More so than so many other genres, hardcore finds itself relying on the old guard to get things moving. Even with the newest hardcore bands, the influences of the genre’s originators and classic acts are rarely, if ever diluted down the line, and because no one goes into hardcore to make money, even the oldest bands stick around for the long haul, typically with the same bit between their teeth as when they were younger. That’s exactly the case with Sick Of It All, who’ve spearheaded the genre within the New York scene going on thirty years now, and with the same ethos and lineup for the majority of that time, it’s led to consistent runs of albums that might be fairly predictable, but are evident of a band whose fire hasn’t dulled over time.
As such, it’d be easy enough to classify Wake The Sleeping Dragon! as simply “another Sick Of It All album”, but it’s the context that it arrives in that makes it so strong. The backdrop of social instability in the US doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon, and this feels like a much more alert and galvanised band as a result, with the title itself serving as a euphemism for a mobilising audience to stand for what’s right. And because this sort of incandescent rage against injustice is Sick Of It All’s bread and butter at this point, they’re still going as hard as ever and touching on some fairly pertinent topics at that, from mental health on The Snake (Break Free), to animal rights on Bull’s Anthem, to the gentrification in their native New York that restricted access to state parks for black citizens on Robert Moses Was A Racist. Of course, it’s not as if they don’t take bigger swings either, like swiping at the US government’s demonisation of immigrants on Bad Hombres or the uncaring one percent on Work The System, but their approach is even more bracing when simply raising the call to arms high like on the title track, or standing against being divided over relatively trivial matters on Beef Against Vegans. And yet, they know there’s still a lot of work to do before everything is right, and ending the album with The New Slavery’s declaration of “How can I be proud of this? / This is my home” serves as perhaps the most effective ellipsis possible, giving their impending revolution one final push to reach that point of pride once again.
It’s a stark message, and even if the vehicle of iron-pumping hardcore used to convey it is pretty much the same one that Sick Of It All have been riding for decades at this point, you can’t fault its effectiveness. The impact hasn’t dulled whatsoever over the years, and even on the introduction of slightly more melody on tracks like Bull’s Anthem and Always With Us, it still feels well-integrated into the usual sonic beatdown, with the former ably handled by a guest turn from Rise Against’s Tim McIlrath, and the latter being a tribute to fallen friends analogous to Pennywise’s Bro Hymn and rippling with the same fraternal love and bond. It’s not as if this is a completely new direction that Wake The Sleeping Dragon! goes in though; for as little as you might expect from a band now a dozen albums deep ploughing through this admittedly simple brand of hardcore, Sick Of It All still have the power to make it totally exhilarating. The sub-minute hurricane of Self Important Shithead might be the most glaring example, but the thunderous aggression and metallic production of the likes on Robert Moses Was A Racist and 2+2 wears its distinct lack of ennui plain on its sleeve, while Lou Koller can still dole out grizzled shouts with the intensity and energy of vocalists half his age. It’s a remarkably consistent listen, and even for an album that’s seventeen tracks long, the lack of filler or fat is as advantageous as it comes; it’s a quick album to get through, but the punch only feels more brusque because of it.
That’s ultimately why Sick Of It All are still held in such high regard after all these years; not only are they continuing to make intelligent, thought-provoking music, but they’re presenting it in a way that benefits the message they’re conveying. For the rallying cry that Wake The Sleeping Dragon! can be largely reduced down to, it’s hard to think of how it could be done much better than this, keeping it short and punchy enough to get that message across, but intelligent enough for it to resonate. And there aren’t many bands so deep into their career that could continue to pull that off, never mind with this level of power, but Sick Of It All’s perennial state of youthful disenfranchisement continues to yield great material, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
For fans of: Madball, Biohazard, H2O
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Wake The Sleeping Dragon!’ by Sick Of It All is released on 2nd November on Century Media Records.