The Month In Hardcore: June 2022

Michael D. Thorn

The Month In Hardcore: June 2022

Michael D. Thorn

Here’s a situation that I wish everyone could experience at least once: It’s a sunny day in Richmond, Virginia, and the heat is unrelenting. You’re walking down the street in a heavily gentrified neighborhood full of nice restaurants and apartments that you probably couldn’t afford. You come across a relatively large and clean and well-appointed nightclub — the place where I took my daughter to see Beach Bunny last year, the place where the Mountain Goats will play the next time they’re in town. It’s got real air conditioning and sleek concrete floors and an impressive array of beers on tap, and it’s not usually open this time of day. You walk in, and you’re immediately greeted by the sound of Protocol, a Tallahassee band that seems to exist mostly to play in grimy, mildewy punk-house basements. It’s disorienting to see a band like that on an actual stage, with lights that flash different colors and everything. This club is not Protocol’s natural habitat. For just this one day, though, they’re at home, and so are you.

One of the things that I love about music festivals is getting to see acts playing on much bigger stages, to much larger crowds, than they’re used to seeing. That happens at the giant festivals, when baby bands get their first taste of something resembling fame, even if they’re playing at noon to mostly empty fields. And it happens, in a different sort of way, at punk festivals, where 19 different bands are supposed to play 15-minute sets on a single stage in a single day. That’s what happened last month in Richmond, when the first-ever Big Takeover festival came to town.

For more than a decade, Richmond was home to United Blood, an important annual event in the world of down-the-middle mosh-it-up hardcore. I never went. The last-ever United Blood went down in 2019, and Floorpunch and Merauder, two foundational East Coast tough-guy bands from the ’90s, were the headliners. In 2020, Converge and Cold World were set to headline, and I’d decided that I was going to stop fucking around and jump into this thing with both feet. The show was scheduled for a few weeks after COVID swept in and shut everything down, and in those disorienting early days, this cancellation was the thing that pissed me off the most. (I was like: “It’s capitalism’s fault!” Don’t ask me to reconstruct that logic.) After that whole thing, the organizers of United Blood decided that they’d had enough, and the festival was no more. Richmond is one of America’s great hardcore cities, and the end of United Blood left a vacuum. Big Takeover is what stepped in to fill it.

Big Takeover is the brainchild of Ace Stallings, a Richmond scene linchpin who helped book the last few United Bloods and who no longer lives in Richmond. Even though he moved across the country in the months before the fest, Ace still got together with Sam Yarmuth, founder of Triple B Records, to put together a weekend that was very different from United Blood in both scope and personality. Big Takeover happened in three venues across two nights. The first of those nights happened two days after Ace’s band Mutually Assured Destruction released Ascension, an absolute motherfucker of a debut album, and it also happened on Ace’s birthday. Herding dozens of bands isn’t how I would choose to celebrate my birthday, but that’s why I’m me and he’s him.

This is a vast oversimplification, but one of the big reasons that Ascension rules so hard is that Mutually Assured Destruction are hardcore dudes playing metal. Ascension has Lamb Of God’s Randy Blythe showing up on guest vocals and songs that break the five-minute barrier. It has big, nasty riffs, and it has shredding. It’s top-shelf stoner music from people who, as far as I can tell, are not stoners. (Ace is definitely straight edge.) Ace knows down-the-middle hardcore as well as anyone, but he’s into other things, too, and the first Big Takeover was an attempt to present a greater united heavy-music landscape to the world.

Plenty of hardcore bands played the fest, but the lineup also had room for scuzzy living-room punk and straight-up extreme metal and plenty of stuff that blurs lines among those categories. For me, one of the highlights of the whole thing was Violent Way, a trio of Buffalo skinheads who play bouncy, catchy singalong oi and who got an elated reaction with a very late Friday-night set. The band’s frontman tried to get people to fill in the horseshoe pit by telling the crowd that they’re “not a fucking hardcore band,” but they still got a hardcore band’s welcome. People couldn’t wait to jump on each other’s heads to that shit.

