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August 14, 2007

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In a way, hardcore is a lot like folk music. Granted, hardcore is louder and the fan base is usually younger and meaner looking, less prone to playing in coffee shops and far more likely to hold a gig in a smelly, beer soaked basement or in a school gym with a lousy sound system. Also, you're far more likely to find a Minor Threat record in the average kid's music collection than something by Woody Guthrie (especially since "This Land Is Your Land" had long ago become a 3rd grade music class standard in certain circles and thus deathly lame). However, the spirit is the same. The musicianship needed to play each genre is relatively negligible. Learn three or four open chords and you can play "Knockin' On Heaven's Door." Want to play the entirety of the Nervous Breakdown EP? Learn roughly the same amount of power chords and get an amp loud enough to cheese off your neighbors. Most of us don't have the time and ability to become world class musicians. However, the hardcore edict is that as long as you have something to say and just enough money to afford a guitar or amp, you can do it too.

Since hardcore is a genre that often thrives on its simplicity, artists usually live or die on the quality of their lyrics. Like the folk groups of the early 60s, hardcore has been a vehicle for individuals to express themselves in two distinct ways; either through a sincere venting of their frustrations, whether these be personal, political, social, or what have you, or through empty, ridiculous displays of scene-centric posturing. To be able to find the good hardcore is to be able to discern between what's sincere and the usual poses struck by the typical non-conformists.

Cloak/Dagger is a brand spankin' new hardcore punk outfit from Richmond, VA and I dare say they are members of the former. Singer Jason Mazzola has the same foaming-at-the-mouth intensity of Ian MacKaye, tempered by a hint of Black Flag's Chavo Pederast. The band plays loud and messy, sounding a bit like Land Speed Record era Husker Du, though not matching that record's intensity nor its acid burn qualities. The violence of the lyrics and the overall bleak tone recall Black Flag's Damaged, considered by many to be the classic of the hardcore genre. The biggest strikes against Cloak/Dagger are that their sound isn't anything new and that they aren't the best ever at what they do. However, condemn the band on that basis and you're missing out.

Matching the band's breakneck speed, clocking in at impressive 14 songs in 26 minutes, are lyrics that convey the uncertainties and frustrations of men steering directly at a great abyss. That abyss, of course, is living as an adult in the America of today. Thankfully, this isn't another "I hate the president" album, a subject that got tired before Georgie Boy's first term was up. On the opening "Bended Knee", Mazzola screams that he's "out of touch with the future/ out of touch with waiting for someone to save us/ I'm out of touch with my career/ I'm out of touch with the shirt and tie suicide," setting the tone for the rest of the record's nihilism, portraying a decidedly anti-Springsteen world with no savior, no satisfaction, and no escape.

The futility carries over into "Walk the Block," which tells the story of people who are "fighting on the same streets that we said we'd leave/ But we didn't and we're going nowhere/ We spend our days just wasting away/ Walking down the same street every day", capturing life's monotonous boredoms in the bluntest possible terms. In "Generato," perhaps the album's most potent track, Mazzola has the future all laid out: "Now we're overweight and we're full of shit/ So let's settle down and have some kids that hate us,"fearing the inevitable of turning into his parents. Elsewhere, "Runaways" sneers at "woe is me" social climbers, while "J.C. Pays the Bills" jabs at organized religion with a mere three sentences. Though it's followed by an untitled instrumental, "Quit Life" is the album's grand climax where Mazzola ponders the ultimate point of it all. "Am I a failure?/ Am I a success?" he wonders aloud. No answer is given.

Granted, some of the others songs aren't quite up to par. "Kamikazes," "New Years Resolution" and "Red Hair" all throw around words like annihilate, apocalypse, and die, more out of a sense of sounding cool as opposed to being tied into a general meaning, while "Set the Alarm" emulates the "I hate my life, therefore I hurt myself" stance of Henry Rollins era Black Flag to the point of being a little contrived. Overall though, Cloak/Dagger achieves with We Are what many of their influences also achieved: life's miseries boiled down to dense and speedy jams with lots of cathartic hollering, songs that seem written about you that you could've written yourself.

Stereo Subversion

Anthony Saggese