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.
So here we are now, at last ready to traverse the shadowy wilderness of metalcore, the way mapped for us by our six classics-that-weren’t. We have markers and milestones with names we might recognize, bands we knew of but never explored, and have since vanished into the ether. The way is fraught with one-offs and workhorses; with promising starts and premature ends; with professionals and amateurs; with stalwarts, traditionalists, iconoclasts, and everything in between.
From here on, although we may pause to spend more time with one band or another to locate their place in the metal continuum, we’re in flyover mode. We’ll stay true to the purpose of the American Metalcore Project to shine some well-deserved light on all this overlooked and underappreciated music, but we will also have to temper our ambitions with the reality that some things will slip our notice. Not everything can be gotten to, but maybe it’s up to you to wander off the path when you outgrow these (limited, maybe ill-informed) maps, shine a little of your own light around, and see what you find out there in the dark.
But you’d better know where you’re coming from or you’re going to get really lost really fast:
It’s generally agreed that metalcore originated during the metallic hardcore/“crossover” period that took place between the waning years of heavy metal’s dominion over the 80s and the dark age of the 90s. Converge, Earth Crisis, Integrity, and Starkweather were the result of the overlap, their early work best imagined as hardcore punk outlines colored in with heavy metal. This template would change over the next decade, but its first evolutionary leap occurred during this five-year span that ostensibly marks the first “wave” of metalcore.
These are pre-Jane Doe days in a pre-Alive or Just Breathing age, which means The Big Four of Thrash (Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer) are at or approaching their nadirs with Load/Reload, Risk, The Threat is Real, and Diabolus in Musica. Nu-metal is on the rise with Korn and Limp Bizkit in the vanguard, blazing a trail that hundreds will follow to metal’s lowest era, lasting from now until approximately 2003. Florida and New York’s underground metal scenes are red-hot, spawning dozens of short-lived but widely-respected death metal acts vying for power. Caught between these two subterranean explosions is the metalcore scene, pulling itself together under the flag Pantera waves for mainstream American metal. It has a few years to go before maturity, but in its molten state, metalcore disciplines the rage that fueled the metal of the 80s with the tight song structures of hardcore punk, forging an exciting new force in the American underground.
Enough history. Rev your engines. This is lift-off.
6. Training For Utopia - Plastic Soul Impalement
Christian bands looking to play metal disproportionately gravitate to metalcore. Sad fact. If half of these bands played with the passion of Training For Utopia on their debut full-length Plastic Soul Impalement, this phenomena might actually be justifiable; but as it stands, the better part of the Christian metalcore gene pool is content to rip on the same handful of fifth- or sixth-generation hardcore riffs in the hopes of injecting some modicum of intensity and all-too-elusive conviction into their music. I would argue that Christian metalcore is in large part responsible for metalcore’s low standing in the metal community as a result of this shameless copycatting. When words like “formulaic,” “repetitive,” “redundant,” “squeaky-clean,” and “hollow” are slung in metalcore’s direction, it’s these bands that deserve the blame. To be clear, I don’t think it has anything to do with the religious subtext (sometimes just text) of these acts, at least not as far as the casual listener or critic is involved - again, it’s that shocking and scene-wide adherence to the same techniques, approaches, and even marketing strategies that these bands utilize. This is a horse so dead it can’t even be beaten, yet new bands continue to kick around in its dust. It’s dispiriting.
Training For Utopia’s debut is a shot of fire-and-brimstone, blazing an alternate trail for the frustrated Christian with a guitar. Their template of late-nineties metalcore several lenses out of focus gives them the wilder, coarser textures of noise rock, setting them leagues apart from their genre cousins from the get-go; and while it’s a brash, messy, and imperfect sound to a fault, Training For Utopia’s songwriting is surprisingly sophisticated, often eschewing repetition on a track-by-track basis for mood-building and sudden, frenzied eruption. It helps (or doesn’t, depending on your tastes) that the riffs they pull from this morass are Frankenstein’d together by loops and static, the end product one thick with doubt and loosely-restrained malice - not at all what you’d expect from a Christian band! But make no mistake: Plastic Soul Impalement is one of the most single-mindedly abrasive albums in the subgenre, a metalcore “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” to everyone else’s flimsy evangelical pamphlets.