Sonic diversity can be a tricky thing when it comes to hardcore, a genre where small differences matter. But these shows really did jump around in some cool ways. I am not a death metal or grindcore guy. I skipped grind legends Terrorizer, the headliners of the whole event, because I was tired and I didn’t think there was any way they could be better than Mindforce, the band who played right before them. But DC’s No/Mas, a grind band who play super fucking fast in a way that makes sense at a hardcore show, were a bit of a revelation, and there’s no way I would’ve seen them if they hadn’t been booked at this fest.

The sonic outliers that I liked the best were the basement-punk bands — the bands whose records are often reverbed-out and lo-fi but who hit whole new energy levels live. Bib, from Omaha, dress like mystic hippies, but they play fast and frantic and guttural; I was practically levitating during their set. New Jersey’s Gel might’ve been even better — a heaving, gasping runaway rock ‘n’ roll beast of a band that turns primal simplicity into a weapon.

On a weekend crammed full of bands, it helps to have a lead singer who can stand out as a performer. This is why you rarely see hardcore bands where the singers also play instruments. They need to be out there, moving around, doing the thing. Ace Stallings himself is a vivid, physical presence onstage. He’s excited to be there, and that should be enough to make you excited to be there. Some bands, like Boston’s C4 and Baltimore’s End It, have frontmen who are just full-on characters. C4 has a big, mean-looking fucker who never stopped rocking the hoodie/bandana/Tims ensemble even on a day that was hot as balls and who grunted about “fuck Jimmy Butler” in a metal voice between songs. End It has Akil Godsey, an absolute force of nature. As End It took the stage, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” played over the house speakers, and Akil sang along with the whole thing, beautifully, before launching into the band’s first minute-long tantrum. He also made multiple suicide jokes and claimed that his band’s set would be “the worst 15 minutes of your life.” I wish.

But it wasn’t necessary for the bands at the Big Takeover to have outsized-character singers because it wasn’t really necessary for bands to stand out. There was a sense that everyone was in it together. The festival didn’t go according to plan because it couldn’t go according to plan; there was just no way. A couple of the California bands on the bill, Dead Heat and Spy, had to cancel at the last minute because plane tickets had just gotten too expensive, and nobody was mad about them missing the show. Everyone understood. Judiciary, from Texas, did manage to make it, and they played a head-buster set even though travel hassles meant that absolutely nobody in the band slept the night before. The fact that they made it, getting through all that for what I can’t imagine was a major payday, made their set that much more special. (Expect the astronomical surge in gas prices and air-travel costs to wreak havoc on the DIY-touring economy in the months ahead. When a band you like does come to your town, you better fucking go see them while you still can.)

Festival chaos led to some of the weekend’s best moments, too. At the late-night warehouse show, I found myself losing track of which band was which, since so many unannounced acts jumped on at the last minute. Ideation, from Florida, weren’t on the bill, but they still had the room exploding with their Agnostic Front cover. At the big show on Friday, Richmond OGs Naysayer used the instruments from fellow locals Downfall to play a furious spur-of-the-moment surprise set. They didn’t have time to practice beforehand, and they didn’t even have all the members of the band there, but they had enough friends who knew how to play their songs that they were able to throw something together. They fucking ripped it, too.

Here’s something that I haven’t properly disclosed in this column: I’m not really a mosher. I love the energy of a pit, but I’m also an old man who values his physical safety a little too much. My usual move is to stand near the pit, so I can absorb the occasional errant limb and feel the chaos roiling around me without worrying too much that I’m about to die. (The last time I pulled off a stage dive, I was in ninth grade. I am a gigantic human being, and nobody needs to break my fall.) After two days of the festival, though, I was done with avoiding the storm. Two of my favorite bands were playing near the top of the bill on Saturday, and I made up my mind that I was getting in there.

