AVAIL's 'Over the James' Taught a New Generation of Bands How to Exist
Twenty years ago, the Richmond band released the gold standard of melodic hardcore that would often be imitated but never topped.
The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
In the trailer for an ill-fated documentary about the hardcore band AVAIL, the subjects interviewed all rally around one phrase: “AVAIL taught us how to be a band.” It’s a common rejoinder, with members of Hot Water Music and Smoke or Fire saying it outright. And seconds later, it’s attributed—albeit secondhand—to Strike Anywhere and Boysetsfire, too. While plenty of bands have inspired kids to pick up instruments, AVAIL taught bands how to live a life in constant motion, and how to do so ethically. In many ways, AVAIL did for a modern generation what Black Flag did in the 80s. Even if AVAIL never made their own version of Get in the Van, they left it behind across their body of work. And though a case could be made for any of their albums as encapsulating their ethos, no record shines as bright as Over the James.
Formed in 1988, the original AVAIL lineup bore no resemblance to the revered band people would come to know. At the time, Tim Barry was playing drums, but would soon move to the front of the stage, pick up the microphone, and become the band’s mouthpiece. Guitarist Joe Banks would be alongside him, as well as Beau Beau, AVAIL’s cheerleader (and roadie and tour manager) who would jump around, sing along, and rile the crowd up at live shows. Erik Larson would serve as the band’s backbone, turning hardcore drumming from a seemingly anonymous task into a noteworthy occupation while bassists cycled in and out of the band.
Based in Richmond, Virginia, AVAIL lacked the opportunities many of their big-city peers had. Though Richmond would go on to build a vibrant scene of its own, in those early days, AVAIL stood out from the pack, and by the time they released their debut album Satiate in 1992, it was clear the young band was cribbing from an entirely different set of notes. Where most hardcore bands stuck to the genre’s progenitors, the Black Flags and Bad Brains of the world, AVAIL was unabashed in their embrace of Southern rock. Banks’ riffs, even in their earliest forms, showed his ability to write riotous hardcore songs that retained a subtle, evocative warmth. Where plenty of punk guitarists attempted to recreate Greg Ginn’s slapdash soloing, Banks played like a revved up John Fogerty or Dickey Betts, allowing even his most pounding riffs some room to breathe.
Barry’s voice was just as expressive. When he screamed, there was a boisterous intensity to his delivery, but his Southern drawl still poked through. It allowed him to not sound oppositional, but communal. Instead of shouting at you, he was inviting you to sing along with him. And the fact that Beau, their once-homeless roadie-turned-band-member, was onstage doing exactly that, it was easy to get swept up in AVAIL’s cathartic rampage.
The band started criss-crossing the United States as soon as Satiate was released, arriving in the California Bay Area with a mission. As Lookout! Records founder Larry Livermore tells it in his book How to Ruin a Record Label, AVAIL showed up uninvited to the Lookout! office, forced him to find the band’s demo in a pile of mail submissions, put it on while they hung around, then told him to sign them. It’s the kind of legend that, while a bit outsized, is believable if only because AVAIL is the kind of band that commanded a room without trying to. There’s a no-nonsense air about them, the kind that can make someone think they are being strong-armed into a record deal, even if that wasn’t the intent. But luckily for AVAIL, Lookout! did end up offering them a contract. And luckily for Lookout!, the three-album run that followed is still one of the best in all of 90s hardcore.
Both 1994’s Dixie and 1996’s 4AM Friday showed AVAIL coming into their own, mapping the transition from the unkempt looseness of Satiate into an increasingly powerful—and decidedly more melodic—hardcore band. They toured hard in support of those albums, picking up devotees wherever they went, and setting the stage for their most impactful statement, Over The James.
From the very start, Over the James showed AVAIL at the peak of their power. Opening track “Deepwood” not only displayed a more polished version of the band, it succinctly melded the band’s disparate influences. While most guitarists in hardcore were caught in an arms race to see who could get the heaviest, crunchiest tone, Banks’ guitar cut through with a clean shimmer. When the band kicked into the song’s second verse, they coated it with a healthy smattering of tambourine. While that could have sounded like AVAIL going soft, the song’s infectious chorus and short, punchy breakdown showed AVAIL had found a way to make hardcore feel like roots music.
