In our last installment of the 90 Minute Guide, I put together a 90-minute collection of some of the Elephant 6 collective’s best offerings. But on the eve of the release of a new Shellac album, the first in seven years, my focus has turned to a much louder muse: post-hardcore. As with any genre, what counts as post-hardcore is subject to much debate. There’s even quite a lengthy ongoing dispute at Wikipedia over just what the genre encompasses.
Post-hardcore stems from the era after hardcore’s heyday (notably, the ’80s), and most bands within the genre got their start in hardcore. But instead of sticking to its rigid constraints, these artists expanded beyond power chords and gang vocals, incorporating more creative outlets for punk rock energy. Some made political statements, some made jokes, and others even had hit singles. The net is cast pretty wide, but where it stands today is where the most confusion and disappointment lies. My Chemical Romance, Thrice and Alexisonfire may be considered post-hardcore by some, but, well, they suck.
In this guide, I chose to focus on the most innovative and consistently good bands under the post-hardcore umbrella. Going in a sort of zig-zagging chronological order, here are the true post hardcore essentials.
Side One: Spectra-Sonic Sound
I find no better place to introduce post-hardcore than with a track by one of the most menacing bands Chicago ever produced. Big Black were forerunners of post-hardcore, integrating industrial, drum-machine rhythms into abrasive, punk textures. Frontman Steve Albini is synonymous, not just with the genre, but with D.I.Y. culture in general. And dude’s name is on just about every record you own. Big Black’s interplay of jagged, tinny, treble-pushing guitars and metallic, sledgehammer bass with heavy, robotic rhythms made a noise that went something like Ministry jamming with Minor Threat. But more disturbing.
“For Want Of” – Rites of Spring
from Rites of Spring (1985, Dischord)
Rites of Spring, in addition to being one of the pioneers of post-hardcore, are also credited with being one of the first emo bands. A dubious distinction, perhaps, but Rites of Spring ripped, regardless. Their raw, melodic punk rock was certainly emotional, and introspective at that. Check Guy Picciotto’s choral scream: “I woke up with a piece of glass caught in my throat/ and then I choked.” It’s tortured, but raw, by no means resembling the sort of dreck that “emo” has turned into today. In fact, it’s a lot closer to hardcore than anything. A few years thereafter, Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty would then form Fugazi with Ian MacKaye and Joe Lally. History was made.
“Spectra-sonic Sound” – The Nation of Ulysses
from The 13-Point Plan to Destroy America (1991, Dischord)
On the Southern Records website, if you look up Dischord Records, each band is listed with its respective genre for reference. Most are dubbed “punk,” but The Nation of Ulysses is classified as `spectra-sonic sound.’ More than merely a band, NoU had their own mythology, culture and philosophy. Conceived as sort of a radical group, the liner notes to The 13-Point Plan to Destroy America paints a portrait of an organization somewhere between the SLA and the Black Panthers, complete with a list of terrorist acts committed by the band members. Several bands have borrowed from the Nation’s approach, but few have been able to capture the intensity and power in songs like “Spectra-sonic Sound.”
“Make Room” – Helmet
from Strap It On (1990, Amphetamine Reptile)
One of the few acts of the post-hardcore golden age that was occasionally classified as `metal,’ Helmet were a brutal, unforgiving jackhammer of a band. Known for being a perfectionist, Page Hamilton led the New York group, who lived and died and were subsequently reborn by drop-D tuning. Debut Strap It On was their most raw, noisy record, yet had its share of melodic standouts, like “Make Room,” a catchy, swinging pendulum of a song, building a simple hook out of their mercilessly heavy riffs. Their true masterpiece wouldn’t come until two years later on Meantime, but this was one hell of an introduction.
