Fringe Dwellers

Permanently underground, that's what hardcore is. At least one representative of every other aggressive fringe genre has flirted with the mainstream: Slayer made proto-death metal a platinum commodity; Ministry did the same for smack-fueled industrial; and both rap-metal and pop-punk have crossed over so many times now that they have semipermanent addresses on the charts.

But not hardcore. Biohazard sold a few records at its height, and Bad Brains achieved critical and cult fame. But both were "tainted" by outside influences (hip-hop and reggae, respectively), and neither exactly had record buyers lining up at Wherehouse Music waiting for their latest discs. Refused, Sick of It All, Crumbsuckers and Pro-Pain all have made records both catchy enough -- and, well, "metal" enough -- to cross over into greener fields. And yet not one has done so.

Maybe that's because it's hardly ever "party time" at Hardcore HQ. It takes a particular mind-set to hear tales of personal woe and societal meltdown and not only enjoy it, but draw inspiration from it. And somehow that just ain't the mind-set of the record-buying public.

Huntington Beach, California's Straightfaced isn't likely to change this. But on its way to noble obscurity, the band undoubtedly will leave its own indelible bruise on the body hardcore. Formed in 1995, Straightfaced not only pulls off the increasingly standard pairing of old-school New York hardcore and new-metal aesthetics but also boasts some traditional punk elements. What's more, the group, mainly via guitarist David Tonic, manages to weave in a psychedelic phrase or two.

"Instead of trying to write a type of music -- we're a metal band, we're a punk band, or whatever -- we use all those things, and however it turns out is how it turns out," offers vocalist Johnny Miller. "To me, all those types of music have a lot of similarities anyway. Maybe a lot of people are unwilling to realize that. But a lot of times these days, even metal bands, whether the imagery might be a little different or whatever, we're all talking about the same stuff."

Miller has taken to heart the punk-rock ethos of independence "or whatever it is that gets people into punk rock," he says with a laugh. The point being that it's mighty odd to him how much purist furor is made over one label or another when, theoretically, every band got into this end of the music pool because it could do its own thing. "I try not to be judgmental about the differences in music that people listen to, or why people listen to what," Miller says. "We just kind of do what we do, and do what we wanna do first. And if people like it, it's just that much better."

Such an open-minded approach must serve Miller, Tonic and the rest of Straightfaced (drummer Ron Moller, bassist Jeff Hibben) well on a tour such as the Punk-O-Rama trek. Put together annually by Epitaph Records, the home of Straightfaced and the other bands on the bill, the tour seems to have a singular purpose (well, other than marketing, of course): to juxtapose the various flavors of punk on one night. In addition to Straightfaced's new hardcore bluster, there's also the ska-punk of Voodoo Glow Skulls, the pop-descended-from-art-punk of All and the very traditional hardcore of Agnostic Front.

"There's going to be people that love some of it," states Miller. "There are going to be people that hate some of it. There are going to be people that love all of it. We definitely aren't setting out to make fans of every single person that comes. That's not even realistic."

Curiously enough, the band's latest record is titled Pulling Teeth, which is arguably an appropriate metaphor for a group that boasts such a complicated message. Over the course of Teeth, the band members struggle with the idea of finding "the path," and the difficulty in doing so.

But despite the singularity of purpose, the voices used in exploring it vary in both perspective and attitude. There's "Happy," with its open plea simply to shine some light; there's "Just Like You," which suggests that you can't expect to please everyone; and there's "Salvation," which espouses the belief that no matter what, you've got to keep moving.

"For this record I really kept the writing a lot simpler," explains Miller, "and just tried to get down to writing about things that have actually happened to me, whereas before the writing might have been more vague and open to interpretation." Part of this newfound directness has to do with turmoil surrounding the band itself. With the departure of longtime rhythm guitarist Damon Beard and the replacement of bass player Kevin Norton halfway through the writing process, Straightfaced was forced to refocus in order to keep moving forward.

"Kill the Messenger" deals with the purging of either excess or idleness; a sample lyric: "Eight at night and I wasted all this time / Medicate me with my one-track mind." "Well, that one actually is pretty vague," says Miller, laughing. "It's actually about a specific instance in somebody else's life. But I left it kind of vague, because if you changed just a couple of words to this or that, what the song is really about would be a lot more obvious. And that would give a lot less people a chance to really relate to it."

There's a similarly compelling lyric in "In Doubt," which spends 99 percent of its length offering a sincere apology for past misjudgments before closing with a shouted "Cannot! Will not!" "That song was actually written about me and my dad," divulges Miller. "Something I think a lot of people my age can relate to is spending most of your life fighting this influence. And by the time it's very late or too late, you realize, "God, somebody's been trying to look out for me my whole life, and I've been beating them off with both hands,' not considering that maybe they really were looking out for your best interests and that the whole entire world wasn't out to get you. So that one's kind of like a half-assed apology."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Chris Smith