This week on the feed I caught Steve Bays— most well-known as the singer/keyboardist of Hot Hot Heat, but more recently pushing the parameters of pop with Left Field Messiah—posting about his old, mid ‘90s emo-core group, New York City Rhythm. Named after a Barry Manilow tune, but more so modeled after the tense, post-hardcore drive of Drive Like Jehu, the Victoria-based quartet’s lone, self-titled demo tape was ripped to YouTube last fall, Steve apparently made aware of this just recently.
I’d heard of, but hadn’t properly heard the group until now. That happened a lot back in the ‘90s! While Victoria was just a quick ferry trip away from Vancouver, it’s music scene felt so much further away. Mythical, even. I half remember people summing up their scene as somehow both a land of arms-crossed music critics, and a dance hub that easily eclipsed Vancouver’s own stand-still aesthetic. I’d wager the truth was somewhere in between.
Going to shows in Vancouver in the mid ‘90s exposed me to plenty of local skatepunks twisting up the Fat Wreck Chords template, and a smattering of hardcore bands taking a supremely hardened stance. What little I’d heard out of Victoria was completely different. Bands like Republic of Freedom Fighters—first introduced to me on a mixtape alongside a grab bag of grind/crust bands (Monster X, Human Greed), and detuned moshcore (Unbroken, Doughnuts)— were more exploratory; often crescendo-driven. The lyrics were deeply personal, yet cryptic. Even how they screamed—feral, high-pitched—seemed surreal compared to the mix of Fat Mike-ish sneers and tough guy shouting I’d regularly been hearing at local shows.
Having just come across the demo, I thought it might be cool to revisit a few faves from the time. By no means an exhaustive list, and fairly interwoven, but some great records nonetheless.
Vancouver Island has a rich punk history— the lightspeed early ‘80s blur of the Neos and Jerk Ward; Mission of Christ’s demonic crossover; the prog-core pound of Nomeansno; the late ‘90s artwave of pre-pop Hot Hot Heat—but this time around I’m focusing on a very short, specific period of Victoria screamo…before we even knew to call it screamo.
Breakwater precedes Republic of Freedom Fighters, sharing both a handful of members and a general musical aesthetic. The band released a total of seven songs across their 1995 demo, one 7-inch, a split with New York emo group Closure, and a pair of compilations. They went super minimal with the song titles, all of which seemingly relating to the order in which they were written by the band (i.e. “One” and “Two”). Sometimes the songs appeared on various releases, while others—among them “Three,” “Six” and “Eight”—are seemingly lost like tears in rain.
“Seven,” found on both their demo and the b-side to a 7-inch released by short-lived Princeton, NJ imprint Static Records, is a profoundly beautiful song. It begins with a haunting, cyclical minor-key motif— slightly moshy with a simple, yet achingly held guitar octave. The vocals are buried, both by lo-fi tech and a mumbled approach. It’s dark, but something funny happens mid-song— a tonal shift arriving with big bass chord strums and a major key switch, making for an extended, exuberant emo finale. Contrasting the melody, meanwhile, is a screamed, yet pensive refrain of “Will they follow your footsteps like the ones they fell into by no fault of their own?”
Republic of Freedom Fighters:
Republic of Freedom Fighters picks up shortly after the breakup of Breakwater, bringing that band’s Carey Mercer (guitar), Jode Shortreed (drums) and Steve Simard (bass) together with guitarist Reg Flech.
While parts of Breakwater’s minor key melancholy is carried over into the Republic, overall this band was more unhinged and chaotic. The peaks and valleys are likewise wider, with 1996’s six-song 12-inch on New York’s Mountain Collective ebbing and flowing through brief, discordant dirges, towards jazzier guitar phrasings and kinetic drum play, and into eerier, extended musings. Outside of flipping the record, it’s connected as one unbroken fever dream. Lyrically, Mercer gets dark, alternating between howling against colonialism (“Face the Wind Joe Fucker Columbus”) and intimating intense familial abuse (“This Father’s Father”).
Mercer’s musical output is prolific, moving from the Republic of Freedom Fighters onto a series of abstract, celebrated releases from Blue Pine, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, Blackout Beach, and Soft Plastics.
(Instill´) were the only band on this list that I managed to see live, back in 1997, in the top level of an old community hall in Pitt Meadows, BC (roughly 40 km east of Vancouver). A loudly straight edge hardcore band that didn’t necessarily comply with the usual, chug-heavy, toughened-up pose of the ‘90s. Some detuned, rhythmic chugging, for sure, but there’s an overall discordant and quixotic nature to the songs from the band’s four-song 7-inch, …The Sky is Falling. Dave Kool’s vocals weren’t hoarse and domineering, instead playing with a more elemental squall. Breakdowns existed, but they were surrounded by uncomfortably off-kilter swervings you could arguably describe as carnival-esque (“Croire”).
More than a few band-to-band mentions, here. Steve Bays played drums for (Instill’). Future Hot Hot Heat drummer Paul Hawley wasn’t on the 7-inch, but played guitar for (Instill´) late in the game. Cam Pipes— the clean, Halford-style vocalist from Three Inches of Blood—played bass (Pipes and Hawley would shortly thereafter start a brutal death metal band called Black Vein Prophecy, but that’s a story for another time).
The (Instill´) record isn’t streaming, or even on YouTube, so check this one out however you can.
New York City Rhythm:
This all brings us back to the super short-lived New York City Rhythm. Steve Bays bounced from behind the kit to both scream and play guitar, and was joined by guitarist/vocalist Brad Kurishima, bassist Evan Raine, and drummer Matty Marnik (the latter of whom popped up a few years later as the first vocalist for Hot Hot Heat).
The five songs have an era-specific punch to them. I like the scrappy, ¾ swing to opener “Left With The Radio...Pull The Trigger”; the discombobulated sass of “Fat Walker” conjures, rather, a San Diego rhythm equal parts Drive Like Jehu and the Gravity Records roster; “Pillow Talk, Toilet Dreams” hints at the dramatic chord arrangements of the Breakwater/Republic of Freedom Fighters crew, but lands with a more youthful pluck. Mostly, it’s just cool to hear Steve pushing his vocals this hard. Like Steve, Brad’s still making music, more recently through his atmospheric synth-gaze project Prince Shima.
Someone ended up buying a copy of the New York City Rhythm demo for nearly $300 CAD last fall on Discogs, just a few days after it went up on YouTube. Yipes! Luckily you can peep it for the low, low price of a click down below.