Summer 1985. The first wave of punk has long since burned out into a pitiful malaise of nihilism and drugs. Its successor- the American hardcore scene- once a shining beacon of DIY work ethic and righteous anger had been overrun by muscleheaded thugs more interested in brawling than jamming. Where to for those still wanting to be a part of something greater? Something pure and something heartfelt? This was the question the musicians of Washington D.C in 1985 had to confront. Their response? Cast aside everything that came before and rebuild. The summer of 1985 was to be the Revolution Summer- everyone was to form new bands and create a new scene, free of numbskulls. Despite its noble intentions, the Revolution Summer and its acts quickly died out after a year, yet within that short time it planted the seeds for the future direction of punk and indie rock. One of those bands to flourish during the Revolution Summer was Rites of Spring.
A four piece fronted by singer/guitarist Guy Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty, both of whom would soon go on to join Ian Mackaye in the seminal Fugazi, Rites of Spring only played 15 shows and released one album over a two year period. By those figures it would be easy to dismiss Rites of Spring as merely the band Picciotto and Canty played around in before they struck gold in Fugazi. But such an assessment is terribly shallow- Rites of Spring were a great band in their own right. Their body of work would become the template for future post-hardcore bands as well as emo acts. Rites of Spring are often acknowledged as the first “emo” band.
“I’ve never recognized ‘emo’ as a genre of music. I always thought it was the most retarded term ever…”Guy Picciotto, Rites of Spring
Ironically Picciotto hated the term “emo”- “I’ve never recognized ‘emo’ as a genre of music. I always thought it was the most retarded term ever. I know there is this generic commonplace that every band that gets labeled with that term hates it. They feel scandalized by it. But honestly, I just thought that all the bands I played in were punk rock bands. The reason I think it’s so stupid is that – what, like the Bad Brains weren’t emotional? What – they were robots or something? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Rites of Spring and the other bands of the Revolution Summer were the next step in punk’s evolution. The kids that grown up thrashing their instruments in hardcore bands had now developed into talanted musicians and had grown tired of the genre’s strict boundaries and restraints. Rites of Spring were one of the first bands to loosen the chains of hardcore and challenge what a punk band could sound like. The speed and intensity of punk remained but it was combined with melody and introspective lyrics that didn’t just unleash streams of vitriol. Essentially it was punk but with greater emphasis on songwriting.
“I woke up this morning with a piece of past caught in my throat / And then I choked”
Guy Picciotto’s shrill yet captivating voice dominates this track as he laments a painful break up. Picciotto seems on the brink of total collapse and despite the dark nature of his words there remains a glimmer of hope in his delivery. The upbeat guitar and the pace of the track prevents the song from sinking into a mire of tiresome self-loathing and angst. Instead “For Want Of” becomes a song of rare beauty. Yes, it’s about the fallout of a failed relationship and yes it’s dark, however it maintains a passion and sincerity that’s inspiring. It’ll remind you that although this relationship ultimately hit the skids, in the long run the good times will outweigh the bad and that hope endures.
Rites of Spring’s sole studio album, Rites of Spring, was released in June of 1985 on Dischord Records. You can purchase a digital copy of the 1991 compilation edition, combining both the album Rites of Spring and the EP All Through a Life, via Dischord.
Tennis System – Lovesick
This is furious noise
It is impossible to read music that taps into the shoegaze lineage without finding mention of My Bloody Valentine or The Jesus and Mary Chain. While the aforementioned bands are certainly the epicentre of the genre, bands like Los Angeles’ Tennis System aren’t all too interested in being just another page in the Kevin Shields songbook. Unlike the genre’s progenitors, Tennis System only graze the often plodding, overly moribund nature of shoegaze, and instead find more inspiration from uptempo punk urgency. Lovesick, their third album, is a culmination of what the band call their “putting it all on the line” mentality, wrapped in fuzzed-out, loud guitars, breezy percussion work and that ‘let’s go’ punk attitude.
