Looking back at the heady days of the “Revolution Summer” of 1985 in Washington D.C., when punks bands like Gray Matter and Marginal Man tried to merge the deep furrows of their conscience and dissidence with the sonic battering ram of distortion and dissonance, Rites of Spring became the emblem of punk undergoing reconstruction.
Just as punk grew more taut and by-the-numbers in the post-1982 time warp, Rites of Spring felt ad-lib and stretched-out; vital, not humdrum; and convincingly urgent, not merely unctuous, like a depressingly reinforced hard’n’fast template borrowed from others.
Formed in the aftermath of broken bands as a roiling amalgam of Faith and Insurrection (two local iconic teenage hardcore bands), they catalyzed a whole new breed of punk armed with raspy, pummeling, and poetic visions and dogged, anything-goes, slightly ratty musicianship. Akin to a loose-knit version of mid-period Hüsker Dü, their songs feel doggedly literate. Exploring isolation, woe, and the bitter flux of relationships, Guy Picciotto’s verses betray a severe sense of intellect that outmaneuvers the mere muscled flex of hardcore punk music.
No, Rites of Spring did not erupt with trademark emo-core elements, that loathed catch-all phrase. They were biting, tenderly vituperative, and stubborn-sounding, not makers of myopic pop. More importantly to some fans, Rites of Spring featured key future members of Fugazi — singer-guitarist Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty.
In Fugazi, Picciotto remained the slinky, nimble, and pathos-dripping counterpoint to Ian MacKaye; meanwhile, Canty forged an alchemical beat that remained one part funk’n’jazz, one part punk-in-the-present-tense thrust. Those dynamics don’t exhibit their pure genesis in Rites of Spring per se.
If a listener scours these songs, he or she won’t find a nascent “Waiting Room” and “Repeater”. The long, ambling dub leanings (with gaps, silences, and skipped beats) and the fecund, post-punk arthouse vibe of Fugazi are mostly differed. As this demo evidences, Rites of Spring were garage-punks (one can even detect a wee bit of bands like the Pagans in the mix) that remained tethered to mid-tempo horsepower but eschewed lame rock ’n’ roll clichés for freeform wordplay (“thoughts collide without a sound”) and a soundscape that was messy, trigger-happy, and dense. If Fugazi seemed studied at times, Rites of Spring were shambolic.
Admittedly, all of these songs can be found in higher-fidelity, crystalline forms on their full-length record End on End for Dischord, the cornerstone label that has released similar previously unavailable demos and unused tracks material from the likes of Dag Nasty, Lungfish, and Government Issue. Dischord not only made history, it preserves it all very well via repackaged masters and collected demos like this. In doing so, though, they dim down celebratory modes and instead attend to spare design detail and ecology. For instance, this EP minimizes graphic fare, while the gatefold cardboard packaging features zero plastic.
On first inspection, the audio is a bit murky and muddied (not unlike the Faith EP), the tempos a bit draggy or plodding in places, and the recordings keep the “audio graffiti” intact. Hence, one witness hears the voices (“Are you going to sing ‘Arbor Day’ with me Eddie?” asks a mellow voice), blustered bits, and weird pieces of audio leftovers from the sessions, all intact, which makes this document feel like an audio-verite document. Such qualities might even vouch for the offhanded nature of the project. The recording was not meant to rise to the top echelons of rumors, tape trading, and bootlegging. It was a way to capture the fleeting presence of a band before members drifted apart.
Still, the recordings evoke character, passion, and presence, especially since Picciotto’s voice is raspy, shredded, unbridled, and even more strident than the more familiar mature LP sessions. Listening to his bitter shrieks on “All There Is” might make one’s ear curl back while encountering the raw histrionics. Instead of the often tuneless drudgery of by-the-book hardcore, these songs, even in their embryonic forms, feel like incantations that were honest to the moment when desperate young men wanted to free themselves from “prisons of the mind”, as Picciotto breathlessly intones on “Remainder”. They seemed determined to re-set the clocks from the past to the future, to find introspective prose in garageland. “We try to feel our way”, Picciotto exhales in a tense soliloquy, foretelling the band’s experimentation.
And that navigation is deep and profound, even in nascent forms.