Year Of The Knife Are Challenging Corruption Through Positive Aggression

Introducing Year Of The Knife: the band behind 2020’s deepest-cutting American hardcore debut...

Year Of The Knife Are Challenging Corruption Through Positive Aggression
Sam Law

Beyond the communal catharsis of chest-beating singalongs and bruising pit collisions, it can be easy to forget hardcore’s give-and-take symbiosis with otherwise overlooked human suffering. It’s why so many of America’s cutting-edge new breed have emerged from the nation’s forgotten rust belts, overlooked second cities and anonymous suburban sprawls. Posturing is poisonous. Authenticity is everything. Often having had to fight tooth-and-nail for the very existence of their bare-bones scenes, these are bands out to make every shot count.

“I don’t believe in violence for the sake of it,” nods Year Of The Knife vocalist Tyler Mullen quietly, beneath the burning summer sun of Newark, Delaware – the second smallest of the United States. “Hardcore is about positive aggression. Personal or political, it needs to mean something.”

The youngest of six children, for Tyler that 'something' was an escape from a stasis and suffering that had consumed those closest to him. “My family – my mom and my brothers – have gone through a lot,” he speaks with the discomfort of someone picking a not-quite-healed wound. “They were struggling with prescription medicine, painkillers and general pharmaceuticals. Eventually that leads to things like heroin. Having watched my family spiral and self-destruct, I knew I had to break the cycle.”

Literally and figuratively, music offered a way out.

“Shows helped,” he remembers, “finding that way to express myself and let out aggression. I didn’t have a car so I would walk or skateboard for miles and miles while listening to my iPod, and that came to define who I am.”

Discovering the straight edge subculture aged 14 was even more pivotal. California’s Carry On and famed Floridians Seventh Star (among others) presented a belief system that chimed closely with the one Tyler had already begun to formulate himself. “These things matter to me: morality, integrity, self-belief.”

Friendship matters, too. Aside from commitment and purgation, hardcore has always been about finding kinship in the most serrated of sounds. YOTK was built on bonds running deeper than most. Guitarist Brandon and bassist Madison “Maddy” Watkins are husband and wife, second six-string Aaron and drummer Andrew Kisielewski are twin brothers. “I’m kinda the middle-man,” smiles Tyler, “but I can still fit in without feeling like a third wheel.”

Matrimonial and blood ties are one thing, but the philosophy of the “chosen family” feels just as integral: a relationship bound by the scar tissue of shared trauma. Tyler isn’t quick to speak for his bandmates, but it’s clear the pain and purpose is mutual.

“We’ve been friends forever,” he says. “We first met through shows: Brandon, Maddy and I are the same age, then Andy and Aaron were amongst the younger generation we saw come through.”

Whether taking in local heroes like Doubledealer and Dead And Buried, or acts from the broader tri-state area and beyond such as Agitator and Rock Bottom, there was a ravenousness for the visceral live experience that could only be sated by fandom for so long. “You find somewhere to belong,” Tyler says. “You meet these people who become your friends, then you become a band. You discover that you’re not so different. Everyone suffers those internal upsets and family problems.

“We all come from the same kind of hurt. We all look out for each other. We all want to write music that helps us. It’s that aim that keeps us together. I definitely feel like I can be myself around those guys. Everyone should be comfortable being themselves around their friends – otherwise they’re not your friends. I feel like I can see clearly and be vulnerable about my personal problems here. That’s what this band is.”

Indeed, the five years since their formation have seen that processing of pain distilled into something truly thrilling. Across three EPs – 2016’s Overgrowth, 2017’s Ultimate Disease, 2018’s First State Aggression (the latter pair re-released in 2019 under the Ultimate Aggression moniker) – they established and refined a muscular blend of that loaded-up hardcore energy with real death metal heft. The “slower, darker, more disembodied” sounds of their genesis have been swapped-out for a “frantic, chaotic, pissed-off rage.” This year’s debut long-player Internal Incarceration feels like the ultimate realisation.

