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Between Rock and a Hardcore Place
Out of the ashes of some of the area’s best hardcore come To Hell and Back, playing dirty old loud rock that may or may not be socially relevant
By Bill Ketzer

Wanted: (clockwise from top left) Pickands, MacNaughton, Cole, Laque, Stegemann of To Hell and Back. Photo by Joe Putrock.

Devoid of Faith. John Brown’s Army. The Disenchanted. Easily some of Albany’s hardest-working and most memorable hardcore bands. Well-trained militia whose acute, infected visions of daily living gave DIY a new meaning: Do it yesterday. Fast forward to 2002, when the brains and banes of those mighty local heroes decide to spew forth a salty salute to their collective canon, only with paramilitary force and a guilty smile.

“We started the band to get back to our roots, so to speak,” says bassman and resident bigmouth Jim MacNaughton. “We wanted to get back to the music that originally drew us in, like Motörhead, AC/DC and Thin Lizzy. At the same time, we wanted to keep alive the belief, the experiences and values that we’ve learned through DIY hardcore.”

The result? “Dirty old loud rock,” says MacNaughton. “We discovered that the rock-fueled years of our youth still mattered and we could do that some justice, in the same way other bands like the Hellacopters or Hacksaw interpret punk and hardcore through a solid rock filter that draws from ’70s and ’80s hard rock, without getting stuck coming across as an exact duplicate.”

When asked whether an online hardcore mag’s recent description of the band as “AC/DC with stronger vocals and more socially relevant content” is accurate, there is an awkward silence.

“I guess it depends upon what you mean by socially relevant,” keyboardist Ember Pickands says. But kidding aside, there is little doubt that THAB’s overdriven guitars and thunderous vocals deliver, with authority, a walloping dose of fist-banging mania, whether it be for the latest wave of punks or the dude who still mentions seeing UFO at the Palace Theatre in 1980 every chance he gets. They feel that the jackhammer ballast of tracks like “American Taliban” and “Messed Up” challenge the DIY stereotype that by playing rock, all those really important personal convictions are abandoned in order to make some foul attempt at the big time.

“That pigeonhole did seem to hold true to some extent via garage rock with Mooney Suzuki and the Hives, but who says you have to go that route?” says MacNaughton. “We’re trying to find our own way.”

Eschewing the compact-disc format for vinyl and cassette, THAB released their latest on Coalition Records, and it comes on a none-more-black 7-inch, signifying their fondness for the historic medium while at the same time preserving a long-standing relationship with the Netherlands-based label. The band also remain on good terms with THAB cofounder Nate Wilson of Gloom Records (he left the band earlier this year, replaced by former Disenchanted howler Kurt Stegemann), maintaining that the trust implicit in such friendships is far preferable to the alternative. This “handshakes over contracts” philosophy allows the band flexibility to contribute to a number of different projects, including a Minor Threat tribute CD on Connecticut’s Solution Records and an upcoming split EP with the Shemps on the aforementioned Gloom.

“It’s always better to work through friends and to always put personal relationships before business deals,” MacNaughton explains. “We still believe that those two facets, if kept intact, make business better for all. Keeping it in the context of friendships keeps it honest.”

“Besides, the Albany scene’s got a really great DIY thing going on right now,” says guitarist Matto Laque, who in addition to his contributions to John Brown’s Army and Kitty Little somehow also finds time to serve on the board of Miss Mary’s Art Space, a burgeoning not-for-profit arts organization. “No one is ever going to ‘break’ Albany,” says Laque. “There’s just not enough people in the city to support it all, but there are a lot of different kinds of music out there—good music.”

“It’s very diverse, there are almost more bands than fans,” says drummer Robb Cole.

“That was also part of the impetus of To Hell and Back,” says MacNaughton. “We can live within the realm of DIY and also play the larger clubs to maybe attract people who don’t necessarily want to see a show in someone’s basement.”

“But I’ll only play the Pepsi Arena,” Laque says, “if they change the name back to the Knick. In support, of course.”

To Hell and Back will host their EP-release party tonight (Thursday, May 15) at Valentines (17 New Scotland Ave., Albany), with Helicopter Helicopter and End of a Year. Admission for the 9 PM show is $5. For more information, call 432-6572.

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