Feeling ’80s Spirit: Post-Hardcore Punk for the Plastic Generation

Moss Icon
Complete Discography
Temporary Residence

Two album releases this spring highlight the primal potency and gritty glory of two East Coast musical institutions that have remained off-the-radar far too long. They include the obscure late ’80s animistic art-punk of Moss Icon, from Annapolis, Maryland, and the continued efforts of Jason Farrell, the music maker-cum-graphic designer, originally from Washington D.C., who has forged over three decades worth of complex, edgy, and fecund power-punk that has defined what is best about infiltrating and recasting genres.

In the late ’80s, Moss Icon erupted in the wake of post-hardcore, when hyper-fast templates wore thin and bands kept their gruff, choleric blasts but chose to slow down the backbeats into territory more aligned with Flipper. That is the kind of slow, knife-edge chaos evoked in “I’m Back Sleeping, or Fucking, or Something” and “Divinity Cove”, found on the new and rather pedestrian titled Compete Discography. With shambolic spoken word messiness, the trembling tunes feel equal parts ominous and penetrating, like dark etudes for a rust-eaten world.

Like early Shudder to Think, Fugazi, and Lungfish, Moss Icon tapped into punk’s ethos of experimentation without forsaking its punch and putsch quality: punk meant to deliver tough goods, not froth, and aimed to topple the status quo of rock, not to become just another satellite of alternative culture, safely sanitized. Punks didn’t want to go beyond the illusion of music capitalism, it seemed, they wanted to scratch and hack at it until that illusion was tattered. In the wake of such dismantling came the music of emotional liberation and a genre made from blood and guts, not plastic.

Moss Icon beckons listeners to the time-warp cauldron when “emo” had not become a hollow cliché for marketing purposes, a time when post-hardcore hadn’t splintered into a million sub-groupings. Their body of work seems to scowl at the herding instinct and remind listeners that boredom should not easily commence.

“Lyburnum” grinds and pulses in roiling drum cacophony as meditative vocals evoke funereal “dead lilies”. Listening closely, one can detect hints of early New Order, circa 1981. Some songs, though, do tumble in unscrewed manic beats, like “Cricketty Rise”, but those conversational style vocals (hmm, perhaps a nod to Lou Reed, Suicide, and Leonard Cohen) still anchor the pliant songs.

By the time tunes like “Kick the Can” were released, the band’s production values were amped up and the dense, free form poem-as-lyrics more nuanced within the mix. The fluid and ever-changing “Memorial”, with its humanitarian portrayal of hunger’s link to government legislation, takes up a rancorous rock ‘n’ roll edge in places, only to subdue itself back in percussive pointillism. Imagine late-period Crass mixed with Americana shades.

Some songs burn with phosphorescent glare, including “Hate in Me”. Its furious analysis of love/hate dichotomies sears the spinal column. “What They Lack” is equally poignant. The lyrical plea for “please don’t forget me” seems to act like a corollary to Husker Du’s combustible tune “I’ll Never Forget You” (1984). It also acts as the album’s final inscription, with more than a tad bit of irony. The public bootlegged and swapped files of the band until a company like Temporary Residence kicked into gear, making Moss Icon a genuine catalog presence. The label patched the holes in indie music history.

In turn, Jason Farrell is a mythic figure that few people seem to pinpoint when discussing the legacy of Dischord Records, the label for whom he produced manifold album designs, including the post-modern packaging of bands like Fugazi. While Farrell undoubtedly contributed to the aesthetics of that generation, he also made sizzling records in bands like Swiz, whose brash late-hardcore prowess injected some bile back into Washington D.C.’s sometimes laconic late ’80s music breeds.

As a young gun, Farrell melded the sizable crunch of early Discharge with the frenetic unhinged dynamism of The Damned, whose “Machine Gun Etiquette” Swiz covered with aplomb. Tunes like the under-produced “Time” and “Lie” blistered in frenzied, emotive, and inchoate onslaughts, helped by the cranky vocals of Shawn Brown, whose bark on tunes like “Taste” and “Stone” scrapes like sandpaper. Meanwhile, tunes like “Sunstroke” laid the groundwork for post-hardcore icons Quicksand and Snapcase.

As that band imploded, Farrell continued to design packaging and form bands like Fury and Sweetbelly Freakdown, which merited some attention. Once he emerged as singer/guitarist in the rock ‘n’ roll inflected Bluetip, audiences truly awakened to his uber-underground talents. Bluetip was like telling Farrell, ready steady go. Four albums later, the work stands as testament to his ability to dispatch songs with seemingly easy panache, merging hardcore’s neurons with smart rock ‘n’ roll embellishments. The catalog is seminal, a nod to procreative urges.

Yet the prized possession of Farrell may actually be the mid-’00s gestated Retisonic, a three-headed talent pool that combines Farrell’s most nimble pop-mindedness with the gymnastic drumming of Joe Gorelick, which is kept in check by the throbbing bass plumbed by Jim Gimball. Their greatest slab, Return to Me, has languished in a no man’s land of small distributors, like the French label Modern City. The 2004 material was a gem filtering Farrell’s past and present with uncanny skill sets. Tiny hints of Bay City Rollers, Gary Numan, B-52s, and yes, some Discharge and Minor Threat, were tucked effortlessly into the folds of the redoubtable album.

Robots Fucking, which was recorded during a 2005-2006 time table, revisits this tempestuous territory with only slightly less robust production. “Wait … Lookout!” takes aim at self-control, issuing fine observations with driving beats and hallmark guitar riffage. “Airtight” pounces with a similar tempo, though with some start and stop punctures and dizzying drums. By debating themes like “blank life” and “living airtight”, the song marks volatile territory between fortitude and feebleness.

The pounding “Necropolitan” is a slab of poetic witnessing. The narrator, or the public, for which the narrator is a surrogate, suffers an overdose of “distractions/movie stars/sports teams” and “blind faith in technology, religion, and nationality.” The tune is damning and denunciating, relevant and riling.

A few Swiz guitarisms surface on the power-pop with metal-edge “High on Denial”, which loosens up with a few hand-claps, melodic urges, and ambient spoken-word cuts that inhabit the distorted blitz. The ender, “Defined”. comes on slow and sweet, with dimpled piano, layered and gauzy vocals, ample assonance (“you can back track bones to birthdays”), and swaying swan song rhythms.

Both Farrell’s Retisonic and Moss Icon prove that worthy music sometimes take years to surface, or re-appear in full-fledged forms, even as bands muster legendary status in the digital era, in which everything is usually available instantly. Hopefully, both these releases will not simply annotate the careers of each nor simply provide fetish fulfillment for those seeking albums and CDs, not another downloaded file.

Neither band feels worn out, treading in water, or run-of-the-mill. Instead, they provide a glimpse of unseen powers. Acting as cornerstone — not cursory — music, each is exultant, acting like a spell that does not obey sell-by dates.