I refuse to spend more time writing about this show than the bands spent playing it. That leaves me with approximately 90 minutes to describe what happened when four hardcore bands took over the Record Bar. Go!
At 9:00 there were a dozen punks standing outside of the Record Bar, staring at a notice on the front door indicating the venue would open at 9:30. I considered riding back home, but was mercifully rescued at the last minute by my friend Ashley. She not only talks unendingly on fascinating subjects, but can introduce you to absolutely anyone. I admire those social butterflies – especially those able to do it when sober. When she and her friends excused themselves, I began people watching, as I'm told that's what a writer does.
As expected for a headlining act who had its heyday in the early '80s, its fans were older than those at a typical hardcore show. Still, the Record Bar's 18+ policy did draw a few youngsters who now queued impatiently, spoke loudly, and gestured wildly. Someone wondered aloud how these kids had even heard of Negative Approach – and that might have been a valid question in the pre-Internet days – but now, with countless "you might also like" options provided with every musical exploration, purchase, or stream, the mystery probably ends there. The various tribes of the headliner's influence were well represented – punks with elaborate clothes, hair, and makeup, booted skinheads of oi, the patched and studded crusty punks, and even the sporty straightedge kids all made their presence felt – some more physically than others.
At 10:00, local four-piece Spine took the stage. The band were told they had twenty minutes by the club's sound engineer, but guitarist Alex Tunks promised him the band would only need twelve. Ultimately the band's set of 60-second songs would take fourteen minutes, with the broken string of fill-in bassist Dillon Dendetti accounting for the overage. Close enough for rock & roll.
While I've not been intimate with hardcore in some time, I'd say the band resembles Judge (it cannot be coincidental that Tunks has the Judge crossed hammers logo tattooed on his shin), although vocalist Antonio Marquez growls more than he shouts, revealing a bit of his metalcore influences. Marquez is a tall athletic guy that paces the stage looking every bit of the original New York Hardcore stereotype. He roars his vocals over Tunks's thick churning riffs and the tolling bass work of Bandetti. Chicago-based drummer John Hoffman is responsible for the majority of the band's material; he's speedy when he needs to be, and heavy when the breakdowns kick in. It was those breakdowns that served as an invitation for the sashaying moshers, who made their way across the area in front of the stage with arms swinging, legs kicking, and heads ducked. Contact wasn't with each other, but rather with the periphery as each reached the end of their respective catwalks.
Before the set, I joked that I needed Ashley to protect me (and my camera) from the upcoming melee. But after that jest turned into a reality, and she came tumbling past me several times, we quickly traded positions, leaving me with one hand on the camera, one steadying myself against the blows. It's been a while since I shot from inside a pit where dancers can build inertia.
Shared gear helped the stage to be turned around quickly, allowing local quartet No Class to start before 10:30. The short-set precedence being established, the band would ultimately play for only sixteen minutes. Certainly expeditious, but it's rough to get a bead on a band so quickly.
No Class is led by the shouted vocals of Neal Dyrkacz. He a wiry guy with a hectic energy that sent him jumping, spinning, falling, and dancing into the audience throughout the band's set. In contrast, Jesse Street spent the evening with his back to the audience, guitar buzzing through the majority of the band's material. The no-nonsense rhythm section of bassist Dustin Street (the two are brothers) and drummer Dillon Bendetti (the aforementioned fill-in bassist) provide quick jabs, and lots of space. Ultimately the band channels the sound of anarchy, rejection, and experimentation that fuelled Henry Rollins-era Black Flag, and countless band's playing this weekend in basements all over the Midwest.
While the dancers still had room for their choreography, during No Class's set they had to share the space with a dozen churning fans attempting to sing along with Dyrkacz and/or pummel him. This is a fine line in hardcore that's often crossed.
The two opening acts were familiar to the members of the KC hardcore scene, and the headliners certainly needed no introduction to its fans, but San Francisco's Early Graves were a bit of a mystery. Punk? Hardcore? Metal? The audience just wasn't sure what to expect. If they had picked up on the casual clues (all black clothes, long hair, over-sized amps) they would not have been surprised when the thrashy quintet unleashed unholy hell on the audience.
Regular readers know that I like to play the sub-genre game, but there is no name for Early Graves' mix of thrash and hardcore. The band's sound is heavy, fast, and loud. It's punishing. Looking across the stage I saw Soft Reeds' Becki Trost with her fingers planted firmly in her ears, holding on tightly as if her brain might explode. This curiosity was common during the first two songs of the band's 30-minute set, but soon the crowd sorted itself out – leaving a crew of misfit headbangers to line the front of the stage, and sending a plurality of the audience to the quieter recesses of the club.
