Published Apr 11, 2019Asked why the straight edge message that his band advocates — a lifestyle free of drugs, smoking and alcohol — has begun to resonate with music fans again, Year of the Knife guitarist Brandon Watkins is blunt:
"People die every day, and they're tired of being sad."
Last year saw a ripple of prominent releases, from bands like True Love, Harm's Way and Trail of Lies, and reunions from Arkangel and One King Down, ultimately leading to 2019's new wave of straight edge music. Elsewhere, Pure Noise Records has put out releases from Watkins' band and Kentucky-based straight edge group Inclination in the last month, and Ontario legends Chokehold have announced a new release on Good Fight Music. Tickets for Have Heart's summer reunion dates sold out in mere seconds, on two separate occasions.
Straight edge is back with a vengeance.
"The music we do is relatable," Watkins explains to Exclaim! from his Delaware home. "It's about loss, struggles with addiction and the people that enable it. Maybe a kid who isn't straight edge can hear shit like that, read into it, ask why we say these things, discover straight edge and want to participate in the movement. We're making it relatable and accessible."
Inclination/Knocked Loose guitarist Isaac Hale shares a similar sentiment with Exclaim! on the phone from Oldham County, Kentucky.
"There are a lot of bands right now that are very, very straight edge, but in an inclusive way," Hale says. "Back in the day, there was a lot of negativity surrounding straight edge. It was a scary deal, with a lot of violence surrounding it. I just don't think that exists right now. There are a lot of kids getting into hardcore at a young age, and to see the straight edge movement can be inspiring for them. They want to be a part of something more."
Year of the Knife's Ultimate Aggression LP takes from the metallic edges of straight edge hardcore, offering a fervent visitation to the violent sounds of Throwdown and Kickback. Inclination's latest EP, When Fear Turns to Confidence is just as angry, but holds a larger-than-life, inspirational approach that recalls Buried Alive and One King Down's most notable material.
"It's speaks about straight edge in a positive way," continues Hale. "When turning away from something you might fear, you learn that you don't have to be afraid of it. You can live positively knowing that it exists, you're not taking part of it, and be proud of that. It puts straight edge in such an empowering light, [rather than using it as] an excuse to demean another's lifestyle. It's positive reinforcement for our life choices. You don't have to be afraid of substance abuse. You can be confident in your decision to not partake and share that message with others."
Watkins, 26, claimed straight edge at 17. His introduction to the movement was a friend wearing a Blood of the Martyr shirt with Xs printed on the front (a common symbol for straight edge) with the phrase "Straight Edge — This is a matter of life or death" scrolled across the back. At 15, that same friend showed Watkins "goofy shit" such as Black My Heart and On Broken Wings, and brought him to see xIn It To Win Itx, a Delaware-based group on straight edge label Seventh Dagger Records, who were on tour with notorious Toronto straight edge act Liferuiner.
"Stupid heavy, silly vocals, terrible lyrics, but still so sick; I actually met Tyler (Mullin, Year of the Knife vocalist) at that show," Watkins recalls. "I think I was always straight edge, I just hadn't found it. Everyone had always joked and called me straight edge when I was young, before I even knew what it was. I never really got it, and always replied 'Whatever, fuck you, I don't care that you smoke, [but] I don't want to smoke.'"
Hale, 21, was always "adamant about how much I loved straight edge" but was afraid to claim his edge until he was 18.
"I was afraid of getting chastised by my older friends because I would be claiming as such a young guy. To some people, for some dumb reason, it's considered a stupid move," Hale explains. "I always had a drive against that stuff from a young age, just something I never put a name on. It's never something I boast about that makes me better than anyone else, but I am super proud of it. I feel a crazy sense of self-worth when it comes to straight edge. A lot of people use the movement as a way to talk down on others, but for me it was always a way of inspiring this drive against substance abuse. I had a name for the feeling I had against all these things I felt when I was a kid. The music and community that comes out of straight edge just backs it up more; Inclination has made me more straight edge."
Hale's introduction to straight edge culture was through discovering Have Heart, and like Watkins, seeing the term printed on their shirts.
"Everyone I knew liked Have Heart. It was everywhere. All of my friends that were into different types of music — that didn't even like hardcore — liked Have Heart," Hale says. "People began to see Have Heart in such a broader sense than just music. They didn't talk about them as a hardcore band, but just a band. Songs to Scream at the Sun took a more melodic, emotional approach to hardcore at the time. I think that those deep lyrics resonated with hardcore fans, metalcore kids, music nerds. I think a lot of people caught onto that."
Inclination will be playing Sound & Fury festival in Los Angeles as a part of a small string of Have Heart reunion shows in July, all of which are presently sold out.
"They never stopped being relevant, even after they stopped. They've been changing lives consistently since their first recordings. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play Sound & Fury."
Watkins shares the same degree of gratitude with Pure Noise Records, the present home of Year of the Knife and Inclination's musical catalogues.
"We were the first straight edge band on the label. I'd also say that we, Inclination and Sanction are easily the heaviest on the roster," Watkins says. "It's nuts to think about a bigger independent picking up a straight edge band. I think it's paving the way for more bands like us to start, and heavier bands to be looked at by bigger labels."
"The people at Pure Noise are amazing and encouraging. They love music, and have been taking notice of the straight edge movement," Hale says. "It's thriving right now. I think they want to encourage that style of music and way of living... I've seen a lot of new straight edge bands that are really awesome come out in the past couple years, and I think it's only going to keep going."
With the loss of artists like Lil Peep, Mac Miller and Kyle Pavone of We Came As Romans in the last two years to the opioid crisis, the commentary around straight edge can be equally sensitive as it is inspiring. Hale affirms that no one in Inclination views "a death of someone adored by many as a way to promote your lifestyle."
"It's something to mourn. A lot of people are still dealing with those losses. It's affecting them every day. It reaffirms that I am thankful for the life I live. There has been so much loss in recent years. So much of it has to do with substance abuse, and it's super sad. I hope it inspires a positive change. I want people to be the healthiest and safest they can be."
Watkins believes Year of the Knife "provides an alternative" to popular music, in which drug references are rampant.
"I love pop music, but these people are glorifying doing stupid-ass drugs for no fucking reason. Kids are the biggest audience, and that's what we're feeding them: fucking bullshit. If you feel like none of that shit is for you, you should come to a hardcore show and listen to straight edge music."