Equal Vision turns 30: here’s 10 of their most overlooked releases
To help celebrate the 30th anniversary of legendary punk/hardcore/emo label Equal Vision Records, this edition of In Defense of the Genre highlights ten of the label's most overlooked releases.
Legendary punk, hardcore, emo, and more label Equal Vision Records celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. For the uninitiated, Ray Cappo of Shelter and Youth of Today started the label in 1990 as a way to release Shelter records, but in 1992 he sold it to former Youth of Today roadie/Revelation Records employee/EVR manager Steve Reddy, and Steve helped turn it into one of the key hardcore labels of the '90s, with releases by 108, Ten Yard Fight, One King Down, Converge, Bane, and more. A big turning point for the label came when they put out the 1998 debut album by a young melodic hardcore band called Saves The Day, which helped branch EVR out from the hardcore underground and into the burgeoning emo/post-hardcore boom, and things really exploded when the label issued Coheed & Cambria's debut album The Second Stage Turbine Blade in 2002. From there, EVR continued to explode with huge releases by Armor For Sleep, Fear Before the March of Flames, The Fall of Troy, Chiodos, Circa Survive, and other popular 2000s bands, all while staying true to their roots with more underground hardcore and post-hardcore releases from American Nightmare, Boysetsfire, Hot Cross, and others.
In the late 2000s, EVR really branched out and started entering the realm of folk and psychedelic rock with releases from The Snake The Cross The Crown, Portugal. The Man, Dear and the Headlights, and others, most of whom put out genuinely great records that suffered from getting exposed to hardcore/emo fans who didn't want them and being ignored by the indie rock community who probably would've liked them if they heard them. (As someone who grew up on early 2000s post-hardcore and then got into like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade in the mid 2000s, I have a bias towards really liking this era of EVR.) The label has been having a resurgence lately, partially thanks to launching the imprint Graphic Nature Records in 2015, which is curated by Will Putney (member of Fit For An Autopsy and END, producer for Knocked Loose, Vein, Terror, Every Time I Die, Counterparts, and more). More recent years have seen EVR pick up promising newer bands like All Get Out, Capsize, Glacier Veins, Lume, and more, and have seen EVR help reignite the careers of underrated 2000s post-hardcore bands like Hopesfall and As Cities Burn.
To help celebrate the label's anniversary, I've picked ten overlooked and/or underrated releases from throughout the label's discography. The definition of "overlooked" and "underrated" is pretty subjective, but basically I wanted to make a list that highlighted the label's gems that were less obvious than the classic albums by Converge, Saves The Day, Coheed & Cambria, Circa Survive, 108, American Nightmare, The Hope Conspiracy, and others that the label is most often associated with. (Also, I've very recently written about some of the label's biggest albums, like Saves The Day's Through Being Cool, The Fall of Troy's Doppelgänger, The Sound of Animals Fighting's Tiger and the Duke, and Converge's Petitioning the Empty Sky, which technically EVR reissued shortly after its initial Ferret Records release.)
There are tons of other great albums that EVR have put out over their 30-year career, but these ten have stuck with me for years and they still don't get enough of the credit they deserve. Read on for my ten picks, in chronological order. What's your favorite Equal Vision album?
Floorpunch - Fast Times at the Jersey Shore (1998)
The same year Equal Vision released Saves The Day's debut album, the label put out the first and only album by another NJ band, Floorpunch, who -- in a just world -- would still be talked about as much as early Saves the Day (and Lifetime). Saves The Day and Lifetime were helping to define a style of pop punk that could be traced back to youth crew bands like Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today, but Floorpunch were spearheading a full-on youth crew revival. They didn't make it poppier; they directly channelled the energy of GB and YOT and they made it sound as fresh as those bands sounded in the late '80s. Their songs were melodic and memorable without sacrificing any of the grit that East Coast hardcore had since the Minor Threat days, and like GB, YOT, and Minor Threat, Floorpunch managed to sound loud and intense without embracing the tough-guy image. And it's a timeless record. It's now a 20+ year old album that revived a then-decade-old sound, and yet it still sounds like you're hearing it for the first time every time you click play.
The Stryder - Masquerade in the Key of Crime (2000)
Keeping with the Saves The Day comparisons for a minute, Long Island's The Stryder are even more closely tied to that band and they're another who should've experienced more fame. Before forming The Stryder, frontman Peter Toh and drummer-turned-guitarist Scottie Redix played in Yearly, whose other member Even D'Amico went on to play in Saves The Day from 1999-20005 (and whose only release was a split with The Rookie Lot, whose members later formed Brand New, The Movielife, and Crime In Stereo). And later on, The Stryder recruited former Glassjaw drummer Durijah Lang, who then also played in Saves The Day in the late 2000s.
