Monday, October 1, 2018

resonators - episode #009 - 'rites of spring' by rites of spring

The tricky thing about this series was always going to be where the line was drawn when it came to genre. That's the tough thing when you're on the cutting edge and subgenres are forking off of subgenres, and considering how much music critics and fans love drawing lines, I could very easily run into trouble by covering this act under the umbrella of a series looking specifically at 80s hardcore punk. On the other hand, as I've stated a few times already it makes sense to look at what came out the hardcore scene in its entirety, and since I've gone through a fair number of the albums that set the foundations for the genre, it makes sense to examine what was built upon them.

So the year was 1985, and the setting was Washington D.C. - we've already talked about the D.C. hardcore scene surrounding Bad Brains and Minor Threat, but by the mid-80s the scene was shifting - the original wave of hardcore punks were entering their mid-20s and a whole new wave of teenagers were flooding into the scene, using the excuse of the genre to get more raucous and violent. Now the roots of that change in the scene are complicated - some of it was demographics, but a pronounced theme of that era was machismo. And to be fair, this was endemic across American culture in the mid-80s, a hypermasculine ideal reinforced by the Reagan administration and an economy that had picked up a lot of steam, to say nothing of a reactionary media climate that loved to brand punks as thugs or outlaws. This was an era of swagger, cockiness, and no fucks given, and even though hardcore had a left-leaning slant, it's always been more complicated, which meant not only did a lot of young guys push a very different ideology, they had the bravado to saunter in and use the show as an excuse to get violent. And while some punks who shied away from ideology flourished, a lot of hardcore acts were either evolving out of the genre or quitting altogether.

But in D.C., Ian MacKaye was not going down without a fight, and in 1985, he and various other members of his independent label Dischord Records began forming new acts for what would be branded as Revolution Summer, beginning an active pushback against aggression at shows and the sexism that was leaking into the scene. Many of the acts wouldn't last beyond laying the groundwork for bigger bands to come, but one has survived and has become what so many have branded as the genesis of an entire new genre just adjacent to the infant post-hardcore. That's right, folks, we're going there, we're going the only album released by the band widely considered as the inspiration of emo, the 1985 self-titled record from Rites Of Spring - and this is Resonators!

So let's qualify this before going forward: the discussion of emo as a genre or genre qualifier has changed a lot over the course of the past thirty-plus years, and I can imagine that a cultural consideration of the relevance of Rites Of Spring would read as very different if it was written twenty years, ten years, even three years ago. Keep in mind that Rites Of Spring only ever released one album and a follow-up EP a few years later, only ever really performed in Washington D.C., and only achieved cultural penetration thanks to Dischord Records' peerless longevity. In the 90s, emo was still in its infancy and very much underground, with a wealth of bands expanding upon Rites Of Spring's foundation that if you weren't a punk or a music critic, you likely weren't paying attention. Ten years ago 'emo' was an overexposed corporate buzzword and tacked on to so many bands, fashions, and sounds that the cultural backlash was kicking into full swing. And nowadays while the 'traditional' emo sound has regained some actual respectability again in the indie circuit, it's also become a genre qualifier to a swathe of hip-hop that's now rolling over the mainstream charts, and isn't nearly as derided as it was just a decade prior.

