Music by VICE

Under the Woes: The New Toronto Underground Hardcore Scene

The scene has found something like itself in Toronto's overcrowded music landscape

by Jonah Falco
Sep 12 2016, 9:33pm

The hardcore and punk scene in Toronto in 2016 is both present and remote; tight-knit, yet vast. It is a more inclusive space than it has been in years with efforts by a new generation of empowered and aware young people—along with the conscious and continuous dedication of older generations to being progressive—to shatter old prejudices and boundaries. It is striving towards something more: female voices, trans voices, the voices of people of colour, new languages, and marginalized narratives are all taken into account. It struggles to keep a home, but as a result is defined by its perpetual death and rebirth: a constant push back, a slow roll forward. This scene has a new dedication to autonomy, split between the safety and comfort of simple friendship, and the high goals of hard-earned cultural "nation building" in a city which would just as soon destroy what makes it interesting rather than foster it.

The idea of defining only one fraction of the huge amounts of people who make music in this city as the "punk" scene is difficult. A snapshot of what's going on at a very grassroots level relates to a certain ideal of hardcore: the way the term was so practically used to differentiate "real punk" from new wave in the early 80s. The genre vagueness of that term—Flipper is hardcore, but so is Crucifix, but so are the Meat Puppets and Youth Youth Youth, they're just all not the B-52s or Loverboy—still carries on. There are hundreds of new connotations and spaces to which the term, used in that sense, has leaked smeared, melted, and shrieked in terms of how people interested in hardcore consume music and culture. There is also so much to account for when thinking about what taking part in a subculture means in the generation of the beyond—the product, the space, the boundary, and in some cases beyond the need—but there are moments of artfulness, revolutionary spirit, radical politics, activism, selfishness, and nihilism present in the past and contemporary history of Toronto punk. Somehow there is still some semblance of self in the overcrowded cultural soup.

Toronto's very local scene has veered away from bar and club culture, emphasizing community-run spaces that can cater exactly to their needs, rather than pandering to liquor quotas, age restrictions, and rental rates. If Fucked Up are Toronto's club punk past, S.H.I.T. is the scene's present and future,3 ruling the unconventional and progressive spaces interspersed across the city. The first and foremost space for punk activity in Toronto is Faith/Void. A space run by the singer of the band S.H.I.T. who have been instrumental in propelling the "new scene" to its present momentum. Faith/Void, named for the famous split 12-inch of The Faith and Void that Dischord released in 1982, is cleverly divided into two sections. "Faith," the front half of the space which is a retail shop which sells "DIY ✞ OUTSIDER ✞ INDEPENDENT ✞ UNDERGROUND ✞ SUBVERSIVE MEDIA" (records, books, zines, ephemera, clothing, and accessories). The "Void" in the back serves as a mixed-use community space. The people that fill the space range from devotees of punk/hardcore and affiliate endeavours, sounds, and print, as well as curious onlookers, artists, writers, and strangers who find the idea of the space alluring. It is a place to keep up with what's happening in your world, and maybe learn about someone else's. Sometimes the shop is devoid of customers, too, but the knowledge of its existence is a huge gesture to ensure that the world we try and identify with remains part of the physical realm. In the current era of interiority and the self-aggrandizing scale of social media, it's nice to know that what we imagine about ourselves actually does exist in the small and difficult parameters of a brick and mortar space.

Most recordings in Toronto's punk scene are done in improvised non-studio spaces and by people teaching themselves how to reproduce sound. Most bands have recorded in practice spaces, basements, or dingy rooms, by people who, in the kindest and most relevant way possible, don't particularly know what they're doing. Creating a chance element in a technical process doesn't work when building a jet engine, but always produces something unique in the smaller stakes of DIY recording. This current crop—like their predecessors who defined themselves against what came before them—are concurrent with the ideological moves the world is and isn't making. They are capable of shifting themselves toward the image of what they see as their better world. This is the learned ideal of the punk scene after years of slogging it out. Here's a look at some music that can still excite, motivate, and mobilize, all for the sake of just existing.

S.H.I.T.

S.H.I.T. has been at the forefront of the current revitalization of the Toronto scene. As S.H.I.T. gained momentum in their early days, they served almost as an exit strategy for a scene losing venues and bands at an alarming rate. As the scene changed over, new inroads in making the punk scene boil again were put into place particularly by Greg Benedetto, the festival organizer who is a staple in the hardcore scene. Benedetto emboldened the Not Dead Yet festival, and started S.H.I.B.G.B., with the extensive help of his bandmates and the local scene, as a punk centre in Toronto.

