The Turnstile Live Experience Is A Beautiful, Bewildering Thing
It’s one thing to know that it’s happening, and it’s another thing to see it for yourself. Turnstile are rock stars now. I mean, they are rock stars. This band, three albums and a decade into its run, fully commands a gigantic room. They have a light show. They have stage moves. They have many, many thousands of people ready to scream when they hit the stage. Turnstile are still a hardcore band. They come from hardcore music. They play hardcore. They conduct themselves as a hardcore band. But people don’t cheer the beginnings of songs at hardcore shows. That is the domain of big rock shows — a riff rings out and the crowd immediately whoops with recognition. That’s happening at Turnstile shows now.
Earlier this year, it was a bit of a story when Demi Lovato posted an Instagram photo of herself posing with Turnstile, calling them her “favorite band.” The reaction was something like: Damn, Turnstile are moving in some wild new circles right now. We didn’t know the half of it. On Sunday night, I saw Turnstile headline the Anthem, a gigantic gleaming room in Washington, DC. Apparently, the Anthem can hold some 6,000 people. It’s five times bigger than the 9:30 Club, the room that Turnstile played earlier this year. Turnstile sold it out. The very next show on the Anthem’s schedule was Demi Lovato. The Demi Lovato show was not sold out. Maybe that’s why Lovato deleted that Instagram post. Maybe she realized that she was endorsing the competition.
When 5,000 people showed up to the Sound & Fury fest in Los Angeles this summer, it felt like a huge victory for hardcore. By most estimates, this was the biggest DIY hardcore festival that has ever happened in North America. The Turnstile crowd on Sunday night was bigger. There are some caveats here. This was effectively a hometown show for Baltimore-based Turnstile, not just another tour stop. Sound & Fury is a DIY festival, and Turnstile’s current tour is decidedly not DIY; it’s as pro as it gets. Turnstile didn’t sell out the room on their own. Openers JPEGMAFIA and Snail Mail, both of whom also claim the greater Baltimore area and neither of whom is hardcore, probably both played for as long as Turnstile, and it was a hometown show for both of them, too. Both openers definitely had fans who weren’t there to see Turnstile and who presumably don’t care about hardcore at all.
Still, it’s an absolute mindfuck to consider the idea that Turnstile are playing to a Sound & Fury-sized crowd every single night. And Turnstile’s crowds will get bigger, too. Two nights after that DC show, we got the news that the band will open every night on Blink-182’s whole North American arena tour next summer. When my wife heard that, she said, “Maybe one of the Turnstile people will get with a Kardashian.” She was joking, but that joke stopped me in my tracks.
I’ve seen Turnstile play to a big crowd before. Last year, Turnstile were the odd band out when $uicideboy$’ Grey Day tour came to Richmond. Those were difficult circumstances for a band like Turnstile. It’s not just that they were the only non-rapper on the bill; they were the only act on the bill that wasn’t on a very particular rap label with a very particular subculture built up around it. Turnstile still did well, but that wasn’t their show. The show at the Anthem was fully theirs. Turnstile’s move toward rock stardom has been happening for a while. They’ve played big festivals. They’ve got hype and critical acclaim and prominent admirers. Apparently, they’re getting played on the radio now. The same night that I saw Turnstile, one of their songs apparently showed up as bumper music on Sunday Night Football — something that I learned by checking Twitter while waiting for Turnstile to come onstage. So the size of this show was not a shock. But it was fucking weird.
The Anthem, I have to say, is a total fucking nightmare. The room itself is cool — big and shiny and efficiently run. The sound is strong. The sightlines are clear. When someone in the middle of the crowd got hurt in the middle of the set and needed to be stretchered out, security was able to rush that person to medical help quickly, without disrupting the flow of the night. Those are good things. But the Anthem is also right smack in the middle of the most bougie tourist hole in all of DC, and that’s saying something. I would’ve had to pay upwards of $48 if I’d parked in the garages near the venue. You can’t find a nearby 7-11 to pregame before the show, but you can buy a $15 quesadilla. The Anthem might be the least hardcore place where I’ve ever attended what’s ostensibly supposed to be a hardcore show, and that category includes church halls and sports bars. The vibe was a lot to overcome. Turnstile overcame it.
