Their wishful ha-ha logic went something like this: If Ronald Reagan’s first four years in office had created the optimal conditions for the proliferation of hardcore — that incandescent gust of high-speed American punk made famous by Bad Brains, Black Flag, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Die Kreuzen, the Dead Kennedys and an underground network of like-spirited bands that spanned the entire country — then maybe the Trump years would generate something equally fast and radical.
Instead, all of those old punk songs from the ’80s about corporate control, ecological ruin, government malfeasance and the stupid arrogance of American exceptionalism began to sound like prophecies come true. The youthful indignation at the heart of the music was still pumping as hot as ever, but now it sounded wise, too. Maybe hardcore wasn’t a reaction to the times. Maybe it was a warning.
Either way, we should have been paying closer attention to No Trend, a band of outsiders from the bucolic Maryland exurbs who wrote scathing songs about the poison clouds they saw gathering on the horizon. “Acid rain is falling, watch the humans crawling,” bandleader Jeff Mentges screamed into some microphone in 1983, expectorating his lyrics as if they’d gone rotten in transit from his brain to his mouth. No Trend’s music was petulant and punishing, anguished to the edge of incoherence, but the most alarming thing about listening to it today is how rational it sounds.
Here’s your chance for a deep-soak in the acid bath: “Too Many Humans/Teen Love,” a handsome new boxed set of No Trend’s earliest recordings, is about to drop on the esteemed indie label Drag City, all but promising to elevate the band’s low ranking in the American punk canon. In the liner notes, Mentges describes No Trend as “this little asterisk” in hardcore history. He isn’t faking modesty.
But if you stare into the asterisk long enough, it starts to resemble a puncture in the fabric of reality. The sound that comes hissing out of that little hole will make you wonder which side you’re on.
No Trend took plenty of vicious swings at the fraudulence of the American Dream, but they often landed like petty swipes at their peers. Formed in Ashton, Md., in 1982, the band instantly felt excluded from D.C.’s teeming hardcore scene, which they admired from afar. So, to get noticed, Mentges would lurk around Georgetown posting fliers at punk hangouts that read, “NO TREND, NO SCENE, NO MOVEMENT.”
The accusation was implicit: In rejecting mainstream societal hierarchies, D.C.’s hardcore community had inadvertently created its own — one with a pecking order and a dress code. “Here was this scene that was supposed to reject the pedestrian world around us,” Mentges says in the liner notes when asked to re-create his 18-year-old mind-state. No Trend’s challenge to the scene teens: “You say you can think on your own? We’re going to see if you really can think on your own.”
That meant making good on the band’s name. Instead of playing fast all the time, No Trend dragged, pummeled, plowed and trudged. Instead of sporting leather jackets and spikes, they wore garish thrift store dregs (Mentges especially liked Afghan sweaters, balaclavas and masks made of pantyhose). Instead of trying to spark a connection with their audiences, they’d try to blind them with strobe lights. During an especially lacerating song called “Mindless Little Insects,” Mentges would prowl the room, thrusting a hand mirror in people’s faces. According to lore, the band once contemplated feeding poison ivy leaves into a high-powered fan aimed at the crowd.
All of this prankish antagonism gave the brutality of No Trend’s music its necessary comic undertow, but it ultimately distracted a lot of people from the band’s fundamental message: Existence is cruel, absurd and incredibly painful.
In his incisive new book, “Mutations: The Many Strange Faces of Hardcore Punk,” hardcore journeyman Sam McPheeters predicts that No Trend’s early music will eventually stand as “the secret theme song of the twenty-first century,” and that the band has long been underestimated and misunderstood. “What they should be remembered for is their unrelenting misanthropy,” McPheeters writes. “Despite their time as mocking nihilists, the band was capable of great profundity, not so much depth as complete bottomlessness.”
The most visceral No Trend song, “Family Style,” starts in that future-abyss (acid raindrops, humanity on its knees) then claws its way backward through time until we reach the bad omens of ’83: “Carbon monoxide, industrial countryside, average intelligence, public opinion, Nielsen ratings, ‘Three’s Company,’ People magazine, ‘Joanie Loves Chachi,’ Super Bowl gaaaaaame . . . ” The world was a sick place and this was a list of symptoms. Or as McPheeters hears it, maybe these lyrics were “cribbed from those anonymous, fascinating rants one sometimes sees stapled to telephone poles in major cities.”
Is it possible for a forgotten punk band to have a best-known song? If so, No Trend’s would be “Teen Love,” an uncharacteristically melodic lurch about a fatal car wreck that supposedly enjoyed a few spins on college radio back in the day. “After determining that their popularity status was comparable, they decided that a relationship would be mutually beneficial,” Mentges deadpans about two star-crossed robots who end up dying two bloody, human deaths. “They were careful to be seen together at all the local fast-food franchises.” (Sound familiar? Nada Surf’s 1996 hit “Popular” is basically the PG version.)
Most of the salvos that No Trend aimed at its peers weren’t so casually vulgar. On “Reality Breakdown,” the band is in a rare frenzy while Mentges reads pamphlet titles in his high school guidance counselor’s office: “Alcohol and drugs! Making friends! Getting along with the family! Developing self-confidence!” The more serrated his screams, the more it becomes clear that this teenage Kafka and his classmates were being prepared for a real world that didn’t actually exist. Even better, during the demented churn of “Blow Dry,” Mentges delivers a trusty proverb with a derisive snarl: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!” Could fascism ask for a better motto?
