02. The Disease, The Decline And Wasted Time
03. Underneath My Gun
04. Live Again
05. Laid To Waste In The Shit Of Man
08. Picture Perfect
09. Fake Leather Jacket
10. For This I Sacrifice
2017 Rise Records
Eighteen Visions have always held an ambiguous position in the history of modern hardcore. Despite that their best album, Until the Ink Runs Out (2000), deserves to be placed alongside the classics of its day, and despite their past notoriety and enduring presence in the collective memory, appreciation of the band remains unofficial, relegated to disparate board and blog posts. This lack of canonical status is regrettable, because 18v's rapid journey from hardcore concept band to major label flameout is one of our more interesting stories.
In their prime, 18v set out to antagonize the excessive sincerity of hardcore culture — a sincerity they had once avowed — by pairing a heavy and chaotic sound with an ironic mix of straight edge severity and hair metal superficiality. They were tough but glam, crew-affiliated but Eurotrash, and thus offered themselves as an obnoxious contradiction, an inscrutable bone in the throat. This flippancy found its musical expression in 18v's decision to define themselves as a categorically "heavy" band, which of course just meant that they augmented the 90s hardcore take on metal picking, stayed low on the fret board, and played a lot of breakdowns. In the hands of 18v, however, the goal of being mindlessly heavy was high-conceptual, a reflexive gesture, and it thus placed them both within the artistic company of their strongest contemporaries and entirely at odds with what those bands represented. Whereas the most revered acts of 18v's time — the three C's, Botch, DEP, whoever else you like — are remembered for elevating the genre by refusing to rely on its devices, 18v was, to my mind, one of the first modern hardcore bands to make overkill mosh music the explicit foundation of a serious artistic vision. Since they were talented writers and players, the shtick worked; like their best contemporaries, 18v were able to re-present hardcore to its own audience as a foreign means of expression. But since they achieved this end by adopting and developing the most common, and thus most low-brow, devices of the genre, Until the Ink Runs Out remains, seventeen years later, a very young record, more purely generic in attitude and sound, and thus out of step with the cultural seriousness and compositional maturity we ascribe to those other greats.
At the same time, given how quickly 18v changed their sound following the departure of lead songwriter/guitarist and Bleeding Through vocalist Brandon Schieppati, their legacy would be difficult to determine anyway. Between Vanity (2002), the last record on which Schieppati participated, and Obsession (2004), which presumably saw vocalist James Hart and guitarist Keith Barney taking over primary writing duties, the combination of STP-influenced butt rock and nu-metalcore heard on "You Broke Like Glass" had gone from indulgence to template. Although the band retained some cursory metalcore devices on Obsession, heard most notably on "Tower of Snakes" (which would become their signature live pander), it quickly became clear that 18v had as its ultimate goal the Hinder rock/metal it would achieve with Eighteen Visions (2006), their first and only major label album. The band would break up a year later, ending their last show with a good rendition of "Who the Fuck Killed John Lennon?" That was that. 18v disappeared. What happened here?
For better or worse, hardcore kids, or maybe just the fellow ex-hardcore kids of my generation, have tended to demand answers for this type of career arc. It's historically been a reflex for us to desire that bands like 18v acknowledge that they were once a part of this world and chose to leave it. The exigency of this demand has of course waned over the last ten years, and many (if not most) of us have since adopted a lovingly cynical attitude towards our shared past, a backlash against the admittedly embarrassing standards of subculture purism. Nonetheless, Hart and Barney, the band's only remaining original members, are presenting XVIII (2017) as a hardcore comeback record, and they therefore implicitly acknowledge and invite the bind that comes with an open-ended history marked, to some degree, by audience disillusionment: Do you cater to the demands of your oldest fans, or do you ask them to go along with you? To a degree, this decision should be easier for the two to make, given how a good number of fans will attest on boards and comment sections that they enjoy 18v's entire catalogue, late material included. But then the teaser tracks, "Oath" and "Crucified," each featuring quick running times, screamed vocals, and breakdowns, seemed to suggest that 18v might now just be playing straight-up hardcore. Expectations were inevitably set, if guarded; while no one could expect something like The Best Of Eighteen Visions (2001), it was nice to see Hart and Barney nodding to the spirit of their past, possibly even reclaiming it.
However, by just the second track, "The Disease, the Decline, and Wasted Time," things already seem headed in the wrong direction. I cannot overstate how prepared I was to hate this record after hearing this song. Coming as it does after "Crucified," the track immediately confirms every expectation of a skeptical listener: the teaser tracks are the only heavy ones, Hart just can't let go of these vocals, it's going to be another failed and unwanted plea to let them try this bullshit out. Although the song contains the exact same elements as every other track—plodding tempos, a little nu, alternating screams and rock vocals, breakdowns — its execution is notably strained; the elements awkwardly sit side-by-side, alienated, failing to mesh into the sound Hart and Barney are clearly after. As a result, the closing breakdown ends up sounding cheap, a pander to the 2001 crowd via Emmure, and it quickly begins to feel like the two are incapable of making this all work.
And yet, once "Underneath My Gun" starts, they suddenly start to make it all work. The biggest surprise of this album is the impressive degree of control Hart and Barney show in mixing different styles while maintaining a cohesive mood and tone. Newer imported forms like nu-beatdown ("Underneath My Gun") and low dissonant chugs ("Laid to Waste in the Shit of Man") move seamlessly through the more rocked-out parts found on every track. The screams and butt rock vocals trade off constantly, even relentlessly, to the point that the critical listener has no time to categorize the two; there's simply no need for the "This is the awful singing part, here's the screaming part." Lyrically, Hart is angry, introspective, and still oddly captivated by hedonism ("Picture Perfect" revives the seduction-repulsion take on drug use heard on "Motionless and White"), and there's something about the blunt and heavy-handed character of his words that inspires a laugh, which is probably how it should be. By the time the real deal nu ("Spit") and STP ("Picture Perfect") show up, they're met with open arms. Whereas once such forms might have seemed an unwelcome ploy, on XVIII they signal a knowing and playful sense of mastery; we can finally trust these styles belong here. It's a wildly shifting but implacably unified sound.
To go further, I would say that 18v haven't sounded this fluid or comfortable since Until the Ink Runs Out, and that XVIII in fact compares favorably with Vanity, their other genuine attempt to mix real rock with real metalcore. On that record, Schieppati's talent for turning laborious yet non-technical metal picking into neat, capped-off riffs clashed with Hart and Barney's wish to push further into rock territory, resulting in a record that has great songs but is too long and too jaggedly paced. By contrast, the pace and track placement of XVIII subtly prevent the emergence of stylistic friction that ultimately hampered Vanity; the decision to lead with "Crucified" and position "Oath" in the middle of the record, for example, causes the more straight-forward hardcore leanings to become a totalizing but understated background, and notably transforms "Oath" from a marketing teaser into a charming interlude, an authentic look back that doesn't feel nostalgic.
Bottom Line: 18v deserves credit for making a comeback/reunion record that appeals to its audience without pandering. I'm taking a point off for "The Disease, the Decline, and Wasted Time" because it almost made me write a hot take on metalcore nostalgia, which would have been awful. They pulled it off. It's better than you think it's going to be, and I'm glad they made it. I still hope they open with "She Looks Good in Velvet."