Posted by: Necci – May 10, 2012
Moss Icon were a hardcore band from Maryland in the late 80s and early 90s. They came along just late enough that hardcore purists like Steven Blush, author of American Hardcore: A Tribal History, would tell you that they missed the original era of the scene, when things were "real" and "pure." And it's true, on some level--Moss Icon weren't part of that first wave of hardcore, the one that produced the bands that the critical music culture as whole remembers today: Black Flag, Minor Threat, Agnostic Front, 7 Seconds, etc. However, those that feel hardcore just fell into pale, uninspired imitations once that first era was over are missing out on a lot of music that came afterwards, and Moss Icon is one of the best bands that people like that have consistently overlooked.
Hardcore went in two directions in the late 80s; one branch of the scene went for a revival of the original early-80s sound, and this was what gave us the youthcrew revival bands that came out of New York and California in the late 80s and early 90s. But another branch of the scene went more deeply underground--from small clubs to VFW halls and the basements of punk houses. This scene was interested in musical experimentation and progression--so much so that the youthcrew crowd wouldn't have considered Moss Icon and bands like them hardcore at all. Indeed, this is where the original usage of the term "emo" came from, and some people who listen to this Moss Icon discography for the first time in 2012 might hear good reason to use such a term to describe them. Regardless, though, the hardcore genre was at least a template for Moss Icon's initial sound. Early songs like "Hate In Me" and "Mirror" have the speed, energy, and aggression of hardcore, though they're not exactly conventional examples of the genre. A lot of that is due to vocalist Jonathan Vance, whose abstract, poetic lyrics and narratively-focused delivery was enough to make even the earliest Moss Icon work stand out.
They really hit their stride around the dawn of the 90s, though, as guitarist Tonie Joy followed Vance's lead and began experimenting with the musical aspects of Moss Icon's sound in a similar fashion. Their songs grew longer, and mixed in musical elements from seemingly-unrelated genres of music. In their desire to retain a DIY ethic, and their continued residence within an international network of like-minded bands, Moss Icon were still part of the hardcore community, but any listener picking up their "Memorial" single, or their split LP with Silver Bearing, and expecting to hear something similar to Black Flag was sure to be mystified. "Memorial" begins quietly, with guitar arpeggios and the band's rhythm section vamping at midtempo underneath. The relatively mellow opening serves to place the spotlight on Jonathan Vance's voice; he moves between soft croons and spoken narration, in which he contrasts the simple life of working-class fishermen with that of old men "on top of a hill." The music builds, then reaches a brief lull, during which Vance says, "Walk out of your oval office, walk out of the state house, take a short walk across the lawn, and descend to six feet under. Read those names." He never spells out what he's talking about here, but it's unmistakable--released during the run-up to the Persian Gulf War, this song's lyrics reference the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC in order to protest another careless commitment of thousands of troops to potential death. Vance's illustration of the loss caused by war is underscored as he returns to the original setting of a working-class town: "In the lighted sky above our houses, lightning bugs rise higher and higher, as the sun leaves behind this valley. This waking valley song--a memorial." As he speaks the song's title, the rest of the band hits a transition into a much louder riff, bringing the song to a driving conclusion that never relies on excessive speed or heaviness but nonetheless communicates powerful emotion.
