As introduced in the previous post, this is my idea of what the best punk and hardcore records of the new millenium have been; what has measured up to Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come (1998); or, indeed, to the many other seminal records of the 1990s. I said there that I would try to justify my criteria, because there are some. These aren't just my favourite albums of recent time - though these are of course some of those - but instead something slightly more specific. These are albums which have, in my estimation, provided something new to the sound of punk and hardcore, and kept it from becoming a stale and shallow genre. These are albums which in my own experience I can claim to have changed how I viewed music, the expression of ideas through music, and the creation of art via music.
As to what's punk and what's not, it goes to the very heart of this list. The shape of punk to come, almost by definition, has to incorporate change and diversity in styles. It's difficult to judge whether people will regard this selection as too broad or too narrow for their understanding of the central term. For the most part, I've kept to a simple ear test for the definition of punk/not punk - you'll know it if you hear it. Roughly speaking, I think the first three choices fit into a definition of 'post-hardcore', and the last three 'screamo'. The fact that the division falls chronologically - the order in which the bands appear - is not entirely coincidental, as I'll explain further on.
(The picture above is a composite of two elements - my own photograph of the A Flight and A Crash LP, and an inset from the cover of Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come.)
1. Hot Water Music - 'A Flight and A Crash' (A Flight and A Crash, Epitaph, 2001)
2. American Steel - 'Shrapnel' (Jagged Thoughts, Lookout!, 2001)
3. Mclusky - 'To Hell With Good Intentions' (Mclusky Do Dallas, Too Pure, 2002)
4. Envy - 'Unrepairable Gentleness' (A Dead Sinking Story, Level Plane, 2003)
5. La Quiete - 'Raid Aereo Sul Paese Delle Farfalle' (La Fine non é la Fine, React With Protest/Heroine, 2004)
6. Ampere - 'In Antiquity' (Split Recording, Ebullition, 2006)
7. American Steel - 'Rainy Day' (Jagged Thoughts, Lookout!, 2001)
8. Hot Water Music - 'A Clear Line' (A Flight and A Crash, Epitaph, 2001)
9. Mclusky - 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' (Mclusky Do Dallas, Too Pure, 2002)
10. Envy - 'Go Mad and Mark' (A Dead Sinking Story, Level Plane, 2003)
11. La Quiete - 'La Fine non é la Fine' (La Fine non é la Fine, React With Protest/Heroine, 2004)
12. Sinaloa - 'The Earth is On Fire' (Split Recording, Ebullition, 2006)
Hot Water Music, A Flight and a Crash
This is my favourite record of all time. It's also the first album on the list because (as well as having a great opening track) it's one of the earliest. Hot Water Music have been releasing great albums from the mid-90s, with their generally agreed masterpiece Fuel For The Hate Game coming out in 1997. A Flight and A Crash, however, marked their first release for punk behemoth Epitaph Records and a major creative juncture in their career.
A Flight and a Crash takes the anthemicism of 1999's No Division, the meditative depth of 1997's Forever and Counting, and just enough of the original hardcore edge of Fuel For The Hate Game to combine it all into a truly remarkable record. Some very subtle electronic ambience and always superb songwriting make this Hot Water Music's crowning achievement, for me, as the most important and most creative punk band in my life. Even if took me a long while to get into this album at first, beyond the attraction of its post-Fugazi guitar sound and deep melody, when it hit it hit hard.
'A Flight and a Crash' is on the mixtape for its immediate sucker punch of melodic post-hardcore; "heart pounding/from the screaming/heart racing now"; and for it's introduction to HWM's gravelly vocals and searing emotional content. Even though it is several strands removed in many ways, this was my original introduction (pre-Swing Kids/Moss Icon) to the world of emo. 'A Clear Line', on the second side of the mixtape although still within the first side of the album, is there because it has a deeper effect. Just as mesmerising musically, if a little more sedate by comparison, it has just the most amazing lyrics and message: philosophical, personal, political... every line of it is meaningful to me, and it's difficult to sum it up except as a very human, very progressive attitude to living life in any sort of reasonable, sustainable way (read the lyrics here.)
