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.