Monday, July 22, 2013

A Bastard Noise: Power Violence Lives on in a New Generation

“No Comment! Manpig! Capitalist Casualties! Man is the Bastard! West Coast Power Violence! Let’s fucking go! Kick ass!”
And with that, the term power violence entered the hardcore lexicon. The loose confederation of California bands had little in common stylistically beyond a penchant for brevity. They certainly didn’t set out to spark a musical revolution. But 20 years after Man is the Bastard shouted the term into existence, a host of up and coming bands are taking what was once an inside joke to brand outcasts in the California hardcore scene and turning it into an ongoing and constantly evolving musical movement of its own.
Though the term power violence has been “commodified and bastardized” in the two decades since its introduction, Robby Komen of Sea of Shit still sees the spirit of that first run of bands in the wave of contemporary practitioners.
“It was definitely a time/era specific thing in its original incarnation (just like anything, it has to start somewhere), but I do believe there are contemporaries that earnestly share the same ethos and ideologies that unified these bands in the past,” Komen said.
Attracted by power violence’s aggression and malleability, a modern wave of neoviolence bands are taking short shocks of hardcore festooned with prominent bass and exploring all of the possible permutations, keeping it from going stale and extinct. Sprawling across the globe and adapting to fit new musical ecosystems, power violence is more vibrant and fertile than Man is the Bastard and their cohorts ever could have imagined.

Reassembly Line

Robocop (politely) ask the bitches to leave.
Though many of today’s most prominent neoviolence musicians were probably more attuned to Barney than Infest during power violence’s first wave, each finds something in the two decades old subgenre that speaks to them in a way that other flavors of punk just don’t.
“The early Slap-a-Ham stuff is untouchable, but to me PV is just a blend of all the stuff I grew up loving, like hardcore punk, grindcore and an emphasis on music and not social status,” Amputee guitarist Bill Sikora, who previously played in Chainsaw to the Face and who sidelines in Attitude Era, said. “If you take it way too seriously or you think the genre is a joke, then your band probably sucks. I feel like it's something you get or you just don't.”
Robocop guitarist Ryan Page said he never considered playing power violence prior to being invited to join the band, but the sound gave him a platform to play off of fast hardcore conventions and bring new sounds into the style. Robocop took power violence, added new elements and influences, a glaze of 21st century philosophy and introspection and made it their platform for exploring the world around them and how humanity navigates it. In many ways, Robocop was a response to the “egregiously stupid” local hardcore scene Page had grown up with.
“When Robocop started we were definitely attacking that, and the first demo is definitely that, but eventually it became obvious that we needed to offer something new, if we were going to call out what was currently going on,” he said. “I had already begun incorporating the things I was interested in into what I was writing, but when I first read J.G. Ballard I began to feel that there was something about his writing that related to the kind of music we played. Our music was more direct and less ethereal than what I was doing with Body Hammer, and I felt that it was important that I move away from the influences of Jigoku (which was almost everything I was interested in at the time), towards something that fit the aesthetic we were creating.”
Komen was also attracted to the potential to experiment within the basic hardcore framework that power violence offered.
“It’s just more interesting sounding; that is the bottom line in my case,” he said.  “Preferential it seems, but I also think you can experiment with it a lot more than any other form of hardcore/punk, and it’s more often than not the heaviest sound you can get without skirting into full-on metal territory, which helps in its effectiveness for conveying messages that involve anger, misanthropy, etc. but still wanting to remain grounded in punk. It typically has a very intelligent approach to it and is more dynamic overall compared to the general ideas of formulaic hardcore.”
Though power violence is most closely associated with that cadre of California bands in the early 1990s, from the outset it was nebulous term both musically and geographically that somehow managed to encompass both Capitalist Casualties’ pissed off hardcore and Gasp’s esoteric ruminations. Living on the East Coast at the time when the hardcore cognoscenti were looking west, New Yorkers Black Army Jacket took elements of the power violence sound and blended it with their local hardcore to blistering effect.
 “The thing about the whole power violence era was that (Black Army Jacket guitarist) Andrew Orlando was really tapped into it,” bassist Carlos Ramirez said. “He knew a lot of the west coast people. Guys like Chris Dodge and Gary from Noothgrush. So when we started Black Army Jacket, our demo got in the hands of a lot of the so-called ‘right people’ in that world. Andrew had been kicked out of a band called Milhouse who were more like that screamy -- what we used to call ‘emo’ back then -- kind of hardcore stuff. When he spoke to me about starting BAJ, he mentioned bands like Crossed Out and Spazz as reference points. We definitely had that kind of flavor in our sound.”
Like their progenitors, today’s neoviolence bands are united more by a mindset and an attitude than artificially constructed genre tags. It’s something today’s bands learned from their forerunners, Komen said.
“[S]ome of these bands sounded nothing alike. That’s because they didn’t even know they were playing ‘power violence’ yet,” he said. “They were just playing their version of hardcore, for themselves, until someone came along and appropriated a subgenre to what they were doing. I think a lot bands still have that mindset now, and get categorized against their will.”

