Show review: Wardance Orange, Tri-State Killing Spree, Wow Owls, The Catalyst.

This show happened on Friday, December 16th at the Nanci Raygun in Richmond. I am only getting around to writing about it now--sorry about that. The whole thing was pretty crazy and exciting for me, since it involved the band I was in for 7 years getting back together and playing a show for the first time in three years. Because of that, I probably won’t give it the best review I possibly could, but I’m still going to give it a shot.

The Catalyst started things out. They got added to the show at the last minute after Vindication were forced to bow out. This was a shame, since Tri-State Killing Spree played a lot of shows with Vindication back when we were around, and I was really excited to play with them again. Vindication bassist Michael Backus still played the show, but as a member of The Catalyst, whom he’s just joined on bass. In fact, I believe this was his first show with The Catalyst. You couldn’t tell from watching them, though; they were as good as ever. Strangely enough, they decided to play on the stage, a move they generally forgo due to their having two drum kits. I’m sure they gave the sound man fits, but he found a way to mike everything, and they played a tight set. The Catalyst are quite original in sound, mixing modern hardcore with a post-grunge style that resembles Nirvana in a way that none of the second and third wave grunge acts of the mid-90s were ever able to pull off. As far as I can tell, the factor that makes the crucial difference is that The Catalyst are taking influence from the more punk-oriented elements of Nirvana’s sound, as opposed to the 70s rock elements that were what all the grunge acts took away from them. The Catalyst’s set consisted mostly of new material, with two songs from their outdated first CD, "A Hospital Visit", thrown in. Rhythm guitarist/second drummer Jamie Faulstich has joined since the recording of that CD, and he adds a lot to their sound, especially on "Chronic The Hedgehog", an old song that has taken on a whole new dimension with the addition of Jamie’s second drum kit on the last half of the song. The jam on this song extended for about 8 minutes and surprised a lot of the crowd, most of whom hadn’t seen The Catalyst before. Hopefully they blew all of those people away, as this was one of the better sets I’ve ever seen them play, and by rights they should have knocked the whole place on their asses.

Next up was Wow Owls, and I feel bad saying this, but I was so nervous due to my band’s playing next that I saw almost none of their set. What little I caught rocked; they played at floor level, which is ideal for them, and Jeff went apeshit as usual. Jeff’s stage presence makes him one of my favorite frontmen in hardcore today; I love the way he’s simultaneously nerdy, spastic, and totally heartfelt in his performance. I’ll miss seeing these guys once they break up.

After that, Tri State Killing Spree played. I don’t remember much of our set, but I do know I fell down during the first song, and also that I accidentally spit on my own leg twice. Thank God I was wearing long pants.

Wardance Orange played last, and were the first band to play at stage level since The Catalyst. This was ideal for them, just as the floor had been ideal for us. It was pretty amazing seeing these guys get up there and play these songs again after not having played together for upwards of 7 years. All four band members dressed identically in black, and Chuck in particular seemed really excited to be playing again. I know KC has a band, though I don’t know what they’re called, but I don’t think any of the other guys had played music in public anytime in the last few years. They’d obviously been practicing, though, as there was no loss in proficiency or tightness between the last time I saw them, in 1998, and this show. They neglected a lot of their earlier material in favor of later songs that I wasn’t too familiar with, which I was sorry to see, but I ended up liking the later stuff pretty well after all, so it wasn’t but so bad. I wish they’d played a little more fast stuff, but that’s about my only complaint. One highlight came when KC introduced their song "Coming To The Endtime", saying, "This song is about Y2K and all the bad things that it was going to lead to. Glad to see we were right about that prediction." They finished, of course, with "Richmond Belongs To Me", their modification of an old Cocksparrer song to make it apply to our own town. That was kind of cool, but I felt kind of bad for them. I’d hate for my best-loved song to be a cover.

On the whole, it was an awesome show. Brandon Peck of Wow Owls organized the entire show, including the duel band reunions, as a benefit for survivors of Hurricane Katrina, and the show ended up raising around $750 towards that cause, which Brandon donated to the Red Cross. Meanwhile, Tri State Killing Spree gave away an entire box each of LPs and CDs, 100 copies total. Our drummer was tired of having to haul them with him every time he moved. Good riddance. I mean, I hope the kids who ended up with them liked them, but still.


It's perfectly fine to sleep in a chair from Monday to Saturday...

I'm back from my parents' house, and Christmas was way less traumatic than I expected it to be, especially since my favorite football team appears against all odds to be headed for the playoffs (go Redskins!). That's not to say that I'm in the most wonderful of all possible moods. I am feeling better than I was when I was listening to that Mineral album pretty constantly, though. I suppose the album I'm now playing constantly, "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" by The Sundays, says something about where my mental state is right now. In fact, I'd be willing to state that it says quite a lot.

For some reason, The Sundays are not nearly as famous as I have always thought the quality of their music merits. They have somewhat of a cult following, but it is tiny compared to that of The Smiths, who I think are probably the only band they're really comparable to. Considering that The Smiths (along with Black Flag) are my favorite band ever, that's high praise coming from me. It's not hyperbole, either. I've lived with this album for around 15 years, since purchasing it on cassette at a mall record store when I was about to go into ninth grade. The cassette disappeared sometime in the late 90s, and these days I listen to "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" on a CD that I bought used soon after I discovered the loss of the cassette. It's an album I find myself returning to at least once a year, and it never fails to remind me all over again of its greatness. There are some unforgettable pop tunes of the British alternative subgenre on here, and even the worst track here is a "least favorite" as opposed to a dud.

If I tried to name a "most favorite", I'm sure I'd be stuck with a decision before I'd even eliminated half of the tracks. There is always "Here's Where The Story Ends" to consider, the first song I ever heard by The Sundays, which was by itself reason enough for me to buy the entire album. Album closer "Joy" was the song I fell in love with the hardest upon first listen to the album, it's dark, brooding tone perfectly expressing an emotion that, contrary to the one-word title, can't easily be summed up in a sentence, or even a paragraph. Then there's "My Finest Hour", probably the catchiest of all the songs, and certainly featuring the best lyrics. Or what about "Can't Be Sure," and "Skin and Bones"? If I'm picking on the basis of lyrics, I can't leave either of those out, any more than I can leave out "Hideous Towns" and "A Certain Someone" if I'm making tunes the first priority.

Discussing my favorite song on this record misses the point, though. The entire album is of a piece, which is why it stands slightly above its followup, "Blind," and head and shoulders above "Static and Silence", the nearly forgotten third album. If The Sundays could have stuck to the simplicity and uniformity that places their entire debut album at an equally stratospheric benchmark, perhaps they would be as well-known today as The Smiths. Or maybe it's just that they never got the right amount of airplay. Whatever, they deserve better.

Perhaps I should quit dancing around the subject and tell you why that is. Guitarist David Gavurin is the first reason why. His guitar playing throughout "Reading, Writing and Arithmetic" is stellar. Without ever seeming flashy, he constructs intricate beds of melodic sound for Harriet Wheeler's angelic voice to get comfortable in. What at first sounds like simple strumming reveals itself upon further listens to be made up of several layers. Acoustic guitars strum basic chords underneath single-note melodies played electrically but without any gain. These clean leads sit in the forefront of the mix, often camouflaging strange soaring and droning guitar parts that are buried underneath everything else, including the understated but note-perfect rhythm section. Bassist Paul Brindley and drummer Patrick Hannan are the true unsung heroes of this album, fading as they do completely out of the listener's consciousness during the songs only because of just how brilliant their understated playing truly is. Without the two of them, Dave Gavurin's guitar army would not achieve its deceptively simple effects nearly as easily.

