Despite barely releasing anything of note in recent years (minus a few isolated exceptions and the ever consistent Ringworm), Victory Records did have an impressive golden age during the mid to late 90's, and even into the early 2000's releasing a number of classics. Although I don't have a lot of time for Victory these days, their 600+ releases made me quickly realize that this was going to be no easy task...
So let's get into it:
1. EARTH CRISIS - Destroy the Machines (VR22)
This Crucial Five could have very easily contained 'All out War', 'Firestorm' and/or 'Gomorrah's Season Ends', which are all awesome releases in their own right and for their own reasons. The reason I chose DTM is that I see it as the release that really defined this band, and their impact and influence both within the hardcore scene and animal rights more broadly.
At the time, this album was nothing if not confronting, both ideologically and musically. Even more so than their earlier 7"s, this album again transcended the typically 'hardline' audience that the lyrical subject matter would be expected to have confined them to. If I were to describe the album as having tempos ranging from slow to glacial (with at most a couple of mid paced sections thrown in), the likely reaction would be that it's boring. Overlay verbose lyrics using words that most HC kids couldn't even read, let alone understand (I distinctly remember cracking open a dictionary to look up words like edification and anthropocentric!), it sounds like a lecture from a snore-worthy professor. The truth is that it is anything but, with major dynamic shifts throughout the album and moods that range from utter brutality to melancholic and reflective in their melodies.
Ideologically it takes ideas of vegetarianism and straight edge that were popular in late 80's HC and further challenges the listener to question society's use of animals as commodities, as well as intoxicants as an escape from reality, which for some people (including myself) has changed the course of their lives. For others these uncompromising views were seen as too judgmental and not at all accepted welcomingly. Love or hate the band, their ideas or approach, they are a band that have always polarized people, and DTM captures the best of that. What more can you want in a HC album!
Stand out tracks include Forced March, Born From Pain and the classic Wrath of Sanity.
2. STRIFE - In this Defiance (VR54)
I have often thought that if there is one album that defines the pure energy, raw intensity, aggression and musicality of 90's hardcore (removing for a moment all other context) then this is it. The sound is remarkably well balanced bringing in the best elements of punk, metal, late 80's hardcore and the early metallic hardcore from the 90's, and manages to be all of those things and at the same time none of them.
I first started listening to Victory releases in the late 90's, at a time when straightedge was finding a new more forceful voice through bands like Earth Crisis than it’s origins in the 80’s, so it was inevitable that I was going to cross paths with this album. At the time I thought it was awesome, and even though many of the ideas covered in the lyrics weren't necessarily new, they were expressed in a way that seemed so much more desperate and anguished which made for a compelling listen.
After they toured here in '98, I was left with a bittersweet taste, as the shows were incredible, but the band for the most part was "all egos and no substance" (Thanks Dolan!) and the convictions conveyed in the lyrics all but non-existent. For anyone who knows me well, they would be aware of how important for me the values of the people behind the music are, so with credibility stripped away, I actually lost interest and didn't really listen to Strife for quite some time. After a few years hiatus though, and I don't actually recall why, I randomly put it on to give it another spin and was literally blown away.
Sure, it probably seems pretty hypocritical to go on about how much of an influence the values of those making the music has on whether it appeals to me and then include this in my top five. On the other hand, here is an album that just drips with raw intensity from start to finish with vocals that are as harsh as putting your ear up against an angle grinder, massive crew back ups, pummeling drums and guitars abrasive enough to strip the chrome off a Harley.
Despite being released 15 years ago the most incredible thing about this album is that the songs have not dated a bit (it would probably be fair to say that the unnecessarily long intro and outtros have, being nothing but mind numbing white noise, clanging metal and what I can only describe as the sound of using a parakeet as a prop in demonstrating artificial insemination for pigs). Even still there is no denying how ahead of it's time this album was both musically and production-wise to the point that today, it continues to annihilate the majority of current hardcore for pure intensity and classic songwriting.
Stand out tracks include: Waiting, Blistered and To an End.
3. HATEBREED - Satisfaction is the Death of Desire (VR63)
I distinctly remember where I was at the moment I first heard this album. My friends and I had just started to get to know a few older straightedge kids in our scene who were into metallic hardcore and were hanging out at one of their houses listening to records. Despite being around long enough to not be completely clueless, none of us had still ever heard anything so pissed off in our lives when this album came on, and all efforts for us to try and play it cool disappeared before the end of the first line! Exclamations of "What the fuck is this?" were complimented by eyeballs flying out of heads so quickly I'm sure it must have been like the table tennis pavilion at the Olympics. It's one of those rare albums that both musically and lyrically seems to be universally appreciated immediately regardless of whether you consider yourself a metal kid, hardcore kid, punk kid or all/none of the above. This is definitely clear in the fact that despite being released back in 1997, it without a doubt still holds it's own against anything released since.
One of the most notable aspects of this album is how much of an influence it has had on modern hardcore and the many bands that have followed, as well as being brilliant in it's various juxtapositions:
- Vocals that are at the same time incredibly brutal yet leave every syllable crystal clear (and all the more brutal for it)
- Heavy as all hell, yet with song structures so simple that they would not be out of place on a Weezer album
- Sold as a full-length album whilst clocking in at just over a mere 26 minutes, and I sincerely doubt anyone has ever complained
The greatest compliment that I can give this album is that it leaves you wondering why you didn't write it! The riffs and song structures are so basic, and although Jasta explores some lyrical ideas that you generally won't find on your average HC record (living life as a product of rape for one example), none of them cover topics or are written in a way that will alienate or challenge any particular group of listeners. Writing simple and catchy songs that stand the test of time is not an easy thing to do. And this album does it perfectly.
