Graded on a Curve:
Rites of Spring,
Six Song Demo

Washington, DC’s Rites of Spring is considered to be one of the most widely influential of the many short-lived groups to burst from the roster of Dischord Records, and their self-titled 1985 LP has also been offered up as a prime contender for the title of flat-out finest album to see release via that long-serving and well respected label. Yes, that’s a bold statement with names like Minor Threat, Faith, Void, Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, and Lungfish in the mix, but it’s surely a valid proposition and a topic worthy of discussion. And as Dischord has just waxed-up the band’s oft-discussed (and bootlegged) Six Song Demo for post-hardcore fans both young and old(er), that conversation is also a timely one.

For some casual observers Rites of Spring, a four-piece comprised of Guy Picciotto on guitar and vocals, Mike Fellows on bass, Eddie Janney on guitar, and Brendan Canty on drums, are the big link between the initial waves of righteous American Hardcore as done in the distinctive style of Dischord Records and the later music of Fugazi, one of the most artistically successful (and probably the most well-known) post-hardcore bands on the planet.

This link is solidified most obviously by Picciotto’s and Canty’s membership in Fugazi, but it’s also deepened by the presence of Ian MacKaye, who figures in the connection through his roles in Minor Threat, Fugazi, and as the co-owner of Dischord and by extension co-producer of Rites of Spring’s small body of work.

But the records that make up that slim discography deserve to be celebrated for their own substantial qualities. By the mid-1980s the hardcore scene, a form of music that had exploded from the fallout of punk and in turn inspired an underground movement all over the globe, was starving for something new. Beset by political and social issues that intertwined with stylistic limitations to produce, on the one hand an atmosphere of genericism, and on the other some largely ill-fated attempts to fuse with hard rock/heavy metal in the search for growth, not only was it an environment that’s essence was in critical condition, but a handful of bands started to appear that defined themselves in direct opposition to (and occasionally even showing open hostility toward) the frustrating rules and regs that were plaguing hardcore.

Rites of Spring, issued in June of 1985 as Dischord’s sixteenth release, wasn’t interested in standing apart from or antagonizing hardcore traditionalists, instead seeking to revitalize and extend the music by rescuing it from codification. It achieved this on two levels, first choosing heaviness and actual melodies over blinding speed and other increasingly formulaic tropes (such as the so predictable as to become borderline ridiculous “mosh-part” slow-down) and secondly (and by extension) turning away from political and social lyrical subjects in favor of the deeply personal.

This disengagement with topicality was by no means a knee-jerk reaction against the protest and activism that played such a large (and somewhat varied) role in the ‘80s punk scene. Indeed, Rites of Spring were part of Revolution Summer, a DC-based movement that combined art and direct action (for example, “punk percussion protests”) against the foul stench of Apartheid and the policies of the Reagan Administration. Those now sorta legendary “Meese is a Pig” posters and t-shirts were silk-screened by none other than Dischord’s co-owner and ex-Minor Threat drummer, Jeff Nelson as one of the most visible reminders of what Revolution Summer represents in DC punk’s evolution.

But it was a movement just as much about the city’s hardcore bands refocusing energies and making music on their terms. In the case of the group Beefeater, the result was overtly political in a manner markedly different from standard punk sloganeering (as Nelson’s silk-screening shows, slogans are best served by the poster; they can quickly become problematic when applied to music). By contrast Rites of Spring were concerned with such themes as alienation, frustrated desire, memory, and love. Theirs was a highly literate state of affairs, the lyrics often reading like the exceptionally well-written scribblings found in an angst-riddled student’s battered composition notebook.

And because of this, Rites of Spring is basically saddled with the rep of being the fathers of emo. The distinction to be made here is that the term as applied to the band in the ‘80s was “emo-core,” a shorthand for emotional hardcore, a distinction that bloomed after a number of other bands began tackling similar themes in an introspective way.

Those who have shied away from Rites of Spring (or for that matter other early emo-core bands like Dag Nasty, Embrace, or the fantastic Moss Icon) due to getting a bad taste of some contemporary self-righteous moping should kick that hesitation to the wayside. For any link between this band and the subsequent stuff that’s branded as emo is essentially a tenuous one; blaming Rites of Spring for the unappealing latter strains of this admittedly fuzzy “genre” is like blaming the Buzzcocks from some crappy contempo pop-punk. And who’d want to do something like that?

Rites of Spring is in my estimation one of the great albums to have sprung from the ‘80s underground. It’s managed to retain the coiled up fury of the best of hardcore by paying increased attention to the need for dynamics in the execution of songs that are catchy without falling victim to the overly anthemic. The band eschewed the crutch of formula upon which so much of hardcore came to rely, and at a few points the music’s locomotive power still seems perilously close to flying completely off its rails. Nowhere is this better expressed than the LP’s seven-plus minute finale “End on End”, a still scorching communion of catharsis from a band that seemed to come out of nowhere to reignite a style for the second half of its decade.

“End on End” is so successful in its go for broke abandonment of hardcore’s safety zone that it titled Dischord’s compact disc housing of the band’s material, where the album (and an extra song from the same sessions) sat with a far less ragged yet still very worthy posthumously released 7-inch. That disc did a fine job of hipping younger ears to the glories of Rites of Spring, but to my ears the LP was an artifact that’s essence was best served by stand alone in-sequence listening, an experience that heaved and scorched and always culminated in the massive soul-purge of “End on End.” Rites of Spring wasn’t a record that lent itself to casual dabbling; it connected as truly unified whole of in-studio performance, in fact very similar in intent to the symphonic work that inspired their name.

So curiously, 6-Song Demo opens with “End on End.” Instead of the throttling assault of the album version, this recording is immediately notable for its sense of self-control, though that’s certainly relative to knowing its wilder later incarnation. Maybe the most interesting aspect of this initial recording of the song is how it’s surrounded by studio chatter and sped-up tape effects, elements that also briefly figure in the guts of the song itself.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the desire to experiment from within a genre where experimentalism was often looked upon as at best as a suspect notion. Hardcore was a back-to-basics movement born from a dislike of punk’s desire to fuse with other genres, after all. But as many grew tired of the same loud fast rules, an interesting friction developed over how to tweak the template without losing touch with the elements of the music that were considered truly essential. This version of “End on End” displays this fiction quite well, so while it’s ultimately lesser than the take that ends the band’s LP, it’s still worthwhile. And if lesser, that doesn’t mean it’s not fine listening.

In fact all six songs here are milder than their later versions, flipping the script interestingly from the tendency of demos to present rawer, tougher takes of material that was later harnessed by attitudes of professionalism and studio handling. For a few decades now those of us unfamiliar with the bootleg issues of these first recordings couldn’t help but consider Rites of Spring as a hurricane of a band captured on tape at the height of their power and then documented one last time in a more temperate mode via the All Through a Life EP.

So the issue of this 10-inch does a great job of providing a fuller picture of the wind up to that storm. And while it’s tempting to say that newbies should hear it only after absorbing the achievement that is their LP, after consideration I think that’s wrong. Fresh ears should start here and move forward, the better to soak up the most excellent narrative trajectory of Rites of Spring, a band that burned brief but bright and left a whole lot of beautiful havoc in their wake.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+ 

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