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.
Racetraitor - Burn the Idol of the White Messiah (1998)
The moment a band releases a song or statement that might be perceived as “political,” I guarantee an influx of otherwise silent fans complaining, on whatever avenues available to them, that the band have somehow overstepped their boundaries as musicians. These kinds of complaints--“stick to what you know,” and all variations of--frequently and hilariously disregard the fact that the people in the band are people who, more often than not, are as affected by what goes on in the political sphere as their listeners. It also disregards the possibility that politics and government may, in fact, be what the band know--and to that end, has there ever been a band for whom this was truer than Racetraitor?
If their name and the title of their debut album, Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, didn’t state the point clearly enough, Racetraitor are a band for whom political statements are not confined to moments of reactionary activism, but an ethos by which they strictly abide. Their name, “a pejorative term...used by white American racists” to mock individuals who use the “social and economic privilege” granted them by their race “to create a more egalitarian world,” was claimed as way for the band to subvert the term and diminish its power, as they used it as a moniker under which to espouse their fiercely progressive, egalitarian worldview. In addition to issues of racial injustice, Racetraitor were also outspoken on matters of corporatism, sexuality, and colonialism, and were aligned with both straight-edge culture (the militant variety, of course) and taqwacore, a subdivision of hardcore music played by Muslims with the intent to interrogate the culture of Islam through the lens of punk music. Some of the album’s most electrifying musical moments occur on “Dar Al-Harb,” whose Arabic title is tricky to decipher, but illuminating: on one hand, its direct translation seems to be “house of war,” but the term can also connote a place where the rule of Islam goes unpracticed. This, in turn, connote a “place of heathens.” Most interestingly, some interpret the word as “house of the west,” whose meaning requires no explanation; and which, when conflated with these other definitions, paints quite a negative picture.
This is basis enough for a disputative following, but Racetraitor weren’t shy about meeting the controversy they courted head-on: live shows often turned to “heated arguments” between audience members or the band and audience members, and Racetraitor were known to encourage fans to write to and raise funds for controversial political activist, suspected New Black Liberation Militia member, and convicted arsonist Fred Hampton Jr. while serving prison time in the 90s. They were known to call audience attendees “crackers,” too, although the band clarified that this was in reference to “those who ‘crack the whip’...those who simply perpetuate racism and exploitation in their day-to-day lives” rather than an evocation of racial tension--although, one imagines that to be a very narrow line to walk in the emotionally-charged hardcore scene.
Although the band broke up after a brief, tumultuous career that saw only one EP following Burn the Idol of the White Messiah, they carried their ideologies into future projects, sometimes intact, as for frontman Mani Mostofi:
Mostofi briefly played in a Chicago band called the Enemy that recorded but never released a full length on Indecision Records. When members of the Enemy joined Rise Against and Shai Hulud, Mani formed the Kill Pill. After the Kill Pill, he went on to complete an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He continued his activism in the anti-war and Palestinian rights movements and traveled to the Middle East extensively. More recently, Mostofi earned a JD at Fordham Law School in New York with an emphasis in international law and works as a human rights researcher and advocate.
Sometimes, it went on in more sublimated fashion. While guitarist Karl Hlavinka went on to play with Killtheslavemaster and then Pittsburgh cyber-mathcore freaks Creation Is Crucifixion, Racetraitor’s drummer and fill-in bass player switched gears to found a successful pop-punk band. Their third record included a song based on the trial and conviction of Fred Hampton Jr., arranged so that the verdict appears wrongful. This is that song. Take a minute. Mm-hm. As difficult as it may be to wrap your head around it (it certainly came as a shock to me), Fall Out Boy are direct descendants of Racetraitor through Andy Hurley and Pete Wentz. The family tree extends even further than that, as Wentz also fronted metalcore band Arma Angelis, alongside some other notable names the American Metalcore Project will cover a little later. Hurley currently plays in Sect XVX with Chris Colohan of legendary Canadian sludge/crust outfit Cursed, proving that his stint at the top of the charts hasn’t diminished his passion for forward-thinking heavy music in the least.
And, for their time, Racetraitor were ahead of the game. I don't think there's much use in trying to differentiate these tracks sonically, as they're all of an arid, scorching piece with one another; but listening to them in the current metalcore climate, you’ll hear how Burn the Idol of the White Messiah precipitates many of the sludge-drenched hardcore bands currently making waves, such as Jesus Piece, Left Behind, Heavens Die, God’s Hate, and more. Even exceeding our reach a little to peek into Racetraitor’s demo, their early fusion of grind and powerviolence is remarkably similar to the trends of only a few years ago, when bands like Weekend Nachos and Full of Hell were setting fire to the scene. White Messiah plays like a demolition in seven parts, one crushing breakdown after the next, interspersed with the sort of hardcore riffing that is so fast and punishing that precision falls by the wayside. The lack of variation from track to track can be grating, but nothing about Racetraitor, from their ideology to the style of hardcore they play, should be anything less than difficult listening--even their production is lofi and raw, reducing Andy Hurley’s snare to a vicious popping, like distant gunfire, and their guitar tone to garrote-wire. Metalcore vocalists are rarely as frightening as Mostofi, whose venomous roar sounds as if it's bursting through an overdriven PA system. While the 2017 remix/remaster does a lot to clean up the overall sound of the record, the shell-shocked production of the original disc is too aesthetically appropriate not to experience.
