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For the Faithful

Perpetually underrated Chicago hardcore vets Articles of Faith and a rash of other undead Chicago punk acts at Riot Fest

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After a Bad Brains show in D.C. in 1981, Vic Bondi went home to Chicago and instructed his group Direct Drive to play faster and harder. In spring '82, he changed the band's name to Articles of Faith. Later that year they put out their first seven-inch EP, just in time for the heyday of American hardcore.

In general, though, the band seemed slightly out of sync with the scene. The speedy aggression of their first three releases was tempered by the same funk and reggae influences that would find an exponentially wider audience in hardcore just a few years later via Fugazi. Unlike other Chicago punk bands, AOF was loudly leftist, and unlike other lefty hardcore bands of their day—MDC, Dead Kennedys—they played their politics straight, without gags or wild theater. (When drummer Bill "Virus X" Richman joined AOF, he was already a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party.) And the shift from overt politics to coded introspection on their second and final studio album, 1985's In This Life, foreshadowed the boomlet of late-80s indie rock and the mushroom cloud of emo 15 years later.

Worse, Articles of Faith apparently picked the wrong town to be from. Despite its metropolitan bulk, the Second City lagged far behind D.C., Los Angeles, and New York in terms of punk. AOF's rivalry with the Effigies may have had political undertones (overtly leftist band versus covertly conservative band), but what it looked like was the small-scene infighting you see in much tinier towns. In the excellent 2007 Chicago punk documentary You Weren't There, Strike Under's Pierre Kezdy explains, rather glumly, "Chicago was always the red-headed stepchild." Even the midwest defense—that bands from Illinois just didn't get proper respect or coverage from media on the coasts—doesn't really hold up. Even combined, the Twin Cities are only one-fourth the size of Chicago, but they still managed to catapult Husker Du and the Replacements into the spotlight.

Articles of Faith were every bit as fierce, tight, and distinctive as Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Dead Kennedys. Yet no 120 Minutes VJ ever name-checked Vic Bondi, and when thrash metal got huge and it seemed like every band was slapping hardcore stickers on its amps, Articles of Faith logos were conspicuous in their absence. The band broke up in 1985 and for years were lost in multiple slipstreams, overshadowed by more famous groups in every realm that might claim them—hardcore, indie, proto-emo—and known only to record collectors and fanzine nerds. For those of us who discovered AOF after their demise, their obscurity gave them a mysterious cachet.

By the time I joined a punk band, in the late 80s, AOF had certainly made a huge impression on me. In the limited landscape of leftist hardcore, Bondi was a first-rate lyricist. He didn't write all the words, and those he did write didn't always hit the mark—but when he was on, he was completely on. And unlike Bad Religion, their obvious competitors in the academic-punk category (Bondi would later earn a PhD in history from Boston University), Articles of Faith didn't use huge words to belittle their audience. They offered a road map for translating political rage into personal emotional nuance—one I eagerly studied. So it filled me with trepidation when I learned in early 1992 that AOF had reunited for a European tour that would overlap the European tour of my own band, Born Against.

Our paths first intersected in Homburg, Germany, in mid-March. Born Against's unofficial roadie—a Chicago pal stranded by a different American touring band—recalled the final AOF show, which he'd attended seven years earlier. "People were crying when the set was over with," he told me as we watched AOF load in. "They all knew they'd never get to see this band ever again." It was spooky, discussing Articles of Faith with Articles of Faith in front of us. It was like watching a group of ghosts on holiday from oblivion. What if they'd overheard us? Would they have cared?

An interesting thing happened when AOF took the stage: they feinted. They opened with a listless, syrupy version of "I've Got Mine," off their second seven-inch, and I remember I felt real relief. I'd been disturbed by the rebirth of my favorite band—at that point reunions were still largely the province of oldies acts—and it would be much easier to dismiss them if they were going to suck. But then Vic ditched his guitar and the band exploded into "Give Thanks," the title track from their 1984 LP. For the rest of their set they were every bit as ferocious as their records. They raged through their old songs and departed without comment. It was exhilarating, eerie, confusing—one of the best live performances I've ever seen.

Our personal interactions were more confusing still. The tours intersected several more times, and a week after the Homburg show Articles of Faith and Born Against warily shared a tourist itinerary for one day—traveling together to the Dachau concentration camp. In an afternoon of surreal details, one stands out. A member of AOF's entourage wore one of their own reunion shirts, featuring an inverted blue triangle. In the code of Nazi prisoner insignia, which was most famously used in Dachau itself, this was the symbol for emigrants and foreign forced labor. Absurdly, the back of the shirt read NEW WORLD RESISTANCE. It was a stunning lapse in taste, every bit as tone-deaf as the smiling families snapping pictures by the crematoria.

That night both bands regrouped for a show in Nuremberg. From what I've pieced together since, the members of Articles of Faith felt hassled by our few, brief interactions—harassed by youngsters who'd taken AOF's own leftist and DIY positions to ridiculous extremes. From our perspective, Bondi and company had cashed in their art for a free vacation. At the very least, it was a situation ripe for misunderstanding. When I first spotted Virus X's MAO MORE THAN EVER T-shirt, I assumed he was wearing it ironically, the way I wore my McDonald's shirt.

