Music operates in cycles and waves, with the energy generated from one, feeding directly into another. This is one of the major ways that we see genres and styles achieve growth. One particular genre that we have seen outgrow its roots and reach with newly grown tentacles into ever-evolving styles is hardcore. Just look around at the number of sub-genres that include the affix of “core” to their names. In this piece we look at the bands who evolved hardcore in both subtle and major ways to arrive at what we now know as “metalcore.” First, we take a look at some of the bands who were most directly tied to hardcore in its last iteration before metalcore truly came into being.
Earth Crisis (1989-2001; 2007-present)
For anyone who has ever been involved in hardcore, they know at least one person who is completely devoted to the straight-edge, vegan lifestyle. They walk into every show, Nike air Maxes freshly washed so they shine and mosh shorts on, ears perked eagerly for the first breakdown of the night. And, inevitably, this person owns at least one Earth Crisis shirt, something that in and of itself speaks to their massive legacy.
However, outside of their massive influence on the culture of hardcore (or rather their willingness to uphold it) Earth Crisis also had a dramatic impact on the musical direction of the genre. Prior to the late 80’s hardcore and metal existed as entirely separate entities which vehemently opposed one another. This started to loosen as acts like Cro Mags and DRI popped up but for the most part the rivalry remained. Earth Crisis was one of the acts that did wonders to loosen that, choosing to avoid the beef in favor of utilizing metal’s natural beefiness (pun intended) to enhance their already thick, mosh-inducing style of hardcore. The result was, at the time, a unique brand of hardcore that not only influenced metalcore, but helped to change the entire direction of hardcore in general as we know it.
Next up is a band that was credited with being one of the flagship artists to cross hardcore with metal: Integrity. While I couldn’t really say they were part of the flagship, I could easily say that they were extremely influential to the future of the genre, especially in the area of audio production.
My introduction to Integrity came when a band I used to play in decided to play a cover of “Micha”, a song I highly recommend you start your journey with when checking out Integrity. Having never heard the song before, the first thing I noticed was how much the riff made me want to fight every single person in the room. Integrity has this extreme knack for writing riffs that just feel bitter. Dwid, the remaining original member, clearly has experience with using his anger to write music. Recently in Decibel Magazine, he was quoted as having said “If I need something new to listen to, I write it myself” in an interview. It probably comes across as a bit conceited but is extremely honest of him to say. He influences himself, and his music is truly being written for his own ears. Not many bands are able to do this and still make their way in the music industry. If you’re just now checking out Integrity and want more than what I recommended earlier, a good album to keep things going with would be Humanity is the Devil. It’s a solid example of the bitterness Integrity is known for.
Snapcase (1991–2005, 2007, 2010–present)
The path then leads us to Buffalo, NY and, though, it isn’t known for being the biggest punk and hardcore hotbed, during the mid-to-late 1990s the city was home to one band who pushed more on the typical boundaries of hardcore than most. Snapcase were relative outliers for creating odd-time signature, mosh-laden hardcore with enigmatic personal themes running through their lyrics that made it easy for their teenaged audience to both attach significance to the songs while dancing their sweaty asses off.
The band really made strides with the release of 1997’s Progression Through Unlearning with its signature snare sound and lead single, “Caboose”. The stop-start rhythms that pop up throughout this album ended up merging the worlds of the evolving hardcore sound with the more cerebral yet crushing attack of metal bands such as Helmet. Snapcase, alongside bands like Bloodlet and Strife, would become favorites of many musicians in the hardcore realm which is what ultimately caused them to be so influential to the introduction of metal to the sound that leads us to modern metalcore.
Rorschach (1989–1993, 2009–2012)
Upstate New York gives way to New Jersey as we move along the road to “metalcore”, where we consider that one of the main tools in the shed for hardcore: an appeal to a feeling, whether it is a feeling of family alongside fellow outcasts, anger at a fucked up world, or simply an outlet for teen angst. Few bands operated outside of that paradigm but one band took their vision in the direction of psychological terror. Rorschach, hailing from New Jersey’s hardcore scene, had songs that attacked audiences in a way that few of their contemporaries were capable. Experiencing the band live was unlike anything else going on at that time.
