Emo History Lesson 3: San Diego
This one is a little shorter than the others, but that doesn't mean this style or era is any less valuable. It just happened to be a bit more intense.
The Outlook Is Bleak: “Chaotic Hardcore” and the Death of the Scene
A smaller, more spastic subset of emo arose in the early 90s in New Jersey with bands like Merel and Iconoclast, and later was introduced in California, based closely around the Che Cafe scene in San Diego, before the Gilman scene in San Francisco picked up on it. The locale became so synonymous with these types of bands that it became known colloquially as the “San Diego sound,” and later, “chaotic hardcore” (as seen in zines like Hardware). These bands played much, much faster than the standard emo bands and were known for being especially frenetic, spastic, noisy, and dissonant. Even the bass was distorted and guitarists were known for sometimes not even playing music, relying solely on the squealing feedback to provide texture. Additionally, instead of the measured post-rock of Slint, many of these bands were taking from the fractured, jittery math rock of noisemakers like Drive Like Jehu. The chaos of straight emo was amplified here, with live bands throwing themselves around the performance space in a vicious frenzy and reducing the songs to unrecognizable noise. As you can imagine, the performances were usually short and accompanied by plenty of re-tuning (not that anyone could tell whether the songs were in tune or not).
Probably the codifier of these bands was Heroin, who released their records on band member Matt Anderson’s Gravity, which became one of the go-to labels for these types of bands. They also released albums by such scene luminaries as Heroin’s sister band Antioch Arrow, the jazz-inflected Clikatat Ikatowi, the hooky basslines and twisting song structures of Mohinder, and the outliers Angel Hair, from Colorado.
Ebullition Records was very closely tied to this scene, releasing records by more explicitly political bands like John Henry West and the incredibly influential discography of a Bay Area band called Portraits of Past. They also released a split single by the bands Reach Out and Honeywell, which would prove to be equally influential.
Moss Icon’s Tonie Joy moved onto this sound after the breakup of the decidedly un-emo Born Against. His new band, Universal Order of Armageddon, became one of the absolute biggest bands in the scene, managing to get releases on relatively “large” labels like Kill Rock Stars. Their live show was wild and unhinged, and more than once people were worried they would hurt themselves on stage.
Justin Pearson of the Locust got his start in this scene, running Three-One-G Records, playing in ridiculously chaotic bands like Swing Kids, and popularizing the “Spock Rock” fashion sense that would later collide with the “fashioncore” aesthetic and sound of 18 Visions and Atreyu, launching the entire “scene kid” culture. It’s worth noting that Justin Pearson was a near-perfect encapsulation of a hardcore kid’s journey in this time period. He started out in Struggle, a noisy metalcore band with heavily political lyrics, before moving to a slightly more underground sound in the “chaotic hardcore” scene, and then fully transitioned into a hipster who played in noise rock and electronica groups (Some Girls, Head Wound City, Bloody Beetroots).
Unwound started out in this sound as well, but quickly moved on. Their earliest recordings, however, are fairly fascinating snapshots of this “chaotic hardcore” sound contrasted with more high-minded aspirations of art rock. Anasarca was another notable band, that slowed down the formula a bit and actually sounded quite like a forerunner to Funeral Diner. Constantine Sankathi are all but completely forgotten now, but they were absolutely in the upper echelon of popularity at the time.
“Chaotic hardcore” is an apt description of this scene. What Black Flag was to the Ramones, Heroin and Antioch Arrow were to Moss Icon. These bands were pissed off about how depressed they were, and sadness has never sounded so furious. Clearly the songs were well written and structured, but the vigor with which they were played created a sound on stage not unlike a washing machine with bricks inside of it.
The fans of these bands were the ones who really introduced an “emo” fashion sense and culture. Before, a lot of the kids into emo looked like every other hardcore kid: baggy JNCOs, oversized tees and hoodies, dumb hair, perhaps some Krishna beads. But these bands, especially the Gilman and San Diego scene, started to adopt the Mr. Spock-and-Morrissey-esque look of popular hardcore bands like Unbroken. Matted black hair that could be fashioned as a bowlcut, a combover, or a variety of flamboyant styles like shotgun wounds became the norm; basically, proto-scene hair. Thick black-frame glasses, raggedy Chuck Taylors, and thrift store pants that were either much too tight or too loose were also in fashion; as were argyle sweaters, for some reason.
