1990s NW Hardcore Reunion Roughs Up El Corazon
Published 10-05-2009 (originally on The SunBreak).

In the early ’80s, a genre of music was born on the East coast that probably boggles most people’s minds. The unlikely and mostly unwilling founding father of the movement was the lead singer of a band called Minor Threat, Ian McKaye. The movement: straightedge hardcore. You can read about it on Wikipedia, but here’s my naive and shallow take on it.

The straightedge scene is built on a foundation of serious political ideals. Namely, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, and be pissed off about it. Bands on the east coast sprung up that boasted a black X on the back of both hands, a carryover from bar shows that used this to signify someone who was not allowed to buy alcohol at the bar. These bands were called things like “Chain of Strength” or “Judge” or “Youth of Today” and were on hardcore labels like Revelation or Victory. The scene has a reputation for it’s violent style of dancing, aggressive and angry music, and intense feeling of community.

This community extended across the nation as the genre grew in popularity, eventually landing in the Northwest in the early 90s. The Northwest hardcore scene is as close as any, with its own style and bands. Northwest bands tend to be more metal influenced than punk influenced, with a high level of technical prowess and a propensity for loudness and dark tones. A few of those early bands played last night at a massive reunion show atEl Corazon.

As a kid in the early ’90s, I lived a pretty sheltered childhood and did not get a chance to see any of these bands live. Plus, I was enamored with East Bay pop punk, despite my straightedge tendencies. I always found it more fulfilling to yell about girls instead of about making a stand for independence in a controlling society. Besides, those hardcore guys were just a little too hardcore.

The show started with three bands from the new generation of hardcore punk: Touche Amore, Marginal Way and The Helm. I missed Touche Amore, but the singer for Marginal Way claimed they were the “most genuine guys since the early ’90s,” which leads me to believe they are doing something interesting and not caring if anyone likes it. (They play tonight at Neumo’s, by the way.) While not straightedge, per se, the other two bands embodied the roots of the old movement in new ways.

Marginal Way have a fantastic name. Not only is it a great local reference, it has metaphorical value as well. They play solid punk-flavored hardcore, with tough but somewhat understandable vocals. The singer employs the “hardcore pacing” technique, which leaves their stage presence a little flat, but they are clearly sincere and provide an excellent survey of many hardcore styles. They throw in a couple metal guitar solos and a variety of tempos. The audience politely nodded their heads in rhythm. To be fair, I think the audience was pacing themselves.

The Helm brought a more guttural punch to the show. They paid homage to their roots in their between song banter (a popular punk feature at shows is to rest between sonic assaults by talking a lot) when the singer said “If it weren’t for Undertow, we wouldn’t be a band.” Yet, The Helm bring a much more brutal and chaotic approach to the hardcore sounds. Their sound is darker and the vocals are more like the roar of a lion than the dulcet tones that many pop-music listeners are used to.

Trying to understand what is being said is often nearly impossible, but you can tell he is angry about it. The crowd responded with more polite head nodding, despite the band’s best efforts at inciting that same feeling in the room. At the end of their set, they dedicated a song to Trial bassist Brian Redman who was recently lost in a tragic accident.

By this point in the evening, the community aspect of straightedge hardcore was prevalent. Everyone is super friendly, almost to excess. It seems necessary, since straightedgers are often outcast even from the outcasts for their political beliefs and hard line stance. Unfortunately, their preference for violence can often attract unsavory elements, with some hardcore crews even going so far as to form police-recognized gangs recently. However, the night was relatively drama free and the hardcore kids were looking out for one another, which should be the hardcore way.

Hardcore shows always mean a lot of bands. Luckily, they were all quite varied. Balance of the World were probably the band that stood out the most from their brothers. The vocals were much closer to how actual humans sound when they are yelling instead of how demons sound. There might have been some actual notes involved, as well. While Balance of the World were the band that least looked the part of hardcore, they had a respectful following in the audience. They were playing their first show in 14 years yet they sounded tight. (They’re at the Comet tonight if you are curious what hardcore sounds like when metal fans try it.)

Northwest hardcore included some bands from north of the border as well, including Sparkmarker and tonight’s guest, Strain. Of the eight bands that played, Strain and Undertow are the only two I own any records by. I bought Strain’s “Our End” EP because I could clearly identify my straightedge friend’s crooked gun-shaped hand on the cover. If my friend had been at the show tonight instead of eating sushi with his girlfriend, I would have enjoyed seeing his X tattoos in the air with all of the other Strain fans.

When the Vancouver band played their first notes, the crowd instantly woke up. During Balance of the World, there were a couple dancers, but when Strain started, there were many. They were a little disappointed that the band had to stop in the middle of the first song to fix a broken bass drum pedal, but they picked right back up again when the music started. Strain, for me, was what early ’90s hardcore was about. Chug chug chug SING ALONG PART chug chugga chugga FAST PART chug chug chug SING ALONG PART ad infinitum.

Though it was not the original lineup, the crowd still lost their minds a little bit. There was floor punching and stomping and flailing arms and judo kicks and people jumping on the backs of unsuspecting people at the front of the pit and a full-on circle pit. A hardcore mosh pit is a dangerous place for the uninitiated, Seattle. Be careful. Run counter-clockwise.