But all of this would be so much less than it is without the voice of Harriet Wheeler. What a voice it is, far more conventionally beautiful than that of Morrissey in The Smiths, but every bit as distinctive. As are the lyrics, the final and, I would say, the crucial ingredient in The Sundays' brilliance. This review could easily extend upwards of two thousand words just making the attempt at chronicling and explicating every brilliant line and tossed-off phrase Wheeler stuffs into these songs, and I'd still end up missing at least half a dozen of them. They hew to a pretty constant theme, that of simultaneous bitter depression and sardonic amusement. Wheeler's horrible ability to maintain interpersonal relationships (I'm going strictly by her lyrics here; they could have nothing to do with reality, as in the case of The Cure's Robert Smith, who, despite thousands of songs about lost love and loneliness, has been with the same girl since he was 14) cripples her self-esteem. The only recourse she has found with which to offset her troubling depression and unstable self-image seems to be the hurling of wry barbs at her own awkward self.

She starts this strange internal tug-of-war almost immediately. By the time half a dozen lines of the album have gone by, she has stated, "You see me in a cardigan and a dress I've been sick on." She's leading with her flaws, her fuck-ups, perhaps in an attempt to run off a potential suitor, to avoid rejection by rejecting first. "How are you?" she asks, then quickly amends, "I can't say I really care at the end of it all." This exchanged is followed immediately by a chorus that presents the statement "I've found that we're just flesh and blood" as an explanation. Taken at face value, this assertion doesn't explain anything, but give it a moment's thought and it starts to become clearer. She's saying that people aren't really all that much, when you think about it. Why worry about dating, or try to keep up appearances? Strip away all of the bullshit about fashion and interests, and we're just skin and bones, a collection of molecules that will cohere for nothing more than an eyeblink compared to the life of the universe, then fall apart forever. This is the viewpoint of a depressed person, and she knows it on some level, but on another she's still hanging onto a connection with the world around her enough to make that comment about her dress having vomit on it. At the same time that she's sinking into existential depression, she's making fun of herself for doing so.

This theme, once established, continues throughout the album. "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic" becomes a chronicle of the daily life of a lonely, depressed individual. "Here's Where The Story Ends", as I said before, was enough to justify my purchase of the entire album. This was at a time when I had to save allowance for two or three weeks to afford one cassette, too, so it must have hit me pretty hard at the time. This is no surprise, because it still hits me hard now, with its chronicle of finding some minor souvenir of a past relationship and being plunged into unexpected heartbreak all over again at the sight. "I can see how people look down; I'm on the outside," she says, a sentiment that struck to the core of my outcast heart when I was 13 no less powerfully than it does now, when I'm nearing 30.

Then there's "My Finest Hour", the title of which, Harriet explains, refers to her "finding a pound on the underground". For those of you not versed in British colloquialisms, what she's basically saying is that her life's crowning achievement came the day that she found a buck on the subway. Again, this is the sentiment of a depressed person. I should know; I've said similar things many times in the past. It's her delivery and word choice that sets what she's saying apart from the typical melodramatic lament of the depressed person, though; you can tell that even as she's saying it, she's making fun of herself for thinking that way, for being so self-deprecating. This is not the most affecting section of "My Finest Hour," though. This comes later, on the chorus, which I will reproduce here in its entirety:

I keep hoping you are the same as me
And I’ll send you letters and come to your house for tea.
We are who we are, what do the others know?
But poetry is not for me, so show me the way to go home.

In the wake of the total failure of my most recent relationship, I find this stanza resonating for me in ways that it never has before. There was always something I could relate to in the reluctance to admit to affection for another person, the feeling of its total pointlessness. They aren't going to dig you anyway, why bother? These days, though, I'm seeing more than that in this verse. The last time I fell in love, I really thought that it was going to last forever, that I had found a person to spend my life with. Instead, the relationship ended in slightly less than 6 months. Now, when I feel passing crushes coming on, I don't even have to ignore them or fight them off. I have no desire to even consider acting on them. Relationships, in my mind, are inextricably linked with pain and trauma. I'd love to find someone who understands me, with whom I could really make a connection. I just don't believe it's really even possible anymore, though. Once again: this is the viewpoint of a depressed person. I know this. It doesn't make it any easier to let it go and move on from it, though, and I think that's a feeling that Harriet Wheeler understands. She's had the same experience I have, where you contemplate how great it might be if you revealed your crush upon someone and they said all the things you wanted to hear, were open to cultivating a real relationship with you and sharing in the simple joys of life with someone by your side. Then, once you've thought about it for more than five minutes, you put it out of your head. It'll never happen, and you know it. That person is way too together, too interesting, too cool, to be into a loser like yourself. "When the words came stumbling out of my mouth, I came tumbling out," Harriet tells us, and though she never goes this far, you can imagine her saying, "I'll never do that again!" then laughing. She's found a way to extend that classic British stiff-upper-lip sensibility into a sort of mental defense system from the worst effects of depression. Turn it into a joke, laugh it off.

It doesn't always work, though. With all her bluster, all her laughs at her own expense, she's still alone. "You're Not The Only One I Know" is similar to "Skin and Bones" in it's brush-off tone, but that's really only on the choruses, where she tells the boy who is Not The Only One that she's "too proud to talk to you anyway." This is in stark contrast to the verses, in which she details the formation of bad habits from too long alone. "What's so wrong with counting the cars when I'm all alone?" she asks. What she seems to be saying is that there's no point in fighting against the bad habits formed by longterm solitude when one has no prospects for anything else in the future. Yet this is in the same song where she's brushing off a boy who is hitting on her. No one ever said depression was rational. Mine certainly never is.

I'll probably be listening to this record a lot over the next little while. I've been trying to write a song for my own band that will say the same thing that Harriet Wheeler says so eloquently on the chorus of "My Finest Hour", a song that lays out my exact reasons for not wanting to bother with relationships. I chase the theme for hundreds of words, way too many to ever fit into one song, and never come anywhere near the perfect combination of words, let alone reaching a point where I can whittle it down to a reasonable length. I almost want to just rip Harriet off and use her words instead of my own. Instead, though, I'll look to "Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic" for inspiration. I take heart in knowing that Harriet Wheeler, who, in addition to being an angelic vocalist and brilliant lyricist, has always been very pretty and charismatic, could suffer from all of the same crippling self-doubt and loneliness that plagues my own life. Maybe this means that there's hope for me yet. Perhaps the idea of being able to laugh at my own depression will help me get over the worst of it. But hey, even if that doesn't happen, I could hardly ask for a better soundtrack.


How blessed we are for crying now...

When people talk about the late-90s emo band Mineral, they tend to concentrate only on the first of their two albums. This is understandable, to a great extent; "The Power of Failing" featured plenty of driving, anthemic songs with melodic hooks that were easy to remember and hard to get out of your head. Meanwhile, "End Serenading" was slower and less reliant on attention-grabbing changes and catchy riffs. Instead, its songs were mostly structured around simple riffs that started quiet and built intensity most often through repetition rather than dynamics. The songs would kick into loud sections only after moments of quiet, if they ever did so at all. However, I personally consider "End Serenading" to have quite a lot to offer, and in fact find myself going back to it more often at this point in my life than I ever return to "The Power of Failing."

In particular, I return to it around this time of year. It's late, and I haven't been to bed yet, so it still feels like December 23 as I type this, but technically, it's Christmas Eve. It was only a few days before Christmas several years ago when I first really got "End Serenading" and came to love it as much as I'd loved earlier work by Mineral. At that time, my parents lived in Roanoke, which is a 3-hour drive from Richmond even at times when there's no traffic. I dread the annual holiday-related home visit; have ever since I first moved away. I'm sure a lot of you relate to this--there's nothing great about becoming a child again, even for a few short days. There's nothing enjoyable about getting lectured for every mistake you've made over the past year, or having your parents start in on you about whatever fashion choices you're currently making. And I'm sure no one else likes being told in no uncertain terms just in what ways you've failed to measure up to the expectations and goals your parents set for you back when you were a child. But we all feel varying degrees of loyalty to the people who raised us from infancy, and most of us, me included, make that holiday trip home no matter how much we dread it.

