Boston's Big Bang

Boston's Big Bang
Every few years the aggressive music underground ebbs and flows, interjecting new life into a fragmented whole that is constantly mutating, experimenting, atrophying, creating and reinventing itself before withdrawing beneath waves of stagnation, crass consumerism, apathy or in preparation of the next advance. It may be inspired by a single band or label, or it could furthered by geography ? after all, some of the most creative and influential movements have taken place as such: the New York hardcore scene of the '80s, the Swedish death metal scene of the '90s, the oft-lamented but no less important Seattle grunge scene. Today, all eyes in extreme music are turned towards Boston, Massachusetts. Or they soon will be.

Aggressive music emerging from Boston is not a recent phenomenon. Current commercial favourites that hail from Beantown include Aerosmith, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Godsmack, and Powerman 5000. But after a peak in the early ‘90s, the aggressive music scene in Boston is once again on the rise, with two bands that possess the potential to shape the underground (Isis and Cave In), the continuing momentum of one the scene's most influential (Converge) and the emerging dominance of an upstart label (Hydra Head).

Established in 1995, when founder Aaron Turner moved from New Mexico to Boston to attend school, Hydra Head Records has enjoyed an almost meteoric rise in popularity and influence. In less than five years, Hydra Head has emerged as not only one of Boston's most successful underground labels (a group that also includes emo baron Big Wheel, home of Jimmy Eat World), but as one of the underground's most influential and fastest rising. Already, the label has featured a veritable who's who of the aggressive scene: Eyehategod, Today Is The Day, Jesuit, Cave In, Converge, Piebald, the Dillinger Escape Plan, Discordance Axis, Coalesce, Botch, Drowningman, Soilent Green, Neurosis, Goatsnake and Boy Sets Fire. But it is Hydra Head's dual role as both catalyst for the current insurgent Boston scene, and bearer of some of aggressive music's most vital acts that stand as its most important contributions. "Hydra Head definitely draws attention to Boston," comments Cave In singer/guitarist Steven Brodsky, who have called Boston and Hydra Head home over the course of their five-year existence. "They have national acts like [Seattle's] Botch, but the central core of their power emits from Boston. For an underground label, their growth spurt has been amazing and in itself has almost surpassed them. People are rabid about Hydra Head records. Kids are so crazy about getting this or that coloured vinyl, getting this many copies, reserving a copy of this record when it comes out. It kind of reminds me of what Sub Pop was like at its peak.

"I think what Hydra Head is doing is more popular than ever before," concurs Turner of his own label. "I don't know if this is a peak or if it will continue to grow, I think all these things that have been under the surface for the last few years are now finally coming to a head. A lot of really noisy hardcore and really heavy, abrasive music was looked down upon for a long time for being against the hardcore tradition, and now it is becoming the staple of heavy hardcore."

Converge Photo by Jason Hellmann

Speaking of heavy hardcore staples, Converge is first and foremost. Renowned for being one of the innovators of the hardcore/metal/noise movement, as well as one of its longest-running, Converge's influence on the aggressive music underground is considerable. Jacob Bannon, lead singer for Converge (whose new album, Jane Doe, will be released in the first third of 200l and whose line-up is comprised of guitarists Kurt Ballou and Aaron Dalbec, bassist Nate Newton and drummer Ben Koller) has a unique perspective on the Boston scene. Not only did Converge's inception coincide with Boston's relative peak, they witnessed its plummet and subsequent rise from ruin.

"Ten years ago, when Converge started, Boston was at a peak," recalls singer Bannon. "However, within a year-and-a-half Boston had a huge downward spiral where many of the venues were lost and a couple of the big Boston promoters, who did all the giant shows and were essentially the backbone of the scene, disappeared, mainly because of lack of venues. Lack of venues equals dead scene, really fast. Shows went from having 500 to 1000 kids to about 50 kids in the span of a year."

Although devastated, Boston's metal/hardcore scene didn't die, it persevered, driven by some of the scene's seminal acts and more opportunistic locals. "We just stuck with it and eventually we started to get shows," Bannon continues. "There were still 50 to 100 kids. This was the time when Only Living Witness and Starkweather would play Boston every two minutes, along with Sam Black Church, and Slapshot would play occasionally. The scene kind of got weird, but things were picking up and we were booking shows; in the meantime we got some venues outside of Boston, we moved to the suburbs and the shows and bands really started to pick up. You had us and Overcast play with bands like Dive ? who were a big local band for a really long time ? and we all played together like every other week.
"Eventually things started to pick up, venues started to open up and bands started to come back," he continues. "This was around 1995-'96 [when Hydra Head and Cave In were beginning to crawl], we were still playing basements and little halls, small shows like that, but it kept picking up. Then, all of a sudden, there was a big boom of bands that kind of popped up and started playing. Now you have this really huge, eclectic scene."

