Last Friday at Raleigh’s Berkeley Cafe, five mostly new local hardcore bands took to the stage to raise money to help LA grindcore musician Sergio Amalfitano cover his daughter’s medical expenses. The altruism was a warm touch, but with Greensboro’s Torch Runner serving as the most veteran band on the bill, the gig was representative of a surge of new bands that formed nigh simultaneouslyand in part because Raleigh scene titans Stripmines kinda-maybe-almost broke up. Of the bill’s five bands, three featured members of Stripmines.
Earlier this month the band released its excellent LP debut, Crimes of Dispassion, and plans are materializing for a summer tour, but still, Stripmines’ future is uncertain.
Stripmines formed around drummer Ira Rogers and guitarist Jeff Young. Rogers knew Matt LaVallee as the drummer of Cross Laws, then Devour. At first, LaVallee planned to play bass in Stripmines, but picked up the microphone when Alex Taylor joined the band.
A year after its first gig in November 2009, the band released the five-song EP Sympathy Rations. By then, Stripmines had established its blunt-force aesthetic. Musically, the band favored sudden but deliberate shifts in rhythm, while Young’s guitar skewered open spaces with unexpected barbs. It made for a volatile mix, and LaVallee’s vocal invective, delivered with a dry, throaty bellow, was the finishing touch.
The EP’s reception was appropriately rabid. Maximum Rocknroll, punk rock’s rag of record, named Sympathy Rations its “Record of the Week” in May 2011.
But while Sympathy Rations demonstrated the band’s power, the EP’s dry production didn’t capture the bigger, more explosive sound the band wanted for the LP. Stripmines began recording Crimes of Dispassion in May at Music Mania Recording Studio in Snow Camp, N.C. “We spent a lot of time leading up, preparing for the record,” Young says.
The band continued to tighten its playing, writing increasingly more volatile and complex songs. Meanwhile, LaVallee channeled a series of obstacles in his personal life into his lyrics.
“It’s like, ‘Holy shit. How am I going to incorporate my lyrics into that song and match that level of intensity?’” LaVallee asks, rhetorically. “I think I did, but it meant, like, ‘I’m gonna match that level of intensity, but I’m going to have to sit down and think about this and try to write lyrics that are as intense as the music they wrote.’ And after a while, if you’re not in a good place, that is going to wear on you. And it kind of did.”
By the time the recording wrapped in October 2011, LaVallee had had enough. Art was imitating life. “You really have to write from the heart,” he says. “And from the heart, in my case, at that point in time, was not a good place to be in.”
Without formally announcing it, Stripmines played what was supposed to be LaVallee’s last show in October, then entered an unofficial hiatus to look for a new singer.
Sorry State Records, the Carrboro-based label that released Sympathy Rations and had agreed to release Crimes, was supportive of the band’s decision. “Obviously it’s a lot better if a band is active and playing shows,” label owner Daniel Lupton says. “Despite all the internet promotion and everything, the best way for people to hear a band is from them playing shows.”
But, he adds, “I care about them more as people than as a band.”
Replacing LaVallee, though, proved difficult. “No one was really biting,” Taylor admits. “On some message boards where I’d blindly posted ‘Hey, we need a new singer,’ I heard a couple answers from some people that it’s not so much that people don’t want to do it, it’s just that it’s really big shoes to fill. I never thought about it until I heard it from several people.”
And if Sympathy Rations was intimidating, Crimes is outright terrifying.
As soon as “Hate Crime” tears through its opening cloud of feedback, the album builds momentum from precise playing and unexpected shifts in direction, and offers little reprieve from its assault. Musically, the band is at its tightest and most bold. And at the front of the maelstrom, LaVallee steers political and personal, without drawing a clear line between the two.
Without LaVallee, Stripmines’ remaining trio found new outlets. Taylor joined Old Painless, Abuse. and Lung Matter; Young plays with Taylor in Lung Matter as well as nascent bands Last Words and Violent Outbursts; Rogers started promoting hardcore shows in Raleigh and recently joined the powerviolence trio Mad Dog. The hiatus was a productive period for the band’s members, and for the local scene, but with Crimes of Dispassion‘s release looming, the uncertainty was frustrating.
Eventually, LaVallee agreed to rejoin the band for a handful of spring gigs and the summer tour in support of Crimes, including this Sunday’s album release show at Kings. For Stripmines, though, it’s just delaying the inevitable. They’ve opened talks with Jordan Noe, whose vocals already lead Greensboro grinders Priapus, but nothing’s official. One way or another, though, Stripmines will continue. Of this, its members are confident. “The three of us still want to be an active band,” Taylor says. “Records, shows, tours, that’s our main objective.”
Young agrees: “That’s what we want. We want blisters.”