With the sincerest of apologies to the Windy City, Minneapolis has long satiated my hunger for Midwestern hardcore. Havoc Records, the fiercely independent brainchild of Felix Von Havoc, was a mailorder savior in the pre-streaming era. Occupying a similar space as Profane Existence or Feral Ward, the long-running independent label was formed in 1992 as a vehicle to release his own band Destroy’s now seminal Burn This Racist System Down! That classic 7" aside, the discography reads as a "who's who?" of backpatch and buttflap royalty. The label has released utterly essential slabs of wax by the likes of Tear It Up, Vitamin X, Aus Rotten, 9 Shocks Terror, The Pist, Amdi Petersen's Army, and Wolfbrigade.
In keeping with my process of unearthing slept-on records from the best labels of all time, finding my favorite Havoc release proved an excruciatingly difficult task, as they're responsible for a shockingly large amount of my all-time favorites. Dead Stop, Regulations, Victims, and Caustic Christ all dropped albums through Felix's labor of love and deserve a proper and thorough dusting off. Shit, on some days my favorite hardcore LP is Killed By the Kids by the legendary DS-13. Alas, I wanted to dig deeper and give some shine to an indispensable rager. For this installment of 'Slept-On Records," let's turn our attention to the city of Brotherly Love, another city in hardcore's Hall of Fame. In 2005, R.A.M.B.O. released Bring It! and I haven't been right since.
In 2005, I somehow managed to drive my piece of shit Chevy Corsica from Baltimore to Chicago Fest on 70 West, a then ghost road of tractor trailers and corn. Up until that point, I was unfamiliar with the gnarly namesake of this piece. On Easter Sunday, which I hear is a holiday to others, a clamorous band entered from the rear of the hall. Clad in but a sheet and makeshift crown of thornz, the frontperson was carried through the crowd on a crucifix. Fueled by a blatant blasphemy only the godless can generate and furious charged hardcore punk, R.A.M.B.O., for me, stole the weekend. Singer Tony Pointless spoke with a careful and precise economy, his words about body-image and dysmorphia proved incredibly empowering, managing to subvert the standard banter of between song punk ranting. Instead, the targets were pointed and carefully chosen barbs.
Bring It! charges immediately out of the gate as opener "The War on Self-Esteem" echoes the sentiment that he so thoughtfully presented that freezing day in a giant hall filled wall to wall with impatient, pensive punks. Pace-wise, the first track is ultimately a telling one. Managing to somehow encapsulate the epic flourishes of D-beat and the best of Swedish hardcore, it flies by at lightspeed on a torrent of absolutely pummeling, single note Discharge guitar leads, matched by a killer rhythm section. The frenetic and intense bass runs atop the galloping bombast of Dis-drums never sway, consistently laying the foundation for an all-out aural assault.
At first, the nearly indecipherable and venomous vocals ping pong atop the brutality until we're given the anthemic, for the people, by the people protest refrain of “I refuse to hate myself. Break the spell of breaking people."
Overt yet overly direct, the focused sensibility of the words are ultimately responsible for more than just offering commentary on unrealistic expectations, the falsehood of "ideal," and the struggle with personal distortion.
In a scene that was still recovering from its flirtation with unreasonably thin, fashionista frontpeople from a few years prior, R.A.M.B.O. and a few others were the remedy that ultimately began my transformation to my own body acceptance, from "tee shirt in the pool" to "I don't give a fuck." Alongside the first song, the curiously titled timestamp of "Atkins' America" spins a similar tale of autonomy. Though deeply rooted in crust, D-beat, and all things Scandinavian hardcore; the Philly horde were also fully capable of laying down impeccable mosh. Winning the apropos song title award, "Kids who mosh like assholes must make for selfish lovers," is an absolute ripper that calls out the selfishness of crowd-killers and showgoing violence, seeming to acknowledge that "moshing" is also an issue of consent.
The progressive bent of the group is evident throughout, acknowledging the need for hardcore to be a safe space years before it became a standard rallying cry in some corners. The third track, "If Our Leaders Are Impotent Only the People Can Rise" is, on paper, about Milosevic and his regime but directly parallels with the invasion of Iraq. Roughly midway into a track that recalls contemporaries The Holy Mountain, there's a straight-up mosh call of "Rise, Rise, Rise..." that clearly and lovingly writes a love letter addressed to Hatebreed. As if they needed another arrow in their quiver, there’s an underlying layer of defiantly DIY ethics and leftist politics that rival the first wave of peace punk bands like CRASS and Rudimentary Peni as well as their fellow acronym-loving, black-clad A.P.P.L.E. Musically, there’s an appreciation for the straightforward and brutal charge of say, World Burns To Death or Code 13, as much as there is a well rounded knowledge of the history of D-beat hardcore.
There's not a missed target among the bunch. "Pig Shit" skewers, you guessed it, the cops, in a furious blur of grinding hardcore that borders on power violence in its refrain. Already rampantly out of control nearly 15 years ago, police continue to wage the same war on people of color that R.A.M.B.O. railed against in their Mayfair area of Philadelphia. "Wage Slave Mercenaries" attacks the defense "contractors" pimped out by the US military for millions under the shadow of the Iraq Occupation a la From Ashes Rise, while "Godless Freedom Fighters" and "That Lump In Your Throat" both read as rallying cries against the hollow, post 9/11 nationalism that allowed such atrocity. The latter begins a triumphant open that brings to mind Change Is a Sound-era Strike Anywhere before devolving into a fierce crust anthem that mines both Tragedy and labelmates Victims.
Though I know little of what became of R.A.M.B.O. or its members, “Sophomore Effort” clearly elucidates where they didn’t end up. It’s a fully fleshed out takedown of careerist, opportunistic hardcore bands with their eyes set on major deals and the then successful Warped Tour. They lived and died by the DIY way or the highway.
Whether or not intended as a farewell, closing tune “Goodbye” feels as if the punx are intentionally falling on their sword. A fitting end to an absolutely crushing album that fits neatly between multiple threads of the hardcore cloth. R.A.M.B.O brought it on Bring It! It’s time y’all bring it the love it deserves.
Both presented as nothing more than interesting curios, I found it essentially impossible to access full lyrics via the internet and instead pulled out a deluxe CD edition I picked up from Mr. Havoc’s distro at a long dead venue in the Nation’s capital. Apparently, this was an early Kurt Ballou-helmed recording, only further proving that a) that dude fucking rules and b) that’s why this sounds killer. The included band photos are amazing.
Additionally, I came across a bonus disc I hadn’t seen since I had thicker hair. In what’s essentially a tour documentary, they relentlessly toured what’s offensively dubbed “third world” locales. Seemingly a group of tender and hilarious folk, there’s a deep appreciation for the natural world that shines through in their commitment to alternative energy for their tour bus and the pursuit of amateur ornithology.