It felt like a rock show. That’s the best way that I can describe it. When I was a kid, the venue for big rock shows in DC was this place called the Capital Ballroom, a dank and massive concrete room in the middle of a neighborhood that looked like it had just been through a zombie plague. I loved that room. That’s where I saw Rancid and NOFX and the Deftones and the Breeders. In 1996, when the local outdoor shed venue cancelled the Warped Tour, they moved the Warped Tour to the Capital Ballroom at the last second instead. (I went to what might be the only indoor Warped Tour date in history, which means I went to what might be the best Warped Tour date in history.) The Ballroom seemed huge to me when I was 16, even though it was apparently a lot smaller than the Anthem. But that feeling in the air — mass anticipation, followed by mass catharsis — was what I felt at the Turnstile gig.
You could mosh at the Turnstile show. You couldn’t not mosh at the Turnstile show if you were anywhere near the stage; it was that sea-of-people thing where everyone is jumping around and the mass of humanity gains a will of its own. My friend, who was recovering from a medical procedure, tried to stay at the edge of the crowd, but he kept getting bumped — first by people who realized that the pit was too much and that they needed to escape, then by people who changed their minds and decided that they wanted to charge back in. But the moshing wasn’t hardcore-show moshing. There wasn’t room for people to move like that. I didn’t see one person even attempt a spinkick. There was just too much crowd for anyone to crowdkill.
I can’t really tell you how Turnstile looked on that stage. I kept my glasses in my pocket because I knew I would lose them otherwise, so Turnstile just looked like fuzzy blobs even though I was up close. But they looked like extremely confident, purposeful, energetic fuzzy blobs — fuzzy blobs who kept moving and jumping and careening all over the place. The last time I saw Turnstile headline a show in DC — in a church hall, as it happens — they were just as energetic, and they had room to do more. Brendan Yates executed the best stagedive that I have ever seen in my life. Nobody was stagediving at the Anthem, which means we didn’t have the frantic energy of a classic Turnstile show. But Turnstile are something else now, and stagedives — either from the band members or from anyone else — were simply not a possibility. Instead, Turnstile were a relentless machine. There was great emotion in everything that they did, but they were also sharp and practiced. They have been touring for many years now, and they know what the fuck they’re doing. They’re pros.
The songs sounded incredible. They’ve always sounded incredible, but they sounded especially incredible in this space. Turnstile at that church hall, with the entire room just going off, remains one of the best shows that I’ve ever seen. This wasn’t that; it couldn’t be that. In its own way, though, this was equally impressive. Turnstile’s version of hardcore is frenetic and physical and often very fast — like, Bad Brains fast — but it’s also expansive and welcoming. Their live show is like that, too. It’s an opportunity for mass catharsis — less like a warehouse matinee, more like a Rancid show in 1995. And you know what was fucking awesome? A Rancid show in 1995.
I lost it. I had too much fun. My voice was totally blown out after like three songs. I was drenched in sweat. I was weak with hunger all night — I’m morally opposed to $15 quesadillas — but it didn’t matter. Those songs? Those are great singalong songs. They’re great songs for jumping around in gigantic masses of people. They’re great for lifting some stranger up so that the stranger can crowdsurf. (People used to just ask you to hold out your hands and kind of lift their feet up. This one guy at the Turnstile show, I swear to god, I had to hoist his ass up in the air by myself. Like he was a baby. A full-grown man. The game has changed.) Turnstile know the effect that their songs have. They know how to pace a set. They know when to add in a slower song, an “Underwater Boi” or an “Alien Love Call.” They know when to drop the hammer. In a room that size, their sheer physicality — the thing that always made them such a great live hardcore band — reads as showmanship.
A couple of weeks before that Turnstile show, I saw Vein headline a fairly big room in Richmond. Vein are tour-hardened, too, and they play with a physical intensity that’s not too far from what Turnstile bring. But Vein’s sound is rough and raw and discordant. It can be repellant at times — intentionally so. Within hardcore, Vein are a big deal, big enough to headline a DIY festival on their own, and they’ll probably get bigger. They’re starting to cross over into other crowds; there definitely some weird metalhead kids at that show. But Vein won’t ever be Turnstile. Maybe nobody else will ever be Turnstile. The Turnstile phenomenon is impossible to replicate. They’re the right band at the right time, and they have seized their moment. Many, many people have been looking for something, and they have found Turnstile. Maybe Turnstile have transcended hardcore. Maybe we’ll never get to see them play another room where people can stagedive.
