Punk distils many of contemporary music’s virtues down to their most fundamental elements. This makes it a perfect lens by which to trace the developments in music over the passage of time. This riotous world, filled with anger, chaos, and vitriol, may seem like an odd setting for an academic study. But the crucible of punk, burning away all distractions and red herrings in its wake, allows us to focus on the mechanics at work behind the music. Tracing punk’s history through the 80s in relation to wider movements within rock music is akin to studying the earth by working from the geology up. From the sub-strata of punk we gain new understanding of different forms of contemporary music as diverse as Cyndi Lauper to Hellhammer. Let’s dive in shall we?
Cryptic Slaughter’s debut ‘Convicted’ of 1986 is a classic example of a great album released at the wrong time. Things moved pretty quickly in the underground back then. 1986 was the heyday of thrash metal, hardcore punk was well established, the crossover style had been defined by D.R.I.’s ‘Dealing With It’ released the previous year, and grindcore was set to take seize the ‘Most Extremist Crown’ from these creatively fruitful movements. And if ‘Dealing With It’ explored the very limits of the expressive scope of crossover – from the ultra-primal and aggressive, to longer structured works, to the emotive and surprisingly thoughtful – then Cryptic Slaughter’s ‘Convicted’ expands on one very specific aspect this: outright thrashing rage. If it had been released just two years earlier I think we would be looking at this album as a genre defining classic.
But it wasn’t, and we’re not. Taken on it’s own merits it is still crossover at its finest. Production is the perfect balances of rawness incarnate with enough power to the drums to give the thing real impact. Vocals stick to an audible punky shout, sometimes calling to mind Die Kruezen in their mastery of control and chaos at the higher end of the vocal range. Drums smash through an array of blast-beats, with plenty of strength to the double bass that provides much needed depth to the mix. The guitars are harsh and shrill, working their way through lightning fast power chord progressions that gradually coalesce into a logical whole that supervenes on the chaos this music revels in. Leads occasionally rise above the fray in the form of unadulterated fretboard abuse.
There are elements of heavy metal present in some of these riffs. Hinting as they do at more durable and fundamental musical ideas usually outside of punk’s remit. But hints they remain. Due to the micro-song nature of this album they are cut short to make way for the next burst of chaos, the next hardcore riff. But far from being a detriment, these moments stand as a reminder to the purpose and strength of this music. The fixed moment in time, the catalyst of pure chaos that must destroy before others can begin to create in its wake. ‘Convicted’ takes this form of punk as far as it can go in terms of its speed, its extremity, its aggression, and its revelry in the primal. Take it any further and we probably move into grindcore territory. As mentioned, this is probably the albums major downfall, in that it both foreshadows the grindcore to come but was also completely outshined by it in the eyes of posterity.
Rewind just three years (and board a plane across the Atlantic) and the face of punk is very different. Crossover in the U.S. was still in its infancy, and the UK scene was a mulch of anarcho punk in the form of Crass, early crust punk from Amebix and Disorder, and of course hardcore punk, with the release of Discharge’s ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’. And at the heart of it all was Edinburgh’s The Exploited. Their third LP, ‘Let’s Start a War…Said Maggie One Day’ to some extent acts as a bridge between the 70s and 80s in terms of punk’s attempt to gain longevity after its initial explosion. Despite this, their lyrics and philosophy are a time capsule, acting as a damning critique of the UK in 1983. It acts as a missing link between the original punk movement and Discharge’s landmark release of 1982, despite being released a year later. There are plenty of d-beats across this album, but they are broken up by traditional and anthemic punk numbers. The production is also much more accessible. Guitars are certainly raw and aggressive, embodying that classic harsh wail that, when applied to the simplest two or three power chord riffs, calls to mind an air-raid siren. But they could just as easily be applied to domesticated heavy rock. Vocals are pure barks of aggression, allowing the lyrics to be fully audible.
The joy of this album is the depth and range it reaches for within what can at times be such crippling confines. Discharge may have incorporated an apocalypticism into their aggressive brand of punk, but they are remembered ultimately for doing one thing very well. The Exploited on ‘Let’s Star a War…’ are capable of breakneck thrash that presages the vast majority of extreme metal in the decade to come. Not just in terms of the shifting power chord rifts defining the rhythm and structure of the track, but also the epic given new meaning in this primitive context. ‘God Saved the Queen’ goes on to predict black metal’s penchant for simple, repeated refrains driven ad absurdum into the listener, disorientating their sense of time. These are paradoxically thrown against harder faster numbers that retain enough melody and pop sensibilities that one could almost call them pop music (albeit a distorted and hyper aggressive version).
This album taps into one unsung element that the vast majority of metal (notable exceptions aside) was never quite able to assimilate. And that is the sense of unbridled nihilistic joy. For all the righteous anger found on this album, both lyrically and musically, the vast majority of it is upbeat, life affirming, joyful, but without any of the trappings of cheese or banality that usually come with this territory. The sincerity, and undeniable aggression worked against this celebratory Dionysian spirit is something that only the most nuanced of extreme metal has managed to incorporate without descending into an utter circus.
As mentioned, in the 1980s underground music evolved quickly. The pre-internet age meant that movements would naturally coalesce around a small number of focal points, defined by a handful bands, labels, magazines, and studios. Much changed in the three year gap between these two releases, so a direct comparison will not bear much fruit. But looked at on merits alone in the context in which they were released I have to go with The Exploited this week. Cryptic Slaughter focused in one the most aggressive aspect of crossover and performed it to perfection on ‘Convicted’, to the point where they managed to foreshadow a lot of extreme metal to come. But given how much activity there was in 1986, they were either ahead of or behind the times depending how you look at it. ‘Let’s Start a War…Said Maggie One Day’ could easily have fallen into the same trappings for 1983. But rather than mimic Discharge, or try to reinvent the wheel, they took the best of the d-beat sound and applied their own undeniably positive and punchy swagger to it. The result was an album that manages to solidify the classic punk sound, hardcore punk, and provide a blueprint for the decade of punk and metal to come, and all in the space of just over half an hour.