I. Soft Grunge
Seven years ago I read the phrase “soft grunge” for the first time. Finn McKenty, aka Sarge D, coined it on the old Stuff You Will Hate blog. It’s not archived, so I can’t link to it. But I remember the phrase arrive in a post about Citizen’s “Figure You Out.” I liked the track, McKenty roasted it. To him, it sounded like a self-serious schlocky pivot towards “musical maturity.” Fair enough. But “soft-grunge” as a phrase jostled me. Growing up in the post-alt hangover, I’d never seriously entertained that mid-90’s music might make a come back once we escaped its shadow. It seemed beyond over.
“What’s next?” I wondered, “A band that sounds like Jane’s Addiction? Please.”
But then this week I heard Higher Power’s “Low Season.”
And then things snapped into place. The mid-90’s are back with a vengeance. Bedroomcore (a term I’ll explain below) reigns supreme. So, how did we get here?
II. Age of Quarrel
Ten years ago, in the Era of Mediafire, I used to scour Toxicbreed’s Funhouse (RIP 2017) for new hardcore releases. As a recently sober college student, I had little else to do but smoke cigarettes and blow out my eardrums while building out my iTunes library in rural Vermont — that and reread John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Around then I started to notice that the bands who got traction sounded like Cro-Mags. This era seems lost in time now, but a then-popular relic, Alpha and Omega’s Life Swallower (2010) stands out as an exemplary release.
In my high school years, most hardcore bands tried to sound like Slayer, which meant they sounded like At the Gates or Converge, who were everywhere. We all had Jane Doe shirts back then. They were, and are, canonical. But at some point, I was sick of hearing J. Bannon style screaming and wanted to listen to something good for lifting weights, not slitting my wrists. So, I felt excited when I saw a more riff-oriented Cro-Mags-inspired stuff start to emerge.
I get that it’s macho and jock rock sounding, but I didn’t get into hardcore for its refinement. I got into it for the piss and vinegar, that reptile brain adrenaline dump when a sick riff or brutal breakdown kicks in. And this new fleet of Cro-Mags knock-offs catered directly to what brought me into the fold in the first place.
But Dillinger Escape had yet to break-up, Converge still charged ahead at full steam, and, when I got a job at the Hot Topic in Tallahassee’s Governor’s Square Mall right out of college (2011) I realized the screamo and deathcore stuff was still in full swing, I didn’t think much of the late-80’s hardcore revival. Just a sub-trend among sub-trends.
III. Correcting the Record
A few years ago, I wrote a long-form piece for Invisible Oranges about nu-metal and American suburbia. In it, I make an observation about the sound spectrum (high end, mids, low end) to explain how we arrived at nu-metal. The condensed version of this explanation goes thusly: we moved from the coked-up high end of hair metal to the mids-heavy sigh of alternative rock to the funkified rage of nu-metal. I describe this movement as a pendulum that swings back and forth. If you want the full details, you can read the piece. It’s easily the most exhaustive study of any type of music I’ve ever done, and the only piece on nu-metal of its kind — I’m still quite proud of it.
I’m not entirely certain I believe in that pendulum explanation anymore. It’s hard to say what’s going on in music anymore aside from the Highlights for Kids color and soundscape of the late neoliberal overculture. And guitar music doesn’t belong to the overculture anymore.
So maybe it’s like this now: we’re retreading ground. Once the Cro-Mags rehash began, it really signaled a reinterpretation of late- to post-Cold War American guitar music. And we’re moving chronologically through this renegotiation. Once sounding like Cro-Mags became acceptable, so did a lot of other things hardcore kids I grew up with thought was lame, and that I secretly adored: mid-90’s alternative.
At some point during the mid-2010s, it was cool to ape Type O Negative riffs and wear Machine Head shirts. I think a lot of people would credit Twitching Tongues for that. But for me, the band that really signaled this shift was Code Orange. I Am King (2014 — just a year after Citizen dropped “Figure You Out” as a single off of Youth) proved a watershed moment. And their follow-up, Forever (2017), gave us “Bleeding in the Blur,” a track that epitomizes the current moment in hardcore. And the influences from alt-metal, groove metal, and industrial (all movements that had their break out moment in the mid-90s) blend seamlessly.
The other bands I’d put in their league would be Harm’s Way, Turnstile, Vein, and Higher Power (there are others, I’m sure) pull from a similar pool of influences.
IV. But Why Now?
But what does it mean that 90’s alternative music has returned?
