Buried Alive - The Death of Your Perfect World (1999)
If you have taken even the slightest step into the modern world of punk and hardcore, you have heard of Terror. Vocalist Scott Vogel is one of the most recognizable frontmen in hardcore; his unbridled passion for the genre and sense of humor (in the form of his trademark “Vogelisms” - look them up) make the band’s live show something to behold. His passion for hardcore didn’t just come from anywhere; and Terror, while Vogel’s most successful and prolific band, was not his first. Vogel was originally in Slugfest and later Despair, two bands that took the patented New York hardcore style of the late ’80s and early ’90s and experimented with more groove and metallic influences. When both bands fell through, Vogel formed Buried Alive with some of his peers from the Buffalo scene. While still rooted in a hardcore sound, this new band took cues from the more dissonant hardcore bands that were popular at the time, like Converge, Turmoil, and Snapcase, and soon enough, the band signed to the now-infamous Victory Records and released their magnum opus The Death of Your Perfect World in 1999.
The band’s most notable musical quality is the incorporation of dissonant leads and chords within a crushingly heavy, hardcore-rooted sound. Dissonance was nothing new the metalcore by 1999, but Buried Alive were one of the first to foreground it in their songwriting and tap into its versatility. The breakdown on “Watching You Die” is as brutal as its title, sounding like something ripped from a Converge record thanks to its plentiful use of dissonance, but the lightly picked minor-second lead on “Kill Their Past” presents the technique in a different light, using it to create an unsettling sonic aura that was fairly innovative at the time of The Death of Your Perfect World’s release.
Many bands over the years have tried to write a record that is a lesson in nonstop punishment and brutality, but The Death of Your Perfect World is a cut above thanks to Buried Alive’s experimentation. It’s absolutely relentless in the way that every riff seems to lead into the next without sounding samey or contrived--case in point, the seamless transition into the two-step in the middle of opener “Watching You Die.” It’s the sort of thing that makes you want to yell Vogel’s lyrics right back at him before the song shifts and you’re suddenly picking it up. The breakdown on “Empty Sky” feels like it comes out of nowhere with little to no build-up, a trope that plagues many bands playing this style of metalcore, but that Buried Alive turn into a strength: its abruptness makes you want to perform horrific acts of physical violence to the person next to you, which is what a good breakdown should do.
Buried Alive’s diverse sound, relative to other “tough guy” hardcore like Hatebreed, allowed them to tour with an equally diverse range of bands during their time together. One weekend they could be on a show with bands like All Out War and Skarhead, and playing with Zao and Nora the next. They’ve shared the stage with bands that sound almost nothing like them, such as H2O, Hot Water Music, and Kid Dynamite. In the world we live in, where mixed bills are becoming more and more common, this might be taken for granted; I obviously wasn’t around back when Buried Alive were playing shows with these bands, but I’m sure that their open-mindedness toward playing shows with bands from virtually every hardcore and metalcore niche must have been a key factor in their popularity.
Lyrically, the record isn’t too out of this world, but Vogel’s bluntness and carefully directed anger makes them manage to not sound as “tough guy” as one would expect. “Six Month Face” is a great example: directly calling out those who only spend their time within the hardcore scene until they eventually tire of it, lyrics like “slowly shed your skin / convictions fucking fade / another six month face / inside you’re dead,” delivered in Vogel’s larynx-shredding scream, come from a place of righteous indignation a little more grounded in reality than the sort of empty posturing that’s always plagued hardcore lyricism. To some, these lines may come across no less goofy than your average hardcore proclamation, but the music goes a long way in convincing the listener that Vogel’s sentiment comes from the heart.
As someone who got into metalcore and hardcore well after Buried Alive’s time, their reunion set at this year’s This Is Hardcore is extremely exciting, but it’s hard not to imagine the heights Buried Alive could have reached had they not left as quickly as they arrived. On an episode of Shane Told’s (of Silverstein fame) podcast, Lead Singer Syndrome, Scott Vogel attributed personal differences towards his decision to leave the band (and Buffalo) following a tour with Death Threat, which led to Vogel moving to Los Angeles and founding Terror. So, while Vogel is not wanting for a successful career in music, given the band’s diversity and Victory Records’s prominence in the ’00s, it’s not a huge stretch to say that Buried Alive could have been as big as a Hatebreed or a Killswitch Engage, if not at the very least bigger than Terror is now. The last line of the last song on the record, “To Live and Die With,” rings eerily true: “we are our own disease / and we will never be what we could be.” Buried Alive may have never become the band that they could have been, but as long as kids continue to shed their six-month faces and explore the roots of the music they love, there will always be a place for them in hardcore.
