It’s poetry. The band whose shirt you can’t buy is also the band whose members don’t wear shirts. Onstage, the Santa Cruz band Gulch present a united front: Four or five young dudes, stringy and tatted-up, all wearing tight black jeans and no shirts. Hardcore is supposed to be a gimmick-averse genre, and yet Gulch’s look is a great non-gimmick gimmick. They don’t look like they’ve had a band meeting about how they all should dress onstage. They look like guys who showed up at the venue wearing black jeans and no shirts. It just makes sense.
And yet merch scarcity has become a running theme for Gulch. The band sells unique gear — rugby shirts, crewnecks, things with cartoon characters on them. The clothes inevitably sell out as soon as they show up on the internet, and people resell them online for crazy markups. When Gulch played Florida’s FYA Fest in January, someone filmed people waiting in line for Gulch merch while Gulch played and it became a whole thing online. (Gulch sets are not exactly long. The thinking was: If you like Gulch so much, go mosh to Gulch.)
Even before Gulch released their debut album last month, the band was a topic of a whole lot of conversation. Gulch are insanely telegenic. They’re freaky-looking and intense and brutal. Frontman Elliot Morrow always looks like he’s having fun, but he also looks like he will kill you. In an era when people watch full videos of hardcore sets on YouTube — especially in an era when those sets aren’t happening in real life and you can only watch them on YouTube — Gulch might be the perfect band. They’ve got mystique and energy and charisma, and they’ve also got videos that you can watch without getting bored.
But now that their album is out, it’s clear that Gulch are something more than a viral sensation. They’ve become the rare hardcore band that can find audiences outside of hardcore without actively courting those audiences at all. They’ve done it, in a way, by being harder than anyone else. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress, Gulch’s debut LP, is all of 16 minutes long. It’s a writhing, seething, spitting beast of an album. It doesn’t sound like traditional hardcore, but it doesn’t sound like anything else, either.
Gulch play fast and unhinged. They take cues from all the grimiest and most off-putting genres of aggressive guitar-based music: Powerviolence, death metal, grindcore, crust. The band never grooves; instead, they lurch chaotically from one time signature to the next. Their riffs are hard and brutal, but they always keep you off-kilter, simply by never sticking around long enough to become comforting or even satisfying. You likely can’t understand a word that Morrow is screaming, but it’s not that surprising to learn his lyrics are about guilt and anxiety and fear, or that he’s using bodily-fluid imagery to get that across: “Swallowed secretion, spreading the infection/ Filling the void of the lungs/ Eyes hazing over, howling for the end/ The flesh becomes one with true fear.”
Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is probably the best hardcore album of 2020 thus far. It’s definitely the most important. It’s the kind of record that captures your imagination. You can’t give Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress a casual listen. You have to dive in and immerse yourself. Gulch don’t make it easy for you. Impenetrable Cerebral Fortress is a frantic storm of elbows, and if you’re not looking for that, you’re going to be actively repulsed. Gulch recorded the album live-to-tape, keeping things urgent and immediate, with the Deafheaven/Jeff Rosenstock producer Jack Shirley. Shirley makes it sound huge without losing its overpowering stench. If you can make it through the hail of the first seven songs, you get a stomach-lurching cover of the 1981 Siouxie And The Banshees song “Sin In My Heart,” a sign that we’re only just starting to understand how heavy Gulch can be.
Hardcore bands don’t usually cover songs like “Sin In My Heart.” Hardcore bands usually just cover other hardcore bands. Gulch’s take on “Sin In My Heart” doesn’t sound like Siouxsie, but it doesn’t sound like any other Gulch song, either. Instead, it’s Gulch holding a groove, stretching out, and staring straight into the abyss. It’s an awesome display of power. Most of the time, hardcore is a ritual. Songs have mosh-part breakdowns and singalong choruses so people can mosh and sing along to them. It’s functional music. But “Sin In My Heart” is not functional. It’s not interactive. There’s nothing you can really do when it’s on, other than let the ooze wash over you.
The people in Gulch all have things going on. All of them are members of other bands in the Santa Cruz/San Jose area, and some of those bands are great: Drain, Hands Of God, Sunami. None of them sound anything like each other, and none of them sing about the same shit. Drain make fun singalong thrash. Hands Of God make politically-driven metallic apocalypse music. Sunami are pure tough-guy ignorance. I love all of them. But Gulch tap into something deeper and stranger and heavier, something fundamental. I don’t know where they go from here, but they’ve become the undisputed focus of the hardcore world in a cursed era when hardcore shows can’t happen. That is already a legacy.
10. Tuning – “The Lost War”
Is hardcore the only genre of music that’s become more earnest over the years? Half of the early hardcore singers were snotty, sarcastic dickheads who bleated pure irony. Things have changed. A band like Tuning, a Bay Area group made up of grown-ups, are clearly aware of that old hardcore; their music is built out of its raw materials. But an anthem like “The Lost War” is pure heart-on-sleeve sincerity: “My love goes out to the defeated ones who forgot that they were strong/ We all fall.” That’s strident and pat, maybe slightly goofy, but it is also extremely real. [From Defining The Purpose, out 8/21 on Indecision Records.]
