Top to bottom, the bill at Black Cat's Backstage Sunday night was the best show of the year so far. Alright, it's the first I've had a chance to attend, but I'll wager a better hardcore lineup will be hard to find in 2008.
Staying in line with the introductory theme of their debut LP, "We Are," Cloak/Daggers -- back from Europe, up from Richmond -- opened the set with a furious announcement, "Daggers Daggers," a short hardcore burst of "We are daggers and we don't care! We just did it for the money!" from the "Pinata Breaks" seven-inch. Screaming Dagger Jason Mazzola set the tone, flailing his all-American (read: beer-bellied) body about the stage in a "Loveless" T-shirt -- a word that fits with the band's themes but a sound contrary to this sort of music. From there on out, the band focused on "We Are" material, quickly addressing the incessant theme of non-conformity that runs through the LP with "Hollywood Hills" and "Runways." The former was the first fist-pump chorus of the set, and there were many, while the latter, as Mazzola put it, was about clothes he can't afford to buy, but really about a distaste for the uniform, anyway. Mazzola, who does scream but does so without drowning the words in noise, sings about the finer things of suburban life -- the threads, the cars -- with a snarl that reviles them.
As it was on "We Are," "Walk the Block" was the best song of the set, the one that sounds most accessible because of its near-epic nature. And the group abandoned any message other than day-to-day apathy. "We spend our days just wasting away, walking down the same street every day. We spend our days just wasting away. We like it that way!" And they drive the message home with a chant of "Stay wasted!" But an even better demonstration of their chops and ears comes in "Red Hair," with Who-worthy vocal stutters followed closely by percussive, rhythmic guitar playing. That song started a sprint to the finish, followed -- as it is on the record -- by "Set the Alarm," a Mazzola-described, though otherwise obvious, wake up call for American society with yet another shout-along: "It's ... my ... way ... or nothing!" It was the song most reminiscent of early-'80s L.A. hardcore, particularly Black Flag. While that comparison has been -- and will continue to be -- dropped, it's not a pure reference. At times Cloak/Dagger sounds that retro, but they add a little bit of not-so-retro in, namely, San Diego punk of the '90s, particularly the bands of John Reis -- Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes. Each of those groups conjured themselves in the set at least once.
To close the set, Cloak/Dagger again paired a couple of tunes together just as they appear on "We Are." "Kamikazes" ended with the first natural musical break of the set, comfortably allowing Mazzola to intro "New Years Resolution" by offering a "Happy New Year" to the crowd. The song is a perfect set closer for its trashy experimental guitar solo, and Collin Barth dragged it out in grand style for the moment, another one that'll keep this band from being simply labeled hardcore. At least to ears familiar with hardcore.
D.C.'s Scanner Freaks share that love of '90s San Diego punk and early hardcore, but they don't venture too much to the West, preferring to stay right in D.C. They are the D.C. band that best rivals what the Richmond headliner is doing, but their sound fits better with Dischord post-hardcore. And they are fast growing up still in their early stages. They continue to demonstrate more dynamics within the post-hardcore structure each time on stage. On this night, the heavy was heavier (particularly on the powerful and ominous set closer) and the brief slowdowns struck a better groove while the loud and fast was just as loud and fast as ever.
Scanner Freaks started with a couple of their earliest songs, sounding familiar with the pure hardcore energy one-two punch of "Static" and "Seen at the Scene." But I was surprised by what followed. A slower, distorted and melodic guitar intro to the next song provided more texture to the set -- breathing room. They've always had such moments, but they seem to be using more of them and making them more interesting and essential. Another song that both sounded better this night than in the past and provided a change of pace was "May Your Next Tee Time Be in Hell." This is a standard for the band, another of their earliest songs, and it's growing with the band. A song in two parts, the guitars were crunchier in the rock out first half, and part two, the hardcore groove, seemed drawn out longer than usual, a nice contrast to the band's usual short, furious bursts. It gave timekeeper Kurt more room to show off his ample skill with the sticks. The hardcore groove outro shows up at other times. On "Wait for It," which singer Zak requested be played twice as fast (probably not possible), the outro fell into a backdrop for Zak's "wait for it" chant. Faster or not, the song took on a hardcore meets Phil Spector's wall of sound quality, but they fleshed it out with bass, guitars and drums, no miles of strings and horns.
Scanner Freaks guitarist John Riley was the hardest working man in hardcore Sunday, pulling double duty, as he also is a member of like-minded Police & Thieves. The briefest of three brief sets, Police & Thieves stormed through about 10 songs in about 20 minutes. The incessant rhythm section and constantly churning guitars -- particularly relentless on "Turn the Page" and "Lost Sight" -- made it the closest set to pure hardcore. The D.C. quintet was the most local sounding group of evening, reminiscent more of early '80s straight edge than Dischord's mid-90s heyday.