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In the summer of 1983, things were not looking good for Faith. The D.C. hardcore act had a new EP, Subject to Change, that was ready for release and already circulating on cassette. But drummer Ivor Hanson had thrown a wrench in the works, announcing he would soon leave for college. Finding a replacement was not an option. According to guitarist Mike Hampton, the rest of Faith, a quintet of students from Woodrow Wilson High School and Georgetown Day School, were having trouble getting along. “It was a good time to stop,” he writes. On Aug. 17, 1983, almost two years after the band’s live debut, Faith headlined its final show.
It was a sad day for followers of the group. Known for its inward-looking lyrics—a pioneering thing in a scene more given to social and political themes—and the gruff allure of Alec MacKaye’s vocals, Faith was highly esteemed by local punk fans. Leslie Clague captured a sense of this devotion in a black and white photo taken at Faith’s last show. The picture, included in Banned in DC: Photos and Anecdotes from the DC Punk Underground (79-85), depicts MacKaye standing shirtless with his back to a sizable crowd. His face betrays no emotion. But his brother Ian’s does. Down on one knee in the front row, the Minor Threat vocalist appears as if he might cry. “People were very unhappy,” Ian says. “People just loved that band.”
So it’s no surprise that Ian’s label, Dischord, has kept Subject to Change in print for most of the years since. The latest edition, which marks the first vinyl pressing since 1988, supplements the classic 13-minute EP with a December 1981 demo session that has never been commercially released. For fans of scene-galvanizing hardcore documents like the Flex Your Head compilation and Faith’s split LP with Void, the inclusion of the 11-song demo—recorded at Arlington’s Inner Ear and produced by Ian—makes this more than just a repressing of a cult favorite.
The word “demo” might suggest subpar sound. But the 1981 session explodes out of the speakers, showcasing Faith at its most feral. The quartet heard on this recording, which also included bassist Chris Bald, is the same band that made the 1982 split LP with Void (guitarist Eddie Janney joined at the end of 1982). And, with the exception of “No Choice”—a song revisited on Subject to Change—all the material here was rerecorded for the split. Fans of that record will find a less polished and more bristling Faith. “You’re X’d,” for example, hadn’t yet become a mic-held-out-to-the-crowd singalong. When MacKaye blurts out the chorus—“You’re X’d/You’re X’d/You’re X’d/Get out of my life”—it comes off as more primal than precise.
Wallop was more important than finesse in the early days of punk, so it’s important to note that the two-guitar lineup heard on Subject to Change marked a giant step toward a more nuanced vision of D.C. hardcore. You can hear the difference immediately on opener “Aware.” Gone are the speedy chord changes and boom-bap beats. Instead, Hampton and Janney let their guitars ring out over a brisk polyrhythm. All this breathing room allows space for more intricate guitar work, such as the descending three-note motif that defines “Subject to Change” and the jangling chords that float through the chorus of “Say No More.” If you listen closely enough on “Aware” and “More of the Same,” you’ll even notice something more or less alien to hardcore records of the era: guitar solos.
But despite its musical advancements, Subject to Change owes much of its distinctiveness to MacKaye, a gravel-throated chronicler of turmoil and tedium (“It’s all more of the same/When will it ever change?”). His brother calls Faith “the soundtrack to the reckoning,” suggesting that, for kids in the Wilson and GDS orbit, a big part of the frisson was extramusical. Void, the crazed and slightly metallic hardcore act that shared the 1982 split with Faith, was a different story. Lacking the deep social connections that defined the first wave of local hardcore, these Columbia high school students had to make an impact with music alone. This is perhaps why, when fans of the split ask, “Are you a Faith person or a Void person?” it seems that more out-of-towners choose Void.
Those in the Void camp will no doubt be excited to hear Sessions 1981-83. Though not a complete discography, this 36-minute archival release is the go-to document for understanding the complete evolution of Void, a quartet that, according to Dischord Records’ Alec Bourgeois, “started out weird and only got weirder.” The trajectory begins in November 1981, when the band entered Hit and Run Studios in Baltimore to make its first professional recording. They left with a 20-song demo, which was engineered by Steve Carr and recently remixed from the original multi-track tapes by Ian. The previously unreleased session is so obscure that, when asked about it via email, guitarist Bubba Dupree tells me, “I don’t even remember recording most of it.”
So what does the Hit and Run demo sound like? It’s certainly not as blissfully unhinged as Void’s three-song contribution to Flex Your Head, recorded a month later. But it’s more direct. The relative lack of sonic chaos serves to highlight Void’s weird, outer-suburban sense of humor. On “Time to Die,” a typically fast and loose performance, you can actually decipher a whole verse of the lyrics. “I’m so fucking full of pain,” John Weiffenbach yelps. “I just need to decapitate/Just for kicks I need to kill/’Cause everybody’s got to get their thrills.” Such imagery might be scary if the band weren’t so silly and self-effacing. At one point, Weiffenbach sings that Void’s Chris Stover “sucks shit on bass” (“Please Give Us a Chance”). And more than once, someone in the band asks in a mock-drunk voice, “Where’s my Bacardi?”
This side of Void was barely in evidence when the band made its next trip to the studio. Recorded in December 1981—and included in its entirety on Sessions 1981-83—Void’s first Inner Ear session finds the band dialing up the darkness. Though eight of the 10 songs are repeats from November 1981, the December session nonetheless reveals a newly nihilistic Void. Much of this is attributable to the emergence of Dupree’s mature guitar style, a disorienting coalescence of heavy-rock urges. The difference is most audible on “Dehumanized.” As it originally appears on the Hit and Run session, the song is noteworthy for the silent breaks that Dupree leaves at the end of each line of the verse. When Void revisits it a month later, the song has become a showcase for Dupree’s freeform interjections and brilliant shards of feedback. There’s a reason why many hail Void as one of the first punk-metal crossover acts.
As far as legacies go, however, Faith has probably made a deeper impact on the underground. “I’d say the end was also a beginning,” MacKaye writes. After Subject to Change, he and other ex-members of Faith formed some of D.C.’s best post-hardcore acts: Rites of Spring, Embrace, Ignition, One Last Wish, Happy Go Licky, and The Warmers. In Void’s case, the end was much more like an ending. Before breaking up in 1983, Void made a full-length that’s never been released. Dupree, the only member of the group who pursued a career in music, wants to keep it that way. “I hate that record,” he says. So Sessions 1981-83 ends not with music from the full-length, but with a July 1983 live version of “My Rules.” This paean to independence suggests that Void—even more so than Minor Threat or Faith—came closest to capturing the spirit of D.C. hardcore. “I’m not the hand of their tools, Weiffenbach growls. “I’m gonna live by my rules.”