Home Front’s Hardcore Synthpop Makes Perfect Sense, Somehow

Michael D. Thorn

Home Front’s Hardcore Synthpop Makes Perfect Sense, Somehow

Michael D. Thorn

I’ll be honest: I have no idea whether it’s even a good idea to talk about Home Front as a hardcore band. They don’t necessarily carry themselves as a hardcore band, and they don’t necessarily define themselves as a hardcore band. (Home Front’s Bandcamp tags include the probably-made-up genre name “bootgaze”; they do not include “hardcore.”) They do move like a hardcore band onstage — or, at least, some of them do. One of them remains parked behind a rack of synths and drum machines, but he rocks out the way people in hardcore bands rock out. In recent months, Home Front have gone out on tour with Fucked Up, Poison Rüin, and Alkaline Trio — not hardcore bands, but not not hardcore bands. So maybe they’re not a natural fit for this column, but they’re not a natural fit for anything. That’s one of the reasons that they’re so cool.

Home Front come from Edmonton, and their aforementioned synth player Clint Frazier used to be in Shout Out Out Out, an early-’00s dance-punk band who I’d completely forgotten about until I started seeing the name again in Home Front’s press mentions. Home Front have only been releasing music since 2021, but they already have a sonic identity that’s hard to define and even harder to describe. It’s an extremely fun combination of fists-up gang-chant street-punk and sleek, brooding, gothed-out synthpop — something like what might’ve happened if Depeche Mode had gotten really, really into the Cro-Mags and the Business in 1986. Obviously, that would’ve been fucking awesome.

When Home Front released their full-length debut Games Of Power earlier this year, I thought it was cool — a fun genre-exercise combination that fit somewhere between the blazing hardcore-informed alt-rock of High Vis and the churning dark oi of Syndrome 81. I wasn’t wrong, necessarily, but I was underrating them. Games Of Power hasn’t left my rotation since it came out, and I like it more every time I hear it. It might be one of my favorite albums of the year at this point, especially now that I’ve gotten to witness Home Front in person.

Last Saturday, Home Front came to Richmond as part of an absolutely stacked one-off bill full of bands from across the punk-rock spectrum. Vinyl Conflict, our excellent punk-centric record store, threw itself a 15th-anniversary show, and the lineup was full of acts who would’ve probably never played together in any other situation. Bills like this one are so rare, and I wish we got more of them. I have a hard time getting excited for shows where all the bands are playing guttural basement punk, or where they’re all doing death metal-influenced hardcore, or where some other niche subgenre defines the entire evening. But when you can get post-punk and garage rock and all-out ignorant hardcore bands in the same room on the same night, that’s a good time. That feels almost utopian. (Vinyl Conflict owner Bobby Egger is a big booster of everything that falls under the punk banner, and he’s one of the people singing into the mic in that photo up there.)

The birthday party happened at the Broadberry, a big club with a general vibe — brushed-concrete Chipotle-franchise decor, cranked-up air conditioning, multiple chandeliers — that doesn’t necessarily scream “hardcore show.” But I’ve seen a lot of hardcore shows at the Broadberry, and the venue does what it can to make itself accessible to this kind of crowd; I’ve never, for instance, seen a barrier between the crowd and the stage there. (Also, per Jeff Rosenstock’s Twitter, it’s apparently one of the few decent-sized venues that doesn’t try to get a piece of touring bands’ merch revenue.) I missed local openers Loud Night, but I saw six bands on Saturday, and three of them had keyboard players. That could just be an indication of Bobby Egger’s taste, but it feels significant.

I made it in time to see the Mall, a difficult-to-Google duo of St. Louis longhairs who make icy and forbidding darkwave. It felt like whiplash when the show went straight from them into local institution Bracewar, a band that’s been making down-the-middle fastball hardcore for nearly two decades. Bracewar frontman Ryan “Braces” Wall seemed a little stressed that the half-empty room didn’t turn into an all-out murder pit as soon as his band started, but it was still viscerally satisfying to see Bracewar do their thing, especially given recent events. Earlier this year, bassist Cody Mollen had to get emergency surgery for a brain tumor, and the community rallied around him. A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $50,000 for his expenses, and the surgery was successful enough that Mollen got to play his own benefit show in July. I love seeing stuff like that.

Things did get into murder-pit territory when End It played. It’s such a privilege to live in the East Coast corridor when End It are running wild. This was my third time seeing them this year, and they basically play the same set every time. That’s not a complaint. I’d watch that set every weekend if I could. Part of it is that the set is so fucking good. I feel like I’m getting hit by lightning every time I hear the “Lifer” riff. Part of it is that I can never predict the slight variations — the wild shit that Akil Godsey says between songs and the non-hardcore song that Godsey sings at the beginning of every show. (This time, it was the Smiths’ “Ask.”) And part of it is that I have no idea what the crowd is going to do. You can’t really watch End It when you watch End It. You have to watch the crowd because someone is probably going to crash into you headlong, or maybe wade into your area swinging fists. You need to stay alert. It’s part of the fun. It’s part of what makes you feel alive.