Richmond’s own Division Of Mind are masters of towering sinister crunch, and I love them without reservation. When they played, I’d blown at least a utility bill on band merch, thinking I could go dump it in my car before learning that the club had a no-reentry policy after a certain point in the evening. So I was in there, just flailing around with a big grip of T-shirts, doing my best to look mean. I had this idea that if I planted my feet and believed with all my heart that I belonged there, nobody would directly attempt to kick me in the throat or anything. I’m a big guy, right? A guy who you might not kick in the throat for no reason? Well, I didn’t get kicked in the throat — nobody’s that limber — but I did take a pretty good backfist to the clavicle within two songs. It still hurt the next day, but I wasn’t even remotely mad. Didn’t leave, either. Caught a few more elbows here and there. That’s part of it. Once you get into the right headspace, it’s genuinely fun to absorb a couple of shots and keep going.

For me, and probably for a whole lot of other people in the room, the highlight of the weekend arrived when the Hudson Valley’s Mindforce, a perfect band, took the stage. I can’t tell you too much about what happened during Mindforce’s set. It’s all a blur. I can tell you that my heart grows three sizes whenever I hear “Excalibur.” I’d been waiting a long time to scream that song in a room full of people, and it felt like a promise fulfilled. I can also tell you that one guy got down on all fours in the pit and that his friend then took a huge running leap off of his back and into the crowd on the outside of the pit — full-on Hardy Boyz crowdkilling. Craziest thing I’ve seen at a show in I don’t know how long. Breathtaking shit.

Before the Big Takeover, I hadn’t been at any kind of punk festival in more than four years. A festival like that is a lot. It’s a full-immersion experience, and it can be a little overwhelming. Returning to everyday boring-dad life after the fest was an adjustment. I didn’t listen to too much hardcore in the days after the fest, and I didn’t even go see Turnstile in DC a week later. (I wish I’d had enough gas in the proverbial tank for that show. The reports from the Turnstile show have been rapturous. You’ve just got to know your limits.) But if you care enough about this music — and if you’ve read this far down in the column, you clearly do — then you owe it to yourself to make the pilgrimage, at least once, to Sound & Fury or LDB or FYA or This Is Hardcore or one of the many other multi-day extravaganzas that this world has to offer. A festival like that is a commitment, and it’s worth it.

Amygdala – “Darvo”

DARVO is a legal strategy that stands for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.” If you’ve done some foul shit, then your lawyers are using DARVO when they flip things around and make it look like your victim is really victimizing you. This strategy can work; we all just saw it happen with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. It’s some disgusting bullshit. San Antonio’s Amygdala are one of the best heavy bands going at least in part because they’re geniuses at conveying disgust. They have been ready for this moment. [From Besitos Para Todos Mis Haters two-song single, out now on Disquera Del Barrio.]

End It – “New Wage Slavery”

Look: Baltimore has its problems. Watch We Own This City and you might get the sense that Baltimore is a broken system that can never be fixed. You might be right, too. But Baltimore is also the greatest city in the world. Akil Godsey could’ve never come from anywhere else. Neither, for that matter, could the legend Justice Tripp, who guests on this particular ripper. I could come from Saskatchewan, and I would still feel like my blood is on fire when I hear this. But I come from Baltimore, and let me tell you, this shit hits ultra hard. [From Unpleasant Living EP, out 7/8 on Flatspot Records.]

Final Gasp – “Homebound”

Final Gasp played the Big Takeover fest, and I didn’t mention them once in this whole long-ass piece because they almost seemed somehow separate from the thing, like I was swept away to another place while they were playing. Final Gasp come from Boston and play gothed-out metallic-chug shit that sounds almost exactly like Samhain, so it’s not like they didn’t belong. But on a show where theatricality was in short supply, where every single person in every band probably either holds down a day job or is too unemployable to hold down a day job, these motherfuckers all came out onstage in black jeans, no shirts, covered in fake blood. It’s a pure gimmick, but the gimmick is so cool. “Homebound” sounds like a song made by guys covered in fake blood, so it obviously rules. [From Homebound two-song single, out now on Tribe Dream Records.]

