Millionaire.

And last, but certainly not least, we have my personal favorite out of this era of bands, my hometown heroes Curlupanddie (why was this genre so obsessed with jamming words together into one?). Everything that this genre did, I believe CUAD did it best: the guitar heroics, the time signature changes, the bizarro song structures, and even the witty/in-jokey song titles (“If This Band Thing Doesn’t Pan Out We’re Joining the Army,” “I’m Trying to Fly to the Moon Using Two Magnets and Willpower,” and “Kissing You Is Like Licking An Ashtray” are a few standouts). They got a lot more serious-minded and a lot more “legitimately” progressive with their final record, The One Above All, The End of All That Is, although they maintained their self-aware approach. They are also all incredibly nice guys.

There are definitely many, many more bands I could have mentioned, like proto-deathcore giants The Red Chord and Ion Dissonance, as well as the more grindcore-oriented bands that hit their peaks later, like Me and Him Call It Us and Ed Gein, but I figured I’d leave that up to you guys in the comments. Remember, Election Day is meant to be crazy as shit and leave us feeling hopeless and terrified, so crank your ghetto blasters as loud as you can and start tipping over cop cars and throwing Molotov cocktails at government buildings. Have a good night.