The first 50 seconds go something like this: Drums lock into a martial stomp-groove. A bass, its tone grimy and grainy and absolutely disgusting, answers with a snaky, commanding riff. A squall of guitar feedback gives way to a couple of crashing chords. After a moment of clouds-gathering chaos, that guitar joins the bass riff. By then, the whole thing sounds like a giant robot strutting down your street, intentionally crushing every car parked on the block, just to be a dick. Once that riff is firmly established, a mob of voices bellows out three words: “Pain! Of! Truth!” Then they bellow it again, just in case you missed it. That’s the throat-clearing. Once that’s done, the violence can really start.
This is what the Long Island hardcore band Pain Of Truth do in the first minute of the first song on their first album. Once you hear that, you know exactly what’s going to follow. You’re going to hear a whole lot of riffs that are custom-designed to make you want to do terrible things to anyone unlucky enough to be standing near you. You know you are going to hear dudes shout about the other dudes who have betrayed them, let them down, talked shit about them. You know that every song is going to end with the moment where the riff suddenly slows down, to allow for maximum knucklehead behavior. Every last moment in the album is written in the stars. It’s a great feeling.
You can do things with hardcore. You can push the format — add things, take things away, twist a familiar sound into unfamiliar shapes. Lots of great albums have been made by people who were explicitly challenging hardcore orthodoxy, pushing the form as far as it could be pushed. But lots of other great albums have been made by people doing orthodox hardcore as well as it could be done — inhabiting the tropes of the genre, cranking out utilitarian lurching-caveman riffage that’s directed more at body than mind. Both approaches are valid. Both can lead to absolute magic. Pain Of Truth’s Not Through Blood is the second type of hardcore record.
When Pain Of Truth frontman Michael Smith was a little kid, his older brothers Chris and Danny were already playing in Backtrack, a legendary Long Island band that specialized in that kind of down-the-middle stomp-you-out hardcore. I haven’t been able to find it on the internet, but there’s apparently footage of 12-year-old Michael getting up to sing with Backtrack. Freddy Crecien, frontman of the unstoppable New York hardcore institution Madball, has the same kind of backstory, jumping up onstage to sing with his brother Roger Miret’s band Agnostic Front in late-’80s New York. It’s enough to make you wonder what that kind of upbringing might do to a person.
Imagine if hardcore was your native tongue. Imagine if the genre shaped the way that you relate to the world. Imagine it was the only lens you could see through. Maybe that wouldn’t be healthy. Maybe you would start to see betrayal everywhere. Maybe you’d see every minor disagreement as someone who you once trusted stabbing you in the back. Maybe spinkicking and windmilling and headwalking would become sheer muscle memory. But maybe you would also speak the language of hardcore better than anyone else on the planet. Maybe you would understand how to physically embody sounds and sentiments and ideas that might come off rote or cliché from anyone else.
The members of Pain Of Truth have mostly been in other bands: Hangman, Life’s Question, Buried Dreams, Rain Of Salvation, Out For Justice. Plenty of them are still in other bands right now. Michael Smith started Pain Of Truth during the pandemic, and their 2020 debut EP No Blame… Just Facts had guest-singers on every track. “The Test,” the first proper song on that EP, became a kind of underground hit. It had everything you could want from a hardcore song: a necksnap riff, a catchy singalong chorus about motherfuckers turning their backs on you, a bloodthirsty breakdown where King Nine’s Dan Seely screams about how someone else’s flaws are clear as fucking day, a general vibe of extreme and immediate physical danger. When people couldn’t go to shows, a song like that could conjure images of the sheer insanity that it might cause when restrictions were lifted. When those restrictions were lifted, “The Test” caused exactly that kind of insanity.
In October 2021, when Pain Of Truth were finally able to start playing shows, they only had eight tracks out in the world: the five from that EP, a couple more from a split with Age Of Apocalypse, and another one on the One Scene Unity compilation. One of those tracks was just a short instrumental intro. That’s not really enough to fill up a set, even at a hardcore show, but it was enough for Pain Of Truth. For their first two shows, Pain Of Truth headlined the Amityville Music Hall, their local Long Island venue. Both sold out. Soon, Pain Of Truth were playing instantly legendary sets at hardcore festivals. This band connected — not because they broke hardcore rules but because they upheld those rules with rigid, fervent intensity. If you don’t like most hardcore, then you won’t like Pain Of Truth. But if you love hardcore, then this band might speak to something deep inside of you.
I wondered whether a Pain Of Truth album could even work. This band operates in short bursts — focused and concussive two-minute explosions of angry swagger. Pain Of Truth don’t have a lot of range, at least not yet. I don’t even necessarily want them to have a lot of range. But a half-hour record with the same type of song, the same message, being repeated over and over? Wouldn’t that get exhausting? The answer: Sure, yeah, for some people. Maybe even for most people. But if you’re in the mood for some diamond-sharp guttural aggression, then nothing could possibly hit harder.
At hardcore festivals, Pain Of Truth sets are basically parties. On every single track, another singer from another band will take the stage for the breakdown and yell as hard as he can. Sometimes, it’s the singer who appears on the Pain Of Truth record. Sometimes, it’s not. But those guest-vocal parts are crucial for Pain Of Truth, both live and on record. That’s not because Michael Smith can’t carry the band; he absolutely can. Smith delivers all of his lyrics in a clipped, rhythmic bark that’s not quite rapping but also not not rapping. Plenty of the guests on Pain Of Truth songs deliver their lyrics in the same way, and Smith probably learned to sing by listening to some of them. But when more voices crowd the track, it paradoxically becomes more chaotic and more focused at the same time. You get the idea that this music is less one person’s individual creativity, that it’s more the expression of a community coming together.