Moments like this exist all over this discography release, and none are more powerful than its eleven-minute centerpiece, "Lyburnum - Wit's End Liberation Fly." This song is a lengthy narrative that seems to be about the funeral for a teenage girl in an evangelical frontier settlement (I've always seen it as taking place in 17th century Massachusetts). The way the music laid down by Joy, bassist Monica DiGialleonardo, and drummer Mark Laurence evolves along with Vance’s narrative, moving with the changing moods his lyrics evoke, uses sounds that the band learned from playing loud and fast to create a completely different sort of song. In the first few moments of the song, the music is dark and foreboding, but about two and a half minutes in, it briefly changes into something more uplifting and melodic. Here, Vance shifts from the more poetic early verses of the song into a relatively straightforward narrative--which nonetheless features rhymes at the end of each line. Vance repeats some of the lines multiple times over the course of his narrative, changing them slightly with each repetition in order to reveal different nuances of his meaning. A reference to the priest officiating the burial bringing the crowd together eventually evolves into: "The separator of god and man and self gathers them over the pit." Then, one of the song's key verses: “And before the singing, he says, ‘To lose a young life in these trying times is truly not an unheard-of thing. Ah, but the false truth and holy lie of a dead god will surely take out some of the sting. So please all, let us take up our hymn books and sing. Rejoice the freedom of a young Christian soul taken under God’s holy wing.’” This biting, sarcastic eloquence serves to both perfectly mimic the sort of theological rhetoric one might hear from the pulpit of an evangelical Christian church and at the same time skewer that rhetoric with perfectly placed adjectives.
By the time the song has reached the eight-minute mark, the music has grown dark and ominous, clearly moving towards something. Vance has previously dropped a mention of the phrase “the conqueror worm” into a line, and at the eight minute mark, he works his way back around to it, first singing, “Rejoice the freedom of a young Christian soul taken under 6 feet of mother’s warm wing,” then following that line with: “Rejoice and listen to the blind worm truth sing. Rejoice the freedom of a spirit enabled by Lucifer’s holy lended wing.” The next verse is positively hair-raising. “Rejoice and sing to our separated God, our unfeeling God, our unknowing God, our inhuman God.” Vance is agitated now, far from the even tone in which he sang the song’s early verses. He nearly screams the next verse: “This conqueror worm is your truth. This conqueror worm is your love. This conqueror worm is your acceptance. This conqueror worm is your answer. This conqueror worm is God. This conqueror worm is God.” Clearly, this is the point he’s been building towards throughout the song. But catharsis has not yet been reached, and the band keeps building the tension for a further two minutes. Finally, when things have reached a level of tension that is all but unbearable (this is nearly ten minutes into the song), he yells, “We have freedom, lover! Rest well under mother’s warm wing!” This is when the catharsis finally comes; with a minute left in the song, the musicians switch back to the song’s opening riff, which by now they haven’t played in over seven minutes. “Lyburnum, cover me!” Vance howls as the change hits. “You’re singing and I’m being pulled in. This sanctuary is our god and our sacred pond.” The band attacks the riff with intense energy, and Vance makes his final statement: “I have now realized—-the wit’s end liberation fly...” he repeats four times. Then as the band plays the song’s final chord, he finally finishes the sentence, “...is the conqueror worm.” With that, the song collapses into feedback and ends.
While not every Moss Icon song is this much of a stirring, emotional epic, moments of catharsis like this one can be found throughout this discography. Vance engages in poetic interpretations of the sort of social commentary that normally showed up in much more straightforward fashion on hardcore records, and in so doing, manages to underscore his points that much more deeply. The longer of the two versions of "As Afterwards The Words Still Ring" that are contained on this discography features harrowing lyrics detailing the struggles of an escaped slave in the antebellum South to get away from white men with guns that are tracking him through winter snow. At one point in the song, Vance switches from the point of view of the slave to that of his pursuers, and describes them saying and doing truly vile and inhuman things. His unusual lyrical methods erase any jadedness one might feel at hearing hardcore songs about topics like war, racial hatred, and the negative influence of organized religion; by telling stories in which his political views are indicated by narratives rather than straightforward statements, Vance creates an environment in which listeners are able to hear these viewpoints with new ears.
