The devil’s in the delivery: Misfits and Cro-Mags

This might seem an odd pairing at first glance, but it could be pretty instructive when looking at the cross pollination of punk and metal throughout the 1980s. The Misfits’ lurch into hardcore punk from their patented doo-wop emulation would prove to be a formative moment for many extreme metal artists to come. Equally, Cro-Mags early rumblings exemplify the exchange of ideas (or crossover, if you will) between punk and metal that was particularly prevalent in places like New York at this time. Unlike ‘Earth A.D.’, which revelled its own rudiments, Cro-Mags’ ‘The Age of Quarrel’ is undeniably primal but at the same time ups the ambition for punk in a similar way to D.R.I.’s ‘Dealing With It’, or Amebix’s ‘Arise’ in the UK. What happened in those few years in the mid-80s to cause such seismic shifts? To put it bluntly, thrash metal happened, with a little help from albums like ‘Earth A.D.’ of course.

Why does this album in particular stand apart? Is it simply a question of aesthetics? Whilst almost every punk band under the sun was singing about ‘issues’, the Misfits shirked such things for the most part, and stuck doggedly to their horror and b-movie fixations, and blended this blistering rockabilly with an unadulterated shot of hardcore punk adrenalin. Well, not entirely. A lot of the riffs are actually just sped up variations on the same formula they had already perfected, which was still heavily rooted in 50s rock ‘n’ roll. The same goes for the drums, which switch from a playful boogie to straight up skin bashing throughout.

But the Misfits used these features to their advantage when turning their attention to the more rigid demands of hardcore punk. Rather than simplify their sound, their knack for melody and pop hooks elevates the raw energy of speed and aggression, giving it a flavour of menace and the macabre not usually seen in punk at the time. Equally, Danzig – whose voice is more suited to 50s crooning than the uncivilised, primal trappings of punk – found his place both tempering his talents as a vocalist whilst simultaneously utilising his superior vocal range and character to enhance the melodic sensibilities of this otherwise raw album.

These tendencies toward rock – all delivered with the Misfits’ iconic whimsy – was in direct contrast to hardcore punk at the time, which stripped away all melody and percussive innuendo for a direct, raw form of expression. But on this more tangible foundation, the Misfits began to apply hints of dissonance, tritones, aggressive riffs formed out of power chords, all things which actually put it more in line with heavy metal of the time. It exists as a form of pop music attempting to overcome itself. Unique among punk acts of the time, this was an act of creation, not destruction. The unbridled energy, the thumping rhythms and chaotic, half-formed songs are all there, but their interaction with a more nuanced melodic foundation leant the album a unique atmosphere not accessible for other punk acts trading in a purer artform. For that reason this album pointed the way forward for punk and metal, rather than attempting to destroy the orthodoxy. And so it endured as a source of inspiration and intrigue for metal artists to come, beyond the iconic aesthetics the Misfits are known for.

Jump forward three years and we see punk’s interaction with metal and rock telling a very different story. Punk is now borrowing directly from metal and visa versa, and few albums can demonstrate this process better than Cro-Mags 1986 LP ‘The Age of Quarrel’. Released a year after D.R.I.’s genre defining ‘Dealing With It’, ‘The Age of Quarrel’ cuts out any humour or emotional sincerity besides a nihilistic outrage at the state of the world. But this isn’t an out and out one-dimensional blast of youthful rage. There is structure and purpose to a lot of the tracks on here; melded together from half formed thrash riffs, d-beat punk, and even some slower passages which hint at the emergence of sludge metal a few years later. Having these simple yet diverse tricks in their tool kit, Cro-Mags are better placed to reflect the world as they see it. Diluting the hyper-objects of macro world affairs through primitive power chord formed riffs, rhythmic interplay, and even some rudimentary guitar leads in places, all of course distilled through the pure rage that defined punk of the time.

The production is surprisingly warm. The drums are clear, the guitar tone is rich, and the bass is pleasingly audible. When John Joseph sounds off, his vocals dominate proceedings, functioning as one-part podium performer and one-part manic street drunk. But despite this, the collision of punk with laboured metallic riffs, the shifting energy of the drums, and the creative bass work all coalesce into a work that is both richly diverse and unforgivingly brutal.

Although many of the tracks are too short to be said to have a structure in the traditional sense, meta-narratives form as different sections of the album play out, and militaristic celebrations give way to the energetic doom found on tracks like ‘Malfunction’, which calls all the way to Black Sabbath at their most apocalyptic. It’s this mastery of contrast that makes ‘The Age of Quarrel’ and similar releases of the time stand out. The early 1980s had already seen punk at its most extreme, and by 1986 hardcore punk was ready to give way to the next level of extremity that would be grindcore. But threading the needle through the middle of all this was thrash, borrowing liberally from metal’s ambitious narratives and punk’s energetic impetus for social change through noise; this is a work of contrast and urgency that was not available for some of more esoteric thrash metal acts of the time.

The real contrast between these two albums and the three years that separate them is not one of complexity or purpose, but lineage. ‘Earth A.D.’ saw what was essentially a morbid punk band of the original school – with all the old school rock traits that this entails of the late 1970s punk movement – graduate into something more unique with the application of techniques and traits more common to metal of the early 1980s. And this proved to be more important than the obvious traits of this album when compared to earlier Misfits material, the increased, speed, aggression, and primitivism.

Cro-Mags by contrast used hardcore punk of the early 1980s as their foundation, and like all crossover of the time cross pollinated this with metal’s sophistication and ambition. New York would prove to be a flashpoint for this, and it’s no wonder some of the most innovative early death metal acts emerged a few years later in this location as a result. Whether these releases are simply a fascination for their influence, or loved in their own right, is really besides the point. What matters for our purposes is the demonstration of the interplay of ideas, and how important this was in the 1980s given just how many ground-breaking releases came out from the underground. So picking a superior release seems somewhat redundant. On a personal level ‘The Age of Quarrel’ is more interesting just because there is more music going, and it remains closer to my taste. But as a historical artefact, and a truly unique album that holds up to this day despite its shortcomings, we’re going with ‘Earth A.D.’

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