Part 1: Where I'm Calling From
--Marilyn Drew Necci, 12/16/18
We all know what "screamo" breaks down to -- "emo, but with screaming." But look back at the bands who were first tagged as "emo-core" or "emo" in the mid to late 80s (and try to ignore the fact that they were as appalled by the "emo" tag as I am by "screamo"). What do we find? Rites of Spring and Embrace in the mid 80s, Still Life and Indian Summer in the early 90s... for the most part, these bands were already screaming. And that's because emo was just a subgenre of hardcore.
The confusion started in the mid-90s, when emo-the-subgenre-of-hardcore birthed a bunch of melodic bands with overt pop tendencies who were nonetheless obviously post-hardcore. Sunny Day Real Estate were probably the first of these; more obvious examples would include Texas Is the Reason and The Promise Ring. None of those bands screamed at all, and they were way more successful than the earlier bands that had, so most people's understanding of emo didn't include screamed vocals.
Then when people, especially people who were outside the scene and unaware of its underground roots, heard At The Drive-In or The Used, they thought "Oh, this is emo but with screaming -- screamo." And here we are, 20 years later, dealing with the consequences.
But look, I've accepted it. I get that almost anyone involved in the screamo scene in 2018 is gonna use the word screamo to describe that scene (I have NOT accepted this about the word "skramz," but that's another column). What bugs me more than any of that is the lack of historical knowledge in the world of 2018 screamo. And now that I've said that, you're gonna wonder who the hell I am and what the hell I know about it.
OK, here goes. My name's Drew, I'll be 43 next month, and I've been involved in the scene that was retroactively named screamo since the dawn of the 90s, when I was a teenager in high school. If you, the modern young reader of David Norman's completely overwhelming but always excellent blog, know who I am, it's because I sang and played bass in the short-lived Richmond, VA-based band Samarra, and helped book the second and final Swampfest in 2016.
If you dig for my history beyond that, you won't find it, because even though it's there, I used to be a different person in the eyes of the world at large. Instead of being an out-and-proud trans woman I was an overly-sensitive closeted weirdo who spent more time bowing to the pressures of social anxiety and hiding in my room than I ever spent engaging in music-related activity. Despite that, I did sing in a hardcore band for seven years, and though we barely ever managed to tour (not for lack of trying) we did do a couple of things, and the records are still out there. But while other members of that band went on to play in Light The Fuse And Run, The Catalyst, and tons of others, I spent the years after our breakup in 2002 working in bookstores, trying to repress my gender, and doing a lot of downloading on Soulseek.
When I finally hit a psychic wall in 2014 and started going through a long, drawn-out gender transition I didn't even understand was happening for the first year or so, I also started going to shows a lot again. I needed somewhere to be, and something to be involved in. I ended up at Richmond's Haunted Mansion for a Loma Prieta show in early 2015 and discovered that there was a whole huge scene of young kids playing music they called screamo, right here in Richmond.
Even though I related to everything they were doing, and thought the music was great, I had a ton of trouble matching up my frame of reference with theirs enough to even have conversations about our musical loves and influences. It felt like I had survived some sort of technological apocalypse, only to stumble out of a cave like Rip Van Winkle 20 years later to discover a new community attempting to re-invent the wheel.
I mean, our conversations weren't entirely hopeless -- I could tell them about seeing the Blood Brothers in 2005, and they got why that was awesome. But I was already 29 when I went to that show. When I tried to talk to them about bands that I'd loved when I was the age they were at the time (21 to 23), they had no idea who any of them were.
What I realized as part of this whole encounter was the long-term damage the lack of regard for a genre called "screamo" was having on our history as a musical community. As someone who not only took part as a wide-eyed teenager but also as a 40-year-old, I can see this process happening. But the reason it happens is that "screamo" is regarded as a phase. Unlike the punk and hardcore scenes it branched off from, it produces very few lifers, very few who care enough to record and pass down the history of the genre. Knowledge is mostly being lost. Frames of references aren't growing. And the scene risks becoming recursive, turning into a musical oxbow lake from which no evolution is possible.
And it's not even that there's no attempt at history -- it's just not written by anyone with firsthand knowledge of the scene. Even the fifteen-year-old website Fourfa, which a few of the kids I met around Haunted Mansion a few years ago were aware of but didn't really relate to, was written by someone (Andy Radin, formerly of Funeral Diner) who seemed a bit less-than-informed about how the whole thing evolved than I feel he should have been.
