[Bad Brains/Wikimedia; Malco23, Soul Glo/Alyssa Rorke]

20 bands that shaped hardcore's evolution, from Bad Brains to Soul Glo

Hardcore, when it first hit punk rock as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, was intended as a corrective. The scene was in danger of being tamed into new-wave niceness, as the best remaining early bands survived punk’s built-in attrition rate. It was never meant for longevity, by dint of the extreme reserves of energy and commitment to almost impossible ideals required. Pioneers such as the Clash and the Damned learned to play their instruments and write more sophisticated material, which accidentally made them more commercial. Punk needed to become wild and reckless again. So, let’s get louder/faster/harder/angrier. Let’s remain underground and DIY. Let’s make it so Casey Kasem can never announce our name on American Top 40.

One problem: After two years, HC became as stifling and rule-bound as punk. Certain bands such as Black Flag tossed the rule book out the window altogether around 1982 or ‘83. We can’t drop below 150 to 200 BPMs? Why don’t we drop to 30 BPMs? Then there was a natural inclination to go heavy metal.

Read more: 20 greatest punk-rock drummers of all time

The unimaginative stuck to the rulebook. The rest merged with metal, which wasn’t so far off in intent. But like metal or punk, hardcore never died. It hung around, had its periodic resurgences. And a curious thing happened — visionaries kept coming along. What if we didn’t always play loud and fast? Or pushed the ideas of loud and fast to ridiculous degrees? What if we folded in hip-hop/trip-hop/industrial production elements? What if we got less melodic? Or more melodic? Thank you, Refused, for obliterating that rulebook. Now hardcore is even more progressive and revolutionary than punk itself. There is no conservatism to be found within its sphere.

Please listen to our custom Spotify playlist as we chart the evolution of hardcore.

The Exploited  “Dead Cities”

With their 150 MPH polka-beat thrash rock, mohawks and studded leather jackets, Scottish imports the Exploited typified the U.K.’s version of hardcore, subsequently dubbed UK82 after one of their songs. “Dead Cities, a blast of metallic guitar grind and dystopian lyrics, peaked at No. 31 on the U.K. singles chart in October 1981, landing them a memorable appearance on the BBC’s venerable weekly televised pop music survey Top Of The Pops. Slotted after venerable English pop act Godley And Creme, the sight of longstanding frontman Wattie Buchan and his towering orange mohawk ranting about urban decay amid exploding smoke bombs surely sparked several family arguments that night.

Bad Brains  “Banned In D.C.”

Washington, D.C.’s Bad Brains’ 1980 debut single “Pay To Cum” was one of the initial harbingers of hardcore’s arrival. Tight and fast, it proved superior musical chops were necessary to navigate such blazing tempos without slop. But it was “Banned In D.C.,” from their 1982 debut cassette, that established another hardcore tradition: the breakdown, in which the instrumentalists downshift to midtempo and carry out a stomping hard-rock section. In the hands of masters like Bad Brains, it’s a highly effective musical device.

GBH “City Baby Attacked By Rats”

From Birmingham, England, the same industrial city that spawned Judas Priest, GBH were a key bridge from hardcore to speed metal. Fronted by singer Colin Abrahall’s exaggerated spikes, their velocity and guitarist Jock Blyth’s enormous roar influenced the virtual entirety of ‘80s underground metal, especially thrash metal’s Big Four: Slayer, Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth. It’s tempting to say GBH hits such as “City Baby Attacked By Rats” invented the sound.

Dead Kennedys “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”

The great political conscience of American punk rock, San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys played at the fairly typical Ramones-esque pace as any of their ‘70s peers on early singles such as “California Über Alles and their debut album, Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables. As they traversed the U.S. in 1980 to promote their LP, they witnessed how local scenes were getting harder, faster and more aggressive, especially in LA and D.C. Hence 1981’s In God We Trust, Inc. EP saw the DKs achieving peak velocity, singer Jello Biafra breathless in his rush to cram his verbosity into one-minute blitzkriegs such as the anti-skinhead screed “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

Misfits – “We Bite”

New Jersey horror punks Misfits already left an enormous red stain upon American punk rock with their tuneful ‘50s-meets-Ramones music and singer Glenn Danzig’s midnight creature feature-inspired songwriting. Tracks from their debut album Walk Among Us such as “All Hell Breaks Loose” indicate punk’s ‘80s attempts at breaking land-speed records had penetrated Misfits’ basement practice pad. Come 1983’s Earth A.D., they were thrashing with impunity. Tracks such as “Green Hell and “We Bite in particular had a strong impact on Metallica, who covered “Green Hell” themselves.

