By Mia Hughes
Hardcore emerged in the late 70s as a snarling, biting response to the growing commercialisation of punk via new wave. It was, by design, abrasive and aggressive and unwelcoming to those who didn’t understand it. Evolution within hardcore – of particular bands or of the scene itself – by all accounts tended to be greeted with scorn and accusations of ‘selling out’. In the years since, however, hardcore has inflated to a scope that its pioneers would never have dreamed of (but possibly had nightmares about). As it touched all corners of the globe, flirtations with the mainstream became less and less foreign. H2O released an album on MCA Records in 2001 and played Late Night with Conan O’Brien in support of it. Sick of It All signed to Warner Music Group’s East West Records in 2003, a label that has also played host to Boyzone and Simply Red. But that being said, you’d be hard-pressed to come across a hardcore band that has ever truly, skilfully embraced the aesthetics of pop, that has been casual-listener-friendly in a way that feels fresh and genuine.
Turnstile might just be the exception. With their 2015 debut full-length Nonstop Feeling they established themselves as one of the most exciting new hardcore bands in the world, and they didn’t rely on purism or nostalgia to do it. Although they anchored themselves with hardcore familiarities like exquisitely stompable 90s-style breakdowns and vocalist Brendan Yates’ impassioned yelps, they never shied away from melody. Vocal parts that were sung, and sung cleanly instead of yelled, and guitar lines that lent themselves better to humming than moshing sat comfortably alongside those more aggressive elements without ever feeling jarring or forced. Here was a hardcore band that didn’t only exist for hardcore kids, and that – hardcore purists be damned – was exciting.
With Time & Space, their second album and major label debut (after signing to Warner-owned rock titans Roadrunner Records in 2016), they haven’t allowed that excitement to deflate one bit. This record was in the hands of Will Yip: a man who, love it or hate it, is exceedingly talented at smoothing out rough edges, having done so for the likes of Title Fight and Tigers Jaw – think the Rob Cavallo of the 2010s. There’s no semblance on Time & Space of a major label band trying to cling to underground production values and all the cred it may bring them; it’s clear that Turnstile and Yip have basked in the – pardon me – time and space afforded to them.
The record splutters into life with the heavy-break-heavy-break intro of ‘Real Thing’, a motorcycle revving its engine, before launching into a stomping riff propelled by Daniel Fang’s muscular drums. Then the hypothetical pit closes; Fang builds into an energetic verse as Yates bursts into spirited cries. A raging, shoutalong chorus (“Can I keep it all together? Waiting for the real thing”) gives way to a bass guitar break; making us wait, priming us, before the band storms back in. With this opening track (and lead single) Turnstile plant one foot firmly, as they have always done, in classic 90s hardcore; the other shoe drops later.
Second track ‘Big Smile’ positions itself to start with as another straightforward hardcore slice, all blistering vocals and tearing guitars, barrelling its way towards the mid-song breakdown. It’s here that the head-scratching begins, for anyone who was expecting that straightforward hardcore to last long. A 60s surf rock riff kicks in, more Beach Boys than Bad Brains. When the rest of the band comes back in, it’s still fiery hardcore, but there’s an added boogie; you could just as easily throw shapes to it as you could pick up change. That big smile is a knowing one; as soon as they had the casual listener thinking they had grasped what Turnstile is, they shook it up and threw it back, and they had fun doing it.
The first real, extended bit of singing comes in the second half of the third track, ‘Generator’, kicking in after the intensity of the first half gives way to a serene, melodic instrumental section. The appearance of clean vocals after two and a half tracks of shouted, hard to decipher lyrics ushers in a certain vulnerability, as Yates sings, almost pleads: “Generator, by my side, push me through the darkest times”. Vulnerability isn’t something often seen in the unfortunate machismo of typical hardcore; this is another welcome and fresh defiance of the genre’s ‘rules’ by a band that specialises in that defiance.
The most bewildering moment of the record comes with ‘Bomb’. It’s only twenty-five seconds long, an interlude rather than a song, but it’s a twenty-five seconds that is at once fascinating and confusing and brilliant. It’s a slice of R&B that features vocals from Tanikka Charraé, notable for her work with the likes of Lauryn Hill, J.Cole and The Weeknd. Charraé’s smooth vocals sit atop a backing that’s best described as programmed lift music; there’s not a guitar or a drumkit in sight, nor do any traces of hardcore or punk linger. Yet this is not the sound of Turnstile forgetting even for a brief moment who they are; this is them asserting exactly who they are. Somehow these twenty-five seconds are precisely what those first three tracks were leading us up to.
And it’s what Turnstile carry with them for the rest of the record. The driving hardcore of ‘High Pressure’ is accentuated with buoyant piano chords; the bruising riff of ‘Can’t Get Out’ gives way to an ostentatious classic-rock guitar shred; the Diplo (yes, the same Diplo) produced ‘Right To Be’ chucks robotic sound effects – presumably nabbed from a naff episode of Doctor Who – into the breakdown. But Turnstile aren’t stopping to explain; they’re not so much as slowing down. Nor do they have to, because these extensions of hardcore’s suffocating parameters feel as natural in Turnstile’s hands as any one of the hardcore touchpoints they do so well.
The closing title track begins with a computerised voice announcing, “We will dilute the distinction between time and space.” A bold promise, certainly. But not necessarily one that seems out of reach for Turnstile. Blurring lines and diluting distinctions is what Turnstile does best, and with Time & Space they’ve taken to their biggest platform yet to prove it. May that platform only get bigger, because Turnstile is exactly what hardcore needs in the year 2018.