Ink & Dagger's 'The Fine Art of Original Sin' Gave Hardcore Some Theatrics
20 years ago, the Philadelphia band injected some much needed showmanship into a staunch, humorless punk scene.
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.
Punk rock has always been fixated on mythos, even if that fact ran counter to the genre’s anti-rockstar bias. First-wave punks all made attempts at becoming larger-than-life figures, be it The Ramones adopting the same surname and posing as four brothers from Queens, or The Misfits dressing up as otherworldly ghouls, but that kind of showmanship would soon be replaced with earnestness. As the years passed, punk moved further away from these rock ‘n’ roll tropes and favored authenticity above everything else. All that stone-faced posturing would become so outlandish it began to border on self-parody—if not outright parody—but it also allowed the weirdos to cut in and claim their space, just as Ink & Dagger did with The Fine Art of Original Sin.
Formed in Philadelphia by vocalist Sean McCabe and guitarist Don Devore, the pair worked up an idea for a band that was seemingly a response to the no-nonsense, tough-guy sect of hardcore. Instead of falling in line with the trends of the day, such as straight-edge, veganism, or Hare Krishna, the pair opted for vampirism as their inspiration. It was a decision that was patently absurd, the kind of thing that should have gotten them dismissed as a gimmick and never given a second thought, but it was their commitment to it, coupled with McCabe’s cult of personality, that made this more than some toothless schtick.
In their early days, Ink & Dagger featured a rotating cast of characters that swirled around McCabe and Devore. On the band’s debut EP, 1996’s Love Is Dead, Eric Wareheim would play bass, years before he’d go on to become a comedy icon as half of Tim & Eric. All these shifts gave the band an air of mystery, and it was matched by the band’s unpredictable live shows. While their music fit in with the kind of spastic, chaotic hardcore that was en vogue at the time, Ink & Dagger didn’t fall squarely in line with that either. Devore’s riffs were certainly obtuse, but he didn’t have the kind of math-rock-indebted approach that was emblematic of bands like Coalesce or Converge. Instead, he sounded more like a student of Dischord Records, and particularly Circus Lupus, a second-tier Dischord band that easily could have been Ink & Dagger’s central influence. Devore didn’t choke out all the open space in the songs, allowing Ink & Dagger to sound more nuanced, with each bassist taking up a prominent role in the songs while allowing for instruments like the organ to be incorporated into the mix.
For as musically interesting as they were, there was little doubt that McCabe was the band’s star. While he sounded shockingly like a teenage Ian MacKaye on Love Is Dead, as the years went on, he found a vocal approach that was less referential. It was a more of a spoken delivery, dripping with a kind of brooding antagonism that sold his role as the leader of the generation of future vampires as something genuine. When Ink & Dagger played live, the band donned their version of corpse paint, resembling a dollar-store version of KISS, replete with McCabe spitting up fake blood and basking in their own homemade lightshow. It drew a line back to The Misfits, but a more conceptual version, one less concerned with B-movies and an interest in actual occultism.
It also gave McCabe the ability to be something more than another skinny hardcore kid dressed in all black. In street clothes, he blended right into a crowd. But with makeup on, McCabe’s troll-like disdain toward the populist hardcore movement became something real, bringing the shit-stirring persona he built on the early 90s message board alt.music.hardcore into the real world. It would manifest in moments such as when he threw yogurt and beer cans at the militant vegans in Earth Crisis during their sets.
As McCabe was lionized for so openly playing the heel, it was only a matter of time before that got turned around on the band. At a hardcore festival in Michigan in 1997, the crowd threw heads of garlic at Ink & Dagger while they played. Much like McCabe did with Earth Crisis, onlookers challenged Ink & Dagger’s very premise while they were on stage. Obviously, no one thought the members of Ink & Dagger were actually vampires, but McCabe’s antics, and full commitment to his role in the band, made people question how deep he went with it. After this event, McCabe realized he’d had holes poked into his act, so he pivoted, positioning the band as “psychic vampires” before slowly breaking kayfabe and distancing himself from the vampire thing all together.
In 1998, when Ink & Dagger released The Fine Art of Original Sin, they maintained a bit of their vampiric bent, but just as they were expanding beyond this ideology, they were pushing their sound into bold new places, too. After some ghoulish whispers played backwards, “The Fine Art of Original Sin” kicked in, seeing Devore’s warped take on hardcore at its most confident and memorable. Where he’d previously written songs that could have fit into other non-vampiric bands, here Devore’s avoidance of hardcore’s signature chug, and embrace of more textural compositions, fit into Ink & Dagger’s philosophy. McCabe’s first words matched this, as his screams of “Crucifixion / Benediction / It’s all I’ve ever known,” played into the band’s established premise, but worked just as well as a rejoinder to the band’s critics.
