“Now I’m stronger – so much stronger, and I’ll confront myself. I’ll live and learn and love it – I’m not afraid to change myself. We’re here. It’s time to get things right. Our problems will grow if we turn and run. It’s time to get things done.” –Lyrics from “Where It Went”
There’s a good reason why current hardcore acts like Anchor are covering Judge songs more than two decades after Judge broke up: they made an incredible contribution to the “second wave” of the genre – a contribution that should never be forgotten. While I appreciate many of the bands active during the late 1980s and early 1990s era, I have long thought of Judge as the best among them because none of their peers could match the combination of intensity, urgency, energy, and sincerity or the unique brand of vulnerability that you don’t typically find in the hardcore scene. In my opinion, Bringin’ It Down (1989) is a record that simply cannot be matched. I can’t tell you how many times I spun the vinyl and sang along in my bedroom while growing up. I still listen to the album today. It’s timeless.
Musically, they set a new benchmark as 80s hardcore continued to evolve. John Porcelly’s guitar work infuses a solid metal crunch with modest riffs and solos that avoid the needless flash. Mike Ferraro’s vocals are heartfelt growls of anger rooted in personal distress. Some of the tracks are mid-tempo while others are fast. All of them are tight. Furthermore, their arrangement on the record is perfect. Now, I’ve heard a few people criticize the album’s production, but I think it’s amazing given their heavy sound.
Beyond the music itself, Judge’s lyrics are as direct as they are powerful. A number of their songs address common themes such as drug abuse, scene violence, racism in society, and lost friendships, but it’s the personal nature of Ferraro’s writing that has stayed with me so long. For example, “Like You” conveys a genuine sense of vulnerability: “Just like you I chose a path and fought to make it work. Thought I found what I was looking for – oh God I’m fucking lost. Like you, I face rejection. Like you, I look for acceptance. Like you, I don’t always do right, but now I’m trying to find the things I fought to hide when I was young.” Admitting your mistakes is difficult. Moreover, coming to terms with past experiences, and the subsequent feelings you’ve spent a lot of time suppressing, is painful work. What stuns me is that Ferraro wrote these cathartic lyrics in his early to mid 20s. They demonstrate a real ability to self-examine.
Interestingly, there’s a certain irony to the song “Hold Me Back” as it communicates the idea that resorting to violence cannot solve your problems: “You’ll try to tempt me – draw me off my path. God knows I want to use my hands, but I can’t get caught up in that. Because I’ve seen it before – fists thrown over words, and I’ve fought before – and it never changed a thing.” If you read the lengthy interviews with Ferraro and Porcelly in Beth Lahickey’s All Ages: Reflections on Straight Edge and the liner notes Porcelly wrote for the band’s discography, there is discussion of the pervasive violence that erupted at their shows. It’s almost like some of the fans didn’t bother to read the most revealing, i.e. most important, lyrics on this record.
I never had the opportunity to attend one of their live shows because I discovered them about a year after they split up. Nonetheless, they’re one of the reasons why I developed a real interest in hardcore – an interest that influenced my life’s trajectory and has not faded. Our formative years are undoubtedly a very important time for us. As a teenager, Judge inspired me to think in ways I hadn’t up to that point. I’m forever grateful to them for that.
Click here to watch the documentary There Will Be Quiet: The Story of Judge.