The Month In Hardcore: January 2021
The cover of Bad Brains’ 1982 debut album is a picture of a lightning bolt striking Washington, DC’s Capitol dome, shattering it to pieces. It’s one of the most iconic images in the history of American punk and hardcore — a fantastical vision of divine retribution against a symbol of oppression. It hits a tiny bit different right now.
Last week, most of us watched something that looked a little bit like that Bad Brains cover, if the lightning bolt was made up entirely of fascistic dipshits. In a vacuum, the idea of a bunch of people streaming into the Capitol and sending members of Congress scurrying — of a shirtless guy in a viking helmet screaming through the hallowed halls of the American empire — is the stuff of punk-rock fever-dream vision boards. In reality, all these bilious scumbags were demanding more oppression, and some of them seemed to want to kidnap or kill elected officials to get it. A billionaire lunatic, washed in an election, had sent them to install him as permanent leader. It sucked.
This past summer, people from the punk and hardcore scenes were out in the street in droves, protesting against murderous police and all that they represent. In a year when shows had to just stop, the protest movement was a rare and beautiful burst of activity — a moment when punks got to be a part of something good. Now, the people on the opposite site are demanding more murderous police, and by way of making their demands, they’re actually murdering police! Shit is wild! It’s tough to know what to do with this whole mess.
For a little while there, things were getting boring. I thought I might write this column about the weird little instances of mainstream visibility that hardcore has had in the past month — the anachronistic Cro-Mags shirt in Wonder Woman 1984, the Playboi Carti album that shouts out Black Flack and takes its cover-art imagery from the first issue of Slash. Then shit went nuts, and all I want to listen to is music that sounds like the apocalypse. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of that lately.
The boundaries between metal and hardcore have been porous for decades, but these days, it’s like they don’t exist at all. Screamo bands like Respire and Eyelet have lately released great albums that often veer into straight-up black metal territory. The forthcoming records from Portrayal Of Guilt and Enforced are at least as metal as they are hardcore. The Texan death metal band Frozen Soul just released their debut album Crypt Of Ice, and it fucking rules. Crypt Of Ice isn’t a crossover LP; it’s strictly old-school death. But in its directness, and in the ferocity of its riffs, it hits me the same way that a lot of hardcore hits me. And then, holy shit, there’s this new Gatecreeper record.
I should be clear: Gatecreeper are not a hardcore band. They don’t look, sound, or move like a hardcore band. They’ve never pretended to be one. Instead, the Arizona group makes straight-up old-school death metal. Frontman Chase Mason has been up-front about that, and he’s never even been in a hardcore band. In talking about them, I am running the distinct risk of intruding on the Black Market’s territory. (That’s fine. I’m not scared of those guys.) But hardcore loves Gatecreeper, and Gatecreeper loves hardcore.
As with Frozen Soul — or Creeping Death or Devil Master or Tomb Mold or any number of other metal bands — Gatecreeper clearly learned things about impact and directness from hardcore. In the past, Gatecreeper have toured from bands that straddle the metal/hardcore divide: Power Trip, Nails, Code Orange. They’ve played Sound & Fury. Right now, Gatecreeper are booked for a Belgian hardcore festival in June, though I can’t imagine that’s really going to happen.
On Wednesday, Gatecreeper surprise-released their new LP An Unexpected Reality. Mason has insisted that An Unexpected Reality is not an album, and it doesn’t sound like the follow-up to the band’s towering 2019 skullcrusher Deserted. Instead, An Unexpected Reality is a whole other thing. The record is 18 minutes long, and 11 of those minutes are taken up by “Emptiness,” a marathon wallow in funeral-doom grime. That song rules, but it doesn’t belong in this column. The other seven minutes, on the other hand, are a seven-song blitz through crust and grind and extremist hardcore, and that shit rules extremely hard.
Mason has said that An Unexpected Reality is directly inspired by Black Flag’s My War, another album where a great band attempts to find new ways to vent all-consuming rage. Gatecreeper conceived and wrote An Unexpected Reality entirely during the pandemic, when they’d planned to be on the road, and those seven songs are all searing bursts of guttural disgust. Mason is a recovering addict, and a song like “Sick Of Being Sober” is a cold reminder of how much nastier this pandemic has to be for people who can’t self-medicate the way they once could. I don’t have a lyric sheet, and Mason rarely sings comprehensible words, but I think I get the tone. It also comes across pretty clearly on “Superspreader,” which does not sound like a pro-superspreading anthem.
I’m hesitant to call the first half of An Unexpected Reality a hardcore record, but, I mean, it’s close enough. It works as one. When the news cycle is whirling into a psychedelic blur and it feels like nothing makes sense and nobody knows where anything is going, some excellently brutal end-times music like that is exactly what I need in my life.
10. World Peace – “Enough To Make Angels Weep”
This Oakland band’s forthcoming debut album is 20 tracks long, and it might not last 10 minutes. I tend to have trouble getting into ultra-fast power violence because those short, jagged song-bursts sometimes sound like a bit. World Peace don’t make it sound like a bit. Instead, they make sure their power violence is powerful and violent. “Enough To Make Angels Weep” crams a whole song into its 25 seconds, and when those drums hit, it feels like stepping on a landmine. [From Come And See, out 3/12 on Twelve Gauge Records.]
