Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern

Do or die by burn

reviewed by jim hepplewhite

The hyper-specific New York Hardcore sound (abbreviated NYHC, but which doesn't represent all hardcore bands from New York City) celebrates a legacy of bands that often sound like Sam Spade just before he starts punching people.

They're proudly of a time when Brooklyn had zero Whole Foods and saying you lived in the Lower East Side caused your friends to publicly worry about you. Since then, the genre's grown, influenced the actual mainstream however briefly and ended up in a place where the same people that once tried to block bullets with garbage can lids are now elders.

Burn at the time was two or three generations of bands removed from those would-be Steve Rogers and therefore had the luxury of distance from a newly codified sound to mess around with it. Burn wasn't NYHC proper, but then again, few bands actually are. The most successful band inspired by the NYHC style of the last 10 years, Trapped Under Ice, started in Baltimore.

Members of the band Burn.

Burn's three pre-reformation EPs (one of them a demo for Roadrunner Records) influenced another couple generations of bands further down the chain. On one end of Burn's influence, they bridged NYHC to Quicksand-ish alt rock, which would be a direct link to Deftones. On the other end of that influence, they also influenced a number of bands who would be mainstays at a POC-focused counterpoint to CBGBs and ABC No Rio.

That's off three EPs. So what might Burn do if they ever got a real album?

On September 8th, Salem hardcore label Deathwish Inc. released the answer, Do Or Die, the first full length in Burn's 27 year history.

As the story goes, producer Kurt Ballou (Converge) had a hole in his packed schedule, while a re-energized Burn had 10 songs and voila. It sounds too tidy, except that's the case. At this point, the principal members (vocalist Chaka Malik and guitarist Gavin Van Vlack) are lifers and know their way around a studio. The new guys, bassist and drummer (Tyler Krupsky and Abbas Muhammad, respectively) are agile enough not only to play the tracks but to add their own flairs when the opportunity arises.

This being Burn, two of the 10 songs are re-recordings. Both "New Morality" and "Last Great Sea" come originally from Burn's 2002 EP Last Great Sea, though "New Morality" first appeared in 2002 on a Revelation Records compilation celebrating the label's 100th release.

"Fate," Do Or Die's opening track, is short, sweet, and heavy. In my opinion, it strikes the right balance between groove and brevity, clocking in at 2:28. Mr. Muhammad absolutely nails the rhythm and his opening fill, in what I think is his sticks hitting each other or the metal lip of the snare, sounds arresting and electric.

"Ill Together," the very next song, doesn't. It's four minutes and feels a lot longer. There’s probably a polite way to say around the middle of Do Or Die, Burn gets lost in the groove, but I can't think of it. The title track is the worst offender here, taking an awesome two-and-change minute banger into an above-average four minute song. That said, Mr. Malik's frantic background vocals of "DO OR DIE DO OR DIE DO OR DIE DO OR DIE" are an album highlight.

Of course, it's Burn, the band writes enough great breakdowns and climaxes that they could've stopped "Flame" halfway through, but they still manage to surprise me with a new part that ratchets up the tension. Mr. Malik's vocals display a wider range of emotion than I'm used to from the genre. He can sound sneering, vulnerable, and powerful in the same song. There’s a moment on "Dead Identity" where Mr. Malik chooses to scream, rather than a combination of his yell/spoken vocal style, and the effect's startling.

Mr. Van Vlack apparently has guitar riffs for days, and enough that in a few places Burn'll tease a chorus, but throw another one or two more riffs into a verse before that chorus returns.

Members of the band Burn.

My major criticism of Do Or Die is that there's too much of it. There's too many parts around the middle for my tastes. By the time I'm deep in the ninth track "Unfuck Yourself," I'm cashed out of Do Or Die, which is a pity, because the closer, "Climb Out" is heavy and wonderful. It'll make you bang your head, and as you raise your skull on the upswing, you will be yelling "meet your destiny/ climb out!"

And, given that Do Or Die is a Deathwish record, the intangibles are some of the best in the business. At this point in his career, Kurt Ballou continues to turn in great work recording and engineering Burn (and getting great takes, especially from Mr. Muhammad). Howie Weinberg, the mixer, strikes a fantastic balance between elements. Deathwish Inc. co-founder and Converge vocalist Jake Bannon turns in yet another striking design in a suitably old school style.

Like At The Gates' comeback record, At War With Reality, Do Or Die doesn't reinvent the genre. Do Or Die is "merely" a great (if weird) comeback, which can stand proudly next to the hungriest and most talented bands around the genre today.

In a year when Trapped Under Ice put out their new album Heatwave, and a new NYHC-influenced band, Incendiary (thanked in Do Or Die's liner notes!), stepped up their game on Thousand Mile Stare, the surprise isn't that Burn's still got it and can keep pace, but that Burn's threatening for the top when the game's this fierce.

Do Or Die's a welcome surprise. We'll hear their next full length in 2044, I'm sure.