It's a year of firsts for Headstrong. The former London, Ontario band is still psyched about its first U.S. tour. That follows a newly released major-label debut. Even the band's name replaces a former moniker. Most important, Headstrong is for the first time a true contender in the realm of hard rock.
With strong airplay of the singles "Adrianna" and "All of the Above," the band is potentially headed for the alternative-music charts. The fierce guitars, driving rhythms, and pounding drums, whether in the service of punk or hip-hop, are engaging and likable -- as was borne out by the clicks of a million Internet surfers.
In 2000 Headstrong, then known as Bomb 32, catapulted to the spotlight after uploading "All of the Above" to the Website of the now-defunct talent-search TV show Farmclub.com. Remarkably, among the thousands of bands featured on the site, Headstrong received a million votes to play in a showcase. Before then the relatively unknown band hadn't even played outside Canada. The Farmclub episode aired just as RCA was considering signing the young band.
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With the self-titled release, the former indie rockers are thrilled but admit they're just getting started. Says bassist Jon Cohen: "We're aspiring to be like certain bands, like Stone Temple Pilots, that have a certain vibe and groove when they play and a certain chemistry that would be great to have. It's a goal of ours." Headstrong also cites Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden as major faves, and it shows. The band melds raw power with rap fury without losing its grungy beginnings.
For this reason Headstrong's music is often hard to pigeonhole. The band's eclectic blend of soft/loud tension and aggro bits has been hailed as emo-esque for its literary allusions (devoid of overt political statements) and rough-hitting tunes.
Guitarist Joel Krass groans. "We're not an emo band. Six months ago or a year ago, people would have said we were a rap-rock band. Can you be an emo-rap-rock band? We're a rock band."
Cohen agrees: "If you ask people, they'll say emo is like emotionally charged rock, sometimes overemotionally charged rock. But to me that is most rock music."
Still there are elements of pure hardcore in album track "Open Season," which starts off as a simple rap. Vocalist Matt Kinna speeds up as the bass kicks in and the guitars churn a grunge drone. After a lull the intensity builds up again, goes down, then hits high heaven in a fist-pumping finish.
"There's such a dynamic range," says drummer Brian Matthews, "where it's soft and quiet, almost whispering, to singing, to rapping, to screaming your head off. It's not the same flat-line delivery."
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Although all the songs have similar elements in their makeup, they are fairly unique. "Backlash" features luscious grooves with back-up vocals, yet most of it is straight rapping à la Zack de la Rocha.
The album is uneven at times, partly due to differences between newer and older songs. "Swing Harder," "Open Season," "All of the Above," "State," and "I Am for Real" were originally slated for a tentative indie release, while the rest were written in the studio after the RCA deal. These older songs tend to be more aggressive. Nonetheless the album remains accessible and at the same time, innovative.
"There's a duality to the music," explains Kinna. "There's the intelligent part where we put a lot of thought into the music and we want the lyrics to be provocative and compelling. But we also have the part where you want to rock out and just nod your head to some kick-ass rock and roll."
It's a sound often attributed to Linkin Park, even though that band's album came out after Headstrong's was finished. "You're only going to see more and more bands like us," Krass says. "There's a new cycle with heavy music."