All those namedrops aside, The Stryder never really seem to get mentioned nearly as much as all those bands, and they really deserve to. On their 2000 debut album Masquerade in the Key of Crime, they were doing the Long Island post-hardcore/emo/pop punk thing a couple years before their peers brought that sound to the masses, and this record holds up as well as a lot of the more popular bands. It's in the same general ballpark as Saves The Day, The Movielife, and early Taking Back Sunday, with elements of both fast-paced pop punk and slower, darker emo, and The Stryder were able to fuse those two things seamlessly. The Stryder had a trajectory that was very common of emo bands at the time (and actually, kinda still is): a cathartic, youthful debut, a more "mature" followup, and a breakup. It's hard not to wonder what might've happened if this band stuck it out just a bit longer -- would they have gotten scooped up by the major label feeding frenzy on catchy emo bands and score a minor hit that would be played to death at every Emo Nite ever? We may never know, but at least we have this under-appreciated classic to remember them by.
Burn - Cleanse (2001)
Speaking of bands (eventually) related to both Glassjaw and Saves The Day, Burn debuted in 1990 with a way-ahead-of-its-time self-titled EP on Revelation, which -- along with related band Quicksand -- helped take '80s NYHC into the '90s with a darker, heavier, post-hardcore-oriented sound that proved highly influential on soon-to-be-famous bands like Deftones and, well, Glassjaw. Burn broke up in 1992 -- after which frontman Chaka Malik started the great Orange 9mm and drummer Alan Cage stayed busy with Quicksand -- and they finally regrouped for the 2001 EP on Equal Vision, Cleanse, for which they welcomed Glassjaw bassist Manuel Carrero (who was also in Saves The Day at the same time as Durijah Lang, and who had previously been in Stillsuit) into their lineup. The 1990 EP was influential on early 2000s post-hardcore, but Cleanse fit right in with it. Here you had a band who helped pave the way for a sound that was booming, and who now shared a member with one of the genre's most current popular bands, and yet Cleanse went unnoticed by so many people who probably would've loved it. It's cleaner and a little more melodic than Burn, but it's just about as intense, with plenty of impassioned shouts from Chaka Malik and plenty of the fidgety, start-stop rhythms that typified the type of New York post-hardcore that Burn helped create. Plus, Manuel Carrero is one of the coolest bassists in post-hardcore and it's a music nerd dream come true that he did a record with Burn.
Fairweather - Lusitania (2003)
If we're talking about Equal Vision-signed emo bands that history did dirty, it's absolutely necessary to mention Fairweather. They released their best album (2003's Lusitania) at the height of emo-mania, they toured with like everyone (Dashboard Confessional, Thursday, Brand New, The Movielife, Piebald, etc), and they had such a great, unique sound that was equal parts accessible and innovative. During the "emo revival" of the 2010s, it became commonplace for emo bands to incorporate elements of post-rock, shoegaze, and other more experimental styles of indie rock, but Fairweather were already doing that back in 2003, and not at the expense of catchy, easy-to-like songs. They always had warm, catchy melodies, but Jay Littleton's voice never succumbed to the nasally, whiny stereotypes that made a lot of people hate emo. And Lusitania is a big, clean-sounding record, but nothing you'd ever call polished or overproduced. (Jawbox's J Robbins did it, so naturally it sounds great.) It's one of the true gems of early 2000s emo and it doesn't sound a day past its prime today. (Also, fun fact: two Fairweather members are now playing in the killer, Equal Vision-signed supergroup Be Well.)
Breaking Pangaea - Phoenix (2003)
You might've thought it'd be over for Taking Back Sunday when, after releasing their instant-classic debut album Tell All Your Friends, guitarist/co-vocalist/co-writer John Nolan and bassist Shaun Cooper left the band. But it just so happened that TBS would find another excellent foil for Adam Lazzarra in Fred Mascherino, who had been fronting the band Breaking Pangaea. (Meanwhile, Nolan and Cooper formed Straylight Run, with Breaking Pangaea's Will Noon on drums.) At this point, Fred is best known for his work in TBS and his long-running solo project The Color Fred, but Breaking Pangaea's final release -- the 2003 Phoenix EP -- remains a high point in his discography that doesn't get talked about enough. It's no surprise that he was quickly able to help Taking Back Sunday write the great Where You Want to Be just a year after he released these five emo/punk/pop songs that were cut from a pretty similar cloth. Like Fairweather, he knew how to strike a balance between songs that were catchy and accessible, but also that have a more experimental side and avoid negative emo cliches. And with not-so-secret weapon Will Noon, Breaking Pangaea could really pull off some of those trickier sounding rhythms.
Bear vs. Shark - Terrorhawk (2005)
Bear vs. Shark are legends within certain circles of people who listen to loud, scrappy, off-kilter emo/post-hardcore/punk (they probably share a lot of their fanbase with Cap'n Jazz and Braid, though they sound more like Fugazi and At the Drive In once you look past the scrappiness), but even with that (very niche) status, it's still criminal how overlooked they've gone in the rest of the world. Especially when you consider that they followed their loud, scrappy, off-kilter 2003 debut Right Now, You're in the Best of Hands with an album that took their sound in a more indie/art rock direction that could easily impress people who don't otherwise listen to underground emo. It's hard to pick a favorite Bear vs. Shark album -- it all depends on your mood -- but Terrorhawk is the most adventurous one and it's the one that paved the way for the (also underrated) BvS offshoot band Bars of Gold. Right Now, You're in the Best of Hands drops you right into the action of seeing Bear vs. Shark at a sweaty VFW hall, but Terrorhawk finds the band polishing things up a little more in the studio, and sometimes venturing into climactic, slow-burning epics. Still, Terrorhawk's got plenty of the jagged punk that made up the bulk of their debut, so it never becomes your stereotypical "they abandoned their roots on this one" type of album. It's the best of both worlds.
