The knock on my door was so timid I almost didn’t hear it. Even if it had been louder, though, it might have been drowned out—what with Face To Face blasting at demolition-site decibel levels out of my stereo speakers.
I opened the door. There stood Eric, my upstairs neighbor. I didn’t know him well, but he seemed the collegiate type: well-groomed, soft-spoken. I had a shaved head and manners to match.
“Could you please turn your music down?” he asked politely. He might have even added, “I’d really appreciate it.” As I stood in the doorway of my basement apartment, deciding how to respond to this outrageous request, Face To Face’s debut album, Don’t Turn Away, filled the hallway with an angry racket. Over sawing guitars, frontman Trever Keith screamed something either accusatory or apologetic. Those two opposing approaches pop up a lot on Don’t Turn Away. I opted for the latter.
“Sorry,” I said. “Will do.” I closed my door and went into my living room—which was furnished with one thrift-store couch, a bunch of band posters, and way too many records sprawled around the floor—and dialed down the volume.
I sat there for a few minutes, listening to the album at a socially responsible level. Then, bit by bit, I began nudging it back up again.
Face To Face isn’t anywhere close to being the most popular, most important, or most influential punk band of the ’90s. In fact, it’s strictly middle-of-the-road. That’s probably why the band struck home to so many kids at the time, myself included. In 1992, the biggest and most revered bands working the field of melodic punk—Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel, and Green Day—released albums that were excellent, but not huge leaps in evolution. Bad Religion’s Generator, Screeching Weasel’s Wiggle, and Green Day’s Kerplunk are slight variations on what they’d already accomplished, which doesn’t make those albums bad—just not as exciting. Face To Face’s Don’t Turn Away stuffed that excitement gap to overflowing. A brand-new group that no one had ever heard, the California outfit seemed to appear, perfectly formed, out of thin air. It didn’t hurt that Don’t Turn Away’s mix of earnestness, snottiness, and massive hooks falls at the center of a Venn diagram of the respective styles of Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel, and Green Day without sounding too much like any of them.
Instead, Don’t Turn Away is derivative in a broader way. It’s as if someone stepped back, viewed early ’90s punk as a whole, squinted, and took a panorama shot. And then photocopied it. Immediately prior to becoming Face To Face, Keith and bassist Matt Riddle had been in a Queensrÿche-esque metal band called Victoria Manor. Even before the Internet was a place to widely disseminate such scathing innuendo—as if thousands of punks in the early ’90s hadn’t cut their teeth on metal—the cock-rock skeletons in Face To Face’s closet became a point of contention between fans and detractors. To certain factions of the punk scene, you had to be born punk. Or you at least had to be better at covering your tracks.
None of this meant much to me, at least as far as Face To Face was concerned. I’m not one to pretend I wasn’t occasionally overcome by odd notions of punk purity back then—“sellout” was already well on its way to becoming the dismissive label du jour, before anyone had even really sold out. But there was just no denying Don’t Turn Away. Every moment of every song on that record felt right to me, from the Ramones-like, “One, two, one, two, three, four!” count-off that begins “You’ve Done Nothing” to the downcast anthem “Disconnected,” the latter of which would soon find greater exposure after being re-recorded for the group’s major-label debut, an EP called Over It., then re-re-recorded for its first major-label full-length, Big Choice. I was a huge fan of the ’80s melodic hardcore group Dag Nasty, and Face To Face felt like nothing less than an updated version of that band to me. Funny enough, Dag Nasty released a reunion album in 1992 called Four On The Floor—and guitarist Brian Baker, a former member of Minor Threat and future member of Bad Religion, couldn’t use his real name in the credits, as he was contractually bound to his major-label metal band Junkyard at the time.
In spite of how enduring, infectious, and emotionally resonant Don’t Turn Away remains, Face To Face may well have been a calculated attempt to jump from the sinking ship of metal and onto the life raft of punk. (The decision to re-record “Disconnected” twice for subsequent albums sure reeked of commercial calculation, which the band tried to lampoon in a goofy skit with its label president on Big Choice.) If so, Keith and crew wouldn’t be the only ones—many opportunists latched onto ’90s punk in hopes of surviving or maybe even striking it rich—but they would have been some of the first. How was Face To Face to have known exactly how popular punk was about to become? If the band was that good at telling fortunes, it should have given up playing music and bet on the horses. Instead, it wound up producing that rarest of artifacts: a generic album that’s better because of it.
