Austin, Texas for about ten years has been one of the strongest fortresses for hardcore punk in the United States. It is a city that prides itself on being "weird". The fact that the city has become increasingly consumer driven in the past decade should be distressing to the city's subculture scene. In theory, if the locale is becoming safer and more normalized, the scene should suffer, right? Instead, the opposite is occurring: kids are becoming more aggressive, inspired to new heights, and the quality of the scene continues to be raised. The same has been happening in places like Portland and Brooklyn. Turns out the more normos your city gets, the better your punk scene becomes. Austin's has been blessed with a lot over the years. Things like Chaos In Tejas, a parade of incredible bands, venues, and personalities have helped to make Austin one of the premier scenes in the world.
One of the Austin scene's most remarkable products are Total Abuse. The band was formed in 2006 and featured members of older local band The Snobs. The thing that makes The Snobs such a noteworthy band in the annals of history were the members' ages. Everybody in the band's ages ranged from 12-14. They were literally kids when they were taking the stage at places like Posi Numbers Festival. Total Abuse was a completely different monster from The Snobs however. The band, named after a Peter Sotos book compilation, features a line up of Rusty Kelley (vocals), Ryan Foster (guitar), Duncan Knappen (guitar), Dustin Pilkington (bass), and Matt Lyons (drums).
There are a variety of factors that one can point to and say "Total Abuse is special". First, the band's personnel boasts experience and nuanced sensibility that few within the hardcore punk scene possess. Kelley's major interest is power electronics / harsh noise, a genre where the absolute worst of life is harnessed into sound. While Kelley is far from the first person to traverse into both subcultures, he is the first to grasp an understanding from harsh noise and translate it into hardcore punk. On record, Kelley's vocals are dripping with the nihilistic vantage point of life that friends, sex, drugs, and violence fail to remedy. Most hardcore punk vocals can be gauged on a scale of primary emotions like love and hate. Kelley's are gauged somewhere between 'kill you or kill myself, either way I don't care'. What's more, the band is able to recreate these attitudes on a sonic level. Anywhere from the blown out bass kicking in like a sledgehammer for segues to the guitars that alternate from grating to despondent. Total Abuse on an emotional level understand the music they're producing. This sounds corny, but consider it this way: if you're trying to articulate a message, an idea, or a feeling and you're trying to sound like Negative Approach to do it, you're not really expressing yourself, you're using their mouth to say your words. Not many bands playing understand this idea and the few that do are the ones who transcend the milieu of bands in the subculture. Negative Approach got it, so did Cold Sweat, and Total Abuse does now. What's insane is that all three of those bands are criminally underrated (yes, even Negative Approach when you consider how high people hold them among first wave USHC bands).
Part of why Total Abuse are so underrated is because a lot of kids in hardcore punk really can't handle what they're doing. I know I've criticized today's kids in the past so this point shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Total Abuse cultivate a sound that makes people uncomfortable (when you're named after Sotos, if you're not making people uncomfortable, you're doing something wrong). A lot of kids aren't really ready for the mental / emotional depths that Total Abuse drags listeners to. Most of the time the people who really appreciate it, have been there themselves or are fascinated by it. Hardcore punk kids will sit there and say that the scene is a place that is naturally uncomfortable, but the fact is that much of what is produced is often in the same vein or archetype. There's no danger in a record influenced by Breakdown. It's the same thing you've heard going all the way back to Breakdown. Hearing an album like Prison Sweat is something that serves to condition you to what they want you to hear. A lot of people can't handle that kind of idea. Records are meant to be played, not grappled with. Music is supposed to be fun, not a spiritual gauntlet. Total Abuse attacks basic convention on how we should approach music. They're not for everyone. It isn't because they're too esoteric, it's because most people are too weak.
I took Total Abuse for granted when I was younger for a lot of the reasons I just described. It does take a certain kind of person to really get them. They're one of the best bands of our generation and you don't even know it. Check them out. Listen to their records now. Listen again after you've gone through a personal tragedy or hardship. Listen to them again when you're at a low point. Total Abuse isn't about overcoming challenges and they're not about understanding yourself better. If you think you're a bad person, you're right. If you think life sucks, it does. If you wonder if things will ever get better, they're not. That's Total Abuse.
Included are their Mutt, Prison Sweat albums as well as their Sex Pig, Self-Titled, and Looking For Love EPs.