Back to Bass-ics

All your bass are belong to Greber.
Though power violence has never been defined with any specificity, the one throughline that unites past and present practitioners is an appreciation for bass, an instrument that’s often casually tossed aside by their kinsmen in grindcore.
“This wonderful instrument is what gives, with some distortion, all the body, and even I would say it’s what gives the ‘power’ to PV,” Chulo guitarist and vocalist Sebastián Barragán said. “Part of the allure of the bass is also that it can be played hard, doesn’t require much technique (obviously if you’re playing simple, not-MitB song structures), and would always give a harsh, heavy sound.”
Pushing an awkward instrument like a bass to the forefront emphasizes the defiance and confrontation that is part of the attraction for many power violence aficionados.
“I always dig bands who have recordings with the bass higher up than normal,” said Fuck the Facts bassist Marc Bourgon who also plays in power violence band Greber. “Makes it heavy as fuck. MitB (obviously with only bass) and Spazz have their bass way the fuck up and it makes for some awesome recordings. I can't speak for everyone but I like the bass because you're limited to less options when it comes to what you play. Too many options = confused tall dudes.”
“By nature the genre is more extreme. Guitars and drums are played really fast, really loud and it has a tendency to involve more than just three chords,” Sikora said. “It seems to make sense that bassists would push low end and skill as much as possible. When I joined Chainsaw to the Face, they hadn't had a bassist for almost three years. Being 17 and in a band I loved, I guess I felt I had something to prove. I wanted it to stand out with tons of fills, chords and as much distortion as I could possibly deliver.”

Dead Languages, Foreign Bodies

Chulo rep for Mar de Mierda
Power violence has gone global in the years since Slap-a-Ham closed up shop and the first run bands broke up. It pops up in little pockets all across the world with nearly every country laying claim to the style. Holland boasts Jesus Crost and F.U.B.A.R. while Canada birthed bands like The Endless Blockade, Detroit and Greber. Power violence has found a particular toe hold in South America where Beatriz Carnicero represents Uruguay while bands like Chulo find the style perfectly represents the political and cultural ethos of modern Colombia.
Rather than one tight-knit group of bands, power violence has splintered into a plethora of regional and international scenes, Detroit drummer Isaac Horne said.
“Obviously local DIY scenes are developing/thriving how they always have pretty much, but I think that the internet played a huge role in bringing those little scenes together globally,” he said. “Now through navigating Bandcamp, Facebook etc, you can get to know all about that sweet fastcore band that played here last year, and all of their peers with no more effort than just a few clicks.”
For Chulo, power violence was an opportunity to comment on the violence and corruption of modern Colombia. It was important that the band not only scream out their frustration, but do it in a purely South American idiom.
“For example, we try to put everything about the band in Spanish (words and phrases we normally use in our daily basis), from the samples we use for some tracks to the lyrics and titles,” Barragán said. “We also try to blend different components from other genres into our song structures so that it may result as an appealing sound to anyone, even if that person has been listening to hardcore punk and/or PV since a long time.”