Stand out songs include Empty Promises, Conceived through an act of Violence and Last Breath, but there honestly isn't a single dull moment on the entire record.
4. WARZONE - Lower East Side (VR36)
This is my personal favourite of the Victory era Warzone releases as it encapsulates so much of what I love about hardcore, by being genuine and REAL. Sure, calls for 'unity' can seem cliche and overdone now, but from Warzone it doesn't feel trite at all. Being a band from the streets of lower east side NYC during the 80's early 90's with crowds consisting of a volatile mix of skinheads, Oi! Punks, youth crew kids and just about every other subculture thrown in, unity is definitely a good thing to avoid ambulances lining up like a taxi rank out the front of venues!
Every song on this album is good, straight up, no bullshit punk influenced hardcore (with the exception of a well done cover of a song by The Business which is straight up, no bullshit punk!). Like all of the Warzone releases, especially the earlier ones, much of who Raybeez was as person is so apparent throughout LES.
He was a friend watching people close to him waste their lives on drugs. He was someone who had come through it himself and found the strength to be drug free. He was someone who spent time working with at risk youth and saw all the potential that hardcore has to both help give meaning and bring people together around their similarities, whilst watching it wasted on pointless internal feuding around their differences. His life, his thoughts, and who he was as a person is captured throughout every song, making this so much more real than most. Supported by a fast and frenetic soundtrack and shredding guitar solos, the reality of the lyrics are made all the more powerful, and the samples interspersed between songs add a lot of character and colour too.
As a side note, the universal respect for this band, and Raybeez in particular was especially shown by Victory, which for at least a year after he passed away dedicated every release to his memory making this a fitting release in the Crucial 5.
Stand out tracks include: War Between Races, Wound Up, Always - A friend for life
5. WITH HONOR - This Is Our Revenge (VR276)
This is the only Victory Release in my Crucial 5 post 2000, and there is a valid reason - Most of it has been crap!
This is in no way a token newbie though. I had heard the earlier With Honor releases and liked them, but certainly wouldn't have said they are exceptional. This album on the other hand, is something else entirely and I remember being hooked from the first play.
I got hold of it at a time when I was finding less and less hardcore bands doing anything that felt genuinely inspiring to me. More and more the music was starting to sound the same, or mimicking something else without capturing any real part of themselves. Maybe it was a case of burn out or getting old, or maybe I just ask too much for HC to be thought provoking, well executed and most importantly real.
Whatever the reason for my mid youth crisis, this album was a shock to the system like diving headfirst into Antarctic waters. With Honor play a brand of melodic punk influenced hardcore, although to leave the description there would be an injustice. The vocals are at the same time gritty and beautiful with stirring choruses in every song. For me though, the guitars are captivating in the way they range from the crunchiness of the well-written fast HC riffs, to the singing melodic hooks that just float in out of nowhere to caress your ears. The lyrics too, are beautifully written and on a range of subjects from political to personal.
As I mentioned previously, hardcore for me is a really personal connection between music and the people behind it, so after years of being disheartened by numerous bands who don't live by the convictions that are so easily used as a call to arms on stage, it is almost refreshing to find one that is genuine. Although I haven't had any personal experience with the band, I remember a dear friend of mine whose opinion I regard highly and I know looks at the people behind the music in the same way could not speak highly enough of this band after touring with them. It is one thing to find a band that makes me want to sing along with every word. It is completely another for a band to write songs that make me feel like using every ounce of strength to climb over as many bodies as it takes to reach the microphone, and then to realize that they are HC kids with genuine values and a similar appreciation for what this music means. To me, that makes a world of difference.
Stand out songs include: Like Trumpets, Elevens, Closets, 20 Strong (but to be honest, I could listen to this album in entirety over and over and love every minute!)
Since Willy is such a hard taskmaster in asking for only 5 releases from a label that has put out work by such huge names as Madball, Bad Brains, and Refused, I was forced to make some hard decisions and excluded all of these bands because truthfully, their best material was released on other labels. That said, I am still going to have to go punk rock and break the rules a bit by including a few honorable mentions. Fuck the man, right?
INTEGRITY - Humanity is the Devil (VR34):
Great EP from Cleveland legends. This only just missed out on the top 5 (it was a last minute exclusion and I may regret it yet!). Awesome songs and although listening to Chubby Fresh bitch and moan about everyone is amusing on the first spin, after that, just send it back to the start at the end of song six. The first pressing that I have, came with a cool Church of Holy Terror booklet about humankind being mostly made up of demons to fuck with the rest of us. Probably true!
EARTH CRISIS - Gomorrah's Season Ends (VR44):
My personal favourite EXC album, and easily far more layered and textured giving it a darker and more unsettling sound than their other releases, which is what stands it apart.
BLOOD FOR BLOOD - Outlaw Anthems (VR173):
I haven't boozed on in almost 15 years and have no intention of starting now, yet this release still makes me want to raise a bottle of ginger beer and sing along with my pisshead mates!
BURIED ALIVE - Death of your Perfect World (VR106):
Vogel's band before Terror, and at least as heavy hitting as anything he's done since.
KILLING TIME – Brightside (VR27):
This was another one that was fucking close to the 5. Classic band, great album. Missed out on a technicality, as it was a re-release.
EARTH CRISIS/ STRIFE/ SNAPCASE - The California Takeover - Live (VR42):
Live albums can often be a case of hit or miss, and thankfully this is a hit. To this day I am still in awestruck by the version of 'Firestorm' sung by the entire crowd until Karl joins in at 1:38 and his voice is devastating. I also still literally get shivers down my spine every time I hear Strife's utterly mesmerizing performance of 'Lift', fucking magic!
RINGWORM - Birth is Pain (VR167):
One of the few current Victory bands I'd give two shits to, and this early album is worth every push and grunt!