Minor Threat  “Minor Threat”

D.C.’s Minor Threat not only learned how to rock from Bad Brains, but they also gained a sense of moral authority from them. They, after all, originated the ascetic straight-edge lifestyle, codifying its abstinence from drinking, drugs and promiscuity in leader Ian MacKaye’s lyrics. “Minor Threat,” the band’s theme song, flip-flopped the idea of the breakdown, short-circuiting its descent into a hardcore cliche with midtempo verses and blazing choruses. But it grapples with society’s idea of adulthood vs. retaining a youthful point of view in a surprisingly mature fashion: “It’s not how old I am, it’s how old I feel.”

Black Flag “Police Story”

Black Flag became America’s most identifiable hardcore band by not playing at tire-ripping, piston-stripping velocity. Instead, they redefined the idea of hardcore by concentrating on power, intensity and rage. At a time when LAPD Chief Daryl Gates routinely disrupted Black Flag shows with SWAT teams swinging batons unprovoked, guitarist Greg Ginn aimed his poison pen at the uniformed oppressors with remarkable clarity: “Understand that we’re fighting a war we can’t win/They hate us, we hate them/We can’t win!” With Henry Rollins perfectly articulating Ginn’s helpless anger, Black Flag forevermore became the perfect soundtrack for civil disobedience.

Cro-Mags  “Street Justice”

Black Flag had long moved on to being a molasses-slow sludge-metal act by the time Cro-Mags recorded their classic debut LP The Age Of Quarrel. Cro-Mags absorbed the heaviness but retained the speed, paying close attention to what the nascent speed-metal scene was up to. This marks bassist Harley Flanagan and singer John Joseph’s crew as one of the original crossover bands. “Street Justice was a loud and fast document of the scene’s proclivity for policing themselves, fighting back against violence from rednecks or thugs against punks.

Agnostic Front “Victim In Pain”

NYC’s Agnostic Front are the original American skinhead, minus the violent racism marking punk-era factions of the British subculture. Instead, they channeled that aggression into the hardest, most rabid thrashcore heard to date, stripping the music down until it became some of the harshest and highest BPMs on the planet. Typical is the title track to their 1984 debut album, 48 seconds so aggressive and speedy, Roger Miret can barely spit out its message of contrarianism and autonomy.

Napalm Death  “The Wolf I Feed”

The emergence of Napalm Death from England’s West Midlands area in the mid-’80s effectively marks the minting of grindcore, in which the most extreme elements of metal and hardcore merged. Marry guitars tuned to subhuman keys with tonsil-shredding growls and speed-of-light tempos, and if you can keep your songs to 30 seconds, all the better. Napalm Death, who developed out of anarcho-punk, recognized what a stylistic straitjacket such severe rules could become. So they slowed down slightly, got even heavier and noisier while becoming curiously more musical, bringing them closer to death metal. “The Wolf I Feed” comes from their 14th studio album, 2012’s Utilitarian. It seemingly equates their innate anarchism and antiauthoritarianism with being part of a wolf pack: “The wolf I feed/Outweighed, policed and rationed/The wolves I feed/Our liberties seized and blackened.”

Poison Idea  “Plastic Bomb”

Poison Idea began in 1980, formed by singer Jerry A. in a post-punk vein. Then hardcore happened, and with it, exposure to the Germs, Black Flag and Discharge, the noisiest and most ferociously metallic of English HC acts. As the years went by and guitarist Tom “Pig Champion” Roberts and drummer Steve “Thee Slayer Hippie” Hanford came aboard, PI’s musicality and aggression both increased exponentially. By the time “Plastic Bomb” and its attendant LP Feel The Darkness arrived in 1990, Poison Idea were the greatest hardcore act on American soil, virtually our version of Motörhead. Hanford’s drums swung even as they propelled the guitar crush, and A. growled sheer dark poetry atop. Sublime.

Atari Teenage Riot  “Speed”

While Switzerland’s the Young Gods were cutting and pasting hardcore tracks into their samplers in the late ‘80s, Berlin’s Atari Teenage Riot gave the subgenre a name when they called their indie label Digital Hardcore. Over drum machines galloping across speakers like run amok stallions, Alec Empire sliced guitar sections from various punk, HC and speed-metal classics. Atop this riot of samples and heart-attack-inducing beats, Empire, MC Carl Crack, Hanin Elias and later Nic Endo screamed their anti-fascist and anarchistic manifesto. “Speed” emerged from ATR’s debut album, Delete Yourself, and appeared on The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift’s soundtrack.

Rancid – “Don Giovanni”

After nine years of Clash/ska/reggae-inflected records, Rancid decided to cut a hardcore album. Was this a reaction to the reggae-heavy Life Won’t Wait? Perhaps. But their self-titled fifth release was crammed with 22 songs, most of which barely broke above the one-minute mark. It was all about speed, noise and fury, with hardly a melody to be found, and only “Let Me Go hinting at their rasta side. Opener “Don Giovanni,” referencing Mozart’s opera about a Spanish libertine, lasts 35 seconds. And when was the last time you heard a hardcore band reference opera?