And that's the best reference material that's out there. Meanwhile, have you read the "screamo" wikipedia page? That shit is horrific. Not only does it mix names like Pg. 99 and The Used together indiscriminately, as if they were from the same scene (lol as if), it contains "factoids," in the original sense, that I can tell you right now are completely wrong.
The statement on that page that horrifies me the most is the one that says screamo started in 1991 with Heroin and Antioch Arrow. This is roughly equivalent to saying punk rock began with The Velvet Underground and the MC5 in the late 60s, or that rock n' roll began in 1950 with "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Sure, you can trace the roots of these genres to those times, places, and bands. But none of the people in any of these bands would identify with those genre terms. "Rock n' roll" as a genre term wasn't used until 1955 or so. "Punk rock" didn't enter the lexicon (other than as a random term Lester Bangs threw around in his more loquacious moments) until 1976. And no one was saying "screamo" until 1997 at the earliest.
If you're gonna pick a cutoff point, you've got to pick the point at which the genre was first named, defined, and codified. If you start tracing the roots, you're going to find yourself digging up crazy stuff. If the MC5 or the Velvet Underground were doing punk rock in 1969, who says the wild Pacific Northwest bands like The Sonics and The Wailers weren't doing it in 1963, or that German-American maniacs The Monks weren't doing it in 1965?
And by the same logic, who says no one was doing a sound that could be traced forward to today's screamo until 1991?
Heroin put out their first EP in 1991. But Heroin wasn't the beginning of the story for San Diego's chaotic hardcore scene. Three of its four members had previously been in a band called End Of The Line, along with vocalist Cory Linstrum, later of John Henry West. End Of The Line's sole release, a 12 inch EP, didn't come out until 1993 (on Ebullition Records -- you'll hear that name again), but their active period was the end of the 80s and the dawn of the 90s -- by the time that 12 inch was out, they'd been broken up for a while.
If you listen to End Of The Line, you hear a lot of the same hardcore-derived musical chaos that became Heroin's signature. In fact, the early Heroin EPs were if anything more conventional hardcore -- they didn't really come into their own until their second EP, 1992's notorious "Paper Bag 7 inch," which was also the first release on Gravity Records. Meanwhile, End Of the Line had been crafting loud, fast, and out of control music for a couple of years by then. You can hear it on their EP, if you can track it down.
On it, you'll find speedy tempos marked by Aaron Montaigne's loose jazzy fills, Cory Linstrum's unhinged bark applying itself creatively to lyrical patterns, and the guitars and bass generating noisy riffage, full of pick-scrapes and bent notes. It's heavier and a bit more conventional in tempo than Heroin, and there's far less structural experimentation than you'd find on that band's landmark LP a couple of years later, but the basic elements are all there.
Unlike a lot of other bands of the era, End Of The Line have never gotten any kind of revisitation or reissue. The versions of their EP that exist online today are vinyl rips of intermittent quality. And despite being one of the first San Diego bands to launch that city's chaotic hardcore sound -- which is universally acknowledged as the origin point for screamo -- End Of The Line have been completely left out of screamo history.
Another band whose been left out of the history is Born Against, but not because no one knows who they are. This New York band is universally acknowledged as important, but they've been placed on the "hardcore" side of the dividing line, despite the fact that their pioneering musical (and onstage) chaos, mixed with incessant touring, was a crucial element in bringing the chaotic sound to America and Europe.
Born Against started in 1988, broke up in 1994, and had a steadily rotating cast of bassists and drummers. Their last few releases featured Tonie Joy and Brooks Headley of Universal Order Of Armageddon as rhythm section, and the chaotic bona fides might very well be established by this lineup (though I am appalled to realize that David never has written about them on OMSB, so for all I know you may have no idea who UOA were -- we're gonna have to fix that). But Born Against were dishing out raw chaos well before the two of them even joined.
Indeed, their hallmark manic intensity is there from their very first releases, as you will hear if you ever check out the posthumous colllection The Rebel Sound Of Shit And Failure. But it's their sole LP, 1991's Nine Patriotic Hymns For Children, that I think really shows what these guys were capable of. At this point the rhythm section consisted of longtime bassist Javier Villegas and Greyhouse drummer/crucial New Jersey show-booker Jon Hiltz. While the album definitely has its share of the rumbling dirges that were often Born Against's stock in trade, they know how to get things moving here, and a great example of that is the opening track, "Mount The Pavement."