Many of the best songs on Over the James darted between these poles, and the record’s intent never felt muddied. Opening with a country rumble, “August” showed Banks’ ability to incorporate his twangier lead playing without it reading as mere homage. Instead, it allowed for the song to jettison into a mosh-ready verse, effectively hiding AVAIL’s left hook behind a warm handshake. It’s those creative leaps that made Over the James stand out from the pack. And in true AVAIL fashion, the album never, for a single second, let you forget where the band was from. Even as “Nickel Bridge” started with the sound of a Zippo lighting up a cigarette, you could close your eyes and imagine the late nights smoking on a porch in Richmond. That’s how ingrained AVAIL’s identity was in their music—they could make the simple flick of a lighter sound like home.
By 1998, hardcore had splintered into many different sub-genres, and though AVAIL had never fully aligned with any one of them, Over the James showed them laying the framework for a new scene to follow. Though melodic hardcore had long been a term, and records that slotted into its nebulous orbit had existed since the mid-80s, few nailed the mixture as well as Over the James.
A year later, the influence of Over the James would already show itself on Hot Water Music’s No Division. While the Gainesville, Florida, band had clearly worshipped AVAIL in their early days—“Floor” could easily be a Dixie B-side—Hot Water Music’s songs would grow increasingly complex and knotty in the years that followed. Overlapping guitar-lines and dual vocals became their hallmark, while the band’s rhythm section flexed the muscles they’d built playing in their high school’s jazz bands. But on No Division, the band cut the obtuse constructions and focused on sing-along choruses. The fact that they invited Barry to sing on the record, and had both Larson and his soon-to-be replacement Ed Trask add additional percussion to the record, made No Division a celebration of that scene, as well as a coming-of-age moment where Hot Water Music’s direct influence passed the torch to them.
Similarly, it wouldn’t be long for other Richmond bands to take up AVAIL’s banner. Though Inquisition had been active as early 1992, the band’s early material was messy and unfocused. 1996’s Revolution, I Think It’s Called Inspiration would clearly pull a move or two from the AVAIL playbook, but it wasn’t until Inquisition vocalist Thomas Barnett formed Strike Anywhere that AVAIL’s influence would be most notable. While Strike Anywhere never delved into their Southern roots like AVAIL did, it was clearly the next step in the evolution of melodic hardcore. Songs were cleaner and slicker, with Barnett using his raspy voice as a means to scream about the political upheaval swirling around Richmond—a cue clearly taken from Barry.
It continued to shine through in bands like Smoke or Fire and Ann Beretta, two Richmond bands that would take the band’s burlier moments and soften them for pop punk audiences. They may have lacked the hardcore foundation of AVAIL, but it was clear how a band could incorporate the feel of Richmond into their music and still find national attention. Along with Strike Anywhere’s 2001 album Change Is a Sound, these bands would find a way to take AVAIL’s spirit and make it a part of an increasingly pop-focused punk scene. And while that would have been a dodgy proposition a decade prior, Over the James served as guidebook for anyone attempting to marry the two pursuits.
The logical endpoint of AVAIL’s marriage of hardcore’s force and pop music’s uplifting choruses would manifest itself in bands like Rise Against, who were an even cleaner version of Strike Anywhere, but still had a bit of AVAIL baked in. Though there would be no Southern perspective undercutting it, it was impossible to deny the link that AVAIL laid down half a decade before Rise Against’s breakout album, 2003’s Revolutions Per Minute. That record rippled through the underground, landing the band a major label deal in the process. And by the time “Give It All” hit the radio in 2004, no longer was it gauche for hardcore bands to inject healthy doses of melody into their sound, and it paid off with the mainstream embracing it en masse.
But by then, AVAIL would be slowing down, never able to capitalize on a scene that would have been more receptive to their unique offerings. After Over the James, they’d release two albums on Fat Wreck Chords, and while both were solid, neither packed the wallop of Over the James. AVAIL would tour for another few years, but no new music surfaced, and after a period of inactivity, the band officially went on hiatus in 2008. Since then, Barry has been vocal that AVAIL will never reunite, but even now, it’s hard not to see a bit of AVAIL lingering in the ether.
For 20 years, AVAIL were the leaders of the pack, so much so that no band has been able to adequately replicate what they did during their time together. Plenty of bands have wrapped hardcore songs in melody, but few have done it with the genuine passion that underlined every part of AVAIL’s existence, from their sweaty, communal live shows, to their Southern rock-inspired compositions, all the way down to their blue-collar aesthetic.
Perhaps what best encapsulates AVAIL was their iconic t-shirt design that simply read “Poor. Ugly. Happy.” Though AVAIL may not have sold as many albums as the bands they inspired, and they certainly weren’t stylish enough to grace the cover of any major magazine, they did release a record as flawless as Over the James—and that’s something to be happy about.
David Anthony is on Twitter.