In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk/hardcore/emo explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
Sick, broke, tired, and a thousand miles from home, I dragged my ass onto the stage of some bar in downtown Austin. It was 1998. My band was on tour. It hadn’t been a good one. Since leaving our native Denver a week earlier, the shows had been lousy. The weather had been vicious. The drives between towns had been grueling. We’d played in Phoenix the night before, and we’d made the 15-hour drive to Austin that day with only minutes to spare before our set was supposed to begin. As I hurriedly hauled my equipment from our van to the venue’s small stage, my nose running from a perpetual case of road flu, I kept asking myself, “What the fuck am I doing with all this shit?”
Two years earlier I’d been in a punk band. All I’d needed back then was a bass, an amp, and a cable to connect the two. This new band was different. I now had a guitar, a synthesizer, two amps, a dozen effects pedals, and even a goddamn sampler. Everyone in the band had just as much gear as I did, up to and including our drummer, who had wired up his kit with tons of triggers that he fed through a rack of digital effects. Our practice looked like it belonged to Pink Floyd rather than a bunch of struggling punk kids. Musically, we played something that was vaguely like melodic post-hardcore—half of the band had previously been in the seminal emo group Christie Front Drive—but we also used everything from shoegaze swirl to electronic beats. The EP we’d just released even included DJ remixes. We were confused. We were insane. The weirdest thing, though, is that we weren’t alone.
In 1998, as my band trekked thanklessly across the United States, so did a Swedish group called Refused. The band had been around since the early ’90s, but its 1998 album, The Shape Of Punk To Come, was for all intents and purposes the debut by a brand-new band. It barely resembled the more conventional post-hardocre sound of Refused’s earlier work. Instead it was an experimental clusterfuck: Electronica, spoken-word, free jazz, and even chamber music had been spliced into The Shape Of Punk To Come’s ravenous, angular DNA. But it was more than just a random act of throwing shit against the wall to see what splattered. There was a proclamation driving the album, one that was embedded without irony in its title; just like Ornette Coleman had done with his 1959 album The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Refused had cast its manifesto in the form of music. With the year 2000 just around the corner, frontman Dennis Lyxzén and crew wanted to yank punk back from the Blink-182s of the world, force it to radically evolve, and prepare it for the unknown challenges of the swiftly oncoming future.
It was a ridiculous gesture: pretentious, bombastic, and borderline theatrical. Refused backed it up. The Shape Of Punk To Come made a stir at first. That stir became a splash, and the splash became a tsunami. Eventually the album grew to mythic proportions, influencing untold hundreds of groups—both great and not so good—in the new millennium. In spite of its desire to bring punk into the 21st century, Refused itself didn’t survive to enjoy the album’s success. The band broke up while touring the U.S. in ’98, a heart-breaking implosion captured, with no small amount of hubris-deflating disillusionment, in the 2006 documentary Refused Are Fucking Dead. Refused finally reunited for a tour in 2012, after vowing repeatedly never to do so. By then, a decade and a half after the group’s prime, its once revolutionary songs evoked more nostalgia than any sort of striving for a bright, avant-garde tomorrow. Not that The Shape Of Punk To Come needs anything but a pair of ears and a central nervous system to prove its lasting potency. A lot has been made about the album’s glaring debt to the early-’90s Dischord band Nation Of Ulysses and its mock-radical rhetoric. That can’t be denied. But rather than trying to hide that influence, Refused celebrated it—just as the band clearly reveled in the new territory that Radiohead had opened up a year earlier. The Shape Of Punk To Come doesn’t sound anything like OK Computer, but there’s a similar sense of scale and ambition. Even if Refused wound up slightly less appreciated during its time.
