Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Long Hundred 018/100: Northcore: The Polar Scene Compilation which I discovered there was more to Sweden than Entombed and At The Gates.

[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.]

As I entered my senior year of high school, my musical world was expanding exponentially. Death metal turned out to be a deeper and more varied genre than I had anticipated; I took my first shuffling steps into exploring black metal; and as my classmates jumped on the Nineties punk bandwagon, I began exploring its heavier knuckle-headed relative known as hardcore. The through-line connecting all my new musical pursuits was a growing obsession with Sweden.

Part of the credit is due to a high school friend who transferred to my school that same year. But even though he couldn't answer any of my questions about the burgeoning "Gothenberg sound" (his actual hometown!), his music collection had a few select pieces to feed my hunger for musical knowledge. One such nugget was Northcore: The Polar Scene Compilation.

The "Polar Scene" of the title refers to the hardcore community in the Northeast Swedish cities of Umeå and Luleå. Without a doubt, the most important band to emerge from there were Refused, who had already started making waves with their first album and early EPs. But the compilation also provided my first exposure to Breach, who - at the time this comp was released - were still an Earth Crisis clone, albeit with an encroaching Entombed influence that would become more prominent as the years went by.

Beyond those two, the band that seemed most likely to break out of the scene was Abhinanda, whose line-up included past and future members of Refused. Despite the stylistic similarities and shared roster, Abhinanda never made albums as memorable as Refused, and were deservedly forgotten. [Strident lyrics complaining about corpsepaint didn't help.]

Strangely, despite those three scene heavyweights, the compilation kicks off with Drift Apart, a band whose entire recorded history is limited to three songs (the two on Northcore and a third included on another Swedish hardcore compilation called Straight Edge As Fuck). In retrospect, their style was heavily derivative of Bold and Judge, and it was inevitable that they'd disappear amidst the sea of similarly generic New York Hardcore-inspired bands. But as a teenager whose exposure to the style was limited to a handful of Sick Of It All and Madball albums, their passion (and the strange way their singer pronounced the word "anger") made them one of my favourites; the bassline that kicks off the compilation still gives me goosebumps.

Also of note were the all-female hardcore band Doughnuts, who never really broke out of Sweden, as far as I know. Their singer would show up years later alongside Refused frontman Dennis Lyxzen with The (International) Noise Conspiracy , whose crowning achievement may have been playing the Warner Music-released "Capitalism Stole My Virginity" at the Virgin Megastore while the garage rock revival was in full swing.

Fireside were an early emo band; perhaps the first one to emerge from Sweden. Their sound was heavily indebted to Quicksand, whose debut Slip was still fresh in people's minds when Northcore was released - showing how quickly musical trends became global, even without their dissemination through the internet. Fireside would go on to release five albums - two of which (Do Not Tailgate and Uomini D'onore) I actually own and whose quality I'll vouch for, if you're into that whole post-hardcore thing.

Better Change, like Drift Apart, played old school hardcore with little deviation from the NYHC template. Their roster  comprised of members from more prominent bands in the scene; among them, Breach vocalist Tomas Hallbom, who went by the pseudonym "Chuck Naghaboo" - beginning a history of anonymous contributions and strange aliases that he continues to the present day.

The rest of the bands - Plain, Randy, and Shredhead - represented the lighter/sillier side of the compilation. Their presence speaks to the scene's inclusivity, but none of them were particularly good or memorable.

This comp began my love for Swedish hardcore; unfortunately, it was a love that I could get few people to join in with me. Compared to their crusty counterparts, this style of Swedish hardcore never gained any real traction in the U.S. until Epitaph released Refused's Shape of Punk To Come; a few years after that, Breach had begun attracting attention as well, albeit only from the most discerning heavy music connoisseurs. The vast majority of the Umeå/Luleå hardcore scene never achieved much recognition outside of Sweden, though I would find their albums in used CD bins throughout my time in college.

Unlike the death metal scenes in Stockholm and Gothenberg, Umeå never became synonymous with its own sound; "northcore", as a unifying concept, was really just a group of straight-edge kids who formed bands and recorded songs inspired by more famous American bands. Still, considering how unlikely it was for me to hear any of these bands while living in South East Asia, I'm grateful this compilation found me when it did.

The New Deal:

Death...Is Just
The Beginning III