The Shape of Punk revisits some of the seminal albums turning 20 years old in 2018, tracing their impact and influence on the future of the scene.
What made punk rock so exciting in its early years was that everything felt like an accident. Those albums became artifacts, the kind that saw a bunch of (usually) teenagers articulating things based on impulse instead of know-how. It’s true of hardcore progenitors in the scene’s first wave, from Black Flag on down to the Bad Brains. Void and Siege unknowingly laid the groundwork for fastcore, and the poor engineers tasked with recording those records clearly couldn’t make heads or tails of it. And when the 90s hit, and metalcore claimed its place of prominence in the scene, every album, be it by Integrity, Earth Crisis, or Acme, sounded convoluted and messy when committed to tape. But there was a charm to all that confusion. While some of those records sound dated now—or worse, quaint—others remain powerfully singular, documents that have yet to show their age. In 1998, five NYU students called Saetia made an album that would fit this mold. It would be one of the first true documents of screamo, one that, even now, people are still trying to match.
At the time of Saetia’s inception in 1997, there was a clear divide in New York’s hardcore scene. Bands like Born Against and Rorschach, with their staunch DIY ethos, took to spaces like ABC No Rio on the Lower East Side to preach progressive politics, drawing a hard line between themselves and the city’s hard-headed, old-school acts like Agnostic Front and Sick Of It All that were still dominating the scene. And while Saetia certainly fell more in line with the former, it was the music being released by San Diego’s Gravity Records that truly influenced them. Run by Matt Anderson, Gravity was home to bands like Antioch Arrow, Angel Hair, and Anderson’s very own Heroin, each a clear descendant of Rites Of Spring, but with even more emotional turmoil added in. Throw that aggressively lo-fi hardcore into a blender with the likes of Indian Summer and Policy of 3, two acts who dared to insert long, ruminative sections into their songs, and you have a rough approximation of early Saetia.
When Saetia released their nine-song, self-titled album in 1998, they didn’t so much invent a subgenre as much as they defined one that had long felt nebulous. At the time, they were still considered a hardcore band, but they’d retroactively get the screamo tag applied to them—just as some of their influences would, too. By the time Saetia headed to Washington, DC, to record their debut album over one long weekend, the band’s sound had taken root. Saetia’s frantic compositions—written predominantly by guitarist Jamie Behar—pushed the band into unfamiliar territories that had yet to be integrated into punk. There was a bit of jazz undercutting Saetia, with their name being a reference to Miles Davis’ 1960 album Sketches of Spain, but it was Behar’s avoidance of hardcore tropes that cemented their forward-thinking approach. The songs he wrote weren’t structured in the traditional pop form, as he’d play a riff for only a measure or two then leave them dangling out in the open, unresolved and unexplained.
The first song on Saetia encapsulated everything the band had hinted at with their demo, but with a more pronounced confidence in their approach. “Notres Langues Nous Trompes” which, when translated, means “our languages deceive us,” opened with a cloud of feedback that slowly filled the speakers, making drummer Greg Drudy’s four quick hits on his ride cymbal feel like a warning siren alerting the listener of a coming storm. When the band followed him in, they made the kind of squall that was impossible to ignore. Behar and fellow guitarist Adam Marino rarely fell into the discernable roles of rhythm and lead guitarists, instead playing around each other, like they both showed up to practice with ideas and decided to just fold their riffs into one another. It gave the song’s first minute a sense of uncertainty, as all its jagged angles poked and prodded, while vocalist Billy Werner yelped out an opening line that only a 20-year-old could commit to: “I bleed onto a page for you.”
This line was indicative of what Werner was reaching for with Saetia. Plenty of hardcore bands were built around their singer’s ability to goad, or maybe intimidate, the audience into singing along, but Werner opted for something more impressionistic. His voice was shrill, sitting atop the mix and accosting the listener with piercing shrieks meant to disarm and disorient them. And when the band shifted into a quieter passage, he’d forgo singing for a borderline spoken word approach. It gave the songs the feeling of a jump-scare—that, at any second, you could be accosted by something unnatural and alarming.
But it wasn’t just their embrace of this chaotic discord that set Saetia apart from its peers. After unleashing that nimble flurry of riffs and cymbal hits, “Notres Langues Nous Trompes” hit the brakes. Behar and Marino kicked off the distortion and played fragile lead parts that leapt over one another. The guitar tone was frail, sounding as if the notes were cracking apart in their hands. It gave Werner just enough room to sing against himself, alternating between off-key howls and indecipherable shouts. It showed that unlike other hardcore bands, where singers were often putting lyrics atop rudimentary backbeats, Werner was orchestrating it all, and the music was meant to match his unhinged delivery.
