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.