The story of post-hardcore in 14 songs

From the Washington DIY scene of the ’80s to Sweden’s new noise to the basements of Bridgend, this is the (still ongoing) evolution of post-hardcore…

The story of post-hardcore in 14 songs
David McLaughlin

Like emo, trying to explain what does and doesn’t constitute post-hardcore can be a highly subjective and fairly thankless task. It should be easy – it’s the hardcore that came right after the original hardcore, right? Yeah, sure…

In some cases it’s shorthand for bands who are a little emo, but not really. In others it identifies a sound that’s thick and crunchy yet melodic, by artists trying to reconcile the natural tension forged by a misspent youth listening to metal and their love of punk rock. Sometimes it does just refer to bands who formed in the wake of the 1980s hardcore boom, boasting more depth, vulnerability and smarts in their armoury. Within all of that you have splinter strands that shoot off into other sub-genres such as metalcore, screamo, indie rock and pretty much every point on the alternative musical spectrum. Your definition is also likely determined by geography and which era you mean when you use this most nebulous of terms. Even still, no time or place offers a clarity of definition, only echoes and hints of history. Frankly, it’s a minefield.

For the sake of ease, we’re concentrating on a group of bands who feel like they best exemplify the, er, core of post-hardcore’s lineage, sharing some sonic similarities yet straddling disparate musical bases and bearing little relation to one another, other than the fact that none of them ever comfortably landed in any one genre. Except post-hardcore, of course. Which you will hopefully understand a little better after reading through this…

1Fugazi – Waiting Room (1988)

You could make a case for Hüsker Dü, Naked Raygun or Minutemen being the first post-hardcore bands, expanding what could be done within the scene’s somewhat limiting initial remit, but the first real sonic domino to fall was probably Fugazi. Ian MacKaye’s none-more-DIY charges added an intriguing sophistication into their songwriting, while retaining the bite that brought people to the party in the first place. Waiting Room – the opening track on the Washington, D.C. legends’ debut EP – is a brilliantly elastic and gleefully boorish song, striking like a lightning bolt on the underground. Suddenly, a world of possibilities seemed to open up.

2Jawbox – Savoury (1994)

Jawbox should have been huge. In a better world they would have been, but fate determined otherwise, instead shuffling them off to the margins of rock history, notable for their influence on bands like Deftones who’d later take some of their sensitivity and muscular heft to create something new, fresh and absolutely vital. The DC quartet made a big noise, drawing inspiration from the likes of Helmet (again, technically post-hardcore, but too ‘metal’ to truly qualify) and adding a vulnerability and suggestive sensuality. Jawbox might not have made the big leagues, but frontman J. Robbins at least went on to produce countless great records, and when the band reformed in 2019, some of their overdue credit was at least finally recognised.

3Hum – Stars (1995)

Despite influencing everyone from Weezer to the latest nu-gaze wannabes treading the boards, Illinois quartet Hum are another band who feel like they’ve never truly gotten the recognition they deserve. Go back and listen to their records today, though, and you can draw a line straight through the core of their expertly crafted quiet/loud set-ups, thick, washy guitars and melancholic melodies to styles and sounds regularly hailed as something special today. Their one proper mainstream hit, Stars, showcases their mastery of the art perfectly, but as 2020’s album Inlet (their first in 22 years) proves, they’ve very much still got it.

4Quicksand – Thorn In My Side (1995)

It’s a toss-up between this or Fazer from the NYC quartet’s debut album Slip, released two years previous, but Thorn In My Side saw Quicksand attract the attention of MTV, and the genre as a whole was suddenly being looked upon with curious interest from people with dollar signs in their eyes. What better band to lead that overground charge than one whose members had roots in the hardcore scene itself, holding steadfast to the integrity that defined their early experiences, while dipping a tentative toe in the waters of trying to spread their music to a much wider audience. Besides everything else, it’s a major tune.

5Snapcase – Caboose (1997)

The greatest snare sound in all of post-hardcore? Good luck finding a better one. Charging at speed like the freight train carriage it’s named after (assuming it’s not what would instead be an admittedly oblique reference to the slang term for buttocks), this slappy ode to being yourself, forging your own path and taking no shit is the definition of invigorating. A great example of the fine line between metalcore and straight-up hardcore, we’re putting Snapcase squarely in the post-hardcore bracket due to their influence on the bands who’d follow next, each and every one owing something of their impact and sonic aesthetic to the blueprints drafted by the New York progenitors.

6Refused – New Noise (1998)

Given its uber familiarity, the fact that it’s been used in videogames, movies, sports montages and played at every rock clubnight you’ve ever been to, it’s easy to forget just how utterly powerful this song once was. And if it hits at just the right mood and moment, New Noise can still make the skin-bristle, so perfectly rendered is the song’s mix of aggression, restraint and revolutionary zeal. The dysfunctional Swedes infamously split soon after and it was only in their absence did Refused get their dues, but better late than never. As recent output shows, despite mellowing in their personal relations, the fire in their bellies has not dulled.

