Not Waving But Drowning - If It's Too Cute, Set It On Fire (1999)
We’ve covered some dark stuff thus far on the American Metalcore Project. Amid all the eschatology, emotive politics, and heretical philosophy, it’s easy to forget that there are metalcore bands that play music because it’s fun, and that they’re just as deserving of attention as your Bloodlets, Unruhs, and Kiss It Goodbyes. Not Waving But Drowning are a St. Louis band with a single record to their name and an unplaceable appeal that allows them to play large shows around their hometown area to this day, making them something of a “cult” metalcore band, if you will. While they aren’t going to score points for technical skill or win over progressive crowds, for anyone who can appreciate a catchy riff, If It’s Too Cute, Set It On Fire is as riffy and infectious as they come.
“Somewhere Away” and “Untitled In D” are upbeat slices of punk that start the album on an almost carefree note. It’s hard not to smile when you hear the band chant “1, 2, 3, 4!” on “Somewhere Away,” or when they rip into “Good Intentions” with its faint echoes of pop-punk. The tone on these songs belies the angularity of the rest of the album, our first hint of which is the sudden growling on “Untitled In D,” at odds with the song’s otherwise sunny disposition. “You’re Up Next” takes us into hardcore territory with chunky, triumphant riffing and chin-up lyrics, but it’s “Undercover” that, funnily enough, unmasks the beefy Snapcase riffs that are the band’s true calling. Todd Finoch’s Tommy Rogers-esque screeches (think The Silent Circus, but less strained) are weird, but you acclimate to them as the album hurries along. “Shatterproof” rocks a jaunty, stop-start rhythm that periodically bursts into flurries of shred. “Everything Vs. Nothing” turns some pensively strumming into the album’s heaviest song, after which the party-ready “Covering Ground,” with its slurred vocals and loping riffs, can be jarring. That goes doubly for “Rock Anthem.” “Covering Ground” makes sense on the tracklist as a moment of decompression, but “Rock Anthem” is a full-on joke song, and your enjoyment of it will depend on how onboard you are with Not Waving But Drowning’s sense of humor. Its first two minutes are a chant of “You can’t keep us down! / We’re gonna rock your town!” peppered with cheesy yeah-yeahs, followed by several minutes of listless drumming and ambient guitar. Eventually, they splice in a sample of the audio from The Evil Dead 2’s “Dead by dawn!” scene, and the song culminates in what sounds like a mathcore parody, with squealing guitars and gurgled vocals.
That this is is a one-off album is a mixed prospect all around. On one hand, the music is ripe with potential, and there’s a sense that they could have become a “serious” band and dominated the scene if they chose. On the other, there are so many experimental tangents buried in the writing that one wonders what they might be capable of if they dialed back or ditched the hardcore influence altogether. “Rock Anthem” may be a joke, but if they had gone on to write a tortured grunge record, I doubt they’d had received a lot of pushback - the sleaziness of “Covering Ground” and the upbeat openers shows signs of the sort of musical quirkiness you can mine for a career. It’s these kinds of possibilities that keep their fanbase around, I suppose, not to mention their ability to flat-out crush a riff. Incidentally, they’re also one of the rare American Metalcore Project bands you can still catch live if your timing is right. It’s clear that Not Waving But Drowning genuinely enjoy the music they play, and sometimes, that’s all you really need out of a band. Again: if you can get with the band’s humor and refrain from taking them too seriously, If It’s Too Cute, Set It on Fire is a memorable example of metalcore that doesn’t have to push boundaries to be enjoyed.
- Brian L.
Disembodied - Diablerie (1997)
As a genre, metalcore is as much of an enigma as any style of music. Like it’s hardcore cousin, it tends move in cycles as different sub-genres move to its forefront every ten-to-fifteen or so years. Five years ago, everyone wanted to sound like Periphery, and five years before that, everyone wanted to be Botch. Now everyone wants to sound like a band right off of Trustkill/Ferret/Indecision/any-other-metalcore-label-from-the-late-90’s-or-early-00’s; Poison the Well, 7 Angels 7 Plagues, Eighteen Visions, etc. are all bands from whom this new wave of metalcore seem to really enjoy taking inspiration. Of them all, however, none seem to be currently as in vogue as Minnesota’s Disembodied.
Yes, that Disembodied: the band that everyone and their mother swore they listened to two years ago when their favorite band was probably Northlane or Thy Art is Murder (or some other band of that nature) as soon as they and their sister band, Martyr A.D., were slated to reunite for this year’s edition of This is Hardcore fest. Suddenly, merchswap groups across Facebook were littered with inquiries to old merch (including that windbreaker) as people rushed to learn the lyrics to “Heroine Fingers.” All jokes aside, Disembodied’s discography had a profound effect on many of metalcore’s pioneers, and while we can’t look at all of it at this very moment, for this piece we’ll focus on their 1997 LP, Diablerie.
