Photo from Groezrock
Up to this point in the American Metalcore Project, we’ve explored many of the forgotten and overlooked gems of the metalcore canon, largely consisting of bands with a hardcore ethos showing their appreciation of metal through their music. Wave two is a different beast. It’s in this wave that the genre becomes a household name, with bands such as Killswitch Engage, Lamb of God (yes, we consider those first three records metalcore), and Shadows Fall leading the charge of commercially-successful groups taking the genre nationwide through MTV2’s Headbanger’s Ball, hosted by Jamey Jasta of Hatebreed. These bands are separate from the first wave in the sense that, rather than filtering their metallic influences through hardcore a la Overcast, Bloodlet, and Coalesce, these second wave bands flipped the equation: by and large, these are metal bands with breakdowns. It’s that distinction that often causes a rift between fans of modern metalcore and those familiar with the genre’s beginnings--it’s heavy, it’s got guitar solos, and they play Iron Maiden-style harmonies; it’s gotta be metal, right? While this view is on second-wave bands is, more often than not, correct, it’s also dismissive of the genre’s heritage, and we certainly wouldn’t be doing our jobs correctly if we didn’t make sure to remind you, the reader, of this before diving into second-wave metalcore. In this entry, we’ll take a look at a few key bands and records from hardcore’s most influential scene - New York - in order to analyze where some of metalcore’s key musical ideas originated.
(Disclaimer: while New York hardcore is extremely diverse and full of quality bands, there just isn’t enough time in the world to go over every record from every band from the era. Some honorable mentions are Sick of it All’s Just Look Around, Leeway’s Born to Expire, Judge’s There Will Be Quiet, Indecision’s Unorthodox, Warzone’s Don’t Forget the Struggle, Don’t Forget the Streets, Killing Time’s Brightside, and Merauder’s Master Killer, which you are free to check out for an even more comprehensive understanding of the heavy music of the era).
I know what you’re thinking: “But Cesar, that record already is metalcore!” I hear you. VOD’s acclaimed debut came out on Ray Cappo’s (more on him later) short-lived Roadrunner Records imprint Supersoul in the same year that Earth Crisis came out with Destroy the Machines and only a year after Overcast’s Expectational Dilution, two records that were arguably already more metallic than Vision of Disorder. The most important piece of information in that last sentence is that the record had the distribution power of Roadrunner Records behind it. While it wasn’t yet the juggernaut it would become in the 21st century, this gave the band the opportunity to get into the hands of more young, impressionable teenagers’ hands than it would otherwise.
With this in mind, it’s crucial to recognize the key factor that sets VOD apart from their contemporaries: Tim Williams’ Alice in Chains-influenced singing. Starkweather did it first, but VOD was the band that likely made the style viable in the mid-late 90s. While I can’t be certain if it went over well with the baggy-pants-and-basketball-jersey demographic of the time, it certainly left enough of an impression on bands like Poison the Well and Killswitch Engage, who later brought it to a wider audience; so much so that the trope of the screamed verse followed by a sung chorus remains a staple of the genre to this day. Oh, and the record is absolutely fantastic as well.
Just like VOD, Roadrunner labelmates Madball’s first record, Set it Off, arrived right in the thick of metallic hardcore’s emergence, although the band was in no sense “new”: vocalist Freddy “Madball” Cricien cut his teeth in the early days of his brother Roger’s band, Agnostic Front, when they would play Sunday matinees at CBGB’s, and hardcore icon Vinnie Stigma was a member for over a decade. The band formed in 1988, dropping their debut EP, Ball of Destruction, the following year, as well as their second EP, Droppin’ Many Suckers, in 1992. These two EPs showed flashes of what was to come, but were mostly confined to the classic hardcore vein of AF or Warzone. It wasn’t until their debut full-length that the band’s now easily-recognizable New York groove could be heard.
This is apparent right from the title track, with its hard riffs and thundering rhythm section painting a harsh picture of what life in New York’s once-cold lower East Side was like. While the band was obviously building on the foundation set by their hardcore forefathers, the influence of popular metal bands such as Sepultura, Helmet, and Pantera contributed to a punchier and more aggressive sound that unquestionably set a new template for hardcore kids seeking heavier modes of expression for the next decade. Bands like Hatebreed, Throwdown, and Bury Your Dead straight-up could not exist without Madball opening the door.
I’ll be perfectly blunt here: with a few exceptions (i.e. Slipknot, early Deftones, and early Korn), I think nu metal is absolute garbage. Downtuned-for-the-sake-of-it guitars, corny vocals, cornier lyrics, and an unnecessary hip-hop influence made hard music a laughingstock and sank the overall public opinion of metal. All of this makes me even more skeptical of its recent revival, which has seen a growing number of scenecore acts incorporating its tropes into their music. Some call this “nu-metalcore,” I call it basurington, mostly for all of the same reasons that I despise nu-metal in the first place, but also because Biohazard proved it could be done much, much better almost twenty years earlier.