Nobody was throwing any elbows to Chain Cult, and I almost wished they were. I never thought I’d get to see Chain Cult, the Greek post-punk band who’d always seemed slightly mysterious. Before Saturday, I didn’t know how many people were in Chain Cult, or what Chain Cult looked like. (Turns out: There’s three of them, and the guitarist has Sideshow Bob hair.) Chain Cult were supposed to come over to play the Damaged City Festival in 2020, and that obviously didn’t happen. I’m pretty sure they’re on their first American tour now. When I bought a shirt from the aforementioned guitarist, he said that it was “very difficult” for them to get over here, and I don’t fucking doubt it.

Chain Cult’s sound is stark and spacey and mean. It’s all cold and forbidding, but it’s also fast and catchy. There are all these splintered surf-guitar parts that click right into place with the shouty-chanty vocals. They’re the only band who reminds me of Joy Division and Agent Orange at the same time. Chain Cult weren’t one of the bands with a keyboard player, but they easily could’ve been. Nobody moshed to Chain Cult, and maybe that’s just because their music doesn’t actively encourage moshing. But they sound cool as hell, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to see them for myself.

I’d already seen headliners Hank Wood And The Hammerheads, but I hadn’t seen them in the right circumstances. The Hammerheads are veteran garage-punk party monsters from the Brooklyn warehouse scene. The one time I saw them, it was years ago at the Basilica Soundscape festival, and they played in the middle of the afternoon while people watched them from bleachers. That means I didn’t really see them. The Hammerheads’ guttural scratch-‘n’-bash only really works when they play late at night, to a crowd that’s ready to party.

In Richmond, that was what they got. Their feverish organ-laced rave-ups only barely qualify as songs. (My favorite is the one that goes “Hey! You! Get out of my house! Get out of my house!” Just that, over and over.) Those tracks function as excuses for people to jump around and get sweaty and fall off of stages, and that’s what the people of Richmond did for them. A Hank Wood And The Hammerheads moshpit is never scary. It’s just happy. This might’ve been an anniversary party for a record store, but this was music that can’t really translate on record — music that only makes sense when you’re one of the people sweating.

I was into every band I saw at the Vinyl Conflict anniversary show, but Home Front was the band that really spun my head around. Singer Graeme McKinnon, formerly of the Edmonton oi band Wednesday Night Heroes, basically made the crowd ratchet its energy up at least three notches through sheer force of will. McKinnon is a force of nature onstage. The music can be intentionally cold and remote, but McKinnon comes out there throwing flying kicks and swinging his mic around like Roger Daltrey, and his vital, physical presence gives the music a force and immediacy that makes everything click into place. He can change a room’s energy on his own, and that’s a rare skill. McKinnon is fun to watch, even if your mind struggles to make sense of what it’s seeing. It’s not everyday that you see a guy in a beret and a dangly earring and think, “I bet that guy can fight.”

Home Front’s records are great, but their live show is incredible. They’ve got the songs and the swagger to be absolute fucking titans, and it’s a blast to be in a crowd that’s figuring that out in real time. Maybe we’re about to see a whole wave of synthy post-punk bands playing hardcore shows, or maybe Home Front are a glorious fluke. Either way, they’re a band you should go out of your way to see.

Broken Vow – “Reversal”

I’m about to spoil the 2017 film First Reformed. When the movie reaches its wild-ass conclusion, Ethan Hawke’s pastor is so frantically upset about environmental devastation that he wraps himself in barbed wire. It won’t change anything, but it’s either that or blow himself to pieces. New England’s Broken Vow seem to know exactly how he feels. The band is working in a well-established tradition, using the ’90s metallic hardcore of Earth Crisis and Strife to warn humanity of its own self-destructive spiral. On “Reversal,” though, they sound more like guys trying to choose between the bared wire and the explosive vest. [From Anthropocene, out 9/29 on Triple B Records.]

Cosmic Joke – “Empty Nesting Doll”

The guys who sang in early-’80s California hardcore bands, the Keith Morrises and Jello Biafras of the world, mostly sounded like total assholes, like little kids making fun of you on the playground. That vocal style mostly migrated over to pop-punk when hardcore became the domain of bruisers, but LA’s Cosmic Joke bring snotty nastiness back to hardcore without importing even a smidgen of melody with it. It’s music that hits you in the face with bricks while viciously mocking you, and that’s exactly why it’s great. [Stand-alone single, out now on Triple B Records/Hardlore Records.]

Cut Piece – “Accept Defeat (Don’t Sabotage Me)”

I have this mental image of Portland, Oregon as the most bougie place on the planet, but recent events led me to wander around that city’s downtown area very late at night, and it looked like about 80% of the city’s population was unhoused. I realize that I did not get a complete and holistic view of Portland life from that experience, but it did give me some idea why Portland residents might want to start a grimy, angry old-school hardcore punk band like Cut Piece. Also, Powell’s only had one copy of my book, and it was way back in some dusty-ass corner, which made me want to join Cut Piece. [From Cut Piece EP, out 9/22 on Dirt Cult Records.]