It’s Training For Utopia’s album-writing skills, more than their songwriting, that really elevate Plastic Soul Impalement beyond their genre trappings, and so it’s crucial that the album be listened to as a single piece, just as you would Buried Inside’s Chronoclast. Things begin on a subdued note with the ominous smear of noise that is the title track, but “A Good Feeling” lays down the first proper brushstrokes with its frayed guitar, gravelly shouts, and cymbal-heavy drumwork. The Drowningman-esque “Brother Hezakiah” builds on that template with Simon Brody-ish spoken word, layering those wonderfully noisy guitars toward a stomping rock climax. On its own, it’s a mean groove worth snapping your neck to; in context, it’s a ramp through the paranoid noise of “Two Hands” to the balls-out violence of “Pretty Picture of Lies.” which itself leads into the thorny “One Zero One” and the aggressive lurch of “Burning Match In Hand.” “Human Shield” compresses all the feedback and noise of the previous tracks into a three-minute whirlwind of shrapnel riffage and wounded screams, clearing a path for the climactic “Single-Handed Attempt At Revolution.” The transition from “Human Shield” is seamless, working that song’s mathcore antics to a froth before wiping it all away to reveal the existential fury at the heart of the album, transcribed below:
And I didn't care for so long. I didn't succumb to your disgusting apathy. This is an obligation, my entirety. I know, I know: cover your ears because it’s time for the truth. I've questioned you before and received nothing more than the irresponsible, thoughtless ideology, one which stresses an independent way of thinking with no help but your own. You’re running backwards and you’re getting nowhere fast. You trip over every word you utter, and you still proclaim complete awareness and perfection. I've never heard so many foolish thoughts born from such a feeble mind, but it’s nothing new. You aren't different. Your way of thinking has been around for centuries for those who thought they had to challenge every teaching, no matter how perfect, no matter how beautiful that teaching was. Where has that challenge gotten them now? You watch your own mind. You want to make your own decisions? You want to think for yourself? It becomes hard when you don't know what you think, and all that's left to do is to protect your foolish mindset by using some elaborate word to cover up the fact that you spend your time being unsure about everything. Your disguise has proven itself transparent and your mask finds only the impressionable its true victims. I will not be a victim. I will not bathe in your flames. I will not wallow in your disease. You don't scare me; your makeup, your woman's clothing, they don't make me shudder. I'm sorry if that's what you had in mind. Nor do your childish threats strike panic into my heart. No, this is not a joke. This is not an act. I want a reaction. I want to strike more than just a nerve. Do you feel it? You've been wrong this whole time. Your book of Satan, your book of Mormon, you Quran: they've been wrong this whole time. You think the truth is painful. Continue in your meaningless motive until it’s your time to go. That is pain: when there's no chance left to turn on your incompleteness. Not the answer you looked into. Analyze your fall. No end to your pathetic considerations. Have you ever thought about how it might feel? Has your brain ever stretched past the boundaries of the obvious? Isn't there more? You have no standards. No morals. You live for nothing. Continue to reject, and you'll be nothing. I hate this, all of it. This is your fault, and when it ends, look not into my hands, for you’re blind.
Rambling? Messy? Occasionally juvenile and contradictory? All of these things are applicable not just to this song and this spoken-word passage, but also to Plastic Soul Impalement as a whole; but it’s the hair-raising conviction, the honesty of the delivery, that eclipses and makes up for any problematic ideology and instrumentation on both a micro- and macroscopic level. This segment, with its tribal beats and abstract chords, seems to darken the room with that eerie doomsday mentality that suffuses so much of the album. It’s a hard feeling to shake, and it partly overshadows “A Gift To A Dying Friend,” probably the only significant issue we can level at Impalement. Fortunately, it packs one of those twenty-minute silences that was so popular with ’90s records, providing the listener time to reflect (and maybe come to terms with their God) before an unnamed hidden track finishes things on a note of total madness. It consists of little more than unintelligible screams over a distorted jam session, like a nightmare of all that came before.
