Sons of IshmaelLike Australia-- home of perhaps the single greatest punk rock scene in history from 1975-1980-- Canada's punk scene was enormously fertile in the '70's but failed to deliver on that initial promise as the music evolved. Certainly early Canadian punk bands like DOA and the Subhumans were instrumental in the very evolution of hardcore, but their successors were generally less inspiring and the country produced very few great hardcore bands in the '80's (although the recent appearance of such internationally-recognized outfits as Career Suicide, Fucked Up, Inepsy, Under Pressure, Action and so on has done much to correct this imbalance at long last). Growing up and first discovering punk in Toronto during the mid '80's, it was difficult to avoid comparing the Canadian bands one saw every weekend to both the legendary first-wave bands that had made Vancouver and Toronto such hotbeds of '70's punk and the global hardcore that had been setting standards for the past seven or eight years, and the comparisons were rarely favourable.
While many Canadian bands were solid and entertaining, the prevailing styles were a rather pedestrian, mid-tempo hardcore inspired by DOA and Subhumans, the senile mohawk punk that had taken root in Toronto's Kensington Market scene and thrives to this day, and the generally disdained crossover punk/metal thrash that was so in vogue at the time. In retrospect, each style had its appeal, but at the time, I craved the most over-the-top, intense noise I could get my hands on and was freaking out over music coming from pretty much everywhere else, especially overseas; the local fare seemed positively tame next to the likes of Larm, Gauze, Poison Idea, Anti-Cimex, Discharge, Wretched, Terveet Kadet and all the other insane hardcore bands then roaming the earth. Only one local band truly seemed to have tapped into the same well of manic thrash as these outfits, and they were my favourites.
Ironically enough, Sons Of Ishmael didn't even come from Toronto, a huge city with an established punk scene and record stores like Records on Wheels and the Peddler stocking all the latest underground singles for anyone with the $3 necessary to purchase them, but from Meaford, a small town several hours to the northwest. Whatever this this relative isolation might have cost them in terms of ready access to obscure vinyl, however, it more than compensated for in a visceral sense of alienation and disgust with the "small town mentality" that would fuel their music's rage and power as effectively as any simple musical influence. This simmering anger first found (recorded) musical expression in a crudely recorded and packaged demo cassette by the charmingly-named Angry Thalidomide Babies (it was no doubt a similar concession to commercial viability that led the band to title their demo "Coathanger abortion"); the eight or so songs were split roughly equally between ferocious but generic three-chord hardcore and more grating, noise-drenched experimental fare. Unfortunately, I lost this demo while moving years ago, but the real prize was yet to come anyway.
The short-lived ATB soon became Sons of Ishmael, who released "Hayseed hardcore", their debut EP, in 1985. By any measure, it's a great EP, but by the standards of 1985 rural Ontario, it's nothing short of astonishing. Miles beyond the agreeable melodic punk and cretinous heavy metal of their peers, the Sons ripped out 14 songs in as many minutes, and this was no disposable speedcore exercise either. Oft compared to early DRI at the time, this record certainly merits that comparison on the basis of speed and economy alone, but what's much more interesting is the apparent influence of Dutch and Italian hardcore of the era, with the sheer velocity and near-hysterical vocals recalling Larm and early Funeral Oration while the ragged energy and chainsaw guitars suggest Wretched or Impact and the searing leads, so glaringly out of place on an otherwise entirely non-metallic hardcore record in 1985, echo Raw Power. The lyrics are superficially standard '80's hardcore stuff, full of teenaged disgust with pretty much everything but undeniably passionate and remarkably smart and acerbic. What's most impressive about "Hayseed hardcore", and what simply can't be aped or duplicated, is the relentless energy and fury that drives the whole affair along so violently, each song ending only to slam into the next jolt of hyperactive thrash without a moment's let up.
Self-released by the band, the initial pressing of 500 copies soon disappeared, and one of my earliest DIY punk rock memories involves sitting in a Wendy's restaurant on Carleton in 1987, folding covers for a second press that had just arrived from the plant. This second pressing had a new cover and was printed on a variety of stock colours, but the music was the same and that was all that mattered. Around the same time, the band contributed a couple of songs to a local benefit EP (along with MSI, Nunfuckers and other leading lights of TOHC circa '87) and the "Apathy...Never!" compilation LP on Connecticut's Over The Top label. With a new line-up, the band was also playing a good number of shows, both locally and on weekend forays in the US. All that was needed now was an LP, and Over The Top soon promised to release one.
Apart from the Sons LP, Over The Top had released a number of records, and owner Karl's predeliction for raw, international thrash was obvious long before such material became in vogue with North American punks. Released in 1987 and even licensed for a UK press on the popular Manic Ears label, the resulting "Pariah Martyr Demands A Sacrifice" 12" (almost always refered to simply as "PMDAS", for obvious reasons) suffered dreadfully from a truly terrible recording-- not simply raw and unrefined like all the best hardcore records, but muffled, thin and powerless to a degree that the songs lurking somewhere deep within the grooves were simply neutered by the production. Generally regarded as being fatally flawed, the record has largely sunk from memory, even as the preceding EP fetches considerable sums from collectors.
The next release was 1989's "Sing Generic Crap" EP, a tremendous record that recalled-- philosophically-- that first ATB demo in its mixture of raging, straight-ahead hardcore songs (albeit considerably more controlled and cleaner than the wild earlier efforts) and some more left-field stuff that dabbled in odd time changes and stranger vocals. Completely unchanged were the sharply sarcastic, critical lyrics and the short songs, but this was clearly a band already progressing beyond its three-chord roots. Several pressings sold through, including one in Europe, and the record can still be found relatively cheaply. More touring, both throughout North America and in Europe, followed as the band shared stages with the likes of Youth of Today and Larm.
Despite the progression of their sound and their success in touring overseas, however, the band's days were numbered, with an unstable line-up and conflicting personal priorities ensuring that Sons of Ishmael would break up in 1991, shortly after a successful European tour and a disaster-plagued, German-only 10" that unfortunately traded in much of their early firepower for a now-dated foray into music inspired by the likes of Th'Inbred, Rhythm Pigs and Victim's Family (so yeah, and when is that particular revival scheduled to occur again?) and never saw release or even real availability in Canada; bizarrely, the band's final shows would be opening for Hole around Ontario.