Power violence is the name given to an amorphous subgenre of hardcore punk, which has been and continues to be strenuously debated. In some ways the term serves as little more than a signpost of a specific time and place (to be specific, Southern California in 1991), but in other respects it indicates a unique sound and aesthetic.

If any roots of power violence can be determined, they undoubtedly lie with hardcore legends Infest. Formed in September of 1986 by Joe Denunzio (vocals), Dave Ring (bass), Chris Clift (drums) and Matt Domino (guitar), Infest fused the youth crew sounds of contemporaries like Chain of Strength and Hard Stance with the speed and viciousness of Siege, the Neos, and Negative Approach. Although Denunzio's lyrics sometimes articulated straight edge themes and perspectives, Infest denied being a straight edge band. They released several 7"s and an LP entitled Slave which has since gone out of print (the band has also been heavily bootlegged).

In addition to Infest, Domino also briefly played in a band called Neanderthal with Eric Wood, formerly of Pissed Happy Children. Neanderthal only wrote a handful of songs (one of which, "Built for Brutality", featured vocals by Denunzio from Infest), releasing one EP (the Fighting Music 7" on Slap-a-Ham Records), two splits (with Blatant Yobs and Rorschach) and appearing on Slap-a-Ham's famous Bllleeeeaaauuurrrrgghhh! compilation 7". Despite their limited output, their style would prove hugely influential: living up to their name, Neanderthal produced short, sharp Cro-Magnon shocks of bone-crunching hardcore, characterized by maximum speed and Wood's apoplectic, roaring vocals.

Wood would go on to play in one of hardcore's most eccentric and inimitable bands, Man is the Bastard. They coupled the fury of Infest and Neanderthal with the fearless experimentalism of Japanese noise and an almost jazzy sound anchored by dual basses. Initially called Charred Remains, M.I.T.B. developed a striking and uniform aesthetic on their records: bold script, distinctive skull iconography, and a serious concern with societal and ecological issues sharpened by pervasive misanthropy (although, as indicated below, tempered by occasional moments of life-affirming joy, as on the live Fiesta Comes Alive! CD when Wood shouts "Love everyone! Even in the pit!"). Also notable was the band's apparent fascination with Hello Kitty.

It was M.I.T.B. who coined the term power violence, in their song "H.S.M.P." (Hispanic Small Man Power). Eric Wood describes the song in his own words:
"HSMP" (Hispanic Small Man Power), which was written/ arranged by Kenyon. It came after our very first show in 1991 when violence reared its ugly head (during, I beleive, Capitalist Casualties' or our set). Things were getting out of hand, alcohol was being thrown, outsiders (poeple in the club not there for the music) yelling to "Shut the fuck up" while under the influence of fucking booze and all other assorted goodies... All of a sudden (in the storm's eye of chaos / madness), a small, little hispanic man in a gold vinyl or leather sportcoat and dark pressed slacks with dress loafers is making his way to the front of the stage. When he reaches the stage, he somehow manages to get ahold of a microphone (did Kenyon or one of Capitalist Casualties hand him the microphone he obtained? It's all a blur- now a mike still got into the powerful little man's hand!l) In broken English he got the attention of the crowd and pleaded for everyone to recognize that we are not all that different and to lay down our guards of defense and try to have a good time. Somehow, it got through and applause to the Mighty HSM followed... The show continued till the end... Someone from another origin I community brought all together in the early West Coast power violence community- the HSM is a fucking great unknown hero.
Although this tale seems substance enough for an epochal hardcore song, what many more listeners seized upon was Wood's introduction, where he names the other bands at the show (Crossed Out, No Comment, Capitalist Casualties, and Manpig) and proclaims: "West coast power violence! Let's fucking go!"

A genre was born, but to some extent it died in that same moment. For Wood, the term was likely meant only as a sort of aside to describe a loose grouping of bands who saw each other as contemporaries, and never a full-fledged genre or "movement." But like a similar concept, that of straight edge, power violence took on a life of its own. Although the bands named ostensibly had little to do with each other besides playing together on that fateful evening, they did share some similarities. Common ground consisted in a level of viciousness, speed and non-metallic heaviness derived from the extremes of '80s hardcore, and what is most often noted as the defining characteristic of power violence: hyperspeed hardcore parts contrasted with dirge-like sludgy sections.

As with anything, the devil is in the details: plenty of M.I.T.B. songs never rise to a tempo faster than a creepy crawl, and others never bother to slow down. However, in many instances the description holds up. Crossed Out relied very heavily on the fast/slow dichotomy, and an absolutely killer example of this kind of shift occurs in the Capitalist Casualties song "On The Take" from the Raised Ignorant 7" (released on, big surprise, Slap-a-Ham). The best overall document of power violence (and one of the best hardcore records of the 1990s, period) is No Comment's incredible Downsided 7": ultrafast, pummeling songs, brilliant drumming, and a level of bleakness rarely seen in punk. (Manpig remains a largely apocryphal band to those outside of the immediate power violence circle, as no recording from those days has been released yet, although it's still promised by Deep Six Records.)

After the demise of the immediate PV bands, a younger generation took up the torch. Spazz combined the heaviness of power violence with a humorous punk sensibility drawn from Stikky (which the band contained ex-members of, including bassist Chris Dodge, who was also the head of Slap-a-Ham). In the late '90s, Charles Bronson captured the hearts of punks by employing the sounds of Infest and Crossed Out alongside vocalist Mark McCoy's acerbic lyrical sensibility and an ingenious use of sampled song intros. Despise You released some of the most extreme examples of the style without ever playing live. To the surprise of some, early material by The Locust even fits roughly into the rubric (and one of their early releases was a split 10" with Man is the Bastard). Many other imitators emerged, and rare power violence 7"s began to command high prices on eBay.

Eric Wood has made his feelings about the (relative) popularization of power violence quite explicit:
Do you still keep in touch with the other MITB guys or local power violence bands?

...Power violence is dead. Anyone claiming the "power violence" description for their own is cancer.
Still, use of the term seems to have only increased, and today there's even some murmured talk about a "power violence revival": surely a ridiculous notion, but the formation of new bands claiming influence from power violence is not to be scoffed at, including the likes of The Endless Blockade, Iron Lung (who plagiarized M.I.T.B.'s two skulls logo design, as numerous other bands have), Shank, Mind Eraser (named after a Neanderthal song), Rosenbombs, No Dice, Hatred Surge, and others. At the end of the day, it could be said that power violence is for punk what raw, lo-fi black metal is for metal: an extreme and uncompromising niche genre which appeals to connoisseurs, but one that has garnered increasing exposure and acclaim over time. The future of power violence looks bright indeed.

Interviews with Eric Wood taken from the following sites:

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