The best Canadian hardcore band you've never heard.
So what is this prized record, this long-lost gem I was willing to pay uncalled-for amounts of money in order to own? It was the one and only 7 inch by the French-Canadian hardcore band Drift, which came out on Great American Steak Religion Records in 1995. Drift issued at least one more song on a split 7 inch with fellow Canadians Jonah, and I have that 7 inch, but their song from that 7 inch just didn't have the kind of blistering fury that I remembered from their first EP. So for years, I'd play that song, and think about what a poor substitute it was for the 7 inch I'd sold.
I'll start by saying that I remembered Drift as being like Union of Uranus, but faster. However, for many of you, an explanation of Union of Uranus will be needed in order to even understand that much. So here's a quick crash course. First of all, Union of Uranus were the foundation of Canadian hardcore in the mid-90s. Their guitarist founded the Great American Steak Religion label, and they were the first of the Great American Steak Religion bands to release a record. These bands, all of which came from the Eastern half of Canada (usually either Quebec or Ontario), had a similar sound, and Union Of Uranus provided the template. The essential ingredient was the riffing--fast, double-picked, vaguely melodic, and generally structured around octave chords (though Drift were more into power chords--more on that later), these riffs had some stylistic similarities with those being played by Scandinavian black metal bands of the same period. It's questionable as to whether these Canadian hardcore bands were aware of Norwegian and Swedish black metal--I myself discovered both scenes within the same three-month period, but that's not to say that my own relative ignorance of black metal was shared by the Canadian underground hardcore scene. Really, it's irrelevant, because whether or not the Canadian riffing style was influenced by black metal or developed concurrently, there were several other elements of Canadian hardcore that diverged completely from the black metal sound. Union of Uranus's vocals were high-pitched screams, which may seem like a black metal trope. However, their influences were not Slayer or King Diamond but hardcore vocalists like those who fronted Negative Approach or Crucifix. The difference in Union Of Uranus's vocal sound from these past hardcore bands came entirely in how low in the mix they were placed. The guitars were much louder, but so was everything else. Really, the vocalist sounded like he was singing in another room--or through the sort of subpar PA system that was par for the course in the basements and VFW halls where bands like Union Of Uranus generally played. Finally, the tempos of the songs, though occasionally speedy, were generally midtempo, driving, and powered by an undeniable groove. The combination of the groove and the simultaneously driving and melodic riffs was what defined the sound of Canadian hardcore during the mid-90s, and Union Of Uranus was the template for that sound.
So it makes sense that, in my mind, Drift's first EP sounded just like Union Of Uranus, only faster. It had been a decade since I owned the record, and even records you loved start to blur in your mind when you haven't heard them in that long. I was aware that 4/5 of Drift had gone on to have a much longer career as the band Born Dead Icons, a somewhat crust-punk sounding band that always reminded me of Motorhead crossed with Amebix and also struck me as noticeably inferior to Drift. In my memory, there was no connection between the sound of Born Dead Icons and Drift--despite containing almost all of the same members, they had nothing in common musically.
OK, that's all background that you needed to understand in order for me to tell you what I discovered when I took my new copy of the Drift EP out of the mailer and put it on my turntable. First and foremost, it was awesome. I'd built it up over the years to be at least as awesome as Union Of Uranus's magnum opus, the double 7 inch "Disaster By Design". And I wasn't wrong. Sure, that Union Of Uranus record is great, but if you're more in the mood for a compact blast of fiery hardcore noise, it's Drift you want to reach for. But what I didn't remember was that same biker-metal edge that informed so much of Born Dead Icons' work, an edge that makes itself obvious from the opening notes of "#8", the first song on this EP. It starts with their lead guitarist playing two notes, bending the second one, and then letting it hang there for a few seconds, in a manner reminiscent of Ted Nugent. After a second, he hits a couple of chords, and the band comes in with a typical driving, midtempo Canadian hardcore riff. Two different vocalists scream and howl in tandem, barely making themselves heard above the music, the bass throbs underneath the octave-chord riffing, and the drumming pushes along an undeniable groove. So far, nothing unexpected. But then, about 90 seconds into the track, the band does two dramatic chugs and slams into a fast, straightforward hardcore riff. The vocals are still low in the mix, the guitars are still way fuzzier than conventional hardcore riffing would dictate, but once you look past these potentially misdirecting surface elements, it's undeniable that this is a hardcore riff--it's even got power chords instead of octave chords!
