In the early '90s, hardcore punk had reached what amounted to a subcultural midpoint. "Hardcore" itself had become an umbrella term that described seemingly conflicting sounds and ideas within the scene. To be sure, the absence of rigid rules was a refreshing change of pace. But punk rock breaking into mainstream culture in 1991 meant the attitudinal influx of aesthetics-before-ethics ideology. Disaffection with the diluted nature of classic punk principles saw the rise of a more confrontational approach. This 1993 split seven-inch from Born Against and Universal Order of Armageddon paints the perfect picture of a scene in transition.
The first song on this EP, "I Am A Idiot" by Born Against, is the stylistic embodiment of this shift. If you ripped out a four-minute chunk from the middle of a latter day Black Flag song, you would get this track. An absolutely evil-sounding breakdown gives way to a bridge section complete with slithering bass and an atonal guitar lead. All the while, vocalist Sam McPheeters goes on an extended monologue listing the very specific reasons why he is not the product of spoon-fed leftist politics. His bark on this track is the aural equivalent of a pointed finger.
"I'm not brain dead / and I'm not an endtable / and I'm really, really, quite sure that you do not mean business / that you're just one of many stupid shouting voices / who wants to play â??fight the pigs' / and talk drunk about bombing gas stations / until you have to work in one that is, friend."
You see, 12 years after Dez Cadena screamed "I'm not a machine!" at the top of his lungs, sentiments decrying the mechanization of the self became so typical within punk culture that the subsequent repetition of them seemed less genuine and more (ironically) robotic. Compare it with McPheeters' insistence that "I'm not an endtable." At their most heartfelt, these two statements are the same. But McPheeters cuttingly uses this view as an attack on those who adopted once-sincere slogans purely out of aesthetic necessity. Comparing them to dense pieces of furniture is a subtle, yet effective, stylistic jab. I mean, even the most subservient "machine" is more useful than an endtable.
While Born Against attempts to do away with stale mantras, UOA injects them with renewed sincerity. On "Painfully Obvious" (referring to the transparent nature of disingenuous sloganeering), singer Colin Seven reinvigorates the tired clichÃ© that McPheeters rails against.
"Machine means the end of hope / The end of all inspiration / You are this end / you are this machineâ?¦But I'm also full of fuel / That's gonna run my own set / of gears and rods / My own soft engine / Head to toe, turn me on / Watch me run."
Even though there's a healthy dose of criticism to be found in Seven's lyrics, there's also a more hopeful take on things compared to the Born Against tracks. Years before Albert Pujols was affectionately nicknamed "The Machine," UOA can be seen espousing the positive aspects of using your "gears and rods" for positive self-improvement.
Sound-wise, the UOA tracks are appropriately raw. While the ideas present are contemporary for the time, their output here resembles what Rites of Spring demos might have sounded like had the band started in the very early '80s. That is to say, the songs combine sped up versions of that band's fantastic melodies with slightly rougher production. Oftentimes, there exists the tendency within the punk community to fetishize sonically gritty recordings. While that production style shouldn't excuse sub par music, that concern does not exist with this split. The rawness on display here effectively serves the intensity of both bands without muddling any of the melodic elements.
The indefinite nature of this transitional period in hardcore is also personified by the artwork and layout of this release. There is no tracklisting. The cover art might lead you to believe that a UOA has the first song on this release, but you'd be wrong. Also, while most splits feature one band on each side of a seven-inch, this release exhibits one song from each band on both sides. Furthering the ambiguity, both the A and B sides feature the same artwork. Only the foresight to look at the etchings before dropping the needle will allow you to know which side you're listening to before the music begins. Finally, while each band's lyrics are replicated on the two-sided insert, it takes a good minute before you even realize which side correlates to which band. Gravity Records did a fantastic job with this release. While purposefully trying to confuse record buyers obviously wouldn't work for every release, it's a really interesting example of how the tangible elements of a record can enhance the music.
This split is hardly considered essential or seminal. Maybe that's because it was too accurate of a snapshot of the early '90s hardcore scene to be heralded by the scene it condemned. Or, more likely, it's probably because it's a sub-10-minute record that's not without its flaws. As good as the material is, it's far more interesting as commentary than a collection of songs. But in a scene where music almost comes second to personal ethics, you can't go wrong with a record as well executed as this one.