When I was a kid, the hardcore world would’ve turned on Turnstile for the crime of getting too big. That could still happen. It seemed like a bad sign when founding guitarist Brady Ebert left the band a few months ago. (I’m pretty sure Take Offense frontman Greg Cerwonka is still touring with them. If you can get the guy from motherfucking Take Offense as a fill-in, you’re doing pretty good.) I’m sure there are plenty of people in hardcore who think Turnstile are corny now. But Turnstile aren’t corny. Turnstile are incredible. What Turnstile are doing is unprecedented. They’re venturing off into unknown galaxies. All we can do is watch them go.
Adrienne – “Unspoken”
You ever try to sing hardcore? I’m not talking about singing along at a show. I’m talking about imagining yourself as the singer of a band — or actually being the singer of a band — and trying to carry all those riffs with your own scream. It’s hard, and it should be hard. Singing for a hardcore band should be work. You can’t just carry a tune. You need to bring the kind of convulsive roar that can flatten your lungs out and leave you gasping for air. There’s a whole lot to like about Adrienne, a new ’90s-style metalcore band from Massachusetts: Nasty riffs, evil atmosphere, excellently overblown lyrics about weeping at indifference to life or whatever. But my favorite thing is that this motherfucker is really screeching with his entire soul, to the point where I imagine flecks of blood or vomit hitting the mic with every syllable. [From Adrienne EP, self-released, out now.]
Bite The Hand – “Teeth Of Wolves”
More hardcore bands should make music videos. I know it’s a pain in the ass, and I know it’s hard to get any traction online. But a line about “I got eyes and I realize” hits so much harder when you see a mean-looking baldheaded guy screaming it into the camera while pointing at his eyes, with a blunt in between his fingers, in crisp black-and-white. This down-the-middle East Bay mosh music would work just fine on its own, but I’d be lying if I said that the imagery didn’t add some extra juice. I want to imagine that every hardcore band walks down the street with whole mobs of friends singing their songs while pointing baseball bats in the air. With Bite The Hand, I don’t have to imagine anything; I can see it for myself. [From Down Comes The Bay EP, self-released, out now.]
Broken Vow – “The True Believer”
Connecticut’s Broken Vow come from the same general scene and conceptual framework as Adrienne — New England kids making ’90s-style metallic hardcore even though probably none of them were born in the ’90s. There’s a lot to parse there — that instinct for revivalism among people who weren’t around to see the original thing in the first place. But I get it. Those ’90s bands, your Earth Crises and whatnot, come from a time before metalcore was a codified genre, when it was something that they could figure out on their own, and the sincere and overwhelming passion of those records is still palpable. That sound can become a vector for younger kids who have a whole lot of passion, too, and god knows Broken Vow have passion. “The True Believer” has a sick bassline and awesome group-scream vocals and a structure that just works. More than that, though, it sounds like the people who made this music would physically explode into blood-geysers if they did not get this music out into the world. That’s what we came here for, right? We want this shit to mean something. To Broken Vow, this shit definitely means something. [From One Scene Unity: A Hardcore Compilation, Vol. 3, out now on From Within Records.]
Firewalker – “Hell Bent”
I would love to know how Firewalker singer Sophie sounds like that. Maybe she smashes car windows and stirs the broken-glass dust into her ginger ale. Maybe she studies berserker-raging pitbulls with the intensity of Daniel Day-Lewis. Maybe she convinced a doctor to remove her vocal cords and then run them over with a steamroller before putting them back in. Whatever she did, I can only salute her and honor whatever sacrifices she had to make. Firewalker’s stomp-around music might work even with a squeaky chipmunk on the mic, but they make the exact right type of music for a singer who sounds like a feral badger doing a John Brannon impression. [From Demo 2022, self-released, out now.]
