Drew Daniel (Matmos) Talks Earth Crisis’ Salvation of Innocents

To clear the air here: I wanted to write about Earth Crisis in 2014 because I used to be straight edge in 1986. Saying that makes me the enemy:

To clear the air here: I wanted to write about Earth Crisis in 2014 because I used to be straight edge in 1986. Saying that makes me the enemy: As a revealingly self-consuming straight edge slogan puts it, “If you’re not now, you never were.” From the perspective of the movement, to lose one’s edge is to have never truly had the edge in the first place. The point is to be true ‘til death, absolutely nailed to the X. Aspiring to a marmoreal fixity, straight edge’s very stiffness is already implicit in the genre-name “hardcore”: a form of music whose very name is an assertion about fanatical commitment, an allegiance whose strength is measured by an implied difference between insiders and the softer, weaker cohort of posers and others it excludes and abjures by definition.

Some backstory you can skip if you wanna get to the music review part: I used to be straight edge because I grew up in the Louisville, Kentucky, hardcore scene in the ’80s and, like so many other smalltown hardcore scenes, we were deeply in awe of D.C. hardcore, of the culture it had created, and the curiously empowering effects of its enraged, aggressive music. But straight edge also had a particular resonance in Kentucky, because of the importance of the tobacco and alcohol industries as key economic players in our state. To reject smoking and drinking in the land of Brown & Williamson and Maker’s Mark was to reject the world of adult complicity with toxic products, to take power over your body, to draw a bright line between you and the noble, righteous inner circle of your friends on one side and the surrounding horde of wasted youth and adults with their compromised alcoholic/cancerous lives on the other. It’s an old tale of the enlightened few against the guilty, bloodstained many. You get the picture. As a closet case, the strict sexual mores of straight edge culture also worked beautifully to cover up my homosexuality, so that was handy. (And it didn’t hurt that straight edge guys were often athletic, good looking, and hyper-masculine dudes with shaved heads and big muscles.) Finally, straight edge meant that you could feel rebellious while still remaining a “good kid” who got good grades — you could feel like a bad-ass while staying inside certain systems.

But not everyone who was straight edge played it so safe. At the time I noticed that many of my straight edge and punk rock friends also became vegans and began to identify with the politics of animal liberation. Attention to what was going into their bodies led to noticing other things: the ethical chains of implication by which a culinary culture in which animals are eaten adjoins a research culture in which animals are exploited and oppressed and experimented upon. Once you’ve already rejected alcohol and tobacco, it seems like a natural next step to reject meat, and eventually all animal products. I had friends in straight edge bands and friends who became animal liberation activists, and I felt (and still feel) continually challenged by their stances, at once caught up in the allure of punk-as-fuck ethical consistency which those stances radiate and yet suspicious of the anhedonic, disciplinarian and deeply Puritanical and self-righteous undercurrents which charge that very allure. The all-or-nothing scenarios of apocalypse these politics bred could lead to despairing endgames, as I discovered when a troubled high school friend and animal rights activist killed himself — but this didn’t dampen the focused, righteous power of extreme forms of commitment. After all, as long as you can bracket the question of your own certainty about what constitutes justice in the first place, what’s wrong with extreme commitment to justice? The history of civil rights struggles had shown that sometimes the world could be taught that it was wrong, that it had to change. Which brings my nostalgic meandering back to Earth Crisis, a band whose straight edge, vegan, animal liberation and eco-warrior agenda has been the gold standard (or laughingstock?) when the topic is hard-line, ideologically insistent heavy music for two decades.

Unless you follow this subculture, your familiarity with Earth Crisis may begin and end with an unforgettable image of one of their fans, now widely circulated online: an individual who tattooed the band’s logo across their cheeks, creating permanently metalcore muttonchops of lurid high-contrast ink that spell EARTH from ear to jaw on one side, and CRISIS from jaw to ear on the other in a Famous Monsters of Filmland-style distressed font. This kind of lifelong, disfiguring devotion to a hardcore band is easy — all too easy — to mock, and indeed, the androgynously plucked eyebrows and under-determined gender of this uber-fan triggered a noticeably homophobic response from its many online gawkers and commenters. (See YourTattooSucks.com for evidence of same.) But then, easy targets go with the territory, for the ambient homophobia and jocky, bro’d-out lowest common denominator thuggery of macho “straight edge” culture tout court is also rather easy — all too easy — to mock.

It’s no accident that this person tattooed EARTH CRISIS across their face rather than, say, HATEBREED. From its 1992 debut EP All Out War through several album cycles over the course of a decade in which the Syracuse crew played to an increasingly large and rabid fanbase across the globe until their hiatus in 2001 and resurgence in 2007, Earth Crisis is a band that insists with a particularly emphatic fanaticism upon ideals which are planetary in their scope and consequences, a band prone to totalizing and absolute scenarios whose avowed commitments mandate global transformation by any means necessary. From their name to their album artwork to their song lyrics, Earth Crisis insist upon structuring debates in terms of the biggest of big pictures. Given such a scale and such ambitions, one sees why, for their fans, a little lowercase scratch-and-poke tatt on the ankle just won’t do. For normal folks, being into punk or hardcore music — and especially being into the straight edge version of same — is a transient adolescent phase of aggressive posturing, something boys and girls do for a while before they grow (or cut) their hair, go to law school, start knocking back beers with the co-workers and start checking out the deep cuts of the Fleetwood Mac back catalogue (a musical process that starts out as ironic terraforming and ends with genuine MOR resettlement). So what is threatening about this uber-fan’s tattoo is also a version of what is also threatening — or alluring, or laughable — about Earth Crisis’ own agenda as such: total demands, absolute commitment, us and them, join or die.

