A beginners guide to 90s hardcore in five essential albums

Various hardcore albums
(Image credit: Various labels)

The 90s were something of an unusual time for hardcore. With the genre's birth and wild evolution throughout the 80s seen as something of a golden age and the 2000s marking various sonic and commercial breakthroughs, you may think the 90s were nothing more than a holding period, a bridge between those two iconic eras. That would ignore some truly exceptional and landmark releases for the genre, though. These five releases may not get name-checked as much as Black Flag or Minor Threat or have received mainstream recognition like Turnstile or Knocked Loose, but they certainly defined a period of glorious evolution for hardcore music.

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Earth Crisis – Firestorm (1993)

OK, this isn't an album, but bear with us: clocking in at a mere 15 minutes over just four songs, it’s hard to truly appreciate today just how revolutionary Syracuse, New York collective Earth Crisis’ second EP was at the time. Firestorm brought metallic influences that the band had already dabbled in to the surface of their music, a trick that Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Integrity and a few others had touched on too, but no one had ever hit the bullseye in such a manner as Earth Crisis do here. The real legacy of Firestorm, though, is Karl Buencher’s lyrics and the band's militant, often savagely violent commitment to the straight-edge movement. It reviled some in the hardcore scene, but others were utterly inspired by the extremity, leading to the rise, and change in mindset, of the modern straight edge movement. Love it or loathe it, Firestorm is as influential as it is infamous.

Sick of it All – Scratch the Surface (1994)

The idea of a pure, true hardcore band being signed to a major label would have been considered pure fantasy in the 1980s, so it showed just how much attitudes were changing to the genre when NYHC legends Sick Of It All signed to Warner imprint East West and released this album in 1994. There were more than a few eyebrows raised, with some hardcore fans wondering if SOIA were about to going to pressure by their new label to make an album that sounded like Green Day. They needn’t have worried; Scratch the Surface was heavier, faster and contained what went on to be some of the band's most iconic songs, such as the title track, Maladjusted and, of course, the call to arms of Step Down - promoted with possibly the most famous hardcore video ever.

CIV – Set Your Goals (1995)

The youth crew movement of the late 1980s brought some much-needed melody and positivity to hardcore, so when members of hugely influential acts such as Gorilla Biscuits and Youth of Today combined to form CIV, hopes were high. CIV’s 1995 debut album Set Your Goals was as good as anything the members had previously put their name to, taking the pace of punk, some brilliantly aggro chant-along hooks and a sense of pop melodicism that felt superbly fresh at the time. They never followed it up with anything near as good, but the seeds of the melodic hardcore boom of H20, Strike Anywhere, Avail, As Friends Rust and more can be heard on bangers like Can’t Wait One Minute More, Boring Summer and So Far, So Good... So What.

Hatebreed – Satisfaction Is The Death Of Desire (1997)

Hatebreed would go on to become the band that put hardcore in front of a more mainstream audience than any other artist before them. After only one EP Jamey Jasta's wrecking crew signed to Victory Records, then the biggest label in hardcore, and Satisfaction... ended up selling more copies than any other debut album in the company's history. It led to Hatebreed being invited out to open tours with Slayer, Slipknot, Napalm Death and more, exposing hardcore to a completely new audience in the process. None of it would have been possible without pummeling tunes like Empty Promises or Before Dishonor, and when they returned with 2002’s Perseverance they became stars. Not just a great album: a ceiling-smashing one.

Botch – We are the Romans (1999)

Throughout the 90s, hardcore was being twisted into various unusual shapes. Bands such as Converge, Coalesce, Deadguy, Shai Hulud and Cave In were bringing in alt-metal, odd time signatures, grindcore and jazz influences to the genre, often with hugely exciting results. But if one band were considered the finest of those artists by their peers then it would be Tacoma, Washington quartet Botch. Their second album, We Are the Romans, is rightly considered the high watermark for any band who deal in wildly complex and unpredictable heavy music; songs like Saint Matthew Returns to the Womb, To Our Friends in the Great White North and Mondrian Was a Liar still sound impossibly savage and unstable nearly a quarter of a century after their release. In We Are The Romans' wake The Blood Brothers, Norma Jean, Zao, Drowningman came immediately, but even now its influence can be heard on beloved new hardcore bands like Vein.fm, seeyouspacecowboy, Frail Body, Show Me the Body and The Callous Daoboys.

Stephen Hill

Since blagging his way onto the Hammer team a decade ago, Stephen has written countless features and reviews for the magazine, usually specialising in punk, hardcore and 90s metal, and still holds out the faint hope of one day getting his beloved U2 into the pages of the mag. He also regularly spouts his opinions on the Metal Hammer Podcast.