Beginning with a complex guitar riff that loops back in on itself and is eventually joined by crashing bass/drum chugs, this one starts out with the sort of unpredictable approach to songwriting that first got me interested in all these "noise bands," as my teenaged friends and I called them back then. I had heard a lot of straightforward fast hardcore by 1991, and it was starting to sound a bit old-hat. The new bands coming out of the mainstream hardcore scene were all in the mold of Judge -- hard, metallic, midtempo, and more focused on getting people to go hard in the pit than in keeping them guessing.
Born Against kept me guessing, which is exactly what I wanted. "Mount The Pavement" has multiple points at which the tempo changes without warning, the guitars double back on themselves, the verse-chorus pattern is disrupted in favor of song structures that don't start to make sense until you've listened through a few times. I loved this, and chances are the readers of this website will too, if you can handle the fact that Sam McPheeters doesn't have a high-pitched screaming voice and that the guitars and bass have a muddy chugging thud to them rather than a sharp, metallic bite.
One more narrative-defying pre-1991 band needs to be mentioned here before I will feel my work is complete, and that band is Moss Icon. These guys have been given some shine in recent years by people completely outside the screamo world, even receiving a deluxe discography reissue on foundational post-rock label Temporary Residence. All this might make you think they have no place in a discussion of the roots of today's screamo scene, but such an assumption would make me think that you haven't heard their work. And you need to.
Moss Icon's earliest recordings date from soon after their formation in 1986; they were roughly contemporaneous with Youth Of Today, if you can imagine that. While the full impact of this Baltimore band's work wasn't felt until years later, some credit must be given to them for what they were coming up with when most of the country was still X-ing up and starting the pit to Champion-sweatshirted youth-crew kids.
To really understand the groundbreaking nature of their work, you need only hear their 1988 LP, Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly. It wasn't officially released until 1994, but then the Portraits Of Past LP didn't come out until three years after it was recorded, and no one ever tries to take away that album’s historical impact and importance. Right?
I tried to avoid picking this track to spotlight, since it's such a bold move, but I can't get away from the fact that Moss Icon's true magnum opus is the title track to the LP. "Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly" is a long song, even for a band known for their extended lengths. Specifically, it runs to 11 and a half minutes. But don't hesitate to press play on this one -- this song more than justifies its length. Musically, this is an epic; the slowly shifting and evolving riffs laid down by guitarist Tonie Joy (this was his first band -- we'll talk about him a lot more in future), backed by Mark Lawrence's excellent drumming and Monica DeGalleonardo's intuitive approach to her complex, melodic basslines, are enough together to make a modern listener understand why this stuff appeals to the post-rock types over at Temporary Residence.
But Jonathan Vance's lyrics and vocals take this one to another level entirely. Lyrically, this song is a literary horror novel of sorts, a Nathaniel Hawthorne-style period piece about a funeral on some unspecified 19th century American frontier for a teenage girl whose cause of death is never given. Vance first gives voice to the words of the preacher, then as the music slowly grows louder and harsher, explores the dark underside of the religion that keeps these tiny communities under control of a harsh, arbitrary authority. By the end of the song, as the band is building up to a scathing crescendo, Vance is screaming poetically about freedom and death and the conqueror worm and if chills don't run up your spine as the band finally, 10 and a half minutes in, returns to the opening riff you haven't heard for eight minutes, well, I'm not sure you're alive.
I don't know if you young kids weaned on a diet of Envy, Jerome's Dream, and -- I don't know, Touche Amore? -- will even see the connections here. It certainly looks different to me, as someone who has spent most of the past 30 years watching these evolutions and hearing these advances in real time, than it does for people who've been aware of this genre for a decade, or even less. But I've been thinking for years about the lack of historical knowledge and preservation within our little community, about how, if our history isn't set down and our many different roots and branches documented in a unified fashion sometime soon, it will all be irrevocably lost.
Maybe I'm not the best person for something like this, but I think I'm a pretty good one. I have a huge bookshelf filled with pre-internet zines that often contain facts and quotes that never made it onto the web. I've been obsessed with this genre, whatever you might want to call it, for over a quarter century now (thinking about how literally true that is makes me feel a million years old). I've been writing about music in some capacity or another since 1991, when I started my first zine at the age of 15, and I've been making my living as a music journalist for most of the past decade.
Plus, David asked me, and offered me this lovely forum in which to pontificate. So what the hell. I'm not gonna live forever, so I guess I better get to it. I hope I haven't alienated you too much with all this confrontational babble... because I'm gonna be here for a while. We've got a lot to talk about.
ADDITIONAL LINKS & WHATNOT