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.