Refused – “New Noise”

Sweden’s Refused released the first punk album to change everything since Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols. Then broke up. The entirety of 1998’s The Shape Of Punk To Come questioned how revolutionary punk rock could be if it was a cliche, relying on the same musical ideas repeatedly. Refused’s answer was enfolding jazz, drum and bass, techno and post-punk ideas into their stew. “New Noise served as their most concise distillation of this manifesto. Every post-hardcore band to follow, from At The Drive-In to AFI, owe something to this record.

The Locust  “Anything Jesus Does, I Can Do Better”

“I want to change the way people perceive music, or maybe just destroy it in general,” the Locust’s mainspring Justin Pearson famously said. The San Diego outfit managed this through a bizarre collision of power violence, math rock, dada and abused electronics, like the path to satori was playing ultra-fast and noisy in odd time signatures while wearing insect costumes. They weren’t half-wrong, as witnessed by the masterpiece “Anything Jesus Does, I Can Do Better from their genius second LP, 2003’s Plague Soundscapes.

Soul Glo  “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?)”

In its intensity and wide stylistic reach, Soul Glo‘s Diaspora Problems is every bit as shockingly new and explosive as The Shape Of Punk To Come. Sure, partly it’s from ignoring hardcore’s hidebound rules and not always playing at breakneck speed for 30 seconds — its 12 songs clock in at nearly 40 minutes. Horn sections and hip-hop elements help too. But it’s mostly the rawness and brutal anger they express, being marginalized and tokenized by both the scene and society at large as Black punks that fuels this sustained, excoriating blast. Singer Pierce Jordan and his bandmates have seen every issue they’ve screamed about across their history erupt through the 2022 protests, yet not meaningfully addressed. This record is one long middle finger salute to the inaction. “Gold Chain Punk (whogonbeatmyass?) frontloads the context of being caught in the crossfire of subcultural and racial politics. Jordan casts a wary eye upon a certain reclaimed racial epithet, scoffing, “Then I wake up on the next day unable to relate to the meaning of the word.” Likely the most righteous record of the year.

Turnstile – “DON’T PLAY”

Turnstile have been loudly turning every melodic hardcore cliche on its ear across 12 years, five EPs and three studio albums. The most recent, 2021’s GLOW ON, is a masterclass in breaking stylistic straitjackets. Third track “DON’T PLAY” might be the most straightforward rocker, but even that begins with a chugging four-bar hardcore intro before dissolving into Afro-Cuban rhythms, piano-flecked choruses and a metal middle-eight. It’s those who dare to obliterate formats and rulebooks who will create the next revolution.

Ho99o9  “Bite My Face” (feat. Corey Taylor)

Since 2012, the duo of TheOGM and Eaddy have been mixing punk, hardcore, hip-hop, industrial and metal shards together under the name Ho99o9. Blame it on teenage years spent in thrall to gangsta rap, then attending punk gigs in sweaty basements in Brooklyn. It’s resulted in an idiosyncratic punk/hip-hop hybrid and records as brutally beautiful as “Bite My Face,” produced by Travis Barker, which hurls an album’s worth of ideas at you in three minutes. It’s so dense in such a brief timespan that it’s hard to discern what exactly Slipknot’s Corey Taylor contributed, unless you watch the video.

CANDY – “Human Condition Above Human Opinion”

CANDY’s name wins them no truth-in-advertising awards. There’s nothing sticky or sweet about them. Their new album Heaven Is Here is a sustained, unrelenting half-hour scream from the bowels of hell. There’s no relief from the assault, though it’s textured through judicious sampling and production elements. Witness opening track “Human Condition Above Human Opinion,” with its low-end electronic rumble and radio static before the pummeled floor tom kicks in. Hardcore rulebook page-ripping at its best and loudest.

Show Me The Body  “Camp Orchestra”

How many hardcore bands do you know substituting banjo for guitar? Yet vocalist Julian Cashwan-Pratt of Show Me The Body wields the string instrument through an enormous pedal array. Bassist Harlan Steed similarly operates through as large a pedalboard, making them sonic scientists as much as musicians. These veterans of DIY space ABC No Rio, Manhattan’s equivalent to 924 Gilman St., make records that are as much musique concrete as mosh pit soundtracks. Note the myriad elements bobbing and weaving alone through “Camp Orchestra,” the Auschwitz visit-inspired opener to Show Me the Body’s most recent album, 2019’s Dog Whistle. Much like the Ho99o9 track, it resembles a brutally edited sound collage more than a cohesive song. Which is the point — you can’t change anything by adhering to traditional ideas.