In the final weeks of 1999, as Clear Channel poured out Limp Bizkit every half-hour, an obscure hardcore band from Tacoma, Washington called Botch released their second studio album, We Are the Romans — the album’s musical numbers a sausage-grinding of equal parts thrash metal and hardcore. As for me, I’m ashamed that I didn’t know of Botch and their evil math rock for another two years.
In those days, bands intent on turning any genre on its head existed on small labels and relied on word of mouth, record store chatter, and the weekly alternatives. Word had it the experimental hardcore scene was the place to find bands steering clear of the bandwagons, groups working against the prevailing notions of music itself. However, by the time most of us caught up and caught on, Botch had already disbanded, playing their final show at Seattle’s Showbox in June 2002, with the members moving on to other projects as though making this album took the life out of everyone involved.
Rather than fade out, though, We Are the Romans gained cult status by the mid-aughts as foundational to “noisecore” or “mathcore”. Yet the record’s history involves a chronically out-of-print album. Hydra Head Records, out of Boston, couldn’t keep the record in stock, releasing a remastered version in 2007, followed by a repressing of the vinyl in 2011, where the pre-orders sold out in under 20 minutes (Hydra Headlines). Complicating matters, a year later, Hydra Head announced the label would close shop and gradually turn catalogs back over to their artists. With no pressings or digital administration, used copies fetched anywhere from $30 to $75. But in the fall of 2021, Botch signed with Los Angeles label Sargent House, promising a vinyl reissue within a year, and here we are.
Immediately apparent, We Are the Romans holds the emotions of its time — the musical incarnation of millennial anxiety fostered by armchair eschatology, NATO strikes, earthquakes, and proclamations of technological mayhem. Guitarist Dave Knudson’s dissonant chords and screeching dyads beget something excruciating yet slapstick, offset by Dave Verellen’s tantrum vocals and Conan the Barbarian lyrics (“Conquest is at hand!”), the latter implicating America as an empire of slaves and Caesars, a heavy-handed notion reflective of our end-of-the-century groupthink, not to mention our current one.
We Are the Romans sustains that madcap sense of upheaval across nine songs with such cohesion that it seems inappropriate to single out any particular track. Nonetheless, I’d be remiss to gloss over how this reissue features a new song, the first Botch track in 20 years. “One Twenty Two” replaces the hidden track “Worker Bees” (an electronic-style remix of a song from the band’s 1998 debut, American Nervoso), which never felt like part of the album. As for “One Twenty Two”, there’s no doubt we’re hearing Botch again. The track comes under two and a half minutes, packing an outbreak of Knudson’s funpark riffage, raygun tones, and Verellen’s hell-breath vocals. You can “hear” the band has aged — in an authoritative sense. For that matter, something about this combination of four human beings (Knudson, Verellen, bassist Brian Cook, and drummer Tim Latona) sounds almost inviolable.
While Knudson never intended this tune, composed during the Covid lockdown, as a Botch song, he imagined Verellen as the ideal vocalist for the piece, and things snowballed. From there, as the song went public, Knudson pushed back against the inevitable band-reunion talk, insisting, “We don’t have the same stamina [anymore]” (Adams).
But here’s the thing about one-offs — band members, reforming and gathering in the same room for the first time in 20 years, often realize the emotional connection to their music is a complicated thing. Perhaps that’s why, by mid-October, two months after the new song debuted, Botch announced two 2023 shows slated for February, live and in-person at Seattle’s Showbox, returning to the scene of the crime. Both shows sold out in minutes since so many would do unspeakable things to see this band.
One can understand the apprehension Knudson and company might have about reforming. In 1999, Botch was practically a genre unto itself, but longevity in the music industry often means perpetually recreating a genre. At the same time, Botch always seemed resolute about never taking the easy route. Knudson says, “We don’t have the stamina”, but the new song, “One Twenty Two”, suggests otherwise. Though this new song doesn’t quite feel like part of an existing record, it’s not out of place either. It sounds like a band’s continuation of efforts to cast aside limitations while maintaining the confrontational style that originally drew us into their music.
No question that “One Twenty Two” sounds like Botch, yet far from the sense of a band cryogenically frozen, stashed in the Area 51 warehouse, and thawed out after 20 years. More like a long-dormant volcano — a band with newfound rage, spewing forth and seeking revenge on all who fell for Limp Bizkit.