The word “emo” is a pretty loaded one, when it comes to talking about music. A lot of people will recoil from the word, as if it were something contagious, spreading too-tight t-shirts and black hair dye to every teenager it comes across. A lot of this can be attributed to what was happening in the first decade of the millennium, when, following years toiling in the underground, bands like My Chemical Romance and AFI became genuinely huge mainstream phenomenons. It’s because of this that the term “skramz” came about, to identify “true” emo and screamo, that stemmed from the likes of Rites of Spring and Moss Icon, from its more, pop-punk-esque mainstream incarnation. Here, we’ll take a look at five of the best 90’s emo/screamo acts, that made music that’s much more intense and raw than anything that ever dared bother the mainstream.
Of all the bands on this list, none define 90’s emo in the same way that Indian Summer do. Considering that the band only recorded nine songs, spread over three splits and an EP (plus a live radio recording), they left quite a legacy. Arguably, they laid down the template for a lot of emo, not only with their use of space and loud-quiet transitions that are comparable to post-rock of the time; poetic, emotional lyrics; and use of piercing octave chords; but also in their rejection of the label of “emo”, and leaving all of their songs untitled (any titles given were bestowed upon songs by fans, and can vary between releases). Their Science 1994 discography compiles all their studio recordings, whilst Live Blue Universe contains a recording of a live radio broadcast, that stretches the songs in even more spacious, cathartic directions. If you want to understand why 90’s emo can mean so much to so many, Indian Summer are the best place to start.
If Indian Summer wrote the textbook for emo, then Navio Forge recorded its holy grail. Their career – such as it was – consisted of a single record and two live shows – yet what a mark they left! As We Quietly Burn A Hole Into combines a lot of what was happening with DC hardcore at the time with a raw, nakedly emotional edge, taking the sound and ethos of 90’s emo to its logical conclusion. Heavy bass lines mix with stabbing guitars, whilst the vocals and lyrics walk the thin line between genius and parody – just check out the roiling bass rhythm of ‘Yellow and Fed’, over which the guitars dart in and out with flashes of octave chords, whilst the vocals repeat statements that, on paper, don’t read as if they could work, yet they absolutely do. ‘Weaponizing’ is simply one of the best 90’s emo tracks ever recorded, carrying in its melodies and clever use of feedback an energy and almost physical sense of catharsis (and I especially adore the dual vocal section); whilst closer ‘Haloed Eyes’ is finishes with the vocalist breaking down in tears. Your only chance of getting hold of this one is either through Discogs, or file sharing.
Whilst Indian Summer and Navio Forge were very much emo bands, Heroin were undoubtedly pioneers of screamo, and played a large part in defining the Gravity Records sound, with the label releasing records by other noteworthy bands such as Angel Hair and Antioch Arrow (both of whom could justifiably be included on this list). Their music was undeniably ragged and urgent, with most of their songs only lasting for around two minutes, powering along with hardcore energy and momentum, but also undercut with a sense of melody. The desperate, screamed vocals are a large part of what makes Heroin’s music so undeniable and cathartic, and when wedded to the frantic nature of the music, it resulted in something quite special. The band stayed together for four years – practically an eon for an emo band – and released two 7″s and a 12″, all of which were compiled on to a discography CD that is well worth getting hold of.
Most bands, as time progresses, will do just that; they will become more confident in their song-writing, learn how better to express themselves, and craft more complicated songs. Shotmaker aren’t most bands. Over the course of their three years together, the band didn’t so much refine their sound as they turned it in to something increasingly primitive, doubling down on their spiraling, hypnotic movements, lacing them with just enough melody to prevent them becoming too overbearing. Theirs is a version of emo given weight through misery and confusion, desperately reaching out for some sense of direction, clawing at whatever hand-holds can be grasped in to hope that they might provide a sense of direction; and given Shotmaker’s intelligent, self-reflective lyrics, it feels more mature than the term ’emo’ tends to imply. Such is the weight of volume and emotional violence to their music that it can be hard to listen to it for an extended duration, but at its best – as on ‘Controller.Controller’, or ‘Failure’ (one of the greatest, most emotionally confrontational emo songs ever written) – it is superlative. Their complete discography – consisting of three 7″s, two albums, and two splits – was released as a two disc compilation in 2000, and digitally on iTunes.
Portraits of Past
I’m stretching the rules here slightly, given that Portraits of Past reformed briefly in 2008-2009, but such is their importance to emo that such a detail could not justify excluding them from this list. The importance of Portraits of Past on the development of emo towards the end of the millennium is hard to over-state. Whilst Indian Summer may have had quiet-loud transitions and spacious moments, Portraits of Past used such sections in ways that, at the time, felt unique, where the sections of (relative) quiet were every bit as emotionally charged as the moment of release. This gave their music a more textured, complex feel, with the result being that songs like ‘Bang Yer Head’ and ‘Something Less Than Intended’ felt like epics unto their own right. They were just as skilled at creating short bursts of catharsis though, as ‘Journeyman’, ‘A Known Place’, and ‘KQED Equals Volvo’ demonstrate. Their original LP and split record with Bleed were compiled on a discography CD by Ebullition Records, along with live tracks and their contribution to the straight-edge Some Ideas Are Poisonous compilation, and demonstrate exactly why Portraits of Past were so important, with bands such as City of Caterpillar and Funeral Diner taking what they started and running with it – and there’s no way to ignore how influential those bands, in turn, became.
Limiting my list to five means some bands have inevitably been missed off that could have been justifiably included. I opted not to include Orchid as they didn’t form until 98, and were still active in to the millennium, though they are a band everyone should be familiar with. And most midwest emo bands don’t do much for me – and I think there’s a strong argument that scene and sound can be considered separately from the one discussed here.
If you wanted some further listening on the kind of emo written about above, then I would recommend Mohinder (furious, short bursts of anger similar to Heroin); Angel Hair (dark, oppressive Gravity Records style emo, who did a great Bauhaus cover); Antioch Arrow (another Gravity Records band who started off as you’d expect a Gravity Records band to be, before morphing in to some strange, sensual dramatic goth-rock act); Honeywell (the rawest of the raw) and Swing Kids (noisy, furious emo, with members who went on to play in The Locust). Looking beyond the 90’s, there’s a whole host to explore that probably won’t see you go broke on Discogs, including Yaphet Kotto; the previously mentioned City of Caterpillar, Funeral Diner and Orchid; Yage; and Todos Caeran.