In the early ‘90s, music journalists seemed very concerned with finding the next Seattle. Or rather, finding the next city that could redefine guitar rock for the masses while attracting major label A&R reps who were ready to kneel at the Chuck Taylors of its ambassadors, blank checks in hand. D.C. had Fugazi, Jawbox, and the already established Dischord Records. San Diego had Gravity Records. Chicago, home to groups like the Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, and Shellac—and labels like Drag City and Touch and Go—seemed the next logical torchbearer. But a sleeper contestant in the alt-rock sweepstakes was just five hours south, practically a straight shot down I-65.
During its modest ascent in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Louisville forged a close camaraderie with Chicago. This was in part due to the proliferation of post-hardcore bands in both cities, not to mention the former’s proximity to the Midas touch of Chicago engineer Steve Albini (also of Big Black and Shellac). Post-hardcore was lionized for keeping loyal to hardcore’s aggression while welcoming experimentation. The sound was more pliable, less rigid. Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade is a classic example of a pioneering post-hardcore record, as are the discographies of the bands who formed in D.C. immediately following Revolution Summer in ‘85 (Soulside, Embrace, and so forth). Louisville had its own post-hardcore champions.
In the July 17, 1994 issue of the New York Times, Louisville was one of many cities mentioned in a feature headlined “Striving to Be Rock’s Next Seattle.” The 240 words allotted to the city contained names like Bastro, Starbilly, and King Kong—but it was Slint that created the legacy from which much of the city’s post-hardcore scene bloomed. Slint’s Tweez (1989) and Spiderland (1991) were each recorded in Chicago, with the latter being released via the aforementioned Touch and Go (Tweez received a reissue by the label not long after). Today, Spiderland remains a triumph of fitful, smoldering rock. Sparse and reflective, guitarist/vocalist Brian McMahan sing-talks his way over contorting, tinny guitar lines and stripped-bare rhythms, the band’s sound mutates and explodes unannounced. Spiderland created a foundation for the soft-soft-blammo blueprint of post-rock bands and became a touchstone for revered Louisville (or Louisville-associated) post-hardcore groups like Rodan, The For Carnation, and June of 44.
It’s unclear whether those critics ever figured out what city was the next Seattle—or whether there even was one—but Louisville remained as strong a contender as any. Throughout the decade, it was a breeding ground for post-hardcore—with many of its best bands taking important tips from their forefathers. Into the 2000s and beyond, Louisville’s post-hardcore sound became darker and heavier, thanks in part to the rise of Initial Records (and its sister music festival Krazy Fest), and a prolific pair of brothers. Below you can find a roll call of some of the city’s best exports available on Bandcamp.
In the beginning, there was Squirrel Bait. This earnest hardcore band of Louisville young’uns became the predominant host for what would develop into the town’s thriving early-’90s scene. Squirrel Bait’s key members—guitarists David Grubbs and Brian McMahan, drummer Britt Walford, and vocalist Peter Searcy—went on to command groups like Bastro, Gastr del Sol, Slint, Evergreen, Big Wheel, and Starbilly. In existence from ‘83 through ‘88, Squirrel Bait helped to pioneer what became categorized as “post-hardcore.” Their 1985 self-titled EP and 1987 LP Skag Heaven—both out then on the tastemaking Homestead Records and later reissued by Drag City—flail, fracture, and flow with melody as Searcy’s raspy voice strikes a balance between anguish and sincerity. Breakdowns of sparkling riffs dodging one another in clever unison are foiled by stretches of full-bore hardcore-punk rhythms and gliding guitars. It’s impressive how mature and innovative both records still sound today.