Looking at the year 2000 as some kind of watershed in history, musical or otherwise, might seem pat and quaint today. And maybe it should be seen that way. Certainly no one in the punk scene circa 1998 was talking about Y2K as the catalyst for a possible quantum leap in musical evolution. But there was a feeling in the air that things had to change, to somehow progress, before punk went out with a pop-punk whimper along with the 20th century. One of the strongest influences on The Shape Of Punk To Come had come from the Philadelphia band Ink & Dagger, which had begun tinkering with keyboard-driven, electronica-infused hardcore a couple years before its masterful 1998 debut album, The Fine Art Of Original Sin, was released. Also in ’98, Washington, D.C.’s Frodus unveiled Conglomerate International, a sleek yet twisted spasm of noise that fit nicely alongside Refused (hence the two bands touring together that year), and North Carolina’s Milemarker unleashed Future Isms, a synth-fueled tour de force of subversive, Fugazi-esque post-hardcore that formed the blueprint for even stronger statements to come.
But post-hardcore’s other shot heard ’round the world in 1998, besides The Shape Of Punk To Come, came from the decidedly un-Scandinavian locale of Texas. The scruffy El Paso quintet At The Drive-In had been kicking around for years by then, spazzing out at small, DIY shows and generally bringing a little crustiness into the otherwise clean-cut emo scene. The group’s 1998 album, In/Casino/Out, was where the punk world at large stood up and took notice. Switching between jangly, sinewy guitar interplay and tangled bursts of angst—all topped by the poetic incantations of frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala—the album captured the passion and complexity that emo, at its best, was capable of. Bixler-Zavala’ boiling chant of “Matadors chase the bull in the China shop” on In/Casino/Out’s “Alpha Centauri” is eerily similar to Lyxzén’s refrain of “Let’s take the first bus out of here” on The Shape Of Punk To Come’s “Faculties Of The Skull.” But the parallels between the two albums are more than merely superficial. Like Refused, At The Drive-In heralded a new sound for a new century (although ATDI was destined to implode in 2001, making way for the rise of the bands Sparta and The Mars Volta). As if to drive home the dual role that Refused and At The Drive-In had in pushing post-hardcore into the new millennium, both bands would later reunite just long enough to play Coachella in 2012.
The stalwarts of hardcore were adding plenty of traditionalist roughage to the spazzy new-school racket of Refused and At The Drive-In. Agnostic Front roared back in 1998 after a six-year gap in albums to release Something’s Gotta Give, a return to form for the veteran New York band after a period of thrashing around in the metal pool. From the same side of the tracks, the up-and-coming New York powerhouse Kill Your Idols weighed in with the EP This Is Just The Beginning, a rabid punk-hardcore amalgam that lit a fresh fire under NYHC. The biggest action in East Coast hardcore circa ’98, however, was happening up the seaboard in Boston. Floorpunch was part of a handful of bands that were in the process of revitalizing the youth-crew exuberance of straightedge hardcore.
A pair of fellow Boston bands, Cave In and Converge, were upping the ante in a different way. Neither band was new, but Converge’s 1998 album When Forever Comes Crashing was a new high point for the band, which was beginning to pull together a technical yet corrosive sound that would reach its peak the following decade. Cave In’s 1998 full-length Until Your Heart Stops was the true jaw-dropper, though. Sprawling, multilayered, relentlessly progressive, and poised impossibly between metallic brutality and melodic post-hardcore, the album packed more ideas into its voluminous scope than most bands managed in their entire catalogs. Cave In was so fanatically devoted to the idea of musical mutation, it would soon move on to entirely new sounds; Until Your Heart Stops is the band’s last album that could be remotely considered hardcore. But it’s every inch as forward-thinking as The Shape Of Punk To Come.
Never as well known as Converge or Cave In, Drowningman nonetheless deserves to be placed in that pantheon. The Vermont outfit’s full-length debut, 1998’s Busy Signal At The Suicide Hotline, spliced the intensity of its Boston counterparts with the contorted angularity—not to mention the diseased sense of humor—of cock-punching predecessors like Deadguy and Kiss It Goodbye. Meanwhile, down in Florida, metallic hardcore was being melted down and resculpted by Bloodlet, whose brooding, searing The Seraphim Fall is one of 1998’s least comprising visions of nihilistic oblivion. On the opposite corned of the country, Tacoma’s Botch had far more in common with Drowningman: spiky songs replete with screaming, arty dissonance, and warped laughs that barely concealed a demented deconstruction of hardcore. Botch’s first album, American Nervoso, came out in ’98, and it reaffirmed the genre’s strengths while maliciously pissing all over it at the same time. There was more than just prankishness at work; besides being vastly influential on both punk and metal bands in the ’00s and beyond, American Nervoso is one of the most timelessly bizarre records the punk scene birthed in 1998. Or the entire decade for that matter.
