By the time punk found me, it had died and been born again many times over. It was 2002, and I’d just moved in to my first share house, a boxy little unit in Toowong filled with empty beer bottles, guitars and – if we’d been slack cleaning the dishes – a colony of maggots. There was no real estate or landlord to speak of (my flatmate’s parents owned the place), so the unit served as a hub for the kind of shit that eighteen year old dudes get up to – including a lot of punk music.
My flatmate – who I’d attended school with ‘til he dropped out around Year 10 – played in a couple punk groups, and when they weren’t practising amongst the detritus of dilapidated couches and discard takeout containers, he would play ‘90s punk records. NOFX. Mad Caddies. Bad Religion. Rancid. The Vandals. Lagwagon. Guttermouth. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. Descendents. The list stretched on and on, and despite my prior disinterest in the genre, the perpetual thump of drum lines and three chord snarls wore me down. I was converted.
Of course, I remained a nerd; my embrace of punk music wasn’t expressed through shaving my hair into a mohawk or idle vandalism but through research. The internet became my punk oracle, introducing me to the history of the genre, revealing its origins and its offshoots – ragged mutations and pallid stillborns alike. The big names of the ‘70s, naturally – The Ramones, The Pistols, The Clash – alongside post-punk titans like Wire, Gang of Four, Joy Division and experimental classics such as Refused’s “The Shape of Punk to Come.” Eventually, inexorably, it led me to the “third wave” of punk – American hardcore: Black Flag, Minor Threat and their ilk – and, ultimately, to Rites of Spring.
Rites of Spring was an encapsulation of everything that made punk resonate. My existence at that stage was clouded by a deep fug of depression. I felt isolated – I would trudge to lectures (those few I chose to attend) as though I was fighting my way through a thick mire, and listen to the monotonous intonation of words that seemed meaningless. Everything seemed meaningless. I felt isolated from my friends, and there seemed to be no purpose to my university degree or my mediocre part-time job. I felt numb, but punk music sparked something enlivening – anger. Inchoate anger, directed at nothing in particular, but the heat of this rage helped compel me to do something more than sink into my mattress and stare vacantly at the ceiling.
I couldn’t relate to the anti-Reagan sentiment of D.C. hardcore, or the Sex Pistols’ anarchist attitude. Perhaps that was a failing on my part – six years into the Howard era, only months after the Tampa travesty, my interest in politics was nearly non-existent. But I could relate to the pain in Guy Picciotto’s voice, a combination of anger and betrayal and profound hurt. The music behind Picciotto’s vocals combines the intensity of punk with the dark malevolence of post-punk. It’s the kind of music you throw yourself around to, lost in the angry anonymity of the mosh pit. Rites of Spring remains the manifestation of the anger and angst of the young white male: privileged but disconnected.
Rites of Spring arrived on the heels of third wave punk; Black Flag were on the decline (they’d break up a year later), The Misfits had disbanded a couple years earlier. Minor Threat, bastions of angry white punk, had broken up too, but Ian Mackaye would turn out to be a crucial piece of Rites of Spring’s first (and only) feature length record as producer of the album. Rites of Spring’s sound was clearly inspired by the raw rapidity of those bands, but it was an evolution besides. It’s undeniably darker, for one, but the lyrics are the main digression – rather than the protest chants or drunken banter that defined so much of early hardcore, Picciotto’s lyrics avoided specificity while remaining undeniably personal.
It often feels like a breakup record. The lyrics frequently suggest a relationship rift: “I was the champion of forgive forget/But I haven’t found a way/To forgive you yet” from “Persistent Vision”; “It’s more than love /And it’s less than love/It’s what I give to you” and “All there is is in the knowing that this never had to end” in “All There Is.” But the pain within Rites of Spring is deeper than the loss of partner; it’s like staring into the abyss of depression. The final lines of “Hain’s Point” summarise the atmosphere of the album better than I ever could:
“But it feels like I’m falling through a hole in my heart
Falling through a hole in my heart.
Don’t try to reach for nothing at all.
I can’t, I can’t explain.”
The undisguised emotionality of these lyrics is matched by Picciotto’s unrestrained intensity. He holds nothing back, with a commitment that manifests in a ragged vocal performance. My favourite track from the album, “For Want Of,” features lyrics evocative in of themselves – “
And I woke up this morning with the present in splinters on the ground/And then I drowned.” – but Picciotta’s raspy yell-singing imbues them with discomfiting agony, suggestive of suicidal despair.
“End on End” is the record’s masterpiece, a seven-and-a-half minute incantation that’s a horrifyingly perfect encapsulation of the imprisonment of deep depression, the way one can be driven into seclusion with the notion of escape seeming impossible. The instrumentation grates and swirls and builds into a frustrated cacophony, a fulmination that presents rage as a counterpoint to despondency. It’s a brittle paradox that simultaneously rails against and celebrates the darkest corners of hurt. “End on End” was the title of the 1991 Rites of Spring compilation, the record that served as my introduction to the group, combining Rites of Spring with their 1987 EP “All Through a Life.” It’s a great EP, but I remain convinced that the original record works better as a coherent statement, largely thanks to the strength of “End on End” as an explosive final track.
Nowadays, Rites of Spring are remembered less for their music than their influence. I suppose that’s understandable; musically the group is not especially innovative, and the album was hardly a commercial smash. As the first group to marry personal themes with hardcore instrumentation, they’re regularly heralded as the “first emo band” (a moniker the group categorically rejects). Whether or not you agree with this classification is irrelevant, I would argue, because Rites of Spring is a singular record.
It’s an insular record, a personal record, and it’s not especially surprising that Rites of Spring would split up within a year of recording it, playing only a handful of live shows in their brief existence (Picciotto and drummer Brendan Canty would go on to join another essential ‘80s band, Fugazi, with Ian Mackaye). This kind of outpouring of despair can’t be replicated, not by Rites of Spring and certainly not by the scores of emo groups that followed in their footsteps. Still, I’m not surprised that so many have tried, if their experience with the album is anything like mine. For eighteen year-old me, Rites of Spring was a conduit to my depressive miasma, carrying both the reassurance – that others had felt as trapped as I – and the promise of escape.
This review was originally published at The Essential.