Ah, hardcore in the '90s, what can I say? Between the music morphing into endless mosh metal with cookie monster vocals, former core dudes putting gel in their hair and making tunes to rock out to while sipping on wine coolers or the myriad of subgenres that sprung up i.e. pop-punk, screamo, beatdown, Krsnacore, and what have you; the endless variations made me appreciate the original sound all the more. Sure, there were periodic resurgences of back-to- basics straight-forward hardcore but I wasn’t opposed to progression as long as that primal vibe was maintained & in the '90s that meant fusing dissonant elements, off-kilter tempos, stronger production values, and skilled musical chops.
The following playlist is not meant to be comprehensive or an exact document of those times, it is merely my own highly biased, particularly opiniated, personal list of bands that stand out for me from that decade. Everyone will have their own picks I’m sure but if I can turn someone on to a band that they might not have been aware of, then this virtual mixtape has been worth it.
Here’s 12 selections in no particular order:
A band that immediately comes to mind when thinking of people that previously played in hardcore outfits and wished to channel that energy into a more progressive vibe; taking cues from the parallel AmRep/Touch & Go scene and mixing it with muscular noisy punk aggression, featuring members of Burn and Rorschach. Both their releases on Wreck-Age Records are stellar and have been recently reissued on Deathwish. Post Die 116 outfits include '90s all-stars like Deadguy, Pry, Kiss It Goodbye, Stillsuit, The Kill Van Kull.
Scottish no wave jazz skronk hardcore weirdos with highly politicized lyrics are the closest I can come to somehow describe Dawson’s 1991 debut LP, Barf Market: You’re Ontae Plums. They’re listed as "far out and different" on a local punk/hc/crust bill of the time and I wish more bands had followed this esoteric path, their other two albums and the split EP with Ruins from 1993 are all twistedly brilliant. Like-minded Scot contemporaries Stretchheads, Archbishop Kebab & Dog Faced Hermans are also worth looking into if you dig more challenging sounds.
Pleasant Valley Children
PVC were a dirty, evil-sounding nihilist UKHC band, and their Fuck, Kill, Destroy LP is a brilliant bridge referencing early pioneers like Die Kruezen/Septic Death crossing over to the power violence set that sprouted in the '90s. The sort of fell in between the cracks as I don’t see too people many referencing them, you can rectify that by checking out their full discography on (legendary DIY label) Flat Earth Records.
Pennsylvania outfit that mined the DC sound with post-hardcore tendencies but what made them stand out for me were Vanessa Downing’s powerfully soulful vocals and the excellent musicianship on display. I tried finding a YouTube/Spotify link with no success, all I could come up with is drummer Ben Azzara’s website, where you can listen to everything they ever did, just click on a particular MP3. Ben also went to play in The Delta 72, a fantastic blues/punk outfit, in the late '90s. I hope an official Junction reissue will turn up one day as tunes this good deserve to be known further than just the people that were there back then.
This record always reminds me of seeing them perform at bars in NYC like The Continental or The Spiral in 1990 and being alongside friends who, just a couple years earlier, had been at all ages matinees watching their previous bands Agnostic Front, Raw Deal, and Absolution. I guess this was hardcore for the over 21 drinking crowd and it seemed befitting as a logical extension of what we’d all grown up with; the sound might have shapeshifted but the spirit remained.
Someone once described them as NYHC meets Detroit Rock ala Stooges/MC5 and that’s about right. Check out all their material on Blackout! Records, as well as their Deluxe LP on WeBite. RIP vocalist Billy Childers
Finnish band that took the classic Scandinavian Terveet Kadet/Rattus sound and channeled it into an aggressive '90s mix of pummeling riffs and in your face vocals. All throughout their career they refined and expanded upon this formula, veering off into acoustic and theatre works, but it’s this K.O. LP from 1990 and anything they released on Bad Vugum Records or Alternative Tentacles that hits the spot for me.
Virginia band that relocated to San Francisco in the early '90s and while they found a home on the respected Very Small records roster; they always seemed out of step musically with what was going on in the bay area at the time. Too metal, too jazzy or just plain too weird for some and Wendy Niles’ vocals (and clarinet!) could be an acquired taste but I always loved their idiosyncratic spirit. Look for their demo, 10”split with Schlong, and this Paradigm EP from 1993, all up on YouTube.
Ok, full disclosure: I put out records by these guys and they are dear old friends of mine, but the LP I’m including is the one record I didn’t release by them, 1995’s ¡Adios Armageddon! album on Reservoir Records. I consider this their masterpiece, fusing hardcore/punk roots with dissonance, stop on a dime tempos and an overall feeling that one could still be into aggressive music without regurgitating the past or falling into present day mediocrity. Look out for their Skinjob LP, various EPs, and their swan song, the great Weird Weirdo mini-album from 1997.
This is what emotional hardcore/punk meant to me in the '90s; heartfelt tunes sang with conviction in a powerful raspy tone reminiscent of Leatherface’s singer, Frankie Stubbs, with subject matter championing workers rights, targeting racial inequalities and speaking up for the downtrodden of the world. All the material they recorded for Allied Records is essential as well as the post-Strawman band, Songs for Emma. Extra kudos to singer Tommy Strange for having played in '80s greats Zero Defex and Forethought.
The whole '90s emo/basement shows scene got a little too pretentious for me at times but it was infinitely more preferable than wannabe gangsta tough guy hardcore crap. I did enjoy going out to Jon Hiltz’s house in NJ and this is where Greyhouse blew me away. Sure, they had the requisite Revolution Summer DC influences but the songs were so good, with hooks galore, a potent sense of dynamics and they maintained a certain lineage of the Dischord sound that I loved. This EP from 1991 and their split with Dahlia Seed are choice. An official discography came out in 2016 entitled Dives to the Deep End on Simba Records.
Only Living Witness
I didn’t care for a lot of the bands that got lumped into the "metalcore” label in the '90s but groups like Only Living Witness fused both genres in a non-obnoxious manner with crushing grooves, heavy riffs and solid songwriting chops. They also had, in Jonah Jenkins, one of the best real singing voices for this type of material. I dig their secnd album, Innocents, from 1996 the best but the 1st album is also highly recommended. Jonah went on to Milltown, Milligram, Raw Radar War and is currently in the underrated The Northern Skulls, some will never know indeed.
I wasn’t gonna do this but what the hell, it’s my playlist, so yes I put this record out and it’s a monster; incorporating odd time signatures, progressive but not pretentious tendencies, melodic moments amidst the dissonance and lyrics reflecting the onset of adulthood in a brutally honest manner. In short, everything one could want for hardcore in the '90s. Not that there is anything wrong with straight forward 3-chord '80s sounds but as long as the essence is present; this music is an attitude, not a rote rehashing of empty sonic rituals. Check out their discography on Gern Blandsten, which includes this EP, Pimpin' Ain't Easy, their best material in my opinion.
I told you this playlist was going to be highly biased!
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Tagged: 90s hardcore week