I can’t help wondering what might have been if Training For Utopia had arrived on the scene at a more formative period and made some sort of mark, rather than dropping this masterpiece to deafening silence and, in response, retooling their sound for a lesser follow-up. Looking back now, it’s hard to imagine how something like Plastic Soul Impalement could pass through the annals of metalcore almost unnoticed, but the best we can do is attribute its failure to a musical climate that just didn't know what to do with Training For Utopia’s challenge to hardcore, metal, and noise rock. Part of me wonders if the sort of circumstances that would allow Plastic Soul Impalement to attain the classic status it deserves are even feasible, now that metalcore seems to be entering its twilight, but I suppose that’s exactly why we started the American Metalcore Project: to shed light on albums like this, in danger of being forgotten, that did what no one was doing and what few are doing now. It’s well past time for Plastic Soul Impalement’s rediscovery.
5. The End - Transfer Trachea Reverberations From Point: False Omniscient
It’s funny what a muse can do for a young metal band. Not only for The Dillinger Escape Plan, but also for metalcore at large, Calculating Infinity was a watershed moment, a statement that has since taken on a mind and mystique of its own. It stands apart from the rest of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s discography as both the benchmark against which virtually all technical metalcore bands are judged and as the inspiration for a wave of early ’00s bands that, regrettably, didn’t always grasp what made it work so well. For a few years, the scene was glutted with stuff like Car Bomb’s Centralia and Apiary’s Lost In Focus: albums with plenty of Dillinger-worthy chops, but no staying power whatsoever. Overlooked in the scuffle is The End’s mouthful of a debut, Transfer Trachea Reverberations From Point: False Omniscient, an album that can go toe-to-toe with Calculating Infinity and one-up it in a single, crucial area: atmosphere.
Sure, from the nightmare jazz of “Sugar-Coated Sour” straight through to the end, the album is is bug-eyed, sweaty madness personified; but it takes something just a tad more refined to conjure up and sustain Transfer Trachea’s unsettling schizophrenia from the same frenzied components. Knowing full well that the ground broken on Calculating Infinity couldn’t be broken again, The End take The Dillinger Escape Plan’s ferocious originality as a template to build on rather than as gospel to follow, and the mileage they get out of this small tweak is nothing short of remarkable. Truth be told, they even beat The Dillinger Escape Plan to their own punch three years before Miss Machine, an album which makes similar moves toward digestible songwriting. Let me emphasize that: they beat The goddamn Dillinger Escape Plan to their own punch!
Not to say that Transfer Trachea or Miss Machine are accessible albums, because The End’s debut is every bit the inscrutable metalcore edifice you’d expect, and it’s even of comparable length - twenty-two minutes, roughly on par with Calculating Infinity if you trim the fat from “Variation On A Cocktail Dress." Albums of this length tend to feel a little lean, but Transfer Trachea is one of those rare few that plays like a complete representation of its artist’s vision, which in this case is every bit as weirdly elegant as its cover illustration. Make no mistake: this is challenging stuff, and it can sound like gibberish if you aren’t devoting your full attention to it. This is what makes Transfer Trachea special. According to bassist Sean Dooley’s (slightly drunken) explanation of the album’s cumbersome title:
It was kind of a very elaborate way of saying the voice of God. Like, Transfer Trachea Reverberations, it’s like the movement of those vibrations in your throat, and then like Point False Omniscient is like kind of just our beliefs and the way people look at whatever the God entity is. It’s like the voice of God it would be, if anything, like chaotic and flowing, like abstract like the real world, so that was the idea.1
Out of the American Metalcore Project’s six new classics, The End’s debut had the best shot at becoming an actual classic, improbably snagging the award for Metal Album of the Year (!) at the Canadian Independent Music Awards in 2001. Unfortunately, it never quite took. This could be for any number of reasons, but we can attribute its relative obscurity at least in part to the sorts of tours The End wound up on following its release. While they landed bills with the likes of the The Dillinger Escape Plan, there was clearly a dearth of like-minded metal at the time, forcing The End to share stages with Poison the Well, Lamb of God, and A Life Once Lost. These are all excellent bands in their own right, but they sit uneasily alongside The End’s more experimental tendencies. Surely, in some alternate universe, The End might have toured with Drowningman, whose agile songwriting was really coming into its own around 2001 and is a great complement to The End’s, or with As The Sun Sets, who had already trimmed the insanity of Each Individual Voice is Dead in the Silence down to a spastic grind variant by this time.
