A day doesn't go by that I'm not invited out to cover one band or another. The smart publicists have learned that I have a system, and that I pick the shows I'll cover like other people pick their lottery numbers. The first bubble is filled in for good bands, the second for those that have an interesting buzz, the third for shows that promise an experience, the fourth for nearby clubs with punctual start times. If the numbers add up right, we've got a winner. While I had never heard of either of the headlining acts, nor was I particularly interested in the streams provided by their promoters, the spectacle of five extreme bands in such a tiny all-ages space suggested the show could be noteworthy. On a hunch, I scored the third and fourth columns high, sending me to Art Closet Studios – a tiny tiled and windowless room tucked in the back of a pizza joint only a mile from my home.
While initially billed as a 7pm show with five bands, it was 8pm when local quartet Organ Trail began its fifteen-minute set. Set up in the corner of the room, lit by two coloured floodlights, the band ripped through a loose set of hardcore for the 30 or so friends that packed into the hotbox with them. The band's sound was reactionary, begun by the drummer who instantly set a breakneck pace, and dared bandmates to keep up. The shirtless teenage guitarist who showed real chops while goofing around before the set did his best, but neither he nor the bassist could manage to corral the sloppy set. The mistimed shouts of the dancing vocalist seemed like an afterthought as well. But as soon as it began, it was over.
As expected for an all-ages show, the audience was young, but there was some variety present. There were skinny, fresh-scrubbed straightedge boys, bearded death metal occultists, dreadlocked crust punks, and a sizeable minority of girls who seldom fit into buckets so easily. I smiled as I spotted one group of boys because they were wearing the same t-shirts that littered the floor of my room in the late '80s. Because I don't know their names, I'll call them Judge shirt, Integrity shirt, Sheer Terror shirt, and X Swatch. Together they formed the band Baldknobber, and they were up next.
There is no information about this central Missouri-based band online, though searches do indicate that this was not the foursome's first show. However with only a ten-minute set – including a cover of an Agnostic Front song – the band must be new. Although far from intricate, Baldknobber's sound was a bit more varied than the opening act's, with distinct parts and even occasional breakdowns. The vocalist paced more than he sung (or shouted to be precise), facing the drum kit rather than the audience that assembled around him in a horseshoe. Dancers occasionally made passes from one side to the other, kicking and swinging their arms wildly, jostling the band as they crossed, and creating a mild inconvenience for those paying more attention to the band than the pit.
The evening continued on with Staten Island's Vice – a band added to the now six-band bill only the day before. This four piece continued the trend set by Baldknobber, playing longer, more varied, multi-part songs, as well as adding in double bass work and other elements of metal. Vocalist Andrew Vacante also spent more time addressing the audience than the previous frontmen, first demanding the audience come closer, later offering up jaded warnings about the hardcore scene, rampant political correctness, and imploring the audience to "open [its] eyes," and finally telling the audience to "Smile, you're at a hardcore show." Still the majority of the audience stood with armed folded or hands clasped.
Between bands I slipped out of the performance space, retreating to the parking lot. Whether the evening had actually cooled or not I have no idea, though it felt positively chilly compared to the sauna that I had just left. I certainly wasn't alone in seeking a reprieve from the heat, however I was surprised to see so many people merely hanging out, and not coming in for the bands at all. Was it too hot where the bands play, or were these kids just too cool to be there? I didn't have long to ponder the question, as just before 9:30 the sound of loud guitars permeated the brick building, beckoning me back to the bands.
My knowledge of Kansas City hardcore is extremely limited, though Spine appears to be the 800-pound gorilla in the scene. This is certainly true if attendance is any indicator, as the band positively packed the small show space for its fifteen minute set of classic New York hardcore. Antonio Marquez is a giant of a man with a roaring voice and an even more impressive set of pectorals. Along with the remainder of the four piece, he delivered a set of crunching and stomping hardcore that had the audience crashing into one another happily. Between songs he joked with the audience about his own meathead tendencies, and discussed the finer points of Kansas City's barbecue joints.
