The Month In Hardcore: April 2021
A few weeks ago, the three hosts of the consistently great hardcore podcast Axe To Grind pondered a rhetorical question: Is Regional Justice Center’s new LP Crime And Punishment the biggest powerviolence album of all time? On its face, the question itself seems wrong. Powerviolence is a genre that actively seeks to repel most audiences, that delights in its own inaccessibility. Even within hardcore itself, powerviolence is a forbidding little sub-world. Asking about the relative bigness of powerviolence records feels perverse, almost like comparing the box-office grosses of snuff films.
And yet Crime And Punishment is big, at least by hardcore standards. Upon its release, Crime And Punishment sold enough records to scrape the bottom of one Billboard chart — a week on Top Current Album Sales, where it snuck in at #98. In hardcore, that’s a hit. In the guttural and abrasive world of powerviolence, that’s an unthinkable freak occurrence, a deep aberration. I can’t imagine that the canonized heroes of powerviolence — Crossed Out, Infest, Spazz, Charles Bronson, No Comment — would’ve ever imagined anything like that happening.
It feels absurd to talk about powerviolence having a moment. It feels like an act of direct trolling against a fervently insular and anti-poser music scene, or at least a hacky joke about how short most powerviolence songs are. But in the past few months, a lot of interesting music has come out of that world, and some of it has even made its way to people who don’t know shit about powerviolence. Crime And Punishment is one of the key hardcore albums of 2021 thus far, and there’s more out there, too.
Powerviolence is an imprecise term, and different people have different ideas about what it means. Regional Justice Center leader Ian Shelton has said that his band is really just a fast hardcore band, that the label doesn’t fit. There are probably plenty of strict powerviolence adherents who feel like RJC don’t belong in the genre, either, since their records don’t sound like they were recorded inside dumpsters full of burnt diapers. (Actually, Crime And Punishment sounds fucking great. RJC recorded it with Taylor Young, who produced recent big-deal hardcore albums from people like God’s Hate and Drain and who’s an expert at making grimy guitar crunches sound earthy but larger-than-life. Young used to play in Nails, another big band that, at the very least, is powerviolence-adjacent.)
Briefly: Powerviolence is a wild, mouth-frothing, extremist form of hardcore. The tempos are absurdly fast, to the point where most of the songs are less than a minute long, but those songs sometimes also abruptly switch into disgusting sludge crawls. The vocals are either guttural roars or nasal screeches, and the singers are positively allergic to the idea of melody. The music has plenty of overlap with grindcore, but it comes from a punk sensibility, not a metal one. Most of the time, the lyrics are bitingly sarcastic, militantly leftist, or utterly consumed with depression and self-harm — or sometimes they’re some combination of those things. This is a pretty simplistic overview of a genre that’s developed into its own culture and scene since the early ’90s, but it’s the best I can do.
I’m nobody’s idea of an expert here, at least in part because I find most powerviolence to be wildly unlistenable. This is by design. In a lot of ways, the people who make this music are taking the loud-fast-ugly tendencies of early hardcore to its logical extreme. In the process, they’ve built a world that intersects with present-day hardcore but that also stands apart. Powerviolence isn’t interested in hardcore rituals — the mosh-part breakdowns and dogpile singalongs and stagedives. (In the video of Regional Justice Center playing the This Is Hardcore festival in 2019, you can see people trying to mosh to it but never quite figuring out how that would work.) And yet powerviolence has been fascinating to me ever since I was in high school and I saw my friend’s band open for the pre-Pig Destroyer bands Enemy Soil and Daybreak. I was used to punk shows. I was not used to what I saw there, which looked, at least to my eyes, like grown men beating the shit out of each other to the sound of jet engines vomiting.
Powerviolence has a long, twisty history, as laid out in this essential piece. Plenty of big hardcore bands — Ceremony, Trash Talk, Harm’s Way — started out making powerviolence, or at least powerviolence-influenced music, but they moved on to more crowd-pleasing sounds. Regional Justice Center have done things a different way. Ian Shelton, RJC’s drummer and singer, conceived the band as a collaboration with his incarcerated brother and as a way to rage out at the prison system. Since then, the band’s focus has widened, but Shelton still screams about the ways that the world grinds people down. On the monumental 2020 single “KKK Tattoo,” for instance, Shelton talks about his absent birth father, wondering about how things would’ve had to go differently in his own life to get a racist tattoo like the one his father has.
