11/22/2005

I opened my mouth and I found nothing.

I can't remember why exactly this happened, something about making a mixtape for a younger friend who doesn't know that much about the hardcore of the mid-90s I think. But in the last week or so, I've found myself listening to Current incessantly. Current were one of my favorite bands ten years ago, but I can't remember how long it's been since I listened to their music with any kind of regularity. At least five years, I'd guess. Anyway, I had never forgotten how much I loved them, but it was something that was more rationally understood than felt in recent years, so it's been somewhat of a surprise that they've returned to such prominence in my life, and so quickly.

Current were but one of a huge amount of bands coming out of the underground hardcore scene in the mid-1990s who seemed to be modernizing and redefining the entire genre before my very eyes. It was incredibly exciting to me, especially since I was just starting to play music myself, and was also just leaving the comforts of home and school for a much more exciting (in both the good and bad senses of the word) life on my own. To top it all off, the particular style of hardcore that Current and the many bands I associated them with was one that hit very close to home for me, on a level with bands like Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr and Teenage Fanclub, who'd shaken me to the core in earlier years.

What was unfortunate was that the very things about Current's music that made them so exciting and important to me at the time did a lot to draw fire from friends of mine who reacted to music differently than I did. They belittled all of my favorite bands at the time by calling them "emo", a term that was much more obviously a pejorative then than it is now. These days, I am far from giving a fuck about how other people respond to my musical preferences, but I was still a teenager then, and it really bothered me that my friends were so down on my favorite bands. So I would argue with them constantly that what they were calling emo was hardcore, every bit as hardcore as Minor Threat, Black Flag, or Youth of Today. If I couldn't justify this claim on the basis that bands like Current were far heavier than my friends gave them credit for, I would fall back on the argument that hardcore was a mindset, not a sound, and that these bands that I loved were every bit as sincere as the bands my friends called hardcore. I never won those arguments, and I'm sure part of the reason was that I legitimately cared about the things I was arguing, whereas most of my friends were just trying to wind me up (still an easy thing to do even now, infinitely easier then).

The funny thing that I realize now, upon listening to Current again with somewhat new ears, is that they were hardcore, very much so. And this is true even if you use the criteria my friends were using, a solely sonic criteria. This seems to be a typical reaction to bands who are pushing genres of music forward (especially underground ones, such as hardcore); those who are loyal to the genre classify anything too innovative at the time as outside the boundaries of the genre, while the kids who come after them will look at the same bands as seminal pioneers, even as they relegate the innovators of their own time. After all, I've heard older guys who were into hardcore in the late 80s say that when Infest came out, they were death metal, despite the fact that a listen to them now makes it obvious that all that separated Infest from contemporaries like Youth of Today were harsher vocals and more frequent tempo changes. The same is obvious when listening to Current today; apart from the fact that vocalist Matt (bands of the time did not typically use last names in liner notes, and Current were no exception) spent at least half the time either talking or singing rather than yelling or screaming, and that Current were big fans of dramatic pauses, which had been unheard of in hardcore up to that point, their music is not dissimilar from acknowledged hardcore of the time such as Unbroken or Born Against.

That's not to say it was exactly the same, though; Current were not known for their speed, preferring midtempo speeds to the breakneck pace of many of their contemporaries. They also used a lot of octave-based chords, which gave their songs a more melodic sound even though they still structured these chords into very standard hardcore arrangements. But in the end, they were using hardcore chord structures and song arrangements. The songs were reasonably simple, typically relying on a verse-chorus structure, and using no more than half a dozen chords. They didn't mess with complex time signatures or abrupt tempo changes. They just found the rhythms and riffs that felt comfortable, and did their best to express themselves within those. They were playing hardcore.

All of this genre nitpicking would mean nothing if it weren't for the outstanding songs that Current produced. Their discography CD (now just as out of print as the vinyl records it originally compiled) features 24 songs, which were spread across two 7 inch EPs, two split 7 inches, one full-length album, "Coliseum", and three different compilations. There's not a weak track among them. They pack an emotional wallop, both individually and taken as a whole, that was unheard of at the time. Though Matt talked and sang at times, his distinctive moments as a vocalist came when he'd scream furiously, sounding like he was putting every ounce of energy he had into his voice. The musicians knew what a powerful vocalist they were working with, too, if the songs he sang over are any indication. The songs never used the predictable formula of having the singer talk or sing quietly over the calm verses, then switching to heavy choruses and loud screaming. "Leech" features Matt screaming a narrative of alienation and doubt over quiet octave chords that never build up, staying quiet for so much of the song that the listener starts to expect it to stay that way throughout. Then at the very end, as Matt grows quiet, speaking the line, "if you could see past indifference, there is a difference between you and..." suddenly the band slams into a much louder version of the main verse, which they play for only a short time before crashing to a halt. The initial combination of loud vocals and quiet music builds so much tension by that point in the song that when the originally expected but by that point forgotten surge of volume finally hits, it feels like your entire body is going to explode.

The song "Monument" is another example of this sort of tension release, though instead of beginning quiet and remaining so for a long time, this song starts out loud and rocking, with a main verse that is one of the heaviest riffs in Current's catalog. However, Matt sings overtop of it, saving the screaming for the chorus, on which the band pauses completely at the moment of his loudest screams. The song then has a long breakdown towards the middle that seems to be tapering off to a quiet end before slamming back into the chorus. Over the final verse, Matt screams over and over, "This is what I despise! Everything I told you!" so fiercely it sounds like his head should explode.

It's moments like these that endeared me so closely to Current, both then and now. These days I tend to prefer lyrics to tell a story, but when I was 19 years old Current's oblique declarations were pieces of my soul. I wasn't sure what exactly was meant by "Outside Is Better", with it's chorus "but the water is too cold for me to dip my toes." But when Matt screamed it, I felt it. I sang along, lying on my bed in the dark. Sometimes I cried. I guess I was every bit as emo as I didn't want to admit to being. That's OK with me, though, even if I couldn't accept it then. Hardcore is supposed to be the music of sincerity, and Current and their peers (Still Life, Indian Summer, Iconoclast, Policy of 3, and many more) found a way to tap into that on a deeper level that no one had hit at the time. I feel lucky to have been around for that period of musical history, to have seen so many of those bands in their prime and in intimate settings. I never got to see Current, but I have their records, and I'll never get rid of them. A lot of bands running around today calling themselves "screamo" could learn a lot from these guys.

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