Where 1990’s Remain Sedate was a fairly “by-numbers” hardcore album for the period, their follow-up, 1993’s Protestant, was an exercise in pushing musical and personal boundaries. It would be hard to believe that this release had no influence on later bands and the emergence of a harsher, more twisted type of metalcore particularly when viewed alongside the band that would become Converge as we know them. Tracks such as “In Ruins”, “Drawn and Quartered”, and “Raw Nerve” illustrate this band’s impact on much of what was to come and precisely why they were able to resonate with and terrify audiences in equal measure.
Now we travel to the other side of the US to talk about their hardcore scene’s evolutionaries. Before I get into this band, a short background on myself is necessary. I was born in Tacoma, and have lived near, and worked in that city, as well as Seattle, for a long time. Some of what I have to share about this subject includes personal experiences with people who have helped shape me as a musician. I am very excited to write about this band and this subject. Thank you, HBIH, for giving me this opportunity.
John Pettibone of Undertow (as well as Himsa and Heiress) fame runs security at El Corazon, a popular venue. This was one of the first places I ever played a show in Seattle. At the time, I had no idea who he was. He was just the grizzled door guy who looked like he ate nails for breakfast and washed it down with a cold glass of children’s tears. What’s amazing about this is none of that is how he comes across in real life. Undertow was a very DIY local band far before my entrance into the Seattle music scene as a musician and concert-goer. But the best part about that is the DIY mentality really stuck with the scene when they showed up. People like John really curate the local community to this day, helping small bands get their start, even offering advice and help to local bands who really want to get out and go somewhere with their music.
All of the personal experiences aside, Undertow were a very notable straight edge band which was something that brought the hardcore community with them wherever they went, regardless of the very different sound they were making. If you’re just now getting into Undertow, I would definitely start with their At Both Ends album. The entire album from front to back is the essential Undertow experience. The track “Control” with its steel-laced guitar and rolling thunder drumming is a perfect example of everything this band was about.
Inside Out (1988–1991)
But what was going on in Seattle wasn’t the only game going on the West Coast. In particular, Orange County in California was becoming a hotbed for a new style of hardcore. Usually a band that only existed for three years and whose total output consists of a six-song 7” EP doesn’t merit showing up on a list of most influential bands for an entire genre but there are some exceptions. Inside Out happen to be one of them largely because of the quality of those 6 songs and the pedigree of their members. Led by the raw riffs of Vic Dicara, who would later form 108, and the explosive, if still formative, vocals of ZacK de la Rocha the band emerged from the Orange County hardcore scene of the late 1980s.
On their lone release, No Spiritual Surrender, one can easily see how influential their sound was on the overall scene and, later, on the formation of metalcore because of Dicara’s addition of solos and melodic lines to the typical chugging power chords that were a staple, up to that point, in hardcore. The title track, in and of itself, is a master class in the primal origins of metalcore that would become part and parcel of the style embraced by later bands in its push and pull dynamics interspersed with de la Rocha’s impressive howls of urgency.
To be sure, this band doesn’t only appear here because of de la Rocha’s eventually essential place in rock music, overall, due to his experience in Rage Against the Machine. He had long before established a place in heavier music that influenced bands well before his later project would drop “Bomb Track” on the masses. Through their performance on their lone release they took what had made Gorilla Biscuits a powerful player in hardcore and fused it with metal-inspired playing that laid a foundation for many bands that came along in their wake. The EP stands the test of time and does make us wonder what this band could have done with a full-length. That said, it’s possible that with something so excellent, any follow-up may have been somewhat disappointing.
Back in Washington state, though, the newest sound was developing out of Tacoma. Dave Verellen, a founding member of Botch, and current member of the band Narrows runs a really cool ‘grill your own’ restaurant in the downtown area in his downtime. When it reopens I plan on making a trip there. But Dave’s involvement in Tacoma goes back much further than just a restaurant. Botch, the band that (in my personal opinion) ‘defines metalcore’ and has contributed heavily to the current tropes and flavors of it, is his lasting legacy.