(I haven't covered this band on the blog in any extent proportional to how important they are to me, but the video for the song immediately following the opener 'A Flight and a Crash', 'Paper Thin', was posted here.)
American Steel - Jagged Thoughts
This particular band has been mentioned even less on the blog, which is probably why they didn't initially come to mind when I answered urbanology's comment. However, when I think of bands that have done something different and very special with punk in the last decade of music, this band, and this album, definitely crop up. American Steel are/were a band from the San Francisco East Bay area, like Green Day, and hence their signing to Lookout! Records. They always had a big punk sound, fast and sort of punk-pop (and ska) influenced, but just as much on the hardcore punk rock side of things. Two initial albums, a breakneck speed self-titled effort and the viscerally mournful yet positive, far more developed, Rogue's March led to this 2001 record.
Jagged Thoughts is a creative masterpiece, blending artistic expression with punk fury in a way that goes back to the early Clash records. Around the time of the recording of Rogue's March, the guitarist Ryan battled with leukemia, an experience which informed a lot of the spirit of that album and further transferred on to Jagged Thoughts. In essence, it is a beautiful piece of music, but also an utterly powerful, explosive punk record.
Since the album came out in the same year as A Flight and A Crash, as well as both bands combining a strong emotional sense and post-hardcore styles, I thought I would switch the order of the songs from those albums around between the two sides of the mix. Hence the first side features the slow, building 'Rainy Day', which turns instantaneously between gentle near-silence and thunderously loud guitar chords, while the second side opens right off the start with 'Shrapnel', the bewitching, hook-laden album opener of "jagged words are all I've heard, spitting shards of vitriol/jagged thoughts are all that I've got, shredding my soul".
Mclusky, Mclusky Do Dallas
A step away, but not too far, from the US is this band from Cardiff, Wales. Mclusky Do Dallas - named after the porn film of the similar name - was the middle of Mclusky's three albums and the seminal one in terms of their Pixie-ish, lyrically demented noise attack on rock music. I posted the album a long time ago, and have spoken about them many times since - partly because of the rise of the slightly influenced Fight Like Apes in the Irish music scene, partly because of the output of the post-break up bands Future of the Left and Shooting at Unarmed Men (more on which later) and partly because they are a hugely important UK punk/post-punk band that deserves to be heard.
Mclusky Do Dallas, released in 2002, was recorded by Steve Albini and bears the imprint of a viscerally noisy, hard-edged production. Nevertheless the album is amazingly tuneful, catchy and almost inspiringly enjoyable to listen to. 'To Hell With Good Intentions' was the key single release from the album, and as a heavy, ironic piece of 21st-century post-hardcore ferocity, it caught the imagination - I still hear it on the radio now and then. This was not least because of the clever, repetitive lyrics ("we take more drugs than a touring funk band"), the infectious rhythm and the incessant tension yearning to flip out into sheer sonic destruction.
Punk, especially in the UK context, was probably too narrow a genre to confine Mclusky to. Sex Pistols this ain't. Or rather, it is, but reborn in a truly frenetic, revolutionary fashion. 'Lightsabre Cocksucking Blues' affected me thus: "That white-hot sonic anarchy, the complete abandon of scatological lyrics and eye-popping vocals, it took me out of any disillusionment I may have been having about the ability of punk rock to physically and musically move me" (from this post).