7Far – Mother Mary (1998)

In retrospect, Sacramento’s Far were likely too strange, too sensitive and too singular to really succeed in the big machine of the corporate rock world, but that’s where they found themselves in 1998. This standout single from their now-classic Water And Solutions album belies the tensions the band were experiencing at this point in their first phase together, and it never did make them the stars someone in a record label office probably hoped it would, but like so many of these artists, their influence was sewn into the sounds and spirit of those who came next and did attain that elusive stardom.

8At The Drive-In – One Armed Scissor (2000)

As with Refused, time has somewhat soured the memory of just how special and incendiary these fiery Texans felt when they first crashed into the spotlight. For a brief moment, they looked like the force who’d finally make good on all of the unfulfilled promise of those bands they grabbed the baton from, but as with all things this glorious yet flawed it was not to be. What a song though, and whatever your feelings about everything that’s happened since, what a band At The Drive-In were.

9Rival Schools – Used For Glue (2001)

We should probably crown Walter Schreifels as the unofficial king of post-hardcore, really. He does appear on this list twice after all. He’d likely baulk at that kind of idolatry or at least find it reason enough for a wry smile, as despite everything, he’s still just doing his own thing with no care for labels, categorisation or what anyone thinks, as the softer touch of latter day solo material attests. Back in 2001 however, he and Rival Schools were fixtures on music television and enjoying the spotlight being shone on bands of a post-hardcore persuasion. It helped that he’d saved his most commercially-minded material for that very moment.

10Thursday – Understanding In A Car Crash (2001)

Unfairly lumped in with the turn-of-the-century’s raft of emerging ‘emo’ bands who didn’t really stand up to much musical scrutiny, New Jersey’s Thursday actually came from a hardcore background, knew their history and brought something far more nuanced to the table. In frontman Geoff Rickly they had a talent, a voice and a character who could capture feelings and express them with an anguish that was rare, and it was that which helped them outlive initial assumptions, culminating in recent victory lap live celebrations of their impact all those years ago.

11Glassjaw – Mu Empire (2002)

Yet another band who initially felt like they could become a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, but it just didn’t happen. Glassjaw had the swagger, the style, the songs and they talked the talk as much as they could walk it, but a combination of frontman Daryl Palumbo’s well-documented health issues, straight-up bad luck and the moment passing meant they’re more likely to be considered ‘great, but…’ in the history books. No matter, though, as the reverence they’re still regarded with in certain circles, particularly among other bands, counts for a whole lot more than widespread but fleeting fame.

12The Blood Brothers – Burn Piano Island, Burn (2003)

Pure unadulterated chaos. A kind of fucked-up disco song being torn apart like jackals fighting over a fresh kill, Burn Piano Island, Burn sounds like it’s on the edge of total collapse at any moment. It’s that tension underpinning the adrenalised fury that makes it such a compelling and head-spinning experience. Post-hardcore was through the looking glass here and although nobody has really sounded like The Blood Brothers since, their searing, explosive take on what could be done set creative imaginations aflame.

13Funeral For A Friend – Juneau (2003)

It wasn’t just North Americans who were creating post-hardcore, despite its origins. Welsh lot Funeral For A Friend were unquestionably the UK’s best exporters of it (with apologies to Hundred Reasons, whose Silver could just as well have been on here) and in 2003 Juneau landed them a Top 20 chart hit and helped to bag opening slots supporting Iron Maiden in Europe and Linkin Park in the States. The Bridgend boys would enjoy an even bigger breakthrough on the band’s second album, Hours, expanding on their sound in the years that followed, but it was with that first flurry of excitement where they sparked inspiration among a generation of young fans on this side of the Atlantic, helping to spawn a host of others who’d take things off in all kinds of interesting directions.

14letlive. – Muther (2010)

There’s a lineage within post-hardcore that’s tricky to chart, but unmistakable when you hear it, and the last band who truly felt like they embodied all that the genre held dear were letlive. The term still applies to new acts today, but Jason Aalon Butler’s lot were the last ones to instil the level of belief that they could take on the world and change it. Although everyone involved – band and audience – probably knew deep down it wasn’t going to happen, every night that they stepped onstage (or into the pit, climbed the bar, hung from the rafters…) it felt possible, and in the memory of that something special lives on.

Post-2010, bands like La Dispute, Touché Amoré and others have carried the torch (while doing wildly different things too), but post-hardcore has never been about huge stars or major success. Without the fuss of the spotlight or short-lived scene expectations to contend with, it’ll likely continue to exist in some form for years to come yet…

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