Like Fugazi’s misanthropic, drunken cousins, The Jesus Lizard were some of the most harsh and disorderly musicians of the bunch. Or so it would seem by frontman David Yow’s Maker’s Mark fueled howls and genital-baring antics. Truthfully, they were a remarkably tight, if extremely noisy band, which made for an uneasy listen, but a memorable one. Descendents of Big Black, The Jesus Lizard injected enough melody in their distorted throwdowns to crank out several great singles, such as “Mouth Breather,” a concise, heavy track with serpentine riffs and Yow’s million dollar lyrics, “he’s a nice guy, I like him just fine…but he’s a mouth breather.“
I remember reading an old issue of Guitar magazine, in which a reviewer referred to Jawbox’s Zachary Barochas and Kim Coletta as the best rhythm section in rock music. That’s a hell of an endorsement, particularly coming from a publication that isn’t even concerned much with bassists or drummers. By most accounts, Jawbox’s finest hour was For Your Own Special Sweetheart, a crowning achievement in a struggle between abrasiveness and melody. However, the group’s final, self-titled album, was just as ass-kicking, as well as accessible, without any compromise of their complex, rhythmic dynamic or J. Robbins’ thought-provoking lyrics. This track finds every aspect of their sonic maelstrom coming together powerfully, Barochas’ eight-armed drum beats hammering relentlessly beneath Robbins and Bill Barbot’s alternately jarring and immaculate guitar interplay, while Coletta’s bass pounds out the solid, low-end hook. As Robbins sings “I think the shaking style,” Jawbox’s mighty thunder does a hell of a job shaking the listener. And as the song comes to a close, the guitars and bass cut out, leaving only drums and vocals, Robbins changing his choral refrain to “I think the shaking stopped…the shaking stopped.” Incredible.
“Washington, Washington” – Trenchmouth
from Trenchmouth vs. the Light of the Sun (1994, Eastwest)
There were quite a few bands who emerged from the D.C. and Chicago scenes who could have been classified as ‘weird,’ but Trenchmouth was certainly one of the oddest by far. Playing very little in the way of power chords or songs with straight-up punk chord progressions, Trenchmouth were a complex and jazz-influenced band, injecting their rubbery, time signature-shifting rock with elements of dub, no wave and funk. “Washington, Washington,” which opened their album Trenchmouth vs. The Light of the Sun, at least keeps a 4/4 rhythm throughout its two minute course. Trenchmouth is also notable for being the only post-hardcore band to have in its ranks a cast member of Saturday Night Live—Fred Armisen.
Shudder to Think got their start on Dischord, just like Fugazi and Jawbox, but ended up signing with Epic and eventually pursuing more melodic and accessible ventures. Their major label debut, Pony Express Record, was aided by slick production, yet their sound remained abrasive, resisting simple structures and verse-chorus-verse progressions. This was the album’s biggest single, even with its own video, but still atypical of major label alt-rock fare. Meditative and repetitive, the song’s refrain was built on one chord, yet the first verses of the song retain the abrasiveness of their early work. Strangely catchy, but by no means an artistic compromise.
“The Admiral” – Shellac
from At Action Park (1994, Touch & Go)
Once Big Black (and Rapeman) were done, Steve Albini formed Shellac with Todd Trainer and Bob Weston, carving a sound similar to that of Big Black’s, but more sophisticated and open. Albini’s lyrics remained dark, but humorous, frequently referencing baseball or Canada. Not quite as immediately pummeling as Albini’s former bands, Shellac was a dynamic and tight group, making more noise as a trio than most five-piece bands are capable of. A friend of mine once noted that they were “louder than God,” which isn’t too far off the mark. “The Admiral,” a simple highlight from debut At Action Park shows off the band’s dynamic well, awash in Albini’s dry, trebly engineering and thoroughly brutal rhythm section.
I actually remember hearing Quicksand on the radio in the early ’90s, which is not something I could say for most of their peers. Many stations picked up on their thrashy cover of “How Soon is Now?”, yet their originals contained a greater range of dissonance and melody. The real single off of Slip was “Dine Alone,” which also received some airplay, but leadoff track “Fazer” was always a favorite of mine. A long distance traveled from frontman Walter Schreifels’ former band, Gorilla Biscuits, this track actually sounds much heavier, Alan Cage’s drums giving a brief thwack before the low-tuned riffs churn their way through the intro. Quicksand, much like Helmet, were also accepted as an `alternative metal’ act, precisely because of their heaviness. But songwriting wise, Quicksand leaned more toward pop, and on second album Manic Compression, a slight bit more of their hardcore roots.