Though they never had a stable lineup, the addition of drummer Ryan Mclaughlin and bassist Joshua Brown gave The Fine Art of Original Sin a feeling of cohesion even if it was unearned. Mclaughlin’s drumming gave the songs a smoother, more streamlined feel than his predecessors had, and Brown fit in with lineage of Wareheim and Ashli Slate, as their off-kilter rhythms gave every song a solid backbone. But just over a minute into “The Fine Art of Original Sin,” the band fully came apart, but they did so intentionally. The song’s production shifted away from the standard punk fare, as the music began to warp at its edges until it completely spun out. The band didn’t play into it, still remaining in lock-step motions, but the coloring of everything was offset. It was the moment where all their drug-fueled experiments manifested in the music, as the song slipped away into some sort of acid trip.
Later in that same song, a new electronic piece was layered on top, drowning out most of the other instruments and, briefly, taking on the quality of a record scratch, setting the song back a few seconds before starting up again. Much like their initial decision to play-act as vampires, Ink & Dagger used The Fine Art of Original Sin to expand what was possible inside the walls of hardcore. In the case of “We Live Despite Their Schemes,” McCabe shared vocal duties with Jennifer Layne Park, offering a drugged-up duet that was largely inspired by techno artists. Devore ceded control, merely lurking in the shadows with riffs that shaded in the song’s edges and never came to the forefront. The same is true of the end of “Vampire Fast Code Ver. 1.5” and the album closer, “The Fine Art of Original Sin (The GFS Resonant Mix).” Early in “Vampire Fast Code Ver. 1.5,” Devore played against electronic back beats before the rest of the band came in, and the song devolved into full-on electronic dance beats in its final seconds. And as one may expect, “The Fine Art of Original Sin (The GFS Resonant Mix)” was a fully electronic remix of the opening track, reframing the album as something that could have been played in dance clubs.
While these electronic dalliances and post-production choices signaled the band’s intent to make an album that sounded like an LSD-addled party, it was in “The Six Feet Under Swindle” that McCabe outlined Ink & Dagger’s true intentions. His lyrics told the story of him sitting in a graveyard with Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, when the deceased rocker opined that “Rock ‘n’ roll is better off dead.” McCabe screamed this line with glee, and he spent most of the song’s midsection in a laughing fit, openly mocking rock ‘n’ roll’s rotting corpse. The track splintered in a million different directions, occasionally looping back on itself only to explore another pathway. It was the kind of thing that could only be done by a bunch of mischievous kids that wanted to test the limits of punk, and the fact it actually worked was a testament to both their creativity and commitment.
The Fine Art of Original Sin showed that Ink & Dagger was more than just a gimmick, or some early example of musical trolling, and that there was a purpose to all their strange decisions. “Have a laugh at our expense as we blow this world up from the inside” wrote McCabe in the album’s liner notes, and that intention was achieved in the album Ink & Dagger created. Though they’d swear off the makeup by the time of the album’s release (aside from a one-off resuscitation here and there), none of this diminished McCabe’s dynamism. The band would play its final show less than a year later, and record a final, self-titled album that would see release posthumously in the year 2000. Sadly, the album would also come out after McCabe died, when, on August 28, 2000, he choked on his own vomit in an Indiana motel room.
By then, bands had already taken a bit from Ink & Dagger, but given that punk was becoming wildly adventurous as it neared the new millennium, it was easy to lose sight of that fact. In 1997, Ink & Dagger went on tour with Botch, a metal-leaning hardcore band from Tacoma, Washington, that had only a few singles to their name. After that tour, Botch would become known for playing shows in total darkness, punctuating their music with flood lights they’d flip off and on as if they were strobes. This DIY light show was something Ink & Dagger used in their sets to add to their mystique and create a disquieting air, yet it would be Botch that spread this idea throughout underground music. Similarly, Ink & Dagger’s goth-adjacent appearance allowed others to embrace a similar theatrical bent. AFI had slowly gone that direction, but on 1998’s A Fire Inside EP and 1999’s Black Sails in the Sunset, they’d become less shy about their Cure worship. And before long, AFI frontman Davey Havok would become an actual rockstar by bringing goth-punk to the masses.
Yet it was the band’s willingness to run counter to the hardcore scene itself that remains the most important part of their legacy. Around this time, there were other young kids utilizing music as a way of poking fun a the self-seriousness that was permeating the scene at large. Be it the a capella hardcore band Jud Jud, or Atom & His Package, which saw fellow Philadelphian Adam Goren sing and dance alongside a drum machine deemed “the package,” these were necessary responses to a scene that was peddling indoctrination and conformity.
While Ink & Dagger’s influence was muddied over time, the true ethos that drove The Fine Art of Original Sin has remained intact. Much like the primitive punks who built larger-than-life personalities out of thin air, McCabe showed that punk rock was still about remaking yourself into the person you want to be while taking creative license with the music. With The Fine Art of Original Sin, Ink & Dagger proved that punk was more than just a costume; it’s in your blood, whether you want it to be or not.