I’ll just cut straight to it: front-to-back, Diablerie is a crash course in brutality and terror, but not for the reasons one might typically think. All of the turn-of-the-century metalcore tropes are present, of course: a nice sense of groove, metallic riffs, minor-second panic chords, etc; but what really makes the album so eerie are sections where the band slows things down, using feedback and bits of spoken word to set a disturbing tone reminiscent of Korn’s self-titled. These bits don’t evoke feelings of heartache like Poison the Well or of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm like Eighteen Visions; rather, they emanate a sense of dread and despair. Songs like “Devil’s Grin” and “Nicotine” are perfect examples, with lines such as “How could you be so cold / An easily placed conjecture for a common placed man” and “Through this veil of smoke / I come to ends with myself / This new addiction where has it spawned / From where I watch myself die” give off a nihilism that you’d more expect to find on an Integrity or 100 Demons record. The difference between the aforementioned bands and Disembodied, however, is that these lines are delivered quietly and painfully, adding to the mood.
That’s not to say that the record isn’t punishingly heavy. The intro to “Anvil Chandelier” is laden with panic chords, and the tremolo riff at the end of “Deity” will unquestionably send those fortunate enough to catch them at This is Hardcore this year into a feeding frenzy, and there are more than enough two-step parts to go around. All of this creates a record that is heavy in its own unique way, paving the way for many of the metalcore bands that we’ve come to know and love.
I would liken the experience of listening to Diablerie to an episode of sleep-paralysis: it’s something that feels familiar, but freezes you shut with an unknown sense of dread and panic like nothing else. You hear whispers of terrors and pure evil that send you into a frenzy in an attempt to escape the encroaching anxiety. The difference between a bout of sleep paralysis and this record, however, is that Diablerie makes this innervation extremely enjoyable. They didn’t know it at the time, but Disembodied wrote a seminal metalcore record that is essential listening for any lover of heavy music.
- Cesar G.
Acrid - Eighty-Sixed (1997)
Acrid’s first demos came in band-stickered cigarette packs. They split studio time at Signal 2 Noise Records with Voivod, who booked up every available slot to record Phobos. Jimi LaMort, frontman of Malhavoc, was providing electronics for Voivod and lent his services to Acrid’s Eighty-Sixed, too, drizzling an extra layer of noise onto their record, whose title is “navy jargon for all out and total destruction” in the words of guitarist Jeff Almond. He says it “complemented [their] sound.” The cover of the original pressing for Eighty-Sixed is a crude black-and-white photograph of a naked man. The re-release sports a jawless skull with numbered quadrants. Acrid billed themselves early on as “poison free powerviolence,” but dropped the straight-edge angle in 1997 when Rodman and Almond gave it up a year into their career. They disbanded not long after.
Acrid were a helluva band. Eighty-Sixed is a helluva record. Originally released as a nine-track album through Dirty Kidz Records, a label founded by members of Acrid, Eighty-Sixed was later repackaged with their Sea of Shit EP by No Idea Records. Curiously, the Sea of Shit tracks are placed after Eighty-Sixed, a move that alters the experience of listening to this absolute gem of metalcore, but doesn’t necessarily ruin it: listening to Eighty-Sixed in its original configuration will obviously give you the very best of Acrid in a concise runtime, which is a monster bristling with blastbeats and spooky tremolo that speaks in an ugly, pukey screech. The whole enterprise finds a midway between DIY punk fury and second-wave black metal morbidity, occupying that space virtually on its own - if there is another band that does what Acrid do, I haven’t heard them and would desperately like to. Every so often, a chunk of Candlemass doom will bob out of the toxic mess with an eerie, clean-strummed passage like the one that opens the “Synaptic Overload” or comprises the entirely of “Swimming in the Sea of Bile,” an experiment in full-blown Gothic atmosphere that puts into perspective the most nightmarish qualities of Eighty-Sixed.
It’s a disturbing note to end on, but tacking on the Sea of Shit tracks immediately transfigures “Swimming in the Sea of Bile” into a murky transition rather than a dive into pitch-black darkness. The effect is like crawling out of a swamp into a desert: the black metal overtones evaporate and the riffwork becomes more jagged and straightforward. The breadth of Acrid’s abilities and the reverse improvement between these two records comes through sharply: Sea of Shit is much more a product of its era, a hardcore record with a feral glint in its eye and a metallic sheen that, while enjoyable in its own right, just doesn’t measure up to the frostbitten atrocity that is Eighty-Sixed. It’s up to the listener whether to listen to it back-to-back with Sea of Shit, but all things considered, Eighty-Sixed is probably the “scariest” first-wave metalcore album you’re likely to find, even accounting for Each Individual Voice is Dead in the Silence. Acrid were onto something, and while there’s nothing tongue-in-cheek about the corrosive madness documented on Eighty-Sixed or anything remotely “fun” or conventionally listenable about it, there’s a sadomasochistic frontier here aching to be explored by those who enjoy the pain.
