Slept-On Records from Classic Labels: Brother’s Keeper (Trustkill Records)

Photo: Joel Dowling

This series sometimes feels like the response to that song “180 Lbs.” by Atom and His Package, in which he laments buying and therefore owning regrettable (to him) records. My collection has a lot of debatable wax in it. You might think this album is one of them but you’d be wrong. Get the scuba gear, this time we’re diving into Brother’s Keeper’s Fantasy Killer because, well, it rules. 

Location is everything and for an extended minute, Erie had an established and active hardcore scene that was exotic enough to an uninitiated Marylander like myself to explore. Pennsylvania's Brother's Keeper was at it's epicenter and, for my money, are the most misunderstood and underrated band on Trustkill Records.

Storming onto the scene with their Self-Fulfilling Prophecy EP, they likely already knew that their sound would inspire passion from both ends of the enjoyment spectrum. “No Love for the Haters"—one of their biggest songs—was no mistake. It was a dart for anyone not along for the ride. I’m still on that very ride. At once defiantly unique and a byproduct of the era, this band's duality was always interesting to me.

On what would ultimately be their swan song, Fantasy Killer, the group both doubled down on and toned down what would find them so alluring or divisive. It's a fascinating, ripping, and wonderfully confusing album that deserves your time. It's nothing if not interesting. I argue it's a masterpiece, discarded by some. Looking back, it's hard to believe this was, at the time of it’s release, the more palatable incarnation of Brother's Keeper.

Mike Ski's vocals have long been notoriously "his" and I'd be hard-pressed to find a comparison point; his higher register screeches and rap cadence were, for some, too wild. It saw him painted as the Geddy Lee of hardcore vocalists: you either loved it or you hated it. Though a sticking point for some, I contend that what builds a singer’s legacy is personality. Shit, the most interesting frontpeople are, for the most part, damn near impossible to photocopy. As much as I love Earth Crisis, they’ve spawned a million lesser versions. Perhaps it's a small part of the reason why each new crop of kids seem to continue celebrating bands with equally challenging vocalists like Integrity, Agnostic Front, etc. I won't attempt to place Brother's Keeper in that same lineage or on the Mount Rushmore of 'Core, but I'll never forget them and that’s saying a lot.  

Even when it dropped in 2001, I was blissfully unaware of any criticisms thrown their way. Regardless of what anyone thought of the group when they were active, all that's left now are the riffs. Bereft of context and devoid of drama, all that's left or necessary to grapple with is the music itself. In much the same way Snapcase went "breakbeat" on their 2003 left-turn Bright Flashes, Brother's Keeper seemed to embrace a philosophy and shared trajectory of a band like Vision of Disorder. Though informed by and birthed by hardcore, both bands found themselves discontent with the "lather.rinse.repeat." Cycle of their previous albums and sounds.

Brother's Keeper at Forward Hall, Eerie, PA, circa 1998. (Photo: Josh Grabelle)

Fantasy Killer is fast approaching two decades in the rearview and, to these ears, it'd play tucked into the current crop of bands content with plucking freely from the '90s apple tree. It’s gloriously free of expectation and the preconceptions of genre. If you didn't dig it then, you may not find that approximation shifting but I'd at least argue that it was adventurous. There are far too many touchstones to reference here, but they are clearly of their time. 

They say the line between truth and lies is clearly defined, but it's far more gray. "I Shot JFK," the album opener, is a thematic and aural mission statement of sorts. Pairing Mike Ski's unconventional cadence with his vague and obscured political barbs and conspiracy theory-laden couplets, the musical backbone is a dumptruck of dizzying tempo changes, low-end heft, and groove metal. The flare for hip-hop is typified in perfectly placed "yeahs" and "uhs." The breakdown in the back half of the track is possibly a false flag for the follow-up banger "Give it a Name," the second track, employs one of Ski's greatest weapons/talents, as he shouts random lyrical bursts above the maelstrom beneath, as if the contrived were improvised. There's a pummeling breakdown with "I got so much trouble on my mind..." that possibly inspired the next generation of PA hardcore kids (Cold World, anyone? Anyone wanna confirm?).

