The Month In Hardcore – March 2020
It’s a rare pleasure to see someone doing something that they were born to do. Some people were just put on this earth to play tennis, or to argue court cases, or to teach high-school history. When you’re in the room with one of these people while they’re doing what they do, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of awe: This person is better at doing this one thing than you will ever be, at anything, in your life. That’s how it feels to watch Valentina Lopez. Valentina Lopez was born to lead a punk band that plays basements.
Do you know how hard it is to lead a basement band? I’d argue that it’s one of the hardest roles in music. It’s one thing to project charisma if you’re onstage in a nightclub, or an arena, or any sort of room with a stage. On at least some level, the room is visually organized for the people in the crowd to look up at the performers. That division doesn’t exist in a basement, or in a living room, or in most of the other spaces that get transformed into DIY venues.
The entire organizing principle of the DIY show is that there is no distinction between performer and audience. The leader of the band is just the person who happens to be holding a microphone. Most of the people holding those microphones seem at least a little uncomfortable in that position. They pace back and forth. They move around a little bit. The more confrontational ones might venture out into the room and sing into people’s faces. When I was first going to basement shows, the big move was to throw yourself at the ground, tangle yourself up in the mic chord, and scream, sometimes while curled up into a fetal position. That’s one way to handle it, anyway.
That’s not what Lopez does. Lopez is the leader of Nosebleed, a Richmond band that specializes in a fast and angry and primitive version of hardcore punk. This is direct, instinctive music, and it demands a singer who is willing to be direct and instinctive. Lopez is that. Two years ago, I watched Nosebleed play at the DC festival Damaged City. That afternoon, they were the second band onstage at the Black Cat. They came in in the early afternoon, with the audience still trickling in. As soon as Nosebleed started playing, Lopez charged out into the audience and started knocking motherfuckers around. Nobody was going to stand still while Nosebleed was playing. She wasn’t going to let that happen. When Nosebleed are playing, Lopez is in it.
Nosebleed have been putting out music since 2015, but they aren’t a terribly prolific band. They’ve released one demo and two 7″ EPs, and that’s it. Different members of Nosebleed have gone on to play in different Richmond hardcore bands; Lopez is the only original member still in the band. Nosebleed’s sound is harsh and elemental; all of their songs are right around two minutes long. Their records are cool. They write hard riffs, and Lopez’s voice has a scratchy toughness that reminds me more of Lemmy than anyone else. But you don’t get the real Nosebleed experience from playing their records. You get it from seeing them live.
Nosebleed play a lot, and sometimes they play big shows. They opened one of the much-feted Avail reunion gigs in Richmond last year, for instance. (The show they played wasn’t the one I saw.) But Nosebleed’s natural habitat is the basement. The basement is the perfect place to see them. Last week, Nosebleed played the record-release show for Outside Looking In, the 7″ that came out in December, at one such basement, the Richmond space known as Discovery Zone. They ripped it so hard.
This was in the Before Times. It’s weird to think that this show, in this packed basement full of kids passing around White Claw cans, was probably the last show I’ll go to for a while. Hardcore punk is a genre uniquely suited to apocalyptic anxiety, and yet I don’t remember anyone even talking about a looming pandemic in between bands. Two years ago, Long Island’s the Fight, one of the bands on the bill, came out with a song called “Health Scare”: “People are dying on the street/ The system only works for the elite.” I don’t even know if they played it at that show. Nobody at in the basement seemed especially stressed out about any lack of social distancing. It was as if this kind of thing could keep happening forever. I didn’t find out that the first cases of coronavirus had started showing up in Virginia until I got home that night.
Hardcore, like every other genre of music, is dealing with a devastating blow right now. United Blood, the two-day fest that’s the biggest annual hardcore event in these parts, was supposed to go down on the first weekend in April. For days, even as the music world systematically shut down, United Blood’s organizers said that the event would proceed as planned. But after the Virginia government put a temporary ban on all indoor gatherings, they had to cancel. Hardcore generally puts a premium on strength and resistance. It’s also the kind of thing where, if you’re into it, you need it, where you have trouble accepting the idea that you won’t get to have it. For me, one of the toughest thing about the prospect of the weeks ahead is that I won’t get to go to a show like that Nosebleed one for a while.