Fleshwater – “Kiss The Ladder”
You may ask yourself: Is this even a hardcore song? I may tell you: Shut the fuck up. First off, Fleshwater’s lineup includes two members of Vein. If the people in that band are making music that sound like Deftones and Velocity Girl CDs being fed through a paper shredder, then that’s arguably harder than hardcore. That’s a whole new level of hard. Something about the combination of elements here — the seasick bass churn, the bust-your-head drums, the head-blown alt-rock melodies — works so much better than the sum of its parts. Fleshwater might not make mosh music, strictly speaking, but this song sounds like it’s eating itself, and it threatens to achieve an entirely different form of catharsis. I am very ready for this band’s album to pummel me in as many confusing ways as possible. [From We’re Not Here To Be Loved, out 11/4 on Closed Casket Activities.]
Law Of Power – “Born Into War”
I listened to this song on Bandcamp, and it didn’t quite grab me. Then I watched the video, and that changed real quick. How does something like this happen? How does a video like this get a budget? A lot of Flatspot Records bands have cool videos — look at Speed’s “Not That Nice” — but this is on a whole different level. These motherfuckers are stomping around on skyscraper helipads? And speeding down the LA River in lowriders? And the whole thing is shot like it’s Terminator 2? And also, they’ve got crazy guns in the video? I want to know how this was financed, but I also don’t want to know. It’s none of my business. Forget I asked anything. Also, the video absolutely makes me like the song more. It makes me want to ride into war blasting this song. [From Born Into War EP, out 10/14 on Flatspot Records.]
Militarie Gun – “Let Me Be Normal”
Militarie Gun’s EPs are so good, so compulsively listenable. If this new song is any indication, they’re going even further in that direction, into monstrously catchy rock ‘n’ roll that still scans as hardcore mostly because Ian Shelton yells real loud. “Let Me Be Normal” might be the best straight-up grunge song I’ve heard in years, and the horrifically ugly video leans so hard into those ’90s sensibilities that it makes me want to try to read the articles in Raygun even though the showing-off graphic designers have made that functionally impossible. The future is the past, and the past is the future. Also, that song-title struggle is real. [From All Roads Lead To The Gun (Deluxe), out 10/21 on Loma Vista Recordings.]
MSPAINT – “Acid”
It can’t be easy to be a hardcore punk band from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but it does offer you one great advantage: Nobody is going to put any expectations on you. You can do whatever you want. There are no rules. In isolation, the Hattiesburg punk scene has become a glorious freakshow, full of weirdos like Judy And The Jerks and Control Room. MSPAINT somehow sound like what might happen if Drain got really into mid-’00s blog-house, or if Hot Hot Heat wanted to beat you up. I can’t even process what the fuck they’re doing. It’s so strange, so completely otherworldly, and so good. [Stand-alone single, out now on Convulse Records.]
Punitive Damage – “Drawn Lines”
While Regional Justice Center leader Ian Shelton is off making catchy-as-fuck grunge rock in Militarie Gun, RJC bassist Steph Jerkova is out here sounding like the angriest person who has ever existed. She sounds like she’s levitating, vibrating the air around her, disrupting radio signals through the force of her pure rage. That feeling where you stub your toe really bad, and you look all around for someone to blame? Where it’s clearly your fault but your animal brain wants to unload all its fucking shit on the nearest person for having the temerity to allow that table to be right there, in the middle of that room? Punitive Damage have put that feeling to music, and it sounds amazing. [From This Is The Blackout, out 10/14 on Atomic Action Records.]
Restraining Order – “Fight Back”
You shouldn’t be able to do this. It shouldn’t be possible. The early ’80s already happened. They happened a very, very long time ago. All the early-’80s hardcore songs should’ve already been written. A band in this decade should not have the ability to tap into the feral energy, the swaggering catchiness, or the cartoonishly simplistic urgency of the best early-’80s hardcore bands. They shouldn’t write lyrics that you want to paint on a binder in Wite-Out. They shouldn’t write riffs that sound like they’ve always existed. I don’t know how Restraining Order do it, but I’m constantly delighted that they’re pulling it off. [Stand-alone single, out now on Triple B Records.]