Underground enthusiasts, don't despair. Punk and hardcore is thriving in the Bay Area. It's an active mixture of spittle and blood coagulating in dozens of basements and rehearsal spaces (and okay, Tumblr, too.) When not in the subterranean venues of the live performance ritual, punk and hardcore lives in record grooves. Specifically, 7-inch vinyl records. With room for two-and-half to six minutes of music, low prices, and diverse packaging options, the format is conducive to urgent music for listeners with short attention spans. So the reputations of punk and hardcore bands are made and betrayed in less than a foot of music. Here we've combed record store racks and merch tables to list eight of the most worthy 7-inch EPs and 45 RPM singles dished out by local groups so far this year.
The latest hardcore project of Ovens leader and solo artist Tony Molina, Caged Animal's debut kicks off with a cameo from Bay Area rapper Antwon. The other tracks are startlingly brief, burly, and formulaic hardcore. That's the Molina aesthetic, though. With both hardcore and pop, Molina plays a game of reduction. He removes all musical tropes except the ones necessary to qualify a song as fierce or saccharine. Sometimes his songs are so concise they're baffling, but each burst brings a significant emotional impact.
Close the Door
Neon Piss is an Oakland quartet peddling melodic, mid-tempo punk differentiated by vocalist Kyle King's affected vocal delivery and thoughtful phrasing. He dons a regionally ambiguous European accent and wisely elongates or rushes syllables for maximum impact. Beneath him, quick leads slither out of the clean guitar riffs and then retreat back into choppy rhythm playing. Neon Piss' ascending chord progressions build to exalted releases, but inevitably stumble back into darkness, sneering all the way.
Oakland trio Yi's new EP fearlessly embellishes the up-tempo punk formula and criticizes the scene, showing that experimentation and critical lyrics don't necessarily neuter the music. Each track here boasts a part that defies punk convention, like the atmospheric cymbal swooshes punctuating "Junk Memory," the No Wave-inspired guitar damage throughout, and the unexpected hook cropping in the kidney stone tale "Got a Stone." The vocals are quite deranged, too as if vocalist Jackson Blumgart is actually passing something awful. It adds weight to the frustrated proclamations on "Just Quit Punk," where he explains, "If I had known that the PC police were back in force to ruin the scene / I wouldn't have bought all these zines." It's not an original critique, but it's relevant and bold. Also, this record's insert contains a "thank you" list that's about 18 inches long in tiny lettering, featuring bands, venues, record labels, houses, zines, and more. If Blumgart's checking out of punk, these are his fond memories.
Yadokai's final show (well, second to last) was a staggeringly powerful hardcore performance. Four guitarists, the thunder of four drummers from behind one kit, and one absolutely unhinged vocalist writhing on stage, charging the audience and releasing savage cries. The shoegaze cliché is transcendence through volume, while adopting a statuesque stance. Yadokai commanded the same transcendent noise, only set to athletic tempos and chaotic screaming. It's a vast improvement over noisy moping. With tolerant neighbors and adequate speakers, this record gives listeners something close to the experience at home.
Shadow on the Wall
With a name taken from a feral and self-loathing song by Ohio proto-punk band the Electric Eels, local group Life Stinks are appropriately down-trodden and dejected on this debut EP. Threadbare drums and ugly riffs constitute negative grooves for hostile and menacing vocals to make threats and utter invectives. Life Stinks relish their thuggish postures and play correspondingly tough music. There's no redeeming social value, and I doubt Life Stinks have any interest in your scene. Yet, as the great irony of standoffish punk goes, Life Stinks's surly identity is precisely what will endear listeners to their cause.
Even before its debut EP, when Replica touted only a demo cassette tape, the Oakland hardcore quartet built an impeccable reputation for its devastating live performances. The lead vocalist couples her husky, monotone shouts with black stripes painted across her face -- and Replica sets command the relentless fury one would expect from a punk in war paint. Even without the confrontational posturing of the live set, Replica's EP boasts precise playing at extreme tempos and the confidence of the band's near-mythic status. That said, originality and innovation isn't demanded of excellent hardcore as much as more elusive qualities like spirit and conviction. It's a musically conservative genre in that sense, but Replica surely has the latter assets.
Neo-Cons vocalist Jason Halal jeers, snivels, and spittles across each track on the local hardcore group's latest EP. The central vocal refrain on "Nimby" sounds like Halal's bandmates are systematically prodding his various body parts to produce an array of screeches and squeals. It's difficult to discern whether Halal's vocal lines are irate gibberish, but the gang-vocal back-ups on "No Allegiance" and "Going Commando" are excellent foils for his delivery. Neo-Cons' sense of humor does "Idiot Circus" a great service: they're political in a cheeky, oblique way that's fun and decidedly not macho.
Similar to Replica, whose members hail from storied and respected Bay Area hardcore bands, Needles features members of Limp Wrist, Talk is Poison, Los Crudos and more. In indie rock, name-dropping a high-profile producer is usually just a marketing ploy with no actual correlation to a record's quality. In hardcore, when a group is comprised of alumnus from other legendary bands of the not so distant past, it carries much more weight. At the very least, it does for Needles. With vocals by Martin Sorrondeguy, front man of '90s hardcore heavy-weights Los Crudos -- who exploded political consciousness into the punk scene once again -- and later legendary queer hardcore band Limp Wrist, it's a guarantee that Needles' vocals will be gravelly, impassioned, and meaningful. The sinuous guitar lead and rumbling tom-toms kicking off and closing out this record's title-track bookend its blitzkrieg fills and hyperactive riffs. The rest follows suit, meeting and exceeding the expectations raised by the biographies of the band members.