Nine days ago, though, nobody was worried. For a basement, Discovery Zone is a pretty big space. There were probably more than 100 people at that Nosebleed show. It was the rare basement space where a very tall person like me can actually stand up, though I would’ve decapitated myself on the load-bearing girder in the middle of the room if I’d tried to mosh. (It didn’t stop everyone else from moshing. Shout out to the kids who grabbed that girder and used it to do swinging kicks.)
Hardcore bands take record-release shows seriously. They take care to book bands that’ll fit next to them in ways that make sense. That’s what Nosebleed did with that bill. Locals Deviant played fast and hard, and frontman Patrick Walsh, whose 11PM label also puts out records from bands like Gazm and Protocol, wore a prom dress and sneered expertly. I couldn’t hear any of the vocals from Tallahassee’s Armor — often an issue at DIY shows — but the band’s revved-up attack still had weight and presence. The Fight have a raw, brutish simplicity that I love. All the bands on the bill tended toward the punk side of hardcore — short songs, ugly riffs, not too many mosh-part breakdowns. In the right kind of house-show environment, even a just-OK hardcore punk band can be a hell of a fun experience. None of the bands that night were just OK. All of them kicked ass.
And yet none of them had anything on Nosebleed, who were feral and intense and all-the-way locked-in. People were ready for them to conquer, and that’s exactly what they did. There’s this one Nosebleed song, “My Rules,” that’s on both of their EPs. They should put that song on every other record they put out as long as they’re a band. “My Rules” fucking destroys. It’s an ideal basement scream-along, and the people in that room treated it like the anthem that it is. Bodies flew everywhere, and Lopez wasn’t just conducting that maelstrom. She was fully within it, ripping into everyone around her and projecting warrior presence everywhere. She was something to witness.
Hardcore is the kind of music that you can only properly experience live. You can listen to a Nosebleed record, and you can enjoy it, but it will always be a distant echo of what it’s like to be there in that room, to see those bodies flying around, to be one of those bodies yourself. For now, that’s just not going to happen. I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to write this column about next month. (I’ll figure something out.) In the meantime, I’ve been listening to nothing but hardcore records for the past few days; they’re the only thing that makes me feel even kind of normal right now. Some good ones came out in the past month. Check out a selection below.
10. Guardrails – “Swish”
Guardrails are a new Richmond band who just released their demo and played their first show last month. So that means that this band is starting out its entire history as a music-recording entity with a sample of the announcer yelling on NBA Jam. This alone is enough to fire me up. Guardrails’ straightforward midtempo stomp is nothing new, but they’re good at it, and the breakdown on “Swish” makes me want to put my foot through a windshield. [From Demo 2020, out now, self-released.]
9. S.H.I.T. – “Hidden In Eternity”
This Toronto band makes fast, ugly, blood-gargle punk rock, and they record it with so much echo and distortion that it sounds like some lost artifact of a forgotten civilization. This is hardcore in the Bib mold — dirt-encrusted and primeval, with vocals that sound at least a little bit like they were recorded mid-barf. [Standalone track, out now on La Vida Es Un Musos Discos.]
8. The Fight – “Their New Aesthetic”
The Fight, from Long Island, played at the basement show discussed above. They stomped hard. But the Fight might also be the rare hardcore band who’s better on record than live. On “Their New Aesthetic,” they go sheer brutalist. There’s some kind of effect on frontman Kyle Fee’s voice, a harsh ringing echo, that makes the whole thing sound even nastier. “Their New Aesthetic” moves from fast blitzkrieg to deliberate Hulk-smash tempo in ways that just make your stomach lurch. It’s probably the hardest song about data mining I’ve ever heard. [From Endless Noise EP, out 3/18 on Triple B Records.]
7. Seed Of Pain – “Garden Of Decay”
There’s a difference between metalcore and metallic hardcore, and Seed Of Pain, from South Florida, are the latter. It’s a fine distinction, but Seed Of Pain play chunky and fast, and their music hews closer to ’90s Cleveland wreckers like Integrity and Ringworm than it does to all the post-Hatebreed goons that rocked Affliction shirts in the ’00s. Seed Of Pain have a real snap to their riffage, and they sound absolutely ferocious even when they’re not in mosh-part breakdown mode. (Their basslines are straight-up punk, which helps.) Seed Of Pain’s entire album is pure ass-kickery, but “Garden Of Decay” is the one for me — partly because the line about “the cowardly actions of indecisive centrist pigs pimping out our death” hits extra hard right about now. [From Flesh, Steel, Victory…, out now on Plead Your Case Records.]