Singer John Strachan is a frontman without pretence. There wasn't much conversation with the audience, but what was delivered was casual, earnest, and professional. He spent most of the time at the front of the stage, eyes closed, screaming into the microphone that he held tightly in his right hand. Beside him, Matt O'Brien provided deeper, contrasting vocals, and rattling bass. Rhythm guitarist Tyler Jensen and drummer Dan Sneddon are old school. There were no progressive rock guitar leads, no metalcore riffing, no blast beats, nor even double bass work. The same formula used by Testament and a host of other Southern California thrash bands in the mid '80s serves as Early Graves's backbone. Lead guitarist Chris Brock wasn't given a microphone, yet the visual of his howls was enough to get the point across. While a speedy riffer, Brock proved his real skill to be the lightening quick leads he played in short bursts. There were no metal faces, no posing, acrobatics, just a workman's approach to punishing metal.
It is difficult to pinpoint how the hardcore elements of the band's sound manifest themselves; there are no breakdowns, no chugga chugga guitars, no staccato vocals, yet something about the pummelling, no bullshit delivery speaks to the spirit of hardcore. At least one dancer agreed, as he made his way back and forth in front of the stage spurred on by the band's terrific pace. Most of the audience, however, were frozen by the mesmerising lengths of hair the band whipped about on stage during its half-hour set.
In a delightful show of efficiency, the stage was cleared and reset for Negative Approach in only minutes. Unlike the normal indie rock shows at the Record Bar, there seemed to be no impetus for bands to take the stage at a particular time, or to play until a certain hour in an effort to maximize bar sales. But everything comes at a price, and during this quick change, the audience was forced to endure the club's sound engineer's continuing obsession with Steely Dan. Does he think he's broadening our horizons? Is he just an ass? Thankfully the stage was ready at 11:40, and the Detroit four-piece began its set.
While I'll avoid the history lesson, it's necessary to know that Negative Approach was truly only active from 1981 to 1983. Afterwards the band broke up only to be cobbled back together a time or two. This most recent reformation includes original vocalist John Brannon, drummer Chris "Opie" Moore, as well as two post-Negative Approach cohorts of Brannon's: guitarist Harold Richardson, and bassist Ron Sakowski. Regardless of this line-up's pedigree, the band have been hugely influential to the American punk and hardcore communities. It's the band's blending of balls-out American rock & roll (which it attributes to The Stooges) with the rage of English punk and punch of English oi that showed a generation exactly how fast, complete, and pissed off a band could be. But 30 years later, can the band still be that pissed off? Hell yes!
Brannon took the stage with an intent glaring stare that bordered on the psychotic. The muscles in his face, neck, and shoulders were tensed, with the real threat of violence lurking just an inch below the surface. He may be a nice, well-adjusted guy, but I'll never get close enough to find out – my self-preservation instincts are too high. Like others, Brannon gripped the microphone and paced the stage as if he were caged. The audience, however, refused to recognize any barriers, and created a constant stream of stage divers, gang-vocal pile ups, and unscheduled and merely tolerated guest vocalists. The grizzled and bearded Sakowski had intended to provide backing vocals, but his microphone stand was continually downed by the surging audience. It wouldn't have mattered though, even amplified by the PA, his vocals would not have been as loud as the crowd's.
After three or four songs, and some close calls with my camera and spine, I retreated to the side of the club, where I found a particularly nice vantage point several rungs up a ladder. Around then, Ashley tossed me her purse and disappeared to the back of the club. Later I'd find out she took a vicious fist (surely unintentional) to the eye, leaving her with a gloriously punk rock shiner – though one that she suspected would force her to take ill-afforded time off from her work as a server. The perils of being hardcore.
The band's twenty-song, 30-minute set went by so quickly it was hard take it all in. Aside from the anthemic shouted vocals, the rest was just a buzz of guitar, bass, and drums savagely racing toward the finish line. The performance of these songs (a well-known greatest hits to most) was upstaged by the audience's response to them, and the crowd quickly cemented itself as the focal point of the show. The concept of stage presence was irrelevant when considering Negative Approach, so Brannon kept his remarks brief – a couple of quick notes that the upcoming song might be from the first album, or it may be a new one, and a final "thank you" as the band unceremoniously ended its set.
There was no encore, and no calls for one. The fans had been blasted with the songs they came to hear, and barely kept up with a band of old men coming out of retirement. I, too, was bested by the bands – I've spent way more than 90 minutes writing this.