“KKK Tattoo,” notably, is four minutes long, which makes it a prog-level epic for this genre. (Actually, there is a bit of prog-style fussiness in the way powerviolence bands consistently switch up tempos in jarring, unpredictable ways.) In the pandemic, Shelton has become one of the busiest people in hardcore, and he’s done it, at least in part, by pushing at the boundaries of his chosen subgenre. He teamed up with Justice Tripp, a genuine hardcore giant who’d never previously dabbled in powerviolence, to release a couple of tracks last year. He also started two other bands, Militarie Gun and Sex With A Terrorist. Militarie Gun, whose sound is roughly 500 times more approachable than that of RJC, seems poised to come out of the pandemic as a huge deal.
On Crime And Punishment, though, Regional Justice Center lock in and blurt their way through 10 songs in 13 minutes. It’s an album of surpassing ugliness, but it rips hard enough to convert people like me, posers who typically have a harder time with this stuff. More and more albums are doing the same thing, too. Last month, for instance, the Oakland two-bassist/no-guitar trio World Peace released the intestine-twisting full-length Come And See, a record that’s almost hypnotic in its pure visceral frenzy. Come And See has 20 tracks, and it lasts 10 minutes. It’s impressive.
Meanwhile, the Philadelphia band Drill Sergeant just came out with their debut album Vile Ebb — 13 songs, 14 minutes — which has corroded black metal guitar sounds and snotty-bellow vocals that tie the band directly to early-’80s hardcore in ways that I like. Slowly Falls Apart, the new EP from the Bay Area band Cell Rot, doesn’t do anything slowly, and takes clear and infectious delight in its own over-the-top abrasiveness. There’s even some powerviolence in Gulch’s feverish metallic lurch. You have to be in the right mood for this music, and you have to meet it on its own level. But this overdriven, chaotic sound makes a great vehicle for anxiety, and we live in anxious times. Sometimes, the shit just sounds right.
Age Of Apocalypse – “Greed”
Between the howled-not-bellowed vocals, the squeaky guitar crunch, and the little interlude at the end of the song, “Greed” is about as ’90s-metal as a hardcore song can get while maintaining its integrity as a hardcore song. Age Of Apocalypse come from the Hudson Valley, and they have excellent taste in both band names and X-Men story arcs. They’ve been thriving lately by grooving harder than just about any other hardcore band currently going, and if that means they’re moving fully into the realm of Pantera/Prong groove-metal, then I’m ready for it. [From Pain Of Truth/Age Of Apocalypse split, out now on Streets Of Hate.]
Candy Apple – “Sweet Dreams Of Violence”
Denver’s Candy Apple make legitimately disgusting basement punk. There’s an exhilarating sketchiness to their whole sound — the ’90s noise-rock grime all over everything, the garagey swagger in the riffs, the weirdly triumphant guitar solos, the sarcastic-whine vocals. Even the little bursts of melody are profoundly ugly. The vocals on the “Sweet Dreams Of Violence” breakdown are pretty much just puke noises, and that seems exactly right. [From Sweet Dreams Of Violence, out 4/30 on Convulse Records.]
Chubby And The Gang – “Lightning Don’t Strike Twice”
I have this weird fear that, when live shows return and when Chubby And The Gang make it over to the US, their live shows are going to be full of, like, aging rock critics (ahem) and Reverend Horton Heat fans (also ahem, honestly). I’m already regretting missing my chance to see Chubby And The Gang at a Richmond DIY venue on a weeknight back in pre-pandemic 2020, and if they keep adding bluesy slide guitars and shit, their shows are going to start looking like Hold Steady shows. I love Hold Steady shows, but I never feel like I could get hurt at a Hold Steady show. I hope I didn’t miss my window of potentially getting hurt at a Chubby And The Gang show. Anyhow, this song rocks. [From “Lightning Don’t Strike Twice” b/w “Life’s Lemons” 7″, out 5/28 on Partisan Records.]
