Time & Place: Undertow At Both Ends
When you’re in your teenage years, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll view the world through the narrow lens of your own microcosm. In my case, it was very difficult to look at anything the world had to offer without assessing how it pertained to hardcore. It was a scene that provided a code of ethics, a platform for self-expression, a social circle, and, of course, entertainment. Hardcore provided a blueprint for how to live your life and it provided a small canon of albums that were, in my opinion at the time, the pinnacle of musical evolution.
Twenty years later, that viewpoint seems pretty ridiculous. Obviously, looking to my underage peers for insight into how the world should work is a pretty faulty strategy. And as much as I love those old classic hardcore records, they hardly represent the zenith of musical expression. It’s no wonder hardcore kids grow cynical in their twenties. Hardcore is so idealistic, so serious, so all-or-nothing. One minute you’re singing along to your favorite straight edge band at an all-ages matinee show, the next minute you’re selling your Judge records on eBay for beer money.
I love the hardcore bands I grew up on, but I no longer view them as the singular renegades I thought they once were. Sure, Black Flag and Discharge definitely operated on the fringes, but they were hardly pioneers in circumnavigating the larger music industry and disavowing standard rock conventions. Once you take in a little rock history, and once you expand your horizons beyond the insular bubble of punk, how do you continue to appreciate hardcore on any level other than nostalgia?
I owned other hardcore records prior to hearing Undertow, but the Seattle straight edge band was the group that served as my gateway to the hardcore community. I can’t listen to At Both Ends without remembering what it was like to be a part of that tight-knit scene. Because of that, Undertow serves as a prime example of what I liked about hardcore as a teenager, but sonically, they also represent why I still like hardcore (albeit, in a different capacity) in my thirties. I’ve grown to like a wide variety of music, but the majority of my interest still lies in stuff that falls under the umbrella of rock music, whether it be Faust, Funkadelic, or Flying Burrito Brothers. What I love about rock music is the sound of a small group of musicians pushing and pulling. I like the sound of straining. I like hearing things walk on the brink of collapse. I like the sound of a drummer barely nailing a fill. I like the sound of a guitar breaking up. I like hearing a singer’s voice crack. I like the sound of the needle going into the red. I love a solid melody or an interesting beat, but those things don’t mean much if there’s not a certain amount of grit and sweat involved.
Hardcore downplays melody and rhythm, but it emphasizes the grit.
And maybe that’s why I still think hardcore is a great thing. And maybe that’s why I haven’t become completely cynical about it’s primitive nature. Yes, there are greater musicians out there. And yes, there are greater compositions that touch upon a broader array of human emotions with greater nuance. But hardcore took the things I loved about rock music and amplified them, made them the central component. Hardcore may not be the pinnacle of Western music, but it distills the urgency and angst of rock music to it’s most concentrated form, and that’s something I can still appreciate to this day.