Forming in 1977, Descendents are one of the first hardcore punk bands ever to arise. Specifically, they are pioneers of the melodic hardcore subgenre, which married the intensity, rapid tempos, and blistering aggressiveness of the hardcore music of, say, The Germs and Black Flag, with the more palatable pop melodies and backup harmonising of the first wave punk music of, say, The Ramones and Buzzcocks. This style of music would be masterfully showcased on their debut album, 1982’s Milo Goes to College, which, along with Bad Religion’s Suffer and The Adolescents’ self-titled album, is one of the most important documents in this subgenre.
Whether knowingly or not, the majority of Epitaph, Lookout, and Fat Wreck Chords artists owe a great deal of gratitude to Descendents for laying the groundwork for their popularity. Acts like Green Day, The Offspring, Rise Against, Rancid, NOFX, Lagwagon, Pennywise, SNFU, Face to Face, Anti-Flag, No Use for a Name, Millencolin, and later pop-punk acts like Blink-182 and Sum 41 could not run if Descendents didn’t walk. Now, in the near 40 years since Milo went to college, the band are back with their eighth album in their sporadic discography, 9th & Walnut.
9th & Walnut is the second consecutive Descendents studio album (and third overall) to be released via Epitaph Records, which is apropos, considering that Descendents were a huge catalyst for the type of music that would make Epitaph one of the biggest independent labels in the world, with The Offspring’s 1994 album Smash, also released via Epitaph, being at one point the highest-selling independently released album of all time. While Epitaph’s roster changed quite dramatically in the 2000s, it is nice to see that they still remember their roots and have a home for the acts that helped shape their foundation.
Originally recorded in 2002 (with some additional recordings in 2020), 9th & Walnut is an album of songs that the band wrote between 1977-’80, including re-recordings of the songs from their debut single “Ride the Wild”/“It’s a Hectic World” and a cover of “Glad All Over”. It features the classic Descendents line-up of Milo Aukerman on vocals, Bill Stevenson on drums, Tony Lombardo on bass, and Frank Navetta on guitar, who sadly passed away in 2008.
As deservedly well-revered as Descendents are, they aren’t exactly known for their musical diversity. For fans of artists who seem averse to going off their established beaten track, acts like, say, AC/DC or The Ramones, the argument is usually that when you buy one of their records, you know exactly what to expect, and, musically, that’s certainly true of Descendents. You know exactly the music you’re getting if you’re familiar with the band. However, the one aspect of their music that had shown change and evolution was their lyrical content. From their original run from 1977 to ‘87 (their 1996 comeback album, Everything Sucks), their lyrics normally centred around unreciprocated love and fear of rejection.
Their 2004 album Cool to Be You showed a sense of growing when songs like “Nothing with You” showed contentment for banality when in the presence of the one you love. Now, since the band are recording some of their earliest music, some of their lyrics are back to the theme of wanting female attention, with tracks such as “You Make Me Sick”, “Nightage”, “To Remember”, and “Baby Doncha Know”.
Additionally, this also means that any of the signs of musical versatility heard on the band’s previous album, 2016’s Hypercaffium Spazzinate, has also regressed and gravitates more towards the Descendents’ standard sound. The best example of this is their re-recordings of “Ride the Wild” and “It’s a Hectic World”. Originally, the single featuring those songs was released in 1979, a year before Aukerman joined the band and featured Navetta on vocals for the first song and Lombardo on vocals for the latter. The original recordings have a surf rock vibe with a standard punk tempo, making them stand out in the band’s discography. Here, they are altered to make them sound more in line with the band’s usual sound. It is admittedly nice to have these alternate versions for comparison to the originals and to hear what they could have sounded like if they had been recorded two years later, but they feel less unique on this release as a result.
To his credit, Aukerman still manages to convey the character of a lovesick teen just as well as he did in the ‘80s. His voice is probably one of the most iconic in punk music and carries his famous coarse and gravely tone, in conjunction with his Californian accent that wavers between surfer dude and geek on a whim. In addition, the band are one of the tightest units in punk (seemingly regardless of their line-up). 9th & Walnut, while not offering much new from their sound, will remind you of why the band have the high reputation and reverence as they have because they are one of the best acts at offering what they do. The harmonising on “Tired of Being Tired”, for example, is just mind-blowingly great. It shows that no matter how many acts come along aping the band’s style, they will always be able to stand tall with the best of them. In addition, songs like “Nightage” and “Mohicans” are sure to be instant hits with fans.
Despite whatever criticisms can be levied towards the band due to the lack of change in their music, Descendents will go down as one of history’s greatest hardcore bands, and it’s great that they are still around. Fortunately, the band had the idea to record their earliest songs when they did, as it not only gave fans a chance to hear a lot of this material but also allowed for Frank Navetta’s songs to live on and for him to be immortalised playing them before his untimely death. 9th & Walnut will give Descendents fans what they have come to expect from the band. It would probably be best for newcomers to start with Milo Goes to College, or I Don’t Want to Grow Up and then work your way up to here.