While melodic punk bands like Face To Face were finding their feet in ’92, hardcore was still in the midst of an identity crisis. The tough-guy traditionalists in New York’s Sick Of It All released their long-awaited sophomore album, Just Look Around, holding the line for all the stalwarts who resisted the rapid mutation hardcore was experiencing; meanwhile the hardcore label Victory Records dabbled in the most extreme end of the burgeoning post-hardcore realm with Firon, the jazzy, progressive debut by Salt Lake City’s Iceburn. Neither album is indicative of those bands’ best work, but they show just how conflicted and open to interpretation hardcore was at the time. The same went for crust. On its scummy surface, the subgenre was an outgrowth of British bands from the ’80s like Crass and Subhumans, but by 1992 the tag was being applied to everything from Grimple’s sloshed, filth-pop masterpiece Up Your Ass to Assück’s groundbreaking, grindcore-spiked debut album, Anticapital, both released that year. Growing pains and experimentation aren’t always pretty, but in these cases they made for a compelling ugliness—and one that counterbalanced the increasingly shiny face of pop-punk.
The most astonishing quantum leap in hardcore and crust came courtesy of Neurosis. The Bay Area group had been around for years, inexorably thickening its charred riffage and existential dread. But as the world sped up on its collision course toward the new millennium, Neurosis hit the brakes. Souls At Zero, the band’s third album, came out in 1992, and it dared the unthinkable: It got slow, layered, sample-heavy, effects-laden, and atmospheric. It set off a cascade effect; by the end of the decade, innumerable imitators had absorbed and emulated the new vocabulary of noise and nihilism that Neurosis put into circulation with Souls At Zero. The band retained its punk ethos, sticking with independent labels and eventually releasing its own music on its own terms, which it continues to do. As epochal as Souls At Zero is, though, it marks the point at which Neurosis blasted off from the punk-rock launch pad—and into parts unknown, never to return.
Back on Earth—specifically in or near Washington, D.C.—hardcore was being deconstructed in a slightly less cosmic way. But only slightly. Inspired peripherally by Dischord Records labelmate Fugazi, the Baltimore outfit Lungfish has more in common with Neurosis than might be apparent at first glance: The group’s spiraling, fugue-like guitars tap into a similar drone-space, and Daniel Higgs’ shamanic tone-poetry feels just as ritualistic. But on Lungfish’s 1992 album, Talking Songs For Walking, there are more angles in the oscillations—not to mention a streak of cryptic mysticism that baffled as many listeners as it converted.
Lungfish wasn’t the only band poking up in the wake of Fugazi; while Fugazi itself took 1992 off from releasing an album, D.C.’s Jawbox unleashed Novelty, its first true statement of intent. Brooding and brawny, the album drew bits of influence from its own post-hardcore backyard as well as the heavier braininess coming out of New York, particularly Helmet and Quicksand. Beneath it all, frontman J. Robbins’ obsession with melody tied it all together. Equally as impactful, yet entirely on its own warped plane of existence, is Circus Lupus. The D.C. outfit’s debut, Super Genius, rounded out the trio of major Dischord releases in 1992 while remaining jarringly distinct from Lungfish and Jawbox. If anything, the chugging, sneering Circus Lupus seemed more likely to listen to The Jesus Lizard during a break in band practice than anything homegrown.
The D.C. scene was so fertile in the early ’90s, some of that inspiration was trickling down the I-95 corridor to Richmond. At least that’s one way to explain Avail. The Virginian outfit siphoned some of the gruffness and urgency from the Dischord scene, particularly Fugazi and Lungfish. But from there, Avail went its own way. The group’s 1992 debut, Satiate, is a rumbling, churning flow of Southern-scorched angst punctured by Tim Barry’s scarified howl. Like Face To Face’s Don’t Turn Away, Avail’s Satiate seemed to have come from out of the blue—even though Avail had been kicking around the Virginia punk scene for years. There’s not a lick of poise or polish to Satiate, though. And the group’s sway over a generation of followers would make itself known a decade later, when the Avail acolytes in Against Me! would lead a post-millennial wave of punks toward their own ragged glory.
Avail occupied a strange slot in the early-’90s punk pantheon. The band was melodic, but it didn’t play pop-punk; it employed complex song structures, but it wasn’t post-hardcore. It was, more or less, the same sliver of emotive, progressive punk that D.C.’s Rites Of Spring (the other major precursor to Fugazi, along with Minor Threat) spearheaded in the ’80s. In a word, it was emo. And Avail wasn’t the only band playing it.
