Cro-Mags are back once again after their triumphant return with 2020’s excellent In the Beginning album. It’s true that we run of out of superlatives to describe the man and the myth that is Harley Flanagan. Last year he delivered a re-invigorated take on the hardcore thrash he invented as fourteen-year-old in the early 1980s on the streets of New York. We said in our review last July that In the Beginning ‘encapsulates the new artistic confidence of Harley Flanagan and tells us that Cro-Mags are at the start of another chapter in their career.’ We were not wrong.
With a world tour booked for the summer of 2020 alongside Body Count, Cro-Mags looked set to win over a fourth generation of fans until Covid-19 struck. Instead of licking their wounds, the band doubled down and focused on writing new songs. After seven months, they started tracking in the studio. The end result is the 2020 EP, but if you think this means an angry hardcore punk record you’re in for a shock. It’s no exaggeration to say this is on the cusp of avant-garde and post-metal in its determination to soundtrack the claustrophobia and frustration of living through a Covid-19 lockdown. The band that produced The Age of Quarrel and redefined raw street punk are now some of the best technical musicians in the scene.
As if to remind us of the group’s legacy, it’s a delight to see the opening track given the title of ‘Age of Quarantine’. It’s all the more surprising when they open the song with a classic breakbeat that you’d expect to hear on the Beastie Boys’ classic Paul’s Boutique album from 1989. When the hardcore stomp arrives, it’s as violent as a scuffle on the streets of Queens at the height of the crack pandemic. Yet its refusal to conform to any recognisable song structure takes the composition far into prog-metal solipsism towards the end. You’re still nodding your heard in approval when they produce that moment where you cover your mouth and narrow your eyes. Did you ever think Cro-Mags would take a John Petrucci/ Dream Theater guitar arpeggio and experiment with a mood piece that could grace a Queensryche album? The vocals might be foaming at the mouth in intensity, but the complex drum patterns and interplay between guitars are worthy of Fates Warning. Wow!
Claustrophobia and contemplation are the two opposing themes that give life to this EP. Long-time fans might lament the absence of Flanagan’s usual lyrical mantra of taking responsibility and preaching the virtues of self-reliance to overcome life’s obstacles, but they can’t deny the new approach suits the mood of the times. True, the hardcore is still present: ‘Life on Earth’ is a no-nonsense thrash number and ‘Chaos in the Streets’ worthy of Bad Brains at their prime. Let’s not forget this is a band that inspired every hardcore act of the 1980s and 1990s and left their mark on Sepultura, Machine Head and Hatebreed. They could easily rest on their laurels and produce the same adrenaline rush of New York hardcore for the faithful. Instead, they give us the dub-reggae intro of ‘Violence and Destruction’ and add d-beat drums, psychedelic rock shredding and crunchy Slayer riffs in an experiment that should fail but triumphs in ecstasy. The funky Primus bass and Phrygian mode guitar phrasing of ‘Crofusion’ are even more enthralling. Close your eyes and you could be listening to jazz-fusion musicians paying homage to the technicality of prog metal. This is on a par with the musicianship of fellow New Yorkers, Candiria.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to heap all the praise on Flanagan. This is a team effort, and what a team. Suicidal Tendencies legend, Rocky George, unleashes a barrage of wah-wah guitar and inventive riff work, while the drum patterns of Garry ‘G-Man’ Sullivan add as much sophistication as hardcore menace. Those who write off hardcore as all attitude and no axemanship will think twice when they hear the level of musicianship on this EP. This is an imaginative and bold piece of work that overcomes clichés and embraces high art without sacrificing the purity of its intentions.
Release Date: 09/04/2021
Record Label: Arising Empire Records
Standout tracks: Age of Quarantine, Crofusion
Suggested Further Listening: Bad Brains – Rock for Light (1983), Faith No More – King for a day, Fool for a Lifetime (1995), Candiria – The Process of Self-Development (1999)