I was talking with a friend the other day about punk. More specifically, we were talking about the legacy of punk and the identity and genres that were spawned from it in the decades that followed, and we differed somewhat on how punk itself is actually defined.
To me, although punk initially spawned in a relatively brief explosion at the end of the 1970s, the legacy it left behind is something that can be identified throughout society ever since. My friend took a rather different stance, arguing that punk was a cultural movement that existed roughly between 1976 and 1980, and that the “punk” that followed was not so much a movement as it was a genre.
It’s actually a really interesting point, and one not without merit. At around the age of 8 I got into bands like The Offspring, Green Day and Operation Ivy. Once my dad caught wind of this he started pointing me back to the origins, which obviously meant listening to London Calling, Never Mind the Bollocks, Buzzcocks, Sham 69 and so on. It seems fair to admit that something very important happened over that period that was rather self-contained, but then the “genrefication” that followed to me seems integral to the story of punk in a much broader sense. From punk came Hardcore, Straight Edge, Oi, Riot Grrl, Skacore, and then Post-Hardcore. That they branched off from the genre of origin doesn’t then discount the punk elements that can be identified within, does it? Punk as a movement was four years in the UK, but surely what happened with bands like Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Reagan Youth, Fugazi and (if we really have to) GG Allin is still important when discussing punk as a broader context — and should that broader context necessarily include the development of punk as a genre, so be it.
A prime example of a punk ethos in practice external of punk, to me, is post-hardcore, if only because of what seemed like the genre’s utter refusal to be defined. From hardcore-rooted bands like Fugazi and Quicksand to the more melodic offerings of Helmet and the Kinsella-fronted Cap’n Jazz, post-hardcore is so broad and diverse that it almost feels like a rebellion against precisely that “genrefied” understanding of punk that many of us now encounter. So much of the stylistic and visual elements of 70s punk were a result of Malcolm McLaren’s marketing savvy and Vivienne Westwood’s design offerings, so to act like the music was secondary to a style movement seems to fall into a trap of sorts.
Post-hardcore is so slippery as a genre that even identifying the albums when they release is sometimes hard work. American Football’s eponymous debut passed under the radar with minimal fanfare when it first released. When At The Drive-In released their final album, Relationship of Command in 2000 it was met with a lukewarm response but has since gone on to be hailed as one of the most important post-hardcore albums to ever release and, in my experience at least, shed light on a wealth of bands I might never have heard of otherwise like Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes and Wicked Farleys. Even Meet Me in St Louis, a relatively small band from Surrey, did the circuit for years with scene-centric success before breaking up, and it was at that point that every band under the sun cited them as one of their biggest influences.
In laymen’s terms, post-hardcore is probably characterised as hardcore punk with a brain. Experimental time-signatures and instrumentation, the introduction of melody or alternative vocal styles, a blend of distorted and melodic guitar tones, and so on. As mentioned before though, the more exciting moments come from refusal to be defined. Where this leads me to is a British band who in the early 2000s seemed to simultaneously do both, in the most brilliantly frustrating and frustratingly brilliant way possible.
Yourcodenameis:milo first came to my attention around 2004 with All Roads to Fault. Starting with the title track, the 7 song EP was genuinely something unique and exciting at the time. At 12 years old, it sounded like nothing else that was coming out at the time, sitting somewhere between punk, math-rock, prog-rock and indie, with a production sound (courtesy of Steve Albini) that sounded both garage-raw and completely otherworldly. The EP plays with dynamics in a really interesting way. Tracks like All Roads to Fault and Fourthree mix melodic sections that are barely audible with massive choruses, whilst other tracks like The Problem and First Master Responds are so loud that everything sounds buried beneath everything else until it’s back to quiet again.
When they released their debut album Ignoto the following year, produced by Flood, this style became even more pronounced, polarising a lot of critics. I’m pretty sure I remember one critic describing it as sounding as if it was recorded in a bathtub. To be honest it’s pretty hard to argue with, but then listen to the chorus in Rapt. Dept. and try telling me that isn’t one of the loudest “feeling” songs you’ve ever heard. I can’t think of another time I’ve described a song as “crushing” but it’s the perfect word for so many moments on this album. See also: the first verse in Fivefour. At times the vocals are barely audible. It’s so unique for a band to employ production like that, even fewer that do it well. The only other record that immediately springs to mind is Devil Sold His Soul’s debut Darkness Prevails EP. Moments like that genuinely push the envelope of music further than any wanky tech metal bullshit.
Now to return to my initial description of Yourcodenameis:milo as brilliantly frustrating and frustratingly brilliant, and to tie it into my definition of Post-Hardcore as somewhat indefinable. The thing with Yourcodenameis:milo is that they “did” post-hardcore really well, but then they made such a point of the fact that what they were doing was post-hardcore. To be clear, the track Fourthree is so called because its verse is structured with two bars of 4/4, and then four bars of 3/4. Four bars of three. Fourthree. Which is corny enough, except they had to go and repeat the same trick on Ignoto with Fivefour which is — wait for it — 5/4 timing. Genius. Why did Beckett bother with all that Absurdist messaging in Waiting for Godot when he could have just called it “The Play Doesn’t Mean Anything lol”? Oh yeah, they did a song called Sixthree on their final album as well. Kill me now.