Doomsday – “Inherit The Flesh”

The cartoonish thrash metal album covers of the ’80s were supposed to be fun. You’re not supposed to want to become a screaming skull, captured in paint forever as the blast of a nuclear bomb melts all the flesh off of your face. You’re not looking to get pulled apart by hooks or eaten by demon-dogs. But when you paired it up with the music, that imagery always looked pretty fun. Like: At least that wouldn’t be a boring way to go. When it worked best, that music captured the sensation of being impaled by skeletons wearing bandannas and upturned baseball caps without suffering or bleeding or dying. Doomsday, triple-guitar crossover-thrash marauders from Oakland, capture that ecstatic death-drive better than most. [From Doomsday EP, out now on Creator-Destructor Records.]

For My Sins – “Cult”

It’s hard to find much info on For My Sins. When you’ve got an ultra-generic name based on something that people say while praying, you’re going to become a little more mysterious, if only because you’re going to be functionally impossible to Google. Maybe that’s by design. Maybe you want people’s imagination to run wild. If you’re an unsearchable South Florida band who makes music like this, maybe you want people to think that you’re a group of mutated alligators who discovered a pile of discarded instruments in a sewer and who used them to warn the world of their impending revenge. But no, I found a live video of the band playing at a sports bar in July, and For My Sins are not alligators. They’re humans. Sorry to disappoint. [From You Will Not Be Saved EP, out now on KOTP Records.]

Insane – “Spit It Out” (Feat. Fatty Bastard)

Look: They’re called Insane. They’re from Indonesia. They sound like they have listened to nothing but Trapped Under Ice since they were toddlers. Their song “Spit It Out” has this lyric: “The world we live in are rude motherfuckers! Don’t you hide in your hood!” It also has this lyric: “Don’t weak those knees for begging, please!” There is a guest on this song named Fatty Bastard. I am charmed. Are you not charmed? And anyway, they’re right! The world we live in are rude motherfuckers! [Stand-alone single, self-released, out now.]

Prevention – “Will We Ever Recover”

I know absolutely nothing about Prevention except that that they’re from Springfield, Illinois and I guess they’re straight-edge. That’s fine. Honestly, I don’t even need to know that much, and neither do you. I’d rather make up my own stories about Prevention. In my mind, they are all 12-year-olds, and they’re the angriest 12-year-olds you ever met in your life. Their parents bought them instruments because the only other things that they like to do are stabbing the couch with scissors and playing Rocket League, howling spit-filled cusswords at window-rattling volume whenever they lose. This is probably completely wrong, but I’d rather not know the truth, so don’t correct me. [From Split The World EP, out now on Delayed Gratification Records.]

Private Hell – “Tower Of Silence”

Private Hell are from Richmond, and I know singer/guitarist Mikey Kent and drummer Sam Roberts a little bit. I don’t know them super well, and the only time I’ve been to either of their homes was when Robert used to book shows at the Charlottesville punk house that got shut down because it got sold during COVID. But I know them well enough to make conversation at shows or whatever. They’re guys. They’re around. They’re not larger-than-life metal-punk road warriors with their enemies’ shrunken heads impaled on the shoulder-spikes of their battle-vests. But they sound like larger-than-life metal-punk road warriors with their enemies’ shrunken heads impaled on the shoulder-spikes of their battle-vests, and when sound like that is coming from people who you know a little bit, it’s somehow even more impressive. [From Days Of Wrath EP, out 9/29 on Persistent Vision Records.]

Slant – “Criminal”

I turned 44 last week. That’s a good thing. It means I’m old as hell, and it limits the amount of damage I can do. If I was much younger, I would not be allowed to listen to “Criminal.” I wouldn’t allow myself to listen to “Criminal.” I’d hear that molotov-cocktail guitar and that feral-screech voice, and you’d have to lock me in a cage like I was Oz, the werewolf from Buffy. At this point, all I’m going to do is throw my laptop at the floor. (I’m not going to say that’s why the column is late this month, but it didn’t help.) Slant come from Seoul, and they make old-school hardcore punk better than just about anyone else on the planet. If you’re younger than me — and you probably are — proceed with caution. [From Demo 2023, self-released, out now.]

Soul Glo – “If I Speak (Shut The Fuck Up)”

Earlier this year, Pierce Jordan got virtually butt-ass naked while playing Coachella. In a few weeks, the world is going to hear him screaming on the new album from Armand Hammer, the best underground rap group in the world. Jordan doesn’t need anyone’s permission to talk his shit; he’s been talking his shit since Soul Glo were playing basements. But now, when he talks his shit, people need to shut up and listen. That’s especially true when Jordan’s shit-talk is this vivid: “You fuckin’ up the bag and you think you being real! Always the stirrer but never the shit, how does it feel?” And it’s especially true when he’s screaming his shit-talk over a riff that sounds like a flaming ceiling collapsing on your face. This month, Soul Glo are on tour with Zulu. I’m going to miss it, but you shouldn’t. [Stand-alone single, out now on Epitaph Records.]

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