‘Progression Through Unlearning,’ Snapcase’s Timeless Hardcore Classic, Turns 20
The often overlooked 1997 album left an indelible mark on its genre.
The snare. That's the first thing you hear when the needle drops on Snapcase's 1997 album Progression Through Unlearning. It's unmistakable. High and tight. There's a loud whipcrack to it—not punishing, the way hardcore drumming typically sounds, but sharper, with a shallow pop. It's also the first thing you'll hear about when asking fans of hardcore about what makes the album so unique.
"Probably 25 percent of the mail the band would get was just questions about the snare," laughs Daryl Taberski, the band's vocalist.
It felt decidedly unlike anything else in the scene in the mid-90s, which was largely marked by the deep, crushing tones of heavyhitters like Madball and Earth Crisis. This had a feisty personality to it. Whereas drummers are typically meant to dutifully carry rock songs along from the background, Progression Through Unlearning and Snapcase drummer Tim Redmond pushed the instrument to the forefront, and let it take centerstage. Naysayers might call it distracting, but fans called it revolutionary. Suddenly, everyone with a pair of sticks wanted to sound like Snapcase.
"Earlier in the 90s, Tim really set the standard for how high you could tune a snare drum. A lot of drummers got piccolo snares and tortured those tension rods until the drumhead was about to pop," says Refused drummer David Sandström, who toured with Snapcase in '96. "There was a certain stability and propulsion to Tim's beats that really influenced me. He was indefatigable. Felt like he could punch his way through a brick wall."
"A lot of drummers asked me what I used and how I played it," says Redmond, who notes that he actually employed a soprano snare, and not a piccolo as is commonly believed. "I think drummers liked it because you could hear it. It really stood out. It wasn't just lost in everything."
For as influential as Progression Through Unlearning was on the hardcore scene, particularly its drummers, the album was created at a time when Snapcase was struggling to rebalance itself, and marked a shift in their history. In 1996, after the band had been kicking around for a few years and had a full-length and a handful of EPs to show for themselves, their primary songwriter, guitarist Scott Dressler, left the band for graduate school. They suddenly found themselves in their tiny, dungeon-like basement practice space with a new member and a new modus operandi.
In an attempt to replicate the sound initiated by Dressler, the new lineup wrote a song together called "Caboose" that was fast and intense, and featured the familiar Snapcase elements: heavy guitars with hard breaks underlined by high-string lead riffs. At two minutes in, the song completely stopped dead before being resuscitated for 30 more seconds that seemed intent on hammering home as hard as it could. And that was when they knew they had found a new identity.
"We were all like, 'Okay, this is Snapcase right here,'" remembers Taberski. But self-satisfaction wasn't enough. Being an active touring band known for their high-intensity live show, every song had to be road-tested and guaranteed to make the audience go off. "Albums are of course important in music, but when you're a hardcore band, the live show is everything. We'd try out songs live, and if the audience didn't respond after a couple tries, we'd give up on them. Every song had to be a motivating live song."
They debuted "Caboose" at a hometown show in Buffalo, New York, and got the response they were hoping for. The band morphed into a swirling blur of flying guitars, off-the-wall jumps, and, this being the mid-90s, baggy cargo pants. It would be a few months before the crowd was able to learn the lyrics and sing along, but the chugging guitar progressions combined with Taberski's boundless stage presence was enough to get the room nodding and moshing along that night. Taberski even remembers Dressler being in attendance as a spectator instead of a band member, and remarking afterwards that it was the best Snapcase song to date.
After that, Snapcase 2.0 was off and running. The band wrote and crowd-tested as many songs as they could, chasing the high they felt on "Caboose" until they'd amassed enough material to lay down a sophomore album. They booked two weeks at Trax East in New Jersey with producer Steve Evetts because they admired his work on Lifetime's Hello Bastards and Deadguy's Fixation on a Coworker, two incredibly fast-paced records.
"My whole thing with production is: the sound comes from the player. Technology helps, but it's all on the push on the instrument from the individual," says Evetts. "That sometimes means me being a drill sergeant on the tightness of things."
