I've decided to implement a new policy with this blog. If you're a band, label or relevant party seeking my opinion on a piece of music, I will personally guarantee a review in the pages of this esteemed publication — IF you send me physical media.
Like all music journalists, my email inbox is constantly inundated with promos from publicists, labels and bands who're trying to get me to write about their music. Most of the stuff I'm sent is mid at best. Some of it is pretty good. A small percentage of it is great. However, given how packed my listening schedule is between my day-job at Revolver, the preparation I do for two podcasts, the stuff I write about for this blog, and the stuff I choose to listen to on my own volition, I only end up covering a fraction of the music that gets sent my way.
Fellow music journo Patrick Lyons recently kickstarted an awesome newsletter called Inbox Infinity that's specifically dedicated to crate-digging his emails, and while I wish I had the bandwidth for a similar pursuit, I simply don't at this time. However, I've decided that if someone goes through the effort of sending me vinyl, cassette and/or CD copies of the music they want me to review, then I'll do them the favor of sharing my thoughts (maybe at Revolver, if relevant, or on one of my podcasts, but definitely here, in the pages of this blog). I'm not guaranteeing that I'll have anything nice to say about what I'm sent, but I'll least write something, and it'll be thoughtful.
So with that said, I was recently sent a few items from To Live a Lie, the North Carolina-based label who've been issuing aggressive dispatches from the worlds of hardcore, grind, powerviolence, death-metal and more for almost 20 years. I'm not super familiar with the label's extensive back-catalog, but I know enough to know that if TLAL are putting something out, it's probably worth listening to.
The label sent me new LPs from industrial-metal fire-starters Realize, grind radicals Pig City and hardcore mongrels Spy; a tape from other hardcore mongrels Caveman; and a collaborative grind-noise split seven-inch from Transient/Bastard Noise and Completed Explosion/Blackphone666. Below, are my impressions on the goods.
Realize - Two Human Minutes
I first became aware of Realize when I was commissioned to interview the project's creator, Kyle Kennedy, for a Revolver profile back in 2020. At that point, the band were about to release their second album, Machine Violence, on extreme-music powerhouse Relapse Records, after having dropped their much more spartan debut, Demolition, on To Live a Lie in 2018. Realize is kind of a second creative life for Kennedy, who was previously the bassist-vocalist for Phoenix powerviolence maestros Sex Prisoner, a band who I predict are on the precipice of a significant resurgence in popularity (see: the hype around Weekend Nachos' comeback, the ambient hunger for a Nails reunion I've noticed online).
Much like Justin Broadrick did with Godflesh after Napalm Death, Realize is an outlet where Kennedy can play with slower tempos while maintaining (or even increasing) the extremity of what he was doing before. I thought Demolition was a little too lo-fi and homespun for my liking, but Machine Violence was an utterly monstrous sounding album, and its follow-up that I'm spinning right now, Two Human Minutes, is similarly caustic and brooding.
Bands like Godflesh, Fudge Tunnel and Fear Factory (the early stuff, and sans the clean singing) are my basic RIYL's, but industrial-metal is a genre that often comes off as self-limiting in this kind of writerly setting. Like any micro-genre, the bands who first pioneered the sound are always going to loom large over whoever's snatching the torch, so I don't think it's particularly useful to say, "Uh, yeah man, this shit sounds like Godflesh." It absolutely does, but also, if you want Godflesh then Streetcleaner is always at the ready. Realize are doing something a bit different.
The first sound you hear on Two Human Minutes is a clip-emptying barrage of mechanical blast-beats. Then, a few moments of ominous space, and in lunges the first of many wind-knocking guitar riffs and chunky, distorted bass bulges. This isn't steam-punky, stand-in-the-warehouse-venue-with-your-hands-in-your-trench-coat-pockets industrial. This is industrial-metal you can mosh to.