Christmas has little real significance for me these days, now that I'm not a kid anymore. I usually get some money and a few nice presents, but that's not really all that important to me. As a child, people told me it was the thought that counted, and as an adult, I see what they meant. Christmas used to be such a significant thing for me as a kid; it held a mystique, in that it seemed different than every other time of the year. The whole world seemed to be a little bit happier, seemed to be holding its breath in preparation for something wonderful that was just around the corner. I thought it was about the toys that I'd get under the tree, and maybe that's what formed the biggest part of my childhood anticipation, but that anticipation and that mystique was an entirely separate thing from presents--I see that now. As an adult, I don't really feel that mystique anymore. In fact, I feel like I see through it now, see it for the buildup a capitalist society places on a purchasing-oriented holiday in order to encourage spending and make more money for businesspeople. That's probably what it always was. But not only was it something more, something magical, for me as a kid, there's a part of me that clings desperately to that feeling, even now. Driving home to see my family for Christmas, I couldn't help but be touched in the same deep place that remembers those childhood feelings by the sight of brightly colored lights, and displays at the center of small towns.

There's a song on "End Serenading" that addresses this exact feeling. It's called "Waking To Winter", and I don't remember if it was what really made the album finally jump out at me. But it is definitely what causes me to associate it with this time of year. "In winter, when the air gets cold," sings Christopher Simpson, "they light up the city with Christmas trees, and strings that hang across the street from telephone pole to telephone pole." He draws his words out slowly, so that this sentence turns into the first minute of the song, a common technique in both later Mineral songs and Simpson's post-Mineral project, The Gloria Record. After this comes a long instrumental section of the song, which starts out quiet and builds up a bit, but eventually comes to a stop. This is a false ending, though, and the band comes back in louder on the last verse. And this is where the song really kills me.

I don't know much of anything about Chris Simpson as a person. However, I've spent years listening to his bands and analyzing his lyrics, and I've read a few interviews, and through all this I've come to some conclusions that I feel pretty sure of. The most important one is that Chris Simpson is a sweet young guy with a lot of love in his heart, who was raised with a very close connection to his family. This is pretty obvious from his lyrics; I'm personally not aware of any other songwriter in any era or subgenre of modern rock music who wrote anywhere near as many songs about his family as Chris Simpson does on the two Mineral albums. I think a lot of this might come from a particular heartland version of Protestant Christianity, since he sings almost as frequently about God as he does his family. There are a few love songs, too, scattered here and there, but not nearly as many as the casual listener might think. In fact, I once read an interview with Chris where he said, obviously amused, that most of the songs his fans thought were about girls were about something else entirely. I would guess that he was referring to God and his family, though that probably wasn't something he felt comfortable saying in a hardcore fanzine.

The thing that kills me about the final verse of "Waking To Winter" is precisely this obvious bond Chris feels with his family, his friends, his loved ones, his God. I can't relate to that as anything other than an antithesis. As far back as I can remember, I've wished to feel love from my family that has never been there. In recent years, I've come to believe that in their own dysfunctional manner they are trying, but I still don't feel it on any real level. The desire for this love has infected friendships and relationships throughout the course of my life, encouraging me on a subconscious level to push everyone I care about away from me so that they can't hurt me the way my family has. I feel pretty bad about coming out and saying this in a public forum like this, but I don't know how to make the point I'm trying to make without telling the truth. It has everything to do with the way I receive Christopher Simpson's lyrics.

"When I'm driving home at night," he says, "Tired, frustrated, and pinned down by spite, I'm reminded of your love. Unlike these things, it will never change or fade or pass away." If I let myself, I will start to cry every time I hear this verse. For me, what was almost certainly a wholeheartedly loving sentiment becomes bittersweet, as I realize just how far removed from it I am.

This entire record is that way for me. As I said before, almost every song is about members of Chris's family. "GJS" appears to refer to the same person "Gloria", from "The Power of Failing", referenced--whom I believe is his mother. The song begins with Chris talking about how this person is a positive influence on him, always supports him when he doubts himself or worries about the outcome of his decisions. In the end of the song, he says, "I only hope that someday I might resemble you in even the smallest way. I only hope that you can be proud of me." It's a beautiful moment, heartbreaking in its sincerity, as is the song "For Ivadell", apparently about a now-deceased ancestor who was a painter. The song is a tribute, making explicit reference to Ivadell's death, and it's obvious that Chris misses her, though he consoles himself with his belief that she is in a better place now. A lot of the songs that refer to Chris's family have this mourning quality to them, even those that don't specifically mention whether the person being discussed has passed away. It seems like a lot of these people that he loves and cares about are far from him, and he longs to see them again. But the existence of the bonds of love between himself and those people are never in the slightest doubt.

The only places in which doubt appears are songs that deal with God. The last few tracks on the album turn away from discussions of loved ones and toward spirituality. "Sounds Like Sunday" is hopeful in tone, with its refrain "How blessed we are for crying now. We will laugh someday, and how." But it's followed by "And Serenading", the closest the album has to a title track. This song discusses a loss of confidence and security that was felt as a child. "When I was a boy I saw things that no one else could see, so why am I so deaf at 22?" In the end, Chris knows where all of this is headed, and he ends the song by repeating, "The driving snow that drives me home to you." Contrary to this conclusion, though, the album closes with "The Last Word Is Rejoice", in which Chris repeatedly asks, "How will I lay down in green-grass fields when my soul is so afraid?" It's an acknowledgement of humanity, and of the inherent inability to stay constantly focused on love and grace when life is so goddamn hard.

I suppose it's this overt acknowledgement of the weakness of humanity that makes "End Serenading" hit so close to home for me. Despite the fact that many of the songs on this album are in praise of a love that I myself never experience, despite the fact that what seems intended to be sweet just feels bitter to me, I feel like Chris Simpson and I have more in common than we have differences. I understand what motivates him to write these slow, mournful songs about love and fear, to reach for beauty and eternal grace even as he's surrounded by loss. I always wanted to believe in all of those things too, no matter how hard they are to attain.

When I started this blog a year ago, I was at a rough point in my life. I was only days away from journeying to England to meet up with my then-girlfriend, whom I hadn't seen in three months. It was supposed to be a happy reunion--we were very much in love, and were starting to make long-term plans involving being together for the foreseeable future. There was nothing I wanted more out of life at that point. However, I was terrified about the trip, though I was doing everything in my power not to admit it. There are signs of this fear in that first entry I wrote for this blog, if you look hard enough. And I was right to be afraid--things went drastically wrong during the visit, and though we didn't break up while I was there, our relationship ended less than a month later.

I'd made her a whole bunch of mix CDs during the time we'd been apart, and I put one of the songs from "End Serenading" on one of them. The song I chose was "Unfinished", a song I'd always seen as the perfect song for a wedding dance. Chris Simpson, of all people, was certainly not afraid to make overt references to people spending the rest of their lives together. "Unfinished" ends with the lines, "I still dream of December, dancing together with rings on our fingers. And the two shall become..." That's where it stops. Perhaps that's why the song is called "Unfinished." Anyway, things went horribly awry, and I've been single ever since. These days I'm not sure I can ever imagine getting into a serious, long-term relationship again, despite the fact that it's something I'd really love to have in my life. I just don't know if I'll ever be able to make one work.

