Andrew drags me into the pit. When someone falls, that person gets picked up. Girls are allowed, but if you see a guy groping one, he must be ejected and pummeled. Spin kicks are common, and if you get hit by one it's more likely to be followed by a hug and a "Sorry, bro" than a mouthful of fightin' words. Of the 50 or so kids in attendance, half of us are swirling and slamming one another, churning and feeding off a singular energy unique to this phenom of the positively charged group beatdown. The song being played is called "Share," and it is sung by an oafish black man with curly hair who sounds like Michael Jackson when he banters between songs but more like a wood chipper when he's singing: "Shaaaaarrrrrrreeee!!!/ So shaaaaaaarrrrreeeee!!!" It is to these words that we rock.
I have friends who hate it when I put on hardcore. Like, hate it. They argue that it simply doesn't qualify as music; I think to them the sound is as valid an art form as a rock slide or a tree falling in the woods. It's noise, yes, but they don't need to be around to hear it. I see their point, because I remember when I first met Andrew. He'd play this stuff and I'd scoff. "It's three chords. It's just volume and some dude growling tunelessly." It was the shows that converted me, though.
If you don't give hardcore a chance, you'll never get to witness the vibe at many of these concerts, where kids lay the first seeds of these vast communities that stretch in every direction across the country, creating a network of beds to crash in and basements to play. The music sounds simple, but there's a lot of music that sounds simple. What's at the heart of hardcore has as much soul as rock or blues or folk. What most of the bands sing about is the scene itself, about its integrity, about its being larger than the sum of its parts. There's an emphasis on discipline and remaining true to yourself in spite of temptation. It's no wonder Christian hardcore bands can tour with straight-edge bands, which can tour with rowdier rock 'n' roll types. (Andrew could drink four 40-ouncers a night, and I never knew him to show up so much as a minute late to his 8 a.m. construction gig. These days he's an EMT working in New York City.) I certainly wouldn't say that every hardcore fan is a perfect angel, but the bands I like and the fans I know tend to aspire to a kind of self-reliance that's both rare and admirable.
Of course, I can see why people can associate hardcore with chowderheads. Over the years, the ethos of bands like Minor Threat and the Gorilla Biscuits -- hardcore pioneers who wanted nothing more than a good basement to play in and a place to park the van -- has been diluted, co-opted, shopped out, and absorbed. Metal sounds descended from the likes of Black Sabbath have merged with the punk rock sounds of the Dead Kennedys and the Circle Jerks, which in turn have merged with hardcore, which in turn have merged with hip hop and so on. Stirring this chum is Ozzfest, with its babbling, brain-dead mascot and lethal cocktail of questionably talented bands; the Warped Tour, with its throng of mall punks and sugar-high grind-pop bands; this new thing called the Sounds of the Underground fest; and repeated one-offs. Three of four of these are coming through town in the next several weeks; as someone who thinks shows are where the hardcore bug is caught, I thought I'd do a little sounding off.
Ozzfest, Saturday, Aug. 13, Shoreline Amphitheatre (www.ozzfest.com). If anything is to blame for hardcore's widespread bad rap, it's Ozzfest. The fest books only the most histrionic of metal buttholes. Some of these knobs may have heard a Fugazi record at one point in their lives, but for the most part they were reared on Queensryche and Biohazard. One way you can tell good hardcore from shitty music like this is that hardcore bands stand for something; you may think it's dumb to stand for something like being a vegan, but you gotta at least respect the effort. The only thing Ozzfest bands stand for is playing Ozzfest. That's like eating your own shit. (The curveball here is that Mastodon [more metal than hardcore] is on the tour this year and that band wrote a monolithic concept album about Moby Dick, which is a) seriously tits; and b) proof that there are exceptions to every rule.)
Sounds of the Underground, Saturday, July 23, Shoreline Amphitheatre (www.soundsoftheundergroundtour.com). OK, now we're talking. Here's a tour that represents the positive aspects of all the genre splicing that's taken place lately. From Autumn to Ashes mixes hardcore's magnum force with -- what's that? -- violins and creates intricate arrangements that borrow from post-rockers like Mogwai; the band is also not afraid to let a girl take over on vocals. Poison the Well borrows emo harmonies and combines them with guttural yelps, Slayer-esque guitar riffs, and epic, oftentimes graceful, song structures. Throwdown, a straight-edge group, plays that elephant-stampede hardcore, in which grace and eloquence are replaced by sheer oomph. Drifting away from hardcore you'll find the brutal Southern-fried squelch of Lamb of God, the insane and legendary goofball metal of Gwar, and Sweden's death-metal mainstays Opeth, among others.
Darkest Hour, Bleeding Through, Zao, Friday, July 22, Pound-SF (www.poundsf.com). Zao is this long-standing Christian metalcore band whose lyrics sound so cribbed from the Book of Revelations you might mistake the band for satanists ("I taste blood in the air/ Dissected from heaven/ Cut and stripped of her skin/ We let it begin"). Bleeding Through, though you wouldn't know it from the name, is a little more tame, playing heavy, careening death metal. The prize plum here is Darkest Hour. Equal parts hardcore pummel and death metal shriek, the band's sound is delightfully menacing; its guitarist unleashes white-hot solos as ably as its drummer batters his double-bass pedals. Songs can be as short as three minutes or as long as nine, with guitars dogfighting amidst bursts of flak, the whole thrum storming from start to finish. I fully expect this band to convert a few skeptics at this show.