A New Beat from a Dead Heart
n the mid-'60s, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada came to America at his guru's behest to spread Hare Krishna teachings in English. Prabhupada set up the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York City; the organization grew into a worldwide network spanning tens of thousands of devotees. The movement was notorious for flower-bearing airport evangelism, yet it gained unlikely adherents in the early '90s—hardcore punkers.
This actually wasn't such a stretch. In the late '80s, New York hardcore punk underwent a trend of straight edge abstinence from drugs, alcohol, and, occasionally, meat. Krishna culture kept the shaved heads and added celibacy, as well as pseudonyms; guitarist Vic DiCara became Vraja Kishor das, while vocalist Rob Fish became Rasaraja Dasa. The pair comprised 108, alongside a revolving door of bassists and drummers. With colleagues like Shelter and Baby Gopal, 108 spearheaded "Krishna-core," in which shows often featured robed Krishna followers passing out vegetarian food between sets of blistering hardcore. The juxtaposition wasn't as bizarre as it would seem; after all, the narrative context of the Bhagavad Gita is a battlefield.
Musically, 108 bridged brutal '80s New York hardcore punk and artsier '90s post-hardcore (its alumni went on to bands like Orange 9mm and Texas Is the Reason). 108's debut, Holyname, was caustic and metallic, but later efforts branched out with half-time grooves, angular dissonance, sludgy psychedelia, and female vocals. DiCara constantly felt tension in his "punk monk" lifestyle, however, and the band broke up in 1996. Last year's Creation. Sustenance. Destruction. compiles 108's entire '90s output with copious liner notes, and is a good entry point into Krishna-core.
Reforming recently to play a hardcore festival, the band members found that they actually liked each other this time around. But while a decade has smoothed intra-band tensions, 108 sound as potent as ever. Kurt Ballou's trademark beefy, analog production gives the band newfound heft. Before, 108's guitars were taut wires; here, they're thick cables of electricity. Bassist Tim Cohen gets plenty of space and fills it with creative, kinetic lines. His pulsing low end drives "We Walk Through Walls," a Fugazi-esque dub workout, while his fluid break in "Bibles + Guns = The American Dream?" would make Rage Against the Machine's Tim Commerford jealous (incidentally, pre-RATM and 108, Zack de la Rocha and DiCara played together in hardcore outfit Inside Out). The band used to sound scattershot, though visionary; now, its attack is confident and muscular.
The biggest changes are in the lyrics, which no longer have a militant Krishna edge; "Guilt" condemns "empires built on doctrinal guilt." Whereas Threefold Misery's "Killer of the Soul" spat, "Only a demon could dine on the flesh of the dead / Each hair on the back of each cow is a birth you'll spend in hell," "Three Hundred Liars" offers, "You don't fit in so break out / Three hundred liars, all with such fearful eyes / Afraid to look the wrong way and I sympathize, I sympathize." The Bush-baiting "Resurrect to Destroy" breaks new political ground for the band; "The Sad Truth" dreams "of a world where flags / Are nothing but cloth." Krishna-core has never felt more relevant.