I figured "Unfinished" would be impossible for me to listen to now, considering the context in which I last heard it. But when I pulled this album out earlier tonight, I let it play through anyway. Sure enough, I got choked up on that last verse, but something occurred to me. I think maybe Christopher intended this song to be about lost love, rather than found love. "I wish you could put your ear up to my heart and hear how much I love you," he sings, but is he singing to someone he's with? In context of the album, it actually seems more likely that he's talking to someone far away from him. I still think a lot about my former girlfriend, and it's pretty safe to say that I still love her. I wish I could have done a better job of showing her that, back when it really mattered. Maybe Chris's dream of dancing together is really no more likely to come true than mine. Is that why the last line of the song trails off, instead of speaking the conclusion that everyone will jump to? What will the two become?

Merry Christmas to all of you. I hope you have love in your life.


The return of Big Star.

I recently learned that Big Star had a new album out. This isn't like their first reunion album, the live "Columbia: Live at Missouri University" from 1994, which merely documented a gig in which Alex Chilton and company performed a dozen or so of their best songs. Don't get me wrong, that was amazing enough, but aside from a cover of Todd Rundgren's "Slut", there really wasn't anything I hadn't heard before on "Columbia". In opposition to what that record offered, the recently released "Big Star In Space" is actually a dozen new original Big Star compositions, the first time something like this has come into existence since "Third/Sister Lovers" was finally given a commercial release in 1979. For those not keeping track, that was 25 years ago. Alex Chilton has done plenty of solo stuff in the interim, and some of it's even been pretty good. But I never thought there'd be another Big Star album released. This is like a dream come true for me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

Before I go on, I feel like I should elaborate on just why this is such a big deal. Big Star were always critical favorites, starting with the release of their debut album, "#1 Record", in 1973, and continuing through the rest of their career and long afterwards. They are considered today by people who pay attention to such things as the founders of the modern power pop genre. However, they've always escaped widespread fame; I have no idea why, considering the impeccable quality of the majority of their output, but it's true. Their only real famous song, "In The Street", only gained fame in recent years when it was covered by Cheap Trick as the theme song for "That 70's Show." Big Star were plagued by instability while they were together, too, and only released three albums during the half-dozen or so years they originally existed, none of which featured the same lineup. Rhythm guitarist/sometime vocalist Chris Bell had written some of the best songs on "#1 Record," but left the band soon after. He recorded one solo album, the brilliant "I Am The Cosmos", but died in a car accident before it could be released. Original bassist Andy Hummel hung on long enough to write and play on follow-up "Radio City," but he and Alex Chilton fought so much that Hummel left before the promotional tour for "Radio City." Their final album, the aforementioned "Third", was completed by singer/guitarist Alex Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens as a duo, with help from studio musicians, and had to be pieced together years later from unfinished tapes due to the eccentric and mercurial Chilton walking away from the sessions, and the band, in frustration. The albums all came out on small labels based around Big Star's Memphis hometown, and were only rarely in print during the 70s and 80s. It wasn't until a whole new generation of American indie-rock bands all named Big Star as a prime influence (The Replacements went so far as to write a song named after "Alex Chilton", celebrating his songwriting genius) that they received anywhere near the kind of attention and credit that they'd long deserved. In fact, it was this posthumous praise that caused the initial reformation documented on "Columbia"; the reunion gig happened because a Missouri student that worked on the student activities committee was courageous (some would say crazy) enough to call Alex Chilton and ask him to reform Big Star for a show. Many were surprised when Chilton agreed, but he's almost as well-known for his unpredictable nature as his songwriting genius, so a move like this, in hindsight, can be seen as bizarrely in character.

The lineup that plays on "Big Star In Space" is the same as the one that played the reunion gig; joining Chilton and returning drummer Jody Stephens are Posies leaders Ken Stringfellow (who plays bass) and Jon Auer (on guitar), who were quoted at the time of that first reunion as considering the opportunity to play in Big Star "a dream come true". It's no surprise to those who have heard The Posies; if Big Star weren't their biggest influence, they were certainly up there. The Posies are a pretty great power-pop combo in their own right, and Stringfellow and Auer do a great job of assisting their heroes in creating a worthy new addition to the Big Star oeuvre. "In Space" is nothing earth-shattering, though, and those who listen to it expecting some sort of holy grail are apt to be let down. Big Star created their share of deathless power-pop anthems on their classic albums, but it's obvious from songs like "Morpha Too" and "The India Song" that they had their share of fun while making albums too. There's a bit more of that sort of thing on "In Space" than on their 70s albums, and one could make a case for the exclusion of "Love Revolution", which is nothing more than a playful James Brown imitation, or the closing "Makeover", which is pure silliness. That said, there are enough gems here to make "In Space" well worth the price of admission, and many of them are front-loaded.

The album opens with "Dony", a catchy rocker reminiscent of the Chris Bell-penned "Feel", from "#1 Record". It's followed immediately by "Lady Sweet", a typically, er, sweet Chilton love song that turns down the gain to focus on pleasant vocal harmonies and pretty strummed guitars. "Best Chance We've Ever Had" mixes the two into the Platonic ideal of power-pop greatness. At this point, the power-pop lovers who pick up this album are going to feel like they've died and gone to heaven, and the rest of the first half of "In Space" will only further cement that feeling (with the exception of the aforementioned "Love Revolution"). It's particularly nice to hear Ken Stringfellow's lead vocal turn on "Turn My Back On The Sun", which is more overtly Beatlesque than the other songs here, but still every bit the equal of the Chilton and Stephens compositions that surround it.

Things get a bit stranger on the second half of "In Space"; Chilton's tendency on his solo albums over the past couple of decades has been to freely move between widely divergent subgenres of rock n' roll, and he lets this tendency take over here, playing straight up Nuggets-style rock n' roll on "Mine Exclusively" and "Do You Wanna Make It," and detouring into doo-wop on "A Whole New Thing". This is where the power-pop purists are going to get lost, and that's a pity, because despite the fact that Big Star go astray from the sound that made their name, most of these songs are every bit as good as the power-pop gems occupying the first half of the record. "A Whole New Thing" goes on a bit too long for being as simplistic as it is, and the instrumental "Aria, Largo" is a bit meandering, but most of these tunes are quite solid.

There are probably going to be two different camps where the reception of this record is concerned. Those in the power-pop purist camp are likely to be a bit let down, but I am not in that camp. Instead, I'm just happy to be here, listening to a new Big Star album after all this time. Some of the reviews I've read have said that "Big Star In Space" sounds more like the Chilton solo albums from the late 70s and early 80s than anything Big Star themselves ever did, and I can see their point, but those albums, especially "Like Flies On Sherbet", were good, and it's been a long time since that term could be applied to new Alex Chilton material. Maybe working with Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow gave him the energy he needed to create some great new material, and if that's the case, who am I to complain if not all of it sounds quite like "September Gurls"? "Big Star In Space" is a good record, and that's what's important.


Show review: The Max Levine Ensemble, An American Tourist, Eric Smith.

This show happened at Eric's house, 9. N. Boulevard, on Tuesday night. I'm a bit late in writing about it, but hey, we've covered that whole thing already.

This show was rather sparsely attended, due to the unfortunate fact that Cave-In and the Doomriders, along with The Setup and Forensics, were playing at the Nanci Raygun about two miles away. Apparently there were a ton of people at that show, so I think that hurt the attendance at this one. There was a time when I would have said something about how this sort of thing could be avoided if promoters of the two different shows worked together, staggered starting times and such in order to allow people to go to two different shows. However, at this point in my life, I don't really believe that this sort of thing actually works. It's always been my experience that whenever I plan to go to two shows in one night, I only end up making it to the first one. Even earlier this year when I was planning to go to an early show and a late show at the same venue, it didn't happen. I went to the early show, and had a lot of fun. But when the time came to go outside and queue up to get into the late show, I just headed home instead. It's an idea that always sounds good until one gets in the situation, but then seems like more trouble than it's worth. These days I don't even like sitting through one show that has more than four bands on it, so how could I stand going to two shows with three to four bands apiece? It's not going to happen for me, and it's probably not going to happen for most people who would even want to go to both shows. So therefore, situations like the one this show was put in will happen on occasion. It's regrettable, but inevitable.