9. Stray Dogs HC – “Canine Madness”
Berlin’s Stray Dogs HC would presumably just be “Stray Dogs” if there weren’t already other bands called Stray Dogs. But on the strength of a song like “Canine Madness” — 45 seconds of feral barking noises and screaming thrash brutality — I move that all other bands called Stray Dogs waive their rights to the name. No other Stray Dogs could sound as much like actual stray dogs as these guys do. [From Canine Madness EP, self-released, out now.]
8. Vanguard – “To Suffer”
“To Suffer,” the first single from the new Houston duo Vanguard, is two minutes long, and more than half of it is ominous guitar chords and a sample of someone talking about the evils of meat consumption. But once the track kicks in, it’s monumental, furious Earth Crisis-style catharsis. Vanguard, like Earth Crisis, are clearly on a militant-vegan kick, and communicating that seems to be the band’s main reason for being. You don’t have to be vegan yourself to love the willingness to express that kind of conviction through pure rage, or the ability to get it across with this kind of heaviness. [From Rage Of Deliverance EP, out soon on New Age Records.]
7. Ecostrike – “See It Through”
South Florida’s Ecostrike are working in an established tradition, growling about the same kind of straight-edge ideals over the same kind of big riffs that Strife was using more than two decades ago. But Ecostrike mean that shit, and you can tell. “See It Through” is a charged-up anthem about friendship and mutual support, but it sounds like a declaration of war. Those floor toms make me want to ride a horse into battle, swinging a chain mace over my head. [From A Truth We Still Believe, out now on Triple B Records.]
6. Classics Of Love – “Crime Pays”
More than 30 years ago, Jesse Michaels was the frontman for Operation Ivy, quite possibly the first band I would see live if someone ever gave me access to a time machine. Op Ivy invented the kind of ska-punk that took over alt-rock radio in the late ’90s, but they were always informed by fast, urgent, mouth-frothing early-’80s hardcore in ways that their descendants never understood. With “Crime Pays,” Michaels returns to that primeval hardcore essence, barking hard and melodic and still sounding like he’s maybe 19 years old. [From World Of Burning Hate EP, self-released, out now.]
5. Stepping Stone – “Escape The Junkyard”
When they’re playing fast, the Saskatchewan band Stepping Stone bring a profoundly satisfying thrashy edge to what they’re doing. They chug and shred and chest-thump, and I get excited. But when they slow down? On that breakdown? Motherfuck. They go off. The “Escape The Junkyard” breakdown makes me want to shoulder-tackle an 18-wheeler, knocking it off a cliff so that we can all fall and perish in a glorious fireball. It’s that kind of breakdown. [From Escape From The Junkyard EP, out now on Safe Inside Records.]
4. Entry – “Demons”
Sara Gregory’s voice isn’t a sound that a human being should be able to make. It’s a voice that conjures images of skyscrapers crumbling, of streets dissolving into nothingness, of vast a vast hole opening on the ocean floor and sucking our entire reality down inside it. I don’t care what kind of effects she has on her voice; I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and it’s fucking scary. The Los Angeles band Entry, which includes Touché Amoré guitarist Clayton Stevens among its ranks, makes fast and raw and grimy D-beat punk, and it rules. On “Demons,” their longest song, Entry stretch out and reach some new, transcendent brutality. [From Detriment, out now on Southern Lord Recordings.]
3. Excide – “Actualize”
When a hardcore band tries out a big alt-rock melodies, it plays a dangerous game. If you go too big, you end up with a Foo Fighters song with a mosh-part breakdown, and nobody needs that. If you go too small, you sound tinny and anonymous. If you abruptly change the energy level when the aah-aahs come in, you sound like you’ve awkwardly glued pieces of two songs together. But when it works, it can sound monstrous. Excide, whose members come from North and South Carolina, pull it off by never dropping their energy level and by setting it all to a nasty, ugly vein-slicer of a riff. They keep it mean. [From “Actualize b/w “Radiation Reel” single, out now on New Morality Zine.]
2. Primitive Blast – “Enforced”
Two things about Sydney’s Primitive Blast that you really need to know: (1) They chose the name Primitive Blast, and (2) they live up to it. Their songs are two minutes long, and they sound like gorillas who have been taught to play instruments but who want to end their songs as quickly as possible so that they can get back to beating each other to death. I’d say more, but music like this makes me want to rip off my shirt and jump out a window, not write descriptions of it on the internet. [From Animalistic EP, out now on Triple B Records.]
1. Long Knife – “Night Of The Hunter”
Long Knife sound disgusting. They sound like they’re coated in primordial ooze. They sound like somebody stabbed them in the throat, emptied decades-old ashtrays into the wound, and sewed it back up again. They sound like the leftover biological debris from an ancient Motörhead dressing room came to life after being exposed to radioactive waste. This is the kind of band where you can hear 15 seconds of their music and immediately, viscerally know exactly how everybody in the band smells. These are all good things. Long Knife are fucking great. [From “Night Of The Hunter b/w “Rough Liver” single, out now on Beach Impediment Records.]