Bless Temporary Residence Ltd. and its head honcho Jeremy DeVine. TRL has always had a keen interest in the Derby City’s microscenes and mutations, reissuing classic early ‘90s albums that had been marooned in out-of-print purgatory due to limited first runs. One excellent example: In 2005, Temporary Residence reintroduced the world to Crain’s Speed. Recorded by Albini and released in ‘92 via late member Jon Cook’s tiny Automatic Wreckords, the 10-track LP retreads the footsteps of what Squirrel Bait began, while championing the traits that turned Spiderland timeless. (You can also hear the makings of Speed in Cerebellum, the short-lived group from which Crain emerged.) The album rolls out a seven-minute-plus standout like “Kneel,” which seethes and writhes beneath monotone vocals—piling atop an overarching sense of dread—before transitioning to the flexible “The Dead Town” and moving on to the chugging punk heater “King Octane.” Speed is as essential a post-hardcore record as will ever come out of Louisville.
Thanks to the eventual inclusion of drummer Britt Walford, Evergreen represented yet another branch of the great, meandering Slint family tree. But its post-hardcore tendencies leaned more into reckless punk and bluesy garage-rock territories, with Sean McLoughlin occasionally bludgeoning his voice enough to imitate Darby Crash (“Whip Cream Bottle”). Like Crain’s Speed, Evergreen’s self-titled 1996 record—recorded and engineered by DFA’s James Murphy—was similarly given new life by Temporary Residence, this time with a 2003 CD reissue. While there is plenty of sneering and loud punk swaggering on the record, there are also several more subtle cuts—like the back-to-back “Sweet Jane” and “Glass Highway”—that could play right alongside Fugazi’s Red Medicine without sounding one tick out of place. In 2009, Louisville-based imprint Noise Pollution released a compilation of the band’s early pre-Walford, pre-McLoughlin material titled Wholeness of the Soul.
Primarily a ‘90s band that had a strong five-year run with Doghouse Records—the emo-leaning NYC-based label that found success with bands like The Get Up Kids and Hot Water Music—Metroschifter last released an LP in 2009. And though it was nearly a decade removed from their last full-length, Carbonistas stays loyal to the band’s well-traveled sound, with frontman Scott Richter still experimenting with red-lining noise rock and angst-driven, thoughtful punk. A sound that felt particularly in vogue in the later half of the decade, Metroschifter’s music skirts the blurry line between emocore and post-hardcore—that is, if you’re part of the faithful that believes that line exists at all.
It’s impossible to talk ‘90s Louisville without talking vocalist-guitarist Jeff Mueller. Along with close friend and collaborator Jason Noble—who sadly passed away from cancer in 2012—he was a member of the short-lived but beloved Rodan, helping produce one of Louisville’s seminal post-hardcore records in Rusty (1994). Mueller went on to form the unassuming supercollective June of 44 before rejoining Noble in the back half of the decade to write a commissioned piece for NPR’s This American Life. Shipping News was framed from there. Their debut LP, 1997’s Save Everything, wavers from jagged stabs of guitar and driving beats to fluttering post-rock rhythms and wispy riffs. Tracks might then dissolve altogether, revealing a stark atmosphere of clean guitar and found sound. (All of this actually occurs on the incredible 10-minute-plus “Steerage.”) The last record Shipping News released before Noble’s death was 2010’s live album One Less Heartless to Fear, which sketches out the immensity of the band’s eclectic post-hardcore sound.
Elliott was representative of a new class of post-hardcore bands in Louisville. With the rise of local tastemaker Initial Records and its brainchild festival Krazy Fest, the city’s scene began to grow as an homage to the Slint family tree rather than directly from it. The kids who grew up listening to Skag Heaven and Spiderland began forming their own groups, and with the second wave of emo in full swing in the late ’90s, that often meant a post-hardcore band’s sound creaked a bit more than it cracked. Fronted by guitarist Chris Higdon’s restrained and airy vocals, Elliott toyed with a track’s dynamics in similar methods to its predecessors—via dramatic shifts in tempo and limber guitar riffs. But on 1998’s U.S. Songs and especially 2000’s False Cathedrals, there exists a pop-driven polish that felt railed against in the earlier half of the decade. Elliott was beholden to D.C.’s Revolution Summer movement and all that was born from it.
