Here’s something I really like doing: Clicking around Bandcamp and hitting “subscribe” on the pages of every halfway-competent hardcore band I can find. I check the internet for show fliers or hardcore-festival bills, and then I just subscribe to the pages of every band I’m not already subscribed to. That way, every time any one of those bands has something new out, I get the email right away. It reminds me of being in high school, getting the addresses for different labels from zine ads and then writing to those labels for their Xeroxed, stapled catalogs — with the crucial distinction that I get to actually hear the music this time.
Because of Bandcamp, and because of the internet in general, it’s easier than ever to keep up on what’s going on in the punk and hardcore undergrounds. It’s still not as easy with those genres as it is with big-money indie or festival-rock. The vast majority of hardcore bands don’t have publicists, and plenty of them don’t even have labels. You have to dig just slightly harder, though it’s now possible to do that digging without even going to shows. (You should still go to shows when you can; it will always be the best way to experience this music.)
Plenty of times, the new music you hear in these bands’ newest records is unlistenable crap. Plenty of times, the next record is a not-as-good retread of whatever came before. Plenty of times, the band breaks up before getting around to releasing a second 7″. (This is a proud and decades-old hardcore tradition: Splitting up immediately after building up just the tiniest bit of steam.) But every once in a while, you get to see a band figure everything out and take a tremendous quantum leap. You get to hear everything click. And as a fan of this stuff, that’s one of the most rewarding things you can do — or, at least, the most rewarding that does not involve having strangers sweat on you in a basement somewhere. That leap is happening right now with the Fort Lauderdale band Gouge Away.
Gouge Away didn’t just become special with their new album Burnt Sugar. They started out special. , Dies, the band’s 2016 debut, is an exemplary piece of raw, mouth-foaming fuck-you-up hardcore. On that record, the band plays with a tumultuous intensity, every instrument falling over every other instrument, everything ripping by as quickly as possible. Bandleader Christina Michelle isn’t a commanding force who roars overtop of the storm. Instead, she’s caught up in it, fighting the current, scratching and kicking. It’s a jaggedly masterful DIY record. Burnt Sugar, their brand-new sophomore album, is even better, and that’s at least partly because it’s nothing like , Dies.
Gouge Away come from the hardcore world, so we’ll probably always call them a hardcore band — just ask Fucked Up — but Burnt Sugar isn’t a hardcore album. It’s not DIY, either. This time around, they’re on a big indie, Converge singer Jacob Bannon’s Deathwish, Inc. And while they didn’t have a producer on , Dies, they’ve now got two, and they’re both heavyweights. Jeremy Bolm, frontman of the intense LA post-hardcore band Touché Amoré co-produced the album with Deafheaven collaborator Jack Shirley, who is lately giving Kurt Ballou a serious run for the “best producer in heavy music” title. Burnt Sugar sounds colossal and torrential, and it gives us a portrait of a band slowing down and finding its voice.
Where , Dies was a definitional underground hardcore record (and one of the best of the past few years), Burnt Sugar draws its inspiration instead from the vicious ugliness of ’90s noise-rock — the bands who were raised in hardcore but who were pushing toward something both heavier and grimier. I hear echoes of the Jesus Lizard in Gouge Away’s squalid, feverish guitar tone, and Girls Against Boys in their chunky heavy-groove basslines. And then there’s the Pixies, an inspiration so obvious that the band’s named after one of their songs. Gouge Away don’t write hooks the way the Pixies did, but they’ve got that same sense of seesawing instability. Bolm and Shirley recorded them playing live in a room, with no headphones and no overdubs, which only adds to that urgent and immediate about-to-collapse feeling.
Michelle’s voice is a strained howl, and her lyrics are heavy but considered lines, many of them about depression or anxiety: “Everyone goes through shit and gets over it / But I can’t be that / Everyone always says to just snap out of it / But that doesn’t apply to me… I can’t take care of this mind that won’t take care of me.” Michelle never sings in specific, concrete terms; she never tells us exactly who she’s singing about or what feelings she’s addressing. But her lyrics cut deep all the same. She sings about things that I don’t hear addressed in song often, like the weight of social expectation: “I let my guard down to meet someone new / Said she as disappointed / Said I fucking knew.”
My favorite song on the album might be “Hey Mercy,” a dense stream-of-consciousness bloodletting. It could be about a romantic relationship, but the lyrics come off more as a confrontation of a parent, a demand that someone acknowledge all the ways that they have fucked you up: “Everyday is a struggle trying to unlearn the traits you’ve embedded.” But it’s also the rare Gouge Away song that ends in a note of dark, exultant triumph: “You’ll be calling me an artist by the way I draw blood.”
There are so, so many great bands within the punk underground, and so many ways to address this genre that’s been branching out in all these different directions for the past 40 years or so. But the best of those bands are still the ones who don’t treat punk or hardcore as genres, with marks to hit and obligations to fulfill. The best bands are the ones who use that music as a vehicle for tense and volatile personal communication, the ones where the people in the band seem like they’d explode if they didn’t put this shit into song form and get it off their collective chest. Gouge Away were always one of those bands. Now, they’re getting better. Two years ago, they deserved your attention. Now, they demand it.
Burnt Sugar is out 9/28 on Deathwish, Inc.
Other albums of note out this week:
• SOB x RBE’s as-yet-unheard Bay Area slapper Gangin II.
• Dödsrit’s towering, overwhelming black metal/D-beat hybrid Spirit Crusher.
• Restorations’ depressed-but-anthemic punker LP5000.
• Tim Hecker’s drone opus Konoyo.
• Nile Rodgers & Chic’s long-awaited disco comeback It’s About Time.
• Marissa Nadler’s atmospheric, collab-heavy For My Crimes.
• Viagra Boys’ menacing postpunk churn Street Worms.
• Amber Arcades’ dazed, synthy European Heartbreak.
• Miss World’s conceptual fame-commentary debut Keeping Up With Miss World.
• Mudhoney’s raunchy ripper Digital Garbage.
• Jay Som and Justus Proffit’s collaboration Nothing’s Changed.
• Roosevelt’s longing synthpopper Young Romance.
• Hater’s twinkly, melancholic Siesta.
• Jlin’s choreography soundtrack Autobiography.
• Slow Crush’s heavy shoegazer Aurora.
• Danielson’s psychedelic bugout Snap Outtavit.
• Snow Roller’s muddy, smeary indie rocker Y2K.
• Foxhole’s post-rock reunion Well Kept Thing.
• Bliss Signal’s self-titled mutant black metal debut.
• Fresh And Onlys leader Tim Cohen’s solo psych-popper The Modern World.
• Tommy And The Commies’ quick-and-dirty mod-punk debut Here Comes….
• Un’s funeral doom death-march Sentiment.
• Binah’s death metal crusher Phobiate.
• Cypress Hill’s oddly comforting Elephants On Acid.
• Loretta Lynn’s grand-dame twanger Wouldn’t It Be Great.
• Lupe Fiasco’s dense and conceptual Drogas Wave.
• Cher’s ABBA cover album Dancing Queen.
• Alt-J’s remix album Reduxer.
• Mount Kimbie’s DJ-Kicks mix.
• The Rick & Morty soundtrack album.
• The label compilation NGX: Ten Years Of Neon Gold.
• Yumi Zouma’s EP III EP.
• Pulgas’ More Like Us EP.