It’s happening again. Or, more accurately, it never stopped happening. For decades, DIY hardcore has existed as a whole international underground network, and it’s never gone away. The people who started the genre have mostly moved on or learned to coast on past glories, but the newest offshoots of the continuum no longer have much of anything to do with them. Instead, the circuit has twisted and squirmed and evolved. The basement house shows and American Legion Halls and crumbling, freezing loft venues aren’t the same anymore, and message boards and Subreddits serve the same functions that zines once did, but that underground still thrives. Bands are piling into vans doing split 7″s with each other, and coming together around festivals like Washington, DC’s Damaged City and Toronto’s Not Dead Yet. Thanks to easily disseminated Bandcamp links and cheap tour-van gas, you might even argue that hardcore’s healthier now than it’s been at any point in recent years. And then there’s the whole apocalyptic new reality: These kids now have a concrete and despicable rage-target, and there are moments where speeding, hurtling, violent music is the only thing that makes sense.
Washington, DC has done more for American punk rock than almost any other city. It’s the place that gave us Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Positive Force, the Revolution Summer, and, in a lot of ways, the whole idea that punk music can be a transformative, fulfilling, humanist force instead of just a raw negation. In the past 10 or 15 years, since Dischord slowed its once-unfathomable release schedule and the original architects of the scene have mostly gone on to have adult lives, it’s been a little harder to trace the constant evolution of the city’s punk rock. But in the past few years, riotous and feverish old-school DC hardcore has returned with a vengeance. It’s taken the form of bands like Coke Bust, Kombat, Protester, the just-broken-up and already-missed Pure Disgust, and the hardcore-adjacent Priests. Red Death are in there, too, even though their face-punch racket is closer to late-’80s hardcore/thrash crossover bands like D.R.I. than it is to any past iteration of DC punk or hardcore.
Two years ago, Red Death released their debut LP, Permanent Exile, a rickety and urgent fury-blast that galloped through nine songs in about 17 minutes. It was jarring and intense and fun, but Red Death didn’t exactly come across like the type of band that could evolve. They seemed like the type of band that makes a furious album or two and then dissolves when one member decides to go to grad school a few states away. But they have evolved, and Formidable Darkness is proof.
The new album is still short and sharp and mean, and it doesn’t let up on the intensity one iota. But the recording quality has jumped up three or four ladder rungs. Play it loud enough now and you can feel the bass punching you; you don’t have to just imagine that happening at a live show. The band still plays fast, but there’s more dynamic range, and the judder-crunch mosh parts are now the most exciting parts of the band’s songs. They’re playing guitar solos, too, and those solos have that squiggly, atonal death-metal siren-scream thing going for them. Last time around, Red Death only had one song over two minutes. On this album, the eight songs go by in a comparatively leisurely 27 minutes. And while you can’t exactly accuse Red Death of mature songwriting — this is still strictly bark-grunt-roar music — the riffs and scream-along choruses are stickier and more memorable than they’ve been.
This is a retro sound, and the band’s whole aesthetic mirrors it. That goes right down to the cover art, something I might’ve seen stenciled on the underside of a skateboard in 1986. But as old-school as Red Death’s sound might be, they never come across as self-conscious revivalists, the way plenty of other retro-thrash bands tend to do these days. Instead, their music sounds like an internalized, deeply felt response to a world that seems permanently broken and fucked. Red Death might sound a lot like circa-’85 Corrosion Of Conformity, but they don’t sound like they achieved that sound by studying and intricately graphing out Animosity. They sound like people making themselves feel better by making mean, mean music. And that’s a big part of why it kicks as hard as it does. Hardcore might not be new anymore, but as long as records like this keep coming out, it can still sound as vital as it ever did.
Formidable Darkness is out 12/8 on Triple B. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jim James’ cover-songs collection Tribute To 2.
• G Perico’s hard-slapping West Coast rap album 2 Tha Left.
• Charles Hayward and Thurston Moore’s experimental team-up Improvisations.
• Tee Grizzley and Lil Durk’s collaborative mixtape Bloodas.
• Blush’s self-titled indie-pop debut.
• Boulevards’ funky, shimmering Hurtown, USA.
• Cleric’s adventurous, all-over-the-place metalcore attack Retrocasual.
• Thy Light’s black metal wallow Suici.De.pression.
• Statik Selektah’s guest-heavy semi-compilation 8.