Two highly decorated punks stood on stage at the edge of a crowd encircling Pharmakon, who’d set up on the floor. “Who is that?” asked one, as leaden thuds mounted. “Some noise artist,” the other replied. “I think her dad was in Agnostic Front.” Mounting volleys of noise bent upwards as Pharmakon abused a contact mic’ed scrap. “She’s sick though,” the first realized. The eminent hardcore act Hoax was on stage already, clutching guitars in the midst of Pharmakon’s onlookers and rapt to the brief, dynamic piece of woozy low-end and sharp clamor. After the set, and after some nitwit who’d touched her gear was promptly decked and ejected, Pharmakon joined Hoax on stage and coaxed diffuse noise from a keyboard. As the mire thickened, Hoax’s vocalist furled his brow in proper cro-magnon-hardcore-man form, snarled a bit and seethed a lot—then the band erupted.
Berserktown—a three-day music festival in Los Angeles last weekend, organized by the folks behind recently shuttered venues East 7th St. and Church on York—was full of collisions between hardcore, noise, and outlying electronic artists. Sometimes, the audience seemed perplexed. A few punks giggled at Container, for instance, but they were the ones who looked like a dumb side-show. Ren Schofield drenched skittish grooves in frothy, dark analog luster, giving both the beats and noise equal volume and space to lash out and reel in a crowd. Like the curious punk duo converted to Pharmakon’s shade of extremity, the seemingly disparate styles represented Berserktown mingled and bridged audiences fantastically.
Hardcore practically fetishizes certain conventions. Breakdowns, choked cymbals, pick-sliding atop over-the-bar fills—it’s a thin playbook. And it makes execution, rather than innovation, the source of qualitative differences. So, though Condition, Blazing Eye, Koward, and Green Beret bore little formulaic variance, factors as simple as guitar tone and vocal phrasing did the distinguishing. Of those, Condition might not have been the most dour or thuggish, but the Angeleno outfit certainly owned the most trenchant riffs and incisive rhythm section.
Meanwhile, acts like San Francisco’s Needles—assembled from members of storied bands like Los Crudos, Limp Wrist, Dead and Gone – brought deft knowledge of hardcore tradition and the willingness to buck it. Vocalist Martin Sorrondeguy actually grooved. Scott Moore tremolo-picked trebly leads, boasting more tonal articulation than the chosen brick-wall sheen of the weekend’s guitarists. Dawn of Humans discarded hardcore convention altogether. The Toxic State emissaries reduced the form to just up-tempo beats and gurgling low-end. The vocalist’s mic didn’t work for most of the set, but his garbage-sourced crotch garb and headgear was spectacular.
North Bay Area outfit Ceremony pulled from its earlier catalog and demonstrated just how reductive that “power-violence” tag has always been. Hunched and gritting his teeth like a guttersnipe with a nice haircut, vocalist Ross Farrar repeatedly croaked “everybody slam” and the crowd—when not mobbing the mic—obliged. Ceremony tracks featured playful arrangements. They withheld expected breakdowns and stretched others to quizzical lengths. Rock ‘n roll vamps bounced slyly between blast beats. Live, 20 seconds of pitting and feverish shout-alongs followed by an abrupt calm was all the more engaging for its slightly baffling pace.
In Los Globos’ smaller room, where most of the electronic artists played, Pod Blotz, a project of Los Angeles multi-media artist Suzy Poling, fused cassette decay with reel-to-reel cacophony, letting the saturated tape emissions engulf warped beats while two masked performers wielded ropes and knives.
An eerie thrill, Pod Blotz prefaced Aaron Dilloway, who matched percolating noise with agonized spasms. A mic lodged in his throat, Dilloway marshalled cries up from his barrel-chest and through an array of effects for some of the loudest and most visceral moments of the weekend. Spent, he collapsed into a chair and cued the sounds of a crying baby. Fittingly enough, the other contender for loudest was Dilloway’s old group, Wolf Eyes. A trio of singular eccentrics (left to right for looks: hesher, art student, back-to-the-land), Wolf Eyes shaped dense swathes of sound into lumbering structures. The total effect wasn’t violent or oppressive, just monastic. The band appeared awed by its own ephemeral pillars of noise.
Destruction Unit’s set was similarly ritualistic. It began in a furor, steeping punchy, relentless beats in churning guitar noise that coalesced for each bludgeoning chord change. Joined by two additional drummers (Dawn of Humans’ vocalist and Condition’s guitarist) and featuring a total of four guitarists (including The Germs’ Don Bolles), the set was especially riotous. The band appeared keen to literally ascend, pointing guitars towards the sky beyond Los Globos’ low roof. It was exhilarating, and perhaps encapsulated the weekend’s spirit best by unifying so many players into one exalted force of sound.
Endnotes: An award goes to A Global Threat for being the only band at Berserktown, to these ears, that explicitly condemned the horrors unravelling all weekend in Ferguson. Also, it’d be cool if Hoax’s vocalist syncopated those microphone blows to his own head with the beat of the music. Finally, of the handful of legacy acts performing that weekend, The Zeros dominated, tapping into the playground swagger of “Wimp” like they just conquered a sandbox.