Back then, music could still feel “new” in a way that things can’t feel new anymore. Everything’s a retread. Though Mark Fisher (RIP 2016) popularized the term, it was Bifo Berardi who coined the phrase “the slow cancellation of the future.” It’s apt: we seem to live in a permanent nostalgia — nostalgia itself a modern term used to describe the dislocation (geographic and otherwise) felt at the outset of modernity.
The same year Code Orange released I Am King, Fisher and his colleagues at Goldsmith’s endeavored a series of lectures, interviews, and presentations on post-punk. Repeater released them as a book, Post-Punk: Then and Now, in 2016. Why, even though there’s a wide gulf between post-punk’s heyday and 2014, was post-punk having such a resurgence?
Answers vary. But there’s something like a “chickens coming home to roost.” Once class came back into the picture and people began identifying our current system as capitalism (Something no one ever did at any while I was growing up — “our way of life,” sure. But never did anyone call it what it is.) post-2008, the Thatcher-era angst rhymed with our own discontent. A second “But there must be!” in response to the ever-rearticulated, “There is no alternative.”
I’d say hardcore was one step ahead of indie and all the post-punk darlings of the mid-2010s (who, as Chris Ott pointed out back then, were more goth than anything, anyway) and had already begun to move into the post-Cold War soundscape. We’re now living in the absolute breakdown of the unipolar world of the Bill Clinton’s 1990s dreamland, Bush II’s gritty, imperial (and yet faux) realpolitik set us up for the fall, and Obama’s legacy has cast him as a decent enough shop steward to have eased our way farther down into the gutter.
America’s in open class conflict: the 1% semi-clash with their courtiers in the rest of the top 10%, while the proles grind on in the outer dark, condescended to and scorned (or in the hobbyist-left’s case, sheepdogged out of class war) by the courtier class. All the while, the shibboleths that have held the national discourse together for almost thirty years has broken asunder (and it’s not so different across the pond).
The mid-90’s are back because we’re living in their complete undoing. We live in their dark mirror.
V. But Why Call It “Bedroomcore?”
I grew up in the twilight of what Mark Fisher calls “Boredom 1.0.” I was extremely online as a teenager, but iPhones and wifi didn’t exist or at least weren’t anywhere near as pervasive as they are now. In other ways, there were gaps — gulfs, even — in between my connectedness to other people. Aimlessness, boredom, they yawned wide and swallowed large portions of my time.
I had recourse to music. I spent a lot of time in my room listening to CDs on my stereo, or Q101 FM, Chicago’s Alternative Radio (RIP), which played a huge hand in forming my musical palette. Until Clear Channel purchased the station in 2003, Q101 had a delightfully unambitious playlist that kept mid-90s hits in constant rotation. Suburban kid that I was, these radio waves hit me while splayed out on my bedroom floor. Hence, bedroomcore.
And I guess I never felt this musical moment would return because its sound felt so tethered to something that doesn’t exist anymore: boredom. As Fisher writes:
“…boredom was ambivalent; it wasn’t simply a negative feeling that one simply wanted rid of. For punk, the vacancy of boredom was a challenge, an injunction and an opportunity: if we are bored, then it is for us to produce something that will fill up the space. Yet, it is through this demand for participation that capitalism has neutralised boredom. Now, rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored.”
We’re always plugged in, always stimulated. The kinds of choruses that arrive in Higher Power’s “Seamless” sound bored. All of that nineties stuff had a bored quality to it. A kind of sighing. What its sudden and pervasive return means, I can’t yet say.
Going forward, I have a feeling we’ll see nu-metal rear its head again. All these grooves and riffs and choruses beg for it. Plus, the suicidal themes in a lot of contemporary hip-hop seem to fit the big “psychology” vibes of nu-metal. Here’s a good example:
Also, I saw this old photo of Static-X and couldn’t help but notice that a lot of their fashion choices wouldn’t be out of place near where I live in Los Angeles — a stretch of LaBrea I call Hypebast Lane.
To end, I want to share the bedroomcore playlist I’ve made to flesh out what I mean a little more. This isn’t exhaustive as my nu-metal piece. And while there’s more I’d like to say and argue, I don’t have the bandwidth at present to take something like that on. But I did want to share the videos for Skrape’s “Waste,” which is a completely forgotten half-post-hardcore, half-nu-metal track from 2000. It’s been humming in my head since hearing Higher Power. I didn’t even listen to these guys when they were around — I found their first album at a record shop in Albuquerque four or five years ago. I think it’s a banger.