Unruh - Setting Fire to Sinking Ships
Unruh, for the short time we had them, weren’t concerned with genre constraints and marketability: all they wanted was to “play music that was interesting and powerful” in retaliation to the “stagnant and uninteresting” Arizona hardcore scene. They achieved this by playing “speed metal mixed with hardcore,” an archaism guitarist Ryan Butler acknowledges to You Breed Like Rats with a laugh: “Man, I haven’t used the term speed metal in years!” Unruh may never have had the widespread impact of a Converge or even a Cave In, but they were visionaries in their own right. Case in point: it’s still difficult to pigeonhole their genre. Sure, it’s easier to look back now and call it “metalcore,” but that’s a wide, wide umbrella. Even Butler isn’t quite sure:
At the time we just called it hardcore. But it was very much metal/grind looking back….We even had a reviewer compare us to Mine once and say that we had that "emo" sound….Most people nowadays when you say metalcore think of kids in sideways hats and grills. We were far from that. We grew up in the ebullition PC era of things but had a way more punk scumbag attitude. So, it was very much more different than the metal scene cause we had politics and DIY and all that other stuff.
Setting Fire to Sinking Ships isn’t Unruh’s first album, and isn’t too different from its predecessor, Misery Strengthened Faith. Both are maelstroms of chainsaw guitars and throaty pterodactyl screams, but sitting at eight tracks to Misery’s eighteen, Sinking Ships offers a true “less is more” experience, trading burst-fire runtimes for longer compositions in a more digestible package. Although it may not appear so at first listen, these songs are chock-full of accents and detours: the folksy intro on “A Spoonful of Tar” and the soundbytes on “Complex” are obvious, and Misery’s fierce sociopolitical rhetoric carries over, too. It’s blatant on “Layman’s Gallows” (“One hundred and twenty families / displaced in a fiscal year / How can you look / yourself in the mirror?”), but for the most part, Unruh nicely balance the political with the personal without ever coming off false or gimmicky. They’re at the greatest risk of doing so on “Complex,” which opens with the following exchange, but some intelligent songwriting saves the day:
Woman: Where the fuck have you been?
Man: I been out.
Woman: You’ve been out? Been out where?
Man: Working, why the fuck do you want to know?
Woman: Working - you’ve been out smoking crack again, haven’t you?
Man: I ain’t been smokin’ no fucking crack - !
Woman: You’ve been smoking crack! You think I care about this baby?! You think I want this baby? I’m gonna drop this fucking thing out the window!
A sludgy bassline drops in and the song ignites through a series of churning riffs, snarls, and heavy tom-work. There’s a surprise clean-picked passage that evokes the creepiness of Each Individual Voice is Dead in the Silence, and the track even progresses like early As the Sun Sets into doom riffs, a breakdown, and seasick tremolo playing, making for an action-packed finale. Elsewhere, “Finite” is a pseudo-tribal build-up that demonstrates a nice bit of range in their sound, and the ballistic “Disdain,” which seems to only get faster as the track goes on, pays homage to their thrashy roots. It and “Faded Tattoos” are the definition of what Unruh intended by mixing speed metal and hardcore, the latter verging on crust punk in its sheer ferocity. It contains some of the album’s most downright evil moments, including a passage contrasting monotone spoken-word and ballistic screaming - no words, just pure rage, like Tim Singer gargling acid.
Both of Unruh’s parent genres may live and die by their guitarwork, but the true star on Setting Fire to Sinking Ships is drummer Bill Fees. His work on this album is huge - the drums often feel like the lead instrument, dictating the flow and drama of a song as they propel Unruh’s music from one extreme to another. His speed and technicality shines on faster cuts like “Disdain,” but he is just as capable of taking the background on “Finite” and developing “Five Year Wager” from ominous crawl to frothing rage, demonstrating a versatility that has served him well on future projects with Structure of Lies and his longest-running endeavor, Antique Scream. His style on Sinking Ships requires the entire kit and contributes plenty of shock factor - it’s impossible to say what he’ll pull next because he’s just as comfortable with the skittery patterns of “Layman’s Gallows” as the nailbombing of “Friendly Fire.” Make note: it’s his performance you’ll remember once the album ends.