Dollhouse – “The First Day Of Spring”
This New York band’s membership includes harsh-music luminaries like Hank Wood, of …And The Hammerheads fame, and Margaret Chardiet, who makes terrifying noise music as Pharmakon. As Dollhouse, they go all-in on sticky, performative sleaze, with the murky production and the whiny vocals and the happily nasty lyrics: “I got you hooked on pills, I needed quarters for the phone/ But I forgot all the numbers of my people back home.” But they’ve got hooks too. They make abject depravity sound like a great time. [From The First Day Of Spring EP, out now on Toxic State Records.]
The Eulogy – “The Trilogy”
It’s not easy to play classic sounds and make them sound new and urgent. For whatever reason, it’s especially not easy when you’ve been playing those classic sounds for a long time. The members of the Eulogy pull it off. People in the Eulogy have been in some hugely important hardcore bands over the years: Madball, Agnostic Front, Throwdown, Mouthpiece. They call Southern California home, but they play old-school New York shit like they mean it. The big gang-change moment on “The Trilogy” — “Who! Are you!” — makes me want to throw D batteries at the windshields of passing cars. [From “The Trilogy” b/w “Bloodstains” 7″, out now on Indecision Records.]
Fiddlehead – “Million Times”
Two fifths of Fiddlehead were in Have Heart, one of the biggest and most influential hardcore bands of this century, but Fiddlehead might not even be a hardcore band. On “Million Times,” they sound like the most muscular thing you might hear late at night on modern-rock radio in 1994, or like the band that gets a good dust-cloud moshpit going at the Lollapalooza second stage even though nobody has heard of them. To tell the truth, I’m not entirely sure Fiddlehead belong in this column. But man, when that bridge just surges up and up, when it turns into a full-crowd-singalong howler? God, I almost feel like I’m alive. [From Between The Richness, out 5/21 on Run For Cover Records.]
Field Of Flames – “My Final Exit”
The San Jose band Field Of Flames makes ’90s-style straight-edge metallic hardcore, and they really make that shit sing. “My Final Exit” is a familiar sort of song, but they play it with passion and energy and conviction, and it’s absolutely satisfying on a primal, bone-deep level. When the breakdown kicks in, when it just gets heavier and heavier, I want to punch a cigarette out of my own mouth. [From Remnants Of A Collapsed Existence EP, out now on Words Of Fire.]
Final Form – “Final Form”
I know precisely zip about these UK crossover thrashers, who only just released their first demo and who must’ve come together during quarantine. But the guitar dive-bombs? The crunch-bounce riff? The fact that the first song on the demo is named after the band? Forget it. This shit goes so hard. Key lyric: “Final Form! Waaooow!” They know what they’re doing. [From Demo, out now on The Coming Strife Records.]
Quicksand – “Inversion”
New York’s Quicksand are the old gods of post-hardcore, the band who basically invented the form as it’s practiced today. Their masterpiece Slip is now 28 years old, and it’s still the blueprint that a whole lot of bands — extremely good bands — still follow. Looking back, it’s downright miraculous that the guy who wrote all the Gorilla Biscuits songs got really into My Bloody Valentine when he did, that he formed the band that he formed, and that he wrote the songs he wrote. “Inversion” sounds like it could’ve come from Slip, from the tidal surge of the riff to the “gooo!” just before the end. When Quicksand can recapture old glories as vividly as they do here, I don’t mind in the slightest that they’re repeating themselves. They could repeat themselves forever, and it would still sound fresh. [Stand-alone single, out now on Epitaph Records.]
Wristmeetrazor – “Last Tango In Paris”
This DC band is on that real mid-’00s eyeliner-metalcore shit, and everything about their presentation — the band name, the singer’s haircut, the way the video gawks at the goth girl — screams Fuse and Hot Topic and Warped Tour. I feel vaguely embarrassed for liking it as much as I do, but wow, I really like it. The low-end riffs will liquidate your bowels if you play them loud enough, and the melody on that chorus makes me want to edit together YouTube videos of anime characters fighting. The guy with the deep, barking voice on the breakdown is Isaac Gale, from Knocked Loose and Inclination. He produced this record, so maybe he’s responsible for making it as heavy as it is. [From Replica Of A Strange Love, out 6/11 on Prosthetic Records.]