THE DEFINITIVE WORD ON SASS [patreon preview]
sassy sexy scary
|You Don't Need Maps||Apr 26|
Hi there! What you’re about to see is a reworked and expanded version of a piece I originally posted back in 2017, when I was an itty-bitty baby skramz blogger. It was, essentially, a primordial version of what I do now in that it took an ostensibly very-niche subgenre of DIY music and extrapolated the impact it’s had throughout the broader music world since its heyday. To tell you the truth, it ended up being one of my first posts that gained a significant amount of traction and attention (shout-out to Mathcore Index), but now that I’m older and know more, and new developments have happened in the world of sass, I thought it might be pertinent to dust off this piece, polish it, and expound upon, clarify, or disown my thoughts from back then (as well as clean up some of my writing— I hope it’s not conceited to say I’ve gotten a bit better at that since I was 20). Also— and this might piss some people off— because this piece essentially makes the original post obsolete, that one will no longer be publicly available. Sorry! Without further ado, I present On the Subject of Sass: Director’s Cut: Deluxe Edition. The beginning of the post will be available to read for everyone, but the complete post can only be accessed via subscribing to my Patreon. I hope y’all enjoy.
Gather Round, Children, While I Tell Tales of a World Before Your Time
First, a little Internet hardcore history. Back in the late 2000s and early 2010s, it actually wasn’t so easy for a casual observer to find a whole lot of information on 90s hardcore, partially because of the fact that, at the time, 90s hardcore seemed like the least well-documented part of hardcore’s long and storied history. However, that isn’t to say that it was impossible to find that information; you just had to be dedicated enough to go looking for it. Blogspots were the go-to resource for a lot of it— Cut and Paste, Chug Life, This Endless Breath, xStuck In the Pastx, and a whole host of other pre-Sophie’s Floorboard blogs were where a lot of the music could be accessed and, often, the only places to see the backstory and history of bands and labels.
Once you were a little further down the rabbit hole, you might have ended up browsing forums like CMHWAK, VLV, and BCO (aka Board Crewcial, which no longer seems to exist but which I have heard referred to as VLV’s “bratty little sister”), which were hotspots for information about, specifically, the late 90s and early 2000s screamo scene. It is on CMHWAK that the poster known only as Pete first began posting about sass. In 2013 or thereabouts, Pete compiled several of his CMHWAK posts, along with some fresh observations and information, and published it as a guest post for Stuff You Will Hate, which, if you are too young to remember, was a blog formerly owned and operated by Finn McKenty of the Punk Rock MBA.
Stuff You Will Hate, while primarily focused on contemporary scenes like pop-punk and metalcore, often made time for lengthy digressions about 90s hardcore, and for a period of time was the only place on the Internet to find anything remotely approaching lucid commentary on the subject. Stuff You Will Hate also existed in kind of a weird Twilight Zone in Internet culture: equal parts heavy music blog (it began as an offshoot of the much more metal-oriented blog Metal Inquisition); Hipster Runoff/Something Awful-esque hyper-ironic postmodern satire (Finn openly admitted to taking a lot of influence from HRO’s Carles and occasionally contributed to Something Awful’s Garbage Day feature); bodybuilding dot com’s misc forum (SYWH’s playfully douchebaggy tone was often construed as serious by people ranging from critics to fans who appropriated Finn’s turns of phrase and incorporated them into their own /r/theredpill-esque conversations); and life advice. Eventually, Finn tired of the audience he was attracting and of the direction he felt SYWH was going and shuttered it in late 2015, in the process excluding the URL from the Wayback Machine and thus locking people out from accessing much of the site’s backlog.
For the record, I understand Finn’s decision to do this, and I don’t begrudge him for it in the least— I myself engaged in a lot of clearing house this past month. Nevertheless, it has had the unfortunate effect of making it significantly harder to access more obscure information. To wit: here is the only remaining vestige of Pete’s sass article that I can find; this RYM list also includes a significant amount of writing from the poster, who is not Pete. Nonetheless, both authors do a fairly excellent job of breaking down the history of sass and spotlighting both the bigger bands as well as some deeper cuts.
Okay, but what is sass? And why are we talking about it?
In case you're too lazy to read the RYM post, here's the general gist of sass: Descended from and inspired by a lineage of punky-yet-nerdy provocateurs going back to the Talking Heads, DEVO, and the early goth scene, but most often traced back to fashion-conscious yet pretentious post-hardcore bands like Nation of Ulysses and the mid-90s Spock Rock scene in San Diego (ie, Justin Pearson bands— especially the Crimson Curse— and related stuff like Spanakorzo, or the final Antioch Arrow LP), the late 90s and early 2000s screamo scene experienced a surge of bands who started writing songs with handclaps and vaguely danceable beats, while maintaining a spastic edge. There were lisping vocals shouting lyrics of varying levels of obscurity and eroticism over chaotic guitar runs and keyboards. There was flamboyant, homoerotic clothing and behavior, meant to challenge tough-guy hardcore's oppressive heteronormativity as well as to provoke a crowd of supposedly “politically correct” scolds who were too uptight to have any fun, and who sneered down their nose at any outright presentation of sexuality.
The definitive and by far the most popular sass band would be the Blood Brothers, although other commonly name-checked bands include The Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower, xbxrx, the Red Light Sting, and Black Cat 13/The Sick Lipstick.
