Publication date: October 2014
American Revolution: How Post-Hardcore Changed Music Forever
There was a time during the mid-1980s when it felt that rock music as a creative force had come to a grinding halt. In the US, MTV had changed the way that people accessed and consumed music, the initial novelty soon giving way to a tasteful set menu of corporate rock, Dire Straits and Phil Collins served with a side order of hair metal. In the UK, the situation was even worse, with the aspirational cocktail pop of the charts unwittingly colluding with the hardline, anti-rockist stance of the music press to create an indie scene that was stunted and inbred. In the mainstream, the only bands still waving rock’s flag were U2 and Simple Minds, but even here, there was a worthiness that flew in the face of rock’s rebellious, mercurial essence.
Yet pockets of resistance were there if you just knew where to look, particularly across the Atlantic. The Paisley Underground scene kick-started a psychedelic/garage rock revival, thrash bands such as Metallica, Anthrax and Slayer gave a shot in the arm to metal, and R.E.M.’s brand of intelligent, opaque guitar pop was starting to infiltrate the college radio network. But the scene that would eventually lead to the renaissance of rock in the early 90s was a ramshackle coalition of bands whose only real connection was their origin in the country’s hardcore punk movement. Nurtured by a coterie of independent labels (SST, Homestead, Touch & Go etc), driven by musicians determined to exercise creative freedom, and utterly divorced from the vagaries of fashion, the so-called ‘post-hardcore’ scene blazed a burning trail through the latter half of the 80s that showed a new way forward for both independent and mainstream music. The post-hardcore bands made rock that was once again alive with excitement and possibility, ultimately begetting not only grunge, but also shoegaze, math rock, stoner rock and all manner of past- and future-leaning alternative musics.
What follows is an entirely subjective overview of some of post-hardcore’s key albums and some of its buried treasures, which if nothing else illustrates the sheer diversity of the scene. Apologies upfront to fans of the more industrial/noise rock end of the post-hardcore spectrum – Big Black, Swans etc – but I decided to concentrate on those bands with more melodic songwriting sensibilities. So, without further ado…
Hüsker Dü – ‘Warehouse: Songs and Stories’
With 1984’s ‘Zen Arcade’, Hüsker Dü had drawn a line in the sand with their hardcore past, and in so doing, invited other bands to follow suit. This Rubicon moment not only galvanised their peers, but also inspired the band to produce an incredible series of albums bursting with furious energy and punchy, accessible melodies. In 1986, they became the first band from the scene to sign to a major label – ‘Warehouse: Songs and Stories’ was their second album for Warner Bros. and like ‘Zen Arcade’, it was a double. Despite increasing internal pressures in the band, Bob Mould and Grant Hart were still firing on all cylinders as songwriters, producing an album that brought a new sense of maturity to their core sound while allowing room for new styles of composition. It’s worth bearing in mind that, while ‘Warehouse…’ might sound sonically familiar in 2014, Hüsker Dü were still forging a path and crafting music that was practically unique at the time, particularly on a major. They weren’t hardcore anymore, but their sound was still dense and crackling with tension. They weren’t a pop band, but their songs were catchy as hell. They weren’t in the classic trad rock lineage, but they continued to assimilate elements of the past to create something new. In short, Hüsker Dü came to define the genre of melodic alternative rock, and numberless bands have stood on their shoulders ever since.
‘Warehouse…’ is a treasure trove of brilliant songs: “These Important Years” kicks the album off in upbeat, crunching style, with Mould entreating us to enjoy life while you can; “Ice Cold Ice” is a laser-guided rush of power which pulls a great ‘start slow, go fast’ trick and packs an emotionally intense chorus; “She Floated Away” is brooding psychedelia played in dizzying waltz time, counterpointed by big folky verses; “Bed of Nails” is mid-paced but urgent, and anticipates the dark confessionals of Mould’s future solo career; album closer “You Can Live At Home” is a joyous surge of unbridled passion which explodes into a magnificent extended coda. Alas, it was also to be Hüsker Dü’s swan song, with the band splitting acrimoniously in 1988. Almost immediately, the world seemed to be full of bands building on their sound and legacy, some of whom would go on to much greater success, a sobering illustration that pioneers aren’t always winners.
