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One of the great legends of D.C. music, Rites of Spring made its mark in the mid-’80s with an unprecedented take on hardcore punk. The band’s self-titled full-length, which was released on Dischord Records in 1985, was distorted, energetic, and blazingly fast, like plenty of other hardcore at the time. But it also embraced jangly melodies á la The Byrds. Listen to that album and you inevitably wonder: How did they arrive at such a complex sound?
According to Dischord founder Ian MacKaye, Rites of Spring singer-guitarist Guy Picciotto was a huge fan of The Faith. That D.C. quintet, which included future Rites of Sping guitarist Eddie Janney, was taking a more melodic turn when it broke up in the summer of 1983. Less than a year later, Janney joined Picciotto in Arlington’s Inner Ear Studios, where the two guitarists—along with bassist Michael Fellows and drummer Brendan Canty—recorded Rites of Spring’s first batch of tunes. The MacKaye-produced Six Song Demo is a fine glimpse at the gestational period between The Faith’s final recording, Subject To Change, and Rites of Spring’s confident debut.
But anyone looking for a missing link—the recording that explains the aesthetic jump from, say, Minor Threat to Rites of Spring—won’t find it here. Roughness aside, Six Song Demo presents half of the full-length’s 12 songs in more or less finished form. Those who’ve never heard the band could start here without caveats, and longtime devotees will revel in its small differences.
Chief among them is the midpaced tempo on opener “End on End.” Lacking the high velocity of the full-length version, the demo highlights the song’s lush, almost psychedelic chorus. When Picciotto sings, “Oh, it feels so strange,” he’s right: The chorus is unusual for its time—especially juxtaposed with the dense power chords of the verse.
When Rites of Spring made Six Song Demo, the band hadn’t played a single live show. So it’s no surprise that these songs sped up after the band started performing in front of audiences. But what is surprising is that Picciotto, who had never been heard singing in practice, turns in such an impressive performance. Picciotto was a rare songbird in the local punk scene, stretching out syllables and straining at the edge of his range. His is an exuberant—some would say emotional—voice, one that became well-known when he joined Fugazi in the late 1980s, and the same one that apparently inspired a generation of emocore bands in the ’90s.
For a guy who’d never stepped to a microphone before, Picciotto is surprisingly unhinged. There’s no hesitancy in his performance. On “Persistent Vision,” his intensity builds as the song progresses, and by the time he gets to the line “About to lose my mind,” he really sounds like he’s veering toward a breakdown.
That kind of untethered performance is what audiences came to expect from Picciotto in his Fugazi years; it’s the reason why the slurred opening notes of “Glue Man,” a showcase for Picciotto’s wild vocal improvisations, triggered an almost Pavlovian tittering in the crowd at Fugazi shows. If Six Song Demo proves anything, it’s that one of the most captivating vocalists of the post-punk era never had to grow into the role; he was ready the first time he stepped into the booth.