For the most part, this scene was basically just a smaller subset of the larger emo scene, socially and politically, except much more intense and--unfortunately--inundated with lots and lots of drugs. There was a reason the biggest band of the movement was called Heroin. I suppose it’s just a symptom of the music itself. By its very nature, it is supposed to be intense enough for those with severe depression to find catharsis within the numbness. Predictably, those are the same types of people who often turn to drug abuse.
The drug abuse was a large contributor to the demise of the original scene, as well as general creative stagnation. Most of the best bands were bored with the confines of the genre and left to form more adventurous bands, leaving the imitators to flail and attempt to create a facsimile of their former greatness. Many of the worst bands appeared during this time period (cough Frail cough). By the mid-90s, this wave of emo had thankfully bitten the dust.
Despite the relative obscurity of these scenes, they have made a huge impact. Many metalcore bands of the 90s took great inspiration from the lyrical and vocal content of these emo bands, especially bands like Damnation AD, Downcast, Unbroken, and even hardcore mammoths Converge and Shai Hulud.
A lot of the labels involved in these early emo bands, particularly Doghouse, Victory, Vermiform, and Gern Blandsten, have become powerhouses of various styles of hardcore and pop-punk in recent years. Even huge bands like Jimmy Eat World have been open about influences from Current and Indian Summer.
Despite how vibrant the scene may appear looking back, it was mostly dead and gone by around 1995. All the old bands of the traditional emo style were breaking up and there were no longer new bands forming. The chaotic style had moved onto decidedly un-emo pastures with fashion-conscious, homoerotic, and vaguely danceable bands like The VSS, Spanakorzo, the Blood Brothers, After School Knife Fight, and An Albatross (this style was referred to as “sass” at the time and is now mostly forgotten, despite being fairly creative and interesting, and the Blood Brothers actually achieving a modicum of commercial success). Emocore bands had split off into their own thing, achieving a success that seemed completely removed from the hardcore scene at large. The scene needed a revitalization, and it was about to get it.
Essential “Chaotic Hardcore” Records
Heroin - Destination
Heroin are still one of my absolute favorite bands from this era. What their best song, “Leave,” lacks in length, it makes up for in sheer energy. Heroin are impressively gifted songwriters, and epitomize the chaotic hardcore formula of catchy basslines acting as the anchor for the song, with the noisy guitars providing sonic texture and the drums providing propulsion and energy. Heroin also had one of the most unhinged vocalists around in the form of Matt Anderson, whose absolutely inhuman shrieks and cries provide an important template for almost all emotional hardcore music to come. Hell, even Geoff Rickly cites Heroin as an influence. Heroin’s songs had this amazing quality where it felt like everything was just about to fall apart, like the sheer emotion of it was just too much for the members to handle, but they were always able to pull it together and come up with a fantastic climax.
Portraits of the Past - 010101
Portraits of Past probably provide the biggest template for the so-called “screamo” bands who began to emerge near the end of the ‘90s (via members of the band moving on to projects like Funeral Diner and ...Who Calls So Loud). Their split with Bleed moved at a blistering pace and the vocals could charitably be described as “frightening.” They moved onto a more traditional emo style on their full-length, but they still had an inventive approach involving off-kilter guitar melodies and absolutely punishing “loud” sections.
Honetwell/Reach - Split 7"
When you listen to bands that have an “epic” sound to them-- the triumphant, melodic minor chord progression that sounds like an army at the gates-- it’s coming from this split. They compressed all the cinematic vibes of the early emo bands into 2-3 minute chunks that were more easily digestible than many of the more experimental bands of this era. Although the two bands do have their differences, Reach Out being more yearning with somewhat plaintive guitar harmonies and Honeywell being furiously energetic and aggressive, their sounds are remarkably in sync with one another, and this stands as easily one of the greatest splits of all time.
