Your guide to obscure hardcore tracks from Nebraska and beyond.
In the annals of American hardcore during the 1980s, for every scorching Dischord, SST, or Touch & Go platter, there was a multitude of weird, self-released, esoteric records made by bands that marched to their own unique (off) beat. This list focuses on releases that, apart from record collectors, are a bit more obscure to the general hardcore connoisseur. The outsider term refers to the fact that a lot of these groups played music that was far removed from the margins of what was considered "popular" in hardcore circles back then. For the most part, they released their own records, sometimes with individualized layouts in ridiculously low pressings. Being against the grain within a subculture that's already singling itself off from the norm is a Herculean task that brings scant recognition from your peers, not to mention society at large.
It's the nature of these types of lists that a good of number of worthy candidates will be left out, there's no particular rhyme or reason for my picks. I just chose some old favorites that still resonate with me. I welcome others to come up with their own lists, anything to help spotlight some long forgotten diamonds in the rough lest they languish in obscurity.
Spike In Vain - Disease Is Relative LP (1984)
In the early 90s, I was part of record store collective and we happened to order by chance some overstock from the great Scat records catalog. We picked up mint copies of this LP for pennies. Turns out, Scat head honcho Robert Griffin played on this masterpiece that exemplifies the outsider tag in a nutshell. Incorporating post-punk and experimental elements into a seemingly free form ambiance that reflects the band members' choice of switching instruments for every other song. You can hear traces of Killing Joke, Chrome, early Voivod, and other nonconformist pioneers. The decaying factory landscape of their hometown of Cleveland probably played a role in shaping their sound as well. Apart from this LP, they contributed two tracks to the seminal Cleveland No Hope compilation from 1984 as well as their side project named Outerwear, a slow rumbling Flipper-influenced barrage. There was talk several years ago of a three-CD or LP box set reissue on Scat of this LP plus two unreleased full lengths but nothing ever came to fruition. If you're reading this, Mr. Griffin, please make it happen and throw in the Outerwear demo for good measure!
Power Of The Spoken Word - The Language Of A Dying Breed LP (1984)
Hailing from the hinterlands of Lincoln, Nebraska, this is one wonderfully strange LP that at first glance seems like some kind of art school avant garde project gone wrong. Repeated listening tips you off to the fact that this bunch were on their own (strange) trip all together. My old friend Erich Keller (from the great Good/Bad Music blog) once described this LP as Pagan Hardcore and that is an apt metaphor. The alchemical and at times surreal sounds makes you think that hardcore kids out in the nation's heartland in the 80s had tons of downtime to sit around, do lots of drugs, and create twisted sounds that referenced highbrow subjects such as opera/mythology/sorcery all the while staying within the perimeters of hardcore/punk, albeit one that's definitely unconventional in style and substance.
There's also a heavy 60s psychedelic vibe to it all, not in the music per se, more on the overall feel that listening to this can somehow expand your consciousness and take you to different planes of reality. Trippy stuff, especially coming from such a minimalist-minded movement as hardcore. I read somewhere that both the singer and guitarist sadly passed away a few years ago. Here's a tribute to them and the unconventional creative genius that provided the impetus for this esoteric masterpiece.
Chemotherapy - seven-inch (1983)
Back in my record collecting days, my fellow crate-digging enthusiast Charles Maggio had a penchant for weird, off-the-beaten path hardcore records that no one else cared for so. This quirk came to be known as a "Charles Record" whenever we came across anything that fit this description.
Chemotherapy's seven-inch from Indianapolis in 1983 (only 300 copies made) is the quintessential Charles Record: sloppy, out of tune songs that reach Shaggs-like level of incompetent brilliance. Lack of proficiency in playing instruments would be a deterrent in just about any musical genre but it is exactly this "weakness" that elevates the seven-inch to Dadaist improvisational levels, something I'm pretty sure Chemotherapy wasn't consciously aware of at the time.