An American Tourist played first. They were a two-piece whose songs were based around rhythms from a program on a laptop. The actual guys in the band switched between guitar and keyboards. The songs tended to be quiet and minimal in instrumentation, with a percussion loop from the laptop playing in the background as reverbed guitars and one-finger keyboard riffs generated a repetitive groove. This style, combined with the quiet, breathy vocals, seemed like it had the potential to create the feel of hypnotic trance, but the songs didn't go on long enough most of the time for that to really happen. Generally, just as I started to sink into what they were doing, the singer would stop playing guitar or keyboard and thank us for listening while the percussion loop the laptop was playing was still going on. These guys have the potential to be quite good at what they're doing, but I think they'd do well to work on incorporating their performance of the songs into the feel the songs themselves have. Maybe allowing the percussion loops to fade out, then quickly starting up the ones for the next song, and only stopping and acknowledging the audience at the end of the set would be a better technique. That said, they have something going even as they are now, though a crowd that's expecting rock n' roll would probably not be the most receptive to what they're doing.

The Max Levine Ensemble played next, and in their touring configuration were a power trio featuring Spoonboy, he of Plan-It-X/Bloomington scene fame, singing and playing guitar. They were typical Plan-It-X fare, unlike Spoonboy's other band that I've seen play, Los Gatos Negros, who have more of a chaotic hardcore thing going on. For those who don't know, the typical sound for Plan-It-X Records bands is that of catchy pop-punk, complete with whoa-oh backup vocals. However, unlike what one might expect from that style of music, Plan-It-X bands tend to have overtly political lyrics. It's hard to tell what a band is singing about in a live situation, though, and Spoonboy didn't really discuss his lyrics between songs, so all I could tell about The Max Levine Ensemble while they were playing was that they played the style I expected, catchy pop-punk. They also incorporated ska and reggae tinged parts, which was pretty common 10 years ago but not something most modern pop-punk bands have the guts to do. I tend to scoff at this style of music, as I probably permanently O.D.ed on it back when it was everywhere in the mid-90s, but I enjoyed watching Max Levine Ensemble play. It probably helped that all three of the members were good at their instruments, especially the drummer, who pounded the hell out of his kit and kept things moving along at a constant rapid clip. In fact, I was so won over that I bought a CD from them after they were done, called "How To Build An Intergalactic Time Travel Machine". The CD demonstrated to me that they are quite different in the studio from what they demonstrated to me as a live band, and in fact I was a little let down by it. In particular, there are horn sections on a lot of the songs, which was a good bit too ska for me, as well as a bunch of other auxiliary instruments which mostly just seemed extraneous and unnecessary. The songwriting, which is Max Levine Ensemble's real strength, shone through despite these additions to the music, but it still dampened my enthusiasm for the CD a bit after what I saw live. I'd definitely recommend that people see them live before listening to them on record in order to get the best possible impression of where their talent lies.

Originally, Wow, Owls guitarist Brandon Peck had been scheduled to provide local support for the two touring bands with his solo acoustic act, but he had to bow out of the show due to work scheduling conflicts, and instead Eric Smith of local bands The Catalyst and The Internet (and a resident of 9 N. Boulevard) played an acoustic set. This is something he'd never done before, so I wasn't sure what we were going to get, but he ended up having a pretty decent set prepared. He started things off with a couple of instrumental blues-based jams that he introduced as being songs he liked to play while sitting on his back porch. The rest of the set alternated between covers of such bands as Talking Heads and The Meat Puppets (both of which got most of the small crowd singing along) and acoustic versions of songs by The Catalyst, including the song "Something About A Conspiracy", which appeared on their CD but as far as I know had never been played live before. Eric's set was nothing life-changing but was fun, and I'd be glad to see him do this sort of thing again in the future. After the set, he was heard to say that he'd been planning to do an acoustic version of the Tri-State Killing Spree song "Starz of 88", but had forgotten to. Thank God for small favors.


Eh, I've been gone for a while. Depressed, sick, depressed and sick, etc etc, you don't need the excuses. I'm back now, at least for today. I make no promises about anything.

I've been listening to a lot of this stuff that's been coming out recently that pushes the modern emo sound's flirtation with metal past any recognizable limits, to the point where it's some different animal entirely. I can't be the only one who's digging on this stuff, either; a Spin article discussed all this stuff a couple months ago. In the middle of talking about bands I already dig, like Thrice and Coheed and Cambria, they brought up a band called Chiodos that I'd never heard of. Lumping a band I've never heard of in with bands I love amounts to a recommendation in my eyes, so I downloaded the Chiodos full-length, "All's Well That Ends Well," and sure enough, I love it. In fact, it's dominating my recent listening patterns even more than "Vheissu" and "Good Apollo I'm Burning Star IV", which is an achievement.

Chiodos remind me of Thrice, but not Thrice as they exist now. More like Thrice around the time of "The Illusion of Safety". On their first album, "Identity Crisis", Thrice had a pretty similar sound to a lot of the melodic punk acts that made the Fat Wreck Chords name, such as Strung Out and Good Riddance, and on "The Illusion of Safety", they started mixing in some serious metal riffage. It seemed like they were heading for some hypothetical borderline where emo-ish pop-punk crossed into full-on metal territory, but instead of continuing in that direction on "The Artist In the Ambulance", they made a completely emo record, one that left behind the metallic riffing and the skate-punk pop elements of their previous records. I didn't like it all that much, either.

Chiodos sound like what would have come an album or two in the future if Thrice had continued in the direction I saw them heading on "Illusion of Safety". Metal riffs dominate Chiodos's sound, to the point that I can't really see any justification in using the term emo to describe them. Nonetheless, I hear it, buried in there somewhere. The best possible explanation probably starts with their vocalist, who screams at times but far more often sings in a high-pitched voice that definitely takes some getting used to. There is an element of his voice that can only be described as shrill, and the higher the note he's hitting, the more that shrill element comes to the forefront. Maybe this is what would happen if Saves the Day's Chris Conley tried to front a metal band, and had to push his voice as hard as this guy does on every song. I know, that image isn't appealing to me either, and really none of what I'm saying about Chiodos's vocalist sounds like a good thing. On paper, it sounds terrible. But it appeals to me, and although I can't explain why, this guy's voice is one of the main things that stands out in my head as things I like about Chiodos's music. I guess the truth is that no matter how unappealing some elements of it are, the sound of emotion is very difficult to fake. The guy sounds wavery and teenaged, and some of his high notes are like fingernails on a chalkboard, but I certainly never question his sincerity.

The other element of Chiodos that's identifiably emo is their keyboard player. Keyboards show up in metal occasionally, but they're used in a completely different way than Chiodos use theirs. Rather than synth washes that provide an ominous background atmosphere, Chiodos's keyboard player mostly plays sweeping, melodic piano lines that inject an overt pop element into even the most metal of their riffs. There are many points throughout "All's Well That Ends Well" that would just sound like a metalcore band without the keyboard melodies and the vocalist's strangulated crooning. The added elements are a bit weird, but they save things from getting too generic and disappearing into the white noise of the by now ubiquitous metalcore sound. As far as I'm concerned, this is always a good thing.

