|Youth of Today in their prime.|
In a recent post I discussed the anarcho-punk movement and its offshoots, crust punk and D-beat. All of these genres fall under the general umbrella of hardcore punk but were unique in that their songs were very often highly political.
While a few punk/hardcore bands in America were extremely political, most notably the Dils, the Dead Kennedys, Corrosion of Conformity, Reagan Youth, and MDC, in America most bands have not adopted a well delineated political stance. However, there have been some American punk scenes that have cultivated a stronger political identity.
The most obvious is the straight edge movement. In America the movement first blossomed in the nation’s capitol, most notably in the work of Ian Mckaye, first in the band the Teen Idles and more notably in his band Minor Threat. Minor Threat music consisted of short fast blasts of high tempo sonics with simple shouted vocals by McKaye. ”I Don’t Wanna Hear It”, “Minor Threat”, and “Straight Edge” (from which the movement took its name) are under two minutes long and blast through like a bullet train. The sound falls somewhere between Black Flag and Bad Religion.
But it wasn’t primarily for their sound that Minor Threat were known. They also took the then-radical stance of living a “clean” lifestyle free of drugs, smoking and alcohol. Rather than wallow in controlled substance excess for its shock value like other punks, Minor Threat and similar bands (SS Decontrol in Boston, 7 Seconds in Reno, Nevada) hewed to this more ascetic lifestyle, and this eventually became more widespread as others flocked to this movement.
In the late 80’s and 90’s several bands merged straight edge beliefs with a more hardcore-influenced sound strongly influenced by 7 Seconds, who were arguably the first to meld straight edge ideals with a purer hardcore sound. In addition, other ideals, such as anti-racism, anti-war and violence, pro-environmentalism and –pro-vegetarianism became incorporated into the package of the straight edge belief system. This package become generally known as Youth Crew, named after one of the major bands on the scene, Youth of Today. Youth of Today formed in the mid-80’s in Connecticut and quickly became a major force in the straight edge hardcore movement. Three albums and on EP are available on iTunes, 1985’s Can’t Close My Eyes, 1986’s Break Down the Walls, 1988’s We’re Not In This Alone and the 1990 EP Youth of Today. Most of their songs have titles and lyrics that reflect the band’s positive outlook and clean lifestyle, including three of my favorites from Eyes, “Youth Crew” (the song for which this movement was eventually named), “Positive Outlook”, and “Take a Stand”. These songs are loud, fast, and heavy, but YoT’s music was also surprisingly melodic. They also hewed pretty close to the punk sonic architecture, never putting much metal riffage in their songs. I also like “Make a Change”, “Stabbed In the Back” and “Shout It” off Break Down the Walls; I particularly like how “Make a Change” occasionally slows from its breakneck speed into a chugging, sing-song chorus; this reminds me of everything from “Split Image” by Excel and “Clean Up Your Act” by west coast punks Stalag 13. “Stabbed” has an interesting bass interlude and also mixes it up from superfast to slow and chugging.
Youth of Today broke up in 1990 and its various members went on to form several other influential post-Youth Crew acts. Vocalist Ray Cappo formed the krishnacore band Shelter. Krishnacore was a short-lived movement that, in addition to the pacifist, vegetarian, positivist message of straight edge also incorporated elements of the Hare Krishna religious belief system. The Cro Mags were the pioneer krishnacore band; I have “World Peace” by them off their 1999 album Before the Quarrel. Shelter’s sound sounds like a crisper, chunkier hardcore music crossed with Check Your Head era Beastie Boys and often lyrically incorporates positive and clean life messages; “Message of the Bhagavat” off their 1995 album Mantra is a good example. Cappo also formed the band Better Than A Thousand, who’s sound is more firmly traditional hardcore.
Youth of Today member Walter Schreifels went on to form Quicksand, whose sound was very reminiscent of that of Ian McKaye’s post-Minor Threat band Fugazi. In fact, the guitar on “Backward” reminds me of “I Will Never Forget You” by Husker Du crossed with Steady Diet of Nothing era Fugazi. “Delusional”, which like “Backward” is off their 1995 album Manic Compression, is a chugging, shimmering, majestic song that almost reminds me of a guitar version of “Eva Braun” by the Screamers as covered by Factrix.
Schreifels and drummer Sammy Siegler also did stints in another pioneering Youth Crew band, Gorilla Biscuits. Named somewhat ironically (given their straight edge lifestyle) for a slang term for Quaaludes, Gorilla Biscuits formed in 1987, and their sound was more metallic and closer to thrashcore than Youth of Today’s. Like Youth of Today, they hewed closely to a straight edge philosophy and many of their songs emphasize thinking for yourself, the strength of community, and positive attitudes. I recently downloaded “High Hopes”, “Hold Your Ground”, and “Break Free”, and all are good examples of their positive message. “New Direction” off their 1989 album Start Today begins with a regal horn fanfare followed by a chugging, metallic guitar and breakneck rhythm that are very speed metal in structure.