On “The Sweetness and the Light” and “Woodwell,” the latter being a full-on instrumental piece, Saetia showed a level of restraint that had been entirely foreign in hardcore. “Woodwell” gave the record a healthy heaping of the band’s jazz influences, removing Werner from the equation and allowing the band to offer up a track that could have passed as a vocal-less demo of a Promise Ring song. Likewise, “The Sweetness and the Light” allowed Werner’s pitchy singing to take precedent and wring a hook out his unfiltered emoting.
Yet, for as cohesive and focused as Saetia was, the band wouldn’t exist for much longer. Less than a year after the album’s release, Saetia broke up, due in part to their sheer inability to keep it together, as well as the death of the band’s original bassist Alex Madara in December of 1998. Though Madara didn’t play on Saetia, the loss catapulted the band’s young members into adulthood, and it forever colored Saetia’s history. Fittingly, the band ended just as screamo was beginning in earnest, leaving it up to their peers to carry the genre forward. While acts like Orchid and pg. 99 formed the same year as Saetia, their debut albums wouldn’t come until well after Saetia. And though they’d all share similar influences, those bands took Saetia’s suggestion that hardcore could be both destructive and thoughtful but twisted it into something that bordered on grindcore.
But unlike so many other bands that often lose sight of their legacy once they break up, Saetia all but curated theirs. Level Plane Records was formed by Drudy in 1997 as a means of releasing Saetia’s debut seven-inch, but as the years went on, it would not only be the home of Saetia’s discography, it’d become a screamo tastemaker. With releases by City Of Caterpillar, Neil Perry, Joshua Fit For Battle, and Jeromes Dream all part of the Level Plane catalog, Drudy would ensure Saetia’s place in the newly codified screamo scene by keeping the band from falling into obscurity. But even then, no one could predict how screamo would shift in just a few short years.
Saetia’s influence was noticeable on New Jersey’s Thursday, whose debut album Waiting highlighted screamo’s melodic side, with vocalist Geoff Rickly being openly effusive about the effect Werner’s lyrics had on him. Two years later, with the streamlined, hook-laden Full Collapse, Thursday would help turn screamo into a buzzword, even if the next wave of bands had little resemblance to the likes of Saetia. Bands like The Used, as well as countless other Warped Tour clones, were peddling a cleaned up, commercialized version of the music to great success, and it made many of the genre’s earliest practitioners run from the tag. It’s what made certain pockets of the internet begin referring to Saetia and their ilk as “skramz,” a made-up word that got thrown at bands as a way to delineate them from the watered down, mass market version that had come into vogue.
Though Saetia itself was gone, the band’s members would splinter into two new bands: Off Minor and Hot Cross. Each one offered a sound that played like one of the paths Saetia could have taken had they stayed together. Off Minor saw Behar and and two former Saetia bassists, Matt Smith and Steve Roche, delving deeper into their jazzier fascinations, drafting up a sound that played like The Dillinger Escape Plan if they were less deliberately manic. Hot Cross charted a similar trajectory, with Werner and Drudy—who had been dismissed from his other band, Interpol—offering up songs that were equally as intricate as Off Minor, but with bigger, pop-minded choruses placed atop.
Once the trendiness of screamo died off in the early 2000s, a new wave of bands were there to reclaim the genre and they were all students of Saetia. Werner’s vocal approach could be seen in Jeremy Bolm of Touché Amoré, as the band took screamo’s short-and-fast template and supplanted it with a bit of melodic hardcore. It’s fitting that Bolm would go on to reissue Saetia’s discography in 2016 on his label Secret Voice, helping draw the line back to the band that left such a mark upon him. He wasn’t alone, as Saetia’s mark could be seen on a band like La Dispute, who took Werner’s fascination with poetry to its logical end, with vocalist Jordan Dreyer using the band as a way to craft ambiguous narratives inside the band’s work. And in terms of bands that studied Behar’s guitarwork, acts like Loma Prieta would attempt to build upon it, finding ways to reframe screamo as a means of delivering the most off-putting riffs possible.
In the years since Saetia’s demise, many of their peers have reunited for short tours or new records, and though there’s still a demand for it, Saetia has made it abundantly clear they won’t be following suit. The release of their discography in 2016 could have sparked a reunion show or two but, instead, they used it to cement the band as a thing of the past. Werner told me as much when I (along with Noisey editor Dan Ozzi) interviewed him to get his take on band reunions for the podcast No Plus Ones. “To put those pieces in motion, it just didn’t feel right,” Werner said, addressing his concerns about a bunch of old white guys taking up space in a scene that’s become an outlet for marginalized voices. And not only that, it forced him to ask himself the question that every band considering a reunion should: “Do these words mean something to me, or am I just going through the motions?”
In the liner notes released along with the band’s discography, Werner urged the reader to avoid being wistful, acknowledging that, in their time, Saetia was unremarkable, and that it was the fans that made them into something bigger. While the mythology that was built may not have accurately represented what Saetia was, they left behind a record that is still being referenced by bands in the modern era. In 2018, Saetia’s influence remains visible and audible, and there’s an entire subgenre to prove it.