Review | D.C. hardcore is a story that never ends

In most punk scenes on this noisy planet, the line between romantic obscurity and total oblivion runs dangerously thin, with countless bands perpetually slipping through the cracks, vanishing from our collective memory, quietly and permanently. But Washington, D.C., has always been different. Ours is a hardcore punk scene of deeply committed, highly disciplined self-documenters working in the long shadows of Bad Brains and Minor Threat: zine makers, documentary film folk, punk librarians, and, of course, record labels. More often than not, the cracks are pried open and the music is lifted out of the void.

Over the past year, we’ve seen a growing pile of freshly retrieved records to prove it — many of them surfaced by L.G. Records, a new label masterminded by Andy Coronado, formerly of the great D.C. punk groups Monorchid and Skull Kontrol. Along with recent releases from Skam (a forgotten teen band from the early ’80s) and Pitchman (a forgotten teen band from the early ’90s), these reissued recordings help to expand the story of D.C. punk, providing new pieces to a puzzle that seemingly has no edges.

Snapping the puzzle together takes work, though. Aside from the aforementioned Skam and Pitchman records, all the recordings discussed below — listed chronologically by when they were made — have been released on L.G. and are available exclusively on vinyl. Sorry, no streams. As ever, punk requires commitment from all parties involved.

Based on the taut punk missives they recorded between 1982 and 1983, these Northern Virginia teens knew who their enemies were: the cops, the IRS, Jim Bakker and Ronald Reagan. Who were their friends? Skam played shows with the likes of Scream, Nuclear Crayons and United Mutation, but during their few years together, the band’s only 9:30 Club show was canceled, making it something of a footnote to a footnote. (Bassist Jack Anderson graduated to a style of exponentially gnarlier doomsaying in No Trend while singer-guitarist Vince Forcier eventually played in Racer X, then Second Wind.) Now, four decades later, “No Name” compiles handfuls of rowdy Skam live cuts and tightly clenched studio recordings, including a stealthily tender cover of “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, which feels less like a rabid declaration of punkness and more like an exercise in youthful introspection. “I’m a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm” has never sounded more like, “Is this really who I am?” More than a band trying to find its place in the scene, Skam sounded like kids trying to find their place in this world.

Shudder to Think, “1987”

Let’s try to hear Shudder to Think as a long-term reconciliation of opposites — a band forever rearranging the uncomplicated urgency of hardcore punk so that it could better accommodate the rococo wowee of its singer, Craig Wedren. Yeah, Wedren loved Rites of Spring and the Misfits, but he says he initially took his biggest vocal cues from rock’s most moneyed shriekers (Steve Perry, Ozzy Osbourne). How did that work? Well, it was all working like crazy in 1994 when Shudder to Think dropped “Pony Express Record,” its major-label debut and the apex of this impossible balancing act. But rewind your brain back to the group’s earliest recordings from 1987, collected here, and you’ll hear Wedren singing in his tangy mewl with a certitude so reflexive, it almost feels shocking. It’s not that his voice was inimitable. It’s more like who would dare? Thankfully, his original bandmates — drummer Mike Russell, guitarist Chris Matthews, long-haul bassist Stuart Hill — never balked, and once everything tightens up in the closing moments of this record during “Take the Child,” we become privy to the holiest of sounds, a band learning itself.

Vile Cherubs, “Lysergic Lamentations”

In punk, outsiders can become insiders through wild displays of charisma and force, and the Vile Cherubs seem to have had just enough of both. “It’s hard to explain just how different it was back then,” writes ex-Cherub Seth Lorinczi in the liner notes of “Lysergic Lamentations,” an album conjoining the band’s first two demos from 1987 and 1988. “Downtown Washington, D.C. was roached. After the torrential rain storms that broke like water balloons over your head, you could literally smell the decay wafting up from the abandoned buildings. The city was falling apart in real time, but it was also our playground: Chinese takeouts; wig shops; pay phones; liquor stores that sold to anyone. And d.c. space” — the experimental downtown venue that admirably opened its doors to this teenage quartet’s acid-chomping style of garage rock, a hardcore-resistant sound that skewed less “Flex Your Head,” more “Nuggets.” But these moody, mischievous songs were the Cherubs’ keys into the scene and later into the city’s proper hardcore lineage. Guitarist Tim Green would eventually join the feral Nation of Ulysses. Lorinczi would sign up with Circus Lupus. But here, these Cherubs were still outsider kids who seemingly approached their music, their city and their youth as the same thing: an unknowable play space being eaten by time.