A lot of hardcore bands screamed in 1998, but the subgenre of screamo was about to reach a tipping point. Three milestones of that spastic, abrasive sound came out that year. The first was Saetia’s self-titled debut, an alternately delicate yet skull-scouring throwback to the Moss Icon-and-Indian Summer school of emo. The second two were partly the product of the mind of Justin Pearson, member of both The Locust and The Crimson Curse. Both of those San Diego-based bands issued inaugural albums in ’98: The Locust and Both Feet In The Grave (the latter being The Crimson Curse’s first and last full-length). Where The Locust focused on compact detonations of goofy, robotic powerviolence, Both Feet In The Grave let loose a ghoulish mix of acidic hardcore and old-school goth.
Besides counting Pearson as a member, those two groups had one big attribute in common: Both used keyboards, the symbol of both innovation and pretension in the punk scene circa 1998, depending on your point of view. It didn’t help, in the eyes of many, that Pearson’s sense of style—tight pants, creepers, big hair—flew in the face of the jeans-and-t-shirts anti-fashion of ’90s punk as a whole. The derogatory term back then was Romulan, after the aloof, arrogant, pointy-haired alien race from Star Trek. The funny thing is, everyone up to Green Day would start to look suspiciously like Pearson by the time the new millennium got going—and in fact, the emo stereotype of the ’00s can largely be traced back to Pearson. When Pearson appeared on The Jerry Springer Show in ’98, pretending to reveal a shocking secret to his girlfriend, it only made a huge portion of the punk scene despise Pearson more. At that point, though, he’d been making important, influential punk and hardcore for years, and he’d been releasing even more groundbreaking records on his label, Three One G. Pearson seemed to welcome the spite and divisiveness he instilled in some—although that all pales next to the colossal force of The Locust, an album that ranks up there with 1998’s best, brightest, and weirdest.
Riot grrrl had splintered by 1998, but some of those splinters were as sharp and inspired as the movement that catalyzed them. The Canadian band Submission Hold—led by Jen Thorpe, one of ’90s punk’s most agile and articulate singers—put out Waiting For Another Monkey To Throw The First Brick, an itchy fit of politicized post-punk. Submission Hold wasn’t a riot grrrl band, but a kindred spirit that embodied many of the same ethics and strengths. Most of the remnants of riot grrrl proper had gone a different route: one that led through the garage. The lo-fi rattle of garage-rock settled into Julie Ruin, the eponymous, 1998 debut by Kathleen Hanna’s alter ego following her stint as the iconic frontwoman of Bikini Kill. In many ways, Julie Ruin was a trial run for Hanna’s subsequent and much more popular outfit, Le Tigre—and it’s a name she’s resurrected for her latest band, The Julie Ruin. Also in ’98, Maggie Vail (sister of Hanna’s former Bikini Kill bandmate Tobi Vail) released Tiger Beat, the first album by her group Bangs—a muscular, hook-stuffed outburst of garage-punk swagger. Similar to Bangs, but with a more blatantly retro sound, was The Donnas. The all-woman band only faintly echoed riot grrrl; the sassy snarl of The Runaways was much more of a reference point for The Donnas’ bubblegum-snapping, 1998 album American Teenage Rock ’N’ Roll Machine.
