There’s an iconic image on the cover of Henry Rollins’ Black Flag tour diary Get In The Van, one of the first books that a whole lot of people read when they’re first getting into hardcore: A whole phalanx of armored riot cops flooding into a 1984 Ramones/Black Flag show at the Palladium in Los Angeles. That night, as the show was getting out, police reportedly chased punks up and down Sunset Boulevard, beating people indiscriminately. It’s not the only time this happened at a Black Flag show.
Black Flag were one of the bands responsible for establishing the DIY-venue touring circuit that hardcore bands still rely on today. In those early days, police frequently broke up Black Flag shows, and hardcore shows in general. Hardcore never forgot. Hating cops is pretty much baked into hardcore, a defining element of the music and the subculture that surrounds that music. This is a genre where one of the foundational bands is literally called Millions Of Dead Cops.
Even in its infancy, hardcore was full of songs about police brutality; the Dead Kennedys’ “Police Truck” and the Dicks’ “Hate The Police” both came out in 1980. The years that followed gave us Black Flag’s “Police Story,” SS Decontrol’s “Police Beat,” Discharge’s “State Violence State Control.” The hardcore-adjacent British street-punk band the 4-Skins helped popularize “ACAB,” the now-popular anti-police rallying cry, in a 1982 song. In addition to all those angry white guys, there’s a long history of people of color calling out police racism in hardcore songs. Suicidal Tendencies came out with “Fascist Pig” in 1983. Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” the 1992 track that caused waves of parental pearl-clutching upon its release, is basically a hardcore song. These sentiments have been around.
Anecdotally, if you hang out at enough hardcore shows, you’ll probably hear a lot of people talking about their open cases or their parole officers. More than any other genre of guitar-rock I can name, hardcore seems to attract working-class people and people with mental health issues. These are, by and large, the people who are willing to risk personal injury by throwing themselves around crowded concrete rooms full of spinning fists. These are also people who are, on the whole, relatively likely to have bad encounters with cops. Hardcore is a predominantly white genre — though, like so many other predominantly white genres, it was invented by black musicians. Hardcore also has its own histories with weird macho aggression and homophobia and intense right-wing meat-headedness. But it’s also underdog music, and it’s underdog music that has rarely vacillated in its fiery anti-cop tendencies.
Today, we see why. The recent wave of protests against police brutality and racism has been a massive, widespread movement. It’s touched every corner of society, and it’s changed commonly held ideas about the way police function. Even after all the scores of high-profile police-murder victims in recent years, the video of George Floyd’s murder is too gruesome to ignore. It’s also been impossible to ignore the evidence of the way police across the country have dealt with protestors — the rubber bullets, the pepper spray, the van rammings, the animalistic drive toward violence and escalation. Nobody is talking about a few bad apples anymore. Anyone who’s paying attention can see the systemic rot.
The hardcore community hasn’t driven this recent wave, but it’s sure as hell taken part and shown out. In Charlottesville, where I live, the protests have been peaceful and orderly. But in nearby Richmond, a city with a hugely important hardcore scene, police have gotten crazy during the protests. The people of Richmond’s hardcore scene have been out in the streets every night, and it’s been hugely heartening to see. That’s been the case everywhere. On the most recent episode of Ace Stallings’ crucial Forum Of Passion podcast, Regulate frontman Sebastian Paba speaks with an amazing sense of wonder about seeing thousands of anti-racist demonstrators marching through the Long Island town where he was always called racial slurs as a kid. Hardcore vets like H2O’s Toby Morse and the Cro-Mags’ John Joseph have been getting dragged online for being pro-cop. The New York city councilman and former Indecision/Most Precious Blood guitarist Justin Brannan has been feuding with Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter.
But it hasn’t just been people demonstrating or making noise online. Scores of bands have been raising money for various anti-racist causes online. Mindforce, for instance, donated $10,000 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund after selling a shirt with a picture of a burning police station. Jesus Piece raised even more with their shirt. Considering that these are underground bands, those amounts are staggering.
At various points in my life, I’ve thought all the strident anti-cop hardcore songs were juvenile or simplistic or lacking in nuance. The past month has shown just how fucking stupid that was. When it comes to American policing, nuance shouldn’t even come into the discussion. The hardcore bands were always right, and I was always wrong. This a stark, violent black-and-white issue. It demands a response. I started writing this column specifically to talk about hardcore shows. Thanks to the pandemic, for most of the time that I’ve been writing the column, those shows haven’t been happening. But right now, the hardcore community has put that pent-up energy into something vital and important. People are angry. If hardcore is good for anything, it’s channeling anger.
10. Rain Of Salvation – “In Times Of Desperation”
On the surface, you’d think an apocalyptic metallic hardcore song called “In These Times Of Desperation” would pair perfectly with a time of apocalyptic desperation, but the Connecticut/Long Island/Delaware band Rain Of Salvation is really shouting about personal loss and depression, about raging impotently against those things. It’s an internal sort of catharsis, but it’s a hard internal catharsis. That breakdown sounds like a fucking volcano. [From In Times Of Desperation EP, self-released, out now.]
9. Peace Test – “Uniform”
Good lord, that fucking growl. Nolan Cambra, lead barker for Providence’s Peace Test, sounds like he’s somehow got a rusty tin can for a throat and like this implausible tin-throat condition is making his rabies worse. “Uniform” is simplistic thrash-and-lurch ’80s-style hardcore, the kind of music that you make when you want to proclaim that you hate absolutely every fucking thing and that you can barely stand to open your eyes because everything is so stupid and ugly. It might sound like pastiche if it didn’t convincingly and beautifully convey absolute disgust towards the entire universe. [From Uniform Repression EP, out 9/1 on To Live A Lie Records/Blind Rage Records.]