To my ears, this is fact: Chris Thomson is one of the greatest punk singers to ever exhale on society. Ever heard him? In this band, Fury? Or in Circus Lupus? Or in Las Mordidas? Monorchid? Skull Kontrol? Red Eyed Legends? Coffin Pricks? Listen to each of these bands immediately, I say, then keep listening to them until you’re dead. That voice, especially. Maybe you’ll hear the indignation of Steve Ignorant and the disdain of Mark E. Smith holding hands on some nightmare mission through Darby Crash’s sinuses, but I still hear Thomson sneering with an existential displeasure that belongs exclusively to him. Just imagine coasting through A.D. 1989, knowing Thomson primarily as the bassist of post-hardcore outfit Ignition, then finding out that he’s fronting a new band with the frenzied members of Swiz. Imagine him raising the microphone to his teeth for the first time. Imagine him howling, “I ain’t afraid of you,” and believing him on the cellular level. What a debut. This legendary EP — one of the greatest hardcore 7-inch singles to ever come out of D.C., now reissued on 12-inch — might be filled with harrowing songs about betrayal and shotgun blasts, but Thomson is essentially shooting up a flare. Something starts here.

Circus Lupus, “Circus Lupus”

With Fury lasting only a few months, a few songs and two shows, Thomson skipped off to college in Wisconsin where he joined this early version of Circus Lupus, then quickly boomeranged everyone back home to record these nine tracks at Inner Ear Studio in the summer of 1990. New band, new sound. Bristly. Caustic. Not fast, but busy. Not funky, but lumpy in a way that thrilled. All over the place, but totally tight. Drummer Arika Casebolt brought the indomitable thud. Reg Shrader — later replaced by Lorinczi — moved his fingers around the bass in puzzling almost-grooves. Chris Hamley liked to make his guitar talk in prickles and scribbles, and then Thomson would bark back. “Ink for my poison pen!” “Wear your mask and frown!” Is that what he was saying? The poetry kept breaking up inside his mouth until everything sounded like threats. Somehow, it made you want to only get closer.

Pitchman, “My Angel Age”

Circus Lupus existed for roughly four years, winning admirers high and low. Up there was Joan Jett, who produced the band’s “Pop Man” single in 1992. Down here was Pitchman, a group of local teens who wanted to destroy the world, or at least their high school. “My world ends with strawberry shampoo!” screams then-16-year-old singer Drée Thibert on “Dead Girls,” one of the most ferocious cuts Pitchman recorded in 1993, triangulating the knottiness of Circus Lupus, the rage of Huggy Bear and the sass of Nation of Ulysses. As evidenced by these songs — there are a dozen of them streaming on Bandcamp, titled, “My Angel Age,” four of which have been compiled on an eponymous 7-inch EP by guitarist Mat Keel — Pitchman’s preternatural cool frequently boiled over into fury, burning bright, burning fast, then, after less than a year together, burning out, their momentum carrying them into new bands. Drummer Aaron Brenner would quickly join the Meta-Matics, one of the most righteously inventive bands in D.C. punk history. Bassist Gabe Andruzzi eventually became a Swiss army knife member — saxophone, percussion, keys, etc. — of the major label iteration of acclaimed dance-punk band the Rapture.

Las Mordidas, “Ex-Voto”

If we’re assigning superlatives to all the bands that Thomson fronted, let’s agree that Monorchid was the harshest. Skull Kontrol was probably the coolest. Aptly, Fury was the most unambiguously furious. And Las Mordidas was definitely the weirdest. The band’s rhythm section had been transplanted from neighboring punk-funk crew Fidelity Jones, with drummer Jerry Busher and bassist Dug E. Bird confidently locked into their own private pocket language. The band’s guitar player was the melody-minded Jon Kirschten, previously of the band Rain and younger sibling of Faith bassist and scene hero Chris “Bald” Kirschten. That left Thomson holding the microphone in a riptide, following superball grooves as they bounced down alleyways, then chasing Kirschten’s anthemic chords up mountainsides. In any other band, Thomson’s voice sits dead center, like a bruise that keeps asking to be poked. Here, he’s floating in some kind of limbo, and for once, it doesn’t hurt.

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