Back in 1995, if I had noticed this sort of thing, it certainly would have turned me off to this record--at the time, I had no tolerance for either crust or old-school hardcore. Therefore, I'm lucky that the misdirecting elements of Drift's sound fooled my younger self, because if I'd been repelled by what Drift are doing on this song, I would have missed out on some really great songwriting. If Drift were using conventional hardcore riffing in a standard way, it would indeed be boring, but by combining it with the more original elements of the style their scene created, they not only improved upon the template Union Of Uranus developed but helped to make an old and somewhat stale technique seem fresh again. For the rest of "#8", they alternated between crustcore riffing, out-and-out blast beats, and the sort of midtempo grooves they'd begun the song with, and did so at breakneck speed. Having converted the song to an mp3 file in order to post it at the end of this entry, I discovered that the first transition from midtempo groove into uptempo hardcore riffing came slightly past the halfway point of the song, which surprised me, as I'd always perceived it as happening less than a third of the way through. This is undoubtedly because of just how many different ideas they cram into that last half of "#8". For a less talented band, this technique might make the song seem cluttered, but Drift use it to craft brilliance.
They up the ante on the second song, "Fade", which immediately slams into the sort of fast hardcore riff that "#8" spent its first half laying the groundwork for. This sort of speed continues throughout the first half of the song, once seeming to stop for a second, as the band drops out and the lead guitar runs through a slightly slower riff... but instead of introducing a slower section of the song, the band comes right back in with a riff just as fast as the one it had just come out of. They proceed to build you right back up to another guitar break, and you almost expect another fakeout. But nothing can prepare you for the one you get--the lead guitar runs once through a fast riff, then abruptly chokes off the final chord, and there is one glorious nanosecond of silence before the entire band slams into a full-on breakdown. It's not a mosh part, though, but instead a midtempo groove part of fine Canadian vintage. But before you know it, the band's back in hyperspeed mode, and the song's last half ends up being just as dominated by uptempo hardcore riffs as its first half was.
The final track on this EP, which takes up all of side two, is "Swindle", and it hews most closely to the Union Of Uranus template. Union Of Uranus were known for writing long, complex songs (though not as long and complex as those by later Great American Steak Religion band One Eyed God Prophecy, who were almost psychedelic in their experimentation with song structure), and "Swindle" is the only track here that seems like it could have been written by Uranus. It has a long intro, with vocals not coming in until almost a minute has elapsed, and it relies on midtempo grooves, which ebb and flow through many changes while mostly avoiding the fast hardcore riffing that showed up on side one. However, this doesn't make it any less good than the other songs on this EP--after all, Drift had no shortage of great quality riffs, and "Swindle" contains just as many as the other two tracks, albeit taking twice their length to utilize them. And there are occasional glimpses of that raging hardcore undercurrent, even in this song--a short uptempo riff around the 1:30 mark and the near-blasting riff that brings the song to its final screaming climax are both good examples of that.
Yeah, I really do love this Drift EP, so much that I really don't regret spending $17 to bring it back into my collection. In fact, I'm going to make an exception to my usual method of blog operation, in which I only offer a taste of the records I discuss. After all, this record is long out of print. The songs have never been available on CD, and I'm sure there were no more than 5,000 copies of this 7 inch pressed. I'd hate for all of you to have to drop nearly $20 on Ebay just to find out if this record really is as good as I say it is. So, what the hell: here are all three of the songs from this EP (plus a bonus Union Of Uranus track, from "Disaster By Design"). They're ripped from my turntable, which runs slightly fast because the pitch control is almost impossible to access, so they're probably not supposed to be quite this short. But what the hell, they're free, right?
Drift - #8
Drift - Fade
Drift - Swindle
Union Of Uranus - Pedestal