Jawbreaker had simmered and turned more inward after its perky 1990 debut, Unfun, to the point where its pair of 1992 releases—the EP Chesterfield King and the full-length Bivouac—wallowed in as much textured distortion and majestic depression as it did pop hooks. The same goes for Tacoma’s Seaweed, whose 1992 album, Weak, stood out on Sub Pop’s roster due to its clipped, intricate, anguished sound; it was still two years before the Big Bang Of ’90s Emo, Sunny Day Real Estate’s Diary, would appear on Sub Pop, but in a small way Seaweed helped break that ground. The band that gathered all these threads together most seamlessly was Samiam. The Berkeley-based outfit put out its third album, Billy, in 1992, and it typified the soaring, melodic moodiness of emo just before the genre would shatter into a dozen fragments. Even then, there wasn’t a band alive that actually wanted to be called emo. Sadly, no one was offering a better name.
Scrape away all the ambition, experimentation, self-importance, and would-be professionalism of early-’90s punk, and what’s left is Crimpshrine. Thankfully so. Like its Lookout! Records labelmates Green Day and Operation Ivy, Crimpshrine formed in the late ’80s and began cranking out catchy, scratchy punk. The band never caught on like its brethren, however, which had as much to do with Crimpshrine’s own haggard, chaotic state of being than any lapse in the taste of America’s youth. Listening to the band’s 1992 full-length, Duct Tape Soup—and anthology of 7-inch releases—is like chugging beer with friends on a porch, cracking dumb jokes and talking over each other and eventually getting to the point where you’re laughing and crying at the same time. The songs are as undeniable as those of Green Day or OPIV—the latter’s Jesse Michaels and Tim Armstrong even served briefly in early incarnations of Crimpshrine. But between the rabid anti-careerism of drummer Aaron Cometbus—the author of Cometbus, the most iconic zine to come out of the American punk scene—and the belching, bleary delivery of frontman Jeff Ott, Crimpshrine was destined for cult status.
Although bands like Crimpshrine dove headlong into bathos, there wasn’t any true comedy involved. Even when sloppy and lighthearted, most early-’90s punk took itself with a certain seriousness. Leave it to NOFX to not only be one of the technically tightest punk groups of the era, but also one of the flat-out goofiest. A holdover from the ’80s, NOFX had never been taken seriously—and with 1992’s White Trash, Two Heebs, And A Bean, the band finally decided to double-down on the laughs, committing fully to being the court jesters of the increasingly poker-faced punk scene. It paid off. Not only is White Trash one of the most accomplished punk records of 1992—wall-to-wall, it’s stuffed with stick-to-your-brain classics—it turned NOFX from zeros to heroes almost overnight.
The album also served as a turning point for its label, Epitaph Records. Headed by Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz, Epitaph was riding high in 1992 thanks to Bad Religion’s triumphant comeback, not to mention releases by up-and-coming bands like The Offspring, whose ’92 album Ignition was starting to perk up the ears of people beyond West Coast skate rats. But NOFX led the pack.
One song on White Trash even rang with a snotty prophecy, whether NOFX realized it at the time or not. Among the disc’s many highlights is a track titled, with typical NOFX meta-japery, “Please Play This Song On The Radio.” Radio had grudgingly opened its doors to alternative rock the year before, and that gamble had paid off—but slow-to-change programmers were not yet ready for punk rock in general, let alone NOFX’s mocking, vulgar strain of it. So when the band’s leader, Fat Mike, sings self-referentially about how “Please Play” was intentionally written to appeal to radio—“It’s got backup vocals in just the right places”—it makes it that much cheekier when he adds, “And it takes a little pause / Just before I sing the F word.” The music is so pop-injected, melody oozes out of it like an overstuffed jelly donut. After warning the radio world that “the FCC is gonna take a shit right on your head” if the airwaves ever catch wind of NOFX’s noxious punk, the song ends with a gleefully self-sabotaging refrain, switching from “Please play this song on the radio” to “Can’t play this song on the radio.” Their noses thumbed at the powers that be, Fat Mike and his bandmates ride their own bratty bluff into the sunset.
Before long, radio programmers would call NOFX, and punk rock as a whole, on that bluff. Punk would soon blare from every block in every city and every suburb in the country, simultaneously accusing society of causing its failures and apologizing for its own sudden success. And there was nothing that anyone—not even my polite, collegiate neighbor Eric—could do to keep down the volume. Not that he was as quiet as I assumed he was. As I found out years later, he’d been upstairs listening to Fugazi.
Fear of 1993: By the start of ’93, the punk-invasion force was marshaling its muscle and taking dead aim at the mainstream. Before that could happen, though, a glaring issue within the scene needed to be addressed: If punk rock considered itself such an egalitarian alternative to alternative rock, why was the vast majority of punk groups made up exclusively of dudes? Where in the punk scene were the Kim Gordons, the Kim Deals, the Courtney Loves? Riot grrrl was, in part, the answer to this glaring imbalance—even if some punks weren’t ready to hear it.