That Level Plane Records is no more is nothing short of a tragedy. Between 1997 and 2009, the label released some of the best underground punk, hardcore, screamo, metal, and everything in-between. Originally set up simply so Greg Drudy had an address to put on the back of the first Saetia 7″, the impact and influence the label would go on to have upon the underground scene was huge. Some of these records have been re-issued by other labels – with special praise being given to The Archivist label for getting so many on Bandcamp – but some might require searching on Discogs or eBay.
As such, limiting this list down to only five releases has been rather painful. There’s so many I wanted to include – so many records of superb quality, so many that meant so much to me, and still do – but there’s a reason this series is called Five of the Best, not Twenty of the Best. So, here we go. Feel free to tell me what I missed or what your favourite records from this excellent label are. Enjoy!
City of Catepillar – City of Caterpillar (self-titled)
Of all the records that could be included on this list, the self-titled album from City of Caterpillar is arguably the only one that absolutely has to be included. Keeping in mind the quality of the other records under consideration, that should say a lot about this record. This was an utter game-changer upon release, and has yet to be surpassed. It didn’t quite come out of nowhere – band members were also active in the likes of pageninetynine and Darkest Hour – and the split between City of Caterpillar and pageninetynine was excellent; but I don’t think anything could have prepared anyone for how good the debut album would be. Combining emo and post-rock in ways that had previously been hinted at but never fully embraced, this showed a new direction for the genre, and it was no surprise when other bands took more post-rock directions following the release of this album. As good as bands like Envy may be, none of them have songs that come close to ‘A Heart-Filled Reaction to Disappointment’, ‘A Little Change Could Go A Long Way’, or the superlative closer ‘Maybe They’ll Gnaw Right Through’, which is one of the best emo songs ever recorded.
Where to buy: Digitally, this can be brought on Bandcamp via The Archivist. Repeater Records have put out vinyl reissues with different artwork. For CD and cassette versions, Discogs is your best bet.
Gospel – The Moon is a Dead World
Whilst City of Caterpillar was a game-changer and absolutely huge (in underground terms, at least), The Moon is a Dead World should have been, but – for whatever reason – wasn’t. The sole album from Gospel combined prog, post-hardcore, and emo in mind-bending fashion, being filled with moog-driven cosmic explorations, frantic riffs and guitar work, and some of the best drumming ever to grace a record. I’ve previously written a lengthy retrospective on the album for Broken Amp, but to recap: it felt like an anomaly then, and still does now. Riddled with anxiety, strangeness, and a drug-enhanced sense of otherness, The Moon is a Dead World took post-hardcore into uncharted territories. They did so in, generally, quick short bursts – most songs being less than five minutes long – that feel much longer than they are, given how dense the songs are in detail. The main exception is album centerpiece ‘Golden Dawn’, a nine minute journey that packs a whole album’s worth of emotions and soundscapes into its duration. This album is phenomenal, and that it never got the attention it deserved is a tragedy.
Where to buy: Digitally via itunes; for physical, Discogs. And be prepared to pay quite a lot. There have been rumours of reissues for some time, but nothing concrete has emerged yet. Maybe later this year?
Hot Cross – A New Set of Lungs
In a lot of ways, Hot Cross were synonymous with Level Plane records. Though Level Plane started out as a way to put out Saetia records, when that band broke up members went on to form How Cross, and the label grew as Hot Cross did. Picking only one of their records for this list was a tough choice, but their first EP, A New Set of Lungs, gets the nod for being their most concise, cathartic record. At a mere 14 minutes, this record is over in a flash, demonstrating the band’s intricate lead guitar-work (somewhere between At The Drive-In, Botch, and These Arms Are Snakes), build-up-and-release songwriting, all topped off with the distinctive vocals of Billy Werner. As with other bands of the era, a sense of snark was present – as shown by song titles such as ‘Lend Me Your Brain (I’m Building An Idiot)’, but it always felt that Hot Cross used it as a self-defence mechanism rather than out of punk snottiness. As you’d expect from a band featuring ex-members of Saetia, there’s a sense of emotional vulnerability throughout that contrasts strongly with the highly technical, assured post-hardcore that forms the basis of the songs. Whether you prefer this or one of their other releases (with debut album Cryonics coming close to the quality of this EP), it’s hard to argue that any list on the best Level Plane releases is complete if it doesn’t contain a Hot Cross record.