In an 2015 interview for a one-off reunion, Butler was once again asked the genre question - “What is the Unruh sound?” - by hometown zine the Phoenix New Times, and Butler’s reply was a tad more revealing than his answer to You Breed Like Rats in 2008:
The goal was to incorporate the sounds of Rorschach, Voice of Reason, Crossed Out, Assuck and Citizen's Arrest all into one band. I think we kind of created our own sound by doing so. I wouldn't saw we sounded like any of those particular bands and I can't think of any bands that I would say sound particularly like us after.
Unruh certainly shares DNA with each of those bands, but Setting Fire to Sinking Ships is unique enough to earn a place of honor in the ranks of first-wave metalcore. Internal tensions and a bad European tour were their undoing, but like Deadguy before them, they ultimately went out on top.
The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead - Parasitic Skies (1999)
There are bands that burn bright and fast, and then there’s The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead: a band so barely-there they almost slipped me by. They are a lesson in ephemera, named after a forgotten movie from 1978 (about killer bees, and starring Michael Caine, for those who might be interested) for no special reason. The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead gave their career a lifespan of less than two years, and in that timeframe released two splits, an EP, and Parasitic Skies. There’s no special reason for that timeframe either, and their “full-length” is hardly longer than the rest of their recordings put together. It’s hasty, it’s reckless, it’s volatile, and it’s even...charming, sort of like a snaggletoothed Canadian version of The Chariot.
(Yes, The Swarm a.k.a. Knee Deep in the Dead - I still haven’t puzzle out whether that “a.k.a.” is actually part of their name - are from Hamilton, Canada. I’m splitting some semantic hairs to fit them in here, but the American Metalcore Project technically refers to the continent, upon which we can all agree Canada resides. And Buried Inside are Canadian. This little loophole has been here a while.)
The Swarm (...?) lean on the -core end of metalcore with a sloppy-tight approach, prioritizing enthusiasm over technicality, although they incorporate enough grinding tones to pay deference to their metal forebears. Parasitic Skies is drenched in oppressive dissonance and cymbal hiss and studded with movie sound bytes, used like succinct little thesis statements a la Until the Ink Runs Out. The specter of thrash looms over all, but it’s the metalcore tag that best accommodates the frenzied gorilla stomp of “Fucking Invincible at 1:00 a.m.” (one of the greatest song titles of all time), the ricocheting “Familiarity Breeds Contempt,” and all the berserking they accomplish in between.
Still, something a little less serious lurks behind all the throat-punching violence, best illuminated by the inscription on the Parasitic Skies vinyl: “It’s not how long you’ve been straight edge. It’s how many times.” This self-effacing sense of humor takes the reins on “Best Laid Plans,” “Crawling Through Glass,” and “X On Our Knees X” (you’ll find a version of this earlier in the tracklist), live cuts which appear at the end of the album after the bone-chilling “Monopolized Reality for the Maintenance of Order.” Technically speaking, they’re piss-poor recordings, but the band’s youthful charisma shines through quite clearly despite the sound quality. This instinct for fun would have served them well if they had stuck around, but you know: the brighter the flame, the quicker it burns.
Strongarm - The Advent of A Miracle (1997)
There’s no direct correlation between holy terror and “spirit-filled” hardcore, but there’s plenty of fodder for speculation: in one corner, a group of nihilistic, anti-Christian hardcore bands, welcoming armageddon; in the other, impassioned, uber-Christian bands evangelising salvation. One seems like a direct response to the other, but as Shine.Is.Dead charts out for Break the Skin 2.0, spirit-filled hardcore was basically inevitable:
The hardcore scene was quite compatible with Christianity from the beginning, even though many hardcore bands themselves had anti-Christian stances. Hardcore’s focus on brotherhood and open-minded camaraderie mirrors the early church. It’s outspokenness, and passion create a natural environment for evangelism (passionately preaching the gospel to non-Christians) and worship (praise directed towards God). Also, the Straight Edge movement’s focus on clean living is quite compatible with Christian moral codes.
Just as “holy terror” was more of a mentality than a style of music, so the notion of spirit-filled hardcore was little more than a catch-all term intended to group bands like Zao, Focused, Overcome, and Unashamed under a single banner. They took it and ran for a little while, building a fierce but fleeting community within the strict orthodoxy of hardcore, but both the term and the “movement” it represented have drifted into obscurity, possibly due to the stigma of “preachy” lyrics and live sets intercut with "sermons." For what it's worth, even even non-secular hardcore circles have these problem (replace religion with politics, and there you go), but one can only imagine how well true-blue preaching might have gone over.
