Is it possible for a hardcore record to matter? It’s a ridiculous, meaningless question. Because the answer is obviously: Yes, of course, a hardcore band can mean everything. And the answer is also: No, of course not, you feckless idiot, you incompetent boob. Nothing matters. People are drowning in their own phlegm in hospitals, and we’re a couple of weeks away from a presidential election that seems certain to end in chaos and rancor. You expect anyone to care about some dudes yelling over mosh riffs? Who gives a fuck about anything?
The question, which has no answer, has been bothering me lately. It’s now been seven months since anyone went to a hardcore show. There have been guerrilla hardcore shows during the pandemic, but those shows have been illicit, no-mask affairs, and the videos that have circulated on the internet have been just one more reason for people to tut-tut. We’re not shaming anyone here. I get it. People need something. But also: Please don’t hold no-maks hardcore shows. Anyway, for all intents and purposes, the entire ritual of the live show, hardcore’s entire reason for existence, has been null and void. It’s gone.
Instead, we’re getting the week-in, week-out march of new records from bands that we may never get to see live. On a certain level, this is a cool thing to see. The shows may stop, but the music doesn’t. People are still putting new music out into the world, and I’m glad they are. But at least in hardcore, the crucial ritual of the live show is a good way into understanding those records. In hardcore, you haven’t really heard a song until you’ve yelled its lyrics into someone’s face, or until you’ve had someone else yell its lyrics into your own face. And so these records come out, briefly channel some feelings, and then disappear. I spend a lot of my time listening to Bandcamp hardcore, and I don’t return to records, even the records I like, often enough. Sometimes, I don’t listen more than once. It’s a problem.
I’m pondering this problem in the wake of World House, the debut album from the Toronto band Mil-Spec. I’m pondering it because I fucking love this album. It rules. It’s everything I want. Mil-Spec’s sound is both tough and sensitive. The riffs stomp hard, but they’re not ignorant. Mil-Spec are working within the hardcore tradition, drawing on all the drama and the rigor of any number of beloved classic records without being beholden to those records. Parts of this album will squash you like a bug. Parts of this album are actively pretty.
Mil-Spec singer Andrew Peden has exactly the type of voice that I love. He’s got a wracked, impassioned howl, a sound of animal need, but you can still (usually) understand the words he’s screaming, and he can carry a tune. The band behind him sprints and thunders and sometimes launches into grand and triumphant riffage. The songs on this album are full and clear, and when they’re playing, you can feel like you’re flying. (I wish the drums were a little louder, but I always wish the drums were a little louder.) Mil-Spec have been figuring our their emotive-bruiser sound for about four years now, and their demos and EPs are all great. But World House, their first full-length, is still a massive step up, a big-dog move. I find it tremendously moving.
Along with the album, Mil-Spec have published a massive 88-page magazine/book thing called Millenarian Spectacle. There’s all kinds of crap in there: Movie reviews, comics, an article about historic CIA murders, a short screenplay, a catalog of all the merch the band has ever sold and all the shows they’ve ever played. There’s also a fully annotated set of World House lyrics, which points out all the references contained therein: The Bible, Joan Didion, Audre Lorde, Don DeLillo, Leatherface. The album’s title, it emerges, is directly inspired by an anti-war speech that Jawbreaker frontman Blake Schwarzenbach made at an anti-war rally in 2003. For one song, the annotation is a multiple-page tribute to the late Turning Point singer Skip Candelori.
Point is: Thought went into this album. Effort. Mil-Spec figured out exactly the album that they wanted to make, and then they made that album. The band has always been ambitious, and this album mashes all my fucking buttons. But is it doing the same for anyone else? I have seen precious little chatter about World House online, even in the precious little places where people tend to freak out about new hardcore albums. And since I can’t exactly go to a Mil-Spec show, online is all I have. I would like to see critical mass assemble behind this album, but I don’t see it happening. I worry about World House becoming one more record in the slipstream.
Of course, this is not my problem to worry about. I emailed a little bit with Mil-Spec guitarist Matt LaForge, who says that he’s happy with how the album is being received. It’s doing what the band wanted it to do. And the whole point of publishing the book along with the album is to give listeners something to grab onto. When you see a hardcore band live, you get a better sense of who that band is. Without that option, you might as well publish an enormous book-sized zine. It seems crazy to use an 88-page book to forge the same kind of connection that you could once establish with a 15-minute live show, but it also seems incredibly smart. Here’s how LaForge describes the idea in this Hard Times interview:
We saw the book as our best chance of giving some weight to what would otherwise be a here-today-vaporized-tomorrow e-commerce drop. It was a way of creating the kind of context for the record that would usually be created by playing shows. In the good old days, you’d listen to a record either before or after seeing the band live, and it was in the live setting where you found out how they dressed, how they acted, what sorts of people they tried to be, what they wanted you to believe they cared about, how they talked to each other, how they saw themselves.