If hardcore bands like Code Orange and Harm's Way actually became Facebook Official with their industrial-metal flirtations in the second half of the 2010s, they might've come up with something like "In Silence." The programmable accuracy of the drum machines and tedious, assembly-line-made grooves anchor these songs in the industrial tradition, but the other sonic elements pull in different directions. The vocals are chesty and chanty in the way fast hardcore frontmen grunt, and the guitar riffs aren't rigid and staccato like the rhythm section is. Instead, the chords bleed over into the following measure, like when metallic hardcore guitarists let notes ring out to signal the entry of a mosh part.
That playstyle lends a physicality to the record that prevents it from sounding like it's trying too hard to be mechanical. Realize don't sound like an assembly-line-turned-sentient, or Evil Motherboard On the Attack, or whatever corny-ass premises industrial artists lean into that so often make their music look, sound, or feel profoundly superficial to me.
Two Human Minutes is nihilistically heavy, and there's barely a moment to gasp for air until a few threads of clean ambiance pierce the cacophony on closer "Crest Dispersal." But it's the humanness within the machine — the barking vocals, the beatdown-hardcore riffage, and little details like the Southern hip-hop beat and witchy synths in "Killing Party" that make it briefly sound like Salem — that make Realize sound not only distinct, but genuinely invigorating to listen to.
Spy - Habitual Offender
Spy are a band who do one thing. Sometimes, a band who commit to mastering a narrow sound are doing themselves a favor by being the absolute best they can be at that one thing. If they succeed, then they corner the market on that specific sound, form an identity around it (identities are hard to come by these days, you know), and ensure that any band who jacks their shit get eternally compared to them (see: The Ramones, Hatebreed)
Thing is, a band who do one thing are a band who do one thing. Once they squeeze every last drop of juice of that sucker, it's dry, dry, dry. I think Spy's debut LP from earlier this year, Satisfaction, is the most boring hardcore album I've heard all year. I find it so dreadfully boring that I listened to it once and will never put it on again for as long as I'm alive. Why? Because every single note they played on that record can already be heard on Habitual Offender, which is one of the most exciting hardcore releases I heard in 2022.
When this EP first dropped in fall 2021, I gave it a cursory listen and then foolishly filed Spy away in the recesses of my memory. It didn't really register to me what they were doing, and I didn't think it was necessary for me to care. Within the next year, Spy suddenly became an un-ignorable force in hardcore's above-ground scene. I then realized it was time for me to care. The Bay Area band play raw, noisy, straight-ahead American hardcore that could've lazily (though accurately) been described as "basement hardcore" at any point in the last 13 years. Bands like Gag, BIB and Hoax were playing a very similar type of hardcore throughout the 2010s, but there wasn't a ton of interplay between those bands and groups on the heavier side of the spectrum like Backtrack and Foundation, for example.
But for whatever reason, Spy, along with their East Coast peers in GEL, are having a serious crossover moment with the spin-kicking echelon of hardcore that usually ignores this type of thing. The Bay Area hardcore scene is an international hotspot right now thanks to Gulch, Sunami, Drain and Scowl, and Spy are right there, too, feeding off the hype. When I saw them earlier this year on tour with Sunami, Spy drew kids to the show that I'd never seen at Pittsburgh hardcore gigs before. They've captured a young, enthusiastic audience and are bringing them into the genre's fold in an organic way. I think that's awesome, and I can totally see why.
Habitual Offender is a fucking ripper of an EP. I couldn't tell you what one song sounds like versus another, and I couldn't shout you a single line. Spy vocalist Peter Pawlak is like Slowly We Rot-era John Tardy; he could just be screaming pure gibberish, but it doesn't really matter because he sounds cool while howling, snarling and sniveling through blown-out distortion. To cue mosh parts, he grunts like a football snapper who hates his quarterback so much he can't even say the word "hike," and instead barks indecipherably just to get the play over with.