Dinosaur Jr – You’re Living All Over Me
I distinctly remember the first time I dropped the needle on this record, and just being completely blown away by the opening of “Little Fury Things”, its barrage of wah wah guitar (in 1987!) and screaming seguing into a lovely passage of pastoral psych rock. Ah, THIS is what I’ve been waiting for, I thought, a band that’s both unashamed about the classic music of the 70s and has found a way to make its best bits feel vital and contemporary again. Not that this was a state-of-the-art recording – “You’re Living All Over Me” has a messy, proto-grunge sound, the master tape audibly straining at the seams with an excess of guitar overdubs. And of course, that’s why it’s perfect, a sonic “fuck you” to the synthetic, over-produced rock music prevailing at the time. It’s also worth emphasising that playing this fast and loose with such signifiers of the ‘old order’ as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young was pretty much unheard of in underground circles, and served as a clarion call for the great excavation of rock’s motherlode to begin among free-thinking independents.
As the title suggests, ‘You’re Living…’ is claustrophobically in your face, the music’s restless dynamic struggling against a crushing sense of ennui. The first three tracks in particular epitomise this aesthetic, the listener constantly being ambushed by an unexpected breakdown, lop-sided arrangement or extreme blast of noise. The harmony vocals and blissful overload of “Little Fury Things” is quickly followed by the frantic scramble of “Kracked”, its verse suddenly abandoned for a tension-building section of fast, unadorned riffing before a guitar solo that’s like a comet being swallowed by a black hole rips the song apart. But it’s “Sludgefeast” which is the real showstopper here, its monstrous opening riff mutating into a squall of funky, controlled detonations, underlining (if we hadn’t got it already) that J Mascis was a new kind of guitar hero, dazzlingly adept but just as happy to make an almighty racket. And connoisseurs of false endings will be in heaven here – when that gear-shifting riff crashes out of the fade, I guarantee you’ll be stage-diving off your coffee table. The fact that they end the album with “Poledo”, a solo track from Lou Barlow where his cramped voice and acoustic guitar are ultimately obliterated by a dissonant orchestral tape loop, is entirely in keeping with post-hardcore’s ‘anything goes’ philosophy.
Sonic Youth – Daydream Nation
Initially coming out of New York’s arty no wave scene at the beginning of the 80s, Sonic Youth went on to become standard-bearers for the ‘re-invention of the guitar’, a term used by critics still wary of rock’s baggage, but intrigued by new conceptualisations around the iconic 6-string plank. In the hands of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the guitar became a machine for defying the limitations of traditional composition and melody, and was used instead to evoke the aural equivalent of vertiginous spaces, car crashes, satellite transmissions from a dystopian future… It was de-tuned and re-tuned, distorted and thrashed, attacked with drumsticks and screwdrivers – anything but played straight. But for all their avant garde credentials, Sonic Youth were also incredibly savvy in their understanding of rock’s mythology and its gut-level resonance, and soon found a role for themselves as both godparents of the post-hardcore scene and underground networkers par excellence (Sonic Youth would ultimately be responsible for introducing Geffen to Nirvana). After a clutch of great albums – including ‘Evol’ and ‘Sister’ – that slowly moved the band towards greater accessibility, they went for broke on their 1988 double ‘Daydream Nation’, an epic narrative of songs, interludes and drift that conjured up a dark, cyberpunk vision of their home city. It was both their most ambitious album and the one with the best tunes, their distinctive always-on-the-edge-of-discord sound harnessed to traditional song structures to create a new type of sci-fi garage rock.