My point is that everything they did seemed to be completely geared towards confirming their identity as a post-hardcore band in a really contrived way. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having your album artwork designed by Storm Thorgerson. He undoubtedly designed some of the greatest album artwork of all time. The album covers he created for bands like Pink Floyd and The Mars Volta are literally flawless. Anyone who has listened to Frances the Mute all the way through knows that Thorgerson completely captured the essence of that album in every single image he created. And yet, for some reason, when it comes to Yourcodenameis:milo, it feels like getting Thorgerson to do their artwork was a means of cementing themselves as one of “those” bands. I fully accept that I’m a pretty cynical guy, but still, when I look at the album artwork for Ignoto I get lots of classic Thorgerson humour and surrealism, but I really can’t place any of it in the context of the music on the record. Ignoto is muddy, gloomy, complex in an elusive way. Thorgerson’s artwork is crisp, cold, calculated. It just doesn’t fit at all to me.
And yet, despite all of this, those first two releases are still massively important in my view. I look back at the early 2000s; all those the Franz Ferdinands, Kaiser Chiefs, Automatics and Razorlights (yeah, those guys. Remember when Johnny Borrell couldn’t go two days without reminding us all how they were the most important band to emerge in the last forty years? He seems to be doing well now. Good for him). Whilst I’m aware that this article begins with an acknowledgement of how subjective a lot of this is, it really doesn’t feel like there were any bands who have endured the same way as bands like Primal Scream, Blur, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and so on did. And did Yourcodenameis:milo? Not even close. But they did occupy such a particular space in the British music scene that they’ve endured to me as an important band of that period.
Those two albums were followed up by Print Is Dead, Vol. 1, a collaborative project where the band invited a variety of British artists to their Newcastle recording studio and set the challenge of writing and recording a complete song in a single day. 12 days, 12 songs, featuring the likes of Reuben, Lethal Bizzle, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly and The Automatic (I know. Shame.). Again, great on paper but the end result was really pretty lackluster. There are probably about four decent tracks on the whole thing. Of course a volume 2 was promised in the near future that never actually happened. And yet all I can find myself thinking is, “Oh, an experimental project of impressive scope that went unfinished. How very post-hardcore.”
And then a few years later they released their second and final album, They Came from the Sun. It’s not that bad an effort to be honest. Certainly it’s more polished and poppy at points. They developed their techy/math elements into something a bit more accessible on tracks like All That Was Missing (a phenomenal track well worth a listen) and Understand, but otherwise it’s a pretty forgettable affair. Once you’ve listened to this album and Print is Dead it becomes a lot clearer how cohesive Ignoto was.
All of which would be absolutely fine. Truly, it would. So much of this genre is about the ebbs and flows of quality that come with experimentalism. As mentioned before, it wasn’t until the release of their final album mere months before they split that At The Drive-In received recognition, and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez thinks its so bad that he can’t even listen to it. Every single Blood Brothers album is so different from the last that, of all the people I know who listen to them, nobody has the same favourite track.
But then still.
2007 rolls around. And Yourcodenameis:milo split up. Only they don’t split up. Of course they don’t. Because splitting up isn’t a post-hardcore enough thing to do. Regular bands split up. Post-hardcore bands aren’t regular bands. So they went on “indefinite hiatus” instead, a ridiculous, meaningless phrase that was first coined (to my knowledge) by At The Drive-In in 2001 and has since become the go-to phrase for any band that wants to stick one last dose of pretense into the works before they kick the can. Seriously, when every band from Blink-182 to the Foo Fighters has used the phrase “indefinite hiatus” you know it’s a truly corny linguistic turd.
I’m going to try and tie this all together into an actual point now, so bear with me. The ambivalence of this piece, torn somewhere between adoration and frustration is exactly where I want to be right now. Because Yourcodenameis:milo made some incredible music. Not only that, they had some amazing lyrics that were laden with emotion, duality, metaphor and wit that still get me to this day. Examples: “The angels would look down but you’re too fucking tall”; “Where have you gone tonight? I’ll follow you but then I’ll not get back home”; “To go forward I have to crawl, I have to crawl”. But then they’ve also written some absolute clangers that, even if they do have depth of meaning, are unpleasant to even think about. “Please get away from your disco clouds”. What the fuck is that guys? We’re better than this.
They were a great British post-hardcore band in the early 2000s, but they also tried really hard to be a great British post-hardcore band in the early 2000s. And for some reason that really puts me off. Have you ever seen the Lollapalooza episode of The Simpsons, where Lisa and Bart try to explain cool to Marge right at the end? That exchange pretty much sums up what post-hardcore is to me. Yourcodenameis:milo really wanted to be recognised as post-hardcore. So much so that it’s kind of hard to give it to them. I’ve been listening to All Roads to Fault and Ignoto for a solid two weeks now though, so maybe I’m just whinging over nothing. That would certainly be new for me. Listen to: Fivefour, Rapt. Dept., All Roads to Fault, Fourthree, Empty Feat. Have a good weekend.
Marge: Am I cool, kids?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Good. I’m glad. And that’s what makes me cool, not caring, right?
Bart & Lisa: No.
Marge: Well, how the hell do you be cool? I feel like we’ve tried everything here.
Homer: Wait, Marge. Maybe if you’re truly cool, you don’t need to be told you’re cool.
Bart: Well, sure you do.
Lisa: How else would you know?