Well, friends, we are now more than halfway through Cine-Ween 2021. Cine-Ween was first conceived as a fun event to get folks interested in the site, but also a way to celebrate Halloween as an embodiment of all things spooky, dark, creepy, or however you think of it. For this community, horror cinema tends to be the most accessible and frankly, popular way to do that. So this month and during Cine-Weens past, we’ve featured all manner of interesting takes and descriptions of horror cinema. While this particular medium might be the most obvious for us, it is not the only one. Music is also in our DNA as a community and there is one band which, for me as well as many others, embodies a celebration of all things I associate with Halloween: Ink & Dagger!
Ink & Dagger formed in Philly in the early ’90s out of the remnants of notorious band, Crud is a Cult, and screamo titans, Frail. There is a ton of history, controversies, legends, and drama I could write about here, but I do not feel qualified to do so. There are some interesting official and unofficial histories scattered across the internet (this collection of folk tales from No Echo are of particular interest). However, my interest and the interest of many fans of this band was not based in their reality; rather, it was the band’s legend that drew us in.
A group of vampires had formed in the haunted alleys of Philadelphia to draw the cosmic life force out of their audience and we all wanted to be a part of it. Their early live shows involved low-effort corpse paint, lights, candles, and even spewing fake blood onto the crowd. In hardcore punk, these kinds of gimmicky theatrics would often be viewed with disdain, and yet, somehow, it worked. Possibly because the members seemed so entirely unhinged, lead by the charismatic cult leader type, Sean McCabe. Their tour stories read like a litany of crime and misanthropy and Sean’s perpetual heel status lent all of it an air of mystery that we ate up.
We loved this band so much, and later, when they had broken up and their legend had faded thanks to internet rumors and the tragic passing of McCabe, they still lived on as a kind of whisper. They were a handshake band, the sort of act you brought up to test the waters with new people you met. Did they know about the Devil Children? Their fan base was one of the more diverse in hardcore punk as it grew over time. Various art nerds, emo kids, skate punks, and the toughest of the Norman Core-man types could, possibly, if they had been inducted, harbor a deep love for this strange and abrasive group of musicians. As with any group that is also a cultural moment, there is some discussion among devotees as to which of their artifacts are the most important. Their discography is somehow both limited and diverse, and while some prefer the initial explosion that is Love is Dead, still others like the refined, angular insanity that is The Fine Art of Original Sin. For me (and for many of my peoples), the essence of the band was best distilled on the 4-song EP Drive This Seven-Inch Wooden Stake Through My Philadelphia Heart. It’s short, but in these four songs, one gets all the elements of the band that so define, for me, the unique experience of Ink & Dagger
The music on this release is relatively unparalleled and has never been copied in a real way. There is the angular and open guitar work, which reminds me both of Swiz and Circus Lupus, but also with some of the harsh, screamo influence of a band like Moss Icon. There is melody here, but also a bit of stomp, with the occasional ferocious breakdowns. The first track, “The Road To Hell,” could easily be too epic for its own good, starting as it does. The opening chord and organ combination feel both ominous and holy, the beginning to some sacred ceremony conducted by unhinged lunatics. It feels lonely in a way, melancholic, but also invokes immediately the most dramatic and biblical implications as the chanting begins: “On the first day, it was foretold…” This first song immediately places the proceedings of the record out of the basement where a bunch of kids are pretending at something dark and menacing, and into the midst of an invocation that has cosmic implications. By the time we get to the howl of McCabe, “and the demons will be set FREEEEEEEEE” we are already certain that we might have made a mistake in coming. The song not only haunts but rips; anyone who has seen not only this band live, but even this song covered, knows that moshing while yelling “AND THE HOLE OPENED UP!” is just sick as shit. The song builds and then slows, drawing back while staying intense, before exploding again into more howls of inevitable damnation.
Such a dramatic and theatrical opening might lead us to assume what follows will be similarly mythic, but instead, we shift to “Shadowtalker,” a song with supernatural context, but perhaps more personal content. This song begins very angular, all stress and tension, the lyrics hinting at alienation and regret. “THE SHADOW!” screams McCabe, while the progression of the chords build and build, until he screams in anguish, “NO MORE VOICES BEHIND MY BACK!” There is a marriage here of the dark and supernatural imagery of haunting with the personal pain of ostracization and social pressure. This dark side, this shadow, the fading away from a hurtful world, belies not just pain but also a resilience. It is a haunting narrative and a ripping song. “Caretaker” follows up, and I have always been fascinated by the guitar on this song. There is a stomping to it, but also a melody; it alternates between a kind of chug and a loose, jangly edge. I wish I was knowledgeable enough of music theory to say something profound about it, but I just find it fascinating.
What is “Caretaker” even about? There is funeral imagery, a graveyard, and an interment, but also the idea of adversaries who want the worst for “us.” We will not be so easy to dispose of, though, and the song ends with a note that could be both menacing and hopeful “We will no longer be victims of this world; from now on, the world will be our victim.” This is maybe not a politics, but it is a statement that those who someone thought they could dispose of or disregard will not be so easily overlooked.
