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.

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4 thoughts on “On the Subject of Sass

  1. I appreciate this overview so much. It’s quite rad to see the lines traced from stuff I was listening to in highschool like the Locust, Daughters, Norma Jean, etc. (still listen to all of them) to the more recent Gas up and .gif from God (who I wouldn’t have thought of but makes sense). Also wasn’t expecting to see Letters to Catalonia mentioned. All in all that was a very fun read.

    Like

  2. Great article, but how did you know that Gerard Way took influences from skramz bands? Not trying to bash you, I’m legitimately curious as I’m a fan of both MCR and skramz bands!

    Like

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