One of my favorite things about this genre, and these people, is that DIY spirit. Something so many of the bands on this list embody, and inspire in others. Dave is no exception to this. I went to go see Heiress and Narrows play Bleak Outlook Festival. The festival spans several venues in the Tacoma area and favors Tacoma/Seattle acts. Mostly because the person booking the festival, someone I work closely with at Real Art, a concert venue in Tacoma, is a veteran of the metalcore community himself. Brian Skiffington, drummer of Earth Control (formerly Owen Hart) is the reason I have been able to sit in the same room as some of the greatest influences I have ever had and a huge reason I can speak on this topic with such a personal spin. That being said, my experience with Dave, and with Botch, is extremely positive. These people are not just working for the community, they ARE the community. Whether or not people realize it, that attitude is just as much a part of the genre as the music.
Without Botch’s sound, we would not have seen the direction that bands like Underoath, Dillinger Escape Plan (read on), Norma Jean, The Chariot, and many others took away from listening to albums like We are the Romans, and is probably also a reason I love so many of these bands. The mathy guitar playing and abrasive rhythmic and chord structures in the music have been favored by many metalcore guitar players, a flavor that this genre is definitely known for. It can be heavily heard in earlier Norma Jean albums and is extremely prevalent in releases by The Chariot and Underoath’s earliest material.
And here is where we talk about the truest of godfathers of metalcore. I got into Converge back in about 2008 when Axe to Fall came out. The people I was close with were discussing the release of Axe to Fall, and it came highly recommended. It led to myself becoming a massive fan of the band.
Benjamin Koller, Converge’s guitarist, is well known for his usage of frantic chords and wild rhythms and is probably a big reason metalcore bands use what some would call “panic chords” in the first place. His work in so many different projects is respected as genre-defying among so many, as a lot of the work he puts in for the band has seemed to pull it in so many different directions, something that makes Converge’s “hard to define sound” so memorable. One might use the term “palatable chaos” to describe it specifically.
Kurt Ballou has become a household name in the industry, though, more recently for his contributions in audio engineering. Having recorded recent albums from bands like Four Year Strong, The Story So Far, and Every Time I Die, even the bands you know and love look to Kurt and GodCity Studios for the sounds that sell them records which adds to the extremely DIY and community-based ethics of the metalcore genre.
Jacob Bannon’s art is another thing that really separates this band from so many others. From Converge-specific art like the Jane Doe visage, to album covers for bands like As I Lay Dying, Cult Leader, Trap Them, and so many more, Jacob is widely known outside of music for his abilities to paint and draw, things he has used to shape the visual aspect of the genre, which further exemplifies the DIY mentality of the band.
Converge is a band that, simply put, is impossible to hate. Their one-of-a-kind sound and extremely charismatic personalities, along with plenty of humility, have made them such a widely respected band. These guys close the gaps between genres both in and out of their songwriting. Speaking of songwriting, a really great place to start if you’re trying to get into Converge would be with the album Jane Doe. Having recently released Jane Live, you can compare and contrast the intense live performance to the studio record and really get stoked on the rest of their discography from there. All that said, their new album, The Dusk In Us, is one of my most highly anticipated releases.
Dillinger Escape Plan (1997–present)
Then there’s the other heavyweight that influenced nearly every band in their wake. I didn’t get into Dillinger Escape Plan until Miss Machine came out. I know a lot of people are probably going to laugh at me for this, but the first time I heard one of their songs was on Guitar Hero. “Setting Fire to Sleeping Giants” was such a fun song to play through, and I felt so accomplished being able to play it on Expert, but I wanted more. Shortly after digesting Miss Machine in it’s entirety, I went straight to Ire Works (my personal favorite Dillinger album), where songs like “Black Bubblegum” and “Sick on Sunday” completely changed how I viewed songwriting as a whole. The two records of theirs I own on hard copy, though, are the ones responsible for putting them on the map: Under the Running Board and Calculating Infinity.