The album really does work as a whole, the arcane guitar sketches and ambient sprawls being just as integral as the bountiful moments of rocking out. But highlights include the opening swagger of slacker pop anthem “Teen Age Riot” (inspired by the famously laid-back J Mascis), its fast-strummed mesh of guitars building up to a glorious crescendo; the propulsive, neck-twisting riff of “Silver Rocket” with its blast-off noise section in the middle; the frantic and intense “’Cross The Breeze”, a brilliant showcase for both Kim Gordon’s impassioned, almost possessed vocal delivery and Steve Shelley’s tirelessly inventive drumming; the explosive psych pop of “Hey Joni”, tightly coiled but threatening to spin off into the void at any moment; the apocalyptic space rock of “Rain King”, Renaldo simultaneously channelling William Gibson and Bob Dylan. Sonic Youth showed that music could be abrasive and inviting, and clever and dumb, at the same time, and made art rock eminently cool again.
Butthole Surfers – Hairway To Steven
While many of the post-hardcore bands were sonically adventurous, Butthole Surfers pushed everything to the extreme. Part Dadaist art experiment set to music, part drug-fuelled psychotic episode, their live shows were notorious for random nudity, home-made pyrotechnics and very real physical danger, while their albums were bizarre patchwork assemblies of distended guitar, tribal drumming and primitive sampling presided over by a madman. The warped creation of singer Gibby Haynes (former accountant and the madman in question) and guitar savant Paul Leary, Butthole Surfers came from a long, deviant line of Texas freaks, and were like the brain-fried psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators taken to its illogical conclusion. They seemed destined to remain on the cultural periphery until the horribly perfect distillation of their sound that was 1987’s ‘Locust Abortion Technician’ actually started picking up critical plaudits. But just as it seemed that their unlikely plan for world domination was beginning to work, Butthole Surfers took a right turn with the release of their next album, the badly-punning ‘Hairway To Steven’, by producing a record that was full of tuneful, direct songwriting and as the title suggests, imbued with a strange kind of classic rock sensibility.
Of course, this might not be the first thought that springs to mind when opening track “Jimi” belches forth, the pounding double drummer beat and abject “Iron Man”-esque riff reminiscent of a brontosaurus trying to drag itself out of a tarpit. Haynes declaims frightening-sounding nonsense over the top using a pitch shifter to effect his voice, flipping between gruff demon and hysterical child at will. But when Leary’s guitar starts to change in trajectory from grubby and earthbound to exploratory and cosmic, the song seems to fall through a wormhole and emerge into sunlight on the other side as a bucolic neo-folk meditation. “X-Ray of a Girl” undergoes a similar transformation, its absurdist opening verse flowering into a yearning, skyscraping finale, as does “Rocky”, a mock-wistful ballad that builds to an eastern-tinged psych wig-out. And then “Backass” recalls nothing so much as the menacing, awe-inspiring swagger of “Kashmir”, its leaden weight pulled heavenwards by a ghostly theme that sounds like it’s being played on a half-speed koto. With ‘Hairway to Steven’, Butthole Surfers not only set the benchmark high for the free rock bands that followed in their wake, but perhaps surprisingly anticipated a return to a more rootsy sound within the US alternative scene.
Bitch Magnet – Umber
Of all the key albums under review here, Bitch Magnet’s ‘Umber’ is the one that’s only now beginning to receive the attention and kudos it deserves. Released in 1989 at the tail end of post-hardcore’s imperial phase (there have been many different applications of the term ‘post-hardcore’ since), ‘Umber’ is perhaps the album that best encapsulates the scene’s advances in composition and sound while introducing a more formal, almost technical edge to alt rock songcraft going forward. Remembered until recently, if at all, for the patronage of Steve Albini, fans and critics alike have revisited this album to discover that it’s essentially ground zero for two strains of music that would develop over the next few years in parallel with the more overground grunge scene, namely post/math rock and the angular noise rock of bands such as The Jesus Lizard and Albini’s Shellac. Crucially a few years younger than many of the other post-hardcore players, the trio of Sooyoung Park (bass and vocals), Jon Fine (guitar) and Orestes Morfin (drums) were all skilled musicians whose ability to play as an incredibly tight unit effectively introduced a new level of complexity into the scene. Conversely, Park’s often restrained voice and their mastery of the quiet/loud dynamic also created a sense of space that allowed their songs to be more emotionally resonant compared with the maximalist approach of other groups.