If you don’t have that information, if you only have recorded music, you don’t have enough to make a meaningful bond or connection. Music is the richest and most expressive artform but it’s still a highly mediated and stylized way of communicating. Nobody who isn’t a sociopath or severe narcissist breaks into song or pulls out a guitar in the middle of a conversation. You don’t really know much about someone if all you know are some songs they recorded.
So that and the extra time was what motivated us to do the four months’ worth of work required to make a book that matched what was in our heads. We wanted the book to be a way for people to hear the sounds of our voices, so to speak, which meant that it needed to have a sense of humor — since our songs tend to be sober and serious and a little on the mawkish side, frankly — and it needed to show our shameless pseudo-intellectualism alongside our more trashy and gossipy and shit-talky side and it also had to be a vehicle for all the art/design talent in the band. We wanted to show people who we like to think of ourselves as aligned with, where we come from, how we see ourselves — all that stuff you might have picked up on if you’d been able to see us live. Part fanzine, part literary journal, part expanded liner notes for the album, part print podcast.
I love the book, and I love this idea, too. I hope it works. During the pandemic era, the hardcore band that’s connected the most has been Gulch, who have serious mystique working for them. (There’s also Touché Amoré, who are basically bigger than hardcore now.) But when bands don’t have that mystique, it’s a lot harder for a record to resonate in this climate. If the book, or the record itself, can keep World House from fading, then great.
I could easily imagine a world where Mil-Spec are huge, at least within hardcore. Mil-Spec’s dedication to ’90s mosh music reminds me of the North Carolina straight-edge band Magnitude, and people love Magnitude. People lose their shit at Magnitude shows, so it follows that people might also lose their shit at Mil-Spec shows if and when Mil-Spec shows ever get to happen again. Besides, if I love something, that should be good enough. That’s how this works, right? Everything is subjective. If a piece of music connects with you, then it’s done its job, regardless of whether anyone else feels the same way. But if you’re still reading this, you should really check out World House. I bet you’d like it.
10. Mastermind – “Stuck In A Rut”
Mastermind come from London, but they’re clearly in love with late-’80s New York knucklehead music. That means everything that’s crude about “Stuck In A Rut” — the recording quality, the muffled guitar solo, Jon Osborne’s slightly deranged bark — makes them sound that much more like the genuine article. It’s an old trick, but I fucking love it when the song stops, the bass riff kicks in, and then the rest of the band joins a couple of bars later. That moment of anticipation just makes me want to immediately clothesline whoever’s standing next to me. [From Promo 2020, self-released, out now.]
9. World Of Pleasure – “Domination”
Jess Nyx is one of the great screamers in hardcore right now, and you already know that if you’ve ever heard her fearsome and metallic Calgary band Mortality Rate. With the side project World Of Pleasure, Nyx is focusing on militant vegan straight-edge shit, and if anything, she sounds even more ferocious doing that: “I’ll take a knife to your fucking throat and mount your head on a wall! You’re such a fucking piece of shit! Killing for the fun of it!” Nyx is capable of roaring out the phrase “vegan domination” and sounding like she means that shit. I had carnitas for lunch, and now I feel like beating myself up about it. [From World Of Pleasure EP, self-released, out now.]
8. Shred Bundy – “Chaos Cycle”
Do I even need to write anything in this space? No. No, I don’t. You should already know. You should know from the cover art, from the song title, and especially from the band name. This band is called Shred Bundy. They should be your new favorite band before you even press play. But if you really need more: Shred Bundy come from Temecula, California, and they make guttural, violent form of late-’80s-style crossover thrash. The breakdown on this song will make you kick your dad in the balls. [From Chaos Cycle EP, out now on Slam Records.]