“It’s an emotional piece of music: dark and heavy,” Tyler explains, “an album that represents who we are. I want people to see that. We’re happy people, hopefully more often than we’re not, but there is darkness here, and sad things going on deep in our music. These songs are truly cathartic. Sure, it can be hard to continually replay them onstage, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. This is what I’m here for.”

From the bludgeoning blunt-force charging through Premonitions Of You to the fist-swinging mania of Nothing To Nobody, Internal Incarceration’s 13 songs in 31 minutes explode with the shattering conviction of Madball and Kickback bound to the weight of Cannibal Corpse. Produced by legendary Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, any fat has been trimmed and their sinewy strengths have been drawn out. (“He pushed us,” Tyler enthuses. “He’s the kind of guy who’s not afraid to call you out. It’s useful to be around people like that.”) Although modern hardcore contemporaries Knocked Loose, Jesus Piece and Code Orange are the obvious comparison, such is the level of sheer heft that death-metal-revivalists like Gatecreeper should be another reference-point.

As striking as the music is the message within. There are bleeding-wound first-person laments aplenty: This Time’s rebuke of everyday callousness and reminder that karma is a bitch; Stay Away’s rumination on the pain of trust betrayed; Manipulation Artist charting the perils of a controlled relationship. But there are broader societal challenges, too. Virtual Narcotic condemns the social media addiction that’s “destroying lives and relationships”. Eviction laments the household instability faced by so many families in 2020. Through The Eyes and Sick Statistic look at the American opioid crisis so close to home from a far broader perspective.

“Hardcore should never be separated from society,” Tyler puts his foot down, “and all the shit that’s going on in it. It’s always been about rebelling. The platform is supposed to be there for you to get in the way of evil forces in the world and destroy them. Every government is corrupt. I think the job of hardcore it to expose and challenge that corruption.”

And yet, there seems to have been a constant chorus of calls – particularly in the wake of YOTK’s recent Black Lives Matter fundraising – for their music and politics to be kept separate. Typically, Tyler remains steadfast. “Some people aren’t as political as others,” he shrugs. “Some people just aren’t as able as others to talk about it. Some people don’t understand. I do believe there needs to be a balance. But I that balance is between [outward] political conversation and [internal] personal experience.”

Unlike many of their straight edge peers, though, there’s no sense of lofty superiority. It’s indicative of the band’s deeper empathy and humanity. “There’s a lot of militancy in straight edge,” Tyler reflects. “When people come and go, using this movement that real [devotees] take such pride in as just a label, I can understand that kind of gatekeeping. I’m a fan of that hard shit, but YOTK never wanted to be that way. We never wanted to be ignorant or exclusive. People don’t learn like that. It always feels so cool when individuals who are struggling with addiction come to us to tell us how our music is helping them. People need to be accepted for who they are.”

It’s a sensibility reflected in the album’s emphatic emotional highlights. Album closer DDM (a song that’s been doing the rounds live in one form or another for almost as long as the band has existed) is an open-armed celebration of their home state, acknowledging the painful lessons learned there, but moreso the tight-knit community that got them through. Final Tears, meanwhile, is an extraordinary treatise on the power of perseverance and positivity that overcomes its initial sadness with waves of white-hot light. Tyler grins, “We listen to that song and can’t believe we wrote it!”

They’re only getting started, mind. Tyler’s ambitions might be simply stated (“Longevity. A strong discography. No bullshit. No compromising our sound.”) but their hard-ground spark and commitment to “keep helping the people out there in the world who need it” promises YOTK’s fire is going to keep burning bigger and brighter still. And, although lockdown has frustratingly hamstrung their mission, 2020 certainly hasn’t been short of fuel for the furnace.

“Delivering this album has inspired us to start writing the next,” Tyler grins. “The way the world is going right now just makes me angrier and angrier. Now we’re going to have to write music to deal with that...”

Internal Incarceration is out now via Pure Noise.

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