Songs like “Alone” and “Esoteric” come cut from the same mold that crafted early emo band Cap N’ Jazz; manic, loud, frenzied, while opener “Shelf Life” digs deep into the fuzzy, distorted heaven of Jawbox meets Burning Airlines. The song itself feverish sudden changes, one that mimics what vocalist/guitarist Matty Taylor told Flood Magazine about the song’s “journey of realization, denial, and finally acting upon things”. It’s true then that songs on Lovesick owe more to J. Robbins than Kevin Shields, but it is not to say the album is not without its more shoegaze moments. It’s the moodier soundscapes of “Cologne” and almost whispering “Fall” that paint from that brush.
The album’s strongest outing is the terrific “Turn”. It is a song that is a well constructed effort combining early emo and elements of shoegaze with the furious noise of guitar powered alternative/punk, packing together all the best qualities of the band in alluring freneticism.
As the title track closes proceedings, the listener is left with a sense of aural delight that came with albums like Loveless, or Trail of Dead’s brilliant Source Tags & Codes. It doesn’t mean to say Lovesick is a trailblazing record, but what it does mean is that the album’s tightly wound energy and furiousness explodes in euphoric delight- even if it is temporary. In the song “Lovesick”, Taylor sings, “please don’t let me burn out”… and perhaps, with this much aural euphoria, it is inevitable. But as the saying goes, “it’s better to burn out…”
Pom Pom Squad – Ow EP
The latest EP by this Brooklyn four-piece is beautiful vulnerability
Brooklyn “quiet grrl” band Pom Pom Squad may have a cute moniker and description of their sound, but like their riot grrl brethren that it comes from, it’s anything but tame. Pom Pom Squad is a four-piece led by vocalist and songwriter Mia Berrin, who on their second EP, have taken the twinkly sounds of Rilo Kiley and Mitski and injected it with the grungy, manic energy of Hole and Bif Naked and the distorted, punk urgency of Bratmobile.
Ow stands out from the opening “Ow (Intro)”, a song of delicate heartbreak that is both pensive and biting. It’s mostly just Berrin and her guitar, sparkling in a glow of Midwestern emo-esque strings and her voice. The song is beautifully wistful when it sings “he says he wants what’s best for me” and biting when it comes back and says “they all say they want what’s best for me / but they never try to be the best for me”. It’s from this you hear the strength of the EP; that when it gets a little brooding, melancholy, pained, it’s also gorgeous, vulnerable and definitely unafraid to show the listener honesty and character.
In songs like “Heavy Heavy” and “Honeysuckle”, Pom Pom Squad get a little dirtier, a little grungier, amping up the distortion and sludgier percussion work. The hazy bellowing of “Heavy Heavy” adds to the angry introspection of the song; its lines of “It’s getting heavy heavy / Telling everybody that I’m fine / I’m feeling heavy heavy does it mean / I wanna fucking die?” painted by lusciously loud guitar work that would make Steve Albini smile. “Honeysuckle” takes on a similar pained look inside the mind but with a more fuzzed-out, alternative-rock veneer. Berrin’s lyrics come across as vividly as she sings “If I’m nothing without you am I anything at all?” It’s songs like these, with words like these, that hint of comparisons between Pom Pom Squad’s captivating allure with that of Courtney Love and Babes in Toyland during their heydey.
“Cherry Blossom” taps into that beautiful sorrow again, plugging into the aura that is painted when it is just Berrin and her guitar again. It’s almost hypnotic at times, and just as quickly as the tension and the magnetism builds, it ends. The anger of the album works because unlike angst, it’s calculated and targeted, leaving Ow as much of a substantial outing as it is growth from their 2018 EP Hate It Here. The only real downside to Ow are some moments like on the closing notes of “Cut My Hair”- a song that builds up to its crescendo with more dazzling vulnerability but ends a little quicker than it ought to. In truth, that’s the only real con of the EP, that when the orchestral fade-out of “Owtro” howls away, you’re left searching for more, with only repeated listens as your respite. But in the end, what could be better for an artist you’ve recently discovered than to get under your skin and leave you wanting more?