Damiera - M(US)IC (2007)
Speaking of mathy punk/post-hardcore, Damiera's near-perfect debut M(US)IC deserves to be talked about by anyone who likes good hooks, loud songs, and tech-y guitars. They seem to be one of those bands where if you know them, you love them, but you probably don't know them. And even though they're long broken up, it's still not too late to change that. M(US)IC really has it all. The riffs and the rhythms are truly out of this world on a musicianship level, but these are not songs you need to be a musician to appreciate. The production is refined, Dave Raymond's voice is forceful and punchy, and as much as these songs are both heavy and mathy, they're also extremely catchy. (And if you really need an easy in, "Via Invested" is damn near radio-friendly.) These are songs that grab you on first listen and stick with for years, and it's rare that music so welcoming is also so original. There really isn't another album (that I've heard at least) that sounded like M(US)IC before or since.
Dear and the Headlights - Small Steps, Heavy Hooves (2007)
As I wrote in the intro, Equal Vision went in a more experimental direction in the late 2000s and released a lot of underrated records as a result. The Damiera record probably fits this description, but the debut album by Dear and the Headlights definitely does. When the 2010s "emo revival" hit, it often ended up featuring a lot of bands who were part of the emo scene but who were writing music that was stylistically indie rock, and Dear and the Headlights were doing that very thing years before it was a trend. It's impressive that, during their short run as a band, they toured with such major acts as Jimmy Eat World, Paramore, and Motion City Soundtrack, but they probably would've been better off touring with Okkervil River and Frightened Rabbit. Like those bands, their killer debut album Small Steps, Heavy Hooves has one foot in indie rock and the other in folk music, and it's all led by a charismatic frontman (Ian Metzger) with a soaring voice and lyrics that are not hard to latch onto. (I guess it's a little emo, but so are Okkervil River and Frightened Rabbit.) Maybe it fell victim to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it's a great record that really holds up after all these years. If you haven't heard it but folky, melodic indie rock is your kinda thing, it's not too late to dive into this should-be-classic LP.
The Snake The Cross The Crown - Cotton Teeth (2007)
The same year EVR released Small Steps, Heavy Hooves, it also released this indie folk rock record from The Snake The Cross The Crown. The Snake The Cross The Crown were at least an emo band earlier on in their career (2003's Like a Moth Before a Flame is one of the more underrated records of early 2000s emo), but by the time they signed to Equal Vision for 2004's Mander Salis, they had begun going in a more Americana direction, and that really peaked on 2007's Cotton Teeth. It opens with the best song in the band's discography, "Cakewalk," a simple-yet-effective, gradually-building campfire singalong that kinda occupies the middle ground between Band of Horses' "The Funeral" and Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal" and rivals both songs. It's the kind of song you can listen to once and realize it has the potential to be an indie classic, and though it does overshadow the rest of Cotton Teeth a little bit, there's plenty of other good stuff on this record. There's rustic folk rock ("The Great American Smokeout," the title track), some louder but ballad-driven rock ("Behold The River," "Hey Jim"), and a seven-minute song called "Electronic Dream Plant" that showed off The Snake The Cross The Crown's psychedelic side. Given the quality of records like this and the Dear and the Headlights LP, Equal Vision really should've gotten as much recognition during the late 2000s indie folk boom as labels like Sub Pop and Jagjaguwar did.
Portugal. The Man - The Satanic Satanist (2009)
Probably the most controversial inclusion on a list of "underrated" albums is an album by indie superstars Portugal. The Man, but PTM were still eight years away from "Feel It Still" in 2009 and their great early albums like this one seem to have faded into the rearview as PTM get more and more famous. It wasn't weird that these guys were on Equal Vision -- frontman John Gourley and bassist Zachary Carothers' old band Anatomy of a Ghost were a Fearless Records-signed post-hardcore band and PTM's first two albums were on Fearless too, so they did start out in this scene before becoming a rare band to transcend it -- but you still don't think of the kind of music you hear on The Satanic Satanist when you hear the phrase "Equal Vision Records." Even on their newest, biggest hits, Portugal. The Man have a slight psychedelic edge, but on The Satanic Satanist, they were a straight-up psychedelic pop band and sometimes it feels like these guys don't get enough credit for how trippy they were (and still often are at their jammy live shows). There was a lot of stuff like this going on in the 2000s (Flaming Lips, of Montreal, MGMT, Grizzly Bear, etc), but listening to this album all these years later, it still stands tall next to the best of the best psych-pop bands and it still feels fresh. It's got the obvious Beatles/Beach Boys influences that all of these bands have, but it's also got loud acid-drenched riffage and a little of the indie/R&B crossover that wouldn't take off until a few years after this album. You could probably fool someone who hasn't heard it into thinking it came out yesterday.