The Little Engine That Could
A four-part series by MarsKid
Part I: Roots
What Rolo Tomassi managed to accomplish in 2018 deserves to be remembered for decades to come. The year 2018 as a whole was a landmark for the metalcore genre in the modern era of its existence, but Time Will Die and Love Will Bury It attained mainstream attention that wasn’t matched by peers who performed a similar style. Across metal music platforms, the British collective dominated front pages and earned acclaim for a sound that wasn’t often brought to the forefront of the scene. Perhaps most surprisingly was the crossover appeal that the group cultivated; individuals that had not a care for metalcore or even metal overall discovered that the band scratched a very particular itch few other acts could offer. However, I’d argue that this phenomenon was inevitable, not shocking. It’s imperative to note that Rolo Tomassi were not an unknown entity, as their impressive body of work in the underground demonstrated a gradual progression to a magnum opus — Grievances was enough of a hint that a masterwork was imminent. Other than that fact, the precise presentation the group engaged in was a methodology that had been quietly developed in the background for years. It took a tremendous year for metalcore to expose it to a broader audience, but post-metalcore had always been a force to be reckoned with.
There’s no real road map from which to determine where post-metalcore started and whether or not it actually exists. After all, the general description of it is rather nebulous; it’s typically understood to outline bands in the metalcore genre that merge into their sound elements of post rock and post metal, with an occasional appearance of sludge. Above all else, what tends to distinguish a post-metalcore formation is an emphasis on atmosphere across the duration of a record. It’s not relegated to a closing track or an occasional interlude, instead functioning as a defining feature of the album in question. The way this can be approached is, per the vague boundaries of the category, wide open to interpretation. Rolo Tomassi, for their part, integrated shoegaze and electronic elements into their post-centric vision. Noise Trail Immersion, who quietly conquered the 2018 scene, crafted a realm fueled by a haunting black metal aesthetic. How can two very different albums fly under the same genre banner? It relies entirely on that atmosphere — the utilization of post-tactics like the gradual crescendo, the emphasis on the timbre of instrumentation, the construction of elongated tracks dedicated to creating space, and so on. The connection is there, if not evident on the surface level.
Due to how all-encompassing post-metalcore can potentially be, attempting to cobble together a process of evolution is difficult. Each artist involved in this movement pulled inspiration from various sources from disparate musical labels. Further complicating matters is that the obscure nature of the groups discussed makes gathering information equally problematic — no interviews or podcast specials can be unearthed, not even by the mystical power of Google. Then, for the interviews that do exist, members can be very tight-lipped or otherwise reluctant to admit influences, rather submitting to readers that they never had any specific forerunners in mind. Judging by sound and geography partially assists here; it’s no coincidence that certain bands emerge near others that previously released material that bears a resemblance to what the new kids on the block are up to.
In this special, I’m not necessarily aiming to create a newborn classification; as aforementioned, what I’m working with here can be explained in multiple separate terms that making it concrete is a thorny endeavor. Claiming I can nail this down assumes I know enough about metalcore history to do so, and while I’m confident I’ve got a decent breadth of knowledge in my back pocket, I’m an enthusiast by the end of the day. These are the observations of a witness to a scattered movement that has formed some of the most enthralling, ingenious discs in the beautiful chaos that is metalcore. Two of these captivating albums graced listeners in 2018 and necessitate appreciation for their commendable achievements. Plenty of others came before him that were less fortunate to receive similar praise for their underappreciated efforts. By highlighting these initial assemblages, I aim to provide insight into a secret evolution—the steps that were taken to build it and the numerous collectives that were tied to it.
Readers that have an in-depth comprehension of metalcore may be expecting the story to start in Switzerland. Instead, it passes into Sweden, crossing paths with one of the more significant groups in underground hardcore music.
Many a crust group or hardcore band that leans into post-metal has name-dropped Breach in their lifetime. Despite acquiring insufficient attention during their existence, the ripples left by the Swedish group were massive and can still be felt today. In some regards, they’re the Planes Mistaken for Stars of their scene — a band that, though lauded by peers that looked to them for inspiration, never got to enjoy a sizable following. Such is the life of the underground band; innovating out of sight, beheld only by few. Though Breach are most often tied to crust and hardcore music, their extraordinary fusion of categories had many implications for the post-metalcore scene. There was a vicious atmosphere to be deciphered in the hazy, static-laden riffs the Swedes imposed upon their audience. Their intensity was sludgy in its character, bringing down a fearsome heaviness that could crush ears and induce liberal headbanging. Depending on whom you ask, Breach were instrumental in making post-metal the force that it came to be in the first place. These characteristics would seep into the darker side of post-metalcore. Most notably, it could be detected in Challenger. Don’t worry; we’ll get to that album eventually.
