Honor Role emerged from being one of America’s most undistinguished hardcore bands to breathe new life into the genre. They developed so fast that they were more or less unloved in their time. The prime lineup(s) set a solid foundation of throbbing, dub-punk rhythms upon which guitarist Pen Rollings could flash his indie rock guitar-heroics and Bob Schick could emote his incredibly insightful, humanist lyrics in a voice both angst-ridden and empathetic. Few bands today boast a vocalist and a guitar player even remotely as passionate or talented as the pair.
The Richmond, Virginia band was a well-kept secret by the time of its 1989 demise — an insider’s post-punk savior, even — but you’d never know it from the band’s first seven-inch. A stillborn incarnation zips through nine polka-core blurts on It Bled Like a Stuck Pig, distinguished only by the sensitive “Early Grave” and a few seconds of interesting interplay between Rollings and drummer Steve Schick. Pen sings on this record, but with naïve politics and twerpy rants like “I’m a Nerd” coming from his mouth, this minor, dated affair is good for little more than a laugh or two.
Bassists came and went. Steve’s brother, who (as a guest) sang backup on It Bled Like a Stuck Pig, became the band’s permanent mouthpiece, allowing Rollings to rethink his compositions and slow down his playing. This proved infinitely more effective, and a more melodic and aggressive Honor Role emerged on the 1985’s “Judgement Day” single. When Chip Jones (who, along with the Schicks, was in the Indian HC obscurity Battered Youth) replaced Jeremy Bunn on bass, Honor Role finally found itself.
The Pretty Song, co-released on Corrosion of Conformity drummer Reed Mullin’s label, is a burst of ideas and approaches. A vari-speed series of rhythmically nimble skips and trudges are dolloped with guitar noise and real songcraft. Highlights are “Throwing Rocks,” a downtrodden chug, and the sing-along bass-driven gloom of “Purgatory.” Bob Schick proves equal to both bitter haranguing (“Observation,” and “Jank,” a rip-snorting B-side) and weary meditations on doubt (“Six,” “Care Taker”). The whole band brims over with edgy intensity (maybe just perpetual nervousness). Although weakened by overly reverbed ’80s production, the record is a milestone and its influence on good folks from Superchunk to Don Caballero is easy to hear.
With Steve Schick replaced by Seth Harris, Honor Role continued to tighten and streamline. Rictus is nowhere near as immediately likable as the first album, but — once digested — proves to be more experimental and rewarding. Over an unpleasantly cold and booming drum sound, Schick warbles some of his very best off-kilter, hummable wisdom on “Following Footsteps” and the incredible opening blast of “Listening to Sally,” about a middle-aged widow who hires a co-worker as her amateur therapist. On the other hand, when he recites one of his funniest (if most paranoid) tales on “Skippy,” Rollings and Harris upstage him with a lockstep, odd-time metal chunk that could be the birth of math rock. A funky rip with the Alter Natives, an inhuman shortwave prog-dub flogging and the closing flute-and-feedback-stained mournful instrumental further vary the proceedings. But what seems aimless and inconsistent on first listen knits over time into a truly remarkable whole. Album is a CD compilation of Honor Role’s entire discography (minus the wisely omitted first EP).
The musical differences that ultimately ended Honor Role were apparent well in advance. As HR waned, Rollings, along with Seth and Sean Harris, had been exorcizing heavier demons in a trio called Butterglove. It became a full-time endeavor in 1989 with the addition of ex-Orthotonics vocalist/sound poet Rebby Sharp. The posthumous retrospective, John Morand Session, reveals a productive jam between a very good underground headbanger band, sans excess, and an abstract art-songstress. Rollings’ riffs are big and thuggy, and his prickly “solos” are a joy. There are no real songs to speak of, but Sharp prevents monotony.
When the THC-damaged ‘Glove called it a day, the drumming Harris brother went on to play in Kepone while Rollings formed the even more impressive and uptight Breadwinner, with Bobby Donne and drummer extraordinaire Chris Farmer. Perhaps the consummate math band, Breadwinner released only three singles (compiled, along with three previously unreleased tracks and a compilation contribution, on The Burner) during its 1990-’92 existence. But oh, what singles they were. At once economical and bombastic, they redefine the power trio concept. Rollings sculpts a perfect guitar tone out of tweezy treble and fat low frequencies. The rhythm section is almost too good, but throws enough trip-fills and grunts into the dense compositions to transcend anal retention. Minus vocals (excluding the fuzzy barfing on “Tourette’s” and a Birthday Party cover on a Merge comp), maximum potency comes easy for these instrumental virtuosos. Breadwinner was a harsh, angry-sounding automatic riff weapon, but those inclined to embrace them will hold them in very high esteem.
When Farmer went to Germany, bassist Donne and Rollings tried it with another drummer before hanging it up. Post-split, Donne filled out Labradford (!) and Rollings retired to sing karaoke after a stint as the drummer in Richmond locals Ladyfinger.
Bob Schick’s next outfit, Coral, teamed him with bassist Steve Smith and guitarist John Kovalcik, and “Filling a Hole,” the project’s initial fruit, promised an awful lot. Over rolling toms and chiming guitars prone to savage outbursts, Bob wanders through a very conducive landscape — kind of like Honor Role, minus some of the metallic moments. Exceptional drummer Matt McGuigan was replaced by W.Q. Walker for Coral’s second single, but both “Box Truck” and “Half the Time” are so charged and exciting that it doesn’t really matter. A fine 45.
Unfortunately, Pillow Talk is a letdown. Botched by too many strained singing attempts and midtempo numbers, the poorly paced record lags. The few knockouts (“Ruth,” “More of the Same,” two tracks from the preceding 45s) are burdened by punchless production, unusual as the first single’s homespun sound worked to its advantage. Though it shows a few signs of life, notably Kovalcik’s guitar tone and Schick’s words, Pillow Talk is a middling affair.
Coral’s second and final album, the musclebound Altamont in Dub, came and went nearly unnoticed. The bottom-heavy riffs of Kovalcik (on the disc’s live-in-the-studio final third) and his less distinctive replacement, Karl Wolin, provide the basis for this thrilling, if angst-ridden, ragged tour de force. Schick’s dry, nasal delivery revisits the great spite and snideness of his Honor Role days, though he turns deceptively pleasant on the mean-spirited semi-pop of “Bouquet Holder.” Simple but superior production and surefooted beats help the record to pound effectively where Pillow Talk merely plodded.
Coral dissolved and Schick and Walker formed the far less scathing Dynamic Truths (which, for a time, featured Honor Role bassist/Coral producer Chip Jones). Stressing melody and a cool Fall/Gang of Four jaggedness in its rhythm section, the new combo kicks up sparks behind thoughtful lyrics about mental illness, public transportation and tension in the workplace. Equally capable of throttling anthems and woeful catchiness, the DT’s could floor old Honor Role fans and indie kid come-latelys alike. Though still in existence in the 21st century, they have been largely dormant since a 1998 single on Merge.