“This city’s been slapped in the face with a coat of grey poison.”
That’s Henry Rollins, speaking about the northern English city of Leeds, the place where, in 1987, the Black Flag vocalist recorded the LP Life Time with his Rollins Band. While he might not have found Leeds to be appealing, Rollins may well have approved of many of the acts the city has spawned. From squat-punk stalwarts Chumbawamba to the grizzly grind of The Afternoon Gentlemen, there has long been a substantial crop of Leeds bands flying the flag for punk and its offshoots. The early ‘10s gave birth to a groundswell of hardcore groups, with acts such as The Flex and Violent Reaction achieving recognition far beyond Yorkshire, as well as the growth of an adjacent grindcore crowd centered around bands like Famine.
Violent Reaction’s Tom “Razor” Hardwick recalls how supportive the environment was for young punks back then: “I think the Leeds scene was more encouraging [than some cities] to younger people,” he says via email. “The bands that have come out of [Leeds] and continue to do so are testament to how good and supportive the community there is.”
The momentum that began to gather at the beginning of the ‘10s has continued to snowball, with scene veterans and newcomers alike sharing bills at venues like Boom (formerly known as Temple Of Boom). But while the spirit behind the music remains unchanged, the songs themselves have become more fluid. Where Leeds hardcore bands once stuck close to classic East Coast sounds, the newer groups touch on a variety of punk and metal modes.
“There’s a ton of cross-pollination and shared members between bands,” Joseph Kerry says—and he should know. His CV includes the riotous fastcore of Ona Snop, Mortuary Spawn’s morbid death metal, and Implement’s freewheeling thrash. “[E]ach of the bands I’m in allows me to scratch a different musical itch […] it’s great to be able to explore different sounds, styles, and instruments across different projects.”
Warren Lovett, the former vocalist for Famine who now plays alongside Kerry in Ona Snop, corroborates Kerry’s insight. “When I first moved to Leeds [in] 2007/2008, all of the different scenes were quite separated and doing their own things. Over time, as different spaces have opened and closed or progressed, various scenes and circles have crossed over each other.”
It goes without saying that these acts make for intense listening. However, one thing that often distinguishes Leeds bands is how fun their music is—a sense of mischief at odds with the “macho man” image many have of hardcore. Ona Snop, for instance, have cultivated a sense of absurdity—from their cartoonish logo to track titles like “Rotisserie Geezer,” the groups makes a virtue of silliness.
On that count, Kerry says that the band owe a debt to Slap A Ham, the label helmed by Chris Dodge of Spazz/Infest/Despise You. “A lot of those guys had their tongues placed firmly in-cheek. Spazz, Lack of Interest, Fuck on the Beach, Melt-Banana, etc. are some seriously extreme bands, but their music definitely still has playful elements.” When Melt-Banana came to Leeds for a 2017 show, it was Ona Snop who nabbed the support slot.
The high-spirited nature of Leeds punk is testament to the local spirit of community. All of the bands interviewed for this piece took pains to shout out other figures in the scene—Hardwick big ups “Boom; producers and studios Atko at The Stationhouse; Ben Jones; Adam Rogers. Photographers Nat Wood, Aurora Bono, Jordan Carroll, Jordan Murphy, etc. as well as promoters Liam Fox, Lewis Hall, Sam Laycock […] [W]ithout them, there would be nowhere to play and nobody to document the stuff that’s happened over the years.”
There’s some bona fide pedigree in the Big Cheese ranks. Besides Hardwick’s stint in Violent Reaction, the band also shares members with current high-fliers Higher Power and Chubby & The Gang. As such, it’s no surprise to find that the group’s debut LP Punishment Park carries itself with confident muscle. Often anointed as a leader among the “new wave” of British hardcore, part of what makes Big Cheese so dynamic is the way they combine heft and levity in their music. Hardwick may sound like he’s trying to outrun hellhounds for much of Punishment Park, but ripping licks and grooving breakdowns are always on hand to provide fun-loving listeners with a route back in. “Whilst a lot of time and thought goes into the music, we have never once taken ourselves seriously,” Hardwick says. “I just want to write and play good tunes and go wherever it takes us […] [T]he music is at the heart of all of it, and a band’s personality and aesthetic is secondary for us. I’m just grateful we have this platform, and we do it simply ‘cause it’s fun.”
Frisk’s second eponymous record is one of the more weatherbeaten entries in this list, but that’s not because the group’s style is gorier than the other featured acts. Indeed, Frisk is actually a rather varied record, the band’s sound bouncing around in the zone between hardcore, industrial noise, and foreboding post-punk. However, Frisk gets its grizzle from a triple-threat of caustic guitar work, down-home recording quality, and vocal performances that sound, at times, as if the person in question is in genuine pain. On “Attachment,” for instance, Frisk’s singer spews their guts amidst a screeching doomscape.
