A Guide to the Worthiest of Critical Underground Post-Rock Comps. Written by Josh Zanger with contributions from Justin Grimm, Mark Taylor, Dan
Williams and Eric J Herboth.
Even though nowadays anyone with a blank disc and computer can burn a CD-R of songs from different artists and entitle it a ‘mix,' the true meaning of The Compilation Recording has been rendered a lost focus in an increasingly dense world of music consumption.
Just a year ago Thick Records of Chicago did something to show that the collection album still has a place. With the release of the
Oil compilation the label took a look back to a time when the comp was a document, to a time when the musician was both a product and a constant representation of their setting. Oil shows a subsection of the Chicago underground scene for what it really was and still is: modest, hardworking performers with a proclivity to foster the barest of essentials in their craft. The album was recorded in an equally barebones factory on the city's South Side during the course of 15 days, with very little production work being done to any of the recorded tracks. And this is just the way that it used to be.
To put any arguments to rest, a compilation is not a soundtrack. The difference between the two is that a compilation represents a group of like-minded musicians—as a community—putting out a conscious and combined effort to reach an extension of their community in their fan base. A soundtrack is a collection of songs made to accompany the release of a film, television program, et cetera.
When the earliest comps that I heard were released, they were productions that groups of friends (such as those found around Thick Records) put together and made as a means of literally collecting their music as one. Often, many of the included bands were not closely associated with the label that released it, but rather contributed the track because they wanted to become part of the project and part of the story. What this non-commercial decision did was make the albums more consistent and quite a bit more cohesive.
In addition to this aspect of musical fortitude, the essence of the compilation was something that felt "underground." Soundtracks and mixes usually lack that quality of having character and a conscious face behind the music. Comps are an audio representation of the guy with weird tattoos on his neck from the punk show or the cute chick that works the register at the record store. They tell stories of years and experiences that they are associated with. And this is something that the faceless soundtrack, sampler, or box set almost always is void of.
I discovered several bands that I grew to love by webbing out through these comps; buy the record because you love one band, then hear about 10 others that are even better. Even to this day I see this as one of the most natural ways of divulging and discovering music.
The following is a map to some of the great underground rock-derived comps, a path to the past of collections and the artists that made them so significant. Happy digging to you.
Achtung Chicago! Drei (Underdog
Featuring: The Mushuganas, Oblivion, Slapstick, Lunkhead
Significance: A whirlwind of sound. Of the 18 tracks on Achtung Chicago! Drei only four are at least three minutes long or more. In the ‘90s, Chicago harbored a punk rock scene that produced potent burps of distorted songs shot out of a rhythmic cannon at breakneck tempos. The groups fronted a gritty attitude that now many punk groups have exchanged for poppiness and good looks. Many of the groups also used an aspect of goofiness to their image and songwriting to create an edge divergent from the omni-intense scenes of New York City and Southern California. This compilation is evidence to the fact that the Midwestern scene was a thriving region for punk rock music and more importantly had its own identity. Achtung Chicago! Drei was a popular choice amongst a skateboarding youth.
Additional notes: The now-defunct label also put out releases from relatively legendary post-punk groups Cap'n Jazz and Gauge, although neither was featured on
-- Josh Zanger
Cover the Earth (Mud
Featuring: Castor, Braid, C-Clamp, Beezus, Angie Heaton, Morning Becomes Electric
Significance: Cover the Earth was the consummation of a ‘90s Champaign-Urbana (IL.) independent rock scene. The time period birthed post-punk in its most pure and fresh form. Back then the word "emo" was even thrown around with reckless abandon and no one thought twice.
Cover the Earth has a true punk rock D.I.Y. feel to it; these are musicians that got it done amongst and for themselves. Following the comp's release, a true sense of scene could be identified—and not just by local club-goers. Braid, Castor, C-Clamp and Heaton along with additional C-U rock powerhouses such as Hum and the Poster Children formulated a core community of solid acts that was acknowledged on a local as well as national underground level.
The music showcased on the comp is an extreme variation under the umbrella term of rock. One can hear Castor and their spaciously mathy feel; Braid exposing their punk roots; C-Clamp laying back in the mellowest of cuts; Liquorette, Angie Heaton and Beezus throwing down simple dirty rock tunes; and Morning Becomes Electric sewing it all together with the tender night cap of "Sea & this sky/Let no one put us under (Concrete's alright)."
-- Josh Zanger
Ground Rule Double (Divot/Actionboy 300
Featuring: Braid, Shellac, Blue Meanies, The Promise Ring
Significance: Ground Rule Double, a digipak landmark of major league
proportions to Chicago and the greater Midwest. A document of historical
value, sweeping brilliantly through 23 emo/math/indie/instrumental/punk tracks. Leaning on select tracks by Braid, Shellac, and Mineral, yet held together by
the likes of C-Clamp, Gainer, and Gila Bend. Completely skipping the dead sea
of label samplers and sordid compilations, Ground Rule Double buoys in a pleasant mixture of inventiveness and consistency. A panoramic snapshot of fresh sound which helped sprout some of the most respected musicians of today.