It’s important to note that this shit all sounds great. Pain Of Truth’s riffs have a real snap to them, a bounce so brittle and unbending that it’s almost funky on its own terms. The band has clearly studied the New York hardcore of the ’90s, the chest-thumping tough-guy style perfected by bands like Merauder, Biohazard, and the aforementioned Madball. (When Freddy Crecien himself lends his roar to “You And Me,” it’s a summit meeting of guys who were jumping up onstage with their brothers’ hardcore bands when they were way too young to be jumping up onstage with their brothers’ hardcore bands.) This is a version of hardcore with barely any remaining connection to punk, and it’s one that doesn’t really overlap with metal, either. It’s just hardcore — its own self-contained universe. Producer Andy Nelson isn’t a New York guy. He’s from Chicago, and he used to front Weekend Nachos. But Nelson knows how to capture this sound, how to make it sound crisp and clear and physical without sacrificing the blood-pounding urgency so important to the genre.
Lyrically, every single song is about your friends betraying you. These are not artful lyrics. They are blunt and direct and maybe over-the-top. “Too big of a bite, bit more than you can chew! Stop coming around with your wannabe crew!” “I don’t need to explain or tell you how I feel! LINYHC, motherfucker! Yeah, you know the deal!” “It’s a long time coming, motherfucker, I was born fed up!” On “Too Late,” Justice Tripp, from Trapped Under Ice and Angel Du$t, comes on to yell about supporting your friends while they struggle through darkness: “You have to find the strength! Find the strength, but I’m right here! Take my hand!” It’s not a new sentiment, but it still feels a bit weird when every other song is about motherfuckers running their mouths.
You could overthink it. Don’t. From a certain perspective, the repetitive and defensive anger of Not Through Blood might seem to advocate a deeply unhealthy viewpoint. It’s the Raylan Givens thing: You run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. You run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole. But that’s not the right way to hear this album. Not Through Blood serves up nothing but well-worn hardcore tropes, and the backstabbing-friend song is as important to hardcore as the puppy-love song is to pop music. What’s great about the album is the hardness of the riffs and the multiplicity of voices all coming together to join Pain Of Truth in that zone — voices familiar from bands like Terror and Incendiary and Mindforce and Vein and, hell, the Movielife.
You get the sense that the Pain Of Truth guys are like little brothers to everyone in the scene, that all these elders are here to support them and cheer them on. When you learn to hear it like that, Not Through Blood isn’t a maladjusted lashout at the world. It’s a celebration. This is how hardcore celebrates. If you can find your way into it, it’s a beautiful thing.
Not Through Blood is out 9/8 on DAZE.
Other albums out this week:
• Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts
• Romy’s Mid Air
• Kvelertak’s Endling
• Kristin Hersh’s Clear Pond Road
• Angel Du$t’s Brand New Soul
• Tinashe’s BB/ANG3L
• Tirzah’s trip9love…???
• Ashley McBryde’s The Devil I Know
• Tyler Childers’ Rustin’ In The Rain
• Anjimile’s The King
• Sparklehorse’s posthumous Bird Machine
• Teezo Touchdown’s How Do You Sleep At Night?
• James Blake’s Playing Robots Into Heaven
• Courtney Barnett’s End Of The Day
• The Chemical Brothers’ For That Beautiful Feeling
• Irreversible Entanglements’ Protect Your Light
• Jonathan Wilson’s Eat The Worm
• Fotocrime’s Accelerated
• Stigmatism’s Ignorance In Power
• Deeper’s Careful!
• Alabaster dePlume’s Come With Fierce Grace
• Dying Fetus’ Make Them Beg For Death
• Róisín Murphy’s Hit Parade
• Icona Pop’s Club Romantech
• Allison Russell’s The Returner
• The Coral’s Sea Of Mirrors
• The Handsome Family’s Hollow
• cursetheknife – There’s A Place I Can Rest
• Joan Osborne’s Nobody Owns You
• V’s Layover
• Royal Blood’s Back To The Water Below
• Steep Canyon Rangers’ Morning Shift
• Puddle Of Mudd’s Ubiquitous
• Yussef Dayes’ Black Classical Music
• Holm’s Alien Health
• Somni’s Gravity
• GAIKA’s Drift
• Walter Etc.’s When The Band Breaks Up Again
• Jalen Ngonda’s Come Around And Love Me
• Almost Nothing’s Almost Nothing
• Talking Kind’s It Did Bring Me Down
• Heavy MakeUp’s Heavy MakeUp
• Blackbird Angels’ Solsorte
• caro♡’s wild at <3
• Andy Taylor’s Man’s A Wolf To Man
• Soda Blonde’s Dream Big
• Noah Gundersen’s If This Is The End
• The Postal Service’s Everything Will Change live album
• Everclear’s Live At The Whisky A Go Go
• The Folk Implosion’s Music For KIDS Reissue
• John Fahey’s Proofs And Refutations
• The tribute compilation A Song For Leon
• Proper.’s Part-Timer EP
• Temps’ After Party EP
• d4vd’s The Lost Petals EP