One of the secrets of investing is that the best action is where nobody is. This should be distressing news for alt-country artists, but it's good news for punk rockers, who now seem poised for a rebirth. In three decades, punk went from a groundbreaking artistic endeavor to a thoroughly commodified (read: bankrupt) signifier of youth rebellion that's now about as threatening as Hello Kitty underwear—and now, maybe, it's coming back again.
During most of its first decade of existence, punk was a loose-fitting term that described an overwhelming lattice of styles, much like "underground rock." Slowly, however, it became codified into a set of defining characteristics. When it lost its variety, it lost its vitality. Now the form looks to be returning to its initial eclectic approach.
No one exemplifies this better than Fucked Up, the form's finest act and spiritual standard-bearer. The Toronto sextet's initial releases hewed relatively closely to hardcore but gradually adopted a wider-ranging sensibility that carried on punk traditions, not by adhering to a sonic template but rather by defying convention. Indeed, at times their only intent seems to have been to fuck with people. The title track of 2004's Looking For Gold 12", for instance, was a 16-minute epic with extensive guitar overdubs, a three-minute drum solo and, uh, a long-winded whistling passage. Now that's punk rock.
Yet if their musical approach has grown even more diverse, Fucked Up's remained true to certain punk elements—confrontational politics and the feral howl of singer Pink Eyes, challenging our embrace of religion and the human rat race. Punk's all about contesting institutions, and Fucked Up does just that with gumption and ingenuity.
Other acts linger closer to punk's musical blueprint while finding their own twist. Baltimore power trio Double Dagger goes without guitar, using drums, vocals and bass. Theirs is more of an art punk style, fueled by jagged post-punk angularity (well-suited to the bass-driven sound) but yoked to punk's urgency.
Singer Nolen Strals' speak-sung delivery brims with sociopolitical provocation ("Luxury Condos for the Poor," "The Lie/ The Truth"), and there's a no-frills minimalism that eschews pretense in favor of fervor. Indeed, their slinky style recalls The Minutemen if J. Mascis were running the board, turning everything up to 11. That attitude is keenly expressed in the creation of their last album, More, which they recorded in an abandoned building by running in extension cords—the very essence of punk's "making do" ethos.
That's something Los Angeles duo No Age can appreciate, too. Randy Randall and Dean Spunt got their start in an underground all-ages DIY club with a vegan snack bar and an art space supported largely by volunteers. It's no coincidence they take their name from an instrumental compilation from SST, the punk flagship of the '80s. Graduates of the hardcore band Wives, the duo's noisy, fuzz-drenched sound owes a serious debt to Hüsker Dü, who, despite starting as a hardcore act in 1979 and releasing albums on SST, is often considered an alt-rock act. This is probably because of their gradual incorporation of melody, a predilection No Age shares. Locals Whatever Brains take a similar tack, channeling swerving, ramshackle, static-ridden songs through the pop store, stuffing their basket with pointy hooks and producing the musical equivalent of a sour ball.
The most traditional punk band appearing at Hopscotch is Toronto's Brutal Knights, whose carefree irreverence and trebly, rocket-fueled rhythms raise the banner of Black Flag. It's a testament to their talent that, among the many acts to ape this sound, the Knights have the requisite wit and musical vitality to make it all sound fresh. Triangle quartet Double Negative is also traditional, reprising the hard-thrashing attitude of hardcore pioneers like D.R.I. and Agnostic Front. But it's not straight hardcore so much as a more chaotic offshoot with a garage undercurrent that avoids skintight precision.
Nothing fails like success, which is why music must constantly reinvent itself to stave off staleness and sterility. Punk's been dead long enough now for adventurous stems to rise from its grave, bearing the bloom of its once varied fruit. It may not always sound exactly the same, but punk was never so much about a particular sound as a spirit that replenishes itself of necessity.