Under the Running board is a short album. In a mere 3 songs the band spelled out what they were looking to do. With tech-laden riffing that bordered on Botch-influence (right down to the jazz stylizing in the drum parts) and pissed off, grind-influenced vocals, Dillinger set the bar high right off the bat. If anybody was looking for a representation of the idea that is “mathcore”, this would be its physical embodiment. The constant changing of time signatures and odd-metered riffing has been something that, while they were not the first to do it, has been characteristic of their sound since the beginning. It has also very much influenced other bands hoping to make their mark on the genre to do the same.
Calculating Infinity was a release that expanded upon that first release, taking the musical concepts of Under the Running Board and… running with them. Songs like “43% Burnt” became permanently relevant for anyone who has any interest in playing heavy music. It also showcased the writing talent in that, while each of these songs were their own thought, listening to the whole thing out of order seemed wrong. Utilizing all of the same writing styles as the first release, this was clearly a refined process, and something that only improved as they continued to release material. If you’re looking to get into Dillinger, this is the best place to start.
Dillinger is also a band that has experimented with electronic music as part of their sound. While bands like Genghis Tron may have done so more actively, Dillinger has always had the subtle flavor of electronic music in their sound. While less evident on early releases, albums like Ire Works saw very heavy experimentation with synthesizers and drum machines playing along with the band.
I spent an evening at well-known local club, El Corazon, shortly after the announcement of Dillinger’s impending retirement. The headlining tour they did in 2016 stopped by the venue and was also an awesome chance to catch the very talented Cult Leader live. Something I had been meaning to do for a long time. Something I noticed about that show was just how eclectic the line-up was. While each band couldn’t be considered the same genre, they all had very mathy and Dillinger-esque influenced sounds.
Seeing Dillinger live these days is just the same as seeing them live in the early years. They still go just as hard, their original vocalist shows up to throw down on occasion, and the extreme atmosphere and excitement are every bit the same. Dillinger at one point was apparently quoted (according to their wiki page) by a VH1 documentary as being “The Most Dangerous Live Band”, and even if they didn’t say it, there is certainly some merit in the statement. Seeing them live is a lot like going to see The Chariot or going to Art Monk’s Football Camp (81% forever) over the summer.
Guitarist Ben Weinman is also no stranger to the politics of the music industry. His degree in psychology has been a topic of discussion in the past, as well as his degree in corporate communications. Many people have looked to him for advice on how to operate in the music industry, because he has it all under control. Similar to other artists in this article, Ben is straight edge as well.
Darkest Hour (1995–present)
Here we arrive at a band that encapsulates the style in a way that would become the jumping-off point for the genre as a whole. An early staple of metalcore, as shown by many of the bands here, is the penchant for mosh parts and slight flirtations with more traditional metal styles. In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, however, as more bands from what had become the hardcore scene at that time embraced a more metal sound, Darkest Hour emerged as a force ahead of their time with a full-on metal onslaught honed in the recesses of Northern Virginia’s scene. The band had a few releases appear here and there within their first five years of existence, all displaying variations on the accepted hardcore style of the day, but on their first full-length, The Mark of the Judas, one hears, on full display, the signature sound that would become metalcore as we now know it.
The problem, however, lay in the fact that label troubles, particularly the label having gone out of business, meant the album, for the most part, only reached fans who saw the band live until a later re-issue. But it didn’t stop the band from touring rather relentlessly once they had found and refined their sound only getting off the road long enough to record and release their second full-length, So Sedated, So Secure, that had them playing to an increasingly metal audience and largely leaving aside much of their hardcore roots. With tracks like “The Legacy”, “An Epitaph”, “The Hollow”, and “Treason in Trust”, Darkest Hour solidified their reputation as godfathers of a style that would go on to be emulated, imitated, and transformed by many later bands including their own progressive incarnations.