I have seen a lot of bands perform, and many of those bands have played hardcore punk rock. None have been more intense than Stripmines, a Raleigh force that spills off the stage and churns its audience into a frenzy. Their last show, however, might happen Thursday night.
Then again, it might not.
"If you ask me," offers Stripmines drummer Ira Rogers, "it's still kind of up in the air. But I'd say it's about an 80- or 90-percent chance that we'll continue after that."
The cause for the uncertainty is the long imminent departure of Matt LaVallee, the band's vocalist and the firebrand of its unrelenting performances. He's leaving because making Stripmines' crushing debut LP, Crimes of Dispassion, forced him to dredge up some vicious psychic and personal demons that he'd rather not dole out every night on stage. That explanation might sound like the stuff of legend, at least until you hear the sound of Stripmines; the fury, paranoia and vitriol in LaVallee's lyrics and performances make the tale entirely believable.
LaVallee decided to leave the band months before the album's release earlier this year. His last stand as Stripmines' frontman was to be October 2011, with the March release of Crimes of Dispassion serving as a late-arriving eulogy. But LaVallee agreed to lead the band through a handful of local shows and one short summer tour, which ends Thursday at Raleigh's Berkeley Cafe.
His departure, and the possible continuation of Stripmines, recalls a peculiarity of punk rock: The singer often—even if unfairly—serves as the face and voice of the unit, setting the image and the tenor of the aesthetic by default. For most, the departure of that frontman would signal the end of everything. But hardcore has a long history of bands evolving with interchangeable frontmen.
As Stripmines' remaining members—Rogers, guitarist Jeff Young and bassist Alex Taylor—consider their band's future, they may join a lineage of fluidly staffed icons: "Look at Black Flag. Hell, look at Iron Maiden. Double Negative is pulling it off well," Rogers says. "I think it's very possible. My favorite era of Napalm Death is when their second singer came in."
Few bands have turned over as many players as the Raleigh punk/ metal crossover institution Corrosion of Conformity. Of more than a dozen members who've cycled in an out of the band, seven were singers. As the band swapped leaders and moved from its early feral hardcore into mid-tempo metal informed by classic rock, there was pressure to rebrand, but the name proved constant.
As COC's drummer Reed Mullin told me this year, sticking beneath the same banner wasn't always a given. "When Pepper [Keenan] was gonna sing, I was thinking we might wanna change the name, but I'm glad we didn't," he said. "Constantly you're changing things up, and people have all these expectations that you're expected to conform to. They'll cry, they'll bring you down by crying, but really it's just more free publicity that just spurs us ever onward."
As a mostly self-determined underground movement, American punk in the 1980s developed strong aesthetic and iconographic sensibilities, reinforced by necessity. As bands attempted to blaze new routes with self-booked, self-promoted tours, a recognizable identity was vital; consider COC's classic insignia, for instance. Even with the thorough record-keeping and remarkable communications network created by fanzines and letter-writing, news spread slowly—especially relative to today's instant dissemination. A popular band couldn't simply tweet that they were changing their name and assume the right fans got the message.
"When you're flyering and you're branding on that analog level before the Internet, that band and that brand is kind of your life," says Brian Cullinan. He came of age in Atlanta's early-'80s hardcore scene before taking a job as an executive at Columbia Records. He has experience with the punk ethos and selling music. "Back then, we were still in the age of the postage stamp. If COC had decided it was incumbent upon them to change their name because they're changing their style, they would have become another band nobody would've known about."
Bands kept their names and logos, even at the risk of alienating fans through stylistic or personnel changes. California's T.S.O.L. and Christian Death both replaced members and changed their sound, so much that both bands eventually split into two acrimonious factions, each claiming their right to the band's name. New Jersey's Misfits ostensibly broke up in 1983 when frontman Glenn Danzig went on to form Samhain, and later Danzig. But as anybody who was duped into hearing "The Misfits" as fronted by replacement singer Michale Graves or founding bassist Jerry Only can attest, the name has clout, even if the music didn't meet the legacy.
As for Stripmines, their plan is to move forward without LaVallee and likely with Jordan Noe, of the Greensboro grindcore band Priapus, as the replacement. Still, this is a band well versed in hardcore history, its lessons reflected in Rogers' carefully ambiguous revelations.
"I think we're going to have to play some music together with the new lineup to see if it's the same band anymore. If it isn't, then we're just not gonna do it," he says. "I don't think we'll go and put out Deliverance or Blind or anything; I think it's just going to move into a new era."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Maiden names."