Monday, May 30, 2016
Unabashed: Why I Love Major-Label Post-Hardcore
The above video is a handy summation of many of the traits I value in rock music. Right now, I'm fixating on the performance of "Chinese Fork Tie," which begins at 12:14. (The sound quality isn't the greatest, so if you're not familiar with the song — from Jawbox's 1996 self-titled album, which, incidentally, turns 20 in about a month — I recommend checking out the studio version too.) From the start, you'll notice that drummer Zach Barocas is absolutely murdering his kit, pounding out this sort of asymmetrically strutting beat, lurching but danceable. A field of guitar noise from Bill Barbot; Kim Coletta's sly bass line; J. Robbins' shouts and slogans, darting and weaving. The whole band snapping into a snarling pre-chorus riff at 12:52, rising up to the glorious convulsion at 13:05.
Abandon juxtaposed with style, swagger, superhuman control. If the band as a whole were a drum — and given the prominence of Barocas within the overall Jawbox mix, that's not so far off — it would be a snare cranked up to a super-high tension. Their music stretches over a precise grid, then pops, explodes. But there is always an idea of rigor, not just in the performance but in the song itself. The music has purpose, drive, concision, gloss and big, bold hooks. Rhythmic tricks — stabs, chokes, thrusts, syncopations — juxtaposed with the naked, earnest, yearning beauty of Robbins' voice. For Your Own Special Sweetheart is, for me, where the band reached its peak; the performance above draws mostly from that album and the self-titled, an album I love just a hair less. These records and this video are objects of fascination and pleasure for me, emblems of a variety of rock music that seems to give me everything I want at once: power, manifested in enormous, earthshaking groove; the skillful deployment of noise, the scribble that only makes the precision sketch underneath seem all that much more purposeful; and the painstakingly shaped hook.
And all with an attitude of "Let's get on with it; let's make this great." The '90s were a time when we, as listeners and/or music-makers, were being saddled with a sort of aesthetic guilt trip. The hand-wringing over "selling out." The Steve Albini and Ian MacKaye finger-wagging. (I want to point out here that I'm an enormous fan of the latter, particularly Fugazi, and a skeptic as regards the former; he's engineered a lot of records that I love but I find his shtick, whether manifested in interviews or in his own music, pretty tiresome at this point.) This idea of the "post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy." OK, so maybe this system did chew up great bands and spit them out, but the fact of the matter is that certain of these bands realized their fullest potential via the major-label system.
To me, the bands most emblematic of what I'll call the genius of post-hardcore, the prime exponents of, to borrow a song title from Jawbox, this cruel swing — the bands best exemplifying the ruthlessness and the sensuality, the ferocity and the funk of this bold new aesthetic — were Jawbox, Quicksand and Helmet. And the albums on which each of these bands reached full flower, respectively, were major-label ones: the aforementioned For Your Own Special Sweetheart (Atlantic, 1994), Slip (Polydor, 1993) and Betty (Interscope, 1994). Three gleaming, slick triumphs with the bite intact. Beefed-up yet not defanged. Three albums that, quite simply, wipe the floor with the independent output that preceded it: Jawbox's Novelty (Dischord), Quicksand's self-titled EP (Revelation) and Helmet's Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile). (Note: Meantime, Helmet's excellent major-label debut and the album that, to use '90s parlance, "broke" them, came in between Strap and Betty.) Novelty and Strap It On are each awesome albums, brimming with energy and potential, but for this listener, they're only appetizers for the entrée to come.
All three of those original labels — Dischord, Revelation, AmRep — are long-enshrined institutions of the American underground. It's always been cooler to say you liked bands like this back when, before they played 120 Minutes, before they posed for stylish promo photos and shot arty, dated-on-arrival videos, or went out with actresses. (And not all bands weathered the transition as well as the ones mentioned above; with all due respect to the band members' own assessments in Book, I think the Jesus Lizard did their best work before they signed to Capitol.) But the fact of the matter is that the aesthetics of certain bands benefited hugely from the major-label treatment, from almost cartoonishly huge production sounds, from a certain, again, gleaming slickness that only seemed to magnify the inherent grit, nastiness and soul of the music itself.
Quicksand, "Lie and Wait":
All three of these bands (and their fans) were blessed with extraordinary drummers, players who were essentially big-wallop funk specalists, equally invested in piledriving power and stylish groove. Barocas, Quicksand's Alan Cage and Helmet's justly celebrated John Stanier each contributed hugely to the durability of their respective bands' discographies. (It's no wonder that each was a huge inspiration to me when I started learning the instrument roughly 21 years ago, or that each remains a gold standard / basic-food-group staple today.) The frontmen — Robbins, the hugely underrated Walter Schreifels and Page Hamilton — were also brilliant, each in their own idiosyncratic ways, but each equally adept at barking or crooning, or, in Schreifels' case, doing a bit of both at the same time. I can sing every song from every one of these albums.
As the '90s wore on, these bands, and many of their contemporaries, would break up or shed crucial members. Major-label post-hardcore albums became a sort of in-joke among those who continued to frequent used-CD stores, where they were always in abundant supply. The cover art and the fonts looked dated; the song titles maybe a bit cheesy; and the CD booklets, filled with names of management, publicists and fancy legal teams now seemed like relics of a bubble waiting to burst.
But the music remains as bright, forceful and wildly enjoyable as ever. These bands dared to take an underground form and hone it, polish it, to see how big, bold and ballsy it might become. The best of the music that resulted is post-hardcore, turbo-charged, the sound of potential being fulfilled in a way that never would've been possible on Dischord or AmRep. Sure, it couldn't last — I'll be the first to admit that the respective follow-ups to Sweetheart, Slip and Betty are each, in their own way, less satisfying than what came before — but for a moment there, these bands had it all, unifying the spirit of the underground with the tools of the mainstream. Uncompromised, unfettered and most of all unabashed, this music will probably always speak to me, loud and clear.
A few other great major-label post-hardcore albums:
Shudder to Think, 50,000 B.C. (Epic, 1997)
Dischord labelmates of Jawbox, and like Jawbox, they did their best work in the major-label realm. Pony Express Record is an obvious classic, but I find myself more often reaching for the lesser-known follow-up, which heads in a glammier direction but still has that essential crunch.
Clutch, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths (Eastwest, 1993)
Another master drummer, Jean-Paul Gaster, coming into his own here. Monster grooves, quirky humor and plenty of hardcore-derived badassery/swagger. This album is a total delight. Clutch would head to a lot of interesting places after this, but in some ways, they never topped Transnational.
Into Another, Seemless (Hollywood, 1995)
Quicksand's former Revelation labelmates were always aiming at a huge, anthemic sound, and they achieved it on this great yet ill-fated outing. The rumbling bass, the soaring vocals — Seemless represents the unabashed quality I'm describing above in full flower.
See also my post on the interrelated "BP/progressive-grunge" school.
A lot of the above applies to the world of metal as well. Some of my very favorite metal albums of the period — Carcass' Heartwork, Morbid Angel's Covenant and Domination, even something like Melvins' Houdini — were the work of former underground kings flaunting their major-label-abetted polish and girth.