The 2008 release The Chemistry of Common Life, by the shadowy experimental punk band Fucked Up, took the indie rock world by storm, prompting some critics to call it a breath of fresh air from the moribund depths of hardcore. This Friday, Super Unison brings Fucked Up to Houston, and in celebration of the sure-to-be-mind-expanding show, we offer the following listening program for the hardcore fan who wants to use their head for something besides banging. Not that there's anything wrong with that.*
D.R.I.- Dealing With It (Metal Blade, 1985) Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, originally from Houston, was a pioneer of the combination of hardcore punk and thrash metal that came to be known as crossover, after the 1987 D.R.I. album by that name. Dealing With It, the last record the band made in Texas before their permanent relocation to California, began to incorporate their metal influences while still relying heavily on double-time hardcore. The compromise produced music that was cynical and serious, yet energetic and fun at the same time. Kurt Brecht's trenchant lyrics are the definitive punk-rock catalog of Bad Things That Exist, from war, taxes and religious hypocrisy to nursing homes, soup kitchens and bad marriages. Bonus: wrist-slashin' cover art by Sound Exchange's Kevin Bakos.
Bad Brains- I Against I (SST, 1986) This legendary band's third LP is often said to be its first to contain no reggae, but this is only true on the surface. I Against I draws heavy syncopation and melody from reggae and uses them to corral a ferocious hardcore/thrash hybrid into fearsome and timeless riffs, in a kind of earthfallen roots-gospel suggested by the record's title. Guitarist Dr. Know solos like a leashed tiger, lashing out with a fury that is impossibly finessed and completely unpredictable; H.R.'s awe-inspiringly spiritual vocal performances are unparalleled in punk rock. A perfect album that transcends hardcore in its very mastery of the form.
Helmet- Betty (Interscope, 1994) You might remember Helmet as a minor player in the grunge revolution and a predecessor to nu-metal, but their roots are in New York hardcore and noise-rock along with Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop. Sometimes considered to be the first post-hardcore band, Helmet pushed the genre's nascent tendencies toward groove and syncopation to their logical limit on Betty by hiring hip-hop producer T-Ray, who gave John Stanier's crisply titanic half-time drumming a mile-wide sonic space and smoothed the band's guitars into creamy, pulsating waves. Bandleader Page Hamilton's work on Betty continues to prove him one of the cleverest men in hard rock, for his harmonically inventive songwriting, his sense of humor, his muddled, anti-heroic solos, and his lyrics, which obliquely inhabit and dissect early hardcore's subculture of urban white trash.
Man Is The Bastard- Thoughtless (Gravity, 1995) The influential but relatively low-profile Man Is The Bastard is often credited as the first band to play power violence, a guttural hybrid of grindcore and hardcore. As interpreted by bands like Spazz and Houston's own Knucklescraper, power violence is fun, almost comical, but on Thoughtless it is the vehicle for powerful expressions of unholy rage. The dark sound of MITB's unconventional instrumentation- two basses, no guitar- and the black-metal screech with which they augment the standard butch roar give the band an air of evil, but their lyrical content (including a selection from Allen Ginsberg's Howl on the terrifying eleven-minute dirge "Moloch") marks them as mere messengers of darkness- prophets of the bleak future guaranteed by the unchecked spread of industrial capitalism.
Shotmaker- Mouse Ear (Forget-Me-Not), Available on the Complete Discography 1993-1996 CD (Troubleman Unlimited, 2000) Perhaps the heaviest album ever named after a flower, this 1996 LP features sounds so raw that the band members might as well be beating their instruments with rocks. Yet their enraged emocore is locked tight into stomping polyrhythmic grooves, which are almost sadistically restrained to midtempo. Shotmaker's aesthetic gathered in the post-industrial angst of D.C. hardcore and the faux-Beat sensibility of Cap'n Jazz and Rainer Maria, giving their incredibly angry music a peculiarly urbane and nonthreatening vibe.
Discordance Axis- The Inalienable Dreamless (Hydra Head, 2000)A far cry from your average grindcore band, Discordance Axis boasts gratifying harmonic variety along with crushing weight from guitarist Rob Marton, plus exceptional power and intelligibility, courtesy of one of the best grind drummers ever born: Dave Witte, who has also played for Human Remains, Burnt By The Sun, Phantomsmasher, Melt-Banana and Municipal Waste. Vocalist Jon Chang sings in canonical death- and black-metal styles, but his lyrics explore imagery influenced by video games, cyberpunk fiction, and psychoanalysis. Discordance Axis gave voice to a generation of hardcore fans who grew up not on the mean streets of New York or L.A., but in cozy suburban basements, listening to Napalm Death, reading William Gibson and playing Magic: the Gathering.
Converge- Jane Doe (Epitaph, 2001) Converge isn't the fastest, heaviest or angriest band, though Jane Doe certainly is fast, heavy and angry; rather, the band provides a hellish update of rock and roll. Converge centers songs around slashing guitar riffs and complementary racing drumrolls, and alongside bands like Mastodon and High on Fire, they play metal that draws significant elements from punk and hardcore in order to create music that fulfills a need for something harder- a lot harder- than mainstream hard rock, yet remains intelligible to a rock audience and retains a sense of pop experimentation. The meaty, punishing and creative songs on Jane Doe represent one of the greatest successes of that idiom.
The Blood Brothers- Burn, Piano Island, Burn (Artist Direct, 2003) The Blood Brothers' signature was the dramatic and insolently androgynous vocal interplay between Jordan Billie and Johnny Whitney- Piano Island frequently finds them using horrifying tandem howls to deliver nightmarish and anthemic hooks, like a mob of teenage demons. The record relies less than is conventional on guitar for weight, instead shifting the burden to drummer Mark Gajadhar, whose neck-snapping rhythmic shifts impart a bewildering density. The value of the Blood Brothers' place in history, between the ultramod screamo of Swing Kids and the Refused and a wave of bratty, mall-ready goth-core bands, is debatable, but the intense, creepy and thunderous rock of Piano Island is not to be fucked with.
The Blame Game- 12" Split with Zann, Available on the Anthology CD (Stickfigure, 2004) This record is the best document of the spazzed-out punk-grind-crust-jazz-emo mishmash that the Atlanta quartet played early in their career. On paper it sounds like a pretentious, unlistenable mess, but the music itself holds together beautifully, as if the band couldn't conceive of playing any other way- although it turns out they could, as the Blame Game went on to release some of the best straight-up math-rock of the '00s on Honey and Salt and Ask Someone. Moving, naturalistic, adventurous and humble, this virtually unknown band was a testament to the variety, depth and potency of post-indie-rock hardcore, not to mention the Atlanta underground rock scene.
Hatred Surge- "Servant" b/w "Bestial" (Deer Healer, 2008) Hatred Surge has yet to release a proper LP, so those interested in the cutting edge of Texas punk rock would do best to pick up this 2008 7", on which Machine Gun Romantics/Knucklescraper alum and Houston native Alex Hughes assembles chunks of hardcore, power violence and Freud into strange, churning songs that jump from crushing rock to blasting noise to spare atmospherics. Hughes also plays guitar in Iron Age, who support Fucked Up this Friday at Walter's on Washington.
*This list is not intended to be exhaustive. There are lots of other smart hardcore bands out there. Also, we know not all these bands are technically "hardcore" so you don't need to point that out.