Burlington, Vt., has long had a vital heavy-music scene. Though often overlooked by mainstream crowds, the bruising strains of hardcore, punk and metal form the backbone of Queen City rock. Yet only a handful of heavy local bands has made an imprint beyond the Green Mountains over the years. One of those acts, and perhaps the most celebrated Burlington hardcore band ever, Drowningman, recently reunited for a short run of Northeast shows after calling it quits nearly 10 years ago. They'll play Signal Kitchen in Burlington this Friday, August 15.
Drowningman formed in Burlington in 1995, during what is considered by many to be a watershed era of local music. In the age of Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana, alt-rock generally ruled local stages and airwaves, thanks to bands such as the Pants, Envy and Guppyboy, to name a few. But heavy music was equally integral, owing to the likes of hardcore heroes Non Compos Mentis (an acclaimed band predated by seminal local hardcore acts Slush and 5 Seconds Expired, all fronted by A Band Called Death co-director Jeff Howlett) and punk rockers the Fags — led by a pre-Gogol Bordello Eugene Hütz. That's to say nothing of the legion of lesser-known and now mostly forgotten hardcore and punk bands that ruled the underground.
But Drowningman were different from, and perhaps more sophisticated than, their contemporaries. As hardcore music in the 1990s evolved and splintered into myriad subgenres including thrash, emo and screamo, band cofounders Simon Brody and Javin Leonard integrated numerous styles into a spastic sound that was, at the time, unprecedented and left a lasting mark on heavy music, locally and beyond.
Drowningman cherry-picked aspects of the music they loved, combining the technical precision of metal with the mind-bending creativity of prog rock and fury of classic hardcore. Added to this was a distinctly melodic bent that owed a debt to post-hardcore bands such as Sunny Day Real Estate and the Promise Ring, and provided contrast to Brody's fearsome howl.
"Conceptually, what we wanted to do was take a few things, mix them together and see what works," says Brody recently prior to a Drowningman practice at a North Avenue studio space. "We'd hear something and really like it, but often think the band could have gone in a different direction. So what if we took what a band like, say, [New Jersey metal
core band] Deadguy did and took it in that different direction ourselves?"
"We were trying to interpret the music of bands who were doing these fringe things, and doing them very well," adds Leonard. "But we were trying to do it without copying them."
Drowningman's original lineup, which included Brody, Leonard, Dave Barnett, Denny Donavan and Todd Tomlinson, began touring almost immediately.
"Burlington was a great place to be a band. But we knew from the start we wanted to play out of state as much as we could," says Brody. "So many bands were kind of just waiting around for Burlington to become the next Seattle, which of course never happened. We didn't want to do that."
By 1997, Drowningman had signed to Boston's Hydra Head Records, home to bands such as Converge and Piebald, and soon released a string of well-received recordings. These included a split EP with Dillinger Escape Plan, a band with whom Drowningman often toured and whose frenetic mathcore and progressive-metal leanings were a reasonably close stylistic corollary at a time when there were few others.
"It wasn't just your average 'junt junt junt' rock," writes Steve Lemcke in an email. Lemcke was a music critic for the Burlington Free Press in the early 2000s. "It was a broader, more expansive sound."
"They broke a little bit of ground, musically," says Casey Rae by phone. Rae was the lead singer of Rocketsled, an early 1990s Burlington metal band whose ranks also included Barnett and eventual Drowningman guitarists Matt Roy and Daryl Rabidoux. "There weren't a lot of bands out there with those kinds of punishing complexities," he adds.
Rae, currently vice president for policy and education at the Future of Music Coalition in Washington, D.C., worked as the music editor for Seven Days from 2004 to 2007. He credits Brody with possessing the vision to push Drowningman into progressive new stylistic territory, as well as for his rather churlish way with words.
"One of the things that separated them from the pack was Simon's rapier wit," says Rae. "He's kind of like a hardcore Oscar Wilde. They were the most hilarious scary band ever."
"I remember Simon Brody as always being one of the smartest guys in the room, with a good, wise-ass cynical edge to him," notes Lemcke.
Drowningman were also, personnel-wise, perhaps the most in-flux band ever — at least in Burlington. In part owing to their grueling touring and recording schedule, the lineup changed frequently. From 1995 to the band's official split in 2005, at least 19 different musicians played in Drowningman. The lineup for the current reunion traces its lineage to the band's 2000 album for Revelation Records, Rock and Roll Killing Machine. That lineup includes Brody, Leonard, Roy, Barnett and drummer Joe Villemaire, all of whom are still local and musically active to varying degrees — with the exception of Brody, who is now a lawyer based in Kansas.
"That's the classic lineup," says Brody.
For the reunion shows, Drowningman will mostly pull from their early 2000s canon, including material from How They Light Cigarettes in Prison, Rock and Roll Killing Machine and Drowningman Still Loves You. But they hint new material could be in the works, perhaps leading to new recordings and maybe even more shows.
"We'll see what happens," says Brody. "Or if anyone but us still cares."
Drowningman play Signal Kitchen in Burlington this Friday, August 15, 7:30 p.m., with Surrounded By Teeth, As We Were and Zero Circle. $8. 18+.
The original print version of this article was headlined "They Still Love You"