Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get ready to rumble. It’s time for the battle for the future of American punk. In this corner: heartbroken emo kids and twee indie fans hugging each other on the dancefloor. In that corner: the Blood Brothers, Ex Models, the Locust and friends, beating each other up. Melody, harmony, and sing-alongs versus screams, noise, and chaos. Verse chorus verse versus 30-second jolts of voltage. Cardigans and corduroys versus ringer tees and tight black pants. Say Anything versus Fight Club. Gilmore Girls versus Jackass. Makeoutclub.com versus Buddyhead.com. Cuddling versus fucking.
(Of course, there are plenty of bands who straddle both teams, or who avoid the game all together. But let’s just forget about them right now. Generalization is the fruit of life . . . er, of rock criticism.)
Recently, the fighters have been giving the lovers a serious ass-whupping. All across the land, kids are trading in their copies of Tigermilk for anything on GSL, and learning how to get crazy in the pit all over again. Nobody wants to be seduced by a melody anymore; they want to be assaulted by a blast of pure fury. Or maybe it’s not a nationwide thing. Maybe it’s just my friends and the people I associate with. But it kind of freaks me out, the way mild-mannered teddy-bear-types go apeshit for this stuff. When I saw Lightning Bolt play last summer, I was nearly crushed to death by a moshing, headbanging mass sporting trucker hats and Buddy Holly glasses. The last time I had feared so for my life was at the 1997 Warped Tour. And it wasn’t ironic, remember-how-stupid-we-were-back-in-the-’90s moshing. It was full-on, heartfelt, I-am-so-into-this-music-that-the-only-way-I-know-how-to-express-my-passion-is-by-slamming-my-body-into-the-person-next-to-me moshing. As I fought my way out of the mob, I felt like Angela Chase in the first episode of My So-Called Life, falling in a mud puddle at the backyard metal show, the look on her face saying “what the hell am I doing here?”
What is it about this music that makes allegedly suave urban hipsters, who claim to know better, act like 14-year-old suburban Metallica heshers? Is it because emo went mainstream and most indie stalwarts have gone boring and washed-up (see latest records by Yo La Tengo, Beck, Belle and Sebastian, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Calvin Johnson, Arab Strap, and any former member of Sebadoh)? Because of the invasion of Iraq, Clear Channel, the bad economy, the Bush administration, SARS, monkeypox? Because, as Uncle Johnny Rotten once sang, “anger is an energy”? Everybody likes to have a soundtrack to getting angry and energetic sometimes, but why do these kids choose these bands over nu-metal, or old metal, or the Victory Records roster?
Does it have something to do with (gasp!) the music itself? Here’s what the Locust’s Plague Soundscapes, Ex Models’ Zoo Psychology, and the Blood Brothers’ . . . Burn Piano Island, Burn have in common: sprinting, pounding, rhythms; a tendency towards incredibly short songs; dissonant guitars turned up to 11 that are allergic to standard chord progressions, or standard chords for that matter; singers who sound like they’re gonna cough up a lung and whose voices are just another instrument, since you can never make out the words. So at heart, they’re a bunch of standard American hardcore bands circa 1983, 1993, 2003, whenever. But they’re also a lot weirder. Here’s what they don’t have in common with most hardcore bands, or with each other: San Diego’s the Locust have a keyboard player, wear silly costumes onstage, and sell belt buckles and compacts with their logo on them. So not hardcore. Jersey’s Ex Models sound like an extremely horny dog humping your leg, with a singer who brings to mind David Byrne inhaling helium. They are friends with, and frequent openers for, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So not hardcore. Seattle’s Blood Brothers deviate the most from the formula, adding acoustic guitar, xylophone, piano, and even slower rhythms at times. Their new album is on the BMG subsidiary Artistdirect, and it was produced by Korn/W.A.S.P./Limp Bizkit/Slipknot/Vanilla Ice knob twiddler Ross Robinson. So so so not hardcore. Not surprisingly, it’s the least monotonous, most risk-taking, and all-around best record of the three. Even though it’s by far the longest, . . . Burn is the only album I enjoy listening to all the way through, and don’t have to fight an urge to put on Celine Dion afterwards.
I guess the weirdness and the deviations are why indie kids find these bands attractive, musically. Yet something in my gut tells me that maybe it’s more than that. There’s no doubt that traditional masculinity has become cool again in the culture at large. Perhaps the expanding fanbase of bands like the Locust, Ex Models and Blood Brothers is Maxim, WWF wrestling, extreme sports, and Johnny Knoxville trickling down into the subculture. It’s a scary thought. I started listening to punk to get away from that kind of crap. But it’s not like punk hasn’t always had testosteroned elements. And these bands certainly aren’t misogynist in any way (in fact, most of their members would probably identify as feminist). Plus, it’s difficult to deny the power of their music; in the right mood, it even makes me want to break stuff.