Sea of Shit seek the elusive brown note throughout the world's finer basements.
Power violence was predicated on the notion of self reliance and, for better or for worse, being DIY in the digital age is as simple as registering a Bandcamp account. Lowering the barrier for participation has democratized punk ever further, allowing an even wider variety of voices to be heard. That also makes it harder to sift for the gems among the dross.
“I think the internet has become too underground for even myself,” Bourgon said. “There's so much great stuff out there that never gets its fair shake. On the other hand, anyone can make and distribute music and I figure that the best will still rise to the top regardless of what media push it gets. In 20 years when people are releasing VHS tapes of YouTube playlists I won't complain.”
Where Chris Dodge’s Slap-a-Ham played host to the best that power violence had to offer the first time around, in the internet age, that gap is being filled in many ways by Jay Randall’s Grindcore Karaoke, which has helped highlight efforts by Robocop, Sea of Shit, Detroit, Chulo and a host of other like-minded artists. Though it’s not a perfect comparison, neoviolence musicians said the added boost that comes from Randall’s name has helped open doors.
“I think Grindcore Karaoke, in a few years, will be regarded as a representative part of this phase of extreme music, perhaps in a similar manner to Slap-a-Ham,” Page said. “The fact that we were one of the first bands on the label does feel significant (although, of course it’s mostly by chance that we had something ready when it started), and despite the fact that we’re definitely not the most popular band on there, I can look at few bands now where there is a clear aesthetic influence.”
“When we got to see/play with thedowngoing in November, they said the only reason they could tour North America was Grindcore Karaoke,” Horne said. “So I’d say the internet’s doing a pretty damn good job of keeping DIY alive; it can take you to the other side of the world to play basements and laundry mats after all.”
The internet creates opportunities but it can’t replace in face interaction. Sikora said downloads are no substitute for the sense of community that comes from playing live.
“If bands stop putting out records, they'd have no reason to tour, and without live shows, the scene is over,” he said. “You can only find so much on Wikipedia and by Googling ‘bands like Siege.’ I totally support the internet as a way to seek out and sustain the scene, but fuck shit like spending all your money on collectible bullshit. Support current/active bands. Death to capitalist hardcore.”
The times and tools may change but there’s a commonality of intention, a disdain for compromise that links today’s neoviolence bands with their musical ancestors. There’s a similar drive to play the most destructive hardcore that they can hammer out, standing out in defiance of fashions, trends and shifting public tastes.
“It is definitely a different age we are living in, in general, but there are still legit weirdos who love it and are doing it for the right reasons, and they shouldn’t be discredited just because they were born in a different decade,” Komen said.


Perpetual Strife said...

Really dig this piece andrew. power violence, more than any other genre,feels like it has that kind of freedom where you don't need to put tags in front of it like death metal or hardcore need. endless blockade,spazz, water torture or despise you all fit yet are very different.

blasting D said...

yep, interesting, I know have a more precise idea of where the term comes from and which bands are related to it. and it's good to have comments by the musicians involved themselves.

Alex said...

Your best write up to date for sure! Powerviolence (like grindcore) is in a golden age right now, so many good bands, so little time!

Anonymous said...

Great read!

I'm no where near an expert on PV, but there are bands I like. I always find that reading about the genre is interesting just because it's so loose and weird.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Love this! I got into PV years back because I was just completely disgusted with the whole crew-based, meathead hardcore scene. To me, PV is the true representation of what hardcore should be after youth crew happened and everything went metal. Here in Arkansas, we were lucky enough to have bands like Rash of Beatings, Burned Up Bled Dry, and BG to satisfy our extreme hardcore needs.