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When it comes to regional punk pioneers, few have a more impressive résumé than Tonie Joy. The Baltimore guitarist—currently a member of the long-running power trio The Convocation—spent the Clinton era playing in three of the underground’s most impressive, progressive hardcore acts: Universal Order of Armageddon, Born Against, and Great Unraveling. And yet, according to a 2010 article in Baltimore City Paper, none of his bands fields as many reunion requests as Moss Icon, the subject of a new career-spanning reissue.
Formed in 1987, while its members were attending Annapolis and Severna Park high schools, Moss Icon was one of the earliest acts to be burdened with the “emo” tag. There’s really nothing heart-on-sleeve about Joy’s guitar work, which alternates between new wave angularity and quasi-metallic noise. But Jonathan Vance’s vocals are a different story. His sing-speak style, which has precedent in the more tuneful approach of mid- to late-’80s D.C. acts Embrace and Ignition, offers a soulful alternative to hardcore’s drill-sergeant bark. On “Mirror,” the opening track on Complete Discography, you can hear the disappointment in his voice when he screams, “Oh God, we are brothers/And we’re more than that/We’re enemies/I hate you.”
Perhaps “messy” is a better adjective than “emotional.” There’s something cold and aloof about the conclusion to “I’m Back to Sleeping, or Fucking, or Something,” a track marked by chilly reverb. And yet there is still a sense of internal turmoil: “You were visiting a house that’s been sealed for a thousand years/Little crayon scribbles/A white truck on a string/You were fucking there with your plaid/And your favorite things/But now you’re away sleeping, or fucking/Or something.” Like the verse, the music is so untidy it could almost be called stream-of-consciousness. The only steady element in this noise-punctuated surge is Monica DiGialleonardo’s slow, descending bass line.
Moss Icon was hardly the tightest hardcore band around. But the Maryland teenagers were unique songwriters and feverish performers. Take, for example, “Lyburnum—Wit’s End (Liberation Fly),” an 11-minute track built from no less than six distinct instrumental sections. The most substantial portion of this minimalist masterpiece finds the band jamming on a single chord, which Joy, mimicking drummer Mark Laurence’s energetic snare fills, uses to great rhythmic effect.
Vance, too, is on fire. His singular performance on “Lyburnum—Wit’s End (Liberation Fly),” can only be described as a mixture of hardcore outrage and gospel-style testifying. “This conqueror worm is your answer,” Vance shouts, seemingly improvising over the din. “This conqueror worm is God/This conqueror worm is God.” In the hands of a more self-conscious group, this could have come across as an ersatz evocation of an authentic religious experience. But, two decades after this legendary punk outfit broke up, Complete Discography makes clear that there was nothing insincere about Moss Icon.