My personal favorite sass records include The Elemental Gearbot by A Trillion Barnacle Lapse (which plays with dance and electronica elements with a lot more sophistication and ambition than most bands in their lane), the Let’s Get Serious EP by Panthers (an ex-Orchid band that applied sass vibes and aesthetics to the drunken garage-rock revival of the early 2000s), and Sex Is Everything by Hint Hint, one of the coolest-sounding hardcore/adjacent releases of the early 2000s. As is typical with this genre, you will find that these releases are hardly available fucking anywhere except, of course, for Soulseek, although thanks to renewed interest in the genre (as we’ll discuss later), many bands that, previously, were completely impossible to find have had songs uploaded to places like YouTube and Bandcamp (see: Soliah Shawcross).
Some bands crossed over with spazzy screamo, most particularly the final Orchid record (possibly the most-referenced sass record outside of the Blood Brothers pantheon), J.R. Ewing, xVincent Price’s Orphan-Powered Death Machinex, Song of Zarathustra (slight Nietzsche obsession in this microgenre, eh?) and After School Knife Fight. You would be correct in assuming that there was crossover between the more chaotic elements of the sass aesthetic and some of the more openly obnoxious grindcore and mathcore bands of the era— early Number 12 Looks Like You, the Great Redneck Hope, the first An Albatross record, and even, arguably, Canada Songs by Daughters are pretty good representatives of that flavor. Then you have bands that certainly had a sass attitude, but arguably didn’t really fit in anywhere, like Hands Are… or the post-Neil Perry band the Now.
Sass was looked at with a mixture of curiosity and annoyance by the hardcore scene at the time, if not outright revulsion from the more macho elements within the scene (although that was, of course, to be expected). Also to be expected was that some of the sass bands had a far wider reach than the underground hardcore scene; while much of it was too screamy and outright weird to gain much traction, you did see some mainstream interest in bands like, of course, the Blood Brothers, as well as Death from Above 1979 and Head Automatica (the side project of Glassjaw’s Daryl Palumbo, referred to by Pete in the SYWH article as “sass-pop”). While this moment lived and died in the bizarre cultural battleground of the early-to-mid-2000s (there’s much related discussion to be had about electroclash, in fact), sass’s legs are, as you may gather, much longer than a few PopMatters reviews would suggest, and not just because sass legend Justin Pearson invented the gunshot wound hairstyle. For instance:
Dance-punk is experiencing its own time in the “Hey, I remember that, actually!” spotlight thanks to a new release from the Killers, but I doubt anyone could really explain just how much the early proto-blogosphere was awash with dance-punk during its heyday. All those bands from the early 2000s that sounded like Gang of Four with a cleaner production sheen were basically ripping off sass bands, if they weren’t already part of the sass scene. Hot Hot Heat, for example, actually started out doing splits with the Red Light Sting, while !!! and the Rapture released albums on Gold Standard Labs and Gravity, respectively, which were two of the bigger labels associated with the nascent look and sound of sass (along with Sound Virus, which also put out a !!! record). Take a minute to think about that: !!! were on the same label as the Locust. And before you dispute that the Locust were sass, consider that Justin Pearson pretty much invented the entire look and sound of the sass scene with the Crimson Curse, and the Locust are just a more aggressive, avant-garde version of that.
These bands were smart enough to see that the sass style, although underground, had a strong appeal with audiences who weren’t just the typical Angry Young White Boy hardcore kid— because sass wasn’t deliberately alienating towards anyone who was there to do something besides punch a wall, people of color, members of the LGBT community, and (most important for anyone wishing to make money off a sound) young women were more likely to show up at sass shows than your typical screamy hardcore show or loft-space art installation.
It’s also worth noting those groups who, whether by choice or by fate, straddled the line between the underground and the mainstream. These included bands like Q and Not U, who were clearly aping sass bands' lisping sneer and grating danceability, but were slightly more committed to the DIY ethos than the more mainstream dance-punk bands, perhaps because they came from the same scene as Nation of Ulysses. Joined by their Dischord compatriots Black Eyes, Al Burian’s (of Hellbender fame, as well as the author of my all-time favorite zine, Burn Collector) band Milemarker, and Omaha weirdos the Faint, they formed a style that could be referred to as "girlfriend-sass" (I use the term ironically, since a common insult against anyone who was into sass at the time was that you were a “faggot”): closely related enough to hardcore to retain credibility, but accessible enough that you wouldn't get weird looks for listening to them in public.
Anyway, obviously the kids who were jamming out to the Killers and Franz Ferdinand were completely oblivious to Brainiac or These Arms Are Snakes, let alone like, the Eleventh Symphony or whatever. But the sound was leaking through nonetheless, polished for mainstream appeal and spritzed with enough of a smirky affectation to garner approval from the early hipster crowd (you know, like Buddyhead, or the people who were reading Pitchfork back when David Cross would write Pitchfork articles mocking the hell out of Pitchfork). Related: the post-punk revival of Interpol (insert relevant For Your Health song title here) and the faux-noise rock of Death From Above 1979.
Unfortunately, I’ll have to cut the preview off here— if you want the rest of the article, you will have to subscribe to my Patreon (although, as always, if you’re only interested in reading this article in particular, you can Venmo me $5 at xyoudontneedmapsx with your email in the subject line and I will send it to you).
Thank you so much for reading. Please don’t forget to hit that subscribe button on my Patreon, or hit up my Venmo at xyoudontneedmapsx if you’d prefer to show your support with a one-time donation! If you’re interested in a band bio or some freelance writing, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to hash out the details. If you’d just like to read dumb jokes, follow me on Twitter on my personal account and on my podcast’s account (you can listen to that podcast here). I’ll see you all next time!