Chiodos have plenty to offer where straight-up metal is concerned, though, and this is not a factor of their sound that I want to avoid or gloss over. The songs are structured like miniature epics, eschewing the standard verse-chorus rock pattern, instead flowing through riff after riff of lengthy chord progressions, in which the guitars and bass play harmonically off one another. Eventually, a climax is reached, generally either in the form of dramatic, pounding mosh riffs or quiet, brooding stretches of pure melody. Then the whole thing starts off again, generally with another crunching metal lead. It seems like a process that would get monotonous after a while, but even without the occasional shorter instrumental sections that break up the album's linear progression, the riffage is far too unique and interesting for the songs to blur together.

However, the intricate song structure Chiodos uses, combined with their tendency on "All's Well That Ends Well" to put little or no space between each song, can make it hard to tell where one song ends and another begins. The song I originally liked best on the album turned out to be two different ones--"All Nereids Beware" begins with a heavy verse that quickly plunges into a somewhat melodic chorus, then departs into epic riff-layering, spending at least a minute building tension before it finally reaches a second verse-chorus combination. After that, it never returns to that particular structural base, and I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking the change that comes around the four-minute mark from a quiet piano/vocal breakdown into yet another ascending-chord metal blastoff was just another transition in a particularly epic song. Instead, it's a transition into a different song entirely, "One Day Women Will All Become Monsters", which is a bit more melodically oriented than its predecessor and sports a completely different and far more engaging chorus. Despite the change between songs, these two songs just feel like different movements in a larger whole, and in fact every transition on this album could be explained in a similar way. The change from "Baby, You Wouldn't Last A Minute On the Creek"'s keyboard coda into the chugging guitar-and-drum duel that opens "The Words 'Best Friend' Become Redefined" is another place in which this seamless transitioning jumps out at the listener, and it feels like the entire album was structured this way on purpose. Individual songs still retain power on their own, but the whole thing is larger than the sum of its parts precisely due to transitions like this.

In light of this seemingly conscious sequencing method, "All's Well That Ends Well"'s dramatic conclusion takes on a greater significance, feeling more like the mindblowing final scene of a movie than just the end of a record. "To Trixie and Reptile, Thanks For Everything" is based around Chiodos's most unabashedly emo(tional) chorus, and while the song starts off as metallic as anything else on the album, it soon descends completely into the more dramatic environment created by said chorus. On the second verse, the singer harmonizes with himself on the lines "Knees go weak, and lips quiver, the split second before they meet." You can tell he's describing an important moment, and the music reflects that after the second chorus, dropping out almost completely and leaving a single repeating piano note. Things quickly start to build back up in intensity, and soon the band is pounding out a slow, octave-chord riff that sounds nothing like their usual metalcore fare. The singer is now proclaiming to someone that "if you believed what you felt you would be in love", and there is a palpable sense that everything the whole album has been building towards is slowly, inexorably going wrong, as the band fades out and we drift away on a mournful organ coda.

I have a feeling Chiodos are just getting going, that perhaps they will be even better in an album or two. I certainly hope this is the case, because "All's Well That Ends Well" hits me harder every time I play it. Right now, this stuff is really hitting the spot.

Maybe tomorrow I'll get into Thrice's new one, "Vheissu." As I said above, I was kind of disappointed in their third album. They've changed a lot yet again on this new one, though, and I this time I really like the direction they're going in. If I can get myself to write again in the near future, I'll explain what I mean. Til then, take care.


This will be the last time I remain silent.

The mid-90s underground hardcore scene can seem shrouded in mystery to those who weren’t involved in it—which, these days, describes the great majority of those who still care. Most of the bands who existed as part of that scene were short-lived and achieved their greatest fame after breaking up. It was rare for any of them to release more than a full-length album, a couple of EPs, and a few songs on splits and compilations, and most of those releases were vinyl-only. Some bands were later given the CD discography treatment, but this was usually handled by a label with just as limited a budget as those who released the original vinyl records, and most of these discographies went out of print just as quickly as the records they compiled.

The history of the scene gets skewed in the minds of those piecing it together after the fact when there are exceptions to the tendency described above. It’s perfectly logical to assume that the bands whose CD discographies remain in print to this day, or whose members went on to form other, better known bands, were the most important bands of the time in which they existed. However, this isn’t always the case. All it really indicates is that the later fame of some members makes people curious to hear their earlier work, or maybe even that one particular band ended up on a label that had more money or more sought-after releases than most. Sometimes the bands who get this preferential treatment are the ones who deserve it, while sometimes they are far more elevated in importance retrospectively than they ever were at the time, and it’s only the scene veterans who were around at the time who really know the difference.

It’s with split records that this after-the-fact skewing can become most apparent. The best example of this phenomenon is the Christie Front Drive/Jimmy Eat World split 7 inch. It features one song by each band, was released in some small quantity, somewhere between 1000 and 5000 copies, and fetches ridiculous sums on Ebay. It’s Jimmy Eat World who drives up those prices, and in light of their fame, that statement seems obvious, not even worth saying. However, the reason that everyone cared about that split EP at the time of its release was because of Christie Front Drive. While no one in the mid-90s hardcore scene knew much about Jimmy Eat World, Christie Front Drive were one of the pioneering bands in the redefinition of “emo” as a genre that was occurring at the time. The fact that emo is seen these days as melodic rock music with prettily sung vocals and plenty of pop hooks, instead of hardcore punk music with screamed vocals but more personally oriented lyrics than was normal at the time in hardcore, which is how it sounded when the term was coined, is due to the influence of a few prominent bands from the mid-90s underground hardcore scene. Christie Front Drive were chief among this small group (along with Cap’n Jazz, about whom more later), but are almost completely forgotten now, perhaps due to their strict adherence to a DIY code that many other emo bands abandoned as soon as they could, or perhaps more practically due to the fact that this adherence kept them on small labels with low release quantities even at the height of their fame.

Another split record that demonstrates this skewing tendency on the part of modern listeners is the Friction/Cap’n Jazz split EP. Unlike Jimmy Eat World, who have always been followers rather than leaders where the progression of music is concerned, Cap’n Jazz are more than worthy of the adulation that is often accorded to them. However, in the case of this particular split record (which also fetches high prices on Ebay), it is not their side (a throwaway tune called “Rocky Rococo”) that justifies the price one would have to pay for it. Friction are known to some extent, mostly because vocalist/drummer Bob Nanna went on to front long running emo act Braid. For the most part, though, they are a footnote to the Braid story and nothing more. This isn’t wholly unjustified; Friction’s only full-length, “Blurred In Six”, is good, but it’s not on the level of Braid’s best work by a long shot. The CD version of “Blurred In Six” has come to stand as a discography for Friction, since it contains all of their EPs and comp tracks up to the release of the full length. “Transit” is their only song from after “Blurred In Six”, and is therefore the only Friction song not on the CD. This has effectively made it a forgotten song, even amongst those Braid devotees who’ve gone so far as to hunt down the Friction CD. It can only really be heard these days by the kids shelling out a pretty penny on Ebay, and I would imagine that a lot of them don’t even play that side of the record. More’s the pity.