This is not music that’s about seeing things both ways, living and let live, or agreeing to disagree. There are sides, and you’re on one or the other. Depending upon where you stand, it’s either deeply fucking admirable or numbingly self-serving that the political stances and objectives and lyrical subject matter of Earth Crisis have not budged an angstrom in the two decades and counting that stretch between their first record and their present, self-recorded LP, the bracingly relentless Salvation of Innocents. But then, why should the agenda have changed if animals are just as exploited and tormented today as when this band started? Earth Crisis might well justifiably respond that they’ll start mellowing out and slowing down and toning down their rhetoric as soon as the worldwide scientific establishment stops experimenting on lab animals. As vocalist Karl Buechner screams with brutal directness in the breakdown on “Razors Through Flesh”: “We’ll never stop!”

For better and for worse, he’s probably right. They never stop making the sounds you expect Earth Crisis to make: big, muscular metalcore riffs that are designed to make people go fucking apeshit. For a self-recorded record, it’s admirably heavy and full-sounding, and on headphones you definitely notice the attention to production details. I don’t know whether it’s the band’s doing or the work of Zeuss’ mix, but there’s a pretty cool chopped-and-screwed Pro Tools slowdown tape-effect breakdown in “De-Desensitize,” and “Shiver” has an unexpectedly proggy bridge and some nicely stacked backing vocals and harmony layers, and there’s a pretty sweet squealing power-metal style solo in “Into Nothingness.” Throughout, there are cool decisions about hard-panning rhythm guitar parts so that the songs seem to fly apart across the stereo field and then pull instantly back together when turning corners. Do I sound like somebody trying to think of something nice to say about a kinda generic metalcore album?

If so, I say that because the price of fidelity to one’s ideals is that it can induce a kind of rigid, lockstep adherence to formulas, a deathgrip on the manifesto that stops the music from budging past the boundaries of its pre-scripted frameworks. Tenacity can become its own sort of complacency. A few intros and outros and bridges aside, across its 12 songs and 35 minutes, Salvation of Innocents never lets up, never goes soft, never really slips out of gear. Staying true can leave you frozen in place, and it’s hardly an accident that a song is titled “Devoted to Death” — on a formal level, that’s an apt description of the band’s problem at this point: the mosh pit has become a comfort zone. Even if “Devoted to Death” has some sick riffs, its invocation of “biological automatons” also eerily describes the efficiency of a polished and professional band on auto-pilot.

It’s not as if fanatical politics have to produce conformist, party-line music. Plenty of people with radical commitments have made music that was also formally and texturally radical; to cough up just a few examples, consider the family lines that run from crustpunk singles by Crass and Flux of Pink Indians to Robert Wyatt’s soundtrack for Victor Schonfeld’s The Animals Film (1981) to much of the English Marxist free music/improvised music community to Merzbow’s long-running and deeply felt insistence upon an ecological orientation as the primary “subject matter” of his noise music. In marked contrast, Earth Crisis demand radical structural change from within a musical straitjacket that is, itself, deeply conservative. This too may be a political virtue. If the music exists as a delivery system for a set of political stances, then from a purely practical standpoint, its formal blandness and reliability might itself be an index of the very seriousness with which the band members understand the music’s utilitarian purpose: to spread a message effectively, you need to present it in an easily consumed format that is going to resonate and work for the largest number of potentially persuadable people. If this music inspires you to liberate an animal, then that duly liberated organism is going to be simply grateful for its freedom from torture, and is unlikely to chide you for not staying home and tucking in with a cool drone record instead.

The sheer extremity of the planetary scenarios and heroic activist solutions proposed by Earth Crisis can seem laughably self-serious, adolescent and contrived, and it doesn’t help matters that the album’s promotion is tied in with a comic book about animal-liberating superheroes. For many who grew up and out of, aside, or away from, their old punk commitments, this new album might be something snorted at and set aside, a set of corny postures and utopian proposals and macho tantrums best traded for a tasteful ambient record, or perhaps a bittersweet singer-songwriter album about divorce, or the latest day-glo post-trap vapourwave nugget of Ableton-programmed whimsy. Mostly likely this album is going to soundtrack some moshing and partying and gutterpunk proselytizing and that’s about it.

It’s easy enough to laugh at the person with EARTH CRISIS written across their face. But let’s admit why those very words really ought to give us pause: when you consider the rising chorus of scientific voices assuring us that the cost of continuing with capitalism as usual is rendering irreversible an already-in-progress climate-changing death spiral of rising CO2 levels which will permanently alter the temperatures and shorelines of our planet and, slowly but steadily, press the species that populate that planet towards the brink of a Permian-level mass extinction event, then perhaps a righteous and yes, even self-righteous blast of eco-warrior extremism might be precisely what is called for at the present time. As risibly fundamentalist and cartoonish as this bunch of fanatics might sound, they’re not wrong: the earth really is in crisis, and only a radical re-consideration of what we as human beings are willing to permit is going to change that. I’ll leave the last words to the band: “What other choice is left to stop these crimes?”

Talkhouse contributing writer Dr. Drew Daniel is a member of Matmos and a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. Matmos’ new album, Ultimate Care II, is out on February 19, 2016 via Thrill Jockey Records.

(photo credit: Josh Sisk)