For The Love Of - Feasting On The Will Of Humanity (1998)
New Jersey doesn’t get the credit it deserves, so the American Metalcore Project would like to take this introduction to formally recognize the home state of Rorschach, Deadguy, Burnt by the Sun, and The Dillinger Escape Plan as one of metalcore’s preeminent scenes, deserving of the same accolades Massachusetts enjoys. Whether they’ve achieved popular success or not, the hardcore and metalcore of New Jersey, especially the New Brunswick area that Deadguy and Dillinger both hail from, has contributed as much to metalcore as Boston by giving a platform to one of the most ferocious underground scenes in metal.
At the forefront of the state’s original hot streak but hardly brought up now were For the Love Of. Despite a modest discography consisting of only a full-length and an EP, their reputation as one of the hardest-working, hardest-playing bands in the scene, and as purveyors of one of the most batshit-crazy live shows in metalcore history (they were known to bring “a sledgehammer, pitchforks, an anvil and a gong on stage” with them, which sounds like some kind of urban legend) cements them as a glaring omission from the metalcore canon. Feasting on the Will of Humanity matches its title note-for-note in misanthropic fury, setting a clear tone on opener “Crawl To Hide” that they are not to be fucked with. Every subsequent track simply underscores this point, right on through “Fractured” and The Amityville Horror sample that ends the album with a disembodied voice hissing “Get out!” While there are plenty of heavy and angry bands, few can match the clinical precision with which For the Love Of clobber their listeners into submission, and even fewer of their peers had such a capable grasp on the dynamics of metalcore.
While it’s hard to argue that For the Love Of are entirely original, amid a scene that was still firmly rooted in hardcore, they were one of the first to incorporate metal tropes like the shreddy riffs that appears midway through “Silent Isolation” and dominate “Further the Shame,” or the twisted guitar lines of “Millennium,” taking great pains to keep their music as lean and vicious as possible. “All Will Be Rid Of” is perhaps the most well-rounded song on Feasting, displays surprisingly accomplished guitarwork that runs the gamut from panic chords to technical journeys along the neck of the guitar and houses some of the album’s wildest breakdowns. The album sometimes strays closer to hardcore (see the gang chants on “Flatline”) and sometimes closer to thrash or even death metal (“Immerse”), but Feasting On the Will of Humanity is unmistakably metalcore in a way that even listeners only familiar with later-wave acts would be able to identify, perhaps by the most superficial distinction: the use of movie samples. It’s not necessarily a new technique--plenty of other bands we’ve covered in the first-wave were doing it before For the Love Of--but it’s a gimmick unique to metalcore and proto-metalcore bands of at the time; one that Eighteen Visions would turn into a staple of the genre through its second wave. Perhaps they, too, like God Forbid, found a little inspiration in For the Love Of.
Structure is where For the Love Of shine, although it’s rather difficult (at least for a non-musician, like myself) to explain. They keep clear of verse-chorus-verse-bridge templates, but each song maintains a distinct orderliness, introducing a main riff, layering a different riff underneath it, and smashing both apart with a breakdown, after which the song detours into passages of shred or larger and more sinister breakdowns. The main riff(s) is braided back in at some later point, and usually ridden out to conclusion. It’s not a terribly inventive approach now, but it’s a stable and satisfying progression not so dissimilar from what second-tier acts like Unearth, Dead to Fall, and God Forbid were up to. Coincidentally or not, God Forbid are an East Brunswick-based metalcore band whose first few records, Out of Misery, Reject the Sickness, and Determination, bear more than a passing resemblance to what For the Love Of were doing with Feasting, and their eventual breakthrough with back-to-back Gone Forever and IV: Constitution of Treason offers a possible career trajectory For the Love Of might have followed if they’d kept together after their final EP, In Consequence.
Not long after their split, as far as these things go, For the Love Of borrowed Nora’s Mike Olender on vocals for a one-off reunion at Hellfest 2004, and again at New Jersey’s Gamechanger World in 2015. Neither show saw the return of the equipment of their heyday, but the band’s energy is as electrifying in that clip of their 2015 set as I imagine it must have been in the late 90s. Even more striking is the enthusiasm of the crowd, especially when you put it in context: for a band that released one album and an EP seventeen years prior, that’s a lot of activity and whole lot of lyrics getting screamed back. It’s hard to imagine many bands formed after For the Love Of exhibiting that sort of staying power, which is not to speak badly of their successors, but in praise of For the Love Of’s “it” factor. Who knows what led to such a high quotient of quality bands in the state, but we fully support whatever led to New Jersey’s late-’90s metalcore scene--and we hope that, with the imminent end of The Dillinger Escape Plan, arguably the state’s finest musical export, they have another renaissance on the way.