I've talked to people on the punkier side of hardcore who scoff at this band because Pawlak didn't "come from hardcore" or whatever. Weirdly enough, he used to front the technical deathcore band Rings of Saturn, a band who have absolutely no ties to hardcore whatsoever. Spy aren't that, though, and even if the dude didn't get Tied Down handed to him in the crib, or spend his teens sneaking into Hank Wood and the Hammerheads loft shows, he and his bandmates have quickly completed the necessary homework to make this style of music competently.
Habitual Offender saunters violently down a well-treaded lane of classically simplistic hardcore punk. If anything, its almost improbable lack of regionality — its unabashed predictability — is what makes it interesting. It kind of has the aggressive posture of California powerviolence, but not the speed or precision. Its mad-dog personality points one Doc Marten toe to Trash Talk while the other gazes longingly at early Ceremony, inspired by their audacity but unable to match their ability. It sways, stomps, and gargles its spit like the gnarliest of Boston hardcore bands, but can't fake the East Coast attitude. It sounds like Hardcore. You know it, you've heard it, and when this is on, you're once again thinking,"Yeah, hardcore rules."
I think this EP is great because you know what you're getting after the first 30 seconds and it doesn't waver until its over. When I saw them play live, I had a blast watching kids knock into each other and try stage-diving off a stage that was way too small. That said, it became obvious a few songs in that nobody knew a single lyric Pawlak yowled. It created a disconnect between Spy and the audience that shouldn't be there at hardcore punk shows, where mosh moves aren't the focus and mic-grabs and pile-ups are so much of the fun.
The fact that they didn't tweak the formula even a little bit on their LP — same songwriting tropes, same production, same lack of intelligible lyrics — bummed me out because Habitual Offender already exists. Between this, their first EP, and their split with Maniac, that's enough of this one thing. Either break up or switch up. I want Habitual Offender to sound like the raw version of something markedly more polished. You're not gonna get any more raw than this.
Caveman - Caveman
Remember a few paragraphs back when I wrote that if a band establishes an identity, any other band who jacks their shit will be eternally compared to them? Well, let's just say that if you like Spy — if you really, really like Spy — then you're gonna loooove this! Caveman are a new hardcore band also from the Bay Area. They also play caustic, noisy, blown-out "basement hardcore." With reverb-addled, barky, distorted vocals. With brief flashes of powerviolence blasts. With screaming feedback over brooding basslines. And it sounds like they have two guitarists, but there isn't a single guitar lead on this project, just meat-and-potatoes power chords.
So yeah, this band is basically doing exactly what Spy does. Is that a bad thing? Nah, not really. I think there're subtle differences between the two bands. This vocalist barks with a slightly more punctuated staccato that doesn't blur into soup quite as quickly as Spy's vocals do after a few songs. All of the guitar notes are power chords, but the player(s) move a little quicker up and down the fret board at points, which gives the riffs more urgency. Altogether, this five-song release is very What Hardcore Punk In 2023 Sounds Like. Which is a snarky way of saying this just sounds like a mildly less interesting version of what GEL and Spy are already doing.
The thing that stuck out to me here are the lyrics. After a few songs that offer little more than vague invectives, "Militants" features a cogent, impassioned testimony about living as an immigrant in an overpoliced community that's constantly targeted by the ruling class's media: "Surveilled and policed, we’re criminalized/Our very existence gets politicized/Humanity erased by sensational headlines."
Bands who are actually singing about the injustices of their own lived experience always need amplifying in hardcore, but I just wish the music on this tape was better at conveying the message. I throw it on, I bang my head a few times, I still can't really make out any of the lines by ear, and then the whole thing's over by the time the six minute mark comes around. Musically, there's not much here that really hooks me. A more creative guitar part would be nice, maybe a bridge with a change in the vocal pattern rather than a mere instrumental transition. I don't need it to be tighter or more polished; the sound is nasty as hell and the energy is there.