Their active years spanned from 1993 to 2002, and in that length, they bestowed upon the globe a trio of records that demand respect for their novelty and consistency in quality. When brought into conversation, It’s Me God is cited the most, as it was the first of this three-album stretch and thus was the first demonstration of Breach’s abilities. It is as potent as advertised, sporting devastating passages alongside slower forays that strive to crush their followers slowly, disseminating delicious discord across the 37-minute duration. These intimidating guitars and weighty sections would be adopted by little known collectives like The Ocean. Plenty of others took notes from this exhibition, spilling over not just into a certain Swiss act, but also into a slumbering beast in Great Britain.
It’s worth noting that His Hero Is Gone — a fellow crust band hailing from Tennessee — arguably did for America what Breach did for Europe at the time. Both entities are nearly identical in their lack of recognition by a broader audience while obtaining an adoration by peer groups. While Breach was brief, His Hero was a mere flash; they only endured from 1995 to 1999. Their noisy, thick, distorted guitars earned a home in post-metalcore, and their contributions are probably on-par with Breach’s relationship to the growth of the splinter category. Speaking of noise and Tennessee…
Today Is the Day
The ties Today Is the Day have to metalcore are fairly obvious; their chaotic, unpredictable, and unbridled dissonance had a profound impact on the formation of metal music as a whole throughout the 1990s. The ambition of albums like Willpower and Temple of the Morning Star cannot be understated. The Dillinger Escape Plan, long regarded as a titan of the metalcore genre next to Converge, have mentioned the group as a factor that propelled their pandemonic brand of the musical classification. It was the concept at the heart of the band that made their influence for following acts so compelling; the texture of their output was so coarse, so pissed off and loud that it carried a swagger few others matched. Their template was consequently diverse, snatching an array of styles to concoct their noisy inventions.
Plenty of post-metalcore bands have gone on to implement dissonance much like how Today Is the Day ventured to do, letting static seep through speakers as jagged guitars crank up the cacophony. It wasn’t pretty in of itself, but the beauty of its bedlam made for an alluring sound that sludgier types would integrate into their work — a sound that saw a covert revival in 2019. Metalcore can thank Today Is the Day a great deal for their critical contributions. Much like Breach, it should also be mentioned that these gents were not alone in the noise department; they were joined by New York’s finest in Helmet and Unsane, with the latter being an admitted influence of Today Is the Day. Whereas Europe was close to incorporating cloudy post-metal, the U.S. was readying to commit to something noisier and unrestricted. Both of these looming motions would procreate jaw-dropping LPs in the near future.
Some of these releases would come from an unlikely place: Cleveland.
Keelhaul is where things take a sludgier edge than usual. The progressive-minded quartet appeared towards the latter half of the 1990s, performing a brand of the metalcore genre that could not only bludgeon listeners with heavy riffs, but also with technicality. It brought into the chaotic, noisy mold of post-metalcore a dose of musicianship that lent itself to more intricate passages, inserting dizzying rhythms to diversify the package. It was a style that, upon returning to the stage after a 2009 comeback album — Keelhaul’s Triumphant Return to Obscurity — had them supporting post-metal heavyweight ISIS. It was no surprise when considering Hydra Head hosted the group; Aaron Turner’s influence certainly played a role. The hardcore edge was similarly expected, considering guitarist Chris Smith had spent time in Integrity, while various members had also accumulated experience in the Cleveland scene.
Of the groups stated thus far, the Cleveland collective are possibly the most secluded; Breach at least encountered esteem through word-of-mouth by succeeding artists and a consequential revisit by critics. Outfits a la Today Is the Day could definitely be considered popular for their particular sonic output. No such luck for Keelhaul, who lived their existence with credit from the few that heard them, but not enough.
The sophomore record by the group, Keelhaul II was where the band’s idea was crystallized in its finest form. It had less of an atmosphere to it than could be felt from the uncompromising noise of previously discussed crews, but it compensated for it with its brazen sludge methodology and enhanced concentration on complex instrumentation. This would lay the groundwork for a Dayton collective that would unfortunately experience the same absence of approval as their Ohio brethren. What those particular individuals were capable of creating undoubtedly showcased what post-metalcore could create when it was hefty, fast, and elaborate. A great deal of it could be attributed to the carefree, playful disposition of Keelhaul and the hard music they brought to the scene.
Another band occasionally labeled as metalcore, among many other descriptors, was the Chicago band Pelican. Their various melodies and more atmospheric strategies would be capitalized upon to heighten the possible emotional payoff post-metalcore could offer. They would also happen to become involved in the construction of what is considered by many the first or at least most defining post-metalcore record to be made. A similar, though lesser-known success would precede it by a year and come not from Europe, but from California. Both of these would kickstart a post-metalcore boom that would, for the most part, go unnoticed in the passage of history. But it would stun anyone that happened to listen.