The Hardcore Tribalism of Turnstile

Time & Space is a hopeful uproar in a nihilistic medium—and it's not for everyone.

Facebook is garbage, but my new favorite hobby is typing “turnstile” into the search bar and watching people reenact Norman Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends, but about America’s newest hardcore sweethearts and their new record, Time & Space. The Baltimore band has been moshing it up in appropriately ill-fitting jerseys since 2010, from which point on there’s been interminable debate among hardcore fans and musicians as to whether Turnstile are “true hardcore.” Some multi-era heads have said to me, and I quote, that the band makes “the worst music I’ve ever heard.” Conversely, the only time in my entire writing career that I’ve ever been confronted face-to-face about a review was when a musician Not In Turnstile took me to task over my largely positive review of Turnstile’s debut. To his mind, I was overly dismissive of both the band and the high hardcore hopes they represent. The divide is not generational. Turnstile is the rare band whose partisans and detractors run the gamut from the OG first fish to crawl from CBGBs matinees to baby punks conceived while I typed this sentence. Arguing about the band makes for a fun parlor game, because opinions about Turnstile are like butts: Everybody’s got one, and they’re all hella tight.

My own was set into motion by the band’s first full-length (which came out on Reaper Records, a label for which the mission statement is, “Born with a single statement of intent: to promote bands who follow the true spirit of hardcore”). Now, I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, like, at all. Love what you love, and irony is a dead scene, man. But 2015’s Nonstop Feeling was the exception to the rule. I dug it in my headphones, but just could not play it in public without blushing. It was joyous and spirited, but too slick, too Rage Against the Machine-y, too stage-dive to make me feel alive, too…uncool. I realize, of course, that this a fault that lies with me, at 40 still waging internal battles best left in high school, rather than the band, but I was and am as an easily amused god made me, and I set Turnstile aside. Until now.

Time & Space is Turnstile’s first album for Roadrunner, a classic metal label (albeit one that had to right the ship after some controversy about a decade ago). The record was produced by Will Yip, who keeps things clean, hot, and fat. I usually prefer a bit more lower fidelity dirt, but most contemporary hardcore acts aren’t terribly interested in that. In newer hardcore, “sounding good” means keep everything loud and popping, all the time. As someone who usually spends his studio time lying on the coach, reading back issues of MRR, and once got laughed out of the room when I told the producer that I wanted the album to sound like Jawbreaker’s Bivouac, that’s all I feel qualified to say about the dials and knobs and whathaveyou.

While scene kids like The New York Times may consider Time & Space bruising,” it’s, like, really not. It’s hard-bopping, for sure, but it’s less brutal than peppy—a swingin’ affair. Barrelhouse piano and soul-night handclaps weave in and out of the sonic wingding. (To borrow the prescient words of Turnstile’s antecedents, Helmet, on their song “Sinatra:” “It’s Sinatra’s world / She just lives in it.”) Sheer Mag’s Tina Halladay does backing vocals on “Moon;” in keeping with Turnstile’s new expanded vision, Sheer Mag are decidedly on the “rawk” end of the hard-music spectrum. (The pairing makes particular sense when I think about how a straight rock and roll band like Sheer Mag is beloved by planty of hardcore types and Turnstile is the rare hardcore band equally adored by pop-punk types who wouldn’t be caught dead in a varsity jacket.) While Krishna-core brutalists Inside Out still sonically loom large in Time & Space’s riffs and crunch, there’s been an appealing spiritual surrender to the church of Perry Farrell and assorted ’90s alt-belief systems. If you gotta pray to someone, you can do worse than Alice in Chains harmonies. And the harmonies on this record, whether soaring over breakdowns or dubby quasi-threatening bass crawls, are pretty as all get-out.

Time & Space’s obvious genre touchstone is the arguably-not-really-a-genre-but-so-what of “Corona groove.” I think of this as the raging hardcore with a premium on danceability invented in the ’80s by Corona/Jackson Heights, Queens denizens like Agnostic Front, Madball, and their assorted DMS peers. The genre doesn’t wear its Latin and hip-hop influences on its sleeve, but the influences are impossible not to hear, once you know about them. Turnstile’s new album has a song called “Bomb” that paraphrases parts of the Gap Band’s masterpiece, “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” and while they make no claims to Black Train Jack (an unjustly/OK, maybe justly forgotten band from the ashes of Token Entry that was also on Roadrunner), Turnstile most assuredly share that band’s earnest sweetness and command of the vocal hook. The chorus of the single, “Real Thing,” is reverbed/echo ear candy that conjures up the aforementioned Jane’s Addiction and the classic Supertouch jam “Searching for the Light,” while songs like “Generator” find two different ways to keep an “aha” in the listener’s craw. The singer gets mega-angelic for the final chorus, and then the hand claps kick in.

As on Nonstop Feeling, Turnstile’s lyrics are adequate for the work at hand: The band’s short sketches of need, resistance, and hope are purely functional screws holding the table together. The band doesn’t appear to have developed any drug problems or experienced the lyric-changing charge of hurting someone truly great, but if I was unfair to dismiss their lyrics in the past (and I was!) I would be more so this time around. While still dealing in posi-core tropes, songs like “Moon” and “Running Away” (“running since the day I lost control”) show an admirable pushing/searching introspection. When every line is meant to be sung by the crowd, the individual is subsumed into the many. The singer says “I,” but if the assumption is that if every line is a gang vocal, then every song is a “we.”

Turnstile’s singer, Brendan Yates, recently told SPIN that the album is about “disconnecting oneself from situations and letting go, separating yourself…stepping back and looking at the position you’re in, the relationships you’re in…[it’s about] getting outside of your mind—and out of your body—to see the clearing.” If you step outside both your body and your mind, where are you? I like existing in both my mind and my body, sweaty failure it may be, because I dig the human grit. It’s no easy task to wrestle with complex emotions with words necessarily truncated to keep the dance floor full, but Yates’s lyrics improve with every release, so I don’t doubt he has a Tusk in him once the world hurts his feelings a bit more. Turnstile convey beautifully and succinctly a certain Zen existence, but I look forward to their eventually getting their hands dirty.

In the 20-minutes-plus-change duration of Time & Space, there’s a lot of swell, if non-hardcore-standard, stuff going on, making a case against Turnstile as a “real” exemplar of the genre. Counterpoint: The gang vocals remain on point. Plus, Turnstile is playing the upcoming Damaged City Festival, a festival beloved by DIY or Die–ers and anti-poseurs of all stripes. So, is Time & Space hardcore? I don’t know. Would Gorilla Biscuits’ “Start Today” be hardcore if it consisted solely of music that sounded like its pop-attack title track 12 times over? Maybe not, but I’d buy the shit out of that album.

I like talking to my friends about Turnstile. It’s good to have the distraction from, you know, everything. All the chatter—whether slander or hagiography—in and of itself makes for a positive review of the band. Usually, when someone takes pride in being polarizing or, worse, “hated by both sides,” it’s an indication that they’re a centrist jerk. But Turnstile are polarizing because they thread a needle worth their effort: They make hopeful uproar in a nihilistic medium, avoiding platitudes by means of a tight and just-varied-enough body music. It’s a rising, fearless affair and/or a decent excuse to hurl yourself around on a Saturday night. Maybe it’s not goofy, or maybe I’ve just gotten less uptight enough to meet the music in the middle of the floor. Regardless, I’ve listened to Time & Space about a hundred times now; not sick of it; haven’t blushed once.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.