DC punk bands don’t last. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. The city of Washington, DC has left a seismic impact on American punk rock over the last four decades or so. But with a few prominent exceptions, the District’s best punk bands have a way of flaming out after an album or two. Sometimes, they don’t even make it that far. Consider Void, the teenagers from the Maryland suburb of Columbia whose bleary, sloppy, relentless attack helped people figure out how metal and hardcore could join forces in ways that made sense. Void released one side of a split LP in 1982, contributed a few tracks to the legendary compilation Flex Your Head that same year, and then split in 1983 when the people in the band graduated from high school. That’s just the way. That’s always been the way.
Around the midpoint of this decade, DC hardcore started popping off again. A new wave of kids drew inspiration less from the metalcore of the moment than from the political hardcore and crossover thrash of previous generations. Bands like Red Death, Pure Disgust, and Coke Bust built their own DIY circuit and kicked a lot of ass. Most of them didn’t last. Pure Disgust made one (great) album and broke up. Coke Bust still exist, but they seem to be largely inactive. Red Death, on the other hand, are three albums in and sounding strong as hell. The secret, I think, is that they aren’t really a punk band anymore.
Red Death have always been at least a little bit of a metal band. Since they began, they’ve mined the late-’80s moment where hardcore and speed metal started to blur into one another. Guitarist Ace Mendoza is a full-on shredder, squeezing in nasty guitar solos even when his band is playing at a full sprint. And the band has never been especially interested in hardcore hallmarks like the song-ending mosh-part breakdown. But they’ve always been fast. Their 2015 debut album Permanent Exile squeezed nine songs into 17 minutes. It was absolute lo-fi brutality. On 2017’s even better Formidable Darkness, Red Death thickened up their sound and gave themselves a little bit more room, but they never got slower than a gallop. The new Sickness Divine is different. Red Death might just be a metal band now.
Metal looks good on them. The first thing we hear on Sickness Divine is an intricately strummed, ominously chiming classical guitar, a moment of gothy atmosphere that leads straight into the first massive bulldozer riff. That is a total Master Of Puppets-era Metallica move, and Red Death execute it beautifully. More and more often, the band knocks out its riffs in a deliberate stomp — not slow by any means, but not fast enough to jerk your head around anymore, either. They’re playing at headbanging speed, giving more impact to their riffs and to singer DHD’s theatrical bark. Power Trip/Pissed Jeans producer Arthur Rizk helps them find a heft and presence that their previous records never really had. It’s a huge step up in just about every way.
There’s still plenty of hardcore in what Red Death do. DHD still bellows out his fists-up choruses in a full-on roar; he’s not exactly reaching for high notes. (DHD has always been better at well-timed grunts and waaaaooow, yeah!s than just about anyone else in hardcore.) And while Mendoza’s guitar heroics get a lot of time, they never overwhelm the songs. Red Death are still as likely as ever to send you into the sort of seeing-blood haze that the best hardcore can induce. But there’s more depth to their songwriting now — bigger riffs, stickier singalongs, more going on musically. Some of it is even pretty. I think there’s a damn harpsichord on the brief instrumental “The Anvil’s Ring.” But you always know, during those quieter moments, that the hammer is about to fall.
The sound that Red Death make on Sickness Divine isn’t a new sound. They aren’t suddenly going left on everyone who loved the last two albums. Instead, they’ve honed their craft and perfected their attack. They’ve become a better version of who they always were. And if they’re less of a punk band now than they once were, that’s fine. Maybe they’ll even stick around.
Sickness Divine is out 11/29 on Century Media.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kacey Musgraves’ soundtrack to her holiday special The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show.
• Joe Pesci’s Still Singing, the man’s first LP in 21 years.
• Sam Roberts/Sloan/Tokyo Police Club side project Anyway Gang’s self-titled debut.
• The Mose Allison tribute compilation If You’re Going To The City.