There is a distinguished, undeniable sound—a cavernous, progressing rumble—that belongs to a skateboard. Your ears recognize it and excite you long before you see the board. That sound triggers myriad images, combining the thrill of physical exertion and challenge with, innately, an emblem of rebellion.
In punk, Vitamin X create a sound just as unique and riveting. The Amsterdam-based band’s guitar work extracts references from surf-drenched Cali-punk to East Coast straight edge stalwarts to ’80s skate rock. Spanning two decades, Vitamin X’s career has continued to slap down thrashy hardcore repeatedly. Age of Paranoia is their sixth LP, released in May on Southern Lord Recordings.
Propelled by sweaty live shows, Vitamin X’s reputation is founded on speed and intensity. Guitarist Marc Emmerik illuminates some details about Age of Paranoia. “We love playing live, and as you probably know, we’ve toured all around the world,” he says. “Anyone who ever saw our performance knows that our shows are very energetic and we give everything. To see people singing along and going crazy in the pit is something that is very rewarding. So, we still play as much as our schedules permit—something like a few shows each month.”
The band have toured with everyone and headlined their own tours spanning the globe: the U.S., Mexico, Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America. They have played France’s Hellfest and Maryland Deathfest to bulk up their heavyweight cred. They even did a recent jaunt with Baroness and Cro-Mags. You cannot pin these dudes down—and damn you for trying.
Throughout their eclectic history, Vitamin X have done splits with Blind Society—charged punks from New Jersey in the early 2000s—and Japanese d-beat earth-scorchers We Must Burn. Vitamin X have had a few homes as far as labels: Havoc Records and Tankcrimes, Committed Records and Reflections Records. Their debut 1998 EP was called Straight Edge Crew, but other releases have had fans of Municipal Waste drooling. Their sound is painted by influences such as Minor Threat, GangGreen, DYS, Suicidal Tendencies, D.R.I., and Corrosion Of Conformity, and yet, on Age of Paranoia, they had guests such as J Mascis of Deep Wound, Dinosaur Jr., and Witch and Bubba Dupree of D.C. hardcore noise purveyors VOID—yes, that VOID—offering to shred.
Commenting on these odd but yeah-that-actually-makes-total-sense guest appearances, Emmerik says, “J Mascis plays on the song ‘Flip the Switch.’ The intro sounded a bit like Dinosaur Jr., so I thought it would be perfect to ask J Mascis to do the solo. J, of course, used to play in Deep Wound, one of our fav hardcore bands. I had already met J a few times through Graham Clise [of Annihilation Time and Lecherous Gaze] and once gave him our  Full Scale Assault album. Graham and Dave [Sweetapple from Tee Pee Records] helped me contact J, and when he was on tour in Amsterdam, he did the solo—but he didn’t do just the intro, he said, ‘I will solo throughout the whole song, and you just edit what you need.’ In the end, we just kept the whole solo, because it’s so amazing!”
The result is mind-blowing. Killer idea, brilliant execution. As for Dupree, “Bubba Dupree used to play in the legendary D.C. hardcore band VOID—and afterwards, in Soundgarden, Dave Grohl’s Probot, and Brant Bjork—a band we’re huge fans of. We used to cover one of their songs live. I was hanging out with Bubba after a Brant Bjork show and asked him to do the solo on the song ‘Rollercoaster Ride.’ He didn’t play hardcore punk for a long time, but his guitar solo is totally VOID style!”
Vitamin X’s gift is melding different genres with a common core and stretching it while staying within their formula. The band have been punching their same sound for 20 years. They have never shied from low-end, thick production: clean and punctual but never glossy, continuously exerting palpable frustration and conviction. Vitamin X’s two big pivots from their last release, 2012’s About To Crack, are moving from Steve Albini’s knob-turning to that of Igor Wouters at ARC Studios in Amsterdam and from Tankcrimes to Southern Lord. Emmerik is stoked. Albini produced Vitamin X’s last two LPs, Full Scale Assault and About To Crack, and they were honored. The product was solid, but they wanted to return home with the production, both in geography and in spirit. And Southern Lord just made sense.
“We’re really happy with it. We’ve been contacted by bigger labels in the past, but it sorta never worked out,” Emmerik says. “I’ve known Greg Anderson from Southern Lord for a long time, since the ’90s when he played in Goatsnake. Greg saw us perform a few years ago, and he told me once we had new recordings, we should send it to him. That’s what I did, and he really liked it! He said he loved the unique fusion of old-school hardcore and rock, metal, punk, etc. He thought we push boundaries within a genre that is typically limited.”
Vitamin X have been on small labels and are perched to explore the next tier. “Southern Lord is perfect for us, as the label is bigger, so we get a better distribution and promotion,” Emmerik adds, “but they’re still rooted in the underground and very easy to deal with and great people!”
In addition, the bluesy doom bands on the label have more in common with Vitamin X on Age of Paranoia than one would be inclined to think. One such track—with a killer title—is “Reverse Midas Touch,” a song with a definite rocking, thick-riffed, stoner vibe, but Vitamin X push the speed and bass work and add “woah-oh-oh”s in the chorus, linking them to Southern Lord labelmates like Uniform Choice, Poison Idea, and Brotherhood, Anderson’s old straight edge hardcore band.
