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Bullpen Bulletins #3: Metal & Hardcore – Regurging the Merging

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Since Slough Feg is traditional metal par excellence, fans may be surprised at frontman Mike Scalzi’s roots in hardcore punk. In the below-referenced interview, Scalzi recalls his first band and Slough Feg’s early days. The interview makes good background for Scalzi’s following discussion of the merger of metal and hardcore. – C.L.

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After reading back over this interview I did recently with my ex-band mate Tony, I was reminded of some points brought up in the comments of the last installment of Bullpen Bulletins. Namely, is it possible to gain a relevant perspective on the musical tastes of subsequent generations?

This question is especially poignant when it comes to the merging of metal and punk, or hardcore, which started in the early to mid-’80s. I may be a bad candidate from the pool of aging rockers from that era for giving a thorough account of how these two musical styles merged, steeped as I was (and am) in my own little taste bubble, ignoring much of what was out there because it did not interest me. I don’t have a complete list or timeline of events that contributed to the merging of metal and hardcore into speed metal, thrash metal, metalcore, death metal, black metal, etc.

However, I do recall the general excitement felt by many when the two styles no longer seemed mutually exclusive. Feather-haired, parking-lot dope smokers became regulars at “underground” hardcore parties and joined in the moshpit as more and more hardcore bands began to incorporate guitar solos and classical-influenced parts into their songs—–which began to extend in length past the standard DRI-mandated one-and-one-half minute (or less) length. [ed. note: See this chart of average length of DRI songs by album.] Hardcore bands began to grow their hair—-perhaps Black Flag was one major reason for this, but remember that although not often cited for it, they were one of the first “hardcore” bands to incorporate metal elements into their style—–expended guitar solos and doom riffs à la Black Sabbath as early as ’82/’83—–before we had even heard of Metallica on the East Coast.

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Black Flag

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Although I have no general thesis to defend on this point and am not ashamed to indulge in a little romantic nostalgia, I must say that although the inevitable merging of these two styles was a great thing in its early incarnations, it eventually (and perhaps inevitably as well) ruined both styles. Out of the merging of metal and punk (or hardcore), we ended up with stuff like nu-metal (of course, the merging of rap and metal is partially responsible for this as well, something I have not the time, patience, nor thankfully the knowledge to expound upon——but I will admit that the inception of this merger was a good thing in theory as well) and grindcore (sorry, guys, but you know how I feel about this….). I’d hate to blame Henry Rollins for the tough-guy Pantera/Machine Head vocal style that became so popular in the ’90s, but I suppose he’s ostensibly one of the biggest influences on it—–although I’m sure he’d try to disclaim it—–and understandably so (but then Jesus Christ did say, “By their fruits ye shall know them”, not by their disclaimers….).

I suppose I am partially responsible (in some microscopic way) for this merging, since I played metal-influenced hardcore near the time of its inception—–although I’d like to think that in 1985, we took the best of both styles rather than the worst. Although some of the more popular styles that emerged from this admixture have remained somewhat nauseating for the last 20-odd years——the influence of one on the other within each style’s separate domain is still pronounced and often positive. If that sounds a bit academic, what I mean is that there is an enduring punk influence on a lot of metal, which is a positive thing as long as it stays metal (and perhaps the reverse is true as well, but I am not in any position to judge at this point). The problem arises, in my judgment, when the two styles become unrecognizably wide of their origins. Obviously progress is necessary for any form of expression——and I’m sure someone could easily shoot me down here in a second with some silver-bullet example(s) of hardcore and metal bands that have merged both styles into a hybrid that’s neither punk or metal, and done a fantastic job of it.

But, generally, I appreciate the styles sticking to what they originally were, at least in spirit, while incorporating just enough of the other to increase the intensity of what they’re already doing. Examples: C.O.C.’s Animosity—-an album I’ve cited often as a favorite and a seminal album for me, represented the origins (in my experience) of a hardcore album with a healthy metal injection. I would not call it a metal album or a “punk” album, but hardcore with elements of metal. But regardless of what I call it, I think it’s fantastic. It’s heavier than hell, has great screaming, guttural vocals, fantastic riffs, bombastic production, and an overall huge sound. Never have tired of this album—–it represented everything my first band (Heart of Darkness) wanted to be: hardcore with a strong heavy metal influence.

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Dr. Know – “Life Returns”

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Then there was Dr. Know—-Plug in Jesus was another seminal record for me. In a way even more metal than Animosity, a little less frantic and bombastic, but some very sharp, insidious guitar riffs and maniacal vocals. Some medium-paced horror story thrillers in there (“Mr. Freeze”) as well as trash/doom classics such as the brilliant “Life Returns” (got to get around to covering that one of these days………) The success of these songs is in the abundance of tact and taste used in the incorporation of metal elements into the hardcore framework. You don’t get the feeling that they’re just throwing a bunch of riffs and ideas together for the purpose of mixing punk and metal—-but it is done in order to achieve a desired effect, for a particular idea in a particular song. Although I don’t think for a second that either Dr. Know or C.O.C. were particularly scientific about this, they both had ideas they wanted to express that crossed domains. They had both already done hardcore albums that deviated little from the standard formula, and wanted to expand their sound by writing more challenging, compelling material.