When the kid in the Youth of Today t-shirt patch jacket accidentally roundhouse kicked the big guy in the FSU sweatshirt in the face, there were a few tense moments. But this is hardcore and that is supposed to happen. It all ended in brotherly hugs while the chaos raged around them. And that, to me is what hardcore is about. All this violence and rage is tightly controlled, just like the chugs of the Strain guitars and the gruff vocals. There are rules in this chaos. There’s actually a pretty good WikiHow about it.

Between the Strain set and the next band, I heard a fan mention that this show was “CPR for their soul.” Fans had flown in from across the nation. The number of kids wearing Boston hardcore or Huntington Beach hardcore or other foreign shirts probably outnumbered the Seattle fans. At least in the pit. One fan was so bold as to mention that El Corazon was the best place for hardcore shows in Seattle. If only he had been here 15 years ago, he might lament the loss of better venues.

When the secret guest appeared on the stage, the chaos level rose to impossibly high levels. Tonight, modern hardcore giants, Converge, graced us with their presence. They had just played “down the street” at WaMu theatre with joke metal band Dethklok and metal gods Mastodon. Yet when they first started playing, the singer said, “Unbroken saved my life.” And in this scene, it is probably true.

Converge are insanely brutal. You can get some idea of how brutal by watching this video (the guy filming was right behind me and I think he caught me getting elbowed in the ear). Later on, I got back kicked in the hip as well. While the hardcore kids were singing along and losing their minds for Strain, they were going absolutely insane for Converge. Converge plays faster than most hardcore bands with guttural blasts of the rawest vocals you’ve ever heard over the top.

If you’re a nice person, and like the Dave Matthews Band or something, the music itself seems offensive. I think Slayer would be a little afraid. Yet under all of this hardcore angst and evil sounding horror are some pretty amazing lyrics of strength and conviction. Again, this is the best part of hardcore, this strength and this conviction. It is insanely frustrating to take a stand against a seemingly apathetic world and when looking closer at the genre, it is clear why they are so angry and why they stick together.

Only two bands left, getting tired yet? Well, Unbroken, from San Diego, claimed to have played their last show last night. A mix of styles involving the sing-along chants like Strain and the more metal influences like many of the other bands. After the brutal onslaught of Converge, Unbroken felt a little less powerful. The crowd was recovering from it’s bruises and the more structured hardcore sound seemed a little less painful. Yet, their surprise breakdowns and driving rhythms inspired more stage dives and plenty of sing alongs.

Unbroken and Strain have similar styles and are perfect examples of what ’90s hardcore sounded like. The big difference is the lack of chugging in Unbroken’s sound compared to Strain. They are both a fusion of punk and metal sounds with roughly screamed vocals over metal guitar riffs and tricks and a hard-hitting drummer, however. The crowd was still eating it up, but I didn’t fear for my life at the back of the pit (the best view is at the back of the pit for us short people). Again, here is a video that shows the main features of hardcore shows. Stage diving, singer putting the mic in the crowd so everyone can get involved, hardcore dancing in the pit, etc. Unbroken brought their best for their last show and Seattle appreciated it.

Every local band this evening mentioned the loss of Brian Redman to the community. Unbroken made a particularly poignant dedication to his memory. Since their guitarist committed suicide, they knew first hand of what it was like to lose a band member and a friend. They also have local ties, as bassist Rob Moran lives in Seattle and is involved with music projects locally.

Undertow lit their krishna-scented incense and set up to play. I missed Undertow in the ’90s. I shared a math class with the guitarist and yet I still never made it out to an Undertow show. I knew a couple songs, but just never got into it. They have great sing along parts and a dark Northwest sound, but somehow I missed it. Of course, the band members went on to do good things for the scene. For example, John Pettibone is widely regarded as an influence to many. Yet when he said that “Unbroken and Undertow were the only bands that mattered in the ’90s,” and then took credit for starting the Northwest scene, I was a bit turned off.

Plus, he threw a half-full water bottle into the crowd which has left a wonderful little cut on my forehead.

Yet, as his Sam Kinison-esque perfectly sculpted growl and the big spaces and dark rumble of the band strikes up, I forgive him. I even got to finger point and sing along to the two songs I knew. Undertow uses great spaces and slower breakdowns, possibly inspired by the other Northwest scene that was happening around them at the time, but they throw in tempo changes that surprise you and a little bit of that chugga chugga that all the kids are going nuts for these days. And the crowd kept dancing after singing along to Strain, being destroyed by Converge, and pointing to the sky for Unbroken. Well after midnight. I would assume that even all the straightedge kids in the bar even got up out of their comfy drinking stool for one last look back at the glorious past of NW Hardcore.

As The Helm and Marginal Way would probably claim, the future of Northwest hardcore is just as bright. It’s a small, close-knit scene in the region these days, but great things are happening locally. There is still that strength and community. Straightedge is not nearly as prevalent (I think El Corazon did alright on the bar tab), but the hardcore spirit is still abundant and lurking in several venues, both mainstream and DIY, around town. Labels are still putting out hardcore and metal influenced records and the genre is constantly evolving around a common spirit of community. A spirit that I hope will never die.

Try to cut me down / Try to break my spirit / But you will not / Break me down!

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Keywords: undertow, hardcore, show, el corazon, review, sunbreak

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