Merel - Merel
One of the pioneers of the sound, Merel were not quite as frantic as the others, but that does not mean that they were any less good. “My Sweet Dull God” is quite possibly the greatest song out of this entire era, combining catchiness and abrasiveness in a near-perfect mixture held down by an anchor of amazing bass riffs, which allows the guitar work to really let loose and shine. Their vocalist takes a little bit of time to warm up to, but once you do, Merel are an absolutely exhilarating listen. The climax to “Roadkill” alone is worth the price of their entire discography.
Mohinder - Discography
Ironically, this collection does not actually have “everything;” it omits Mohinder’s horrific and generic first demo, with 5 bottom-of-the-barrel hardcore songs that they scrapped entirely from their set list by their third or so performance. By that time they had settled into what they truly were, a band who could squeeze parts that most bands would spend the entire song on into 10-or-so second chunks that could whiplash transition into each other. The result is quite a disorienting experience, and may take a few listens to get a handle on, but once you have the rhythms of the music down, songs like “Run” become absolute anthems.
John Henry West - Door Bolted Shut
A Sarah Kirsch record? On my best-of-an-era list? Who saw that coming??? In all seriousness, John Henry West are one of my favorites of these bands. They were a bit more simplistic than the other bands, and had quite a bit of classic ‘80s hardcore punk influence. I’m an absolute sucker for that sort of thing, so is it any wonder that I consider “Shut Your Mouth” to be one of the premier songs of the time? The bass is so exquisitely catchy, and the guitars have a crunchiness to them that many of the other bands of the era just didn’t have-- everyone else was producing their guitars so thinly, and here comes John Henry West with a thick, raging bottom end and a permanently furious vocalist.
Antioch Arrow- In Love With Jetts/ The Lady Is A Cat
I’ve heard that many people really did not like Antioch Arrow back in the day, although they were pretty popular in my estimation. The general consensus is that their very first release was pretty fantastic, but the moment In Love with Jetts came out everyone turned on them for writing “art rock garbage.” In Love was pretty solidly a hardcore record, though, so I can only imagine the shitstorm that ensued when they put out a straight-up goth rock record with Gems of Masochism. Anyway, their first two records are pretty perfect examples of this style of hardcore. “Conspiring the Go-Go” is simply one of the most infectious and influential songs that San Diego ever produced. I also get a kick out of the band’s fashion sense.
Swing Kids - Discography
Speaking of getting a kick out of a band’s fashion sense, this is Justin Pearson’s finest hour. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they are the most popular band of this era, thanks to their association with Pearson and his pedigree of hipster-approved acts like the Locust. Swing Kids also definitely were the progenitors of “scene” style, although I will throw in an honorable mention to Eighteen Visions and their beauty-school hair. All jokes aside, Swing Kids probably had the best production of the era, and one of the absolute best drummers in Jose Palafox, who added so much to the band’s signature chaotic sound with his pinpoint-precise, deceptively all-over-the-place drumming style. Unbroken had nothing on Swing Kids. Get on “Clean Shade of Dirty.”
Angel Hair - Pregnant With The Senior Class
Angel Hair were from Colorado, and thus geographically isolated from the mostly California-based movement. This allowed them to be even more bizarre and experimental than any of their peers, and although there are aspects of melody, Angel Hair were one of the noisiest bands of the time. “Witch Hunt Scene from Star Trek” grafts an almost bluesy sense of rhythm and groove onto the spastic hardcore infrastructure without sacrificing any of the abrasive intensity. Sonny from Angel Hair went on to form the VSS, who were one of the earliest “sass” acts, along with Justin Pearson’s Crimson Curse. As such, Angel Hair is an important blueprint for that sort of abstract, yet oddly danceable sound, as well as the even-harsher sound of emoviolence.
Universal Order of Armageddon- The Switch Is Down
Another Tonie Joy outfit, Universal Order of Armageddon had the potential to be a post-hardcore phenomenon on par with Unwound or Frodus, had they managed to stay together for long enough. As it stands, we are left with an impressive-yet-short discography and a legacy of intense live shows. What made UOA so great was the recklessness inherent in their sound; they were messy as all hell, even in the studio, but their songwriting was so tight that they were still a fun band to listen to. They were less catchy or speedy than many other bands, though they had their moments, but their song structures were so fascinating, and vocalist Colin Seven sounded like he was trying to fight back the effects of horse tranquilizer by screaming. They definitely don’t get their due nowadays.