Today, we are continuing our Twenty Years Later series. Helmed by Staffer Michael Musilli, the series will look back at hardcore and harcore-ish records at their 20 year mark. Not only will the pieces include analysis of a record's importance, but Musilli also contacted a slew of hardcore musicians in order to get their perspective on landmark records. Today, Musilli takes an in-depth look a Sick Of It All's Built to Last album. Check it out below.
Built to Last: Sick Of It All Remain One Step Ahead
The term “New York Hard Core” is rife with mythology and tradition. The stories, bands, venues, and records that define the term build much of the foundation for punk and hardcore at large. Yet, for all of the bravado surrounding the NYC scene, few bands have managed to remain steady representatives thereof. And then there’s Sick Of It All. For over thirty years now, Sick Of It All has unfalteringly carried the NYHC flag with great poise. Since their formation in 1986, SOIA began a climb in the hardcore punk and heavy music realm that would eventually land them at one of the highest summits a hardcore band has ever seen. And their fourth full-length, 1997’s Built to Last, remains one of the most celebrated in their vast catalog.
Built to Last was the band’s second release on East West Records, a major label subsidiary who’d scooped up other heavy acts like Orange 9mm and Clutch. Sick Of It All signing to a major label was decidedly big news for the hardcore underground. Lest we forget the convoluted blowback they received from Born Against and other DIY purists over the decision to release Blood, Sweat, & No Tears on In-Effect Records. In fact, if you want some interesting history, search out the WNYU debate between the two bands. It’s a lesson in the plasticity and divergence of hardcore punk ethics. That said, SOIA released their major-label debut, Scratch the Surface, to much acclaim and the record was extremely well-received. That hype and hard work laid the groundwork for their follow-up, Built to Last, to become an enduring success. Indecision frontman Tom Sheehan notes, “You would be hard pressed to name many punk/hardcore/metal bands that can put out such a great record, four records into their career. Lucky for us, Sick of it All was able to do just that.” SOIA was evolving into a menacingly impressive force, and Built to Last demonstrated that.
Sick Of It All’s evolution was a climb from the austere hardcore laid down on their early releases upward to the more full-bodied and layered hardcore recorded on Scratch the Surface. Built to Last thus became a summit of sorts. It captured and engaged all of the sonic nuances the band had collected during their evolutionary ascent. Kill Your Idols and Sheer Terror guitarist Gary Bennett believes, “A milestone record in the long career of SOIA, [Built to Last] showed that they could still be hard as hell but write a catchy song.” And that ability to balance heaviness with catchiness was to be found throughout the LP. The record’s third track, “One Step Ahead,” is a patently direct hardcore song. The horse-hopping verses transitioning into the heavy chugging riffs lay the backbone for Lou’s aptly screamed vocals. And yet the very next song, “Us vs. Them,” opens the listener up to SOIA’s melodic and anthematic sensibilities. The entire track is a sing-along with head-bopping guitar rhythms and popping drum beats.
That ability to offer heavy yet melodic songs is at the essence of Sick Of It All, with Built to Last being the blueprint. Consider the record’s twelfth track, “Chip Away.” The song itself is a demonstration in how to bring hardcore sound into new territory without losing any edge. Pete’s guitar tracks move from melodic grooving rhythms to fast-paced hardcore gallops only to slow into driving breakdowns. All the while, Lou keeps the pace with his now-signature measured scream. In fact, it’s in those vocals that much of the melody comes into the song. Lou managed to project his scream while also harmonizing with the guitar. A rarity across the hardcore punk spectrum. Bennett notes, “I think a lot of bands followed the lead of that album in the late 90's.” SOIA had legitimized a higher level of musicianship and song-writing, especially in the hardcore underground.
That musicianship bleeds through the entire record too. Consider “Busted,” always a crowd favorite. The music is more akin to Armand’s earlier work with Rest In Pieces. And who would’ve expected Craig Ahead to make such an impactful vocal cameo on a record rampant with high-level vocal stylings? Yet, the song rocks with all the power one would expect from SOIA. “Burn ‘Em Down” is track ten on the record and could easily have been a standout single for the major label release. But even that song gets overlooked at times because of how many stellar songs precede it. That’s not the only song to suffer that fate. Indecision’s Sheehan believes, “The last track, ‘Jungle’ is probably the most underrated song in the SOIA canon.” The point here is that Built to Last offered us fourteen songs, a now-unheard of amount for full lengths, and nearly all were memorable.
And what did all of this memorably innovative songwriting in the hardcore sphere leave us? Some of the greatest and most inclusive anthems the genre has ever seen. The songs on Built to Last endeared people to each other and reinforced the foundations of the hardcore punk underground. Joe Mackay, founder of Philadelphia’s This Is Hardcore Fest, recalls, “I've realized the opening track's chorus is something that has come to life in the friendships we forged around the time of the release of Built to Last…When they came through at the Trocadero on the release, it was an ‘Us. Vs. Them’ thing at the shows, and a feeling of community that was formed back then has lasted over the last 20 years.” That feeling of community is a fundamental part of why Built to Last and Sick Of It All were and remain so important to the underground. One might see SOIA opening for Sepultura or playing at Warped Tour, and then end up catching them at a headlining show where they gave bands like Indecision, H2O, or Hot Water Music opening slots. Sick Of It All earnestly grew their community and opened people to what the hardcore punk underground had to offer.
And maybe that’s the unique staying power of Built to Last. It’s a unifying force. As Philadelphia’s Mackay mentioned, the chorus to “Good Lookin’ Out” is everything we hope the underground to be, regardless of how often it may disappoint our expectations. For Mackay, “Built to Last is a classic NYHC record released at a time when they had the rising success and popularity to try new things, but chose to write some hard hitting classic anthems that have survived the test of time and are still a highlight of a SOIA show to this day.” For so many, Sick Of It All remains an introduction to hardcore music. And they carry that responsibility with great pride. Their shows are fun, wildly energetic, welcoming, and filled with songs from Built to Last. There’s an interesting irony to be mentioned, of course. Twenty years ago, Lou, Pete, Craig and Armand collectively screamed to the world, “We won't go away ‘cause we'll always feel this way. We're here to stay, and our impact will be felt. We won't go away if we feel it, if we feel it. We're here to stay. Built to Last.” Who knew those words would cut far deeper than simply as the chorus in a great song? Who knew that Sick Of It All would live those words out in the most literal of ways? But they have. And they are a band truly Built to Last.