From Blacklisted to Cave In (and yeah, even AFI).
Pianos Become the Teeth. Photo by Chloe Muro, via Flickr.
Growth doesn’t always come easy for bands in a genre with the -core suffix. In a genre (and subgenres) where even slight stylistic switches are enough to earn accusations of selling out, making massive transitions often creates controversy. The new Pianos Become The Teeth record, Keep You, is an excellent case in point; enough so that it was the focus of Noisey contributor Jonah Bayer’s recent interview with the band. In shedding the more aggressive elements of their screamo-meets-post rock sound, they’ve managed to cleanly split their fanbase between those calling it their best record yet, and those who are definitely not on board.
There’s nothing wrong with grown adults playing hardcore (in fact, thank fuck Paint It Black and Converge are showing no signs of throwing in the towel), but sustaining that level of aggression for multiple decades just isn’t realistic nor honest for a lot of bands. While punk and hardcore acts that veer into mellower or more melodic territory frequently get written off for making a cash grab, the reality is such moves are more often made to satisfy their own creative vision rather than fill an empty checking account. It’s a massive creative risk, and one with results that have historically ranged from commercial failure to inadvertent success.
Here are 12 other bands that strayed from the path to chart their own ground, and the story of where they’ve ended up.
After releasing Heavier Than Heaven, Lonelier Than God in 2008, Blacklisted were one of the most widely respected bands in hardcore. By the time they released its follow-up, 2009’s No One Deserves To Be Here More Than Me, however, they turned into one of its most misunderstood. Frontman George Hirsch’s struggles with depression had taken a toll on his psyche, and he poured that sense of despair and discomfort into a record that was almost unnervingly personal, branching out from their fast and just slightly metallic attack with grunge and noise rock influences.
While it may have meant trading some degree of popularity, the risks the band took carried them in what was probably a more honest creative direction than rehashing what they’d already achieved. The end product wasn’t necessarily everyone’s thing, but it arguably has made Blacklisted infinitely more interesting than too many of their peers content to run the same breakdown into the ground forever.
While not everyone stateside may be familiar with Frank Turner’s earlier post-hardcore band Million Dead, those on the other side of the pond in the UK probably are. If you’re better acquainted with his solo folk-punk career, then hearing him shout socio-political rants over stripped-down At The Drive-In-esque riffage might come as a shock. It’s a change that’s still earning him accusations of selling out nearly ten years later, but even as a bleeding heart folk singer, he’s still probably more punk than his critics anyway. Not to mention, he still lets his hardcore alter ego out in his side project, Möngöl Hörde.
Crime In Stereo
When Crime In Stereoannounced their third LP, ...Is Dead, few could have predicted they were planning on infusing their Kid Dynamite-influenced melodic hardcore with a not-at-all subtle influence from Brand New. Fewer still would have predicted they’d pull it off. The record, which was a substantial stylistic departure not only for themselves but also Bridge 9 Records, brought the band to a wider audience, but not without confusing hardcore kids expecting a more straightforward sound.
Its follow-up however, I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone, went even deeper into experimental territory, causing no shortage of message board debate amongst Very Important People while generally earning positive press. If the band gave a shit though, it didn’t show, and If the reaction to the news of the band reuniting in 2012 is anything to go by, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt their legacy in the long run either. Regardless of which era of the band’s sound you prefer, we can all agree on the undeniable tightness of jams like “I, Stateside.”
Self Defense Family
When they started under the name End Of A Year, they were once a solid yet underrated melodic hardcore band with a strong mid-80s Revolution Summer influence. Since changing their name to Self Defense Family, however, they’ve existed as a case study in doing exactly what they want to do while giving zero fucks for what anyone else thinks, impossible to narrowly define within any sort of conventional genre boundaries. Recording an EP in Jamaica? Sure. Writing an entire concept record about the darkly tragic life of an obscure porn star? Why the hell not.
By abandoning any attempt to appease audience expectations, Self Defense Family have afforded themselves a level of creative freedom few bands ever allow themselves to explore. As a result, they’ve earned themselves a level of notoriety and a sense of danger (two things few bands today can claim much of either of) they might not have had they stuck to their more traditional roots. This is a band unconcerned with anything other than their own creative will, and we’re all better off because of it.
Back in the early to mid-2000s, it seemed as if every dude was wearing girl’s jeans and every other band wanted to be Thrice. While their copycats rode that trend straight into the bargain bins of Hot Topic stores all across America, these guys gave up their breakdowns and metal-influenced riffing for ambiance and acoustic guitars.