The guitars on opening track ‘Motor’ are just vast, the thrillingly muscular chug an exact analogue for the implacable power of a finely-tuned machine. There’s something precise, even classy, about this sound without it ever tipping over into a blunt display of force. ‘Navajo Ace’ and ‘Goat-Legged Country God’ twist and turn like an angry alligator trapped in a net, the band playing with time signatures that cleverly build anticipation before the release of the riff, a musical teasing of the audience that Albini in particular would adopt. At the most extreme end of their sound, ‘Punch and Judy’ is practically full-on alt metal, while ‘Big Pining’ is proto-slowcore. But it’s perhaps the likes of ‘Douglas Leader’ and ‘Americruiser’ that still sound the most revelatory today, both rising up from near silence to have the listener hanging on every bass note and spare beat, the delicate light and shade of the playing creating a reflective, elegiac mood that looks forward to that slowest-burning of all alternative albums of recent years, Slint’s ‘Spiderland’.
Blind Idiot God – s/t
Blind Idiot God were an instrumental avant-rock power trio who played a viscerally exciting hybrid of hardcore, jazz, classical and dub. It sounds like a mess on paper, but in practice produced extraordinary results – think King Crimson meets Black Flag meets Sly & Robbie. Their debut moves from the dramatically heavy dynamics of ‘Shifting Sand’ through the blistering hard funk of ‘More Time’ to arrive at the monumental yet melancholic ‘Stealth Dub’. Post-prog fans should seek this amazing album out immediately.
Breaking Circus – The Ice Machine
Breaking Circus combined the balls of hardcore with the melodic end of post-punk (The Cure, Wire etc) to create pithy, subtly aggressive songs that also work as pop music. ‘Song of the South’ is mean, moody and rather marvellous, ‘Ancient Axes’ swings like a bar room band with heavy artillery, and rollicking tracks such as ‘Took a Hammering’, ‘Swept Blood’ and “Where” imagine a humanised Big Black (drummer Todd Trainer would subsequently join Shellac).
Live Skull – Dusted
Contemporaries of Sonic Youth and fellow explorers of the possibilities of the guitar, ‘Dusted’ saw Live Skull refining their sound and embracing the gothic intensity of Joy Division. The piercingly bright chiming riffs of ‘Machete’ and ‘5D’ anticipate modern-day post-punk revivalists such as Interpol and Editors, while the title track and ‘(X) w/ The Light’ show they could rock out with the best of the scene. Thalia Zedek delivers raw, sometimes abstract, vocals and would go on to form Come.
Nice Strong Arm – Reality Bath
Yet another post-hardcore band influenced by UK post-punk, Nice Strong Arm whipped up a noise-storm of psychedelic guitar underpinned by the angular funk and scratchy riffs of Gang of Four and PiL. The songs reflect their creation in Texas’s searing heat: ‘Date of Birth’ develops a crackling sense of unease before exploding into the sky; ‘Life is So Cool’ is brooding, spaced-out proto-shoegaze; ‘Free At Last’ is an angry, sun-bleached ballad.
Squirrel Bait – Skag Heaven
A young band more famous for their alumni (Slint’s Brian McMahan and Gastr del Sol’s David Grubbs) than their music, Squirrel Bait are nevertheless a quintessential example of how Hüsker Dü’s sound would be adopted and adapted with youthful energy and snotty insouciance by many of the bands that followed. ‘Kid Dynamite’, ‘Too Close to the Fire’ and ‘Rose Island Road’ are all ragingly melodic while pointing a way forward to the mainstream alt rock revolution to come.