Evetts squeezed Snapcase for everything they were worth in the studio, and did for them what he did for Lifetime and Deadguy, and would subsequently do to define the sounds of bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan, Kid Dynamite, Saves the Day, and Glassjaw.
"Every song, he was like, 'I need you to push it even harder. Harder than that. Harder,'" remembers Taberski. "He's a real perfectionist. Everything had to be crisp and tight. All the stops had to be really sharp." As a result, Taberski's vocals have one setting on the album: relentless, a full scream that never lowers in intensity.
The result of their efforts was 1997's Progression Through Unlearning, an album that, for its 32-minute entirety, doesn't ease up for a single second. Since each band member was pushed to his limit by Evetts, the total product is an all-encompassing, full-volume assault. Every instrument sounds like it's competing for the most power and highest volume. For the first time in Snapcase's career, someone was able to capture a recording that did justice to the frenetic energy of their live show. In fact, it exceeded it. Taberski admits that the band was never able to fully match the speed of the recordings when performing the songs live.
But perhaps what most distinguished the album from its hardcore contemporaries was that underneath its sonic brutality was a guide to positive personal growth. Unlike the outwardly aggressive and often violent lyrics that had come to be associated with many of Snapcase's peers on Victory Records' roster, Progression Through Unlearning was centered around the idea of self-improvement through inward reflection. It encouraged the listener to peel back the layers that society defined them by to discover the strength buried underneath, a theme introduced on the very first line of "Caboose." ("Do you know yourself? Do you know the others? Can you pull the weight that rides on another's shoulders?") Even the album's cover, which features a painting of a woman underneath layers of her own skin like a Russian doll, drove this idea home.
Taberski, who is now a social worker at a psychiatric hospital, says he often finds commonality between the lyrics he wrote 20 years ago and the counseling sessions he does with his patients today.
"A lot of the lyrics are about recognizing what's been holding you down and the strength you might have hidden or squashed by your upbringing or other people, and trying to bring it to the surface," he says. "Even the title. You have to unlearn some of your negative habits and ways of thinking to learn and understand new ones that are more positive."
The album's only moment of levity is its last seconds which feature a sample from a movie, a trend that was a staple at the time. As the ominous guitars wind the record down, Pee-Wee Herman closes it out with his famous Big Adventure quote: "You don't want to get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie, a rebel."
Aided by the thriving scene of its time, Progression Through Unlearning did well for Victory, ultimately selling 72,000 copies, and not only pleased the fanbase Snapcase had built but brought them a flood of new fans as they hit the road to promote it on tours with bands like Deftones and Quicksand as well as many Warped Tour dates. As the band's profile grew, they also saw offers from bigger labels for future releases but brushed them off to stick with Victory, where they remained until their demise in 2005. (Though they have played sporadic reunion shows since then.)
Although it was successful and stylistically influential in certain circles, it would be hard to argue that Progression Through Unlearning drastically steered the direction of hardcore at large. By the end of 90s, the genre was splintering off into too many different subsections to adhere to a universal identity. While Earth Crisis continued to chug along, Cave In and Converge were injecting mathy riffs into their formulas, Level Plane Records' long list of screamo bands was dragging hardcore away from the meathead mentality, and Thursday was about to prove that celebrating emotional vulnerability had some commercial appeal. Even Snapcase themselves would shift their sound, gradually slowing down over their next three records. But in 1997, Progression Through Unlearning threw a sizeable stone into the expansive waters of hardcore music and watched the concentric ripples it made.
Snapcase's timeless influence spread in every direction. Hardcore legends Sick Of It All have praised the revolutionary nature of Progression Through Unlearning, while everyone from Refused to pop punk bands like New Found Glory have admitted to trying in vain to out-riff Snapcase's trademark squeal-shredding on songs like "Zombie Prescription." And, of course, their snare sound became much more prevalent, most notably with Deftones' Around the Fur, released later in 1997.
Twenty years later, Evetts says he still works with younger bands from all walks of music, in whom he sees the enduring influence of Snapcase. Sometimes it's subtle, but other times it's more direct. "Drummers will always come into the studio and start by playing the opening lick to 'Caboose,'" he says. "It's happened more times than I can remember."
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.