If there was ever a band that took the mission of spirit-filled hardcore seriously, it was Strongarm. The Advent of a Miracle is their second full-length following Atonement, a test run for what’s accomplished here. The improvements are subtle outside of the production, which is a clear step up, providing a warm and inviting space for the listener to join in on all the chest-thumping, arm-swinging fun of Strongarm at their peak. There’s a candor here that mirrors Training For Utopia’s Plastic Soul Impalement, without the disgust that backlights that album in hellfire. No single-handed attempts at revolution here: Strongarm advocate brothership and inclusion, espousing faith not as dogma but as a solution to modernity and the idiot cycle of routine. Most of all, they ask that we seek meaning in one another (and sure, one above). Refreshingly, they mean it: although no member is clearly more talented than another, the power with which they play could light a small suburbia. Frontman Chris Carbonell’s bellows tend to crack in moments of sincerity, elevating the seismic intensity of the music.
It should be noted that The Advent of A Miracle doubles as a guide for what would come to be termed “toughguy hardcore”: belligerent riffing, big breakdowns, and overly aggressive shouting are all here in spades. The fact that Carbonell sometimes sounds like he’s shouting not because he needs to, but because the music requires him to be intimidating, compounds this issue, but you have to keep two things in mind: Strongarm are the very best at what they did and were playing to crowds that wouldn’t respond to anything less than absolute conviction. They nail that piece and hammer it home with every tool in the metalcore toolbox, opting for heavy, choppy, and direct over all. Strongarm are frugal with melody, but since the Gothenburg influence was still a few years off at this point, the melody we do encounter is primal and fist-pumping, less about showing off the band's chops than about eliciting specific reactions of pride and aggression. No fat, no frills. Breakdowns are potent and necessary, releasing tension rather than manufacturing it. This is a lesson in need of review.
Spirit-filled hardcore couldn’t sustain itself despite the efforts of bands like Strongarm, of which there were decidedly few. Eventually, it imploded under the insistent secularism of the genre, which would count as a “win” for Integrity & Co. if the Church of Holy Terror hadn’t fizzled out, too. While there is still plenty of anti-Christian metalcore to go around and pro-Christian stuff to go with it, the freshness and innovation that made both sides such exciting institutions has grown stale. Integrity and Zao soldier on, preserving the flagging light of this dichotomy in early metalcore. For a little while, Strongarm were a warm fire in the night.
Catharsis - Passion
“Holy terror” is one of the most intriguing strands in the metalcore tapestry. It’s all but forgotten today, its traditions carried on by bands influenced by the militant, nihilistic tone of holy terror acts more than by their ideology - and no, the term does not refer to bands signed to Holy Terror Records. Bloodlet is one of the movement’s most prominent artists and were signed to Victory Records, home of the movement’s originators, who were none other than Integrity - although it’s a bit of a misnomer to call it a “movement.” With Those Who Fear Tomorrow in 1991, Integrity blueprinted an intersection of thrash and hardcore and introduced the world to frontman Dwid Hellion, who is every bit as weird and ostentatious as his name. Among his weirdest exploits is the founding of the Church of Holy Terror (hello, catchy moniker), whose eschatological bent was pivotal to understanding Integrity’s pitch-black outlook and the development of many impressionable young minds in the hardcore scene of the 90s. Pavel, writing for the wonderful Trial By Ordeal, frames it better than I can:
It has roots in the Process Church of The Final Judgment, as well as the ancient gnostic tradition, and seems like a kind of Satanic re-interpretation of Christianity. Or something like that. But being a Holy Terror band never meant toeing Dwid's ideological line, or even sounding a lot like Integrity. What these bands had in common was imagination: Hardcore had been a rigidly prosaic genre of music, obsessing over politics, scene beef, or tough-guy bravado, but Holy Terror bands pushed beyond that, striving towards a kind of spiritual revelation. They wanted to create eschatological hardcore, not just bemoaning the coming apocalypse but actively rallying the troops for the final battle.
In effect, holy terror metalcore was a fringe cult shouting down the powers-that-be and accepting into their ranks any who bought into their fantastical stances on religion (which means Christianity) and politics (which means “anarchy”). Pavel delves a little deeper, teasing a political agenda out of this charming stew, but intriguing as it all is, it’s pointless to try to find a throughline to the holy terror movement or to seek any sort of reliable doctrine beyond the "stark brutality and lofty drama” that characterizes the sound of these bands. Unless everyone is as hardline as Dwid himself, something as flamboyant as “eschatological hardcore” is rapidly going to turn into an arms race.
As Pavel notes, Catharsis easily take the lead, “[evoking] the most classically ‘apocalyptic’ atmosphere” of the holy terror bands. Passion is regarded as the best example of their abilities and is frequently ranked high in the echelons of holy terror for good reason: it ups the ante established on their first record, Samsara, and pushes extremes not typically found to be worth pushing in hardcore and metalcore. Everything is big on Passion: the production is deep and dark and the songs are intricate and adventurous. Catharsis seem to be wobbling on the brink of some kind of emotional dissolution for the duration of the album, but not in the way a Saetia or The Saddest Landscape wobble. Catharsis seem to be fully in control of the shape and direction of their work no matter how convoluted it all gets. Generals must exude calm and authority even in the face of annihilation.
