To trace the catalog of Carrboro imprint Sorry State Records is to glimpse the development of punk rock itself during the last decade. Early releases from the likes of Direct Control, Bored to Death and Rabies clung almost religiously to the decades-old template of bands such as Minor Threat and Corrosion of Conformity. But as contemporary punk has started to shed its orthodoxy, so have the records bearing a Sorry State stamp.
Indeed, by 2011, Sorry State's scope had expanded to embrace the prog-mutated powerviolence of Mob Rules and their increasingly wiry fellow Englishmen, Shitty Limits. Dual editions of Double Negative's aptly titled Hardcore Confusion series and the full-length debut from post-punk pranksters Whatever Brains blurred the boundaries even more. The label was pushing the genre as much as it was documenting it.
Last year's output included the staunch D-beat of No Tomorrow and the anxious, trebly garage-punk of Joint D≠, the minimal post-punk of Hygiene and the brutal metallic hardcore of Stripmines. "I gravitate toward stuff that's a little weirder," label owner Daniel Lupton admitted in 2010, presaging the risks Sorry State has since taken.
But Sorry State is still a punk label. And punk, despite its ostensible rebellious streak, can be stubborn to change. Long one of music's most fervently self-limiting genres, punk is plagued by identity crises—Is it a genre? Is it a philosophy? Is it an aesthetic?—and the tendency to define itself by what it isn't. "I was passing out/ When you were passing out your rules," Jawbreaker's Blake Schwarzenbach sang nearly 20 years ago. "1-2-3-4, who's punk? What's the score?"
At the start of 2013, Sorry State has again bested itself with an excellent batch of new records from Raleigh heroes Double Negative, Charlotte punks Nö Pöwer, Los Angelenos Rough Kids and Chicagoans Broken Prayer. All four releases are as punk or as un-punk as you'd like them to be. That is, fuck the score.
With its four-song 7-inch, Vols. III + IV, Double Negative completes its four-part Hardcore Confusion set. The series inadvertently documented a volatile period for the band: It starts with the original roster of guitarist Scott Williams, bassist Justin Gray, singer Kevin Collins and drummer Brian Walsby, but it ends with Collins and Walsby replaced by Cameron Craig and Bobby Michaud, respectively. (Michaud recently left the band, too, meaning Vols. III + IV, like last year's Hits EP, memorializes another brief configuration of the band's personnel.)
Despite the turnover, Double Negative sounds as if it hasn't missed a step. "Boys for Sale" bolsters the band's fluid tempos and salvages a heavy metal solo for its end, while "Cancer Perks" trades the band's characteristic density for a shock of bass-driven frenzy. "Safe Word," meanwhile, captures DN's gauzy textures and funnels them into a momentous rush. An anthem, it's as accessible as anything the band has recorded.
In turn, the influence of Double Negative on upstart Queen City quartet Nö Pöwer is undeniable. A pair of 2011 EPs introduced the band's basic character: raw, D-beat punk caked in enough reverb to afford the band a near-psychedelic distortion. This let them retain the basic momentum of elemental punk structures while establishing an unconventional sound, too. That still works on the band's debut LP, No Peace. But Nö Pöwer moves beyond its own template here. The two-track combo of "Rational" and "Rationale" flares with feedback through a structured medley of aggression. As they accelerate into a blur of scorched tones and echo-warped declarations, "Breed" finds the band at its most raw.
That murky fluidity provides a stark contrast to the crisp The State I'm In, from Los Angeles' Rough Kids. With Johnny Thunders' guitar leads and the ominous force of Iceage's best, the Californians feel at home in any era of melodic punk. It's a success not in its ability to invent new elements but in its masterful recombinations of the familiar. Rife with jerky rhythms and daring melodic hooks, The State I'm In might be the most overtly pop record in the Sorry State catalog.
Broken Prayer's self-titled platter offers similar but more aggressive thrills: Led by ex-Civic Progress vocalist Scott Plant, the Chicago outfit frankensteins an alarming punk hybrid with parts made of throbbing Suicide synth lines, late-era Black Flag sprawl, oppressive powerviolence and jagged post-punk. This is an exercise in contradictions—dense and nimble, engaging and confrontational. The Pissed Jeans stagger of "Wow" arrives on a wave of buzzing keyboards. "National Cum" is a strong attempt at straightforward hardcore that can't help but counter its familiar rush with electronic shocks. Of Sorry State's four January 2013 releases, Broken Prayer's is the most challenging, the most varied and the most captivating.
It's also the most symbolic of what punk can be when it sheds its orthodoxy and attempts to transcend its history. Introducing a year-end best-albums list he submitted to Shuffle magazine in December, Lupton praised what he saw as a newfound spirit of adventure in punk: "Punk seems to have finally digested its influences and moved beyond the retro mentality that has shaped the scene since the early 2000s," he wrote. "I'm happy to say that punks surprised me in 2012."
In other words, in 2012, punk caught up to Sorry State. And in the first quarter of 2013, the Carrboro label has raised the bar yet again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Upper crust."