Racetraitor were the political metalcore band, and remain one of the very best at aligning message and music into a cohesive, corrosive whole. I pay attention to artwork--especially for a band like Racetraitor, for whom the manner of conveyance is historically just as important as the message conveyed, the images they choose to represent them speak volumes as to their disposition. The cover of Burn the Idol of the White Messiah is a close-up of a bone joint and Arabic script over a red background, divided by the band’s name; fitting for an album of lurid contrasts and ugly exposure. At the time this entry of the American Metalcore Project was conceived, Racetraitor’s discography spanned only their demo, this full-length, and the Make Them Talk EP, but has since expanded to include the By the Time I Get to Pennsylvania flexi disc in September 2016, and the Invisible Battles Against Invisible Fortresses EP, which dropped in July. Pennsylvania’s cover depicts snake handling, and Invisible Battles, the Battersea Power Station. Religion and the ruin of capitalism are still in Racetraitor’s crosshairs, but there are many more insidious forces still to confront.
Undying - The Whispered Lies of Angels (2000)
Although it’s been some time since anyone has accused Between the Buried and Me of being a metalcore band, they certainly once were. You’d have to backtrack to The Silent Circus and their self-titled to really hear it, but even then, it’s disguised in so much prog and technical dazzle that it’s never more than a foundation laid and filled in on two previous projects: Prayer For Cleansing, and Undying. Dyed-in-the-wool metalcore bands, Prayer For Cleansing are an intriguing project in their own right, but both Tommy Rogers and Paul Waggoner, Between the Buried and Me’s longest-running and arguably best-known members, got their start in North Carolina’s Undying.
The band’s flagrant use of melody set them apart from the onset, but it’s got very little to do with the Gothenburgization of American metalcore Killswitch Engage ushered in. Although Killswitch were one of the first metalcore bands to openly embrace major chords and clean vocals in the context of vitriolic hardcore, Undying provide an alternative route that begins in the propulsive vein of Strongarm and strays close to Swedish guitar heroics without quite crossing the threshold into European worship. If there’s a Swedish band they do seem to reference, it’s more Dissection than At the Gates or In Flames. In fact, there’s a bit of a spiritual kinship between Undying and Dissection, as they’re both a little offbeat in relation to their respective music scenes--vocalist Timothy Roy’s frantic rasp sometimes even pushes Undying in the direction of the melodic black metal Dissection built their name on, although this seems more accidental than intended, evidence of a similar creative spark at work in a parallel medium.
Don’t expect the hyper-technical bombardments of Waggoner’s later project or to hear Rogers sing or play keyboard: Waggoner sticks to the metalcore framework of big leads, shred riffs, and breakdown (although there is a refreshing lack of guitar chugging), and utilizes major chord progressions very frequently. Rogers, on bass, is less audible--more a consequence of limited technology thanks to the album’s DIY recording, but also an early sign that the age of the inaudible bass guitar was dawning in 2000. Even more so than in Between the Buried and Me, then, Waggoner is the dominant force in Undying, establishing the tone of the record from “Echoes” onward and guiding the listener along the cutting edge of melodic metalcore in the early '00s.
Undying were both vegan and straight-edge, lifestyle choices that hardcore bands generally seem to have a hard time keeping to themselves. But you’d never know, as even a glance at the lyric sheet doesn’t give much away. Their worldview is cleverly submerged in the austere terminology of black metal and obscured by its sonic footprint, as in the following excerpt from “The Company of Storms”:
when nighttime stars flicker with grief and despair
and dusk threatens senses too dazed to stay clear
their heavens will beckon,
and angels will whisper my name
wings of scarlet hue, their truth soaked in blood
And what is that worldview? From the title of the album to a tracklist that includes such doomsaying as “Tears Seven Times Salt” and “The Coming Dark Age,” to their fusion of dramatic melodeath harmonies with brash hardcore sincerity, the band’s vegan/straight-edge beliefs form the basis for a very blunt artistic statement: through the poisoning of our bodies, our callous disregard for the natural world, and our insistence on using up rather than making do, we're destroying ourselves. The hidden track at the end of the album seems to reinforce the point: apart from being a great song in its own right, their cover of My Dying Bride’s “The Cry of Mankind” is a sort of philosophical exclamation point that's rather short on hope:
I will make them all lie down
Down where hope lies dying
With lust, you're kicking mankind to death
We live and die without hope
You tramp us down in a river of death
As I stand here now, my heart is black
I don't want to die a lonely man
It's performed in Undying's signature black-metal-meets-melodic-hardcore style, and excels: the original's lonesome keyboard is transmuted into a downright elegiac guitar melody, and the song's runtime is halved from twelve minutes to six, making it more digestible without sacrificing its eerie power. Although it lacks the fervor of earlier tracks, it's shocking how well the song's miserable tread fits the Undying sound (and vice versa). Through the prism of this song's epic condemnation, rather than the uplifting empowerment or anger of their contemporaries, the major chords and upbeat nature of The Whispered Lies of Angels take on fascinating new dimensions. Very few bands nailed this frills-and-all style of melodeath-inspired metalcore as well as Undying, and it's hard to say whether anyone ever quite managed to do it better.
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.
Wherein Brian hilariously overanalyzes a subgenre of metal!