Few underground music scenes cast a longer (and more menacing) shadow than New York City hardcore. The subgenre breeds its own surface stereotypes -- a vegan/straight-edge lifestyle, lightning-fast punk dynamics, violent mosh pits, and bluntly political, screamed lyrics. But often, these preconceptions don't hold up under the microscope.
H2O, a N.Y.C. quintet embracing the hardcore sound and lifestyle, cooks up some major deviations from the straight-edge template. After a successful indie release in 1996, H20 flaunted its youthful exuberance a year later with its Epitaph debut, Thicker Than Water. On it, the band showcases a strong slant toward unity in an often fragmented scene, and a pronounced, somewhat surprising melodic element. Not everyone knew what to do with it -- one prominent hardcore 'zine described the racket as "an 18-wheeler crashing full-on into a flower factory; there's a hell of crash, and then the beauty of it all takes over when the flowers hit the air."
From Sick of It All to the beauty of it all. Yikes. Not that the boys in H2O mind the analogy.
"Oh, I like that," coos bassist Adam Blake when confronted with the flower metaphor. "It's very hippie, very hippie. I would never think of it that way. It's not bad. I like it."
So he doesn't mind hippie comparisons?
"No, no, no, no. Wait a second, I didn't say that," Blake demurs, backpedaling furiously. "[Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman] Dicky Barrett used to call us "hard as rocks and sweet as candy.' A lot of people see us as hardcore, but like pretty or something. We have better hair than most bands. That's about it."
Better hair and better cohesion. H2O emerged from the flower factory late last year with its third offering, F.T.T.W. (the acronym in the title not only references Thicker Than Water, it also provides three of the new songs with their titles: "Faster Than the World," "Follow the Three Way," and "Found the Truth Within"). Taken as a whole, the 18-song opus (which unfolds in a mere 35 minutes) sums up the H2O worldview: The bass and drums snap with pristine punk precision, the guitars stretch the concept of the bar chord to its philosophical limits, and the sing-along vocals make it hard to tell where lead singer Toby Morse's vocals end and the backing vocals (provided by guitarist Todd Morse, guitarist Rusty Pistachio, and drummer Todd Friend) begin. The record (produced by Bad Religion alumnus and Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz) immediately evokes a small, intimate, endlessly sweaty N.Y.C. club, where the muscled guy next to you might stomp your ass in the pit but will always have the courtesy to pick you back up when you fall. Hell, you can even crash on his couch afterward.
And that -- to Blake and his mates, at least -- is hardcore.
Blake actually hopped on the boat right before the band signed with Epitaph. In his mind, the choice to join the band was obvious.
"I was playing with Shelter, another hardcore band, and we toured with H2O a bunch -- they opened for us," Blake explains. "I used to watch them, and I thought, "You know what? This band reminds me why I like hardcore in the first place.'"
And what would that be, exactly?
"It was more positive, more melodic, more uplifting," he says. "It wasn't so angry and confrontational. It was more communal, you know what I mean? And I really got into that."
Blake does not trip over the word "melodic," either -- the band really does introduce pop hooks that don't taint the hardcore recipe.
"I think hardcore started out in a more melodic direction," Blake explains. "It's not so much what hardcore was -- hardcore has become sort of heavy-metal-influenced and a lot more percussive and a lot angrier. And that's cool; you've got to have a place you can go to let those feelings out. But that's not what we're about as a band. We try to be a little more positive, more uplifting. If our lyrics were sung in a death-metal style, they'd be ludicrous. The music and the message have to match."
The message, as presented in F.T.T.W., paints the hardcore scene as a close-knit, open-minded, laid-back conglomerate of bands who relax their muscles every bit as much as they flex them. As the band puts it in "Old School Recess" -- "All I really wanna do is to have Saturday/Every day for the rest of our lives."
If antagonism exists on this record, H2O directs it at the harbingers of discrimination, both on a local and national level. "EZ.2.B.Anti" dismisses those voices in hardcore that denounce anyone who doesn't adhere to the purified lifestyle (though most members of H2O practice it anyway). More pointedly, a set-ending cover of Seven Seconds' "Not Just Boys Fun" slams sexists, a stance made all the more poignant by mainstream punk's recent love affair with misogyny, what with those twerps in Blink 182 running about naked and cavorting with porn stars.
"A lot of great bands have had a very macho stance," Blake admits. "But for us as a band, we want our shows to be places where anybody can come and have a good time, regardless of sex or physical size or sexuality or whatever. And "Not Just Boys Fun' addresses that. We also cover "Nazi Punks Fuck Off' by the Dead Kennedys. We rarely see Nazis at our shows, but I guarantee our shows are full of little hardcore guys who have a funny attitude toward women. It's considered something that you can be, and it's not bad. "Oh, he's a sexist, that doesn't matter.' But it does. It's something that needs to be addressed, and that's why we did the song -- because we love Seven Seconds, and it's a message that, unfortunately, is still very relevant today."
In hardcore, respect for your elders is everything.
"We're just trying to makes sure the credit's given where credit's due," Blake explains. "We'll never come out and act like we're year zero, and we started it all. Whenever we've done things that aren't traditional for hardcore bands, we always make sure to talk about old-school hardcore bands, because without them, there wouldn't be us, you know what I mean? There's a song on F.T.T.W. called "Bootstraps,' which is almost the flip side of that. It's about how we're trying to help other bands, how we try and do for other bands what bands did for us."
In other words, H2O didn't really crash through that flower factory -- it's just clearing a path.