But my main complaint with this and other GEL/Spy-core stuff (even those bands themselves) is that the arrangements are all basically identical from song to song. I know, I know. The band's called Caveman, for god's sake. It's supposed to be simple. Live, I bet this rips. And I'm not saying I don't enjoy the tape when it's on. But in 2028 when I'm flipping through my collection to hear something that brings me back to the halcyon days of 2023, will the Caveman EP be the first thing I reach for? Probably not.
Pig City - untitled
The crux of what I'm about to write is this: God-damn this album fuckin' rules. I wasn't familiar with Pig City before receiving this LP (which "has no name," according to the liner notes), but once I pulled up Discogs and saw that they had recently done a split with L.A.'s satanic powerviolence lords ACxDC, I thought I was in for something much different than what this record actually is.
Chiefly, I thought it'd be faster. There're a handful of grindy, PV-ish blasts on here, but the majority of album settles into a stink-face-inducing stomp tempo that's perfect for the kind of two-stepping where skankers are getting knocked down in the pit like bowling pins. There's some d-beat on here, and every instrument has a crusty, serrated edge to it. But what I love about this collection is that it sounds like a hybrid of many micro-styles instead of a hyper-focused genre exercise.
"Dead on the Table" swings wildly back and forth between powerviolence sprints, boots-crushing-concrete whales, and even some actual metallic hardcore chugs. Just because I'm listening to all of this stuff in succession, I can't help but compare the flow of this record to the Spy and Cavemen EP's from before. While keeping in mind that Pig City obviously have way more experience under their belts, I still feel that everything they're doing here is just so much more memorable and fulfilling to take in. This is a seven-song 12-inch that clocks in at a brisk 11 minutes, but it still manages to play like a thoroughly composed body of work.
Those variations in tempo go a long way in assuring that this doesn't just sound like one long song. It's ferocious, it's ugly, it's hard, it's heavier than you think it's going to be, and the anger is palpably convincing from the first shout to the last. And Pig City demonstrate how you can still make a crusty, misanthropic, ear-damaging hardcore record with memorable vocal parts. The final song, "Solitary Ideation," concludes with a cry of, "Hope-less ex-is-teeence," and then erupts into a sledge-hammer mosh part that's just plain vicious. Get it, crank it, turn up your stereo, and then crank it again.
Transient/Bastard Noise/Completed Explosion/Blackphone666 - Split
It almost takes more words to explain what this record is than to describe what it sounds like. This is not a four-way split, but a split between two grind bands, Portland's Transient and Japan's Completed Explosion, who each collaborated with a different noise artist, Bastard Noise and Blackphone666, respectively, for their own side of the seven-inch.
The most notable artist on here is probably Bastard Noise, which is the noise alter-ego of John Wiese and Eric Wood of crucial powerviolence vets Man Is the Bastard. They lend their handiwork to Transient's uncompromising grind assaults, splicing in screeching feedback and other whizzing, whining noises, including one that sounds like a prison alarm. I think Transient's songs would be just as good without the added embellishments, but the sensory overload of their combined efforts is certainly something to behold.
On the other side, Completed Explosion — whose peculiar lineup consists of two bassists and a drummer — unleash a much more cataclysmic torrent of grind, and the thumbprint of Blackphone666 is significantly more felt. The Japanese artist uses old-school telephones to conjure his mechanical squeals, and he infests Completed Explosion's songs with hellish drill sounds and other tinnitus-triggering squalls of electronic disrepair.
The songs on Transient's side speak more to my personal grind sensibilities, but I have to give it to Completed Explosion and Blackphone666 for fully understanding the assignment and merging their talents to create an overwhelmingly aggro tornado of sound. If regular ole grind isn't cutting it anymore, but you're not quite ready to drop stacks on the Merzbox, then this will fix you right up — by shattering every inner hair cell you have left.
If you're an artist, label or publicist who wants to send me stuff for review, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org