Fugazi weren’t the first, but they were definitely the most influential. Their staunchly anti-corporate ethic earned them a reputation that became even larger than their music to some. Because of their low-dollar CD and show policy, gaining access to their music was more important than financial gain, though their following eventually swelled to the hundreds of thousands. They never officially broke up, but haven’t toured or recorded since 2001’s The Argument for a number of reasons, including the safety of their fans—Ian MacKaye expressed in a recent interview that he didn’t want anyone to leave their shows with permanent injuries from mosh pits, which apparently has happened. In any case, their music lives on in recorded form, some of the most incredible coming from 1995’s Red Medicine. “Bed For The Scraping” reveals some of the band’s hardcore roots, particularly in MacKaye’s shouting of “I don’t wanna be defeated.” Yet the song pairs that hardcore intensity with angular riffs and Joe Lally’s heavily grooving bassline. I could listen to this for days.
“The Pod” – Hum
from You’d Prefer An Astronaut (1995, RCA)
Hum should be familiar to most for their hit single “Stars,” which was exemplary of the grungy mid-’90s quiet/loud/quiet/loud radio single thing. But it was really good. Even better was their dense, Marshall stack monster, “The Pod,” which was released as a follow-up single. Not nearly as successful, maybe because its harsh nature lacked the romantic tendencies of its predecessor. In any case, the band still made a video for it and performed it on 120 Minutes, which isn’t to say that they didn’t give it the old college try. The song sounds almost like a cross between Helmet and My Bloody Valentine, which may explain its apparent lack of commercial viability, but I still find it catchy, and awesome driving music at that.
“Raindrop” – Girls Against Boys
from Cruise Yourself (1994, Touch & Go)
I know, at most, three people other than myself who like Girls Against Boys. In fact, I know a few people who outright said “they suck.” I don’t understand what makes them so awful, but then again I don’t understand why people hate Deerhunter either. The D.C. bred and NY based GvsB were a band who focused strongly on rhythm—their two bass attack should make that pretty obvious. And ultimately, the group would become more concerned with electronics and dance music. For a while, though, they played it loud and fuzzy, their crowning trio of records being Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, Cruise Yourself and House of GvsB. The second featured the memorable single “Kill the Sexplayer” and this gem, easily one of its most straightforward.
“You Must Be Stopped” – Chavez
from Ride the Fader (1996, Matador)
The only way to make your sound heavier than it is with drop-D tuning is to turn that E string down even further. In the case of the closer on Chavez’s second album Ride the Fader, the band opts for the key of B, the open string and harmonic riffs buzzing like the string’s about to snap. For a song with such a burly punch, vocalist Matt Sweeney had an alarmingly sweet and boyish voice, singing in a high register “all I wanna do is open my barrage.” The song’s outro is even more furious and frantic, with James Lo pounding away without remorse. The band reunited last year, though I have yet to see them perform. Rats.
Side Two: Darlings of New Midnight
“Speed of Light” – Poster Children
from RTFM (1997, Reprise)
Champaign, Illinois has always been a fertile Petri dish of indie rock activity, particularly in the ’90s, when groups like Braid, Hum, Sarge and The Poster Children emerged. The Poster Children are the longest running of the bunch, having released more records than just about anyone else included on this compilation. They were also one of the most pop-oriented, sharing just as much in common with bands like Superchunk as they did with Fugazi. Their catchy, seemingly radio-friendly appeal earned them (like many of their peers) a major label deal. Unfortunately, that deal never resulted in a commercial breakthrough. With songs like the anthemic, punchy “Speed of Light,” though, it’s hard not to become sucked in by their buoyant charm. And though they may not be as active as they once were, the group never broke up, making them yet another anomaly from the post-hardcore era.
“Proxima Centauri” – At the Drive-In
from Vaya EP (1999, Fearless)
Yes, there were even post-hardcore acts in Texas…well, at least one, that being El Paso’s At the Drive-In. Their melodic riffage paired with the rabid screams of Cedric Bixler-Zavala made for a formidable combination, one that has been stolen countless times and butchered, to the point that one feels as much compulsion to blame the band as to thank them. Their own work was a thing of vicious beauty, however, this track off of Vaya showing just how far an artist can push the envelope while remaining at least partially radio-friendly. They broke up in 2001, splintered into The Mars Volta and Sparta, and I never thought I could miss them so much.
