“All this rage I have in me/On your face, I’ll set it free,” growls Sworn Enemy singer Sal LoCoco during the group’s aggressively stupid 2002 single “I.D.S.” Alternating chugging breakdowns and bursts of punk speed, it’s the type of track New York hardcore bands have produced since 1982 and, given the genre’s willful stagnation, will continue to churn out indefinitely. During “I.D.S.,” LoCoco vows to remain tethered to this tradition: “We won’t stray from our ways/Stay true till the day we die.”
Fortunately for metal fans, LoCoco broke this pact. Sworn Enemy’s latest album, Maniacal, marks the culmination of its remarkable metamorphosis from tough-guy crew to thrash colossus. “Time to Rage,” a title that once would have promised an indelicately rhymed barrage of macho threats, instead works simultaneously as a mosh-pit catalyst and a vivid description of the resultant chaos, recalling songs like Metallica’s “Whiplash” or Anthrax’s “Caught in a Mosh.” “No End to This Nightmare” contains not only ringing guitar leads but also decent solos. Maniacal challenges where the band’s early efforts bullied and it sprints where they once plodded.
Musically, Maniacal dwarfs Sworn Enemy’s early EPs as well as 2003’s numbingly pugnacious As Real as It Gets. But the hardcore scene doesn’t often reward progression. Groups such as Converge and Bane deserve credit for pushing the genre’s definition, but they never targeted the burly New York scene lifers. It’s one thing to cultivate your own fan base with a revolutionary twist on the usual formula. It’s another, much scarier prospect to court old-school purists, then switch up your style – especially when said purists constantly boast about reacting violently to any perceived betrayal.
“The kids started getting a little uncomfortable [with 2006’s more metallic The Beginning of the End],” says guitarist Lorenzo Antonucci. “They were definitely like, ‘Wow, what happened to the tough guys, the Sworn Enemy we loved? It’s not really Sworn Enemy anymore.’ And that’s hard. But we wanted to be a better and more musical band, instead of just playing breakdowns. When you start a band, you want to play like Metallica, man. You’d die for that. It’s really fun to play leads back and forth, like one dude’s leading and then he goes into the rhythm and the other dude starts shredding.”
Sworn Enemy does retain some of hardcore’s signature elements. Left intact is the full-group shout on almost every song. The members gruffly chant phrases like “This is for democracy” and “It’s my time to fight.” Lyrically, hardcore acts espouse positivity as if they were conscious rappers or Sesame Street characters, and Sworn Enemy brings the keep-your-head-up goods. LoCoco barks inspirational messages in a tough-love tone: “You have this fear of failure. Just follow your dreams. You can do anything.” The combination of compassionate sentiments and brutal delivery recalls one of those bro hugs, with the exaggerated back-slapping punctuation: I’m holding you, but I’m also hitting you.
One topic about which hardcore frontmen can’t “stay posi” is backstabbing friends. Back in 1987, Sick of It All griped, “Call me your friend but you stab me in the back” during “Friends Like You.” The same year, Madball ranted, “Hang out with me then you stab me in the back – are you friend or foe?” Agnostic Front has apparently weathered more backstabbings than tattoo-needle punctures, and judging from last year’s Agnostic album Warriors (“I just can’t believe you stabbed me in the back”), nothing’s changed over the decades. LoCoco broached the topic on Sworn Enemy’s major-label debut As Real as It Gets (“Friends like you I don’t need”) and again on The Beginning of the End (“I thought you were a friend”). Apparently, the hardcore scene serves as a haven for devious friend imposters, and hardcore dudes – so generous in spirit despite repeated disappointments – remain susceptible to their wiles.
“It’s just real,” Antonucci explains. “That’s everyday life, things that can happen in the street, something people can relate to. It’s more speaking from experience rather than bands that sing about war who really haven’t gone through it. And we’re not gonna sing about damn freakin’ mountains, that’s definitely not our thing. We all grew up in the hardcore lifestyle so it’s in our blood, and this is how it comes out.”
If singing about dude-on-dude heartbreak (“Depression breaks through like a juggernaut/You’ve taken my soul, you’ve torn it apart,” LoCoco sings) qualifies as keeping it real, romantic relationship issues, in their opinion, don’t make the cut. During “We Hate,” from The Beginning of the End, LoCoco unloads on the more sensitive emo genre: “These cloned wannabes, fashion disasters/The best way to describe brings me laughter.”
“Some people hate us because we’re not wearing tight pants and we’re tough guys or whatever,” Antonucci says. “Well, I’m not crazy about this stuff where they’re singing about how someone got hurt over a girl, and then they go on tour with their tight jeans.”
“We Hate” recalls “I.D.S.,” with its clumsy anger (“You should be hung up like meat from a rack”), but as Antonucci notes, it represents progress because this time the effect is intentional.
“With ‘I.D.S.,’ it was just being stupid and young,” he says. “We could either get better and write heavier songs, or stay at the same point, writing ignorant music. ‘We Hate’ is ignorant lyrically, but the song is huge. It’s retarded how big it is.”
Maniacal ends with a minute-long, undistorted guitar solo, which seems to suggest that Sworn Enemy could write epic compositions like Metallica did midway between the garage days and amphitheaters. Picture a seven-minute, “Master of Puppets”–style odyssey.
“We’ll stay with the faster, heavier stuff, but there will be a song or two like that to break up the album,” Antonucci says. “You can’t listen to the same song over and over. We want to keep the listeners, you know, listening.”
Antonucci pauses, then gives a concise summary of Sworn Enemy’s future direction: “We’re gonna play what we play. No pussy shit.”