Virus was still wearing that shirt when a dispute broke out over money. Not wanting to pass along to the audience the cost of beer we wouldn't be drinking or hotel rooms we wouldn't be sleeping in, my band threatened to leave if the $10 door charge wasn't lowered to $5—which would've canceled the show, since we were headlining and the promoter wouldn't let it happen without us. AOF explained that they were touring with their girlfriends and thus had to have hotel rooms. It was a strange standoff. They wanted amenities they'd long been denied; we had the luxury of refusing luxury. The two parties seemed deadlocked when Bondi exploded. "Fuck you!" he screamed, shoving my bandmates. "Nobody asked me!" But the door charge was lowered, and the show went on.

Touring can cause tantrums—I've had a few—so Bondi's boorish blurt didn't sway my opinion of his band. And though he's since acquired a reputation as a prickly hothead—in You Weren't There he offers to fight Steve Albini for dissing a "bro" a quarter century earlier—I've always given him credit for extending AOF's trajectory with his later bands (Jones Very, Alloy, Report Suspicious Activity). More precisely I've given him credit for not wallowing in past successes—that 1992 tour aside—and instead forging ahead with his artistic life.

So of course I'm curious why Articles of Faith is re-reuniting for this year's Riot Fest. When I asked Bondi via e-mail how the band's two reunions came about, he gave the same curt answer for both 1992 and 2010: they were asked, and they said yes. I respect this tidy defense of the rights of artists over their own art. But Bondi, who now lives in Seattle and works as an engineering manager for Microsoft, was much more forthcoming in his liner notes for AOF's only live album, recorded two weeks after Nuremberg: "We came to Europe because we had never been there. It's that simple. We didn't make any money," he wrote. "The meaning of this tour was that musicians, even hardcore musicians with a penchant for politics, do get old, do get desperate, just like everybody else. And sometimes they make decisions just because they want to do something they've never done."

All through the spring of 1992, rumors surged of similar posthumous Eurotours: Youth Brigade, SSD, the Clash. In 2010 the phenomenon seems quaint: except, notably, among the alumni of D.C.'s Dischord scene, punk reunions have become the norm. It seems more common for bands to reunite than rest in peace. Groups with dead or stubborn members find replacements. Many of my friends have reactivated their old bands, and though I don't begrudge them the decision, their motives elude me. Reuniting a hardcore band isn't exactly the path to prosperity. What drives grown men to seek and reseek these fleeting bits of former glory? Do they feel their lives lack adventure? Are they having midlife crises? Can they not find any other way to spend time with old friends? These aren't hypothetical questions; I genuinely wish I knew the answers.

Festivals have been a big driver of these reunions, but Riot Fest 2010 must hold some kind of record as the mother of all back-from-the-dead blowouts. There are more than a dozen reunited bands on the schedule, from the Bhopal Stiffs on Thursday at Subterranean to the Zero Boys on Sunday at Double Door. Within this barrage of nostalgia is a subset of reunited early-80s Chicago bands: Articles of Faith, Silver Abuse, Subverts, Toothpaste. (Naked Raygun, who reunited with a latter-day lineup for Riot Fest in '06, had planned to reassemble their best-remembered early roster, but drummer Jim Colao broke his arm in a bike accident, so current NR drummer Eric Spicer will join front man Jeff Pezzati, guitarist Santiago Durango, and bassist Camilo Gonzalez.) It's probably the first time a scene has been hoisted out of deep freeze so close to intact, and it'll be interesting to see which beefs survive the thaw. Time and commerce make strange bedfellows—Jello Biafra, Agnostic Front, and the Meatmen will all play at Riot Fest '10, surely the first time those three have shared a fest bill—so perhaps this year will also see an end to the Articles of Faith-Effigies rivalry. (The Effigies have canceled, since guitarist Earl Letiecq can't make it to town, but they say "members will be present" at the Busted at Oz reunion on Wednesday, October 6, where Bondi, AOF bassist Dave Shield, and Pegboy drummer Joe Haggerty are backing Steve Bjorklund for a Strike Under set.)

If you're a fan of reunions, there are two important reasons to attend Riot Fest. One, you'll almost definitely be seeing these bands at their best. Re-formed Top 40 groups can sleepwalk through entire tours and still walk away with giant cardboard checks. Reunited punk bands get paid largely in pride. They're a lot like weddings: having worked so hard for the ceremony, everyone must shine.

Two, this nostalgia orgy can't last forever. Whoever ends up playing Riot Fest 2020, it seems certain that there won't be as many 80s bands. There can't be. Joints will ossify, arteries will harden, prostates will bloat. The spirit may be willing, but the flesh will grow weak—or worse, that willing spirit will trump weak flesh. Wouldn't you rather get your nostalgia fix now, before the liver-spotted jigglefests to come?

Complicating their own reunion, Articles of Faith have taken the rare step of recording fresh material: a five-song EP, New Normal Catastrophe, will be released on Alternative Tentacles a few days after their Metro show. A teaser track, "With a Vengeance," is already posted online. It's not their best song. But the mere fact that they're giving the world new music makes AOF's re-formation distinctly different from most Riot Fest resurrections.

The asterisk that attached itself to Articles of Faith in 1992 now gets an asterisk. But even Minor Threat, who took a lot of heat for getting back together in 1982, spent half their career as a reunited band, producing some incredible music in their second incarnation. Perhaps a whole new chapter in Articles of Faith's history is about to unfold. For now, Bondi says he doubts the band will play live after their Riot Fest appearance. But minds have a funny way of changing.   

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