“Human Interest” – Drive Like Jehu
from Yank Crime (1994, Interscope)
The impact of San Diego post-hardcore may not have been as strong as that of New York, Chicago or D.C., but that isn’t to say our fair city hasn’t produced some fine, loud bands. Swing Kids, Antioch Arrow and Clikitat Ikatowi come to mind, but chief among the city’s noisemakers was Drive Like Jehu. Jehu were loud, abrasive, even a bit too much for some. And they sure as hell didn’t care about brevity. Many of the band’s songs, like the prog-punk dirge “Luau,” trudged past nine minutes. “Human Interest” is a prime example of the band playing to their strengths. Heavy, menacing, but simple, it’s a dense foreshadowing of the sound of later Jehu offshoot, The Hot Snakes.
“Beard of Bees” – The Monorchid
from Who Put Out the Fire? (1998, Touch & Go)
I could and maybe should have used a Circus Lupus track in my compilation here, but I never actually listened to them much. I did, however, sink my teeth into The Monorchid, which featured two CL members in its roster. The band had a messy, post-punk sensibility about them, which was refreshing, especially to nerdy, analog junkie D.I.Y. types. They were raucous and raw, though, and melodic in an interwoven, dizzying and unconventional way. “Beard of Bees,” aside from being a really cool name, shows off what the band did best, in their short existence: taut guitar riffs and basslines dancing around one another, while Chris Thomson’s high pitched rants find him sounding like a loveable loony.
Of all the groups in D.C. weaned on Bad Brains and Fugazi, The Dismemberment Plan were arguably the weirdest. Much like their Dischord and deSoto brethren, the group fused a melodic sensibility with an angular, energetic rock approach. Yet their playfulness and all around weirdness set them apart from many of the District’s post-hardcore outfits. This track from Emergency & I is the perfect example of what made The Dismemberment Plan unique: a spastic, hyper-caffeinated rhythm; quirky, alien synthesizers; Travis Morrison’s motor-mouthed high speed stuttering about sexual frustration. When the chorus rolls around, the chaos and confusion gel into an intense rush of energy–catchy, but still high on adrenaline. This song hit me like a punch to the face when I first heard it, and each listen brings a gleeful reminder of that sweet, giddy, first knockout.
“Song for Friends to Me” – Faraquet
from The View from This Tower (2000, Dischord)
Faraquet didn’t last long, but their lone album The View From this Tower is an essential record for anyone who loves their riffs angular, their rhythms complex, and their guitars loud. They’re by no means the Rush of the post-hardcore set, but certainly the group had their share of King Crimson moments. “Song for Friends to Me” was a more playful Faraquet, featuring a trumpet hook and ending well before the two minute mark. Still utilizing odd time signatures, though, this is about as close to a straight-up punk song as the band got, exploding with the choral shout, “you fall again and you’re fucked!”
“Identikit” – Burning Airlines
from Identikit (2001, deSoto)
Burning Airlines initially sounded a lot like Jawbox, and with good reason—songwriting team J. Robbins and Bill Barbot were still the band’s central figures. When Barbot left the group, however, it seemed unlikely that the group would continue on to record their masterpiece. And yet, they did. No disrespect to Barbot, of course. He was part of what made Mission: Control and all but the first of Jawbox’s records so amazing. Robbins carved out a new sort of energy on Identikit, somehow becoming more musically complex and catchy at the same time. There were even a few acoustic tracks and slow, keyboard-oriented songs, revealing a broader palette. The piece de resistance was the title track, Robbins’ careening riff cascading over Mike Harbin’s equally side-winding bassline. Hearing this live was one of the greatest concert experiences I can remember.