Consider opener “Her (Inamorata),” which erupts into a dizzying barrage barely held in check by Tyler Semrick-Palmateer’s distinctive voice - full, guttural, characterized by a tendency to strain and squeal in a way that projects genuine emotion across The End’s pitiless canvas. The track is particularly Dillinger-esque in the way it drops in on the listener without warning, but The End throw us a pronounced, Tool-like bass presence to hang onto while the rest of the band noodles away. It’s the album’s hook and backbone, shaping the main groove of “Opalescence I” and focalizing its abstract chords and creepy electronic layers. They billow into the spiraling riffs of “Opalescence II,” a mathcore workout that gives way to “The Asphyxiation of Lisa Claire,” one of the album’s most impressive cuts. The transition from barbed-wire riffing to this song’s jangling chords would be jarring even for comparable bands, but The End’s knack for atmospheric chaos makes it utterly natural. Those clean chords haunt the rest of the origamic “Lisa Claire,” bracing us for its distorted scales, cavernous drumwork, and a stab of phantasmagoric cleans right in the heart of the album. The track’s restlessness is even more abrasive than the opener’s, but the ambient/noise gasp of “For Man - Limited Renewal” is there to keep it from overshadowing the skronked-out “Sonnet” and closer “Entirety In Infancy,” which is just as powerful a summary of all that’s come before as “Her” is of what’s to come.
Back in Part 1.2, I made a couple of points. The first was that most of the debuts among the new classics are followed up with radical departures from the band’s initial sound. I name-checked Buried Inside specifically, but The End was also on my mind: Within Dividia ends the parallels between The End and The Dillinger Escape Plan by showing the band in the process of succumbing to the broader-appeal tendencies of the bands they toured with in the wake of Transfer Trachea’s success. You’ll find an enjoyable but familiar take on mathcore with The End’s sophomore album rather than a continuation, of what’s presented, and something else entirely on their junior. Their third album, Elementary, furthers this deterioration and, for better or worse, represents their last effort as a band.
The other point, branching off of the first, was that these disappointing follow-ups seem to be the result of the band simply not knowing where to go with the sound they innovate, and I think that’s the real issue, here. Like Calculating Infinity, The End’s debut is lightning in a bottle. The Dillinger Escape Plan powered one of the most distinguished ongoing careers in metal with it. The End were content to let it fizzle out. Various members went on to various other projects, but for a brief twenty-two minutes at the turn of the century, they showed us what a young band following its unique muse can do. This music isn’t meant to fill stadiums. Transfer Trachea is the soundtrack to a nervous breakdown, or to spiritual revelation.
4. Drowningman - Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline
Can’t feel my fingers. I can’t feel.
Asked whether “much thought” goes into the titles of their songs in an interview with Brian Webb of The PRP, Drowningman frontman Simon Brody admits:
Yeah I spend a lot of time thinking those up. They do have a lot to do with the songs. It's not the easiest to understand, most black and white way of naming a song but I think it works and it's how we like it.
Read that title over. Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline. It’s a macabre, totally tongue-in-cheek phrase that, apart from being damn catchy, is just code for indifference. For numbness.
Standing, I can feel you. Can you feel me?
Hailing from Burlington, Vermont, a name that might rings bells for those familiar with a certain democratic socialist’s campaign for the presidency, Drowningman’s birthplace was “high schools kids into high school bands playing the heavy ‘mosh’ kind of stuff.” It became Drowningman’s mission to claw their way out as quickly as possible, booking out-of-state shows, signing with Hydra Head Records, and keeping quiet about their roots when they were lumped in with Cave In, Converge, Piebald and other big, Boston-bred acts at the forefront of an emerging national scene. While Drowningman might share a little genre DNA with each of those bands, especially Cave In, they were always a different beast - wry and emotive, crass and spiteful in ways their contemporaries never risked.
I want to hear you try to help me. I want to hear you try to save me.