Although it's been a long time since I could call myself a hardcore kid (a term we used to separate ourselves from the larger punk community), I carry many of those same ideals with me. I'm still vegan. I'm still straightedge. But this new breed of hardcore seems foreign to me. In the late '80s and early '90s we pushed the PC agenda as far as we could and were never satisfied that it went far enough. Now, bands like Vice dismiss those that "can't take a joke." And while animal liberation was a keystone of my scene, today Spine weigh their brisket options while on stage. I may own the same X Swatch as these kids, but it definitely means something different to me.
Los Angeles's Seven Sisters of Sleep took the stage at exactly 10:00, shifting the mood in the room instantly. Although the other acts performing spent some time watching the opening bands, the members of Seven Sisters of Sleep seemed to materialize for their set, and vanish quickly afterwards. This somehow tied in with the band's occult imagery and the five-piece's doom-laden music. Although there is certainly some continuum between hardcore and metal, my ears place Seven Sisters firmly on the side of metal. And the spooky side of metal at that. Vocalist Tim McAlery was particularly intense, aloof, and even frightening. He didn't speak a word to the audience or his bandmates, every visible part of his body was tattooed, he screamed, shrieked and groaned like demon, and near the end of the band's set he smashed down a microphone stand, sending parts of it reeling across the floor. McAlary's intensity was nearly matched by the double-bass-happy shirtless drummer, the backwards facing bass player sculpting sound as much as playing notes, and the two guitarist that occasionally fed off each other, but more than not delivered a wall of terrifying.
Between acts I slipped outside for another breath of air not stewed in sweat and testosterone. Outside I saw plenty of women, but none playing in the bands. 25 musicians, and all of them male. As I sat contemplating this, I overheard one gal telling her friends about her new band. She noted it was "supposed to be" a riot grrrl band, although she was having trouble pinning down what that actually meant. She postulated that if the band members were all women, and all feminists, that the musical style was somewhat unimportant. To prove her point she hoped to convince her bandmates to cover a Pantera song. Please, if this ever happens, I want to be present. Email me!
The final act of the evening split the difference between the straightforward hardcore of the first four acts, and the extreme metal of of the fifth. Pennsylvania's Full of Hell describes itself as "grinding death in the form of hardcore punk," which may be as good as any other clarifier. The band's vocalist is Dylan Walker. He is a thin, clean-cut guy in his mid 20s, and aside from a tattooed full-sleeve (and maybe even with), he could be the IT guy in any corporate office. This makes the unholy cacophony that comes from his mouth all that more shocking. Every squeal, shriek, grunt, and scream used in extreme metal is part of his arsenal. To summon these noises every muscle and vein in his body constricts, his nostrils flare, and his eyes stare wildly, as if he is experiencing some sort of David Banner gamma ray moment teetering at the edge of a horrible transformation. The rapid blasts of drummer Dave Bland are momentous, but they never approach the rage Walker wears in his face as he paces the floor. Conversely, guitarist Spencer Hazard is cerebral in his approach, closely following Bland when playing guitar, and otherwise spending considerable energy twisting knobs to sculpt the electronic sounds that accompany the band. But this was all background noise while Walker paced and punched invisible enemies, inspiring audience members to explode into action themselves. Unfortunately all this motion soon left some element of the PA incapacitated. And so only fifteen minutes into the band's set, Walker ended the show by thanking the audience.
And so that was it. After fifteen minutes of music, the band was left to pack up its gear and prepare to drive nine hours to its next date. Over the last 25 days the band has done this 25 times, and will do it eight more times in the next eight days, all in an effort to promote its just-released album Rudiments of Mutilation (A389 Records). And that is why the band's publicist asked me out to the show – in hopes I would say good things about the band that would lead to more fans and more albums sold. Sadly, fifteen minutes of chaotic aggression in a dark sweaty room didn't tell me much about the band's album, but the fact that it continues to tour this way, day after day without break – well, that says a lot. That is what will keep me filling in those bubbles for small DIY shows in small DIY spaces.