-- Justin Grimm
Featuring: Rainer Maria, Hubcap, Back of Dave, Braid, Gila Bend, Boilermaker, Orwell
Significance: At first glance this album looks a lot like Ground Rule Double—Braid, Back of Dave, and Gainer are a few of the featured artists; old photographs serve as artwork on a simplistic, artsy paper package; both were released in 1996; and both are from independent rock labels located in the Midwest. But the similarities slowly fade when the finer details become more apparent.
This was the first full length release from Polyvinyl Records. Direction was packaged along with the Polyvinyl Press Fanzine and sparked the record label side of the Polyvinyl enterprise. The label owners were good friends with some of these band members and decided to put out a collection of rock songs that encapsulated all that the Midwest (mainly Wisconsin and Illinois) had to offer.
Many of the included bands utilized common members: Kyle Fischer played in both Ezra Pound and Rainer Maria, Roy Ewing drummed for both Mary Me and Braid, and the list goes on. At times, one gets the feel of landing on a musical commune. Thus showed one intricate social web of musicians and label management; a microcosm of the national underground scene. Just as the band members formed bonds as artists, they were equally amicable on a personal level.
Direction puts together the cutting yet contemplative edge of post-punk/indie rock with a style of low-end underground spazz jams. This release came in quietly but left Polyvinyl and many of the bands with a thunderously respected reputation for good tastes.
-- Josh Zanger
Misfits of Ska
Featuring: Blue Meanies, Less Than Jake, MU330, Slapstick, Voodoo Glow Skulls, Reel Big Fish, Skankin' Pickle, Sublime
Significance: This is the holy book to modern skapunk. The release gained a larger audience through numerous skate videos showing off these featured artists. It's hard to believe that in 1997 all these names were virtually unknowns on the national scene—Sublime, Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake. Just an all-around fun release.
Outstanding tracks: "Fat Lady Skank" by Gangster Fun, a song about the comical dance of an obese woman; "I Don't Want to Hear It" by Suicide Machines, a Minor Threat cover; and "I'm in Love with a Girl Named Spike" by Skankin' Pickle, a song about lead singer Mike Park's obsession with pregnant teen character Spike from ‘90s TV show Degrassi Junior High.
-- Josh Zanger
(Don't Forget To) Breathe
(Crank!: A Record
Featuring: Christie Front Drive, Mineral, Boys Life, Roadside Monument, Hot Water Music, Drive Like Jehu, The Promise Ring
Significance: A who's who of mid-90's emo explosion before the tag became synonymous with teenage love erosion, sappy barefaced bawling, and laughable mimicking of ones' favorite wounded front man. In a compelling rarity, (Don't Forget To) Breathe demonstrates the technical competence that made the genre so powerful, not only musically but emotionally, incorporating the punk rock formalities laced with explosive post-hardcore surges and sometimes sing-a-long melodies as the musicians attached themselves to a more expressive and poignant musical framework than what grunge had offered a few years earlier.
Many of the bands featured were pioneers in their field but most have faded into obscurity or have gone on to other projects, but are mostly indigenous to any unique musical explorations (exception: Hot Snakes) such as: Boy's Life, Christie Front Drive, Drive Like Jehu, and Mineral. Other groups were on the verge of indie rock notoriety (Silver Scooter, Vitreous Humor, Ethel Meserve, Uncrush) and served up delectable unreleased jewels that made you want to search long and hard for full-lengths and seven inch singles but more often than none, these inquiries came up empty or at least insufficient to serve any long term interest.
Released in 1997, (Don't Forget To) Breathe is a testament to sincere and honest music free from hypocrisy and diluted exploitations from major label persuasions or style over substance tendencies. Crank! has left us with a legacy of some of the finest indie rock acts to emerge from what is mostly connected to the West/Midwest sound that is still as stimulating to listen to today as it was when I purchased it almost a decade ago.
Highlights: Silver Scooter-"Pumpkin Eyes", Mineral-"Rubber Legs", Drive Like Jehu-"Bullet Train To Vegas (live)."
-- Mark Taylor
(Don't Forget To) Breathe
(Crank!: A Record
Significance: Some of this now seems outdated, and almost silly. Then again even back then, Chris Simpson of Mineral's mawkish longing for childhood whine on "Rubber Legs" made little sense to those who couldn't take themselves very seriously. Regardless, in the late 1990's emo gurgled beneath the surface. It was not hip, it was not cool, it was only exclusive because no one knew what the fuck it was. For those that didn't, this compilation served (and still serves) as an excellent introduction.
Crank! assembled scene luminaries like Christie Front Drive, Promise Ring, Hot Water Music, Knapsack, Mineral, Boys Life, etc. and backed these big guns up with a few punchy cuts from some relative unknowns (Ethel Meserve, Seven Storey, and more). For all the angst, grit, aggression, and pouting (Don't Forget To) Breathe is a time capsule of a fledgling genre before it was commodified and mass marketed.
