There are stagedives, and then there are stagedives. Maybe two songs into Baltimore hardcore band Turnstile’s set last night, frontman Brendan Yates launched himself into the sky. He got tremendous air. Yates seemed to hang there for a small eternity before, in mid-air, somersaulting forward and landing on the crowd. It was Booker T’s old Harlem Hangover somersault legdrop, and it was beautiful. I have been going to shows for a solid quarter century, and I have never seen a stagedive that perfect.
The Harlem Hangover wasn’t the only wrestling move I saw someone do into the crowd last night. I saw frogsplashes. I saw running cannonballs. I saw senton dives. While the Florida band Unified Right were playing, someone tried to jump over the singer and into the crowd, and he pretty much flipped over the guy and gave him an accidental RKO on his way down. All of it was amazing. None of it came close to that Yates dive.
Yates is the singer for the biggest band in hardcore right now. He should be the world’s best stagediver. Back in the heyday of New York hardcore, bands would recruit “known dancers” to be their singers, and that system seemed to work out pretty well for everyone. I don’t know how Turnstile became a band. Maybe Yates got the job because he’s an unrelenting human fireball of energy, or maybe he became an unrelenting human fireball after being in the band for a while. Yates looks like the comic-relief stoner best friend character from a teen romance movie. He’s not the best singer in hardcore. He’s not even the best singer in his band; that’s bassist Franz Lyons, who took over the mic for entire songs last night. But Yates is an absolute wonder to behold. He just never stops.
Last night’s Turnstile show was the release party for Time & Space, the new album that they released over a month ago. It was also the opening night of Damaged City, a Washington, DC DIY punk and hardcore festival that, in its six years, has become an underground institution. In previous years, Damaged City used to hold all of its shows in church halls, a longtime cornerstone of DC’s historically amazing punk scene. But Damaged City is now big enough that it’s taking over the Black Cat for the entire weekend, bringing bands like queercore legends Limp Wrist and Texan garage rockers Radioactivity. For last night, though, they were still in the church halls. Close to a thousand people, I’m guessing, crammed into a slightly run-down house of Unitarian worship, the bands playing on a stage with organ pipes on either side, in a room decorated with information about previous pastors throughout history. It was beautiful.
What I saw last night was a real accomplishment. As someone who grew up on DIY punk, going to shows in VFW Halls and basements, it was a blast to see that whole aesthetic taken to such a grand scale. DIY hardcore has been in a great place for the past few years. Gas is cheap, so touring has been at least feasible for a lot of bands. And thanks to Bandcamp, it’s easier than ever to keep tabs on this flowering subculture. At Damaged City, and at a few other festivals like it, everything comes together into a huge, sweaty heap.
One thing that’s impressed me about the most recent wave of hardcore bands: It’s way less of a white-guy party than I can remember it ever being before. You see more and more women, non-binary people, and people of color in the bands and in the crowds. Last night didn’t quite bear that out gender-wise; every band I saw was all male. (Thanks to DC’s reliably hellish traffic, I missed herky-jerk Texan punks Razorbumps, who are not.) But the crowd inside the church looked positively utopian, if you can call it “utopian” when you go to the bathroom and see a guy stuffing huge wads of toilet paper into his blood-gushing and probably-broken nose.
Thanks to organizers who were very much on top of their shit, last night’s show was a model of precision. Bands would spend 10 minutes setting up and then play 15-minute sets. A seven-band show was over by 10:30. You could have a brief conversation with someone outside between bands and end up missing half the next set.
I love the ritualistic sense of shows like this. Looking around in the crowd near you, you have to guess who’s going to turn out to be in the next band. The hallway to the bathroom has like 10 different merch tables. Some people in the crowd seem to know the words to all the songs from all the bands, even when some of those bands have never played DC before. When the songs lead into the breakdowns and the pits get crazy, the whole chemistry of the room changes. You feel the drop in your stomach.
Damaged City’s bookers always take pains to assemble wide-reaching lineups, even if the bands in those lineups all come from the same basic community. That wasn’t really in effect last night, where every band I saw worked some variation on chugalug old-school hardcore — sometimes with a bit of metal influence, sometimes not. I had no problem with that. That stuff rules. Atlanta’s spartan, brutalist Abuse Of Power were especially impressive. And hometown-hero thrashers Red Death were absolute monsters. Guitarist Ace knows how to ram a wheedling death-metal solo into the context of a battering two-minute rager. And singer DHD is a big, mean-looking fucker with a shaved head and a withering glower. Unlike a lot of the bands that came before them last night, Red Death are performers. They are righteous and road-hardened, and if they can manage to not break up just as they’re getting great — DC punk bands have a bad habit of doing this — they’re just going to soar from here.
It was a great night before Turnstile touched the stage. But Turnstile pushed things into another category. The moshpit, wild all night, became total bugshit bedlam. Bodies flew everywhere. Most of Turnstile’s T-shirts are in a shade that I can only call “security-guard mustard yellow.” And Turnstile fans do not abide by the PCU code that you can’t wear the shirt of the band you’re going to see. So even though this was a show without bouncers, watching this chaos erupt, it almost looked like we’d entered some new Twilight Zone where the venue’s security staff had all decided to rage the fuck out. Yates would let audience members grab the mic — not for a word or two, as is hardcore custom, but for big chunks of entire songs. The band, faced with the chaos of performing while surrounded by this convulsive mass, played with remarkable focus and authority. Dedication, too — for some unspecified reason, drummer Dan Fang came directly from the hospital to the show, still in his hospital gown.
Turnstile have made a fine album in Time & Space, but it’s a departure, both for them and for the scene that produced them, the one that Damaged City celebrates. It’s their first for Roadrunner, a major-label subsidiary. (They are now labelmates with, for instance, Slipknot.) Time & Space has clean guitars and big hooks and Diplo’s name in the credits. Here and there, it sounds positively Foo Fighters-y. Once upon a time, this would’ve caused a vocal segment of their base to turn loudly against them. And maybe that’s happening somewhere; I’d have to trawl hardcore subreddits to really know.
But at Damaged City last night, Turnstile were heroes. There was no ambivalence in that crowd; there was only wild, chaotic embrace. Showmanship is rare in hardcore, but they’ve got it. Even when Yates remains onstage, he’s always moving, jumping, waving hands, beaming. There’s a small drum stand at the back of the stage — something for him to bang on, to do with his hands whenever Lyons is singing. And the band’s sound, relatively slick on record, takes on new dimensions live. It’s ferocious, of course — fast and bruising and giddy. But there’s a playfulness within the ferocity, too. Turnstile have a deep sense of groove, even when they’re at their fastest, and you don’t have to work to pick the hooks out of the maelstrom. Their music demands sing-alongs, and it gets them.
Turnstile are not long for rooms like this one. This weekend, they’re playing another, very different hardcore fest — United Blood, the Richmond tough-guy marathon that has veteran NYHC knuckleheads Madball headlining. But after that, the festivals they’re playing are the different kind. They’re on that Power Trip trajectory. In the coming months, they’re hitting big rock fests in Florida and Ohio, the type where Foo Fighters or Alice In Chains or Avenged Sevenfold or Tool will headline. Their show will work in situations like that, even if Yates is contractually prohibited from cannonballing over barricades and into the crowd. But if you get a chance to see them in a church hall, do it while you still can. Failing that, they’re about to embark on a headlining tour with Touché Amoré, Culture Abuse, and Razorbumps opening. That is an incredible bill. For fuck’s sake, go see that.