WORDS: HARRY HIGGINSON
Internal Incarceration is a record certainly fitting for a time where, more than ever, many of us are isolated, trapped at home, unable to safely socialise, and left to stew in our own thoughts. A claustrophobic, explosive slab of metallic hardcore, Year of the Knife’s debut LP is both their most vulnerable and their most aggressive, intertwining an almost naked kind of lyrical confession with riffs that are more angular and death metal-inflected than ever. Needless to say, it is a huge leap forward for one of hardcore’s most important new acts, honing and tightening up a basic sound that has never shied away from meat-headed brutality. Off the back of their first full length release, we had a chat with vocalist Tyler Mullen and bassist Madi Watkins about the making of the record, the experiences that feed their particularly violent breed of heavy music, and their outlook on the state of the world.
Originally slated for a springtime release, the band’s latest LP was pushed back to mid-summer, as the world ground to a halt, the music industry hit even harder than most. “It was very bizarre,” Madi notes, “We had six or seven months of this year lined up to be on tour, our record got pushed back – everything’s been an adjustment”. Tyler adds that “It was challenging at first… to watch the tours and everything we had planned get cancelled. We were holding our breath til the very last second for the code orange tour,” the band’s first outing since they recorded Internal Incarceration hamstrung completely by the mass closure of music venues.
““Ever since I was a kid I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and I just found a way to be comfortable with being vulnerable.…”
A tour that was shaping up to be a mouth-watering prospect, with Jesus Piece, Show me the Body and Machine Girl in on the action, was up in smoke, along with the most of live music for the foreseeable future. But out of this chaos came some truly memorable substitutes, not only in the form of Code Orange’s incredible livestreamed sets. Year of the Knife themselves produced a remote gig on the eve of America’s lockdown, working with Sunny from Hate5Six to batter through their hardest material, old and new. Madi recognises that these remote performances were no real substitute for the real thing, saying that “getting together and playing with Sunny, for us was the first time we got to play the new songs live, and it’s a weird setting.” Without the crowd’s energy to feed off, an intense performance as YOTK would usually bring feels a little out of context, but she also explains that even moreso there is “an energy that is missing not playing them at all.” Though no substitute, these remote shows and livestreams may be here for a little while longer, and credit to the band, as their performance on a livestream was more exhilaratingly brutal than many bands could hope to produce in a rammed venue.
A band renowned for their titanic live performances, being cooped up and unable to perform has not stymied the Delaware outfit’s creativity. Brandon, the band’s main songwriter, is still writing constantly according to Madi, and her own apparel business, Candy Corpse, is blooming in spite of the financial and general uncertainty brought by the state of the world. They joke that there might even be enough material for a new record before they even get to perform Internal Incarceration live, which is a problem many a creator would love to have at the present moment. It becomes apparent that the record, though serendipitously relevant in spite of being written prior to the pandemic, was actually hugely influenced by its producer, Kurt Ballou.
“IT WAS LIKE A BOMB GOING OFF…”
Ballou’s production chops are undeniable, being the brains behind the grindingly heavy releases of artists like NAILS and Full of Hell, himself playing guitar in Converge, amongst other projects. However, his impact on the new record was remarkable according to Watkins and Mullen, noting that they worked extensively in pre-production with Ballou, reworking the album, then taking that energy into the studio. “I realised that the tempos changed, so once the songs were sped up, it was even crazier”, Tyler notes, further remarking that Ballou’s genius was in “breathing new life” into songs the band had practiced hundreds of times. “It’s like a bomb going off. Once we got to Kurt, he just transformed us”.
There is a modesty to the way the two members talk about the record came together, a reflection of the work ethic and attitude that produced such an explosive release that perhaps underplays just how well the record captures the band’s on-stage sound . A distillation of their live ferocity, the thirteen tracks that comprise its runtime are sharper, meaner and more precise than anything we’ve heard on record from the Delaware outfit before. A surprisingly candid record, Tyler notes that his lyrics come from a life of writing. “Ever since I was a kid I just wrote and wrote and wrote, and I just found a way to be comfortable with being vulnerable. It also helps people relate, that’s what music is for”. This idea of vulnerability runs through a record fraught with ideas of addiction, isolation and abuse, themes that “blossomed into a thesis” as the record came together, according to Tyler.
