Every musical genre, subgenre, niche, pigeonhole and typecast has its barrier breakers — artists who have learned and perhaps even acknowledged the rules of their particular game, but boldly marched away with them. The people they leave behind — purist fans, complacent bands and the like — often don't take so kindly to these transgressions. The rebel most often becomes not a pioneer but a pariah or a poser, lambasted with charges of inauthenticity, disingenuousness or plain-old disrespect.
Maybe you've heard of Liturgy, the Brooklyn band that takes the theoretical basis for its ecstatic "transcendental black metal" very seriously. Metal kids on message boards have blasted Liturgy with homophobic slurs and rape jokes. Chris Grigg, leader of the excellent band Woe, recently told Liturgy frontman Hunter Hunt-Hendrix that he appears "arrogant, condescending and bursting with pretension." Or maybe during the last decade or so, you've listened to cLOUDDEAD, Cannibal Ox, Themselves, Aesop Rock, El-P or Sage Francis, each at one point members of Definitive Jux or Anticon, part-time rivals and the country's premier outposts for outlier "hip-hop." Those quotation marks are necessary, because if you ask most mainline hip-hop fans, that music — though generally rapped and rhymed, often above beats — is not "real hip-hop." On "We're Famous" from Aesop Rock's iconoclastic and exhausting 2003 album Bazooka Tooth, a childlike, robotic voice opens by drawing this line in the sand: "This is for all those super scientifical geniuses turned underground thug[s] who think hip-hop is dead but can't get their fuckin' style out of '94 [who] point to us like we're not hip-hop." From garage bands who go on to work with major-label hip-hop producers to noise bands who go on to make blissful summer jams, every scene has its outlaws.
As hardcore punk rock in 2011 goes, Toronto sextet Fucked Up should be that outcast. Sure, a decade ago, when Fucked Up's catalog was but a handful of 7-inch records and small-run LPs, the band sounded mostly like any other hardcore unit. But in the past five years, they've taken the rules and run decidedly wild on a journey that, so far, has culminated in this year's David Comes to Life, an 18-track, 78-minute rock opera about an English factory worker who falls in love with a political activist who summarily dies. But it's a motivational tragedy, full of the compulsion to outstrip the worst circumstances in true young-punk fashion: "I'll see you again when our story gets retold. ... A new sun in the sky, and love will never die," pebble-voiced frontman Damian Abraham (aka Pink Eyes) sings at album's end. But if David Comes to Life is punks-in-love in spirit, it's punks-with-ambitions in sound. It opens with a gorgeous instrumental, guitar noise pulsing around piano keys and a lingering riff. David includes a few bona fide pop songs (if you'll allow Abraham his bark), some Boss-sized anthems and cooing harmonies courtesy of Cults leader Madeline Follin.
These moments don't come out of nowhere. Fucked Up has previously added free-jazz saxophones, guest vocals from goth stars, flute and French horn. In 2007, they released a rolling, rumbling seasonal single complete with sleigh bells and religious iconography — and, less predictably, a B-side with cameos from pop star Nelly Furtado and comedian David Cross. Year of the Pig, the second installment of their 12-LP series dedicated to the signs of the zodiac, is one 19-minute track complete with church organs, staggering cabaret rhythms and, at first, Abraham doing his best Tom Waits-sings-hardcore bit. Live, Abraham might be the prototypical frontman, moshing through the crowd, hugging and sweating on kids. But onstage, the band's three-guitar approach swells like one of Rhys Chatham's guitar armies and rages with the dynamism of The Who. If there's a punk-rock rule Fucked Up's yet to break, you might want to tell them at the merch table after the show.
But that's the thing: After the show, at the merch table, you're not only going to find the sort of indie kids who discovered the band through Pitchfork or the adults who've heard them on NPR. Though their ambition engenders a crossover appeal that's shocking for a crossover band (let alone one named Fucked Up), their success hasn't really alienated their home base. For one, Abraham is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, and you genuinely feel like his success is your success, too. What's more, the Internet has made any scene's music everyone's music — downloadable, accessible, digestible. It's easier for a punk to get out of his pigeonhole, easier for any indie kid to get into the punk's. Some still fight that, but boundaries are blurring quickly.
More important than all of that, though, is the simple sense that Fucked Up is exploring ideas and having fun doing it. After a decade of remarkable prolificacy and rubber-to-the-road touring, it's surprising that any band could not only be more free and focused than they've ever been, but also more energized. You can hear it in David Comes to Life, and you can see it when they play. Whether you're a purist punk or an eclectic indie kid, it's a look that's hard not to respect.