Foreseen – “Oppression Fetish”

Lots of bands have spent the past few years messing around with ’80s crossover thrash sounds and imagery. I love a lot of those bands, but most of them don’t make me feel like I’m skateboarding down the face of a collapsing skyscraper as flying saucers death rays immolate the entire city behind me. Finnish monsters Foreseen, though? They do that, and they almost make it look easy. [From Oppression Fetish, out later this year on Quality Control HQ.]

Gillian Carter – “Quit trying. You failed.”

I continue to believe that hardcore and screamo are essentially the same thing, even if they don’t really want anything to do with each other and even if screamo can be gratingly pretentious and hardcore can be gratingly allergic to perceived pretension. Orlando’s Gillian Carter are a band, not a person, and that alone is probably pretentious enough to bother a whole lot of hardcore heads. But they’re a sick-ass fucking band, and this is a sick-ass fucking song. That should be enough. That chug? There’s nothing post-anything about that chug. [From Songs Of Summer two-song single, self-released, out now.]

Iron Deficiency – “Locked In”

I can’t imagine that it’s easy to be straight edge anywhere. (I don’t know because I never tried it.) But it’s got to be especially hard to be straight edge in France, a place where, as I understand it, they start feeding you red wine when you’re in the womb. Maybe that’s why Iron Deficiency sound so fucking angry. Maybe that’s also why this makes me feel like I could punch a hole in the sun. [From Promo 2022, out now on Patient Zero Records.]

Life’s Question – “Mellow My Mind”

How many hardcore bands have managed to figure out a perfectly ugly squeedling guitar sound? Not many. Plenty of hardcore bands have ugly guitar sounds, but that’s mostly not intentional. With some of the riffage on “Mellow My Mind,” Life’s Question, from Chicago, enter the Mindforce zone. I love how the guttural breakdown on this one gets just slightly psychedelic but still makes me feel like I got kicked in the stomach so hard that I’m choking back vomit. [From The World Is…, out 8/8 on Triple B Records.]

Raw Brigade – “Latinos”

You can still write an anthem. Nothing’s stopping you. Nobody’s too smart for a good anthem. Colombia’s Raw Brigade aren’t a terribly original band. They keep everything in unadulterated early-’80s ripshit mode, and they bring severe disgust to a phrase like “living in society.” That fucking rocks. An anthem doesn’t have to be groundbreaking to work, especially if it’s an anthem for some of the vast numbers of people who didn’t necessarily get their own hardcore anthems in the early ’80s. There were tons of Latino bands in early-’80s hardcore, but I can’t think of any of them that specifically made anthems about being Latino. Raw Brigade aren’t scared to do exactly that. [From Aggressive City, out now on Cash Only Records.]

Speedway – “Balance”

It’s a little confusing that we’ve got one international hardcore band called Speed and another one called Speedway and that they’ve both got new music out this month. But the two bands both stomp ass, and they sound nothing like each other, so I guess we’ll all get used to it. You don’t have choose between Speed, from Sydney, and Speedway, from Stockholm. But Speedway go for that melodic Turning Point youth crew sound, and that just about always works for me. You could probably convince me that “Balance” was a new One Step Closer song, and I could always use a new One Step Closer song, whether or not it actually comes from One Step Closer. [From Paradise EP, out now on Revelation Records.]

Sunami – “Fake Blood”

I would love to tell you how this song sounds, but I can’t. Every time I play it, I magically transform into a gorilla. I lose all facility for spoken language beyond belches and screeches. (I know a couple of signs, which seems to really impress everyone, but I don’t know the sign for “this song, graaaaagh, play again.”) I lurch around my office on my knuckles, foraging for bamboo shoots to eat. I throw books in the air and scare my cats. I fashion rough tools out of bark. People marvel at my physical strength and my silent dignity, and they launch charitable efforts to protect me from poachers and deforestation. It fucking rules. [From LP Promo, out now on Triple B Records/DAZE.]

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