Penitentiary, Recidivist (Upstate Records, 2018)

Albany-based label Upstate Records has been bludgeoning the scene so consistently, all is forgiven if our battered skulls miss a detail once and a while. Their brand is a blend of heavy hardcore, beatdown, and street metal (Thanks, Purgatory) forged in the dying flames of small town industry and unforgiving winters. Harsh conditions breed harsh sounds. It's with Upstate's dependable co-sign that we've been gifted Indiana's Penitentiary, whose 2018 late summer LP, Recidivist, is a bone-jarring must- listen.

The last few years will be remembered as yet another glorious renaissance of metallic and unrelenting heavy hXc. They certainly sit comfortably with Departed, Dissent, Detain, Eyes of the Lord, Three Knee Deep, Queensway, and the aformentioned Purgatory. In the world of "legislative hardcore," Penitentiary would be where you're sent after Judiciary found you guilty (please @ me with hXc puns).

The prison recidivism rate in the Hoosier State is roughly one in three but, if this is the "Penitentiary" you're going to then you're bound to end up returning willingly. It's absolutely crushing, eminently replayable, and another resounding  "W" for Upstate. Ditch the Cup O’ Noodles at the hXc commissary and pick this up.

In terms of scope, Penitentiary (Mason, Jake, Victor, Chris, Gabe) play the long con. Check “Injustice” for, fittingly, ...And Justice for All runtimes, the longest of which eclipses 7 minutes. They manage an epic sensibility, replete with a plaintive acoustic intro and mammoth metallic thrash leads that blot out the sun. As if defiantly remembering their Midwest blood, the swing violently between guitar histrionics and pulverizing beatdown hXc. Hints of everything from crossover, NYHC, and branches of the family tree that grew from Bulldoze.  

Checking in with chops like these, it’s an honor to have them decidedly on our team. The track “Recidivist” unleashes a more taut exploration of their myriad talents. Aside from being a takedown of the Prison Industrial Complex, there’s more focus on both impossibly thick gang vocals and crushing drum runs. When we finally get to the desperate echoey vocals of “...we all fucking lose” as the title track closes, we’ve toured their entire sonic arsenal, revealing a battalion of excessive firepower. For an even more nuanced but no less antagonistic callout on the institutional racism and corruption of “correctional” facilities, check closer “Divert and Divide.”

Photo courtesy of Upstate Records

Another track that, albeit longer, does it’s time awash in brutality as protest, recalling both Integrity and classic Teutonic thrash. The outro feels like the logical bookend to “Injustice” it’s fade-out the inverse of the Big Four’s finest “Blackened.” 

Elsewhere, the impact of immediacy is felt on bangers like “Piece of Mind” and “Snitch," the latter hiding a “deviled” Easter egg. Starting with the lyrics  “ no mercy...," it’s no accident the riffs conjur the titanic thrash of Satan, Laughing As You Eternally Rot. 

If I’m forcing myself a single highlight, I’ll choose the same song that’ll likely level all comers. Though clearly not intended as a centerpiece, I can’t think of a finer synthesis of Penitentiary’s intentions: to batter and to battle. The first track “Hate Combined”, which likely refers to the wicked guest spots from Zack and Serg of Silverhammer, is an absolute rager. Starting with a seemingly saccharine sample from the Jackson 5’s “Goin’ Back to Indiana.” As it bleeds into the opening notes, the vibes darken and the entire affair is altogether more sinister as a result. The song explodes into a maelstrom of Slayer-isms, even pairing higher register Tom Araya barking with the traditional Heavy Hardcore intimidator. There’s ample double bass that locks in a deadly groove with the bass, and endless mini solos that violently dovetail around the main chugging riff. Perfectly choppy and sharp, it’s easy to imagine these riffs, where they played at variable speeds, would be equally visceral as sludge, doom, or death metal.There’s no shortage of gang vocals, which are typically lead-ins to breakdowns.

Photo: Kyle Bergfors

Again, the are nods to bands in the lineage of Full Blown Chaos or All Out War, likely showcasing the skills these players have honed as part of a veritable Murderer’s Row. Among others, they’ve spent time in Blood In Blood Out, Blackwater, Choking on Reality, To Tha Pavement, and Shut the Fuck Up (presumably not an indie folk side project). 

Their Indiana allegiance bares its teeth in the lyrics in what’s essentially a hyper localized roadmap of degradation, depression, and desolation. Across the LP, they remain planted firmly in the world of concrete and disappointment, leaving Luciferian themes for others. There’s far too much going on in reality to plumb for inspiration. It speaks to the hardened edifice of towns relegated to the bust as opposed a boom that, perhaps, the current residents never experienced. In much the same way the Rust Belt has laid waste to area codes that once flourished, we’re instead left with the unwelcome hitchhikers of addiction and arrest. Penitentiary, in keeping with hXc tradition, mine themes of loyalty, the collision of pride and disdain for your hometown, and the difference between given and chosen family. We’re given numerical touchstones to anchor to their cold reality, as they reference actual streets as well as the “219," a zip code comprising the outer edges of Metropolitan Chicago. 

Photo: Kyle Bergfors

When the utterly feral guest spot finally drops, beginning with “my friends, my family...” it’s with such wide-eyed intensity that the beatdown it engages is devastating. This combined hate, if you will, between fellow Indiana crushers feels like legitimate purgation, a moment of such intense catharsis that it borders on a frenzy we’ve intruded upon. As it twice devolves into “...fuck you”, the intended recipient is unclear, but one can imagine it’s their town that’s the target. As Penitentiary is wont to do, they immediately change it up, switching instantly into Dom Romeo-inspired flurries of guitar mastery that sidestep flash in a tasteful way. 

In the course of just an opener, this bruise crew fits metallic hXc, beatdown, thrash, and death into a seamless attack. From there, the proceedings only get more serious. This isn’t for the faint of heart and certainly not for those looking for :60 power violence screeds. With Penitentiary, you’re locked up far longer and you’re all the more lucky for it. 

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