It’s throaty, anthemic shouting, barbed-wire riffing, and galloping drumwork from front to back, but it’s the way Catharsis arranges this barrage, and all the diversions they wedge in between, that elevates Passion above the ordinary. “Obsession” and “Panoptikon” leap up and down the volume scale, slinging chunky riffs and ominous build-ups, spoken-word, and double-bass. “Into the Eyeless Sockets of the Night” plumbs the low end of Catharsis’s sound with distorted bass grooves, corrosive harmonics, and pick-slide squiggles that turn the screws more efficiently than any doom metal song I can imagine. All through the album, it’s these touches - a phased riff foreshadowing a delayed explosion; snare hits panning from one ear to the other; phantasmagoric guitar harmonies - that hint at some awful conclusion, a fate that waits beyond the thirty-six minutes of Passion. Interestingly, it’s the shorter songs that oppress, and longer cuts like “The Witch’s Heart” and “Duende” that provide release through through cinematic structuring. Both offer back-to-back scenes of fist-pumping chuggery and haunted monologuing. “Duende” even pays tribute to Neurosis with an extended back-half of tribal tom rolling, zigzagging guitarlines, and leaden assertions that “this world is an evil place." It leads, with a strangled cry, into “Desert Without Mirages.”
“Probably the most shocking thing on the Passion record is the reggae song,”* Brian D. acknowledged several years after Catharsis dissolved, and he’s right: while both Nausea and The Clash beat Catharsis to the reggae-on-a-punk-record punch, the novelty of “Desert Without Mirages” remains intact, bolstered by the the fact that Catharsis is far heavier than either of those bands and part of a notoriously humorless genre niche. They pull this experiment off with aplomb, acing every reggae trope, providing both a respite from Passion’s grim metalcore and sustaining - even escalating - its doomsday mood through consistent lyrical work. “Sabbat” slams the shutters on this ray of light, plunging us back into despairing anti-Christian darkness with a subversive choir intro. Despite an uptempo pace and some war-anthem guitar melodies, every second seems doomed, every instrument oriented toward destruction. When the drumming launches into a blast section near the end of the track, it sounds like it’s speeding up to escape the return of the ghostly choir. When it does, everything slows down, the guitars vanish, and Brian D. goes quiet. The choir fades, leaving only the pounding of a lone drum to lead us into thunderous silence.
However silly this holy terror thing is conceptually, there’s no denying the thrill and, yeah, passion that the very best in the style can evoke. There’s a type of theatricality at which Catharsis excel that is sorely missing from bands too reliant on genre-bending and elaborate performances to simply write and play more challenging music. Although well within the constraints of hardcore and metalcore, Passion is venerated as a classic in virtually all circles aware of holy terror’s subliminal impact on the shape of metalcore to come. It stretches those lines and expand the ground the genre can cover by doing nothing more than that.
“The way you carry forward a tradition is by challenging it,” says Brian D. “It dies unless you challenge it at every link in the chain.”
Bloodlet - Entheogen (1996)
It’s hard to believe now, but Victory Records used to be the label to beat. The nature of their influence on hardcore and metalcore has changed, to say the least; but in the 90s, they were responsible for giving platforms to bands like Deadguy, Hatebreed, Integrity, and even Refused, all of whom hand a hand in crafting the metalcore boom of the new millennium. While Victory would succumb to the pressures of sales come the mid-00s and fall into disrepute shortly thereafter, once upon a time, they were also responsible for signing Florida’s Bloodlet and releasing Entheogen, an album that should have made them as big as any of those bands.
Bloodlet is an unusual beast. I’m compelled to say they were ahead of their time, but come back empty-handed when I go rummaging for similar acts in the years following their split. This mix of curb-stomp riffs, meandering song structures with a love for off-time grooving, and doomsday prophesying (a little more on that later) gives rise to a sound that’s as much “of its time” as it is wholly apart. Pair their “intelligent meathead” songwriting with a production job that makes the snare pop like a soda can and the guitars resemble hostile, muted buzzing more than guitars, and you’ve got quite a challenging listen.