7. Desintegrar – “Fiel Amigo”
Lots of bands try to recapture the urgency and intensity of ’80s hardcore. Very few do it as convincingly as Mar Del Plata, Argentina’s Desintegrar, who bring a frantic, nervous, overpowering rage to everything they do. If I’m using my Google Translate right, “Fiel Amigo” is a song about discovering a friend, mutilated and left for dead, in a field. For all I know, they’re not even singing about a human being here. Maybe it’s all metaphorical. But Argentina is a country with a history of death squads, and this kind of thing just hits different. It must be hard to record music when you’re in Wolverine berserker-rage mode, but Desintegrar have pulled it off. [From Supersticion EP, out now on Ruleman Records.]
6. Loud Night – “Holy Hell”
What a fucking banger. Richmond’s Loud Night make a version of d-beat that sounds like what might happen if Tragedy woke up one morning and decided that they wanted to be Motörhead. I love stinky-basement crustpunk more than most reasonable people, but there aren’t too many bands from that world who straight-up rock. Loud Night make feral rage music: “Useless turds, piles of shit! Spouting hate down from pulpits!” They sound like reanimated skeletons of exploitation-movie bikers who have come back to level the corrupt society that destroyed them. I fucking love it. [From Mindnumbing Pleasure, out now on Vinyl Conflict Records.]
5. Zmar – “Vytratit Se”
Someone could probably make a compelling case that I shouldn’t be including screamo in a column like this — that screamo is now its own distinct genre and culture that’s merely adjacent to the hardcore. To that hypothetical question, I would answer: Are you hearing this? Can you believe how fucking hard this shit is? This shit goes crazy! Prague’s Zmar make grand, sweeping music with a little bit of Deafheaven-style black-metal majesty in it. But they make that music sound almost absurdly tough. “Vytratit Se” is Czech for “To Disappear,” but if not for Google Translate, I would just assume that it’s Czech for “To Kick You So Hard That It Turns Your Bones Into Dust And Also To Snort That Dust.” [From Mališa Bahat/Zmar split, out now on Zegema Beach Records.]
4. Soul Glo – “29”
Philly’s Soul Glo have always sounded wild and unhinged, but I can’t remember them ever being quite this explosive before. Singer Pierce Jordan crams an utterly insane word count into 75 seconds of berserker riffage. When you see the lyrics typed out, those words are incisive and devastating: “The scarcity we’ve always known now counts for yr pills. You’ll never find time to ask why, besides curiosity kills.” But Jordan splat-roars them like he’s the Tasmanian Devil in pursuit of Bugs Bunny, and the band surrounds him with frag-grenade riffage with just a hind of hammerhead garage-rock stomp. The needling pianos here, which sound like Jerry Lee Lewis just hitting a single key over and over, are a nice touch. [From Songs To Yeet At The Sun EP, out 11/6 on Secret Voice.]
3. Pain Ritual – “Breonna”
It’s one thing to chant the words “no justice, no peace” on one of those marches that starts to feel like a parade. It’s another to scream-roar those words over convulsive jackhammer thunder. Pain Ritual, from Los Angeles, make grindcore so grimy that it only barely seems like the kind of sound that human beings should be able to make. But a song like “Breonna” makes it plain that this isn’t some genre exercise, some academic attempt to make music as severe as possible. It sounds the way it does because this appalling fucking world demands it. [From Face Of Death EP, self-released, out now.]
2. Haircut – “The Match”
Haircut are from Richmond and Charlottesville, and I’ve seen them play a whole lot of house shows over the past few years. That means I’m invested, and I want to see them go out and destroy the universe. But even if I wasn’t invested, even if they were just one more Bandcamp link showing up in my feed, I like to imagine that I’d hear the opening to “The Match” — the way that riff gets faster and faster, turning into a blur — and I would just know that it was something special. Because it is something special. This band was great when I first saw them four years ago, and they’ve only become more intense and confident and direct and relentless since then. They are now an elite and untouchable rage-machine, and I can’t wait to see them again. [From Cake EP, out now on 11 PM Records.]
1. Militarie Gun – “Dislocate Me”
With his band Regional Justice Center, the Seattle-bred and LA-based Ian Shelton has been making frantic, damaged, increasingly ambitious powerviolence for years. He’s great at it. But with his new band Militarie Gun, Shelton has taken all that fury and applied it to sticky post-hardcore bounce that sometimes even dares to be catchy. “Dislocate Me” is still guttural and aggressive and nasty, but it also sounds like a hit. There’s an anthemic grace to a song like this that I only rarely hear from the hardcore world. Militarie Gun only have four songs to their name, but they’re already one of the most exciting things going. [From My Life Is Over EP, out now on Convulse Records.]