Cave In photo by Jason Hellmann

Two bands shoulder the diversity, progression and future of the Boston underground scene: Cave In and Isis. While neither band has reached the pinnacle of their respective careers, or even name recognition among many in the underground, both are on the cusp of something truly special. Isis and Cave In both possess the ability, musicianship and innovation to establish themselves as future measuring sticks in the underground and, in the case of Cave In, have the chance to reach beyond.
"People will obviously see that Jupiter is very different from anything else we've done," suggests Cave In singer Steve Brodsky of their latest album, "but I personally don't feel that the band has sacrificed any of the intensity that we had on any of the other records we have done. In a lot of ways, I feel that the songs on Jupiter sound bigger, more aggressive and come across as more powerful than any of the other songs we've written. With people hearing that Cave In [rounded out by John Conners on drums, Adam McGrath on guitar and Caleb Scofield on bass] has a ‘new sound,' I feel that only the approach is a little different. There is less blending of very non-metal influences with metal influences and just letting the former shine through without losing the power and intensity of [1998's] Until Your Heart Stops or [1997's] Beyond Hypothermia.

"I think the sound is much closer to being a rock band than a metal band these days," Brodsky continues, "but I feel we still fit in with whatever you would call hardcore. We still, to some extent, play music from our older records, which blends us in more with hardcore/metal bands. It's nice, because we have come from one spectrum of music and have shifted to another."

While Cave In has evolved towards a more space/progressive rock sound, fellow Bostonians Isis have been refining their combination of oppressive metallic riffs, slow, brooding rhythms and mosquito driven concepts to insidiously thick levels since their inception over three years ago. Hydra Head honcho Aaron Turner (guitar/vocals) is joined by Jeff Caxide (bass), Aaron Harris (drums), Mike Gallagher (guitar) and Cliff Meyer (electronics); Isis's new album, Celestial (on Escape Artist) not only breaks ground for this relatively young band, but is a premonition of influence that could reach the heights of Neurosis and Godflesh.

"I think it's been a logical progression since our first demo," Turner comments on Isis's continuing sonic journey. "Each time we record, I like it better than the last, but I will say that I think Celestial is far better than either Mosquito Control [Escape Artist, '98] or The Red Sea [Second Nature, '99]. It's not that I dislike those records, it's just a progression as a band. We wrote those songs at a different period and we weren't as mature as people, as a group or as musicians. I like these songs better ? everything about it is more focused and is a true representation of Isis. In the past, I felt something was missing, but with the new recording whatever it was has been captured."

But an album as in-depth and concept-laden as Celestial is not an easy listen, even for fans accustomed to Isis's explorations. "Everyone who has heard it has seemed to like it," according to Turner. "It's a relief — we have come into our own in terms of recorded work. It's our first full-length, which is good because it gives people more to hold onto. It's been really well received; it's doing pretty well for Escape Artist. I think we've managed to progress and add more depth and complexity to our sound and still not alienate any of the people who liked any of our earlier material."

Old Man Gloom photo by Jason Hellmann

With the success of the Boston scene, more specifically Converge and Hydra Head, and the burgeoning influence of Cave In and Isis, the intrinsic thread that links the Boston's noise terrorists seems to be the community of the bands and labels themselves. Which answers the simple question, why Boston?

"We have a lot of leaders, as far as bands go," states Tortuga Records founder Mark Thompson (home of such Boston heavies as Scissorfight, Old Man Gloom and Miligram), who also works as a publicist for Hydra Head. "Boston is clearly a region of the U.S. that people know awesome things have come out of. They know that there are bands that are leading the pack and they know there are some unique labels in town. I can't think of very many other regions of the U.S. that actually have both influential bands and influential labels. It's not hype that we created; we've never gone out of our way to say ‘Hey, look at Boston.' It just sort of happened."
"We definitely benefited from being here," Turner says. "I think we have been lucky being here because we've been able to work with bands like Cave In, Converge, and just promote heavy music in general, and I think some people have taken notice. We happened to get a lot of the same people in the same place doing some loosely related things with each other; I guess we were sort of a catalyst for all that stuff."

"A lot of the people that are active in any role know each other in some capacity," Converge's Bannon concludes. "There are a lot of bands that are connected, just because they've been around for so long ? everyone knows somebody and it's a big family. It's pretty bizarre. It's cool though."