On their Bandcamp page, where Busy Signal is up for download, there is a blurb by Roderic Mounir, drummer of Swedish metalcore act Knut, written for Hydra Head Records. I think it’s pretty useful to keep an “outside” perspective in the mix in order to locate ourselves in the grander international metalcore scene, and to know what kind of waves we’ve really made in it, but it’s pure coincidence that this is the second time Mounir has indirectly contributed to the American Metalcore Project (he was quoted back in part 1.2, for the curious). I want to include Roderic’s opinion for the same reason Hydra Head leaves the Drowningman entry on their website almost entirely to him: Busy Signal, and Drowningman in general, is “best described and contextualized by one of their peers”:
“Remember, this was year 1998 when so many great bands put out incredible releases: CONVERGE - When Forever Comes Crashing, CAVE IN - Until Your Heart Stops, BOTCH - American Nervoso, ISIS - Mosquito Control EP, REFUSED - The Shape of Punk to Come, etc. Those were exciting times for the realm of heavy underground music. A seemingly lesser-known act, DROWNINGMAN, came up that year with a moniker and a sound that brought to mind the pioneers of chaotic metallic hardcore, DEADGUY. Rising from Burlington, Vermont, they rocked in an even tighter fashion and would play even further the superlong-witty-song-title game. The album itself was presented under a semi passable (but ultimately memorable) B-movie title, Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline.
That however wasn't the most important facet of the album- the music was: DROWNINGMAN fired on all cylinders, fusing hardcore-punk, noisecore, math-rock, metal and even indie-pop. Yes, they were the only band that could jump from a shredding metalcore part to a pretty singy-songy chorus without sounding like a preppy emo band - long before this became a fashionable (and marketable) formula. With a singer as capable as Simon Brody, you'd wonder why they wouldn't give it a shot. It worked. Most of all, the guitarists had so many great riffs under their belts - viciously discordant, blatantly rocking, anthemic, you name it, and to top it off a drummer that possessed enough versatility and musicality in his grooves to make it flow effortlessly.
Listen to opener ‘Condoning The Use Of Inhalants’: it clocks in at just under three minutes, but by the time it reaches the 2:30 mark, the band has already gone through five different riffs at least, and just as many tempo shifts, seamlessly. Drowningman were a lesson in songcraft just as much as they were in extremity. A lesson those lucky enough to cross their path undoubtedly retained.”
I swear to God I hear your voice outside of the window.
But Busy Signal isn’t going to sound like the most original take on metalcore to most listeners right away. It might even sound a little standard-issue compared to some of the other new classics in the American Metalcore Project - it’s not as dense as Kiss It Goodbye, not as intricate as Buried Inside, or as bonkers as The End. But as always, context is key. While metalcore fans will pick up on the hard verse/melodic chorus structures of these eight tracks, it’s important that we also recognize that, as Roderic notes, Busy Signal precedes the popularization of these tropes by at least a couple of years. Drowningman also have an odd ear for both halves of the metalcore dichotomy. This becomes more and more apparent with repeat listens. Their core sound tends to oscillate between hardcore stomp, shreddy technicality, and indie-alternative melodicism - not an easy mix to pull off, but they make it seem effortless. In that same PRP interview, Brody cite Deadguy, Threadbare, Acme, and Shotmaker as “huge influences” on Drowningman in their early years. You don’t have to squint to see strains each of those bands in the makeup of Busy Signal. In fact, in the band’s own words:
“Conceptually, what we wanted to do was take a few things, mix them together and see what works,” says Brody….“We’d hear something and really like it, but often think the band could have gone in a different direction. So what if we took what a band like, say, [New Jersey metalcore band] Deadguy did and took it in that different direction ourselves?”
“We were trying to interpret the music of bands who were doing these fringe things, and doing them very well,” adds Leonard. “But we were trying to do it without copying them.”
Give them credit: it’s much harder to detect what sort of influence “Sunny Day Real Estate, Radiohead, The Sea and Cake, American Football, Joan of Arc, and Trans Am”2 had on Drowningman, at least at this stage, and with this iteration of the band. I say “this iteration” because, with their revolving door of musicians, each album is essentially the product of a “new” Drowningman anchored down by Brody’s distinctive voice. Some spacey textures manage to bloom on later efforts, but if you stare long enough, you’ll see them simmering just beneath the surface of Busy Signal, too: the band’s ear for melody is, again, more alternative than pop, and they tend to develop songs through Deadguy-ish riff-o-ramas, giving Busy Signal an occasionally jagged, frequently explosive, always-exciting topography that only they can really lay claim to.