Madi expands on this, talking about how the record’s album artist, Sam Octigan, put the album’s themes into a visual format. “He really took to heart our ideas and wanted to hear about the themes of the record,” she notes, adding that “he has a lot of pieces that were a little more monochromatic and had a little more light… and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I darkened his piece after he finished the painting to match the themes of the record even more closely”. However, the collaborative nature of this relationship is really emphasised, as she notes that “we just kind of let them [our artists] run wild”, the visual art accompanying YOTK’s work a grim and expressive external interpretation of the band’s dark lyrical and musical themes.
““The less people are tokenised for not being white men in bands… the less it becomes a talking point and the more that it’s all about the music”.
When asked about her experiences as a woman in the hardcore scene, Madi gave an honest, but vitally important response. She personally had not experienced anything that was substantially of note, aside from some comments initially dismissing the band based on her appearance. However, she was quick to emphasise that she is not a monolith – that when we look at bands, they are not interesting or of value for the presence of marginalised groups within their line-ups, and those marginalised peoples cannot speak from a position of having any kind of universal experience. Succinctly put, Watkins noted that “The less people are tokenised for not being white men in bands… the less it becomes a talking point and the more that it’s all about the music”. Just like the drive to shift away from lazy terms like ‘female fronted’, there is a responsibility within the alternative music scene to not tokenise the presence of women, people of colour or queer folks. There are steps we still need to take on this, representation being the most basic, and there are still important conversations to be had. However, we cannot put the burden of candidly relaying experiences, and building a vision for how to move forward, solely on individuals from marginalised groups. Alternative music is, more than anything, about community, and if we want to change it we have to do it together.
An unabashedly political outfit, Year of the Knife have been vocal about their support of the Black Lives Matter movement, on social media and in their lyrics, the anti-police ‘Blue Lies’ from their second EP making plain the band’s distrust of organised power structures. Though the interview was focused on their music, their album, and their experiences, the unavoidable shadow of current events is too important to ignore. Fortunately, the band do not mince their words, Tyler understandably impassioned as he expresses his frustration at the US’ general state of affairs, saying that “people are fucking crazy over here right now… we need to get Trump out of office, he’s fucking crazy.” Madi, on a similar note, points out that “the country feels so divided… what can you do to [change] people who are so ignorant and so closed minded?”
However, there is hope in the community that Year of the Knife’s music, and hardcore more generally can bring. Watkins notes that “hardcore is a beautiful thing… so many bands came together to raise money for black lives matter.” The manner in which hardcore as a collective scene came out so vocally in support of the movement is very much an indication of the value that communities like this can have in these social struggles. Though Madi observes that many larger bands within the hardcore or metal sphere that may not have come “from the roots of hardcore or the roots of punk being taken aback”, she added “It’s always been about inclusivity and about bringing people together”. From rising stars like Drain to more established heavy-hitters like Jesus Piece and Year of the Knife, through to household names like Terror and Rotting Out, hardcore and its related genres used their platform to raise huge amounts of money for Black Lives Matter.
“It’s always been about inclusivity and about bringing people together”.
It is hard to even envision silver linings in a political struggle that has recently seen state power and police violence entrench itself, to the extent that the killers of Breonna Taylor were indicted not for her killing, but for the risk that their violence posed to her neighbours. Given this, the role of music and the kind of collective action it can foster is perhaps more important now than it ever has been in our lifetimes. As Tyler observes the roots of Year of the Knife’s music, he strikes upon an unavoidably poignant point. “I believe that as a band you should try to stand up for something. Punk was everything against authority, against law and control. It needs to be.”
This may seem an obvious thing to say – after all, punk and rebellion are virtually synonymous. However, the world we live in is increasingly forcing the issue of just what the often-symbolic rebellion of punk will do when push comes to shove, and Year of the Knife are leading the way in this regard. From their pummelling, vulnerable and utterly explosive new record, a naked reflection of personal struggles and a growing sense of strife at the state of the world, to their outspoken support of the most important political movements of a generation, the band set an example. 2020 could easily be remembered as the year of many things, but within the world of hardcore, it’s hard to deny that this might just be the year of Year of the Knife.
Internal Incarceration Is Out Now Via Pure Noise Records