9. Terminal Bliss – “8 Billion People Reported Missing”
In 2002, the Richmond screamo greats Pg. 99 played their final Baltimore show in a DIY punk venue called the Blood Shed. (This is the greatest name for a DIY punk venue that I have ever encountered.) During the band’s set, mid-song, one of the guitarists walked up to me, started yanking at my belt, and then yanked my pants down in front of the whole room. I retaliated. A song or two later, I pantsed that guitarist right back, and the undies came down, too. I did not mean for that to happen, but I’m not sorry. My man was just hanging dong for a few seconds before he managed to get his shit back up. Pg. 99’s membership was always a bit fluid, so I don’t know if that Pg. 99 guitarist was the same one who’s now in the new band Terminal Bliss. But I like that this particular Pg. 99 guitarist is making raw, chaotic basement-punk now, 19 years later. If shows were happening now, and if the Blood Shed still existed, then I would love to go see Terminal Bliss there. Wouldn’t let the motherfucker get anywhere near my pants, though. [From Brute Err/Ata EP, out now on Relapse Records.]
8. The Way – “The Way”
“Consume! Distract! Consume! Distract! This is the way!” There is a non-zero chance that the first song from the one-man Ohio project the Way — and, thus, I guess the entire band itself — is a reference to The Mandalorian. That rules! Even if the point of the song is that I shouldn’t get so excited about consumer-friendly distraction products like The Mandalorian! Anyway, this is fast and grimy early-’80s-style hardcore, and I really like it. [From Demo, self-released, out now.]
7. Victim To None – “Will To Live”
This Salt Lake City band specializes in ignorant juggernaut shit-stompery, and they’re good at it. But I love how the yarling radio-rock vocals suddenly well up on this song, like Layne Staley’s ghost just happened to wander through the studio for long enough to guest on the song. A whole lot of hardcore bands have been playing around with ’90s radio-rock sounds lately. Victim To None don’t really do that. They’re just out here making hooligan music. That makes that brief second of soaring melody sound all the more out of place. I like that! It’s really weird! Works well, too! [From VTN ’20 EP, self-released, out now.]
6. God Program – “26”
Marla Verdoini, leader of the Connecticut/upstate New York band God Program, actually sings as much as she screams, and her voice has a polished gothed-out majesty that’s positively disorienting in the context of this kind of music. I like it better when she screams, though. Everyone in hardcore screams, but Verdoini brings more force and conviction than almost anyone. God Program’s sound is juddering early-’00s metalcore, some real distressed-font black-hoodie music. Have you ever been driving through a rural town and seen some kid in a spiky dog collar and a Slipknot shirt who just radiates resentment at everything around, you included? God Program sound like that kid. [From Forever Lasts Another Year EP, out now on Wretched Records.]
5. Slope – “Purple Me”
Why is this guy doing the Anthony Kiedis frat-surfer quasi-rap cadence, talking about how he’s the funky monkey? And why am I into it? This reminds me a bit of when Turnstile showed up, sounding more than a little like 311 and making it sound cool. Here, we have a German hardcore band releasing a song that truly belongs on the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey soundtrack. There’s also a Sabbath-style guitar solo? I don’t know how I feel about the fact that I love this, but I can’t deny that I love it. [From Street Heat, out 3/12 on BDHW Records.]
4. Black Button – “Casualties Of Progress”
Richmond’s Black Button make art-school hardcore, hardcore that goes for bugged-out and clangorous expressionism rather than elbow-strike force. They’re into jagged post-punk dynamics and garage-rock riffs, and they remind me a lot of Rohnert Park-era Ceremony, which is my favorite version of Ceremony. Just like Ceremony, though, Black Button still bring the elbow-strike force when they feel like it. When this song drops the hammer and speeds up, I want to fistfight a flock of pigeons. [From I Want To Be In Control EP, out now on 11 PM Records.]
3. Thirdface – “Villains!”
The bass is truly disgusting. It’s Unsane shit, shit for picking gravel pellets out of your bloody gums. Everything else about this song matches the gritty immediacy of that bassline, too. There’s just a hint of math-rock in this Nashville band’s attack — in the way they switch up speeds three or four times per song, as if that’s the only way they can properly showcase their freaked-out anger. Singer Kathryn Edwards says that the song is about Fist Of The North Star and wage slavery. I hope the concept of capitalism hears this song and then runs and hides. [From Do It With A Smile, out 3/5 on Exploding In Sound.]
2. Portrayal Of Guilt – “Garden Of Despair”
First, we get the black metal onslaught: “Your faith! Can’t save you! Your prayers! They mean nothing!” Then the clangy noise-rock interlude — the moment for us to let all that sink in. Then the ferocity redoubles. The guitars sound like the buzzing of giant flies in hell. The drums go full blastbeat — jackhammering your brain, not even bothering to keep rhythm. The vocals rasp and screech and sear. The comedown is a solid 30 second of horrible chattering noise. It’s really something. I have heard this album, and let me tell you: This album is about to fuck you up. [From We Are Always Alone, out 1/29 on Closed Casket Activities.]
1. Enforced – “Hemorrhage”
Richmond’s Enforced have always walked the line between thrash metal and hardcore. These days, they’re recording for a big metal label, making a grand and expansive crunch, and summoning demons like they were peak Sepultura. And yet Enforced are still a hardcore band. “Hemorrhage” is muscle music. Every time something changes on “Hemorrhage” — whenever the song speeds up, whenever it slows down — I want to stand on the top of an 18-wheeler as it speeds down the interstate, throwing barrels at cars like Donkey Kong. [From Kill Grid, out 3/12 on Century Media.]