I’m already low.
Give them credit, also, for channeling the agile bludgeoning of their hardcore influences without resorting to excessive brutality - you could almost accuse Drowningman of being fun, with their witty song titles and technical flair, but I point the finger a little more confidently at Killswitch Engage when it comes time to name the first band to make metalcore truly palatable. Even when they assume a proto-partycore slant (the swingy groove of the title track, the hellraising riffs of “Supermarket Riot”), Drowningman are just a little too dark and sardonic to support that kind of accusation. They’re too unstable.
Can you hear me? There's something wrong with me.
But that was what made their live show. Drowningman’s onstage reputation is perhaps the most consistent thing about them outside of Brody, and with good reason. For the sake of corollary, let’s imagine ourselves at an Every Time I Die gig. If you’ve had the fortune to see them, you know they’re loud, silly, booze-and-bros affairs. If you haven’t, do it: they throw parties, not concerts. Since it’s pretty challenging to catch a Drowningman set these days, we have to scavenge for what’s left of them on YouTube or buried in old interviews to root out the differences, but they become pretty damn apparent not too long into the investigation. “I’ve been known to talk some shit,” Brody once said of his live persona, but it goes deeper, and gets weirder, than that. In an interview with Jackson Ellis of Noisecreep, amid talk of a possible Busy Signal re-release, Brody and the interviewer discuss a pretty apt example of Drowningman’s heyday:
Ellis: I recent[sic] caught up with friend, and he was telling me about seeing you guys in Indiana and told me about you yelling at some heckler or something. And you guys wouldn’t play another song until the heckler licked the bass player’s chest. Is this a real story or one of those show fables that developed over time?
Brody: No, that was real. I don’t know what used to come over me. That was a more mild account. I remember playing in Buffalo once and the police came down with the intention of arresting me if I “did what I had done the time before.” I don’t quite recall it, but apparently a traumatized kid reported it to their mom, who in turn talked to the cops.
“I still have the scars on the bridge of my nose, forehead and some nice ones in hiding out in my hairline to remind me of my shitty behavior,” Brody concludes, saying all that really needs to be said on that.
Your signal can't reach me, your station can't feel me.
Despite teetering on the brink of collapse for most of their career (and occasionally falling right into it!), Drowningman was consistently able to deliver the goods like no other act in the scene. The importance of Drowningman’s debut album to the American Metalcore Project, then, is actually secondary to the importance of the band itself. Rather than positioning Busy Signal at the Suicide Hotline as an influential album on its own, it would be more practical to take it for what it truly is: a crash-course introduction to one of the most fascinating and overlooked bands in the genre. It’s a little rough around the edges, sometimes a little obvious in its approach, but it’s the first and most straightforward example of the attitude and techniques that would come to define Drowningman. In the context of their discography, it gives us a starting point from which to view their evolution into something weird and unique within the rigid confines of metalcore - an evolution catalyzed just as much by their willingness to incorporate influences from way outside the norm as by their collective unwillingness to keep their musical heroes on too tall a pedestal, or to even acknowledge the rigidity of those confines. That’s the kind of indifference that any band can learn from.
Hand me the knife, hand of God, hand me the knife.
3. Kiss It Goodbye - She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not
In the geology of metalcore, Deadguy is bedrock. A seminal hardcore act of the early nineties, they weren’t necessarily the first to do it, but they were certainly one of the angriest and most capable groups to ever to try their hand at fusing metal and hardcore, spawning a discography that consisted of a couple of EPs and a full-length, Fixation On A Co-Worker - angry and capable enough that song titles like “Doom Patrol” and “Makeshift Atomsmasher” come off contextually appropriate rather than ironic, as with later metalcore acts.
On the surface, given how influential Fixation On A Co-Worker has proven to be on the landscape of metalcore despite its relative obscurity, it would seem logical to include it among the new classics of the American Metalcore Project, if only to give it another shot at popularity. It innovates the sort of angularity that The Dillinger Escape Plan and the rest of the mathcore scene thrives upon, yet too often goes unmentioned. It’s a compelling argument that helped Fixation stick around right up until it came time to finalize the list of new classics, but I ultimately decided to give the spot to Deadguy’s even more underappreciated successor. I considered expanding the count to seven albums, but decided against that, too. I said that the new classics of the American Metalcore Project don’t always reflect the very best of the subgenre. Fixation On A Co-Worker is what I had in mind, but this is in no way meant to diminish or undercut She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not, which sees members of Deadguy linking up with members of Rorschach to record an album every bit as unhinged as Deadguy’s best, and worthy of even broader recognition.
