Over the last 34 years, Epitaph Records has, to some people, become synonymous with board shorts, spiked hair and suburban mall food courts. There’s good reason: From the label’s 1981 debut, Bad Religion’s self-titled EP (featuring label founder Brett Gurewitz on guitar) to the Lawrence Arms’ recently released Metropole, Epitaph has helped bring nearly every subgenre of punk rock into the mainstream, from melodic hardcore to third-wave ska to whatever you’d call Gas Huffer or SNFU.
But despite the fact that the label’s biggest sellers are legendary releases by Rancid and the Offspring, Epitaph has always been home to a broad range of artists. They’ve put out groundbreaking albums by metalcore titans Converge and hip-hop hero Busdriver, and have helped creatively rejuvenate the careers of major-label casualties like Thursday. Hell, they even released Weezer’s last album, Hurley. Not bad for a label that started as a way for Gurewitz to release music by his own band.
Like most people, I discovered the world of Epitaph as a teenager living in the suburbs, and was instantly drawn in by Tim Armstrong’s colorful liberty spikes and the fact that these artists were on the fringe of a scene that was both exciting and dangerous. I may have had a very short career as an artist, but as a sophomore in high school I spent an entire semester carefully crafting the masterpiece below as an homage to Epitaph. Thankfully, my mom talked me out of mailing it to them.
Over the past two decades Epitaph has slowly, quietly evolved, cultivating a rich, wide-ranging roster. This guide is designed for skeptics, anyone whose relationship with Epitaph Records stopped somewhere just after middle school.
There's no shortage of bands in rock history who have been able to successfully execute a hybrid of punk and thrash, but few of them match the jaw-dropping technical abilities of Rich Kids on LSD — all while hinting subtly at the more commercial strains of hard rock. Riches to Rags' title track features both bass and guitar solos, soaring harmonies and blazing fretwork while managing to stay incredibly heavy. Unlike other hardcore bands, the songs on Rags have a bright, melodic sheen, and there's just as many fret-blazing solos as there are rhythmic breakdowns and vocalist Jason Shears' voice is pitched somewhere between punk rock growl and Dave Mustaine-style roar. Simply put: If you ever wondered what would happen if the '80s glam-metal bands moved to Southern California and started using the term "brah," this is your answer.
Refused's final release The Shape Of Punk To Come was rejected by punk purists when it was released, but these days, true to the album title, it's considered ground zero for forward-thinking hardcore. The idea of using sequencers and electronic instrumentation in post-hardcore sounds questionable on paper, but Shape was a perfect storm of creativity and chaos, making songs like "Worms of the Senses/Faculties of the Skull" uncategorizable classics. "New Noise" has been covered by everyone from Anthrax to Crazy Town, clear evidence of the wild-eyed genre-smashing in which the album indulged.
Ikara Colt was a British post-punk act that sounded more like Gang of Four than Guttermouth, but they still fit in perfectly on the Epitaph roster because of the pure passion behind each note. Sounding like the Subhumans if they went to art school, Ikara Colt delivers songs like "One Note" as if they were a call to arms, eschewing palm-muting and power chords but still embodying the punk spirit. From the lo-fi production to the geometric album art and buzzsaw guitar tones, Chat and Business is a cohesive piece of punk Dadism that sounds as vital today as it did 12 years ago.
Epitaph has a rich history of politically-minded acts on their label, from Bad Religion to Propagandhi, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone more educated on current events than world-renowned scholar Noam Chomsky. Admittedly, Distorted Morality — a spoken-word album about the George W. Bush Administration and the war on terror — isn't the most high-energy release on the label. But it proves that Epitaph's commitment to progressive politics transcended not only genres but mediums as well.
The Weakerthans' frontman John K. Samson first appeared on the punk radar as a member of Propagandhi, so when the band ended in the late '90s, the fact that he'd start a soft-spoken indie-informed project seemed unlikely to say the least. Samson's punk pedigree is hidden well on Reconstruction Site, a delicate indie-rock masterpiece that features plenty of shimmering keys and steel-string guitars. Samson is an intellectual, as capable of pummeling power chords as he is crafting a tender song centered around philosopher Michael Foucalt and an Antarctican explorer.
What happens when a pop culture-obsessed frontman links up with a group of seasoned musicians, and a Moog is thrown in for good measure? Motion City Soundtrack's second album Commit This to Memory is the answer: You get a pop-punk masterpiece that's as lyrically dark as it is sonically dynamic. Frontman Justin Pierre spends equal time on saccharine, sing-along-worthy rockers ("Everything Is Alright," "Make Out Kids") and introspective, demon-confronting ballads ("Together We'll Ring In the New Year," "Hold Me Down"). Emotional depth isn't usually this universally catchy…or relatable.
The Australian indie-rock act Youth Group may be best known for its cover of Alphaville's "Forever Young," but the truth is that the other songs on Casino Twilight Dogs shine just as brightly. The only act on Epitaph to tour with Elliott Smith and the Strokes, Youth Group offer a welcome throwback to barrel-chested '90s alt rock, but temper it with an undercurrent of delicacy. The result is a record that manages to utilize fluttering falsettos and words like "infinitesimally" without sounding pedantic or pretentious. In fact, it sounds perfect.
Thursday may have been born in the screamo scene, but you wouldn't know it listening to their swan song No Devolución. The third album they recorded with Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev), Devolucion is a moody masterpiece that shifts from ambient excursions ("A Darker Forest") to syncopated post-hardcore ragers ("Turnpike Divides"). Geoff Rickly croons over the cinematic soundscapes so impressively that critics who referred to him as "Tone Geoff" in the band's early days would now have to eat their words.
Converge have been pushing the limits of metalcore for over two decades, but they redefined it completely with All We Love We Leave Behind. Songs like the double-bass driven "Trespass" are crushingly heavy, but even during the album's most brutal moments there's an audible melodic subtext provided by the interplay between guitarist Kurt Ballou and vocalist Jake Bannon. All We Love is the sound of catharsis channeled by four guys who have been perfecting their craft for half of their lives. The ensuing devastation is unparalleled.