According to the note accompanying the lyric sheet, written by bassist Scott Broadhurst, “Transit” was written and recorded at a time when the band was in the process of breaking up. There’s no way to tell whether “Transit”’s angst-ridden lyrics are a reference to this breakup, or to something else going on in Bob Nanna’s life; they are obscure at points, and even at their clearest points are only clear in a sense of describing personal emotions, not concrete circumstances surrounding these emotions. Regardless, they hit home. Nanna’s description of the dissolution of a relationship as “a machine, fixing what isn’t broken” brings to mind every time one person thinks everything is fine, only to be confronted by the other person with complaints of irreconcilable problems. These breakups hurt worst of all, or at least that’s been my experience. The music to the song is similar in tone to the lyrics, slower and more melancholy-sounding than Friction’s usual fare, carrying an air of foreboding. Nanna’s drumming is powerful, making up in syncopation what it lacks in fills (presumably because he has to sing while he’s playing these beats). His vocal melodies stick close to the chords played by Broadhurst’s bass, and are double-tracked throughout, creating a call and response effect with many of the lyrics, especially on the chorus. It seems this was necessary in order to get all of the lyrics into the song, but it also adds a lot to the sound of the vocals, the two tracks often harmonizing with each other, one singing a short phrase and holding notes while the other sings a full line overtop of the held note. Andy Knudson, Friction’s only guitarist, does not accept the limitations that some guitarists feel in the rock power trio configuration. Instead of sticking to a primarily rhythmic role, he leaves the basic chords of the song entirely to the bass and constructs complex lead lines that are not solos by any stretch, but are still inventive, snaking in and out of melodic and harmonic holes left by the combination of bass and vocals and adding texture to the song that are surprising coming from a band with so few members.

In the second verse, the lyrics continue with a particularly evocative line: “Boredom twists my hair, but since I’m there, I’ll blank stare, hoping you notice a tear (none there).” On paper, the rhymes elsewhere in the line suggest that the word “tear” here is synonymous with “rip”. Therefore, a listener reading along with the lyric sheet will be surprised by the fact that that word’s homonym, “tear”, in the crying sense, is being used. Not only does it make more sense, it’s more poignant, especially with that small added element of surprise. This line is a perfect description of those moments when one is staying calm, not indicating inner turmoil through outward actions, despite the fact that your insides are churning and you almost wish you’d lose control, just so the other person would know what pain you’re in. With the parenthetical aside “none there”, Nanna laments his own ability to keep control (or is it an inability to release control?), and its role in allowing the person hurting him to escape knowledge of his pain. Of course, the other person always knows how they’re making you feel in situations like that, but when you don’t express it, they can pretend they don’t know, which I suppose helps them sleep better at night.

“Transit” reaches its most intense point at the bridge after the second verse. The entire band comes to a halt for a second as Nanna screams, “Coughing up paint.” The music slams back in on the last word, underscoring the shorter, more declarative lines of the bridge with more dramatic music. It’s still slower and more melancholy in tone than almost anything else Friction ever recorded, as is true for the entire song, but this section has a feel of urgency that is missing elsewhere. It gives the impression of building towards a powerful climax, leading the listener to expect a resolution to the lyrical dilemma presented by the song, as well as the tension created in the music. Instead, we get the opposite; as soon as the bridge ends, the music begins to taper off, guitar and bass notes spaced farther and farther apart as the song is gradually given over to Nanna’s vocals and drums. The lyrics mirror this seeming resignation: “This will occur and reoccur,” Nanna sings, “until one day I have the strength to say…” Here he comes the closest to taking a stand, ending with the line, “This will be the last time I remain silent.” By the time this line begins, both guitar and bass have faded away completely, and by the end of it, the drumming has stopped except for a couple of bass kicks. The line sounds empowering in isolation, when one ignores all that has come before, but this is deceptive. Instead, one must read the context clues in the slowly fading music, and in the lines leading up to this last one. What few chords the guitars play after the bridge have returned to the melancholy tone of earlier in the song, and the fact that the final line is preceded by an assertion, first and foremost, that whatever terrible thing has caused this upwelling of negative emotions “will occur and reoccur.” This isn’t a song of resolve but of resignation. Granted, this resignation is tempered with the hope that someday the narrator will have the strength for something more, but there seems to be no expectation of this strength anytime in the near future.

“Transit” is a song born of the sort of realism many would call pessimism, a frank recognition of faults from a narrator who begins by focusing outwards but ends by turning in on himself, aware that he will have to change before anything else will. This song typifies the sort of emotional expression that was relatively common in the mid-90s underground hardcore scene. At the time it was released, its sentiments really weren’t anything out of the ordinary. Anyone living in a decent-sized city could see a band performing songs like this live in a living room or a basement at least twice a month, more often in the summer when school was out and many bands hit the road for tours. There was passion behind these expressions, one born from sincerity and the relief of many various kids, both in the bands and the audiences, that this form of expression had found acceptance and was indeed being condoned in their peer group. I myself can remember feeling this exact form of relief. I’d felt outcast and misunderstood for so much of my life that the opportunity to communicate honestly with kids like me about feelings I’d never known anyone besides me felt gave me hope for the future I’d never known was possible. It seemed at the time like hardcore was saving my life.

The movement towards emotional honesty in hardcore began with mid-80s hardcore bands like Husker Du and Rites of Spring, and gained momentum in the California scene of the early 90s. The Sacramento band Sinker referred to this new musical movement as "the emotional revolution", and at a time when the tough-guy straight edge bands of the late 80s were giving way to the cartoonish, unintentional self-parody of Vegan Reich and Earth Crisis, this progression towards an emotional openness was a welcome breath of fresh air for the majority of the hardcore scene. For a few years, the number of bands taking part in this scene grew exponentially every year, bringing more and more participants into a movement that, because of its radical interpretation of the DIY ethic, was even smaller in scale than hardcore had been before. There were benefits to the small scale, though, paramount among them a sense of cameraderie that left the hardcore scene closer-knit than it ever had before, even as it shrank. During the mid-90s, this movement’s golden age, hardcore came to be seen by its participants as a genre governed by ethics, not musical style, which is why such disparate bands as the proto-metalcore group Rorschach, the folkish, pastoral Ordination of Aaron, and the abrasive and experimental Antioch Arrow were all seen as part of the same genre.

Ten years later, the underground hardcore scene is very different than it was in the mid-90s. The emotional honesty that was the driving force of the scene at the time has to a great extent died out. Despite the fact that many of the participants in the hardcore scene of the time felt validated by the confessional nature of the music, there were always some involved in the scene who were put off by it. Sam McPheeters of Born Against wrote in his zine "Error" of experiencing trepidation after seeing the band Franklin end a set with their guitarist throwing his guitar into his amp and collapsing into tears onstage. "This does not bode well" is the thought he attributes to himself at the time, writing in 1999, at several years’ remove from the experience he describes. By the time he published this story, the tone of the scene had begun to change, and one was more likely to receive accolades than censure for questioning the legitimacy of such emotional outbursts. Perhaps Sam and others like him were not experiencing the same sorts of emotional upheavals in their daily lives as the majority of the kids who were participating, or perhaps they were just uncomfortable with overt, public displays of these emotions. In the end, it amounted to the same, and their discomfort, no matter how quiet it was kept at the time, sowed seeds of a backlash even at the height of the renaissance in emotional hardcore.

Another factor that spelled doom for this sort of expression within the bounds of hardcore was the nature of the bands that sprang up in the wake of the initial flowering of the genre. As always happens with musical innovation, there soon comes a second generation who, instead of attempting to create something that they don’t already see in the world, seeks to imitate the first generation. This is not necessarily a bad thing; a band with enough talent and inspiration can create a refinement of the sound they’re attempting to recreate that actually improves upon everything that came before them, especially if they’re mixing this new sound with ideas taken from other genres that may not have even registered on the radar of the first generation. This sort of thing happened plenty of times between 1996 and 1999, especially from a purely musical standpoint. Things got a little weirder when the new generation attempted to capture the spirit of the mid-90s hardcore movement. Some who had spent their high school years watching the first generation of bands attempted to recreate the powerful effect their emotional sets could have on an audience, but undermined their own efforts through calculation. It’s just not the same to see a band whose members fall down onstage or collapse into tears at the end of their set when it’s something planned and orchestrated. It might work on the audience the first time, but when you’ve seen a band five times and they’ve cried at the same point in the set every time, one’s disbelief becomes more and more difficult to suspend.