Envy, A Dead Sinking Story
Another band I've mentioned frequently, and presumably most of you have already heard. However, this album was revelatory, pure and simple, for me on first listen. If Hot Water Music was my introduction to post-hardcore with an emo dimension, this was my introduction to the no less complex world of 'screamo'. People scream for all sorts of reasons in all sorts of genres, and often to no greater effect than explosions in an ordinary Hollywood film. But here, like this, screaming is the most beautiful, intense expression of punk rock music you will possibly ever hear. Undeniably the songs are epic, and much of the beauty in fact comes from the slowed down, very quiet interludes of guitar and drums with a bit of spoken word, but the full crescendo provides an immediate, inescapably loud statement of hardcore only half-mixed with the stirring sounds of post-rock.
'Unrepairable Gentleness' I chose in a part as a double-take on the ferocious ending of the Mclusky track, launching straight into the loudness of the Envy album, but it shortly develops into a much more complex, layered song, full of twists and turns and an ever-ascending journey towards the heights of emotional expression. 'Go Mad and Mark' is broadly similar, but opens right on the melody line of the song and introduces that key balance of delicate mournfulness and harsh fury that characterises the Envy songs of this period. In short, these songs are throughout their epic lengths fascinating exhibitions of how hardcore/'screamo' can be such an emotionally affecting genre.
In terms of influence on the genre as a whole, this album may be the most important of the lot (bearing in mind the stream of developing Envy releases before this.) Epic screamo became a new artistic achievement of punk, and a new facet of the general post-hardcore spread that resulted from the need to do something new with the sounds of the 90s generation. Whereas Hot Water Music, American Steel and Mclusky all took punk and hardcore outwards into a redefining of punk-pop and post-punk music, Envy and the other modern screamo bands took the sound deeper within the genre, and came up with something even stranger and more beautiful.
La Quiete, La Fine non é la Fine
Very soon into this screamo renaissance, La Quiete came up with probably the most beautiful creation of the genre yet. This gorgeous album actually falls a little short of the melodic exactitude and perfection of the Italian band's 2006 self-titled 7", but as an overall statement of their style it still stands proud. Perhaps stemming from the combination of their Italian lyricism and their technical astuteness, it is marvellous, chaotic, indescribable assault of punk rock.
'Raid Aereo Sul Paese Delle Farfalle' - meaning 'Air Raid on the Butterfly Country' is the relatively brief opening gambit of the album: initially a dense, seemingly inpenetrable mess of drums and shouting; but also a rapidly developing creation of melody, rhythm, hooks and joyful excess - what could, again in the 21st century, be more punk rock? 'La Fine non é la Fine', the final, title track is a more epic expansion of the method that all the album's songs are based on. While similar, it is still far more compact than Envy's style of screamo, and tries at almost every moment to squeeze more melody and more emotion out of its sound. It has a central riff which is viewed from various vantage points, clear and open or closed, dense and furious. It is the openness which wins out in the end, rolling out the album in quite classic emo style (think Indian Summer) but in a subtly new, joyous sense.
Ampere/Sinaloa, Split Recording
Finally, I covered this very record only a few short months ago, so I'm not sure what to add on this occasion. On so many levels, this is a great record. It brings together two groups. whose styles are very noticeably different - Ampere, harsh and abrasive; Sinaloa, slower and more melodic - yet fit together brilliantly. It is packaged superbly, and the artistic, lyrical and political content does credit to the bands and the label, Ebullition.
The importance of the record as a punk album, however, lies partly in the context of the success of the two bands mentioned above. Outside of the US, the screamo genre seemed to have reached greater creative heights in terms of emotion, while the genre within turned more towards a more technical kind of creativity (I'm thinking of Off Minor, Kidcrash here). A subjective assessment, admittedly, but I often found American screamo lacked soul when compared with the best of what countries outside the US had to offer. Sinaloa in particular changed that for me. Ampere too, although their creativity is especially on the technical, quasi-grind side - the connected Bucket Full of Teeth project being the ultimate fulfilment of that trend, and would be on this list if it wasn't too far outside the self-imposed (ad hoc) bounds of punk/hardcore of this list.
So there it is, my top six records that changed punk rock since Refused. Feel free to disagree. In fact, please do.