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One of the scene’s more seasoned acts, Gets Worse dropped their meatiest release to date in the form of 2019’s Snubbed. The Gets Worse sound leans more towards classic grindcore and powerviolence, a choice which places them alongside fellow Leeds heavies like The Afternoon Gentlemen. There’s some of the Gents’s playfulness in Snubbed—the band’s use of samples, like the snippet of Mr. Burns dropped in at the beginning of “El Belcho,” is one example—but Gets Worse aren’t afraid to go heavy when they need to. The fact that the group bounces vocal duties between all four members adds another string to Gets Worse’s bow, allowing tracks like “Attendance Report” to run the gauntlet, from gruff barks to lacerating screeches.
It’s a time-honored tradition in punk scenes across the world that bands often break up as quickly as they arrive. To a list of fondly-remembered Leeds groups of yore—Clentsch, Famine, Groak, Lugubrious Children—we can also add HEX, a four-piece who operated between 2016 and 2018. HEX’s 2017 EP La Voisin remains testament to how bright they burned in their relatively short run. The EP is as righteous as it is ferocious, the band burning through six tracks of serrated hardcore which coalesce around some searing vocal performances.
It might only be two tracks long, but few records in this list leave more of an impression than Implement’s self-released EP ...THROUGH SCREAMS OF INFERNAL MISERY. The twin attack of “TOTAL CONTROL” and “ROT IN SIN” is all the group needed in order to confirm that they were one of the finest Leeds thrash groups in recent memory. There’s a bit more classic metal to these tunes—peep the Randy Rhoads-esque soloing with which the EP begins for confirmation of that—but the points when Implement lock in are pure hardcore power.
SPAWNED FROM THE MORTUARY
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Just as Leeds punk bands fold swiftly, so too is the scene quick to offer up exciting newcomers. Mortuary Spawn are a great recent addition; their debut EP SPAWNED FROM THE MORTUARY (see what they did there) circulated quickly when it dropped earlier this year. While the band’s membership includes some of Leeds’s most prolific punk players, the group’s sound actually skews more towards death metal, meaning that SPAWNED FROM THE MORTUARY flies by in a whirl of blast-beats and fearsome growls. With its yawning chasms of distorted guitar, a track like “THORAX AND ABDOMEN” more than befits its gruesome name.
Ona Snop is what happens if you allow the zaniness inherent in grindcore to become a band’s modus operandi. There’s no band more fun than this four-piece, a group who can make a strong claim to being the most beloved of all Leeds’s heavy bands at the moment. Intermittent Damnation, the second Ona Snop full-length, is a riot from start to finish. Where a more po-faced act might use the riff of “Come Over Here Or Fuck Off” to open the door to darkness, the Snoppers turn it into something gloriously deranged and immensely entertaining. It’s not all shits and giggles—speaking about the band’s progression through the years, Kerry notes that, “earlier records are goofier,” while “the more recent stuff has some darker, nastier elements.” But Kerry also acknowledges that Intermittent Damnation wouldn’t be an Ona Snop affair if “there [weren’t] songs that still make us laugh when we play them.”
If the fact that this is an album called Punishment by a band named The Shits doesn’t clue you into the fact that you’re in for some heavy listening, then the track titles of this 2020 LP will put any lingering doubts to bed. Songs like “A Slow And Aching Pain,” “Murder On My Mind,” and “Witching Hour” all live up to their promises. Splashed with caustic screes of distortion, the ominous forward-march of this record culminates in “Drink Your Blood,” a near-eight-minute vortex of slouched, ghoulish hardcore. Punishment is possibly the most unrelenting record here—no mean feat, given the competition.
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Much like Mortuary Spawn, Pest Control are another band who’ve come out swinging in the past year. Pest Control cleave close to the chugging hardcore of Big Cheese, though shared membership with Implement and Mortuary Spawn gives their debut demo a bit of a metallic tinge. It’s always a bold move to name a track after your band, and even more so when that cut is the first song on your first release; but there was surely no finer way for Pest Control to introduce themselves to the world than the snapping riffage, punishing drum work, and hot-fingered soloing of the anthemic “Pest Control.”
Cheating The War Game
Whipping Post are one of the most straight-down-the-line hardcore groups in the list—the muscular chug of Henry Rollins’s heyday can be heard coursing through Cheating The War Game. But while Whipping Post know their history, they use the base elements in a variety of ways throughout their second full-length. Sure, there’s East Coast bite to short, sharp shocks like “Guillotine” and “Today’s Tears Tomorrow’s Rain,” but “Cheating The War Game” surprises when it unfurls—the bruising lumber of penultimate cut “Last Year’s Farmer” has as much Bad Seeds as Black Flag in its DNA.