Other bands, featuring members of a more McPheeters-like disposition, turned away from the emotional openness of their predecessors and peers completely. Sometimes they chose to focus their sights in a more political direction, but this kind of songwriting carries its own need for earnest commitment, and it was easier for the average hardcore kid to retreat into irony. The Locust, who featured members of the first generation bands Struggle and Swing Kids, continued to push the music of the scene in innovative directions with their mix of grindcore, disco, and rock n’ roll riffs, but overlaid it all with lyrics that were so much random gibberish. The young Indiana quintet Usurp Synapse mixed The Locust’s quirky grind with the metallic hardcore sound of Canadian bands like Drift and Union of Uranus, but undermined the power of their music with such repugnant releases as "Just Do It!", an EP with a cover graphic of a slashed wrist in the shape of a Nike swoosh and featuring the song "Maybe You Should Kill Yourself." One assumed that the whole thing was a joke, but it was, to say the least, in questionable taste, and certainly wasn’t something anyone would have contributed to the community five years before. Meanwhile, back in California, Swing Kids and Unbroken guitarist Eric Allen committed suicide, turning the liner notes he’d penned for Unbroken’s album "Life Love Regret" eerily prophetic ("My wrists have healed but I don’t know if my times of desperation are over or only beginning..."). This could have opened a dialogue about how much hurt a lot of kids in the scene were feeling, but if it did, that dialogue never reached me.

Instead, emotional honesty in hardcore became less and less prevalent, and the DIY ethic that had held things together so well in past years became fractured as well. Bands that had used the relaxation of strict musical rules on the genre of hardcore to explore more commercially acceptable sounds realized that, with the growth of their sound in commercial directions, they’d opened themselves up to greater opportunities to make money off of their music. It was only a matter of time before one of those bands took the opportunity to sign to a major label. Sure enough, Jimmy Eat World did exactly that, and with the help of Saves the Day and several others, remade the term "emo" in their own image. Soon, emo and hardcore were seen as two different things, and the point where those sounds intersected was rechristened "screamo", despite the fact that the new screamo sounded just like the old emo.

And who really could bring themselves to care? No one had ever really liked the term emo anyway, and if it was the exclusive province of teenage high school kids now, there was no reason to even worry with it. What was troubling, though, was what had come to replace the emotional revolution, both in the hardcore scene and in the underground rock scene in general: irony. In 1999, Palatka released an album entitled "The End of Irony", featuring a liner note essay decrying the infiltration of this concept into the scene. At the time, I must admit, I was a bit fuzzy on what they meant. The word "irony" had not yet become a part of my daily vocabulary. I remembered the scene in "Reality Bites" where Winona Ryder blows a job interview because she’s unable to define irony, only to have Ethan Hawke matter-of-factly explain that irony is when the meaning of a word seems to be the opposite of what it actually means. I couldn’t see how that term applied to what Palatka was talking about: "self-defeating depression broken only by in jokes and holy smoke." What were they even talking about?

I didn’t know how lucky I had it at the time, and neither did Palatka. If there was any real commitment to irony within the scene at the time that album was released, it was nothing compared to how deeply entrenched it is now. Ironic distance is what has become the real problem in modern times. Palatka were totally unprepared for ironic distance, that concept that prevents anything from being taken too seriously because it’s all said with an arched eyebrow, an appearance of wit. If someone says something sincere, they avoid an obvious commitment to it, just in case their statement draws fire. Ironic distance always keeps the option to retreat from an unpopular statement, to pretend that you were just making a deadpan joke. The widespread use of this tactic puts people on their guard, makes everyone afraid to break the status quo and say anything that might seem too revolutionary, too real. Additionally, it starts to feel safer not to put too much stock in anything anyone says, for fear that their irony will fool you, draw you into sincere agreement with something intended to be a joke, and make you a laughingstock along with whatever sentiment you expressed. Palatka used their liner note essay to reference the irony inherent in a loss of ideals that were once upheld proudly by younger kids in a younger scene. They saw this pitfall of the aging process as the worst we had to fear from irony. One wonders what they would think now, when rather than just having to deal with the irony of someone else’s lost ideals, they’d have to confront the fact that someone else’s maintaining of a constant ironic distance can be enough to shame the majority of today’s generation out of ever attempting to have ideals in the first place.

The sincerity that was the hallmark of the hardcore scene 10 years ago has not completely disappeared. However, it has, bizarrely enough, moved closer to the mainstream, as part of the modern emo scene. Today’s version is far from its roots as an outgrowth of hardcore. Instead, it is seen as a teenage fad, something decidedly not to be taken seriously. Many people take the attitude towards emo that Andy Greenwald took in his book "Nothing Feels Good"; that emo is popular with teenagers because teenagers are the only age group in which the dramatic emotional upheavals that emo often documents in song are actually occurring on a day to day basis. The feelings that cause people to connect with emo are therefore viewed as an adolescent phase that people generally grow out of by the time they are settling into adult life.

But is this really the case? For a time in the hardcore scene, the door was open for anyone to express these sorts of feelings. Most often that expression did come from people of high school and college age, but then again, most of the members of the hardcore scene were in that age group to begin with. The older people who were involved with hardcore at the time were just as ready with emotional outpourings as their younger counterparts, and sometimes produced the most enduring art of the period (see the music of Still Life or the writing of Kent McClard for prime examples). Perhaps the need for this emotional outlet is not so much a function of one’s age as one’s relative comfort with the lifestyle of mainstream society in modern America and other first world countries.

There are some who would argue that I’m reading too much into the shift in dynamic, which has occurred both in the underground hardcore scene and the wider world of independent rock music, from wide-eyed emotional sincerity to ironic distance. Like anything else, they’d say, this is just the function of a metaphorical pendulum swinging from one extreme on the spectrum to the other. Irony’s moment in the sun will pass, they’ll say, and the time for an emphasis on sincerity will come around again. There’s probably some truth to this argument, and I would find it much easier to accept if it weren’t for a lingering feeling I can’t shake–a feeling that we’ve lost something. At the time Friction released "Transit", it was easy for a band to achieve recognition and respect through the sort of sincere expression of emotion embodied by that song. At that time, the opportunity was always there to break with mainstream societal convention and say whatever it was they were thinking. Even if people didn’t agree with it, they respected it, and respected the act of putting it out there. Kids who didn’t want to take advantage of this opportunity as it was provided to them by the scene they were involved in didn’t have to, but the vast majority appreciated and made use of this opportunity as it was provided.

Now, with ironic distance having established a firm hold on the discourse of the hardcore and indie scenes as a whole, those who depart from the mainstream in an effort to find a place where they fit in, where their differences are valued and expression of those differences is encouraged, are presented with a daunting atmosphere that doesn’t seem much more inviting than the mainstream they’ve so recently left behind. If their feelings seem more akin to the province of emo, they are marginalized through the predominant view of those feelings as teenaged, immature, something to be grown out of sooner rather than later. In the final analysis, hardcore and indie rock have become mirror images of the emotional tone embodied by mainstream society. Perhaps it’s our own fear of exposure and abandonment by our peers that keeps this unhealthy situation in place; that would certainly be understandable in light of the typical insecurities and lack of self-esteem that lead people to these underground scenes in the first place. But no matter what the reason, we are all a little bit poorer for it.

Sorry it took all week for me to make a new post, but I've been working on this one the whole time. It took a few days of writing for a couple hours a day to finish, and when I say "finish" I mean this is still a rough draft. Hopefully the final version will go on to bigger and better things than just this blog, as I'm really proud of the great majority of this piece. Hope you guys can appreciate it, even in this somewhat-unfinished form. I'm just glad I'm done with it. In fact, I'm gonna go get a pizza to celebrate.