They were merely content with putting their stamp on this new underground sound, with little or no musical skills notwithstanding. I couldn't find their classic outsider seven-inch anywhere up on YouTube so you'll have to settle for this live clip in all their ragged glory, recorded at the high school they attended in 1983.
Psycho Sin - You Axed For It EP (1987)
I saw these guys in 1986 and they were extremely annoying to the point of being unlistenable with most of the crowd walking out on them by the second song (myself included). I think the problem for me was that I wanted Cro-Mags style beats and instead got a full on assault of industrial level noise. It's taken me decades to appreciate their aesthetic construct as a reflection of being (back then) the final result of pushing hardcore to its logical end: atonal noise for noise's sake. That mindset challenged the dominant NY/NJ scene's reliance on mosh parts, meaty riffs, and catchy sing-alongs. They eschewed the traditional verse/chorus/verse, dropping any sense of structure, going for an all out campaign of musical destruction. I have to give a belated thanks to them for taking me out of my comfort zone and showing that there a myriad ways of expressing yourself in the, at times, limiting confines of this music we call hardcore. I was looking for their seminal Forward To The Caves LP to highlight but this seven-inch from 1987 showcases their sound to a T: brutal nonstop blistering and ugly noisecore not meant for easy listening. They put out tons of releases and amazingly enough, they still continue in the same fashion to this day. Check out this website for a full dose of Psychotic Sin.
Sewer Zombies - Reach Out And... LP (1985)
How the hell do you explain this incomprehensible sounding mess to someone just getting into hardcore and wants some catchy ditties à la the Minor Threat/Black Flag singles he or she's heard? The sloppy, out of tune, and incoherent at times playing reinforces the idiot savant angle as it applies to outsider hardcore. Some online reviewers would classify these ultra fast speeds as going for a proto-grindcore vibe in '85 and they couldn't be further from the truth, they were just following their unique out of left field path.
Rumor has it that a middle-aged Canadian was the mastermind of the band, hiring local punk/hardcore musicians to do his bidding, blissfully unaware of current (at the time) hardcore trends. Their second LP, from 1987, entitled Conquer The Galaxy, goes for a lo-fi KrautRock meets hardcore with synthesizers vibe that defies easy categorization. Thank the heavens for these life-affirming sounds, conjured up yesteryear in that tropical hell known as Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Cyanamid - Stop The World I Want To Get Off EP (1984)
Probably the strangest release from the legendary Mutha Records' catalog. Hailing from New Jersey and fittingly named after a chemical company from the Garden State. The five short blasts that occupy side A are spazztic blurs full of energy and chaos that can be labeled as early stabs at grindcore which of course, in those days, was a yet-to-be created subgenre. The B side is a different beast, a six-minute dirge that's an exercise in patience as the short attention span that fast hardcore songs predisposes you to is turned upside its head.
I would venture that Flipper's slow-is-the-new core agenda was a big influence on this song coupled with the funny yet despairing vocals that appear to be wholly improvised at times. I would see multiple copies of this record for sale at fairs and nobody cared, opting instead to look for the most obscure KBD/Japanese hardcore and what have you. Interest in this has grown throughout the years, probably a good time for some enterprising collector buff to make an "Outsider Hardcore" series, in which this distorted (in a good way) record would have to be included.
Horror Planet - Cowpies From Outer Space EP (1985)
This seven-inch from Long Island circa 1985 is a totally below the radar record that flies against the standard convention of bands from the NYHC scene at that time. Their varied influences ranging from The Birthday Party/The Fall to funk/rap and Crass-type bands made them a bit, shall we say, different than their peers. The gravelly vocals à la Personality Crisis or Drunk Injuns combined with a sarcastic garage punk sound plus the costumes/props used during their performances surely pissed off some of the "more hardcore than you" crowd.