That led to the band producing the critically acclaimed The Alchemy Index Vols. I-IV, an ambitious project released in two double-disc sets in 2007 and 2008. Along with its follow-ups, 2009’s Beggars and 2011’s Major/Minor, ditching the clichés they unintentionally helped create earned them more respect and longevity than any of the faceless clones they inadvertently inspired, even if it meant losing a portion of their fanbase along the way.
It took a lot of balls for Hostage Calm to switch gears from straight-forward melodic hardcore to blending Morrissey with Dag Nasty and 50s pop sensibilities on their second self-titled LP. It paid off though, and resulted in the band carving out an identity of their own, sounding like exactly no one else while exploding their popularity. Their recent implosion, however, is not only a goddamn shame, but it has also decimated the odds of the greaser aesthetic ever making a serious return to the punk scene.
If you were born after 1995, you might not realize AFI used to be a legit melodic hardcore/punk band. They always had a vaguely goth aesthetic though, a direction they followed more strongly sonically as well as visually on 2003’s Sing The Sorrow before drifting even farther toward a more commercial sound completely unrecognizable from their roots. Despite making such an enormous swing from playing basements to stadiums, they suffered surprisingly little backlash (relatively, at least), something literally no other band could ever get away with as successfully.
Has anyone other than Fucked Up ever managed to get indie rock nerds to listen to 80s hardcore while earning total respect from both scenes? Unironically, no less? No, and they probably shouldn’t try, either.
Unlike most of the bands on this list, Envy had the benefit of being relatively little known prior to releasing their post rock-influenced screamo masterpiece A Dead Sinking Story. Before transforming into the transcendent behemoth they are now, the band got their start playing thrashy Born Against-style hardcore, slowly drifting toward increasingly more layered and melodic territory. Today, they’re now probably the only band on Earth that can comfortably share stages with both Touché Amoreé and Mogwai.
Over the span of their career, Cave In have gone from the Converge-meets-Slayer brutality of their 1998 debut full-length Until Your Heart Stops (the first 10 seconds of which is still one of the sickest metalcore riffs ever written) before going in a completely different direction with 2000’s more melodic Jupiter. The record caught the attention of RCA, and while the band’s 2003 major label debut Antenna was probably intended to launch them into similar territory as bands like Jimmy Eat World, they proved to be just challenging enough to not catch on with mainstream listeners to the level RCA would have liked. When the band submitted demos for its follow-up, 2006’s Perfect Pitch Black, the label refused to release a record that was actually heavier and less accessible than their previous effort. The album ended up coming out on their previous home at Hydra Head, and the band went on hiatus not long thereafter.
Even if the major label execs that dropped them only helped show why the corporate music industry is full of fucking idiots blowing their own goddamn feet off, Cave In have remained a band that smarter people hold dear to their hearts. Their 2011 return White Silence charted at #17 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart, and they’ve been dropping some not-very-subtle hints on social media that they might have something new in the works soon. Whatever they’ve got brewing, the potential for some awesome shit happening is enormous.
Refused was, and remains, the definition of a band ahead of their time. It sounds weird to say so now, but when the Swedish four-piece put out The Shape of Punk to Come in 1998, no one gave a shit. Hardcore kids into their heavier mid-90s hardcore sound didn’t know what the hell to make of its synths and samples, and the rest of the punk underground hadn’t caught up with what they were doing yet, either.
They probably never would have guessed that years later, they’d command excessively inflated ticket prices to play enormous festivals alongside bands that would cite the record as one of their most important influences. The moral of the story? Do what you fucking want and make people catch up to you, instead of the other way around. Even if it initially sabotages your career, it’s probably your best shot at long-term success.
The pattern of hardcore kids moving outside the genre’s confines and experimenting with melody and rhythmic complexity is as old as hardcore itself. This is also exactly why it’s sometimes a surprise that anyone is ever actually surprised when -core bands hit their mid-twenties and decide they don’t want to just play power chords and breakdowns anymore.
Not content to change the entire face of punk rock once with Minor Threat, Ian MacKaye joined ex-members of some band called Rites of Spring to form a moderately influential outfit called Fugazi (maybe you’ve heard of them, I don’t know), literally and logically giving rise to post-hardcore. If message boards and Twitter were a thing in the mid-80s, would anyone have told them they were fucking up? That’s not even to mention Mackaye’s current two-person folkish indie-punk project, in which he plays with his partner, Amy Farina, The Evens, who have released kid-friendly videos about learning the vowels. If that isn’t the definition of hardcore growing up, what is?
Ben Sailer is on Twitter - @bensailer