Nineironspitfire - Seventh Soul Sacrificed (1996)
The history of Ryan Frederiksen’s bands is a history of the evolution of metalcore; a rabbit hole through some of the most forward-thinking music in the genre; and the upwards career trajectory of a bonafide talent, all in one. From Nineironspitfire through his time in These Arms Are Snakes, Narrows (with other Botch alumni), and currently Dust Moth, Frederiksen has ridden the cutting edge of metalcore decade after decade, bringing an ever-more-refined and individualistic play-style to ever-more-refined and individualistic bands. Nineironspitfire, one of the most interesting projects he was ever a part of, was also, by his own admission, his first project of any consequence. Although he is said to have joined too late to actually play on the album, his influence is almost osmotically detectable: straddling the groovy/spastic line, these leaping riffs and urgent, twisty arrangements are trademark Frederiksen. There’s no hitch between Seventh Soul Sacrificed and the songs he contributed to the Botch split that followed, further fueling my suspicion that he may have had more of a hand in the record than anyone lets on.
I digress, but this will not be the last time we talk about Frederiksen. Instead, let’s talk about the rest of Nineironspitfire: among its alumni are John Pettibone of Seattle’s excellent Himsa, whose vocals are as intense and articulate as anything he did with those bands, if closer in tone to his work with the hardcore Undertow; and joining him from that band, too, is Mark Holcomb (not the one from Periphery!), making Nineironspitfire both a creative step up and a lateral move in popularity. Their hardcore backgrounds are counterpointed by bassist Morgan Henderson, currently Fleet Foxes’ secret weapon (!) but more importantly, a former member of the Blood Brothers (!!), as well as non-Frederiksen guitarist Demian Johnston, who also spent time in Undertow, and later, underrated metalcore act Playing Enemy. With a resume like that, one expects the hardcore backbone and drastic noise flourishes of Nineironspitfire, but the band were Deadguy fans above all, and it shows. They were also, as Frederiksen notes, very into Today Is The Day and “Slint, Shellac, and stuff like that,” all of whose sonic signatures are writ to varying degrees across the music.
Seventh Soul Sacrificed dropped the same year as Screamin’ With the Deadguy Quintet, functioning as a bridge between it, Fixation On A Coworker, and later metalcore greats like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Eso-Charis, and even The Chariot. Across the album, but also within individual songs, Nineironspitfire vacillate between classic metalcore groove (“Undone”) and proto-spazz freakouts (“Lead Poisoning”), conjuring up juggernauts like “Charcoal Drawings/Weapons of Choice” with its long passages of clashing and climbing guitar noise, and the artillery-fire precision of “In the Comfort of Strangers” and “One Last Wish” along the way. The album does a remarkable job of recreating the ominous atmosphere of Today Is The Day’s Willpower through the lens of hardcore, something I can’t say I’ve heard done so well in other records of the time; and although Frederikson seems to imply that Nineironspitfire got into Slint & Co. after Seventh Soul Sacrificed, their iconoclastic songwriting contributes an obvious thread to the band’s mathy, intricate tapestry.
“Far Too Familiar/Execution” makes no bones about that Today Is The Day influence, coming across like a sonic cousin to Willpower’s eponymous opener. Its queasy guitar and sludgy progression make a great introduction to Seventh Soul Sacrificed, but “Read Between the Lines” could have gone down as legendary: starting with a pitch-perfect clip from The Exorcist (the possessed Regan growling “What an excellent day for an exorcism”) that segues directly into a “classic” Nineironspitfire groove, it shows the band using their influences as springboards rather than guides. “You knew it would happen / but what if it fell flat / like life / on a rainy day?” Pettibone roars, as Henderson steers an off-time groove around Dan Dean’s shuddering kitwork. Johnston’s guitar flashes in and out of the mix, accompanied by a series of background screams that sound like the ghost of Jon Davis, or the outro to “Ball Tongue.” Johnston’s riffs overtake the song and the segment repeats before the song morphs into The End-like ballistics, marshalled back into order by a mission statement: “It’s not what I say / it’s how I say it / and my words / once expressed / can never be denied.”