This release came in individually hand painted covers gathered from old sheets, slipcovers, mattress covers, burlap bags, and random fabric. Arguments among band members over painting these covers led to them breaking up, according to backup singer Weaselworm Crumboy. Guitarist Glen Cummins went on to Ludichrist/Scatterbrain, Singer "Party" Paul later did a band called GOD, more on the Big Black/Killdozer tip and Weaselworm can be found playing in NYC bars these days w/the Pepper Kings.
You can still purchase the original objects that led to their demise.
Screaming Mailboxes of Destiny (SMD) - 12-inch (1985)
This Pittsburgh outfit released a one sided twelve-inch with silk-screened covers, only 300 copies made in '85. The name is taken from the endless single pole mailboxes that line every street of suburbia as well as being an obscure Frank Zappa reference. I don't think the notion of someday becoming a cult collector item was going through their minds at the time. The songs sound fairly average and monotonous on first listen. Later on, you get the whiff that that's the whole point of the project. Simple, amateurish garage punk that has a logic all of its own or as the motto listed on the record sleeve states: "The purpose of punk rock is not good music." If you listen long enough, the brilliance of these sonic haikus starts to sink in.
I met SMD's singer Jim Hayes in the 90s and by that point he had moved on to whatever post-hardcore scene was going on at the time but he had fond memories of pissing off the local Pittsburgh hardcore scene police by refusing to play what was in vogue back then. He went on to do more experimental and noise oriented bands, like a lot of people on this list.
Deathrage - Split 7" (Recorded in '84, released in '93)
A side project of New Jersey hardcore heroes Adrenalin OD and Bedlam, Deathrage was a culmination of finding new ways to annoy the at times passive hardcore crowds. They succeeded at this in live performances that, as guitarist and sometimes drummer/singer Bruce Wingate put it: "Our shows were drunken debacles and exercises in endurance, often featuring things like 20-minute versions of 'Doe, a Deer' until the sound man would kill the microphones!" An obvious reference point being the band Flipper and their avowed desire to mess with hardcore audiences heads as much as possible.
Only demos exist of these atavistic tunes but a live on WFMU radio rendition of their regional "hit" named "Murdering the Brady Bunch" was released in 1993 on a split ep with The Burnt on Headache records.
Boom & The Legion Of Doom - Hate To Love, Love To Hate EP (1986)
This peculiarly named outfit was made up of kids that grew up in the more redneck parts of Michigan. Drawn to Detroit's urban blight, they incorporated their love for horror movies and wrestling into their sped up Germs-influenced sound. As befitting their cultural heritage, dead animal parts, gathered from wild game hunting, was randomly thrown at unsuspecting audiences. Boom says: "We had a cooler in the van for our beer and we'd put our roadkill in there. The smellier, grosser stuff was the stuff that got thrown out. We had classic pig heads, you'd put a cigarette in its mouth and throw it out."
Not exactly the type of antics that would endear themselves to anyone. They also refused to use their real names or what they called their "slave names," going by alter-egos like Smelly Mustafa, Tony Fish, Pork Butt, and the aforementioned Boom. Their fast-at-any-speed sound was a huge influence on the 90s' power violence movement, with their inclusion on the seminal document of that subgenre: The Bllleeeaaauuurgh compilation from 1991.
Blood, animal parts, drugs, violence, and audience apathy were all par the course for this demented bunch that went against the grain within a supposedly nonconformist subculture.
People that have been following these types of bands for years will probably say what about Born Without A Face, United Mutation, Suburban Death Trip, Blood Farmers, Appliances SFB, Stiff Legged Sheep, E13, Like A Horse, Premature Babies, No Trend etc… No, I didn't forget about any of them. That's the great thing about American hardcore in the 80s: It's the equivalent of garage rock in the 60s as far as the sheer volume of bands that were produced so these are just the tip of the iceberg, there's a whole world of underrated oddball hardcore out there.
Freddy Alva is a NYC by-way-of-Peru native and a diehard fan of the willfully obscure. Follow him on Twitter.