Cro-Mags – ‘Alpha Omega’ Turns 25
“It's just shitty. Artistically, the vocals suck and the tempos are off.”
That’s what former Cro-Mags guitarist Parris Mayhew thinks about the band’s third album, Alpha Omega, which turns 25 this month (as well as their next album, 1993’s Near Death Experience). Of course, the fact that he didn’t play on either record might have something to do with his opinion.
From skinhead and junkie drama during the original heyday of New York hardcore to founding bassist Harley Flanagan stabbing two current bandmates at Webster Hall in 2012, the Cro-Mags are not known for a consistent line-up or a career that thrives with steadiness, support and/or longevity. They are known for mashing up metal and hardcore with a brutality that their lives seemed to depend on, a desperation that bled through barking lyrics and manic riffs to create a genre-blending sound that brought together punks, skaters, hardcore kids and metalheads.
In spite of their short-lived high point, sporadic career, and complete lack of harmony, the impact the band made speaks all the more to their raw power, but it also calls attention to their internal chaos and sonic mood swings from album to album.
Cro-Mags’s 1986 debut The Age of Quarrel is often credited with defining the sound of an entire subgenre.
“It's practically impossible to understand or appreciate New York hardcore without first spending time listening to The Age of Quarrel,” Vincent Jeffries writes on AllMusic.
Their 1989 follow-up, Best Wishes, took a metal turn with thrash elements. Flanagan replaced original singer John Joseph, his urgent and gravelly melodic vocals sounding more distinctively metal than Joseph’s truncated hardcore shouts. This album is fondly remembered for breaking down the walls between devoted followers of different punk and metal genres. Complemented by the take-no-prisoners The Age of Quarrel, it cemented Cro-Mags’s position as a unifying force in extreme music.
So where, then, does that leave Alpha Omega?
The Cro-Mags didn’t play with the same lineup for this third album, though as Metal Sucks points out, they’ve never had the same lineup for any two albums. Joseph returned as the band’s vocalist, and Mayhew departed. Guitarists Doug Holland and Gabby Abularach and drummer Dave DiCenso joined Joseph and Flanagan to round out the group.
Alpha Omega may simply have fallen prey to a cold, hard truth that looms over every recording effort that every band makes: the more of an impact the band’s previous album made, the more pressure there is on the next one. With their first album stabbing a territorial flag in hardcore and their second firing up a whole new crossover fan base, Alpha Omega had to do more than just be a solid record. It had to do something fresh or it had to shock and inspire, and it fell short. But it deserves a little more credit than Mayhew might be willing to give.
After all, Alpha Omega gave us “The Other Side of Madness,” arguably one of the band’s most well-known songs beyond its dedicated following. “Eyes of Tomorrow” represented the Cro-Mags’s own stamp on the burgeoning rap-metal phenomenon, even if the record scratching somehow already felt hacky back then. “The Paths of Perfection” tends to be a fan favorite, it’s measured clash of hard-hitting rhythm and melody sounding like a confident statement from the band: “we are metal.” And “Victims” rounds out these highlights nicely with a healthy helping of metallic drama.
Held up against its two predecessors, Alpha Omega is not a game-changer or the reinvention of a metallic hardcore wheel. If allowed to stand on its own, though, it’s a solid album that’s got some fight in it. Hardcore and metal fans in general might feel less excited by Alpha Omega than The Age of Quarrel or Best Wishes, but Cro-Mags fans have nothing to feel let down about with this third album.
One could also make the point that the Cro-Mags’s discography only went downhill from Alpha Omega, too, meaning it might have been their last truly authentic, brazen effort. 1993’s Near Death Experience is often regarded as formulaic: even if its songs are well-written and well-played, they sound like superficial rip-offs of commercial metal and hard rock, as if the band thought that’s just what people wanted to hear.
The band’s last studio album, 2000’s Revenge, met a better reaction and earned credit for its return to original Cro-Mags bile, but over the years, the band’s in-fighting has unfortunately grown to overshadow its music. In the seven years between the fourth and fifth albums, Joseph stepped back out, Flanagan returned to the lead singer role, and Mayhew returned to the fold. More lineup changes only served to stir up the gossipy aspect of a band that should have been able to keep attention on its music.
While the Cro-Mags were a festering pocket of chaos from their very origin, their first two albums made big impacts and influenced other bands. Alpha Omega held its own as an example of the acidic, fiery chemical reaction that comes from mixing hardcore and metal. And then the Cro-Mags started their descent into drama: internet searches for articles about their music and album reviews just pull up pages and pages of conflict timelines and interviews with different members calling each other out. No matter how good Revenge might have been, Alpha Omega may be the band’s last piece of pure Cro-Mags history, celebrated then and now for its music above all else.