Keep listening to this band’s music and it melts into a slush puddle of hopelessness. But its surface still sparkles with optimism in the proper light, and if you think it’s possible to hear a fleck of hope in the feral misery of a song titled “Too Many Humans,” please try because it’s totally in there.
“The planet can’t support this many people as it is,” No Trend guitarist Frank Price said of the song in an interview with Flipside fanzine back in 1983. “I think it is unnatural and perverted for there to be this many of any one species controlling the whole thing . . . polluting it and f---ing it up. I’m against the way ecology is passé now and people make fun of it.”
From that angle, the band’s bottomless despair suddenly sounds like an inside-out plea for humanity’s long-term survival. Even at its ugliest, the dread that surges through a No Trend song is co-existential.
Why does listening to this awful music feel so good?
Is it just the same cheapo thrill we get from dystopian sci-fi? A recognition of our fears, followed by a flutter of superiority and the useless comfort of having caught a glimpse of the writing on the wall? If so, it’s more than that, too. There’s a mystery-friction in No Trend’s music that lifts everything out of the gutter of juvenile self-pity and blasts it into that out-of-body exosphere where real terror begins to feel something like ecstasy.
It’s obviously a sound thing, and the best place to start searching for it is in Mentges’s throat, which always seems like it’s trying to feel as much pain as his brain. The relentless repetition in No Trend’s lyrics — written by Price — forces Mentges do grueling work with his airways, pushing hot units of CO2 through a tightly clenched trachea, over and over and over again. This might be the main reason No Trend doesn’t sound completely cynical. When you’re screaming this hard, your face can’t hold a smirk.
Then there’s the bass. In plenty of punk songs, the bass line juts out first, high and clear in the mix, sending a metaphorical message: Here’s the sound of the underground rising up and asserting itself, here’s the hidden truth finally being revealed. No Trend’s lumpiest bass riffs — played by Bob Strasser, Jack Anderson and sometimes Price — all share that declarative, nothing-to-hide quality, even when they’re splashing around in the melody-defiant muck.
That allows Price to move the treble around in every direction. His guitar rarely does any locomotive work in a No Trend song. Instead, it’s all effervescent hostility, emanating from the music like air-raid sirens, or the howls of hungry wolves, or the amplified buzz of flies tracing infinity signs over a corpse.
As rudely as they arrive, all of these gestures line right up on a teasing edge. Mentges’s throat-scrapings are just melodic enough to register as singing. The band’s rhythm section is just steady enough to step on. Price’s guitars are just intelligible enough to keep your skull from collapsing in on itself. This band knew where the lines were. The live recordings included in the boxed set show how they occasionally crossed them onstage (ignoring them? forgetting them?), turning everything into choleric goo.
After 1984, obliterating those lines became No Trend’s only concern. With members perpetually cycling in and out of the group, Mentges started writing dour romantic ballads with no wave hero Lydia Lunch, then eventually transformed the band into an unrecognizable gag. The group’s final album, “More,” included a fake James Brown song, a very real ska song and a 17-minute miniature rock opera with guest vocals from Paula Cole.
By the end of the ’80s, the band had pulled itself apart completely. Mentges enrolled in the film program at the University of Maryland, and in 1990, he directed “Of Flesh and Blood,” a low-budget feature based on the life of porn star John Holmes that predated Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” by seven years. After that, Mentges relocated to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to raise his family, feel closer to the ecology and never talk about No Trend.
“My main job is raising my son and daughter in a rural agricultural area, where they can have a real love for the land and outdoors,” Mentges told The Washington Post in 2010 while promoting an anniversary screening of “Of Flesh and Blood.” “As for myself, yes, I spend as much time as I can being a part of the whole ecological community of the vast saltwater marshes of the Shore.”
No Trend was a worldview (furious disappointment), a sound (ravishing ugliness) a time (the Reagan era) and a place (a pastoral suburb between Baltimore and Washington) — but the last one gets talked about the least. How could a band as severe as No Trend come from a place as tranquil as Ashton? You have to drive there to find out.
The sleeves of the band’s early, self-released records still bear the street address where Mentges lived. It’s a brick house at the end of a wooded gravel path. Near the house is a barn where the band rehearsed.
And on the most radiant day of this weird American spring, it’s impossible to believe that No Trend’s music originated here. The main east-west road that bisects Ashton is lined with huge green parallelograms, dotted with yellow buttercups. There are nurseries, a cow pasture and a humble little roadside cemetery with weather-smoothed headstones that date back to the 1890s.
But near the high-voltage power lines, there’s a road sign for horse crossing, and here’s where No Trend’s sick gift for prophecy starts to make a little more sense. Roughly 40 years ago, out on the fringe of Montgomery County, Reagan’s America was undergoing a physical change. This is the “industrial countryside” that Mentges was singing about in “Family Style.” Over there are the cows that would make “cattle tracks in city streets” of tomorrow’s ruined republic. It’s easy to think of the American suburbs as some liminal blur of society and nature, but here in Ashton, the suburbs are more like what happens when nature gets backed into a corner. Humanity is closing in from all sides.
Yet, on this perfect spring afternoon, in the middle of a national pandemic, there are no humans in sight. Just the ones driving delivery trucks up and down Route 108, past the beige-white sparkle of the Patuxent River. Past the deep red glow of Japanese maples that punctuate entries to various neighborhood subdivisions. Past the thick green woods that hide the barn where No Trend once wrote some of the most terrifying music ever made. As beautiful as this world appears, something is very wrong.