Biohazard (oh look, another Roadrunner band! Might be good idea to keep an eye on that label) dropped Urban Discipline in the fall of 1992, a full two years before Korn released their game-changing debut. Biohazard blended elements of metal, hardcore, and hip-hop to produce a music unlike anything any band was doing at the time. They were essentially playing a form of nu-metalcore (ugh) a full twenty years before Suicide Silence and Of Mice & Men decided that they weren’t embarrassed of their Slipknot collection anymore. The difference between those two bands and Biohazard is that Biohazard’s music has considerably more street cred thanks to the band’s roots in pre-Giuliani New York, at the time a far cry from the tourist attraction it has become. Right from opening track “Chamber Spins Three,” vocalist Evan Seinfeld’s lyrics and vocal inflections parallel golden-age hip-hop: “It's a motherfuckin' homicide, just deserts / A shotgun painted right where it hurts / From the inside, the ones you can trust / You got connected to a serious bust.” This merger of metal aggression, hardcore grooves, hip-hop bars, and a dose of nu-metal’s one, lasting innovation on “Loss” and “Disease” - the introduction of vulnerability to tough-guy music - isn’t too dissimilar from the concept of nu-metal and its offspring. Biohazard just have the grit and authenticity to make it worthwhile.
Youth of Today are probably the most ideologically important hardcore band to come out of New York. Started by vocalist Ray Cappo and guitarist John Porcelly, two straight edge kids from suburban Connecticut (which technically makes them CTHC, but the brunt of their impact was felt in the New York scene) with the goal of starting a band that was distinctly and unapologetically straight edge at a time when it wasn’t in vogue, the band basically catalyzed the youth crew movement. This wave of bands was characterized by fast, melodic hardcore inspired musically by bands like 7 Seconds, Minor Threat, and SSD (Society System Decontrol), such as Gorilla Biscuits, Chain of Strength, BOLD, and Judge.
With the exception of Judge, none of these bands, including YOT, had any discernable metal influence; what Youth of Today controversially brought to hardcore was veganism, specifically with their music video for the song “No More” off their second LP, We’re Not In This Alone. The video, which is described by Scott Winegard of Texas is the Reason as having “basically sold everybody on vegetarianism,” was the chief factor in the popularization of veganism in the ’90s. Youth of Today are almost single-handedly the reason it continues to define a large piece of the hardcore lifestyle. Think about it: Earth Crisis, Racetraitor, Indecision, and other vegan metalcore bands, while active throughout the ’90s, did not adopt veganism as a core tenet of their ideology; the fact that Youth of Today did drastically changes the message, and perhaps even the sound, of their music.
Additionally, the rawer, more accessible lyrics and sonic aesthetic the band employed made the genre more digestible to those who didn’t live in a squat on the Lower East Side. Walter Schreifels, who played on this LP as well as in Gorilla Biscuits and post-hardcore pioneers Quicksand, testifies that even though “[he] wasn’t tough…[and] wasn’t gonna hang out on the Lower East Side taking drugs,” Youth of Today provided an avenue “to be about the music and about the message.” Furthermore, the band didn’t give off the hardened, rough-and-tumble impression of many of their predecessors. Instead of dressing in overalls and wifebeaters, Youth of Today’s youth crew dressed in varsity jackets, shorts, and basketball shoes, arguably softening the transition for those that didn’t relate to the tough look of Agnostic Front and Warzone. Youth of Today created a sound and message that was easier for suburban kids to digest, inspiring those that didn’t live on the harsh streets of New York to pick up instruments and start a band.
I’m not even gonna bullshit you with some high vocabulary blurb on this one: the Cro-Mags changed everything with this record. Before it, hardcore was just a faster, more aggressive version of typical punk rock: loud power chords played at manic speeds for songs usually lasting between ten seconds to maybe a minute and a half. Even Agnostic Front followed this template on their debut, Victim in Pain, compared to their second record Cause for Alarm. Then the Cro-Mags dropped The Age of Quarrel, altering the landscape of the genre forever. While they weren’t the first hardcore band to take advantage of their metal influences (Black Flag showed their appreciation for Black Sabbath on My War about two years earlier), Cro-Mags took influence from early thrash metal bands such as Metallica, as well as Black Sabbath, to draw a crunchier and more focused blueprint for the metallic hardcore movement of the following decade. Songs like “We Gotta Know” and “Malfunction” introduced slower and more methodical pacing to a genre that was known at the time for breakneck chords progressions. Additionally, the band took influence from DC’s Bad Brains, introducing reggae breaks that created the foundation for metalcore’s most maligned and recognizable trait: the breakdown.
As we move into a chapter of the genre that hews closer to metal than hardcore ever dared before, much emphasis is placed on the influence of European metal on the American metalcore scene; and while we do see an increasing number of bands mining the Swedish melodic death metal scene for inspiration both cited and uncited, we often lose sight of the innovations happening right at home. For that reason, it seemed important to take a moment to ground ourselves in the past and take inventory of those innovations--because, in wave two and beyond, the hell that Vision of Disorder, Madball, Biohazard, Youth of Today, and the Cro-Mags raised in New York will have just as important a role in the evolution of metalcore as At the Gates and In Flames across the pond. We’re only about a third of the way into this journey through the history of one of the most important genres in heavy music, so we hope that you’ll continue on with us. We have such sights to show you.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!