Swiz – Down – Much, Time // Cause, Lie (Hellfire Records) 1987. When I was 16 I was pretty obsessed with Can I Say by Dag Nasty. At the time it seemed like such a huge step forward for hardcore. And in one way, I guess it was. By attempting to turn all of the rage and nihilism of 81-83 into something positive and life-affirming, bands like Dag Nasty were developing an approach for life after hardcore. Essentially that is what the proto-emo music of bands like Dag Nasty, Beefeater, (later)Articles of Faith, and Rites of Spring were trying to do. It seemed pretty radical at the time. What comes after the end of everything?
Keep in mind I was also 16 and I was frequently told by people that I took things way too seriously.
This break didn’t happen overnight. I remember reading an interview with Black Flag in Trouser Press around the time Damaged came out where their new vocalist (and ex-DC resident) Henry Rollins talked about the lyrics and themes of the band being “personal” instead of “political”. After Damaged, you really could see two strains in American Hardcore, one where the singers’ rage was targeted at society at large (“fuck the system”) and another where the rage was targeted inward (“what is wrong with me?”). A lot of the bands in the second category seemed more relevant to me. I mean, Jello Biafra could quote statistics a mile long about how many political executions Pol Pot was responsible for but in the end I was pissed off at my gym teacher for giving me detention because I wore dress socks to gym class. I remember connecting with bands like Decry and Minor Threat on a personal level that I just couldn’t with a band like The Dead Kennedys. Today, I don’t feel the same as I did when I was 16 but when I hear, say Asylum by Decry, I remember the connection I had to that song and I remember how I felt at the time. Maybe that is the definition of nostalgia. Who the fuck knows?
The introspective approach to hardcore reached its apex with bands like Dag Nasty. Can I Say is almost embarrassing to revisit as an adult. Dave Smalley just puts it out there. Its naked, adolescent, poetry-on-the-back-of-your-math-notebook kinda stuff. And the riffage. They were so tight. Brian Baker combined the power of hard rock with the drive of hardcore and even some cool underground rock flourishes here and there. The rhythm section was tight and explosive. It was both a musician’s album (we all wanted to sound like that for a while) and a lyricist’s album. Afterwards we couldn’t wait for the next album from Dag Nasty. We sat with baited breath. We heard rumours that Dave Smalley had left the band. We didn’t care. Then Wig Out At Denkos was released and we all collectively said, “what the FUCK?!?”
Looking back on it, Wig Out wasn’t terrible. It’s an OK album. But it ain’t Can I Say. Not even close. So I went looking for stuff that did sound like Can I Say and found Swiz. The similarities were no real coincidence. Vocalist Shawn Brown was the original vocalist for Dag Nasty and can be heard on the excellent Dag Nasty 1985-86 release. Rumour has it that Shawn was released from the band for not being melodic enough and if you listen to some Swiz lyrics you will hear some evidence to support this rumour. Whatever happened, Shawn left the band pretty early and formed Swiz with Jason Farrell (guitar), Alex Daniels (drums), and Nathan Larson (bass). Their first two albums were released on the Sammich Records label (along with early Shudder To Think) and were just amazing. The chord structures and drive are similar to Can I Say. Shawn’s vocals are indeed less melodic but at the same time, the dude could really bark. When he says on the classic Wash, “I’LL FACE YOU STRAIGHT TO HELL”…well, you really believe the dude.
Swiz gets lumped into the early emo category along with bands like Shudder To Think and Rites of Spring today and I think that’s reasonable. Their lyrics and approach were self-examining and their visual aesthetic was in line with that scene. But they were a much more visceral band than a lot of the early emo groups. In that sense, they also share similarities with bands like Gorilla Biscuits. However, you will find no youth crew allusions with Swiz. I remember in 1989-1990 having their first album on a tape with Ozma by The Melvins and feeling that the two albums went really well with each other. Oftentimes a Swiz song is based around a simple metallic chord progression. Look at their one word song titles. Its intentional minimalism. A deconstruction. I played Swiz and Ozma over and over in my Gran Prix. Emo, youth crew, or post-hardcore, point being that Swiz were somewhat hard to pigeonhole and that may have been what has made them a bit forgotten.
However, bands that are hard to classify are often the best bands. It’s an ironic twist that because they are hard to classify they are also the most difficult to discover.
Jade Tree Records understood this and released the excellent Swiz anthology back in the 1990s to help. It’s still available from Amazon and is an amazing overview of an amazing band. It contains everything Swiz released including this, their first 7inch from 1987. Imagine if you will, if Dag Nasty would have followed Can I Say with the first Swiz album. If emo would have deconstructed instead of adding layer after layer of cheesy angst and eyeliner. Imagine a world with no Cobra Starship. No Pete Wentz. Yeah, I know, it would have never caught on if it didn’t degenerate into a bunch of stupid nonsense. But one can dream. Wow….that sounds like the beginnings of an emo song.