“December” – Unwound
from Leaves Turn Inside You (2001, Kill Rock Stars)
Back on the West Coast, Tumwater, Washington’s Unwound had started out just as noisy and chaotic as any other Northwest punk outfit, releasing albums like Fake Train and The Future of What. In time, the trio began exploring with new sounds and grew increasingly ambitious, which climaxed in the release of 2001’s double album Leaves Turn Inside You. It was such an artistic revelation and expression of oblique sound that many compared the album to Kid A. It was a lot less hyped than Radiohead’s 2000 outing, but just as satisfying, yielding dense, melancholy and melodic tracks that ran the gamut from lengthy dirges like “Terminus” to abrasive rockers like “December,” which showed that even at their artiest, they could still rock with the best of `em.
“When the Lines Go Down” – Q and Not U
from Different Damage (2002, Dischord)
Q and Not U’s first album No Kill No Beep Beep had a spastic, yet beefy rock sound much like that of predecessors The Dismemberment Plan or Fugazi. Once bassist Matthew Borlique left the band, the trio explored seemingly endless options of what a punk rock band can sound like with decidedly few constraints. Elements of dub, funk, dance and world music were incorporated into various songs, though high energy punk rock was still the primary concern, best displayed in minimal rave-ups like “When The Lines Go Down.” Spaced-out, harmonized guitars dance in an ascending scale, John Davis’s beats counteracting with devastating power and speed. Best of all, the group had a remarkable knack for melody, which the group showed off on a handful of singles, some of the best of the decade.
“Help Is On the Way” – Juno
from A Future Lived in Past Tense (2001, deSoto)
Seattle’s Juno played a form of post-hardcore that leaned heavy on lengthy, epic songs and dense sonic arrangements, courtesy of their three-guitar attack. Injecting their heroic sound with traces of slo-core and math rock, Juno didn’t always rely on volume to do the trick. When they did, however, it was a beastly force. “Help is On the Way” from sophomore album A Future Lived in Past Tense brought the best aspects of the band into one, relatively small package. The song is still more than five minutes long, but their longest surpassed ten. Beginning with the grotesquely cryptic line “missing torsos keep quiet,” the song’s intro is curious and repetitive, ultimately exploding into an emotional, destructive rock whirlwind, propelled by Arlie Carstens’ Bob Mould-like wail.
“The Egg” – Shiner
from The Egg (2001, deSoto)
I never actually got to see Shiner play while they were together. I wasn’t quite 21 during their last jaunt through San Diego, and they broke up not long thereafter. It was especially frustrating given that their last album, The Egg, was their most dynamic and cohesive, their complex, conceptual songs containing a dark mystique beneath their ferocious exterior. It didn’t hurt that producer J. Robbins gave their songs a crisp sound, as their earlier records were a bit sludgier, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. But here, the widescreen approach gave songs like “The Egg” a much-needed sheen, touching up their adrenaline surging sci-fi epic. In one of the handful of times I took part in the Dismemberment Plan’s “Ice of Boston” stage dancing, Eric Axelson complimented me on my Shiner t-shirt. He knew.
Another San Diego favorite, The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower were like the bastard child of The Nation of Ulysses and The Jesus Lizard. Incorporating elements of free jazz, group chants and nudity into their repertoire, Plot were one of the most surreal and exciting bands to emerge from the sunny locale. They were also one of the most divisive, many finding their sexual overtones and atonal squeals off-putting. Even at their most pretentious, they provided a rush like no other. “One Stab Deserves Another” from their debut is less than three minutes long, yet jam-packed full of ideas. Their live show was even more insane, but swimming in spastic energy. Like many post-hardcore outfits, they played only all-ages venues; I’m sure that made a few parents nervous.
“Darlings of New Midnight” – These Arms Are Snakes
from Oxeneers, or the Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home (2004, Jade Tree)
To close off this installment of the 90 Minute Guide, I’ve chosen Seattle’s These Arms Are Snakes, a band reminiscent of both At the Drive-In and Drive Like Jehu, but with a metal-influenced edge of their own. Both of the group’s full-length albums provide sufficient riffage, but I’ve spent more time with Oxeneers. “Darlings of New Midnight” off that album has a strong melodic sensibility, yet the guitars surge with such force, that one almost feels caught in a monsoon as they create a wall of distortion that’s near impenetrable. It’s actually been a little while since I’ve last put this record on, and though it’s one of the more recent selections in this comp, it’s one that sounds just as badass as I remember it.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.