Seventh Soul Sacrificed isn’t a perfect record, but it has potential to spare and a creative spirit worth admiring. The two songs they contributed to their split with Botch, “The Kid” and “#2,” offer a look at a band that’s already begun to refine the molten inspiration on Seventh Soul Sacrificed, sorting out its strengths and learning to cut the excess. Frederiksen’s involvement on the split ushers in a refreshed technicality and more thrilling turns in the songwriting, coupled with a production boost that fleshes out the role of each instrument in the overall sound a little more clearly. It’s not a perfect evolution, and the split leaves a bit of a ragged stump at the end of Nineironspitfire’s career, but those comparisons to The End and The Chariot made above are a lot more telling than they seem: had Nineironspitfire lasted, I don’t think either Transfer Trachea Reverberations... or Everything Is Alive, Everything Is Breathing... would have been nearly as special. The seeds of both albums are here on this 1996 record, and what could have been might have been bigger than both.
Starkweather - Cross Bearer (1992)
No one sounds like Starkweather. I can’t think of a single band that, on first listen, could be mistaken for them, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve read or heard a band described through the lens of their music. That uniqueness, coupled with their lack of direct influence on the genre they supposedly pioneered--I can almost guarantee you’ve never heard the term “Starkweathercore” before now--is even more interesting for their place in the physical geography of American metalcore. Based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, they have nothing in common with Undying or Integrity in the midwest nor the future sounds of New England. As Cosmo Lee, writing for Decibel, once phrased it, Starkweather may have ostensibly been a metalcore band, fusing metal and hardcore tropes, but in the late 80s/early 90s when they appeared, Starkweather “were smashing together metal and hardcore—but not quite making 'metalcore.' 'Metalcore' now implies the worst of both worlds. We're talking about the best of both worlds."
In this entry of the American Metalcore Project, we are writing on the Starkweather that released Cross Bearer in 1992 when metalcore took its first breaths with Earth Crisis, Integrity, and Rorschach--a bit early for our parameters of the "first wave," but it's a necessary exception. In the eight-year period of low activity between their 1996 split with Season to Risk and their 2005 full-length return, Starkweather evolved, and the album that resulted has also proved inimitable, for reasons as apparent in their first incarnation as in the latter. Starkweather are weird. Self-taught and inspired by such un-metal sources as Bjork, Swans, and Sinead O’Connor to more “classic” metal like Celtic Frost, Iron Maiden, Voivod, and Amebix, the band defies easy categorization. Not to say that Cross Bearer is an entirely sophisticated blend of these influences, as this is a warts-and-all debut if there ever was one, but it overflows with ambition, following intriguing muses to unpredictable ends, and metalcore is nothing if not a wide, wide umbrella.
One can only imagine what it must have been like to stumble upon Starkweather amid the waning of thrash and hair metal and the rise of grunge. The guitarwork recklessly marries the downbeat riffage of their punk forebears to clumsy Iron Maiden harmonies, brushing elbows with old school death metal, thrash, and even the crossover scene of the time. Renni Resmini’s vocals alternate between a bizarre, fluey quaver, where the band’s interest in Bjork and Swans is most apparent, to a death-y rasp that has nothing in common with the midrange shouting that became the de facto vocal style of the genre--and yet the dichotomy between clean and harsh, although not as sharp, clearly anticipates what would be the norm by 2001. In an interview with Vista Fanzine, Resmini explains that his vocal approach is influenced by “metal vocalists that use different ‘voices,’” citing Geoff Tate and King Diamond among Voivod’s Snake and Venom’s Cronos.
If it wasn’t clear, Cross Bearer rarely follows traditional structures, but in its hunt for new and exciting paths, its reach sometimes exceed its grasp. Take the momentum-killing “Shards/Unto Me,” bookended by the sinuous “Murder in Technicolor” and “Picture It Obsidian,” where and the band’s overall sense of dynamics fizzles into tepid repetition. Although the bottom end takes inspiration from R&B, jazz, funk, and (bizarrely) Dream Theater and Overkill, both Leonard Emerick and Michelle Eddison yields straightforward, if faintly tribal, rhythmic patterns that don’t quite hold one’s attention over the course of the album. That could be a problem for some. Songs tend to run long, and without clear highs and lows, Cross Bearer can become a punishingly boring listen. Their music is better interpreted as narrative, seeming to develop intuitively, although the description of their songwriting process Renni provides in that same interview with Vista Fanzine illuminates the surprising rigor with which a Starkweather song is built:
All of our songs are a collaborative effort….Usually it begins with Todd [Forkin] recording a ton of guitar parts before he begins arranging things. It used to generally come down to the both of us doing a lot of the structural work before bringing it into the rehearsal room. Todd will work out the transitions, smooth things out on the guitar and bring this framework into rehearsal. Most times it'll flesh out, other times we have to reconstruct it. Some of the individual parts are modified when Harry and Vince hear them. They'll suggest something to alter a part. Sometimes they hear things differently and it'll become different because it will put unexpected beats and rhythms to riffs that'll spin things on it axis. It can ultimately change the complexion of the arrangement. So, we're not really one of these bands that "jams" in the traditional sense. It can turn out that way when we're working through specific sections. Songwriting is my favorite thing. I can't play an instrument but I have an ear for arranging...building, tearing stuff down, arranging rhythms, figuring transitions, navigating the flow of a song….Once it's able to be comfortably played beginning to end I'll put in vocal patterns and then figure out where to go from there with actual lyrics.