The final track of the EP, “Full Circle,” is for many fans one of the all-time bangers of their discography and has been covered innumerable times. When I hear that opening riff, long before the drums come slamming in to give us the rhythm, I almost invariably start to move. “THESE THINGS ARE COMING FULL CIRCLE!” The music here speaks to me despite the slow and deliberate tempo. The song swings back and forth and yet still carries an undeniable menace to it. The lyrics, though, are more personal than that; it’s not so much a love song as it is a song written at the end. A goodbye song? Considering the ferocity of the end line, “PAINT IT BLACK, I WANT IT BACK,” it is hard not to imagine that whoever or whatever Sean is saying goodbye to here has left a hole where they once were. The song isn’t heavy or hard, but it has a rhythm that makes me want to lurch and slam and even swing at my fellow show-goer. It stomps and charges and builds to a chugging climax. An abrupt end, and one that many of us did not realize was there, as the CD re-release of this record on Initial included the Love Is Dead EP on the end. That EP is also creepy and furious, with moments like the “I’M KNOCKING AT YOUR WINDOW!” interlude that were both spooky and perhaps emotional. All of it felt a bit ridiculous, a bit pretentious, and yet somehow, still visceral and vital.
So that was it, four songs — more, of course, if you had both EPs — and somehow, I come back to it every Halloween religiously and intermittently throughout the rest of the year. It is somehow defiant and melancholy at the same time, which makes it feel more than “evil” in any sort of metal way, but haunted in a way that feels unique to hardcore punk and maybe Philly itself. The focus on this release is not, of course, to ignore the power and ferocity of Love is Dead, or the mature but just as haunting post-hardcore notes of The Fine Art of Original Sin. These four songs, though, speak to me about how life is stark and painful and difficult, and within the horrors we pretend at is a truth there, and the possibility for survival.
Perhaps the most visceral way I have come to understand this band is when I have attempted to talk about them to folks who did not know about them and who were not part of the club. I was discussing them once with a friend in college, and for this story to make some sense, I probably need to remind the reader that I went to Jesus college. Depending on your biases, that might conjure images of some sort of Republican gun club, or the hallowed halls of the Vatican, but while it was very strange in many ways, in a lot of ways it was just like other folks’ college experiences. There was a not insignificant population of punk and punk-adjacent types at the school, and I was discussing Ink & Dagger with one of my hardcore-adjacent friends from another part of the country. I was trying to explain them without making them sound gimmicky, like some kind of low-effort GWAR or worse, Misfits wannabes, and I said something that felt natural to me but he found ridiculous. I said, “Well, it feels very Philadelphia to me to have this band whose slogan was ‘Devil children unite, vampires on the loose tonight,’ because Philadelphia seemed like such a haunted city.” My friend balked, not because I said something might have supernatural connotations, even if casually, but at the idea that there was anything more haunted about Philadelphia than anywhere else. The idea that Philadelphia might be haunted by hundreds of years of history, of suffering, of turmoil, and even of oppression were so obvious to me, so self-evident, I struggled for almost a full minute to answer him.
It is not just the age of the place, though it is certainly older than much of this country, or even the efforts since the bicentennial to preserve that history, turning parts of the city into a museum we still live in. It also wasn’t the “grit and the grime” of the city, as people call it; the interesting combination of economic hardship and intense personalities that makes the city seem hostile to many unfamiliar with its ways. Nor is it the specific, strange histories in the city, whether we are talking Gary Heidnik, or the outbreak of legionnaires disease, or the park where so many Revolutionary War soldiers are buried, or even the way our city literally bombed some of its own citizens one time. No, it is all of that and more, a certain combination of tangible and intangible elements that make many Philly natives think of the city as haunted in a way. I don’t say that to suggest this whole dang country isn’t haunted in its own way, not least of which by the millions of distinct civilizations we eradicated or subjugated to establish the “legal” framework of the nation. There is just something about Philadelphia, to me and to others, that feels uniquely steeped in the more spectral aspect of history.
Ink & Dagger represents that to me and so much more. The dark but also youth, the ways youth might reach into any place to break out, to be wild, and to rebel against all that denies them life. I can’t write the history of the band, either the true or mythic one, but I can write about their impact on me and my relationship with the horrible. Ink & Dagger, intentionally or not, were part of my feeling that in the haunting there is something to be discovered. In exploring the things that make people afraid, we can find something vital and important. That in demanding truth, we might need to burn it all down — or at least try. Of course, I am taking all of this too seriously and missing the point. Sometimes, we are all a little bit too self-serious and can’t see who we are or what is going on clearly. A costume, some jangly tunes, and a bit of fake blood can break us out of that self-serious haze to see clearly. Sean asked, “Are you down with this sound of this devil town?” and it was a goof, but it also wasn’t, and that is part of why it was so brilliant.