In the same way, Tonie Joy, Monica DiGialleonardo, and Mark Laurence integrate musical influences that were unusual in the hardcore scene in order to rejuvenate what was seen by some at the time as a creatively exhausted genre. "Kick The Can" is an uptempo song with a driving backbeat, but Joy's melodic guitar arrangements transform it from a potentially standard hardcore tune into something very different. "Moth," the seven-minute B-side to the "Memorial" single, begins with a laid-back, undistorted guitar riff that has always sounded to me like something that would appear on an early 70s-era Van Morrison album. And yet, by the time has reached its halfway point, it has organically evolved into a darker, more foreboding riff that eventually grows quite heavy. "I'm Back Sleeping Or Fucking Or Something" has the dark power of a hardcore song, but is slower and choppier, like a hybrid of Flipper's shambling sludge and the foggy heaviness of the Velvet Underground circa White Light/White Heat. "Happy (Unbounded Glory)" starts out sounding almost like a pop song, but eventually falls into a strange lethargy that goes on for several minutes, in which Joy's guitar and DiGialleonardo's bass stop and start, spitting out disconnected, dissonant arpeggios as Vance repeats equally disconnected and evocative phrases.
These moments, and many more like them, add together to demonstrate the value and importance of Moss Icon's music. Along with other now-sadly-forgotten stars of the early 90s basement scene--Angel Hair, Antioch Arrow, Swing Kids, Joy's post-Moss Icon outfit Universal Order Of Armageddon, and too many others to mention--Moss Icon played a crucial role in revolutionizing the sound of underground hardcore, allowing it to evolve and become a vital building block of modern rock music. Or alternative, or indie, or whatever you call it; the point is that many diverse artists, from The Mars Volta to Sleigh Bells to Fucked Up to Death Grips to The Men, could not ever have come into existence if it weren't for the work bands like Moss Icon put into paving the way. The fact that these songs have been out of print for over a decade and a half is a crime, but thankfully, Temporary Residence has put that crime to rights with this excellent release.
AND NOW, A SLIGHT CAVEAT FOR THE LONGTIME MOSS ICON FANS: Before I finish this review, I must interject one slightly disappointing note. This album bills itself as a "complete discography," but sadly, that's not the case. Out of the 32 songs that Moss Icon released over the course of their career, only 19 are included here. Many that are left off are merely alternate versions--for example, the version of "The Life" that was originally released on the Mahpiua Luta EP is here, while the version from the Lyburnum Wit's End Liberation Fly LP is missing. These exclusions are relatively minor, as is the absence of the four songs from the band's demo that were never rerecorded for vinyl release--frankly, those tracks weren't very good, and I won't miss them.
Several frustrating exclusions have occurred here, though. The version of "Kick The Can" that's included is the version from the Mahpiua Luta EP, but its 80-second acoustic intro has been removed. I'm sure this has been done in order to fit this collection onto a single CD, but as a fan, the loss of what I always considered an important part of the song is frustrating. Similarly, the exclusion of the live second side of the It Disappears LP is disappointing. The loss of the significantly different version of "I'm Back Sleeping Or Fucking Or Something" isn't that horrifying, but I consider the 15-minute live improvisation known as "It Disappears" to be one of the more important tracks in Moss Icon's catalog, and it's a shame that it's not here.
Worst of all, two excellent tracks that were originally released on compilations--"Cornflower Blue," from Vermiform Records's False Object Sensor CD, and "Sioux Day," from Troubleman Unlimited's Superpowers cassette (it'd probably have been called a mixtape, were it released today)--are missing. As a longtime fan who owns the two LPs, though, these are two of the six or so songs I'd have been most excited to finally obtain. And they're not here! I don't know what logistical concerns led to the exclusion of these and the other excellent tracks I've already mentioned, but I can imagine them--a triple-vinyl/double-CD release is presumably not economically feasible, and I recognize that. However, to label a compilation that's missing a full dozen songs by a band as if it is their "complete discography" is an unfortunate misnomer. This is essential music, and those who've never heard Moss Icon before have plenty of amazing discoveries awaiting them. However, longtime fans like myself should be forewarned--don't delete those mp3s off your hard drive just yet. You're still going to need some of them.
By Andrew Necci