Of course, the rewards are equal to the effort you put in. In some ways, Bloodlet prefigure the mathcore craze The Dillinger Escape Plan would take to its extremes. Their rhythm section, decked out with a restless drummer and a fretless bass guitar, is as capable of shuffling through atypical time signatues as they are coasting on simple mosh beats. On nine-minute odysseys like “The Triumph” and “95,” they tap into their jazz instincts to deliver groove after striking groove, underscoring all the muscular hardcore riffing and Scott Angelacos’s militant bark in shades and tones you just aren’t supposed to encounter this early in metalcore’s development. Their more artful aspirations, hinted at in these longer cuts, are constantly at war with Bloodlet’s love of moshpits. This is thinking-man’s metalcore, but it can get a pit going in minutes - which, incidentally, is all the time Bloodlet allowed fans. According to Aversionline, Bloodlet weren’t much for the spotlight:
They'd basically take the stage, play their entire set straight through without stopping, and disappear without uttering much of anything to the audience – other than perhaps a succinct, "We're Bloodlet."
Lyrically, Bloodlet focus on apocalyptic themes of social, classist, and especially religious tension without succumbing to the shock-and-gore that so much of the actual Florida death metal scene wallowed in, consciously or not providing Bloodlet another advantage over their peers. They’re no more fans of Christianity than their death metal relatives in the scene, and their stance is made clear by some lurid cover art (painted by Isis’s Aaron Turner and pictured below) and a penchant for subverting religious imagery. This anti-Christian aesthetic was so integral to their sound that they were sometimes labelled “evilcore,” which may or may not have been a joke - but it’s apt, in any case, for a band that can put the eerie “Shell” and the toothy hardcore of “Eucharist,” whose lyrics are pure vitriol, on the same album without coming off the least bit pretentious:
Oh the spirits cries sweet music set to the beat of a tormented heart complements the pain the soul dies Jesus wept the pain is what I live for it make me know I'm alive sharing in the misery of a thousand tortured minds my soul screams for the suffering of life with all my existence I embrace this twisted emotion passionately call me brother call me friend call me your son in my youth I gazed upon the basilisk I am stone this voiceless torment this suffering there is no greater love all paths chosen leading with twisted deception to the same place and as I go careening down that infinite black chasm hear me bellow amen
If there’s anything metalcore can learn from Bloodlet, it’s getting to the point. They may take inspiration from seemingly incompatible sources, but their mastery over their instruments and songwriting guarantees a certain uniformity of purpose. Like a good doom band, Bloodlet prefer slower, tightly-controlled compositions that allow them to exploit the power of just a handful of riffs, and they stick to an average four-minute runtime instead of letting their muses stretch a song out to unnecessary lengths - although as both “The Triumph” and “95” demonstrate, they can play the long game as well as anyone else. Corrosive beatdown for corrosive beatdown, Entheogen can often match the suffocating intensity of death metal, earning its “evilcore” moniker and then some.
This makes its title doubly appropriate. The word “entheogen,” meaning “a chemical substance...that is ingested to produce a non-ordinary state of consciousness for religious or spiritual purposes,” characterizes the album as a sort of gateway, a tool to help us ease deeper into the world of metalcore and its more extreme permutations. The toughguy-isms that hold Entheogen back from true greatness are also, paradoxically, what make it such an intriguing record. With better promotion from Victory Records and a little more luck, these traits may have helped them catch the attention of more forward-thinking listeners. Just imagine what we’d be listening to today if Bloodlet had achieved Deadguy’s level of influence, or even replaced them in the official canon - would we even have an American Metalcore Project?
The reality is that no one quite sounded like Bloodlet then, and no one quite sounds like them now; but around the same time Bloodlet rose to semi-prominence, there was already a contingent of underground bands busy establishing a movement, building a sound that would eventually take what Entheogen did much, much further.
Deadguy - Screamin' with the Deadguy Quintet (1996)
Deadguy is no stranger to The American Metalcore Project, but we always seems to stall at Fixation On A Co-Worker as if they released nothing else of worth. Sure, vocalist Tim “Swinger” Singer and guitarist Keith Huckins are crucial factors to their success, but the album that followed their simultaneous exit from the band should not be dismissed out of hand just for not being Fixation. It captures a leaner, more streamlined Deadguy, one that still prioritizes groove and favors aggression over nuance a little more obviously.
Tim “Pops” Naumann, moving up from bass to vocals, possesses an acidic screech as fit for the rock-and-roll tone of Screamin’ as Singer’s was to Fixation-era Deadguy just a year prior. He needs no introduction on “Human Pig,” smearing himself all over the seesawing riffwork like he owns it. Tom Yak and Jim Baglino, picking up second guitar and bass, take a shot at the Fixation-isms of “(Escape From) The Fake Clink” and “Turk 182” and make themselves comfortable in the Deadguy camp: packed with mathy stop-start dynamics, these tracks are a welcome callback illuminating the band's progression in just under a year. “Turk 182” sees the band deploying one stellar hardcore groove after another and some jangly guitar effects without compromising momentum. “Free Mustache Rides,” along with “Angry Dwarf,” flesh out the album’s rock-and-roll influences, and “Hidden Track No. 6” ends things with a bang: it’s essentially one riff stretched out and exploited for maximum headbangage, and by the time it ends, you can almost feel the blood and sweat trickling down the frets.
