Just over a decade ago, an idea was formed: To create a festival dedicated to the counterculture found in the world of punk rock. With that in mind, in 2005, Riot Fest was born in Chicago. Hastily thrown together during its humble beginnings, it bounced around from venue to venue; ticket prices were kept low; offering young punk rockers a reasonably priced escape.
In the early days, the lineup would read as if it were the roster to the punk rock hall of fame. Legendary genre staples such as Agent Orange, Dead Kennedys, The Germs, The Misfits, US Bombs, Naked Raygun and Mustard Plug would grace the stage; furiously rocking, doing their part to continue breathing life in the scene.
What a difference 11 years can make.
Kicking off in Denver on Friday, this year’s rendition of Riot Fest offers an eclectic array of artists. For the first stop, headliners include: System of a Down, Modest Mouse, The Prodigy, Pixies and Snoop Dogg. Metal, electronic, hip-hop; more than any in the past, this year’s lineup offers a taste of several genres. Something seems to be missing however, though the massive lineup is filled with several of the industry’s heavy-hitters, it appears to be a little light on something, namely straightforward punk rock.
Sure, there remains a sprinkling here and there. The legendary Iggy Pop will grace the stage, but the Stooges are nowhere to be found; and while impressive in its own right, much of his solo work lacks the attitude commonly associated with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band he fronted.
Rancid, who certainly have the respect of the punk rock community, will offer their album …And Out Come the Wolves in its entirety. Along with the likes of Green Day’s Dookie and The Offspring’s Smash, it is an album that helped bring punk rock to the mainstream masses. Still, Rancid rose out of the ashes of ska, and that genre is found throughout both their career catalogue and on …And Out Come the Wolves specifically, including on arguably the offering’s most popular song “Time Bomb.” It was also released in 1995.
Of the 88 bands found on the Denver lineup, only one graced the stage at the original Riot Fest in 2005. The Lawrence Arms definitely fit the bill as a punk rock band, even releasing an album in 2014 (Metropole). That being said, it was their first since 2006, and is named after a fancy hotel in Italy, which is not exactly punk rock. Also worth considering, when viewing the lineup headliners first, the band finds itself billed 38th.
The Lawrence Arms may be more the exception than the rule. At a glance, Riot Fest has evolved, with punk music no longer playing as prominent a role. This begs the question: Is punk rock dead?
Nu Metal, Indie, electronic and hip-hop acts are headlining Riot Fest this year. Is this due to a lack of worthy or even up-and-coming punk acts? Perhaps. Or perhaps there is another answer.
If you view punk rock simply as a genre, then you may be disappointed by the lineup. Then maybe the current crop found not only at Riot Fest, but in music in general is undoubtedly past its prime. Mohawks have turned grey. It’s now Professor Greg Graffin to you. The biggest bands in the genre are the same now as they were a decade ago, perhaps even two.
But what if punk rock is more than a genre? What if it has become something else entirely? What if it has become more of a mentality…a state of mind?
Viewing the lineup with that in mind paints a different picture entirely. Almost every band on it contains an element that they may owe to punk rock.
Punk rock as long been politically-charged. Same can be said about headliners System of a Down, who have touched all the bases with songs critical authoritarianism, government in general, use of military force and the police.
Speaking of being critical of police, Ice Cube and special guests will offer a remix of N.W.A.’s classic Straight Outta Compton, an album that is perhaps responsible for introducing punk’s anti-authoritarianism and cultural retrospectiveness to the rap world.
For those who like the carefree attitude often found in punk, there is plenty of fun-loving acts on the bill. Like NOFX before them, bands like Tenacious D, Andrew W.K. and GWAR make an effort not to take themselves too seriously, promising a good time above all else.
Another defining characteristic of punk rock is the fury of energy bands exert onstage. For those craving that, look no further than the Prodigy. Legends in the electronic world, the “Godfathers of Rave” dance frenetically about the stage, offering performances that are almost exhausting to watch. They are not afraid to “stick it to the man” either, with songs such as “Their Law” criticizing the government, (in that case “anti-rave” legislation).
The Prodigy also play uptempo music. Speed, which is synonymous with punk, is found throughout the bill. Thrash staples like Motorhead and Anthrax have plenty of staccato riffs. Post-hardcore offerings such as Thrice have also been known to crank it to 11.
When using that expanded definition, punk rock can found everywhere at Riot Fest, both this weekend and beyond. Considering the influence it has over the acts found in modern music, perhaps it is even stronger than ever. Either way, punk rock is alive and well in 2015.