6. Portrayal Of Guilt – “The End Of Man Will Bring Peace To This Earth”
Austin’s Portrayal Of Guilt have been bringing chaotic post-screamo nastiness for a few years, but this is the song where they somehow turn the intensity up about five notches, moving into outright-insanity gear. “The End Of Man Will Bring Peace To This Earth” starts out as grinding death-metal bedlam, and when it shifts into demon-bellow breakdown mode, it sounds like the sky caving in. The lyrics: “I weep at the thought that this is our reality. I’ll pray for death. The devil will find me as the world burns to the ground.” Motherfucker sounds like he means it. He also sounds like he might beat up the devil. [From Portrayal Of Guilt/Slow Fire Pistol split, out now on Run For Cover Records.]
5. Drain – “Hyper Vigilance”
Drain come from Santa Cruz, and their version of crossover thrash is old-school good-times fast-pummel shit. They put anthropomorphic sharks on their cover art and break out the pool noodles and innertubes when they play live. They are fun as hell. On their latest banger, they’ve got guest vocals from producer and Disgrace frontman Taylor Young, whose hellbeast growl gives them a nice dynamic and a new heaviness. With his voice in the mix, they sound even more reckless. [From California Cursed, out 4/10 on Revelation Records.]
4. Crafter – “Discarding Arrows”
Crafter got together in Western Massachusetts in 2014, released a couple of albums of raw-nerve melodic hardcore, and then broke up last year. But they had songs left over, and so they’re letting them out into the world, one by one. “Discarding Arrows” is a ’90s-style grand-scale epic, the kind of thing that would’ve made a VFW Hall feel like a stadium. The big-chant ending gives me goosebumps. It’s wild that a band that no longer exists could still come out with something as urgent and powerful as this. [From forthcoming No Renaissance EP, self-released, out now.]
3. Big Cheese – “Pennine Scrubs”
That intro? With the rising drumroll? And the feedback? And the raising-in-volume scream? And the riff that just comes crashing in? And the ridiculous groove that kicks into gear? Fucking hell. I mean: Jesus Christ. Just: Goddamn. I might have to throw a trash can through my office window. Big Cheese, from Leeds, do old-school Cro-Mags-style fight music better than just about anyone on the planet right now. “Pennine Scrubs” is the first song on their debut album, and the song — especially that intro — should work as a signal to your lizard brain that some shit is about to go down. [From Punishment Park, out now on Triple B Records.]
2. Gouge Away – “Consider”
At this point, it might make more sense to talk about Fort Lauderdale’s Gouge Away as post-hardcore than as straight-up hardcore. There’s more ’90s noise-rock than youth crew in their sound, and “Consider,” which builds on the great 2018 album Burnt Sugar, fades into a slow trudge with deep-in-the-mix evil-kid-choir mock-pretty vocals, which is not a hardcore thing. But I’m not ready to make the transition into calling them post-hardcore. “Consider” kicks too much ass. It’s too driving and purposeful and heavy. Its lyrics are too concrete and righteous: “Hiding white nationalism behind fantasy of patriotism/ If you find yourself getting defensive, you are the infestation.” Gouge Away are still harder than most hardcore bands, so I’ll call them hardcore as long as I want. [From “Consider” b/w “Gouge Away” 7″, out now on Deathwish, Inc.]
1. One Step Closer – “Lead To Gray”
Every once in a while, a promising band comes out with a song, and you’re like: That’s it. There it is. They found it. That’s how I feel about “Lead To Gray.” Last year, One Step Closer, a Wilkes-Barre straight-edge band, came out with the From Me To You EP, one of my favorite records of the year. “Lead To Gray” is everything great about that EP mashed into one single, dynamic three-minute package: the ringing guitar tone, the sincere and heartfelt sheer-need scream-vocals, the thunderous midtempo chugs, the sneaky melody, the colossal sense of scale. “Lead To Gray” is a song about despair and depression and vulnerability, and yet I feel absolutely invincible whenever it’s on. [From Promo 2020, out now on Triple B Records.]