Retrofitted (Riot Style): The Promise Ring

On September 14th, 15th and 16th, Riot Festival will overtake Chicago with a killer slate of bands bringing the noise, the distortion and the “Oi! Oi! Oi!” to all parts between Humboldt Park and the Congress Theater.  All three days should present some exquisite music to dance, bop and thrash to.  But, I will only be passing through on Sunday (see the lineup here) because of a competing festival(Hideout Block Party featuring Wilco, Kelly Hogan, Wye Oak and the Corin Tucker Band).    In case you have no plans for the weekend and were an adolescent obsessed, infatuated or enamored with any of the following, Punk, Post-Punk, Emo, Rockabilly, Ska or any variation thereof, then perhaps you should consider attending. (For a list of all the bands in attendance see the list at the end.)

In anticipation of Sunday, I’ve decided to “spotlight” a band (and accompanying album) each day leading up to the weekend.  With so many bands I could have started weeks ago, but I’ll limit my thoughts to those bands whose music holds a special place in my Punk Rock Heart.  What better way to start than with the band that made Milwaukee famous and helped define an off-maligned descendant of punk, Emo. 

For those unfamiliar with the evolution or etymology of Emo, the concise version goes something like this… In the mid 70s, some angry and disillusioned youths in New York and Detroit started to make this loud, abrasive and confrontational form of Rock called Punk.  Early American Punk was characterized by two overriding elements:  stories of disgust with the state of society and self and aggressively antagonistic fingers in the air to the conformity of “Middle America”.  Punk also developed this unfortunately ugly side current of misogyny, anti-diversity and brutishness often associated with Hardcore Punk.  Along the way in the 80s some kids with less external anger and more internal disquietude started writing songs in the vein of Hardcore with the a more emotionally sensitive and introspective side.  Out of this fusion (of seeming opposites) was born Emocore, later shortened to Emo.  As the 80s turned towards the 90s, Emo continued to grow and evolve eventually moving further away from the hardcore sound to a mix of punk and 80s College Rock.  Emo was a more suburban and Midwestern phenomena then the East Coast and Urban American punk. 

Formed in a break from the underappreciated suburban Chicago band, Cap’n Jazz (the break would eventually be permanent), the Promise Ring along with Kansas City’s The Get Up Kids were the 90s early poster boys for Emo.  Emo as style can best be defined as strident, sincere, heart -on sleeves Punk-ish rock with a quirky independent rock attitude – anti-mainstream, anti-commercialization, DIY, lo-fi, fuzzy guitars, and unpolished (often non-harmonious) vocals. 

The Promise Ring embraced and engaged all of those elements.  For adolescents and 20somethings in the late 90s they were a sort of calling card of outsider cool.  You were done with the (perceived) pessimism, aggression, homophobia, and (sometimes) racist elements and tendencies of 80s American Punk and Hardcore (Note: plenty of great Punk/Hardcore bands railed against this attitude and element such as Fugazi), but you were “angry, misunderstood, and ennui ridden.”  Some of this was because you were the kid(s) who didn’t stop reading fantasy and sci-fi novels, comic books, or delving into imaginary worlds longer than the other “cool” kids.  Or, your lack of coordination and physical dis-acumen was quite profound led to non invites to all those reindeer games and parties.  And, let’s be honest, a lot of the despondency and (non-clinical) depression stemmed from adolescent broken hearts and pining for the girl or boy of your (day)dreams. 

A Promise Ring record was a collection of the bitter sweet nature of adolescence a sort of bi-polar reflection of the world:  profound revelations and euphoria mixed with the deepest of despair.  Yet, with time, we’ve come to see the reality of the situation or the decontextualized “problems” (read: overly dramatic overreaction to small slights).  Nonetheless, the songs still resonate with a fire and fury that incites a smile. 

So listen here to the The Promise Ring’s – Nothing Feels Good – can you think of a more aptly titled record for adolescent ennui!

RiotFest 2012 Chicago:  Bands in attendance:

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