For the most part, garage rock followed its own path—distinct from the punk scene’s boom-and-bust cycles—throughout the ’90s. But lots of bands straddled the garage-punk line, and one of the biggest, New Bomb Turks, clocked in with a strong album in 1998, At Rope’s End. By that time the group had signed to Epitaph, which tried marketing a whole string of garage-rock bands to the Bad Religion-loving masses—with little to no success, as documented in We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001, a book written by New Bomb Turk’s incendiary frontman Eric Davidson. That said, a couple of garage-punk bands in 1998 made sizable inroads, and also presaged the garage explosion that was just a few years away. In Memphis, a misfit adolescent who called himself Jay Reatard appeared on Teenage Hate, the first album by his band The Reatards. Sloppy and chaotic, it also displayed a knack for songwriting that would launch Reatard into the larger pond of indie-rock in the ’00s (before his tragic death in 2010 at the age of 29). Tighter but no less feral, the Seattle band The Murder City Devils released Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts in ’98, an album that perfected the group’s murky garage-punk. The Murder City Devils became a dark-horse success story around the turn of the century, and for good reason; not only was Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts a welcome breath of rotten air in the deodorized world of 1998 punk, it was slathered with keyboards, the instrument that seemed to be popping up everywhere in the scene.
Even one of punk’s most notable mainstream successes, Rancid, was laying on the keys in 1998. Life Won’t Wait was the overdue follow-up to the band’s breakout album, 1995’s …And Out Come The Wolves, and it confounded many fans with its sumptuous, latter-day-Clash-style arrangements—which included tons of organ, courtesy of Vig Ruggiero of The Slackers, one of the great upholders of ska traditionalism in the ’90s. The loss of Rancid to rock-star excess wasn’t that dramatic, though, seeing as how a legion of leaner, meaner street-punk bands were more than happy to fill the vacuum. In Boston alone, The Bruisers, The Ducky Boys, and Dropkick Murphys were crafting blue-collar, nose-to-the-grindstone punk records, including Dropkick Murphy’s full-length debut, Do Or Die. Lead singer Mike McColgan—who would leave soon after, to be replaced by The Bruisers’ Al Barr, who remains at the group’s helm—and his crew peddled a rabble-rousing mix of Celtic charm and British Oi!; a decade and a half later, Dropkick Murphys would be collaborating with another working-class hero, Bruce Springsteen.
Pop-punk was in an odd place in 1998. There was a massive case of income inequality; the top tier of pop-punk bands were superstars (or well on their way), and the rest were struggling near the bottom, neither palatable enough to major labels nor legit enough for the underground. There were still plenty of solid pop-punk bands busting their asses on small stages across the country, but the bands that were able to put a crunchier, rawer, and/or heavier spin on that sound were the ones who flourished in ’98. Kid Dynamite sprang from the rubble of Lifetime, one of the ’90s’ first and best cross-breeders of pop-punk and hardcore; 1998’s Kid Dynamite followed suit with a vengeance. So did Midwestern Songs Of The Americas, Dillinger Four’s album-length introduction to the world. Chunky and coarse instead of sweet, the record wasn’t exactly pop-punk—but it satiated a similar need while fueling a new generation of bands.
New Jersey’s Saves The Day would go on to have an even bigger impact—but before becoming huge in the ’00s, the young outfit issued its 1998 debut, Can’t Slow Down, which put a milder, friendlier spin on the Lifetime formula, with the added benefit of Get Up Kids-esque emo. There were definitely hooks galore on Free The (Young) Pioneers Now!, the 1998 album by Virginia’s (Young) Pioneers. It even came out on Lookout Records, the birthplace of ’90s pop-punk. But there’s a ragged, folky grit to the album that set the stage in the following decade for Against Me!, whose Laura Jane Grace even wound up namedropping (Young) Pioneers in Against Me!’s 2002 song “We Laugh At Danger (And Break All The Rules)”—a song that sounds uncannily similar to (Young) Pioneers. And in Chicago, former members of the ska-punk band Slapstick issued debuts by their new groups. The Broadways’ Broken Star and Alkaline Trio’s Goddamnit each reclaimed pop-punk for the underdog, in spite of the fact that Alkaline Trio was soon to become one of the most popular pop-punk acts on the planet.