I guess it’s hard to describe what it felt like first hearing these albums back in the mid-’80s. All I can tell you is that it was very exciting because it sounded so fresh. I was an absolute Sabbath freak at the time, and a huge Maiden fan as well. I was exposed to Black Flag and Circle Jerks and Sex Pistols in the early ’80s (around ’83/’84), but wasn’t necessarily interested in playing hardcore. I was still mostly a metalhead until I heard C.O.C in ’85 (or was in ’86…….). I’d been listening to Venom for a couple years at this point, but considered them mostly metal, while incorporating some punk elements, and early Maiden, of course, is often cited for this as well, though I don’t think they inherited much from punk other than a little faster tempo when compared to their NWOBHM contemporaries.

It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that I felt there was something really new going on—-naïve as I was, and perhaps still am as to when this evolution truly started. For me, though, it didn’t transfer over as well into thrash and speed metal. I loved Exodus’ Bonded by Blood and Metallica’s Ride the Lightning, but didn’t see as much of a progression here away from traditional metal other than the increased speed. In fact, I remember everyone telling me I had to hear Metallica, so I got Kill ‘Em All and was disappointed at first because I though it sounded too commercial. I remember thinking after the first listen, “This sounds like Ratt!!” That was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, and I learned to like the album, but it never really seemed like anything new to me (I’m sure some Bay Area residents would have me hung by my nuts for this statement, especially if they got to see Metallica live back then, which I of course never did).

In the late ’80s and ’90s, I thought hardcore was partially to blame for the lack of songwriting and imagination developing in metal—–bands like Anthrax (after the first two albums) became the standard for goateed, shorts-wearing thrashers by playing cookie-cutter riffs with unimaginative lyrics, and eventually Machine Head and contemporaries brought “metal” to its lowest point with the whole “urban metal” hard-guy approach. Although these styles took a lot from rap and hip-hop, I think hardcore was an equal if not larger contributor to their origins. But these are just the negative examples.

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In 1986, I was lucky enough to get to play shows with for C.O.C and Dr. Know, and that was truly awesome. The guys in these bands were probably seven to 10 years older than I was, and they were worlds apart from me—–already touring in nasty vans and sleeping on everyone’s floor for months at a time. Mike Dean seemed to have a very punk attitude. After a soundcheck, he sat with me in the Penn State dining halls and ate shitty canned food out of vending machines. I remember exactly what I ate: a half-sized can of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli that came out of the vending machine hot. He ranted to me on and on about “middle-aged youth”.

He asked, “Do you go to college here?”

“No I don’t, I’m still in high school, but I might eventually”, I replied.

He rejoined, “These people seemed like middle-aged youth. They act like they’re old, they don’t know how to have any fun”.

Then I remember saying (always the contrarian), “Well, it just depends on which road you wanna take. You can go down this road and go to college and get a job and all that, or you can go off into to all this punk stuff. It’s really all the same, just a different road”.

To which Mike replied, “I’m not going down a road, I’m floating down a river”, and got up and walked away.

Interesting. He wasn’t trying to be rude, I don’t think, ’cause he was courteous to me later that night, but I never forgot what he said, nor did I ever really understand what he meant by it. Later my friend who was touring with them told me he’d been eating a lot of mushrooms on that tour. Awesome dude, awesome band. I had no idea how lucky I was, though, in respect to how bleak the near future of hardcore/underground metal shows was to become in just a few years. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. If we knew what we had back then, it wouldn’t have been the same—–you can only truly appreciate it when you kind of take it for granted, at least at age 16. It makes it seem all the more special looking back, since I didn’t even know what was really going on.

The truth is, there was always a roughness and rawness to what I considered good metal long before there was ever hardcore or even punk. Early Priest and Sabbath probably influenced American hardcore almost as much as punk did, so perhaps the point is moot. But in the ’80s, I think metal needed a good dose of hardcore to speed it up and break it back down to its raw beginnings, and perhaps hardcore needed metal to continue to challenge its listeners and keep the interest of its musicians. I don’t think I would have played in hardcore bands, or at least not for long, if it weren’t for the metal influence.

— Mike Scalzi
Photos of Scalzi courtesy of Uber Rock

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Bullpen Bulletins #2: Is there possible accounting for taste?
Bullpen Bulletins #1: Welcome to the Grind Ole Opry

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