Speaking on the decision to have Age of Paranoia produced by someone other than Albini—the supreme producer who has also played in many bands including Big Black, Pegboy, and Shellac—Emmerik notes that choosing Wouters was not a slight against the producer of monumental albums by Nirvana, Pixies, TAD, The Jesus Lizard, Mogwai, Neurosis, Weedeater, and even mainstream mammoths like Bush, Cheap Trick, and The Breeders. Rather, the comfort of home is an allure that sometimes cannot be resisted. Of Wouters, who also drums for Angel Crew and Backfire!, Emmerik says, “We recorded our previous two albums in the U.S. with Steve Albini, but now, we wanted to stay closer to home, Amsterdam. Igor was an obvious choice. I had recorded there myself with my band Demon Eyes. Igor has drummed in several hardcore punk bands and now drums in GOLD. He works really fast, is very creative, knows a lot about all kinds of music, and is really relaxed! So, it was great to work with him!”
Having another Vitamin X record to hold in hand and blast when the needle drops is great. When the invigorating frenzy captivates, it is undeniable. The opening track, “Modern Man,” has feedback ringing and teasing as Age of Paranoia begins—you feel the band settling in for the ride. The chords ring out and anticipation builds, the ground trembling, the production approach capturing the live-onstage exasperation. Age of Paranoia surges with 16 tracks, only five of which cross the two-minute threshold.
“Rollercoaster Ride” is just that. The song is frenetic, slow and fast bandying in a chaotic melee. It was fitting to invite Dupree for a guitar guest slot—speaking of bands defying classification. “Human Plague” and “Bounce Back” scorch at under a minute, while the exactly one-minute “Speak No Evil” has a cool guitar line, piercing and sharp with a SoCal-surf-hardcore feel. These shorter jams pound and vibrate with commanding defiance. “Age of Paranoia,” with the burden of being a title track, extends Vitamin X’s comfort zone at two minutes and 45 seconds—but funny enough, one minute and 45 seconds of that is an instrumental jam with fuzzed-out wah-bass. Guitars embody Iommi riffs and laced flutters as the track moves forward, while a collapsing refrain compounds paranoia and suspicion before exploding into a hardcore swarm.
Listening, it is no surprise that Age of Paranoia was recorded live. Emmerik concedes, “We recorded the basic tracks live—drums, guitar, bass—in three days. Then, we did overdubs and vocals and the mixing. I think, in total, we were there for eight to 10 days.”
That quick turnaround was solidified and fused by relentless shows. Twenty years in, and Vitamin X still play continuously. Emmerik states that 2018 will be the same. “Well, this will be the year of the release of our new album on a ‘bigger’ label, Southern Lord Records. We will be promoting the album, playing a lot of shows!” he says. “We hope to reach our fans but also new audiences who might hear us for the first time. We’re looking forward to playing the songs from Age of Paranoia live.”
The new tunes will engross audiences by blending Annihilation Time, even a touch of Sabbath, the often-avoided late-era GangGreen and SS Decontrol and DYS, the now-revered BLA’ST! or Aggression and Stalag 13, or contemporaries like Night Birds or The Shrine—all of these bands come to mind.
To expand on the vibe of this record, after two sensational Pushead-esque covers, Vitamin X incorporated ridiculous art for this joint from Dutch artist Marald. Emmerik admits, “Marald is, just like us, from the Netherlands. He’s a friend of mine long before he got famous. John Baizley of Baroness—who did the art for our last two albums—is a good friend of Marald. Ten years ago, we all were hanging outside a Baroness show in Amsterdam. Marald actually did the art of the last Baroness album, [plus] bands like Wolfbrigade, Kylesa, High On Fire, etc. John Baizley was supposed to do the art of this album, but he was too busy. So, we asked Marald, and he did an amazing job. He not only made a drawing on the front but also on the back and the insert!”
With titles like “Modern Man,” Age of Paranoia,” “Short Circuit,” “Flip the Switch,” and “Media Messiah,” it seems clear that Vitamin X are concerned with society, technology, and how the people in control of the media and technology use it. “Yes, most of the lyrics on this album deal with this subject. You could even say it’s a concept album,” Emmerik laughs. “Technology is hijacking our brain and minds. That’s what, for example, the songs ‘Short Circuit’ and ‘Flip the Switch’ are about. We live in a dangerous time and age: an age of control, confusion, and paranoia. More than ever, we’re controlled and affected by media, technology, mobile devices, internet, social networks, governments, political earthquakes, extreme ideologies, climate change, pollution, fake news, etc. The song ‘Modern Man’ is a sarcastic song in which we wonder if our so-called ‘progress’ isn’t actually a ‘regress.’ It’s about people who are only interested in their phones instead of participating in the world around them.”
But Emmerik continues that they cannot commit to an optimistic or cynical view about the masses and their involvement with technology. “All this technology is still pretty new, not even 10 years,” he admits, “so I think people and societies are still adjusting and coping with this new situation. Those new technologies we use have, in many cases, turned into compulsions. Tech firms are hooking users with design tricks. I hope we can manage to find ways to cope with this new situation.”
Pics by Michiel de Wilde