Brendan Yates was airborne for only a few nanoseconds on Thursday night, but there was a lot to think about during the arc of his stage dive — a maniac forward-flip as dazzling as anything on ESPN’s highlight reel. Yates is the frontman of Turnstile, the exuberant hardcore punk band from Maryland booked to kick off this year’s Damaged City, an annual punk festival celebrating its sixth year in the District — and when he first caught air, it looked as if he was leaping into the void. When he landed, he was safe in the arms of his community.
That has to be a metaphor, right? As a sound and a style, hardcore punk ignited nearly 40 years ago as a furious, high-speed reaction to the toxicity of the outside world, but since then, it has become a sort of refuge — a place where young believers can forge a sense of togetherness through their collective disconnection. The music itself remains bent on tradition and infused with familiarity, but the diversity of today’s scene somehow manages to keep everything feeling fresh. That might be the riddle of hardcore in 2018. No one band is doing anything totally new, but no two bands sound completely alike.
Damaged City offers a terrific chance to test that idea every April, and while this year’s festival runs through Sunday night, there was already plenty to be heard at Thursday’s launch party inside All Souls Church in Columbia Heights. There were vigorous gut-punches (Sarasota, Fla.’s Unified Right), airtight shout-alongs (Atlanta’s Abuse of Power), vicious zigzags (Washington’s own Bacchae) and, of course, a Turnstile set ebullient enough to make you want to jump out of your own body.
The band was celebrating the release of “Time & Space,” an outstanding new album saturated with color, curves, bounce and juice — all of the vital stuff that many hardcore bands siphoned out of their music over the course of the ’90s. Yates has a scorching growl — only a few joules shy of Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha’s — and on Thursday night, he used it to burn holes through the elastic grooves of bassist Franz Lyons and drummer Daniel Fang (who performed in a medical gown, having been discharged from a hospital visit earlier that day). Together, the band sent bodies bouncing, then flying.
Where Turnstile experimented with gravity, Red Death tinkered with time. The Washington quartet played with the precision of a metal band, meaning that their scalding speed consistently heightened the sensation of their slower riffs, and vice versa. Frontman Chad Troncale helped coach the crowd through these sprints and lurches, snarling lyrics that refused to carry melody, while guitarist Ace Mendoza compensated by spraying his solos into the tiny spaces where they were allowed.
Everyone in the room remained hyper-attuned to these pushes and pulls throughout the night, but the mosh-pit began to churn during the straight-ahead sneering of Razorbumps, a Texas quartet who seemed to be deep-frying the Blondie and Bratmobile songbooks into something crispier. “Just go with the flow!” singer Jenn Smith sang in mock-optimism while her bandmates made it clear that there would be no flow to go with.
Dress Code, another Texas outfit, played brawny, roaring, speedy songs about self-knowledge and social injustice, but when singer Brandon Mahler finally addressed the audience directly, he did it with a wink. “You could have been at home watching the ‘Jersey Shore’ premiere,” he quipped. “But you’re in here with us.”
That’s a joke on the inanity of reality television, obviously, or maybe a lesson. In hardcore, the outrage can flow in as many directions as the music. You should be repulsed by the world’s cruelty. You should be insulted by its corniness, too.