Christiansen and Elliott were kindred spirits in late-’90s/early-2000s Louisville, both aiming to produce enough sweeping hooks to make an audience collectively swoon in heat. While Elliott’s attack was a gentler one, Christiansen worked more alongside the likes of At the Drive-In. The group crafted tracks of elastic, combative riffs and swaying rhythms that repped the intoxicating elements of hardcore while ultimately adhering to the commandments of emo. For those devoted to the tropes of vintage Louisville post-hardcore, the pop and sass—and poppy sass—of a band like Christiansen probably seemed contrived by comparison. Still, it was a sound with a heyday, regardless of how fleeting that heyday may seem today. The 2004 track “Love Is for Fuckers”—taken from the annual Louisville Is for Lovers compilation—is a solid representation of this more polished approach to post-hardcore.
While Elliott and Christiansen mostly adhered to the emo conventions of post-hardcore, the National Acrobat—one of Louisville’s most infamous outfits of the late ‘90s—mostly could give a fuck. Because the short-lived group (1998-2000) was very heavy on the hardcore and punk side, many might dispute sorting it as post-hardcore. OK, fair enough. Still, while the National Acrobat has a lot in common with metalcore lords like Botch, Deadguy, and Coalesce, it also ebbs and explodes in the same calculated methods as its more sortable Louisville brethren. Plus, as every genre mutates with age—and post-hardcore is certainly open to interpretation—it becomes a fun experiment to stretch the limits of its definition. One thing is certain: With slurring madman Casper Adams leading the National Acrobat’s assault, remnants of bands like Crain and Evergreen can be heard during the group’s most violent moments.
Ryan Patterson, brother to Evan, spent 12 years fronting and touring relentlessly—legitimately nonstop—with Coliseum before calling it quits in 2015 (he’s since gone on to form post-punk project Fotocrime). Having started as a metal-tinged hardcore-punk band that released records on Level Plane and Relapse, the prolific Coliseum morphed with age, eventually settling into a weathered and moodier sound that worked in principles of post-hardcore. Patterson’s gruff vocals became less about confrontation and more about contemplation, while his songwriting exhibited a stronger grasp of dynamics as riff assaults became tempered by almost-anthemic breakdowns of roaming guitar. All of these hairsplitting assertions can be heard on “Love Under Will” off of 2013’s Sister Faith, arguably Coliseum’s strongest effort—and the record in which the band sound totally comfortable with their new direction.
Evan Patterson, brother to Ryan, was a co-founder of the National Acrobat, later moving on to metalcore behemoth Breather Resist before settling into Young Widows, the dark post-hardcore trio he commands to this day (his focus of late has shifted to his austere, ramblin’ project Jaye Jayle). Together, the Patterson brothers helped usher the city’s revered scene into the 2000s, and in Young Widows Evan has long been able to finesse a track from rumbling din to sinister yarn. He leads with a southern drawl that today sounds even more drenched in Old Forester than it did on 2008’s Old Wounds. That seminal record carved out a spot for the trio in the Louisville post-hardcore canon, and it’s one that can be as towering (“Old Skin”) as it can be pensive (“The Guitar”). Coincidentally, Young Widows are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Old Wounds with a short tour in June during which they’ll play the album in full.
While not post-hardcore in the early ’90s traditional sense, Tropical Trash sound a bit more like a live circular saw tumbling down San Francisco’s Lombard Street. But the band’s deadpan vocals, frayed rhythms, and discordant riffs—on both 2015’s UFO Rot and the recent 2018 A Dent in the Forever Can—are also definitely loyal to the same feral punk attitude of its predecessors. The latter mini-album in particular experiments and shifts between hypnotic noise rock and breakdowns in which a track might shatter in upon itself (“Country Gift”). A track can sound frail but be unnerving simultaneously. Tropical Trash represent a Louisville scene that’s alive and well—and one that acknowledges where it came from, knowingly or not.