8. Mantlet – “Tyranny”
Look: We’re going to have to trust each other here. If you’re reading this column, I feel like you’ve already got a certain perspective. If I tell you that there’s a band from the picturesque UK river city of Coventry who have a singer that sounds like Elmo? Like Elmo throwing a hellacious tantrum? Over gigantic juddering metallic riffage? I have to trust that you know I am not joking, and I have to trust that you know I am not making fun of this band. I am merely saying this because it’s fucking awesome and I love it. When Elmo-sounding Mantlet singer Dane Barker is screaming on the outro — “Onslaught! Bloodshed!” — that’s the good shit. [From Kold War/Mantlet split EP, out now on Nuclear Family Records.]
7. Ironclad – “Peace Out Of Reach”
Ironclad are a new band whose members come from Virginia’s rural Appalachian region, but they sound like hyper-violent ’90s New York goons. This is very much by design. Ironclad have set out to make some real CBGB-matinee bat-to-the-skull music, and they have achieved their objective. The band’s debut EP came out before the current protest movement got going, but “Peace Out Of Reach” has some resonance to it anyway: “Centuries-strong monuments/ In only days laid to waste.” When the whole band starts chanting and the drummer goes nuts on the toms, this become elemental blood-rush music, and makes me want to headbutt my local green-metallic Robert E. Lee into dust. (I already wanted to do that, but this makes me want to do it even more, even if that’s not really what they’re singing about.) [From Peace Out Of Reach EP, out now on WAR Records.]
6. Trash Talk – “Something Wicked”
“I commit to total warfare,” Lee Spielman roars. And then, as if to underline it, “Warfare! Warfare! Warfare! Warfare!” Hell yeah. It’s been four years since Trash Talk, the band who’s put on some of the most wildly violent shows I’ve ever seen, have released anything, but they came back feverish. The band recorded “Something Wicked” with rap producer-of-the-moment Kenny Beats, and one of my favorite things about the song is that you can absolutely not hear Kenny Beats in it at all. My other favorite thing is that it sounds so straightforward — a galloping Motörhead riff clobbering you stupid, again and again. [From Squalor EP, out sometime soon on Trash Talk Collective.]
5. Dry Socket – “Self Hate Care”
It’s not easy to play hardcore that’s both fast and sludgy at the same time, but Portland’s Dry Socket are doing it. “Self Hate Care” sounds like scummed-up noise-rock played at double-time, and singer Danielle Allen sounds utterly fucking furious at the entire institution of self-satisfied aspirational Instagram culture. This is, of course, exactly the sort of thing that hardcore bands should be fuming about, at least when they’re not ripping down statues and flipping over cop cars. [From Shiver EP, out now on Get Stoked! Records.]
4. Year Of The Knife – “Virtual Narcotic”
Tyler Mullins, leader of Delaware shit-rippers Year Of The Knife, yowls, “We are the walking deeeeaaaad!” He doesn’t sound like it! He sounds more like he’s got 50 bajillion volts of electricity coursing through his body and like that electricity is making him more alive. Converge’s Kurt Ballou produced Year Of The Knife’s forthcoming full-length debut, so it seems a bit lazy to compare YOTK’s blenderized metalcore attack to Converge. But in its relentless weedwhacker sprint, “Virtual Narcotic” sounds like something that Converge might’ve recorded if they were 22 and really stressed about smartphone addiction. [From Internal Incarceration, out 8/7 on Pure Noise Records.]
3. Mattachine – “Sisyphus”
Infant Island’s Alexander Rudenshiold formed the new band Mattachine at least in part to deal with the anger of feeling marginalized as a gay man within the hardcore world. On “Sisyphus,” he gets that across by getting absolutely feral over a bugged-out metallic frag-grenade face-ripper of a song: “The world may say that the way we fuck is wrong/ But friction between men is all I fucking want!” This is visceral, adrenaline-charged music, but it’s smart, too; check the layers of meaning and allusion in that song title. [From Isolation As A Form Of Torture EP, out now on Zegama Beach Records.]
2. SPEED – “A Dumb Dog Gets Flogged”
Jem Slow, lead grunter for the Sydney band SPEED, has said that the band wrote “A Dumb Dog Gets Flogged” to express their anger at Australia’s government and its slow response to the massive brushfires earlier this year. You wouldn’t necessarily get that from the song, though, considering that its main message is pretty much just “I’ll beat you up.” But his is some real prime beat-you-up shit. Most of “A Dumb Dog Gets Flogged” is totally engaging stomp-thrash, but when it gets to the breakdown, the fireworks really go off in my brain. The whole band chants together — “Keep testing me” — and then a whole new rage-overdose riff kicks in, and then I don’t even know what happens. I wake up naked, covered in someone else’s blood, on a mountain of broken glass in burned-out vacant lot. I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know how to get home. Please help me. [From 2020 Flex, out 6/19 on Flatspot Records.]
1. Sharptooth – “Say Nothing (In The Absence Of Content)”
“Now this is the part of the song where we slow shit way down for you so you can all kill each other! It doesn’t even matter what I’m saying here anyway! Can you even understand a fucking word I say?” That’s Lauren Kashan, leader of the Baltimore band Sharptooth, announcing the mosh part on “Say Nothing (In The Absence Of Content).” And then: “Mosh call! Generic mosh call! It must be nice to say nothing!” It would be easy to write this all off as some kind of self-conscious joke if the mosh part didn’t kick many different varieties of ass, if it didn’t make me want to be in a room where everyone’s killing each other. It’d be easier to write it off if Kashan didn’t have such a tremendous guttural scream, too. But Sharptooth possess the rare ability to comment on hardcore rituals while also blasting through those rituals with total commitment. That video is some A-plus silliness, too. [From Transitional Forms, out 7/10 on Pure Noise Records.]