As pop-punk entered a stage of metamorphosis in 1998, emo’s momentum kept building. Blake Schwarzenbach, humbled by Dear You, the major-label flop by his prior band Jawbreaker, started a new band that was quieter and more intimate. Jets To Brazil issued its first album, Orange Rhyming Dictionary, in 1998, and it bore little of Jawbreaker’s expansive, corrosive approach to punk. Schwarzenbach’s voice, even more restrained than it is on Dear You, had mellowed and matured, and so had his music—and yes, there were even synthesizers. But there were way more keyboards on How Memory Works, the second album from Joan Of Arc, the band that featured most of the members of emo trailblazer Cap’n Jazz. The sequel to Joan Of Arc’s 1997 debut, A Portable Model Of (even the titles complete each other), How Memory Works tested the patience of Cap’n Jazz fans with its artsy, sketchy excursions into experimental indie rock, especially since Cap’n Jazz’s double-CD anthology Analphabetapolothology was also released in ’98, which brought the defunct group a zealous new following.
Cap’n Jazz shared roots with another Chicago-area emo outfit, Braid, although Braid was still a thriving concern in 1998—as proven by Frame & Canvas, the group’s soaring, powerfully crafted masterpiece. Frame & Canvas typified the Midwest emo sound of the ’90s, even if it was to be Braid’s final album (that is, until the recent announcement of No Coast, the band’s first new album in 16 years). Following Braid’s lead, the Omaha-based band Cursive was finding its feet with its 1998 album The Storms Of Early Summer: Semantics Of Song, an intricate yet cathartic record that sharpened leader Tim Kasher’s compositional chops in preparation for Cursive’s 2000 breakout, the concept album Domestica.
There were a slew of new beginnings going on in the punk scene in 1998. But they were offset by the overhanging cloud of the 21st century, a specter that had already begun to induce as much gloom as it did optimism. Two legendary bands of the ’90s released “end” albums in 1998: Fugazi with End Hits and Mineral with EndSerenading. In a way, those two groups bookended the ’90s scene up to that time; Fugazi had ushered in the decade on a note of strident righteousness, and Mineral was closing it out with a simmering record that brought emo to a murmur by comparison. End Hits isn’t Fugazi’s final album—that wouldn’t come until 2001’s The Argument—but it is Fugazi’s least inspired work, an album that, for the first time in the group’s history, felt recycled. EndSerenading, on the other hand, was bursting with promise for Mineral’s future. It wound up being the group’s swan song. Mineral just announced that it’ll be reuniting for a 2014 tour (something Fugazi fans still pray for, although the chance of that seems less likely with each passing year). That tour is sure to be amazing. Still, it’s hard to imagine those shows being anywhere near as urgent and desperate as the ones that went down in sheds and storage spaces, in basements and warehouses, when emo was not much more than a footnote.
My own band opened for Mineral more than once in and around 1998. We were also lucky enough to play with Jimmy Eat World, Jets To Brazil, The Promise Ring, The Get Up Kids, and Joan Of Arc, not to mention taking Planes Mistaken For Stars with us on their first U.S. tour. But we still broke up in ’99, after three years of relentless touring and botched prospects with record labels. It was a turbulent time, for us and the scene. Punk and hardcore were shooting around in a million directions all at once. Where was it all going? What did punk even mean at the end of the 2000s, a quarter of a century after the movement had sprung into being? Punk hadn’t been built to last, any more than a bomb is. Yet, it couldn’t be killed. It had conquered heights of popularity that no one could have imagined in the ’70s and ’80s, and there was no ceiling in sight. That lack of a ceiling was scary. How much bigger could this bubble get before it burst? Would it ever? Only one thing was sure in 1998: There was still one year left before Y2K hit, and one way or another, punk was going to usher out the ’90s with a bang.
Next month: In 1999, the decade came to a close—and with next month’s column, so will Fear Of A Punk Decade. In the finale of the year-long series, we’ll look both backward and forward at some of the major players in punk, hardcore, and emo at the dawn of the year 2000—a roster that includes AFI, Thursday, A New Found Glory, American Steel, American Football, Jimmy Eat World, Blink-182, The Ataris, Yellowcard, Anti-Flag, Poison The Well, Death By Stereo, Orchid, Grade, Engine Down, Kill The Man Who Questions, This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb, and Small Brown Bike. Not to mention the genius of the late Sarah Kirsch of Torches To Rome and Bread And Circuits (among so many others). We’ll also reopen the fundamental question raised a year ago in the first installment of Fear Of A Punk Decade: Exactly who was afraid of punk domination in the ’90s? And why?