Pop Life

Flannel File: Quicksand

Speaking of the early days of the Warped Tour, let's talk about Quicksand. Along with Helmet, Quicksand developed and popularized a particular type of post-hardcore that took the metal-influenced hardcore punk of 1980s New York, cut the tempo in half and filled up the resulting space with melody and atmosphere. Quicksand frontman Walter Schreifels had previously been the creative force behind Gorilla Biscuits, one of the most important bands of the NYC youth crew scene (he also played bass for a while in Youth of Today, who wrote the song "Youth Crew").

This would be the scene that transformed straightedge from Ian Mackaye's teenage sidestep into a youth movement and strict code of conduct that, ever since, has inspired near-religious zeal from its devotees and exasperation and annoyance from nearly everyone else. I've also heard Gorilla Biscuits described as "posi-core," because of the themes of uplift and morality that pervade its music.

Unfortunately, thematic content almost always takes precedence over musicality for GB, and though Schreifels pushes against the limitations of the hardcore box with nimble leads, octave melodies and clever harmonic shifts, his work is undercut by preachy and awkward lyrics. The Biscuits' single album, released in 1988, has not aged well, with the exception of their legitimately great anthem "Start Today."

Schreifels must have chafed at GB's limitations, because when he started Quicksand in 1990, the "message" characteristic of the youth crew bands (which at the time was intensifying into actual religion, with John Joseph of the Cro-Mags and Ray Cappo joining the Hare Krishnas) was nowhere to be found. In its place was a pop sensibility engaged with "mainstream" alt-rock and totally at odds with the inwardly-directed, rule-bound viewpoint of NYC hardcore. The following video, probablly recorded early in their career, shows Quicksand covering the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now," preceded by Schreifels doing half of "Start Today."

A few things to note here:

1. Although Schreifels was probably still in Gorilla Biscuits at this time, his dress (look at the size of that shirt!) and stage moves make him look a lot more like an alt-rocker than a straightedge punk.

2. The band is incredibly young-looking. Schreifels is about 21 here.

3. His solo version of "Start Today" is pitch-perfect, but also a complete tease- no band and only half the song.

4. Covering the Smiths is a dramatic break musically from NYC hardcore, but I defy anyone to locate a trace of the Smiths here. Only the lyrics are the same; the music and vocal melody are entirely rewritten.

So far from the moralistic earnestness of the youth crew, Schreifels's music is now coy and savvy. It's also fully-formed into a rather distinctive musical idiom. The evocative harmony and half-time bounce of this clip would become Quicksand's hallmark, continuing into Schreifels's later project, Rival Schools.

All this gives me the impression that, although Schreifels came out of the hardcore scene, there's a pop sensibility driving his songwriting that also informs the way that he presents his music to the world. Like Bob Mould and Grant Hart of Husker Du, Schreifels outgrew the strictures of hardcore, but rather than abandoning the idiom, he forced it to grow with him.

Quicksand appeared on the Warped Tour supporting 1995's Manic Compression. Though some things about the record can be traced to hardcore- in particular the raw, ugly sounds of the instruments- the songs, and Schreifels' pleading vocals, can't. Helmet pushed beyond hardcore by injecting self-awareness into the lyrics and using huge riffs as paddles to churn the music into a creamy smoothness. By contrast, Quicksand simply changed the emphasis of the style, from musical aggression and shoutable choruses to melody and harmony, and voila: post-hardcore.

The loud-quiet-loud surge of single "Delusional" is downright Pixiesesque, and indeed, this is the same type of transformation that yielded indie-rock and grunge in other situations. Indeed, while it's possible to hear some of Quicksand in a variety of punk bands (and even some nu-metal; Quicksand toured with the Deftones) from the subsequent decade, especially the Florida branch of emo-core, Rival Schools went ahead and crossed over from hardcore to hardcore-influenced indie-rock.

That's more or less where Schreifels was headed all along, and from one project to the next, the songwriting barely even changed. Just slap some gates and EQ on the record and swap the ballcap and braids for colorful, fitted T-shirts and nerdy glasses. Instant indie rock band.

When I saw Rival Schools in 2001, the band was sandwiched between Neutral-Milk-Hotel-by-way-of-Sunny-Day-Real-Estate songwriter John Vanderslice and Burning Airlines. J. Robbins of Burning Airlines, it just so happens, had a very similar career trajectory: from hardcore sideman (Government Issue) to post-hardcore bandleader (Jawbox) to punk-influenced indie-rocker.

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Daniel Mee