Altogether, Screamin’ with the Deadguy Quintet is twenty minutes of excellent, underappreciated metalcore they were able take on the road with Bloodlet for a far more successful tour cycle than 1995’s disastrous turnout. One can only imagine all the ways Deadguy could have grown from here if they had toughed it out past 1997 - that rock-and-roll influence is intriguing but hesitant, a simmering je ne sais quoi that never fully takes hold. It’s hard not to think of Botch between all the bendy chords and jagged song dynamics, but Botch had only two EPs and eight songs to their name by 1996, and neither Faction nor The John Birch Conspiracy Theory were operating at this level. It gives Screamin’ a bit of prescience and surprising staying power. Both ahead of its time and very much a part of it, it’s a patch of fertile soil in the scorched earth that poor sales and horrendous touring conditions made of Deadguy’s career that, at the very least, deserves another look.
Aftershock - Through the Looking Glass (1999)
For those who came up on metalcore after 2001, the name “Dutkiewicz” is synonymous with one of two things: Adam D. the Guitarist, and Adam D. the Producer. As a guitarist, he belongs to Killswitch Engage, arguably metalcore’s most successful band ever. He’s a charismatic presence on-stage and the founder and songwriter of the majority of KSE’s catalogue. As a producer, he had a hand in seemingly every metalcore album released in the decade following Killswitch’s breakthrough, and was instrumental in perfecting the “hard verses/melodic chorus” format and the “sound” of the genre. For better or worse, Adam Dutkiewicz is one of modern metalcore’s architects.
But before all the prestige, Adam D. founded and co-fronted the legendary Aftershock in Boston, Massachusetts with his brother, Tobias Dutkiewicz, together with future members of both Killswitch Engage and Shadows Fall. They might be the perfect entry point for fans looking to journey into the past. Through the Looking Glass is the conclusion of a trail of EPs, splits, and one other full-length - Letters - which shows the band in a rough spot, just trying to finding their feet. Comparatively, its follow-up is a running leap, but it didn’t get much air: it was followed by a split, a compilation, and a live EP before the band called it quits. Tobias quietly stepped out of the picture, and Adam went on to bigger things.
Were they better things? Up to you.
No matter what, Aftershock’s existence is vital to what metalcore became. Apart from Killswitch Engage, their disbandment led Jonathan Donais and bassist Chris Fortin to join up with members of Overcast and an unproven Phil Labonte (later of All That Remains) to found Shadows Fall. Even with these credentials, Aftershock and Through the Looking Glass still fly way under the radar for too many genre fans. If you’re one of them, just be warned: this is a different beast from a different time, one when Adam D.’s and Joel Stroetzel’s thrash riffing over Tom Gomes’s punky drumwork was cutting-edge. The Swedish influence that would dominate the metalcore of the '00s can be felt at times, but it’s Slayer more than In Flames that informs Dutkiewicz and Donais’s fretwork, keeping things punchy, focused, and all-American. Of One Blood, The Art of Balance, Alive or Just Breathing, and Behind Silence and Solitude all mimic its successes to some extent, but they do not match it. Not remotely.
This is due in large part to the fact that Aftershock have incredible tonal control for a bunch of newcomers (mostly teenagers at the time!), capable of arranging dense leads, chugs, blasts, breakdowns, and dreamy interludes in expressive, but always overpoweringly heavy ways. From essential opener “Prelude to Forever,” which charts all the ground the album will cover in a cool seven minutes, to late-album standout “Impenetrability,” the album is a metalcore tour-de-force like few others, especially for its time. The only clean singing on the album comes in the form of spoken-word, and most of it is confined to “My Own Invention,” a multipart behemoth that plays like a rough draft of Alive Or Just Breathing’s densest moments, with a finale that lands like a hammer to the jaw.
What might have come from a follow-up is anyone’s guess, but Looking Glass’s death metal overtones (check out “Jabberwocky” and “Living Backwards” and tell me those leads couldn’t have been spliced straight from some '90s OSDM banger), coupled with the examples set forth by Somber Eyes to the Sky and Killswitch Engage, hint at what could have become Aftershock’s future. It’s tantalizing to speculate, but we have what we have - and all in all, this is a stellar album from one of metalcore’s better underground acts at their peak. Their willingness to experiment with structure and direction, not to mention their ability to write the hell out of an old-school metalcore riff, makes Through the Looking Glass a stunning curio of what the genre was shaping up to be: focused, melodic, adventurous, and most importantly, fun.