Following the breakup of the Biscuits in 1990, lead singer Anthony “Civ” Civerelli went on to form Civ; their sound was much much more pop-infused and melodic. “Can’t Wait One Minute More” is terrifically catchy, with big rumbling drums, a melodic guitar chug, and a catchy refrain; this is much more pop punk than hardcore. “Second Hand Superstar” is even poppier and more melodic and falls somewhere between emo and the pop punk of Blink 182. iTunes has a terrific compilation called CIV: The Complete Discography.
Another band that had a straight edge audience and whose lyrics preached unity and anti-discrimination were New York’s Warzone. Warzone remained extremely popular in hardcore circles until the untimely death of front man Raymond Barbieri in 1997, which effectively ended the band. I don’t have any of their 80’s work—it’s currently not available on iTunes—but I did download their theme song “Warzone” from the 1998 compilation album “The Victory Years”. This song is pretty much straight-ahead hardcore, alternating between blistering rhythms and slow lurching passages.
In 1990 another band, Vegan Reich, released the EP Hardline, which espoused a particularly rigorous form of straight edge espousing no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, veganism, animal rights, and hardcore ecology. Hardline has since become a sub-genre of straight edge hardcore. Hardline typically also hews to a very conservative, religious opinion on sexuality, being against premarital and/or non-procreative sex, against masturbation, and anti-abortion; these points of view have generated strong criticism of this movement. One of Vegan Reich’s albums, 1995’s Vanguard, is available on iTunes. The sound is metalcore/crossover thrash, with shouted vocals and heavily metallic guitar sounds. “This Is It” is emblematic of their sound.
Earth Crisis is another band that centers its belief system around pro-environment, vegan, animal rights and straight edge messages. Their music is slower and sludgier than Vegan Reich with growled rather than shouted vocals on songs such as “Inherit the Wasteland” off 1995’s Destroy the Machines. On their song “Ecoside” they come off sounding like an Anthrax clone. They have several other albums available on iTunes, including 1996’s Gomorrah’s Season Ends, 1998’s The Oath That Keeps Me Free and Breed the Killers, 2000’s Slither, and 2001’s Last of the Sane. The band broke up in 2001 but reunited in 2007; their latest album was released this year but isn’t available via iTunes.
Chicago’s Racetraitor had another novel take on the basic straight edge message: in addition to veganism and straight edge (i.e., no drugs or alcohol) messages, their music also espoused a strong anti-racism and anti-imperialism message. The band was active during the late 90’s but broke up in ’99. 1998’s Burn the Idol of the White Messiah is one of their two commercially available releases online; “Curse” will give you a good indication of their sound.
While not officially part of the straight edge hardcore scene, Shai Hulud (named after the sandworms in the novel Dune) espouse a message of thinking for one’s self and youth unity. I recently downloaded “Beliefs and Obsessions” from 1997’s Hearts Once Nourished with Hope and Compassion; its staccato drums, traditional hardcore guitar, and shouted rather than growled vocals characterize their sound. Their most recent album, 2008’s Misanthropy Pure carries on in much the same vein but adds a little speed to the mix occasionally too, like on the song “The Creation Ruin”.
Finally, Detroit’s Walls of Jericho stand out from the metalcore sound of their peers primarily because of their female lead singer, Candace Kucsulain. Five of their albums are available on iTunes as of this date, I particularly like the song “Through the Eyes of a Dreamer” off 2004’s All Hail the Dead. Their sound leans heavily on heavy metal riffage a la Slayer. Like Racetraitor and Shai Hulud, Walls of Jericho were signed to Trustkill Records.
I have to confess, my collecting of most of these songs is primarily for archival purposes; I don’t really enjoy Youth Crew/straight edge hardcore that much. It’s just too loud, fast, and abrasive to me, but more importantly I haven’t discovered a good hook to any of it—none of the bands sounds radically different and while I appreciate the energy and passion with which they ply their trade, it doesn’t move me enough to be more than an archivist of this music. I certainly agree with most of the messages they espouse, even if I don’t always follow them myself. I have great respect for people who try to lead a cleaner, simpler lifestyle and while I’m not a proponent of veganism I respect their right to choose this lifestyle.
Another major problem I have with bands like this is that their message gets lost in the noise and shouting. If you’ve got something to say and you want people to hear it, you probably shouldn’t scream, shout, or growl it over a massive wall of guitar noise. Because many of these bands are articulate and intelligent, I can’t help thinking it’s a waste that they can’t convey their beliefs in a more sonically coherent manner. I do, however, respect their message and their musicianship; this is not the sloppy, amateurish 3 chord punk of yesteryear, this is very accomplished stuff. I only wish I could understand what they were saying!