Siyahkal

Siyahkal is a band named for a guerrilla operation against the then long-ruling Pahlavi government of Iran in 1971. The Marxist-Leninist "Organization of Iranian People's Fedai Guerrillas" stormed a military outpost in order to free previous captured guerrillas. The band's music seems to be deliberately influenced by 80s Scandinavian hardcore, as well as some more current tropes (squealing feedback, noise, a straight four on the floor beat). The most unique thing about their sound, though, is the vocals, which are delivered in a Kurdish Farsi dialect, sung in a startlingly unique way. At the risk of Orientalizing the style, they do sound non-Western, indebted to melodic traditions of the Middle East and maybe even Russia. At times, the singing sounds borderline operatic or almost like folk melody. Perhaps a nod to subverting longstanding cultural traditions or about desecrating folk legacy in traditional music. Other moments simply sound like the most terrifying military order being barked at you from behind a bayonet.

Triage

The most raging band in Toronto, Triage has invented/named their own genre and style called "Power Beat," which is deeply influenced by late 80s Japanese hardcore, the Cro-Mags, and crusty, metallic, crossover like Sacrilege. Triage is the band to watch at the moment. One of the few bands on the scene with a record to show the world, they have been making inroads in the US, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them in Europe sooner than later. They have a kind of unrelenting power and fluidity that this city hasn't seen from a fast DIY band in a long time. The vocals are anguished short bursts of disapproval, and gasp with confrontation.

The Boys

The Boys are made up of members of VCR, Triage, and other scene stalwarts. Controversially named this— there is another, more famous, longstanding UK punk band from 1977 called the Boys— the band is not deterred in any way. These Boys play riffy and ugly mid-tempo punk rock with a few blasts of hardcore speed peppered throughout. The speed is there to make it punk; the careless attitude and aggression take it away from any perceived machismo or showiness. The vocals are seething and horrible, like COC or Void, and the recordings are buried in live-off-the-floor instantaneous bleed.

Gaucho

One of the S.H.I.T. family bands, Gaucho are rough and ready, burly, and fast. The intention of punk music is perhaps to reduce music to its elemental parts in a very literal way. Gaucho march onward in a kind of lock-step-pogo-march. Colombia and Argentina via Toronto barking lyrics in Spanish over exposed and occasionally soaring riffs. They have been scene fixtures for a few years.


Prom Nite

Another new aggregate of local players, linking the immediate lineage of Toronto's DIY punk scene (Scott of VCR, and Chloe of Anti Vibes) to new projects. Musically, they tread well outside the lines of Toronto's seemingly well carved musical tastes: they play frenetic and quick semi-atonal vocals over fast moving and wide ranging guitar playing that is ultimately punk tempo with a glittery ambition. Punk is often railroaded into a dark and dusty place where, no matter how many times or how loudly you shout, one feels that ultimately no one can hear you. Their repurposing of glam or "bubblegum" in this sense is a way of maybe feeling the same isolation, the same futility, but at least shining your psychological shoes in the process.​

Protruders

A transplant from New Brunswick, the Protruders are a duo who play a kind of stripped down version of noisy guitar rock very much influenced by the proto punk of the Electric Eels and the relatively recent outsider pop of a band like Tyvek or Home Blitz. Layered in distortion and timid melody, they are a welcome addition to the sounds of desperation and pain that hardcore punk usually likes to deliver.

Pedestrian

This new band is personnelled in part by people who have been involved in the local scene for a long time in non-musical ways (Victoria, photographer; Chelsea, illustrator; Andrew, who purportedly learned guitar for this band.) They have a primitive and loose vibe; the music switches between mid-tempo dreariness with affected vocals to up-tempo pogo dirge. The gesture to learn something new for the sake of learning it, and to do so in public, is a very generous one, which has been specifically championed by DIY culture. The pool of people who start and propagate music culture can be so slim in a small music scene, the act of going out on a limb for the first time, after being embedded in a scene is highly important to keeping the world turning.

Tashme

Named for the second World War internment camp in British Columbia, Tashme has stormed on to the scene, musically providing a shift away from the most prevalent musical motifs in the Toronto scene, and toward a blend of what's happening in some of the bigger circles of the current hardcore realm. Tempo shifts, slightly more complex rhythms, and a vicious howl.

Pure Pressure

A band in which people play instruments which they don't usually play. Short, fast bursts of purposefully inept and nonsensical hardcore blasts from familiar scene faces (members of S.H.I.T., Siyahkal, Severe) fronted by a ferocious vocalist adding perspective to life experiences of personal abuse and the displacement of having to navigate the broken contemporary immigration structures of the US and Canada.

Jonah Falco is a writer and the drummer of Fucked Up. Follow him on Twitter.

Photos by Alex Kress