My larger point is that cultural perception of a genre or subculture will change with time - but it has to be noted that that in 1985, 'emo' was decidedly against the grain even for hardcore punk, and Rites Of Spring did not want to be associated with the term, even bucking against the branding of 'emocore' into the 2000s. To them they were making hardcore punk or post-hardcore, a genre that even then was in its infancy, and if you weren't paying attention to the lyrics, the sound mostly fit within those expectations - thick, sinuous but melodic basslines that might not have the same presence as an album produced by Spot but still giving a supple foundation for rattling roil of snares and kickdrums, solid roars of crunchy but melodic guitar interplay, and Guy Picciotto's wheezy, shredded howls where as a singer myself it's hard not to wince - Ian MacKaye knew what he was doing behind the boards for this project. But hell, for the first few songs you could make the argument this sounds like any other hardcore punk record - maybe a little slower and with a heavier focus on brighter melody courtesy of the interplay of Picciotto and Edward Janney's guitars, but there was a ragged intensity and level of complexity that kept it from pop punk polish as early as songs like 'For Want Of'. Now some of this was to be expected - post-hardcore was a thing by the mid-80s and the more wild tone and tempo shifts and tentative steps towards noise rock were evident on this record, especially on the massive closing track 'End On End', which with its seven minute runtime was about the furthest thing from punk brevity. But then six songs in you get the bass-inflected echoing coil of 'Drink Deep', easily my favourite cut with the swells of backing vocals and while you can hear seeds of post-hardcore in the warped, Bad Seeds-esque guitar lines and post-punk in the production, you could easily see how a song like this could have inspired the theatricality that ran rampant in emo in the mid-2000s. Hell, at least for me it's such a powerful album centerpiece you don't expect Rites Of Spring to be able to match it on the second half... and if we're being honest, they really can't, especially when it comes to sheer melodies. Oh, they try - 'Theme' and 'Nudes' are great cuts and the shouted backing vocals pushed behind 'Remainder' and 'Persistent Vision' are a nice touch, but dig deeper and it's hard to ignore some slightly messy drumwork and compositions that don't quite have the tightness they should, especially on 'End On End' with that pulsating bass/kickdrum cadence and howling squeals.

But again, what made Rites Of Spring's self-titled record so distinctive wasn't just a pretty great entry into an era where genre labels - nope, that came in delivery and especially the content, and where I feel some who have balked at the emo label may have missed the point. See, Picciotto isn't wrong in saying that other bands in hardcore punk weren't cranking out powerfully emotive music, but in comparison to the aggressive politics or the rampant, unabashed nihilism, Rites Of Spring leaned into a yearning, unabashed angst that seared past rage into more vulnerable and exposed territory - and to their credit, a lot of the writing has aged surprisingly well, even today. It reflects less of the branded pop-punk/emo crossovers than the critically acclaimed emo of the 2010s - with less personal detail to the storytelling, sure, but like with Black Flag's Damaged it works in laying that foundation, with poetry that is painfully honest but doesn't lean into overexposed cliches and stylism that again came to dominate two decades later. Now part of this was that Picciotto was shrieking his lungs out and wasn't trying to sell anything close to a veneer or image, but there's some damn solid poetry on display with a real sense of thematic cohesion, drilling deep into a desire to span emotional gaps to find a love as intense, a love that is constantly questioned whether it's too much or too little, whether he's exposing too much of himself or second-guessing too much. It's overwrought, it's melodramatic, self-flagellating and painfully self-aware about it, caught up in the overheated swell of emotions that come with raw passion overriding more cautious instincts, and I hesitate to call them better because Rites Of Spring don't shy away from raising the question of whether that emotional release, that give-and-take, whether it is more pertinent than the reasoned conclusion, as it certainly rings more powerful amidst the drudgery of day by day referenced by 'End On End'... and now I get how and why Sorority Noise ended their 2017 record the way they did with songs like 'Leave The Fan On', because thematically, it is a strong callback! 

But putting that aside, it makes sense why Rites Of Spring was branded as the first 'emo' album - taking the hardcore and post-hardcore formula, pumping up the melodies, and taking an emotive introversion and angst that bucked naturally against the nihilism or political firebrands common in the genre. Where those bands charged forward, Rites Of Spring hesitated and questioned and drilled into the emotionality that comes with questions of love, taking that sensitivity and supercharging it with the raw intensity of the delivery. And for as powerfully melodic, genuinely striking, and intense as all hell as the album wound up becoming... look, I'll repeat what I said when I covered Damaged, if Rites Of Spring hadn't made this album and laid this foundation, some other act would have. And honestly, in terms of pure standout moments, I think it's an album I'd easily revisit more to this day and clicks with me way stronger. So yeah, this is a light 9/10 and if you're looking for an entry into emo that holds up and more than ever feels fiercely relevant... yeah, drink this deep, because Rites Of Spring delivered.

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