Additional Notes: Perhaps as a testament to a vital and short lived genre, only 2 of these 17 bands are still active (HWM and Fireside). "Field" by Christie Front Drive, besides being a remarkably excellent song, seems to sum up the genre in all its glory in three unintelligible minutes.
-- Dan Williams
(Don't Forget To) Breathe
(Crank!: A Record
There are a couple of throwaway tracks on this disc, in my
opinion (Knapsack, The Promise Ring, Seven Storey Mountain), but
there is no other single document of great bands making great
songs. Boys Life and Christie Front Drive, both on my all-time
favorites list, contribute two of the better tracks in their
respective catalogues. Although I wasn't a huge fan of the band
Mineral (neither was I, as a note, a huge fan of SDRE), their
song "Rubber Legs" is perhaps the quintessential
soundtrack to my memories of sweaty, horny, stifled late-teeners
grasping for something (or someone) in a basement illuminated
only with colored lights. Even the band Silver Scooter, which I
otherwise felt completely nothing about, drop an ace in the
hole. Other great tracks are contributed by Ethel Meserve,
Vitreous Humor, Prozac Memory, Hot Water Music, Drive Like Jehu,
Roadside Monument... Oh! I get a brain freeze just thinking
about it! Like most compilations, this one isn't perfect - but
the success of the solid tracks is overwhelming at times, and
when you realize that this release is still in print - and
available on double vinyl! - it just sends chills down the
-- Eric J Herboth
Post Marked Stamps
Ida, The Deadwood Divine, Still Life, Cerberus Shoal, Ethel
Meserve, Giants Chair, Braid, The Get Up Kids, Haelah, Aspera Ad
Astra, Tim Kinsella, Jen Wood, Compound Red, Very Secretary, A Minor Forest, Sweep The Leg Johnny, Rainer Maria and The Hal Al
For me, this was pretty much the scenester politiodrama that
broke the camel's back on compilations and the whole Midwestern post-punk era that pre-defined the sound that followers would
let disintegrate into emo. I'm not sure whether to be boasting
or admitting to the fact that I was an original subscriber to
the entire Post Marked Stamps 7" single series, which
pitched me for a great while into what in hindsight could only
be described as irrational adolescent excitement. This
collection, as it was originally billed, was going to be the
blockbusterest assortment of art and indie rock this side of the
previously hailed (Don't Forget To) Breathe comp from
Crank!, a dedication to long distance lovers complete with
Valentine-like covers and unique stamps. As it turned out, years
after it began and way off schedule, some of the big names like
HUM didn't show up. But others did, and even if it did
ultimately flake out into a cliquish wankery of Midwestern chummy bands, it pretty much broke the mold. So what if that
Giant's Chair song is kind of irregular - I thought the point of
non-commercial rock was to be innovative. I've since unloaded my
complete 7" collection for some nice coin on eBay and Tree,
in a death gesture, was nice enough to issue the series on CD
(sans the last 7" with A-Set and Cobolt, which came naked
in a white dust jacket) for everyone. This compilation is
now, as it was then, a great listen, but a good deal of that
could be the nostalgia. After all, just like Tree Records
itself, the Post Marked Stamps marked the end of a great run for
bands like Ethel Meserve, Giants Chair, Braid, Compound Red, and
Very Secretary. Many of the others, such as Hal Al Shedad and
Cerberus Shoal, linger on in undue obscurity and the survivors
such as the Get Up Kids and Rainer Maria - well, at least they
have this to be proud of.
-- Eric J Herboth
Sounds of the Geographically Challenged (Temporary
Residence Ltd, 2000)
Retsin, Liquorice, Hz Roundtable, Songs: Ohia, drona parva, Will Oldham/Dave Pajo, Windsor For The Derby, The For Carnation, The Sonora Pine, Haelah, Ruby Falls, The Halifax Pier and more.
An excellent compilation featuring some early heavy hitters from
the formative years of the slowambient (yes, coined a new term
there) powerhouse TRL, this collection serves as the mass
audience CD value pack for the largely impossible-to-find
12" series that Temporary Residence began back in the
summer of 1997. Along with gems by the now more widely known
Songs: Ohia and The For Carnation there are other precious
finds, such as an apparent one-off collaboration between David
Pajo and Will Oldham. While some songs, such as Liquorice's
"Baby Would It Matter" can rub really thin -
especially placed between the Retsin (featuring Tara Jane
O'Neil) track and a beautifully oddball number by Hz Roundtable
- this compilation as a whole and the more engaging vinyl
releases it represents are truly great. Bonus points for the
personalized looking packaging and layout. A dusty look at the
infant stages of some great music, this compilation is excellent.
-- Eric J Herboth
Zanger, a post-rock lexicon, lives and works in suburban
Chicago, Illinois, birthplace to many of the artists and ideas
mentioned in this article.