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Cro-Mags. The band itself is an inescapable presence in any legitimate discussion of hardcore. The name is rightfully enshrined in the linage of punk rock. Alongside other enduring symbols of 80’s hardcore (think of the four black bars, lighting striking the Capitol Building, Alec Mackaye hunched over himself) the Age of Quarrel artwork lingers in the scene’s memory, emblazoned on thousands of t-shirts and patches world wide and almost always evident at any hardcore show. Like other canonized kings of the scene, Cro-Mags weren’t just an average paint by numbers hardcore band; their name stood for an entire ideal, an entire image, something which extended far beyond the rudimentary music they were creating. If we hold up Black Flag as the epitome of DIY ethics, Minor Threat as the spark for the straight edge movement, and the Bad Brains as constructing an almost unreachable bar for their unmatched energy, then we can add the Cro-Mags to this list as the source of hardcore’s relentless quest for heaviness, for the hard image, the gritty urban toughness which inspired an entire genre.
Coming on the tail end of hardcore’s first wave, the Cro-Mags consequently maintained a separation from the key figures mentioned above that was musical as well as geographical. D.C. hardcore was suburban, frantic, energetic. New York hardcore was urban; it was rougher, deeper, unashamedly more metallic. As the fathers of NHYC, credit for this move must be given to the Cro-Mags, and its significance cannot be understated. With the release of Age of Quarrel in 1986 the Cro-Mags essentially united segments of two entirely antagonistic groups: the mostly underground hardcore punk scene and the more commercially successful metal crowd of the era. Opener “We Gotta Know,” highlights Cro-Mags bridging this divide from the very outside, with slow burning head banging riffage exploding into standard hardcore drum beats, metallic chug mixed in with classic faced-paced hardcore vocals spat out in a nonetheless distinctive style by a young John Joseph. Crossover thrash had been done before, but never with this kind of legitimacy. Cro-Mags represented an underground force, a new style and image of heavy metal to contrast with the gothic theatrics of big name thrash and hair metal anathema to hardcore punkers. Cropped hair, tattoos, tattered clothes: this was metal played by street kids, not rock stars.
“We Gotta Know” sets a template for the entire record, which maintains a comfortable balance between familiar speeds. Either the Cro-Mags are playing straight up power-chord hardcore punk, (albeit with a slightly heavier guitar tone than your average D.C. record) or smoldering with some slow tempo chugging. Songs like “Don’t Tread on Me” provide some interesting deviations, highlighting the Cro-Mags tasteful utilization of cutting guitar flourishes, short solos, and rough gang vocals, alongside the now ubiquitous two stepping passages of smooth chug which came to be a hallmark of contemporary hardcore. The metallic influence is obvious, the band maintains a much more rhythmic feel than any of its hardcore punk predecessors, beefing up the grating buzzsaw guitar tones of the D.C. legends while dropping the schizophrenic pace for a more cohesive, pounding sound. Nevertheless, although the music is more engaging than many of those it shared a scene with, this is still hardcore, and the music is rudimentary and repetitive, more outlet than art.
Much of the appeal of the Cro-Mags thus lies in the conviction of their entire aesthetic. Their lyrics were tales of street life; difficulties epitomized in the track title “Hard Times.” Into their songs they transposed their life on the lower east side, where many members grew up amongst junkies and gangs in decaying, abandoned neighborhoods; stealing, fighting, and facing constant poverty. Tracks like “World Peace,” and “Street Justice,” are perhaps the clearest expressions of this, short bursts of violence and struggle wrapped in pessimistic conclusions which violently and explicitly attacked the utopian dreams of anarcho-punk with the realities of disease and warfare. In this respect the Cro-Mags music reflected their views and experiences of the times: the album’s very title Age of Quarrel refers to the Hindu period of Kali Yuga, the time cycle of ultimate spiritual degradation. Devotees of the Hare Krishna movement, the Cro-Mags thus also bolstered a sense of ascetic discipline within hardcore, as exemplified in “Seekers of The Truth,” where Joseph lashes out at himself for following sense pleasures and degenerate lifestyles instead of working towards a greater truth. Ultimately Age of Quarrel is about such conflicts, presenting the raw truth about struggles both material and personal, where the violence and brutality of urban decay are exacerbated by inner conflicts; the fight against nihilism when the reality of street life negates all ideals.
The content is interesting, but the legacy more so, and it’s the latter that makes Age of Quarrel an immense album, uniting two genres of music, paving the way for the ascendancy of crossover thrash, and more importantly almost single-handedly laying a foundation for metalcore itself. Amazingly, this legacy was forged from a haphazard selection of songs thrown together by a bunch of street kids. While the album itself was released in 1986, many of the songs had been written several years prior by bassist Harley Flanagan and guitarist Parris Mayhew at the ages of 14 and 16 respectively, and while they had no way of foreseeing their lasting influence, it remains a remarkable achievement for what was then an extremely unique and scene defining record. Age of Quarrel is rightfully iconic, and despite 25 years passing since its release it remains a quintessential example of the metallic turn in punk rock and stands as the defining moment for the closing of one era in hardcore and the opening of another. Age of Quarrel is both an origin and an apex of NYHC, epitomizing a rough heaviness born out of true conviction and personal experience. It has delivered many imitators and provided inspiration for a litany of bands, but will always stand alone as a defining moment. In that sense, and despite its flaws, its status is untouchable.