For one, She Loves Me... takes Fixation’s sound even further, amping up the jagged songwriting and dragging it through sludge territory and the slower, more face-pounding side of hardcore, then welding it to a message and aesthetic every bit as powerful. As well-executed as Deadguy’s take on metalcore is on Fixation, it’s a sound that’s already been noticed, picked up, and taken places, and if a horrifically underfunded and underbooked tour in support of the album hadn’t broken the band, maybe we’d be talking about them as contemporaries of the Dillinger Escape Plan today. Maybe they would have usurped Botch in the metalcore pantheon. Instead, we have the opportunity to look back and see how these hardships unexpectedly hatched something much slower, uglier, and severely neglected:
Kiss It Goodbye.
While not strictly a concept album, there is a through-line to She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. Running underneath all heavy music is a current of frustration. The anger, anxiety, and violence of “angry music” like metal and hardcore springs from some discontent with the self, with others, with society; from a creeping awareness that things have somehow gone wrong, even if we can’t place just how. This discontent takes as many forms as there are subgenres of metal, hardcore, and now metalcore. It’s arguably why we have subgenres, each one a conduit for some nebulous rage in desperate need of articulation. Deadguy understood that, but Kiss It Goodbye bring it to the fore and brood on it, so that each song emerges as a furnace-blast of raw urban ennui.
Out of all the bands performing in all these niche styles, it’s hard to find a voice that articulates your anger, your disaffection, and your paranoia quite like Tim Singer. He’s frustration incarnate. Eschewing the high-and-low approach of most metalcore vocalists, he simply lets loose like the bygone greats of punk and metal with the voice he’s got. It’s a damn scary one. His arsenal consists of the natural cracks and squeals of his voice, of reckless leaps of tone and pitch, but this isn’t screamo, and these flaws aren’t vulnerability. He sounds like he’s going to hurt you. His spoken-word rambling and screaming is matched by a backdrop every bit as murderous as his delivery. It oozes and lurches with him, spikes and lunges when he does. His sidewinding lyricism, his explosive outbursts and moments of stare-eyed calm are reflected so instinctively by the music that Tim’s stand-out performance melts into the whole. You’ve never heard synergy like this. “Helvetica” is unadulterated rage and paranoia, a beatdown worthy of “The Broken Vow,” “Floater,” and “Memphis Will Be Laid To Waste” and a statement of intent like few other openers in metalcore: the door slamming resolutely shut on the hot, windowless room you’ll spend the next forty minutes sharing with a madman.
Addiction. Depression. Exploitation. Grief. Ignorance. Politicians. Manipulators. Abusers. All get their turn in front of the firing squad. Numerous emotional peaks are reached throughout - “Man Thing” being the biggest surprise, which I won’t spoil - but special attention has to be paid to “What If.” In some alternate timeline (I won’t call it a perfect one), this song is as embedded in heavy-music culture as Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name.” It specifies that song’s naive rebellion and inverts its spunk into something harsher and truer, stripping away the anthemic one-liners to reveal the oppressive, incoherent malaise of what it is to live in fear of authority and in fear of those presumed to help; to hate them and the system that couches and shields them; to have nothing to fight it but the two hands clutching your head and the spittle flying from your lips.
Kiss It Goodbye excel at capturing this helplessness and making it last, making you feel it. This is heavy stuff in every way, and after a while, it doesn’t sound like something made by people. Give it enough time, and it stops resembling music played on instruments. This album is a concentrated, forty-five-minute gout of rage, a direct line to the id and the magmatic frustration that powers us through our routines; to the inescapable certainty that something is deeply, fundamentally wrong. In the world that Kiss It Goodbye despise and expose on She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not, one that exists right there in our news and in our neighborhoods, stark and real and inescapable, it’s not enough to flip an officer the bird. It’s not enough to shout that you won’t do what you’re told. That’s what gets you shot.