As punk rock nears its thirtieth birthday, signs of its maturity as a bona fide musical style are cropping up all over the place. Never mind that it's always been the music of disenchanted youth. Punk is still the angry little brother of rock & roll, but it has taken on notes of complexity over the years, much as a fine wine would. True, punk is a subgenre of rock & roll. But how many subgenres can lay claim to more than twenty sub-subgenres of their own?
Relatively speaking, the music itself has matured too.
Sometime around the Milo Goes to College-era, punk rock began to take an interest in melody. The raw energy remained intact in the budding hardcore of the early '80s, but playing faster and louder wasn't enough anymore. Punk musicians began recognizing melody as a dimension of the music worth exploring and found new realms for venting their white suburban angst. The result of this is the melodic hardcore of today, which -- lyrics and blistering speed aside -- is beginning to sound remarkably similar to the good old-fashioned stadium rock of the '70s.
In the sounds of Austin-based melodic hardcore band Near Miss, Van Halen comes through almost as strongly as Dag Nasty, and Brian Wilson may as well be writing the songs. Sunny melodies and irresistible vocal harmonies mark the band members as musicians first, angry youth second. Their superfluous tonality is apparently a natural ability.
"This is the first band that I've ever sung in fully," admits lead vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Hernandez. "With all the other bands I've ever played in [such as Bigwig], I was only playing guitar and singing backup, so it's all kinda new to me. The harmonies were all pretty much on the spot. We didn't have any pre-production for our record at all. We had the songs somewhat down and went into a studio -- actually we recorded in a storage unit for two months. I did all the vocals in a bedroom closet."
Near Miss handed the finished tracks over to engineer/producer Cameron Webb, whose ability to brighten a mix to full blasting potential has also lent an expert touch of class to the melodic hardcore of bands such as Staring Back and Over It. The result is The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, an album that's packed with earnest longing and heavy on dulcet vocal harmonies and triumphant guitar ululations. If you're thinking Blink 182 or Green Day, stop now. Drummer Max Béchard's versatile agility behind the kit adds a progressive edge to the rhythm section he pilots with bassist Mychael Bingham, bringing to mind the tricky skin-tickling of Black Flag's Bill Stevenson or Rush's Neil Peart. Lead work by guitarist Sean Cockrell lends depth to the melée of power chords.
Though the members of Near Miss are progressing musically beyond the primal screams of their forefathers, they've adhered to the do-it-yourself ethic that all punks wear proudly on their safety-pinned sleeves. Incessant touring is integral to a successful DIY campaign on the listening public, and the band has taken to the road like ducks to a pond.
"We've been together for two years now," relates Bingham. "Our band has been 'go, go, go' since, like, day one. We started the band, recorded the record and have been on tour ever since. We toured before we even had the record out."
But, like the sea, the road is not a kind, forgiving mistress. Near Miss has seen this firsthand.
"The first few weeks of the tour went awesome," says Bingham. "We got to Phoenix, and that was fine, then we ended up driving toward San Diego because we were supposed to have a show there on a Monday. We had heard about the fires and stuff going on down there, but the show was on. By the time we got to be about a hundred miles outside of San Diego, they cancelled the show because, I guess, the whole city was completely surrounded by flames. So we ended up driving like thirteen hours from Phoenix to near San Diego, through the deserts of California. We went through two deserts, a couple fires. It was pretty crazy."
The hazards and pitfalls of touring without major-label support are compounded when your ship is reluctant to leave the harbor. For Near Miss, the current tour has been plagued with added misadventure due to the road-weariness of Felipe Anderson, the band's cargo van and fifth member.
"That part of it's been kind of a nightmare," sighs Hernandez. "We're all just stepping on eggshells with the van. Hopefully it'll make it through the rest of the tour."
Bingham seems all too eager to relate the story of Felipe's tenuous condition.
"On our way to the Los Gatos show, our van broke down, which is where the fun started," he begins. "We literally showed up that night with our van on a flatbed truck and our trailer being pulled behind the truck because we didn't want to miss the show. Dynamite Boy, who we're still on tour with, played in our slot and let us use their gear when we got there. We grabbed our guitars and ran inside, jumped on all their equipment and played our set. We had the van towed to Pep Boys to get fixed and the part they needed wouldn't be in until the next day, but we had this really huge show in Oakland we needed to get to. They said it would be fine to drive, so we started driving and the van broke down again."
At that moment, the needed course of action became crystal clear to the members of Near Miss.
"We had it towed back to Pep Boys," continues Bingham, who sounds jovially weary, as if he'll enjoy telling this story for years to come. "One of the guys from Dynamite Boy had a girlfriend driving up to Oakland from Texas to see them. She came down to Los Gatos to pick us up and drove us to the show. We're, like, two hours late for our set, and the promoter's like, 'Just get here, we'll throw you guys on when you get here.' We got there and it was like a 'Hi, nice to meet you, can we use your gear?' kinda thing. We played four songs, sold like $300 in merch and rocked out, like, 400 kids and it was awesome. It was insanity."
The rewards for independent punk bands signed to small record labels lay hidden in the road, beyond unexpected twists and turns in the tour itinerary. For Near Miss, it's worth it.
"We like where we're at," proclaims Bingham. "We get to do whatever we want to do and don't have anybody standing over our shoulder. We get to play what we want, and it works out better that way."