Thanks for the invite! There were very many candidates, and it took a lot of puzzling to get it down to three. We decided to go with three albums from the late 90s/early 2000s, from around the time we were first getting into interesting heavy music. The first is notorious, the others deserve more attention.
Botch – We Are The Romans (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ytx1_EZlJmY)
Everything we say here will read as old news to those who know this album. This is because it is now less an album than a holy relic that people intone prayers around. You quickly run out of words to describe how good it is.
There were three seminal heavy albums released around the same time in the late 90s/early 2000s: Converge’s Jane Doe (2001), The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity (1999) and We Are The Romans (1999). We remember them all coming out, and have enjoyed many a good mosh to each.
Jane Doe was so good that it has gone on to define an entire genre of heavy music that mixes metal and hardcore. Its production values have also been massively influential for how heavy music gets recorded these days.
Calculating Infinity was the most technically challenging and downright insane of the three albums, but may have stood the test of time least well.
We Are The Romans is an entirely different beast: it isn’t as full frontal as the other two, but it is a work of bona fide genius.
The first seven songs on We Are The Romans are one of the most amazing opening runs of songs on any heavy album, ever. You get everything: bass and drums locked together in controlled chaos, jazzy off-kilter craziness, blistering guitar runs tempered with hooky full-chord riffs, mellow and aching melodic bits….
If you haven’t heard this album, and want a concentrated shot of what makes it so special, listen to tracks 5-7 back–to–back, with attention to the changes. Unreal stuff.
One weird thing about Botch is the vocals: they are quite conventional in your face growling, with not a lot of light and shade. The weirder thing, however, is that they totally work! (The weirder weirder thing is the Gregorian chanting on the closing track, which also works!)
We Are The Romans may well be the greatest heavy record of the past 25 years. There was very little in the album Botch released before it (American Nervoso) that indicated something this good was in them, and the album was so good that it basically broke the band (there was an EP/stalled album that they released after, called An Anthology of Dead Ends – it contains a couple of tracks that are incredible, but you kind of get why Botch might have thought We Are The Romans couldn’t be improved upon).
Abjure/Kneejerk – Don’t Clap It Startles Me (Split CD)(http://www.neatcutjoinery.com/pauls/skipworthrecords/home/kneejerk.php)
From global shifts in hardcore to very local ones….
We attended a gig in what was Drouthy Neebors pub in Dundee many moons ago. Paul from local heroes Engage (now of Divide) had brought up a couple of bands from London, called Kneejerk and Abjure….
Thanks to gigs Paul promoted, we’d heard all sorts of cool hardcore bands from the US (Ensign, Good Clean Fun….), and we knew lots of post-hardcore stuff from our own wider listening (Deftones, Helmet…).
The Kneejerk/Abjure gig was a genuinely life-changing moment, however. The bands played back to back, if memory serves, with Kneejerk going first. We can remember standing at the bar, mesmerised, thinking ‘we need to be listening to what they’re listening to, and our entire concept of what we’re aiming to play as a band has to change’.
Kneejerk were an emo band in the mould of bands like Policy of Three, Moss Icon, Maximillian Colby, with a bit of a Codeine/slowcore thing going on, but also with very definite British post-punk aspects. They were clearly experimenting with their sound when we first heard them (their first album is much more like early-Converge/metallic hardcore, with a great opening track).
Abjure sounded a bit like Dillinger Escape Plan in places, but they went all over the map: they had live samples, spoken bits, acoustic guitar passages, and, most impressively, a vocalist who played violin, evoking a really cool English folk feel (only two other hardcore bands have pulled off anything comparable at all well in our opinion – Portrait and We Came Out Like Tigers).
We each bought the split CD that Kneejerk and Abjure had produced for their tour. We almost dared not to listen to it in writing this up, in case it didn’t stand the test of time…. But it stands up seriously well. There’s a track by Kneejerk on the split called ‘Wire Wool’ that ought to be recognised as a cry baby emo classic the world over (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7sfgU-zgHKg); Abjure conclude with a Suzanne Vega cover that is neat and poignant; and there’s a track by Abjure called ‘Comfort’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL4O6_o9TsU) that contains a riff that we spent a good few months trying to consciously emulate as a young band (we think we managed it – on an old track called ‘Post-Diana Emotional Literacy’).
In short, this is artsy, interesting music that is heavy in all sorts of cool and untimely ways, and not at all like what we were used to buying from HMV at the time! (Fun fact: Kneejerk were fronted by a certain Frank Turner, back when he had taste!)
Laeto – Make Us Mild (https://laeto.bandcamp.com/album/make-us-mild)
From hardcore to something a bit more soundscapey….
A while back, I (Dom) read something about how future historians are likely to view the 1990s as one of the most information poor decades of the twentieth century, because of how quickly CDs and CD-ROMs are to corrupt. This immediately made me want to run back home to back up my copy of this album, out of mortal fear of losing it forever (fear not, it is available on Bandcamp, though quite what future historians will make of that platform is another matter).
Laeto were a band from Dundee, active between 1996 and 2006. Make Us Mild was the first of three albums they released – the two others are great, but, in our opinion, Make Us Mild is the greatest (also check out Zwoa, though – especially the tracks ‘Our City’, ‘Human Is Not Alone’, and ‘Victory Is Assured’).
I can remember what Laeto did on this album getting compared to Slint and Mogwai. I think that’s unjustified, and not because it doesn’t operate in the same sonic area. It’s because – sticking my neck out here – I think what Laeto did actually might be better in some ways.
This might just have to do with nostalgia for a particular time and place (Dundee, us listening in awe of what a band from our city had achieved with this album)…. Or it might have to do with the fact that Make Us Mild is a genuinely beautiful and evocative album.
This is true of the first two tracks in particular: the – wonderfully named – ‘Rowan Guerilla’ and ‘Tears on the Golf Course’. The two tracks work together seamlessly, and ‘Tears’ has some great understated genius going on in the melody and the drums (this track has one of the most beautiful little hi-hat motifs you’re ever likely to hear).
It’s also worth noting that Make Us Mild is a very cleverly paced album: six main tracks are woven together with four little interludes. This keeps things really fresh, and makes the album feel paradoxically epic and concise at once.
If you allowed me (Dom) to save but one CD from my music collection, it would be Make Us Mild. I can close my eyes listening to this album and feel utterly transported. It’s music that made me feel calm and peaceful at a time when not a lot of other music would.
Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to reflect on all of this, and I hope we haven’t droned on too much! Check out these albums – your ears deserve it!
Kaddish are a heavy/hardcore/emo band from Dundee. They are Chris (drums), John (bass), and Dom (guitar and vocals). They have released three albums. Their most recent is What World Was Still? (2018): https://kaddishuk.bandcamp.com/album/what-world-was-still