Monday, January 28, 2019

The Long Hundred 007/100: Will Haven - El Diablo which the hardcore scene's redheaded stepchild beat the traffic before the post-metal pile up.

[This is part of a series of posts dedicated to 100 albums I feel lucky to have heard. The full list and a more detailed explanation of the series can be found here.]

Back in college, a friend I used to trade tapes with tacked on a few songs from the first Will Haven album on a cassette that was otherwise filled with more "traditional" hardcore bands. The transition from formulaic nineties hardcore to the hook-driven apocalpyticism of "Stick Up Kid" and "I've Seen My Fate" was jarring, but it was the reason that Will Haven stood out and became one of the few bands from that series of tapes that I remember. As a die hard (perhaps unreasonably so) Sepultura fan, it was hard not to fall for the Will Haven's percussive, groove-centric sound, which was undeniably influenced by Chaos A.D. and Roots. But there was much more to the band than that.

Will Haven came from Sacramento, a city in California roughly halfway between Bakersfield (ground zero of the nu-metal outbreak) and the Bay Area (where Neurosis had already begun transforming the musical landscape with their atmospheric sludge). Will Haven found themselves similarly navigating between those two sounds, and arrived at a style of doomy hardcore that was at once catchy and solemn. This band should have been huge, but were weirdly shunned by the hardcore scene.
In an issue of the zine Rumpshaker, synth punk anal wart Atom and His Package was asked to review the album, and dismissed it based on the Deftones being thanked in the liner notes. This wasn't an outlying attitude: though Revelation signed Will Haven soon after El Diablo was released, the venerated hardcore label seemed embarrassed by their new prospects as they rubbed shoulders with the likes of Deftones and Soulfly. Will Haven, it seemed, appealed to the "wrong" kind of heavy music fan and were largely ignored by the hardcore scene as a result.

In truth, Will Haven's grooves (usually in 3/4, a time signature that's almost unheard in either hardcore and nu-metal) had more in common with Snapcase than they did with Korn or Limp Bizkit; and Grady Avenell's throat scraping screams wouldn't have been out of place on a Deadguy album. But where Will Haven really separated themselves from the one-chord wonders of the time was the band's atmospheric riffing. Decades before the terms "post-metal" or "doomgaze" were even uttered, Will Haven pioneered the use of shoegazing guitars and ambient interludes in heavy music.

Of course, even in 1997, there were other bands mining similar territory - like I said, those early Neurosis records had a seismic effect on the scene. But what made El Diablo special back then was its accessibility. Whereas bands like Bloodlet and Breach gave listeners no easy entry point, Will Haven's simpler, catchier riffs provided a much lower bar to climb. If the band had anything in common with the Deftones, it was a populist approach to songwriting and dynamics. Not that El Diablo was lacking in arty pretension; songs like the droning "Foreign Film" attempted to appeal to both headbangers and chinstrokers in ways that were unheard of in the Nineties, and which anticipated bands like Cult of Luna (who worked along similar lines to more acclaim - and, I'd argue, more respectability).

A lot has changed since El Diablo came out in 1996. Post-metal is its own beast, and there are labels dedicated entirely to bands who create slow, heavy music with an experimental mindset. These days, Deftones are seen less as an embarrassing artifact of the baggy pants era than as a leading proponent of thoughtful "alt metal". Deftones frontman Chino Moreno even joined members of Isis to form the well-regarded Palms - which brought full circle the idea that nu metal and post-hardcore/metal were not as incongruous as previously thought.

As for Will Haven, one of the first bands to bridge that divide, they were able to carve out a fairly respectable audience and legacy. Six albums and almost as many record labels later, they're still at it (give or take the occasional line-up change or hiatus). These days, there's no shortage of bands working a similar angle - but I'm glad El Diablo reached me before the glut.