The mid-1990s was an adventurous time for underground music, especially for punk, hardcore, and [scr]e[a]mo bands. Building off the vast musical foundations laid by the pioneers of the genre in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, the 90s emerged as a time of experimentation, aggression, and a fierce commitment to local scenes.
Virginia was at the heart of this national musical movement, with now-legendary bands emerging from Hampton Roads, Washington DC, and of course right here in Richmond. For young people who came up in this scene, bands like Jesuit, MayDay, Words a Game, and Channel from Hampton Roads, along with Fugazi, Nation of Ulysses, Jawbox, and Hoover from Washington DC, changed everything by articulating a kind of camaraderie, spirit, and individual power that was lacking during the lethargy of the 90s. Through these things, lifelong friendships were born and the course of so many lives determined.
Yet nowhere was this reality more potent than right here in the River City. Richmond in the 90s was a mecca, a sanctuary for the underground that rivaled the greatest scenes in the US – the legacy of which the city is still benefiting from today. In this sonic vortex, bands like Avail, James River Scratch, Hose.Got.Cable, Inquisition, Men’s Recovery Project, The Rah Bras, Young Pioneers, Four Walls Falling, and countless others brought a certain kind of sound and style to the national scene that is still being tirelessly imitated.
On the forward edge of this scene were Richmond dissidents Action Patrol and Sleepytime Trio. You would be hard-pressed to find a single scene kid from the 90s in Virginia who was unfamiliar with either of these bands; and rightfully so, they represented a unique passage from the stoic hardcore punk of the 80s to the more progressive emo and screamo of the 90s. The inevitable transition from the musical war waged against Reagan’s evangelical America to the more tolerant and liberal era of the Clinton’s represents an under-appreciated golden age in underground music. The creative tension between these two generations generated some of the scene’s best music, as older musicians linked up with younger musicians to create new genres and sub-genres in the process.
In the 90s scene, almost anything was possible; the old heads know this history, and the history of these bands, intimately. Therefore, it was little surprise that Action Patrol and Sleepytime Trio’s upcoming April show at Strange Matter sold out last night only a few hours after ticket sales began. In fact, Strange Matter announced that it was one of the fastest selling shows in the venue’s history. This should come as no great shock, given that they’ve also been a scene staple (in multiple forms) since the 90s – hence, the “triumphant return” of these bands, as this article title suggests. But it is more than just scene nostalgia that sold this show out in record time. While each of these bands has done reunion shows before, there is something about this day and age which makes their re-emergence so needed, especially for those who came of age in the 90s.
Perhaps it is knowing that we now live in a time where political and social complexity could be greatly articulated by bands who knew how to irreverently take the proverbial “piss” like Action Patrol. On their song “Tube,” they proclaim snidely, “I don’t think I’ll hold you close, I’ll just hold you responsible for another loud mouth advertisement,” before going fucking nuts in matching orange coveralls. Does that lyric need to be put into a contemporary context, or should we just accept that this sums up most of our entire experience in 2017? How about the frantic agitation and feverishness behind Sleepytime Trio’s “Rock Candy,” where singer Drew Ringo crows, “Forced reaction, Danton. To your intrusion, Robespierre. It needs no answer,” a weirdly subversive nod to the terror of the French Revolution; another perfectly timed and prescient lyric for what people have felt and experienced in 2017.
There is no doubt that music today is thriving, just in different formats, which are spread out across multiple scenes and genres. And ultimately, all music conforms to the context and circumstances of the politics, art, and cultural life that surrounds it; much like it did for those who came of age in the hardcore, punk, and screamo scene of the 90s. Do all people look back and fondly claim that their scene was the best scene? Of course they do. Nonetheless, there was something about the 90s and how one scene transitioned to another that revolutionized underground music in the US. Virginia led in that process, making the scene here unique amongst the best scenes nationally.
For those who missed the brief window to see Action Patrol and Sleepytime Trio on their home stage at Strange Matter, it sucks to be you.