Now the lifespan of your typical hardcore record label is rather longer than that of your average hardcore band. But, nevertheless, a healthy turnover is inevitable. Labels not only come and go, they also shift in productivity, and in their own preferences. Some labels, however, develop a vitality that sustains their longevity, making them a much more permanent feature in our listening lives.
For me personally, one such label is Vitriol Records. Come next year, the label will have been releasing very fine records for fifteen years, and they still define themselves by a simple statement of intent: ‘Write what you want to read, play what you want to hear’. The label’s back catalogue is brimming with stand-out records from the fierce political hardcore of Reivers to the rollicking vibrancy of Everybody Row. While notable releases this year include the crushing, hardcore-infused death metal of Neolithic (Shattering Vessels) and the swaggering, strutting punk rock of Daisy Chain (The World Is Not Spinning).
But, of course, the bedrock of Vitriol’s output has always been the bands of Justin Smith, who runs the label. Some are now gone (Dangers and Buyer’s Remorse), others are coming to their end (Graf Orlock, who have just released their thunderous final EP, End Credits), while some build ever-increasing momentum, such as his newest venture, Sweat (whose recent brilliant split EP with Negative Blast is their most fully realised release yet). However, as great as all these bands are / were, the stand-out for me has always been Ghostlimb.
‘…Mediation does not exist, common ground does not exist, infrastructure breeds separation, a policy of pacification, to question the lines of a so-called inclusion, a policy to estrange…’ (Saltaye, Bearing & Distance)
Ghostlimb formed in 2005, before playing their first shows and releasing their self-titled debut LP in 2006, followed by Bearing & Distance two years later. From the band’s outset, the aim was for Ghostlimb to focus on playing melodically inclined heavy music, a conscious contrast to the more discordant leanings of Justin’s other band, Graf Orlock.
It was also to be lean, aggressive, and delivered in short bursts of fury – the latter ‘temporal constraint was only to last through the first and second records, but the initial commitment to a wholly unsustainable framework is admirable’. The result is a darkly metallic hardcore, imbued with an intrinsic melancholic melodicism, and enriched with stylistic flourishes that draw both on thrash metal and melodic punk (the band covered both Leatherface and Hot Water Music) in equal measure.
‘…We don’t even know if it’s the stick or the carrot we’re being beaten with, can you quantify your use or qualify your subsistence…’ (Reduction, Infrastructure)
Fiercely disciplined hardcore and skilfully constructed song structures define Ghostlimb’s sound. The band relish interweaving their rampant assault with infectious melodies, and brief passages of more contemplative reflection, that serve to both amplify and leaven the band’s otherwise brutal intensity.
The weighting of these qualities oscillates throughout the band’s discography, from the surging melody of Infrastructure (2011), sweeping back into the much darker actualisation of Confluence (2012), before the rawer, more experimental explorations of perhaps my favourite Ghostlimb LP, Difficult Loves (2016). Their most recent album, The Only Measure Is Labor Done Not Days (2019), proved in many ways to be the crucible in which these different interpretations and emphases were honed into their most singular configuration to date.
‘…As often as I recommit readily, to what I still hear and read and see, that life is still worth living, without gods or masters or heroism…’ (Brushfire, Difficult Loves)
There is also a lyrical weight to Ghostlimb’s endeavours as they seek to examine contemporary society through politics and history. Across their discography, the band engage thoughtfully with a broad range of socio-political and ecological themes, frequently animated through literary and academic exploration (from Italo Calvino to Mike Davis via Cormac McCarthy).
But two broad concerns are consistent throughout. Firstly, the structural nature of socio-economic inequality and our continual resistance to addressing its causes, over blaming those exploited. Secondly, a preoccupation with the intersection of urban theory and social history. As a sphere of particular personal interest, it is always a pleasure to see the band explore themes that revolve around the politics of the built environment and the neglected importance of social infrastructure.
‘…The question as a weapon is more power than a thousand blazing suns, any real evidence of life is but politicized opinion, always and forever the skeptic, the question our only weapon…’ (Nocked Blade, The Only Measure Is Labor Done Not Days)
And it is the fusing of these two aspects – the visceral musicality and the lyrical semantic substance – that render Ghostlimb such a powerful force. It is after all what all great hardcore should seek to achieve – intellectual engagement and the desire to hurl yourself off a stage.
I last had the pleasure of catching them on their 2016 European tour at the former DIY Space For London in Bermondsey. It was a sweltering August evening, one of those when South London feels like a primed powder keg that has yet to quite decide whether to party or to riot. But this was nothing compared to the ferocious intensity that Ghostlimb unleashed that night. And it appears that life is once again stirring in the Ghostlimb lair so, hopefully, that might not prove to be the last time…
(Non-lyric quotes are taken from the very nicely put-together ‘story of the band’ booklet, written by Justin Smith, which is included with The Only Measure Is Labour Done Not Days vinyl release).