As a movement born from the heart of modern experience, Hardcore ironically maintained a virulently hostile relationship to modernity itself, accepting many of its prerogatives but always attempting to negate its results and thereby reveal its inherent tensions and broken promises. Lauding the possibilities of individuality and the DIY Ethic while simultaneously attacking Regan’s neoliberalist visions that tore apart working class communities and deeply alienated the humanist middle class, this tension created a viciously political scene which conversely reveled in complete nihilism and hopelessness. It was bitterness which won out in the underground: against the revolutionary utopian ideals of anarcho-punk, (which even at its most misanthropic remained a political project) and the positive idealism of youth-crew, modern hardcore emerged throughout the 90’s as a torchbearer for punk rock’s longstanding nihilistic tradition, eschewing hope or grand ideals in favor of pure rage, contempt, and aggression for the groundlessness and chaos of modern existence. Negative FX derided “Modern Problems,” for the Cro-Mags these were simply “Hard Times,” by the time Defeater took the stage for their first album they faced working through the legacy of bands that explicitly labeled the primal human experience in the modern world as one of perpetual war.
Travels is full of modernist imagery and presents one of the finest examples of the anti-modern backlash in contemporary hardcore. Throwing us back into the 60’s where theoretical and youthful disillusionment with the modernist paradigm was at its most virulent, the story itself follows the break up of a family in violent and profane ways, vividly exploring an inversion of the period's ostensible values through the death of tradition and the ultimate breakdown in order where brothers divide and children desert their parents. Amidst the ever present chaos of a hardcore soundtrack, the family is truly stripped of its sentimental veil and thrown into disarray and barbarity: the mother left fingering a meaningless rosary, a relic of an dead spiritualism, hoping for an idyllic family life ingrained into the 50’s psyche by cold war consumerism. Defeater’s project is to unveil the hypocrisy of this pseudo-posterity in a post-war period still plagued by troubles that disturb modernity’s claims to universal success and affluence.
Above all, the image so central to Travels, and central to Defeater’s current discography, is that of the train, of cold steel tracks and coal steam, that is: images of industrialization, the sine qua non of modernity which presents a litany of possibilities, some thrilling, some terrifying. For Defeater the train appears initially as a moment of youthful challenge, of bravado, a test of courage and worth, an immense energetic force to be met head on. Later, it is presented a specific means of transportation which carries the protagonist away from tradition, towards nameless streets where he becomes a “stranger with no history,” no money, or no name: the train takes his very being by uprooting him first from his family and then from his place. The prophet in plain clothes strums and sings “home is never home:” such is Defeater’s vision of modern life as always restless, always uprooting, always throwing individuals out of security, into despair, alienation and loneliness. Soon the dialectic of industrialization crushes any residual spirit and establishes the train as a horrific metaphor in whose face men feel only fear - eventually it becomes an instrument of murder and destruction, tearing apart family relationships, ending lives, leaving only silence in it’s wake.
A feeling of desperation at this ultimate nullity cuts through Defeater’s work in an immensely personal fashion. Think of their live performance of Lost Ground’s “A Wound and a Scar,” when lead vocalist Derek Archambault, fingers cocked to his head, stands without accompaniment and screams nihilistically into the chanting crowd: “no hope…no hope...no hope…” His sentiments echo the cries of Johnny Rotten without the empty irony and deceitful provocation: this isn’t showmanship, it’s reality; for Defeater the ultimate conclusion of modernity is this broken promise inscribed on Archambault’s dejected shoulders as he stands isolated from the music which has deserted him.
These breaks in the relentlessness of the music are crucial to Defeater’s sound: where a keen sense of melody occasionally takes over to provide a hand hold, something to grasp onto, a place to catch your breath inside otherwise frenzied staccato riffing. The dynamics provide the most authentic experience of chaos as one littered with moments of transitory relief and epitomized in the Prophet’s jangly guitar, whose deceitfully upbeat tune hides lines of anguish: another broken promise. Soon the urgency returns, it’s purpose all too evident: evoking the pace of modern life and the chaos of anger and groundlessness. Above this sound is Archambault’s fury, always throwing every last scrap of air into a scream, expelling his emotions with full force and grating power, with the heartbreaking result that it ultimately signifies nothing. Ending in death and destruction, Travels ultimately negates all it’s characters, the tragedy of being crushed by the despair of modernity ultimately takes their voices and their pain, along with Archambault’s, and silences it, renders it meaningless and empty, an impassioned but hopeless battle cry by a hollow man facing an indefatigable foe in an impersonal world.
The ultimate conclusion comes at the end of their two full-length albums: both end, unsurprisingly, in death, but in quintessentially modern tales of disaster and ruin. In “Cowardice” the song that tellingly closes their live show, the protagonist of Travels commits suicide from a church rooftop. All that is holy is indeed profaned; the God of Travels is profoundly absent for all who seek assistance. Indeed all of Defeater’s work reveals a fundamental trauma at desanctification, the disappearance of the sacred, of a world where the beauty of the Negro spiritual hymns is lost to the cold capitalist logic of “another day another dollar.” Defeater’s God does not hear any prayers and does not offer any salvation (“Your god can't hear you, not down here. No one will save you”) and the most central spiritual experience of Christian religion and culture, divine forgiveness, is violently denied to those who would seek it out: hence the almost obsessional repetition of “forgiver/forgetter” and the damming final lines of the priest, “You've found absolution here son, but only from me.” Only from a human.
And so modern man throws himself from the steeple, burdened and shackled by the cowardice that comes with having responsibility for his being and consequence for his mistakes, the blood that can be washed from his hands but never his mind. The church would later reappear in “White Oak Doors,” but only as a passing mention, enveloped by the haunting specter of development, the cold steel tracks and steam engine of progress which has destroyed any sense of religion, any grounds for morality and certainty of being, the train which builds visions, promises, and dreams, only to take them away in moments of profoundly violent and severing ways: the conclusion of “Empty Days and Sleepless Nights,” rightly seen as the final chapter on the experience of Travels, feels too abrupt, too messy, too disappointing, but rightly so, it represents the shattered image of modernity Defeater seeks to impart, the ultimate anti-climax which lies in wait at the end of a train which youthful idealism told us would keep rolling on. The culmination of Defeater’s current body of work is not the instrumental at the end of Cowardice but the endless silence of the locked groove, the nihilistic closure of an aborted vision - not only to the relentless pursuit of destruction in hardcore itself, but to the hopes of a particular modernist vision; interestingly one that Defeater, unlike their contemporaries, chooses to situate in the environment of a past era. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will come after the silence.