Where to buy it: Digitally, the band have their own Bandcamp page where you can pick up their first EPs and album. CD copies are fairly cheap on Discogs, though the vinyl version (released by Robodog Records) is, naturally, more costly.
Lickgoldensky – Lickgoldensky
I hated Lickgoldensky when I first heard them. Too much sass. Too much of a sense of humour. Too many non-hardcore aspects in their post-hardcore. This was an album, and a band, that I really, really didn’t like for a very long time. But over time, Lickgoldensky has shown itself to be a masterful album, and one of the best that Level Plane released. Those aspects that initially made me dislike it are now my favourite things about it. This was a band who were unafraid to fuck with expectations, and their self-titled album contains everything from the expected frantic post-hardcore to Mars Volta-style prog rhythms to electronic interludes to Tool-esque spaced-out sections. All the songs on here are untitled, but the fifth track is the one that eventually won me around. The longest song on the album, it opens up with some of the heaviest post-hardcore I’ve ever heard – propelled by caustic guitars and bulldover drumming – before shifting into a slightly slower, groove-laden section, which doesn’t last long before morphing into a super-catchy section with a riff that’s guaranteed to lodge itself in your brain, topped off with glorious clean vocals. The movement that follows – spacious, shimmering, and constantly ascending – is superlative, the kind of thing that simultaneously makes me think “there’s no point trying to write music, nothing can top this” and “I wish I could one day create something that cathartic”. The closing section is somewhere between early Cave In and System Of A Down which, as a description, is likely to put you off, but trust me; Lickgoldensky is excellent, and this release is seriously under-rated.
Where to buy it: Digitally, The Archivist has you covered on Bandcamp. CD and vinyl copies are available on Discogs at pricing that are stupidly cheap for a record so good, which suggests that it wasn’t just a younger version of myself who really didn’t like this album.
Transistor Transistor – Erase All Name and Likeness
Transistor Transistor were one of the most rocking bands on Level Plane Records, and Erase All Name and Likeness is their high-point. Featuring former members of Orchid, and members who would go on to play in Trap Them and Defeater, Transistor Transistor were full of snark, sass, and undeniable energy, embracing post-hardcore as rock’n’roll excess, possessed of self-destructive spirit and something close to nihilism. Yet there is also something hugely life-affirming about this album, thanks to its gallows-humour lyrics and feedback-drenched moments of catharsis. The opening one-two of ‘Kill The Head’ bleeding into ‘And The Body Will Die’ sets the album up excellently, but it’s with ‘Black Cat’ that it really gets going, displaying the band’s knack for penning lines that will stick with you, with the central refrain of “Honey, you’re no lover when you sing out of key”. Perhaps the best example comes from ‘Power Chord Academy’ – “Who lives past 30? / I’ll tell you who / Fools, scoundrels, hypocrites and hip kids / By the time I’m 30 I hope I’m deaf if not dead”. The sense of humour is evident in song titles likes ‘Curse All You Kids’ and ‘Transistor Transistor vs Everyone’, but there’s something hugely sincere about this album, and it’s as emotionally cathartic as it is enjoyable – hugely.
Where to buy it: Unlike some of the records listed here, Erase All Name and Likeness hasn’t really become the cult-classic it should be, so CD copies are pretty cheap on Discogs, but vinyl will set you back a bit. Digitally, The Archivist has this on Bandcamp.
So, that’s my five. Other solid choices include Saetia’s A Retrospective discography CD (which I find a bit too much in a single sitting these days); the split between Pageninetynine and City of Caterpillar (superseded by the self-titled City of Caterpillar album, though still containing excellent songs by both bands); Shikari’s self-titled EP (in terms of chaotic Euro-hardcore, bettered only by their Robot Wars record); Neil Perry’s Lineage Solution compilation; La Decadence de la Decadence by Amanda Woodward, an almost unique combination of dub reggae and post-hardcore; the self-titled album by Coliseum, which was reissued by Deathwish Inc a few years ago; Peasant by the super-heaviness that is Thou; and Wounded by Bolt Thrower-esque death metal/hardcore band Landmine Marathon, which was later reissued by Prosthetic Records. All of which should help to demonstrate the quality of records that Level Plane put out, and why their closure was such a loss to the underground scene – and that’s without going into how great their distro was.