At its '80s peak, hardcore was a lot of things: controversial, confrontational, positive, nihilistic, pointed, and cathartic. It was about an airing of grievances, adolescent frustration manifest in short, fast fits. It was sang from a first-person perspective, railing against an unseen "them" or "you." It was about impulse and reaction.
Minor Threat frontman Ian MacKaye wrote "Guilty of Being White" in response to being a white minority in his Washington, D.C., school. Misfits leader Glenn Danzig wrote "London Dungeon" after spending a night in a London jail.
But despite the attempts of blind revivalists, that self-centered perspective could only go so far. "If you're constantly borrowing from personal experience, and personal experience strictly, it's limiting," says Jay Maas, guitarist for the Boston-based hardcore quintet Defeater. Unlike most punk bands, Defeater adopts a narrative songwriting style, crafting fictional characters whose exploits and interactions carry the length of an album. "It's more about making a message for the listener, instead of making sure everything matches up with my life," Maas says. "I've recorded and heard enough hardcore songs about unity and brotherhood, and at this point, I don't really care."
The band's first album, Travels, followed its protagonist from birth to death, through his life in a broken home in post-World War II New Jersey. That album contained the song "Prophet in Plain Clothes," in which the protagonist encounters The Prophet, a street musician rejected by post-War American society, in spite of his military accomplishments, for being a black man.
The Prophet provides the catalyst for Defeater's latest hardcore novella, the double 7-inch Lost Ground. "While that character plays a small part, he plays a pretty big part in the character from Travels' life," says Maas. So they decided to give The Prophet his own story.
Lost Ground also expands Defeater's own sonic palette. "I would say it is still sounding like Defeater, but definitely a departure," says Maas. "We still use distorted guitar, bass, and drums. Derek (Archambault, vocalist) still sounds like Derek. The songs overall are more dynamic."
Put simply, Defeater doesn't care what hardcore was. Defeater cares about what hardcore can become.