"Chasing Forever" starts abruptly with an Ignite style, skatepunk charged round of "whoas" that both telegraph Ski's later project, The AKA'S, and gives their already strange mélange an additional flavor. When Ski rattles "nothing sure but death and taxes," I don't necessarily know who I'm supposed to be railing against, but I'll gladly accept all takers. "Dismantling the Icon" is a bouncy swing takedown of rock 'n' roll deification that has, thankfully, all but disappeared. In the early 'oughts, though, it was in full swing. Though the track doesn't "reinvent Axl Rose," the off-kilter aggression works splendidly. 

"Worst Spot in the Van," as well as being universally understood by anyone whose ever crammed into an Econoline, leans perilously close to a ballad as it details the dedication required by DIY acts taking the long way home. No lie... the verses recall Jacoby "Cut My Life Into Pieces" Shaddix. We actually all know that song is dope and this exemplifies the unique way in which Brother's Killer married hardcore to bouncy, rap-heavy nu-metal groove.

The following track, "The Poison Plot," contains some of the band's most captivating musicality. There's a rad bass break that winds around an ever-ascending guitar riff, twisting until it culminates with a chopped and tech-heavy end passage that brings to mind Candiria or early Dillinger Escape Plan.

Between the ferocious bass and the title, you wouldn’t be wrong to expect the next track, “Someone’s Gonna Die Tonight” to erupt into a bootboy sing along. Instead, they pivot into a riff bigger than an elephant raging against the machine. For a more contemporary reference, it wouldn’t feel out of place on Turnstile's Nonstop Feeling album. The De La Rocha-ism of “You can’t kill me, cuz I’m already dead” directly echoes the Inside Out frontman’s barked politicisms and the Zeppelin pomposity of Morello’s stylings. When Mike Ski at last commands “there’s gonna be a fight," the instruments nearly collapse in on each other, bringing the fight to themselves.

“Moving Target” perhaps references the cover, the crosshairs clearly and  squarely set with intention. One by one, Brother’s Keeper snipes and snuffs out both corporate greed and the Church. Discordant lead guitar passages, per usual, set up the tempo as an awkward but strangely successful bounce that fittingly chants “can’t stand still on the battlefield.” True enough, they’ve been outrunning the misinformed bullets of criticism since day one, sidestepping everything lobbies at them. 

Following target practice is “2 Week Notice,” which posts up with simple groovy opening based on solely snare and guitar. Ski again employs a “zeitgeist for the time” effect, the megaphone vocal. At first glance, it’s lottle more than a Downset style song about embracing your passions.  Yet, there’s an intensity and bittersweet edge to some of the album’s later songs. This track only highlights and typifies them as the chords, however building and fast, evoke a wistfulness that one experiences only in the present moment, as it instantaneously fades into a memory. Drop what you’re doing if you don’t love it. Ski’s best moments pile onto this one and “I fell in love with something today...” are a plaintive love letter to hardcore. I love Brother’s Keeper and it’s inadvertent transcendent moments like these that remind me.

The mouthful of “The Proverbial 'They'" has an almost Helmet/Handsome feel to the straight ahead, up tempo approach. Almost as if piggybacking on the previous track, it seems to have a specific audience but it remains in shadows, content with the universality of ignoring detractors and those seeking to control us. Damnation AD’s Mike McTernan absolutely slays a guest spot as the song crushes into the wall.

“Runaway Human” is the fucking wall, and also a fitting bookend. Alien abduction, along with the hushed and muddled conspiracies about JFK, are a mind field of the misinformed. I’m honestly not sure what it references, but perhaps my reading of “turn your back on science and you’re doomed to believe any online wacko” is enough to explain it away. Lest it veer into the murky “what-ifs” of Tom Delonge’s post-blink-182 pursuits, it feels like the perfect last page of a novel. It ends with a blistering finale of bruising hardcore to ensure you don’t forget that they’re a HxC band. 

Brother's Keeper at the Showplace Theatre, Buffalo, NY, 1997. (Photo: Joel Dowling)

Brother’s Keeper is a band that I acknowledge as awesome. The beautiful thing about the band’s swan song Fantasy Killer is that it exists outside of it’s moment and doesn’t care if you like it. Travel back and visit it, y’all. 

Tagged: brothers keeper, slept-on records from classic labels, trustkill records