Last month, I reminded myself that although a large percentage of the music I listen to shares a heritage with punk rock, I haven’t dedicated much time on this blog or in my own listening to tracing that heritage. Today, we’ll take our first look at SOME (for the pedants) of the bands in the late 80’s and early 90’s that came to define the sound of post-hardcore: the surprisingly technical reaction to 80’s hardcore punk which would go on to inspire the development of math rock and emo music.
Fugazi is considered one of the truly seminal acts of this genre. Oftentimes I find that such bands are overrated when looked at retroactively — taking the greater scheme of things into account. However, this time I think they’re not rated highly enough. For a band that never truly escapes their punk sound, the variety and depth across their discography is amazing.
I should probably stop being surprised about this, but Fugazi is yet another group that demonstrates that the hallmark of a good band is being able hear the parts of each of its band members. By no means is Fugazi the only band even in the context of this post that has this quality (they all do), but it’s important to me that I can identify quality drum playing and quality basswork beyond the more typical guitars and vocals that tend to dominate at least today’s rock music.
My favorite song so far by them is Repeater. It has upbeat, snappy drumming, an almost funk-like bassline, guitars that range from “noise” to cheerful, and what I’ll call “vocals with attitude”. Contrast this with another of their most well-known tracks: Waiting Room. It is a song with many of the same positives as Repeater, but sounds completely different. Songs like Exit Only and Burning fall somewhere in between, and I also quite like them.
Fugazi has albums spanning from the late 80’s to the early 00’s, and while you can generally predict the general tone and feel of album, they’ll always surprise you about how they get there.
It might be a bit unfair to talk about June of 44 directly after Fugazi, because the former is a rather slow, moody band compared to the fast-paced dynamism of the latter. As you’ll hear on tracks like The Dexterity of Luck, June of 44 is very much a “groove” band. I find that a lot of their songs set into a pattern and repeat it throughout, either adding things or taking things away in the process. I’m not always a fan of that, but its tolerability is dependent on the groove itself. On the whole, June of 44 generates some sick ones (I daresay they share this quality with Tool). Again, we find that strong (or at least eminent) bass playing is instrumental in doing so. Doomsday is a case in point example of that as well. They do have tracks that “develop,” of course. Of Information and Belief is one. It is also a track that demonstrates a rendition of post-rock, along the vein of Slint.
All of those tracks are off their most popular album, Four Great Points. I actually prefer Tropics and Meridians, especially tracks like June Leaf and Anisette. As much as I appreciate what the band is doing on Four Great Points, I just find Tropics and Meridians to be the more technically engaging album. It has more surprises, but perhaps less head-nodability for those that prefer the latter.
Unwound is a hard group to define. The breadth of sounds they incorporate is impressive, and they strike gold on tracks more often than not (having a high miss rate on hit-or-miss tracks is a common pitfall for artists that experiment). If I had to choose a track that represents as many of the positive qualities of Unwound as possible, it would be October All Over. It’s refined, it’s introspective, and most curiously despite being a 4/4 track, it gives a sense of complexity likely due to the unorthodox drum pattern.
Even on less pensive, more aggressive tracks like Kantina, there are several dynamic shifts. On top of that, they’ve got dronelike song such as We Invent You, post-punk songs like Scarlette, noise-rock songs like Fingernails on a Chalkboard, and the diversity just grows from there.
It’s a rare gem when you find a band that can do so many different things well. It means that there’s value in listening to their albums again and again, because there’s something new to discover each time.
I hadn’t heard of Shellac before, but I had heard of Steve Albini, its prolific frontman. Like Fugazi, I’m pleased to say that Shellac lives up to the reputation that precedes it (and I’d imagine the same is true for Albini’s other groups, if Shellac is any indication). This band is another groove-dependent one – bordering on downright funk at times – but they tend toward the stylings of math rock rather than post-rock. An uncharitable way to put it would be that inasmuch as some of their songs are repetitive, you don’t notice it because they’re so short. More charitably, I’d say that they add enough complexity and variety to their songs that the repetitiveness is not noticeable. I certainly find their albums quite enjoyable, and that is rarely the case when music is repetitive without any saving graces.
My Black Ass is probably a good place to start. Funky, groovy, aggressive — almost reminds me of Rage Against the Machine, actually. My personal choice for “most bitchin'” track by Shellac is Canada. Honorable mention to Squirrel Song.
At the Drive-In is the only group on this list that I’d actually listened to extensively before getting into most of the genres I like today. That is of course because I listened to The Mars Volta in high school, so it was only a matter of time before I listened to its predecessor. Nonetheless, whether I knew it or not at the time, At the Drive-In was one of the most influential early post-hardcore bands. Among those discussed in today’s post, I would say their sound is the one that is closest to emo as we know it now (most melodic, in other words). I think it’s worth dwelling on that for a moment: we’ve just listened to 4 big name post-hardcore acts, and to some degree at least a subset of them sound similar. At the Drive-In stands apart from them all. At the same time, while the band was relatively unique in sound (for the time period), the internal dynamics of their discography wasn’t quite as varied. For this reason, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them “the best” as opposed to “very good”.
My favorite song of theirs has always been Invalid Litter Dept. It really takes you on a journey from the calm beginning to the aggressive ending, and that lightly harmonized chorus always resonated with me. Another big one is One Armed Scissor. It’s poppier, not necessarily more technical but more energetic, and certainly another example of the band’s knack for catchy choruses despite utterly esoteric songwriting. I also enjoy their more introspective look in Hourglass. This one, of the three, is the one that could most easily be mistaken for a track by any of their emo contemporaries by that point in time (1998).
I’d say that this group along with a small set of others (primarily Coheed and Cambria) was instrumental in my eventual love of this genre and its derivatives.