Starkweather never considered themselves metalcore Guitarist Todd Forkin insists that, while “flattered” by their reputation as genre pioneers, it’s not necessary the one they’d like to be associated with, and one can see his point: though they borrow elements from hardcore and metal and presaged some of it, Cross Bearer is worlds away from even what metalcore’s earliest outsiders in Deadguy and Nineironspitfire were up to. But, for precisely that reason, Starkweather is vital to metalcore. Their early innovations and nonconformist character represent the genre’s endless flexibility, and although no one could mistake any for the other, their spirit manifests to varying degrees in the music of Unruh, Curl Up and Die (most blatantly on The One Above All The End of All That Is), Will Haven, and Harlots. In light of their seminal position in the metalcore cannon and the overlooked influence, Starkweather deserve reevaluation, at the very least, and a much, much larger audience.
Functioning on Impatience
1998 was a seminal year for metalcore. Earth Crisis made their major label debut on Roadrunner Records with Breed the Killers, arguably the first band in the genre to do so; Cave In released Until Your Heart Stops; and The Dillinger Escape Plan put out their second 7”, Under the Running Board, which saw the band move towards a more experimental and idiosyncratic sound; and Botch released their debut LP, American Nervoso. Converge also released their oft-forgotten 3rd LP, When Forever Comes Crashing.
Depending on who you talk to, each one of these bands is considered essential to metalcore for pushing the genre forward in their own different ways. Earth Crisis, for example, set the foundation which groups such as the latter four mentioned could take and revise in a multitude of fashions. With that being said, it’s odd how Coalesce is usually overlooked in discussions of the pioneers of chaotic metalcore. The band had a unique take on the metalcore sound of the mid-90s that, while similar to their peers in Botch and Converge, involved a more calculated approach to songwriting that set them apart from the pure chaos of Converge and the theory-dosed insanity of Dillinger. While their 1997 debut Give Them Rope explored this pinpoint method of songwriting, it’s on the band’s 1998 release, Functioning on Impatience, that these ideas are fully realized.
The record begins in an unusual way for the time period. Rather than exploding into a sonic assault of minor chords and screeching vocals, the first track, “You Can’t Kill Us All,” begins with vocalist Sean Ingram coarsely belting out “what more do you want from me? / some sort of apology? / well I promise that forgiveness is the most you’ll get,” afterwhich guitarists Nathan Ellis and Jes Steinger launch into an attack of stop-start riffing. What’s immediately noticeable is the distinctly southern rock influence tempos that litter the song and record; this is one of the band’s defining traits that set them apart from many a mathcore band back in the late 90’s. When taking into account the wave of southern rock-influenced metalcore that emerged in the mid 2000s, pioneered primarily by Every Time I Die (who formed in the same year this record was released), it’s important to note the potential influence that Coalesce may have had on this genre trend. It’s unclear whether or not these tempos come from any concrete southern influence, but a lot of these riffs are very similar to early ETID, which positions Coalesce as a very important band regardless of intent.
While I’ve gone on about how calculated Coalesce’s songwriting is, it also doesn’t mean that they don’t employ some absolutely insane sections reminiscent of their peers. The first half of “On Being a Bastard,” as well as “My Love For Extremes,” are as frantic as one would expect from 90s mathcore, with spiraling time signatures add a layer of panic (pun not intended) and disorder that manages to make the compositions that much heavier.
The only drawback to the record is that it’s rather short. With only seven tracks (one an instrumental, “Recurring Ache of Monotony Still Running”), it’s extremely short for a release the band considers a full length LP. I’m not sure why the band chose to record such a short release despite having a lot of great ideas, but given the DIY nature of the scene, it’s a possibility they could only afford so much studio time. Despite that, Coalesce are a band that is absolutely worth your time if you crave more of the late 90s math-style metalcore. For the sheer originality that they presented amongst an entire wave of envelope-pushing bands, they are wholly overlooked, and should be given more attention and renown for the influence that they had.
- Cesar G.
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.