In 1991, on Fugazi’s ‘Stacks,’ Ian MacKaye sang, ‘America is just a word but I use it.’ Minor Threat, the hardcore band that MacKaye was best known for before Fugazi, didn’t deal with concepts like that; theirs were personal politics, the friends who had betrayed you or the assholes who pissed you off. Their outlook was rigid, little nuance or philosophical thought, and the standard template for hardcore remains as such. MacKaye grew tired of hardcore before long, though, of its violence and rigidity. Fugazi, in a lot of ways, was an anti-hardcore band. Their rich and complex musicality couldn’t be further from Minor Threat’s fast, loud and sloppy approach, and their lyrics offered political and social commentary that was intelligent and nuanced. It was post-hardcore.
On ‘Birds of Paradise,’ a track halfway through Fury’s Failed Entertainment, vocalist Jeremy Stith declares, ‘US of A, just an idea to me.’ Fugazi’s semantics are echoed, but the similarity stretches further than that; this too is a record that reaches beyond what hardcore tends to be. The crucial difference is that Failed Entertainment is, unmistakably and proudly, a hardcore record.
Failed Entertainment is the follow-up to Fury’s 2016 debut, Paramount. Musically, that record was a worthy if fairly copycat take on late-80s youth crew hardcore, but it was Stith’s lyricism that stood out, a poetry and density to it that was never found in any of Fury’s stylistic forefathers. Failed Entertainment sees the band step up their songwriting to match that lyricism, stepping away from the imitative style of their debut and carving out their own sonic space. Much of the album swaps the breakneck speeds of youth crew for slower, brooding tempos that call to mind later and heavier hardcore bands like Earth Crisis. Those slower tempos make room for melody; guitarists Madison Woodward and Alfredo Guiterrez and bassist Daniel Samayoa work incredibly well together to layer the songs with compelling melodic lines, some of the most effective moments being the secondary guitar line on ‘Angels Over Berlin’ and the bass line on ‘Vacation.’ Some of the musically lighter moments – like ‘Vacation’ or parts of ‘Lost in the Funhouse’ – call to mind early Fugazi, while more out of left field, closing track ‘Crazy Horses Run Free’ sounds like Oasis doing hardcore, complete with tambourine and Liam Gallagher-esque backing vocals.
But despite the broad pool of influences, it’s a record that rejects any suggestions of the ‘post-‘ prefix. The guitars are thick and unrelenting, the riffs crushing, Stith’s vocals never dipping below an impassioned roar. It sounds huge, too, so every song feels like a complete assault, filled to the brim with, well, fury. This all matters because it makes Failed Entertainment an all-too-rare document of a band expanding what hardcore can be a vessel for without leaving it behind.
For one, Failed Entertainment begins with the word ‘grey,’ on the first line of ‘Angels Over Berlin’: ‘The grey is clear but too cold to continue’. It’s repeated on ‘Vacation’ too: ‘Peace lies within the grey.’ ‘Grey’ is an interesting word to hear on a hardcore record because hardcore is so often black and white. Many hardcore bands base their identities on either positivity or negativity, focusing single-mindedly on either the coldness and cruelty of the world or the hope for a better one. Fury accept both on Failed Entertainment, and in fact, their embrace of each makes the other starker. Compare, from ‘Goodtime’: ‘The sun comes up / What of it but another dying season?’, and from ‘New Years Days’: ‘Don’t try to blind the light / Listen in to all she has to say.’
Most of hardcore, too, is about having the answers; whichever pole any given band settles on, positive or negative, they’re always sure of it. Yet so much of this record is about not knowing. Being lost, confused, looking for answers and not finding them. Like on ‘Inevitable Need To Reach Out’: ‘Unsatisfied, left confused on truth and lies’. On ‘Goodtime’: ‘Lost, unbound, without a clue’. And through the record, Stith is always questioning: ‘Why am I here and why not there?’; ‘How can I retain all the wrongs I’ve done today?’; ‘When we find another wall, am I really up to climb?’.
Even though Stith isn’t always addressing America directly, politics are often tangled within all that confusion. There are lines like, ‘Innocence isn’t my America / Fabricated and struck from skies above’ (simply titled ‘America’), and ‘You ripped the heart out of the people’s land / Without a soul where do you stand?’ (‘Inevitable Need To Reach Out’). And then there’s ‘Birds of Paradise’, which begins with, ‘Now the child is gone, bombs on the beach / Why keep pretending that it’s all out of reach?’ and of course builds to ‘US of A, just an idea to me’. But even on the lines without any explicit political slant, the effect of the last few years is still felt; the questions, the doubts and fears, the looking for one’s place, surely feel much more desperate for all of us alongside the constant reminders that the world is dark and seemingly getting darker. Politics are by no means a rarity in hardcore, but the way in which Stith approaches them, his examining of their deep emotional weight rather than simple soapboxing, is. Hardcore has the power to transmit so much, such a natural catharsis in its intensity, that it’s strange that vulnerability within it is so rare; Fury make a sure case for that on this record, the pure emotion in Stith’s cries and in the seething instrumentation so palpable.
It makes sense when bands with minds bigger than hardcore turn away from it; it can be a suffocating box to be in and one easy to grow disenchanted with. But it’s clear that Failed Entertainment is the result of a band that truly believes in hardcore. Not just hardcore as it’s always been, but hardcore as it could be, in a believer’s wildest dreams. Hardcore as a rejection of the stereotypes many have bought into, and many find themselves trapped in. It can be intelligent, it can be forward-thinking, it can be vulnerable, and still be hardcore. The result is likely the greatest hardcore record of its era, all the better for its ambition and audacity. As Stith vows in the record’s closing lines: ‘You’ve gone to follow / We’re here to stay.’