On a sweltering Sunday night in early May, a young-skewing crowd of roughly 50 black-clad hardcore fans packed around the tiny stage in the sweaty basement of the Nile Theater in Mesa. The main attraction of the evening was Georgia screamo band Circle Takes the Square, but this crowd was currently interested in Lilith, a Phoenix band formed in November that was about to start its set.
The stage in the Underground is only a foot off the ground, making the space between crowd and band almost nonexistent. Sarah McCann, the short, 18-year-old singer with bangs, red glasses, and a tattoo of a tarot card on the inside of her left bicep, stands with one foot on the stage and one in the crowd, facing her bandmates. The band starts a slow-building, atmosphere-setting intro.
"When this starts, you might want to be careful with your camera," McCann says with a smile to a photographer standing next to her.
It quickly becomes clear why. The intro ends and the band launches into its first song, one so new it remains unnamed. Without warning, McCann launches onto the stage and spins around, unleashing a guttural scream and pounding back and forth onto the stage and off, shouting lyrics into the mic. Heads and bodies start moving in time to the music, and the band begins a short and furious set.
For a band just seven months old, Lilith has a lot going for it. Its music is dark, aggressive hardcore, capsaicin-laced bursts of rage that recede unpredictably into swampy, sludge-mired breakdowns. McCann's lyrics are both deeply personal and ferociously confrontational, calling out everything from her own personal pain to the boys-only mentality she's encountered as a woman making her way in the local hardcore scene.
Lilith is a band with a message. All five members (joining McCann are drummer Matt Hawkins, 24; guitarist Samad Agwani, 21; bassist Mike Hyde, 24; and guitarist Andrew Raffield, 26) have witnessed homophobia, transphobia, and sexism within the hardcore community, locally and nationally, and they want to spread the opposite point of view.
That message immediately resonated. On March 5, the band released a five-song EP, Bloom, on its Bandcamp page. The next morning, they had a Facebook message from 6131 Records, a hardcore label in Los Angeles that had signed bands like Touché Amoré and
Harm's Way Cruel Hand.
"We hadn't even played our first show," Agwani says. "We released it at 10:30 on Wednesday night, and [on Thursday morning] we just had a message in our inbox saying, 'Hey, this is Sean from 6131, I'd like to get in touch.' It was that fast."
The inclusionary ethos has been part of the band's identity since the beginning. Over lunch at Bliss/ReBAR a few weeks ago, the band members explain how it arrived at the philosophy that now drives them forward. For a group that has been together less than a year, it is tight -- one member will begin an idea and another will seamlessly finish it, drawing nods of agreement from around the table.
"I was very adamant on feminism in general," McCann says. The others agreed with her in philosophy but hesitated to put such a label on their new band.
"Although I . . . agreed [with] Sarah's viewpoints, and I felt the same way, I was worried about identifying as a feminist band and excluding people," Raffield says.
"But feminism does the opposite," McCann cuts in.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter your intention; it's what people take away from it," Raffield counters. "I want those people to feel welcome at our shows. I want everyone to come to our shows. I want everyone there. Here's why: If they don't come to our shows, how else are they going to get education on homophobia not being okay? We can't just make music against that stuff and only talk to people who agree with it. We have to make music that doesn't agree with people, and they need to come out and debate us on it. They need to get the right views on sexuality, race, and gender."
There wasn't much resistance, and the band quickly came around to McCann's view, members say.
"We kind of decided none of us were going to start hating women or gay people or anything, so we were like, 'Why the fuck aren't we a feminist band?" Hyde says, shrugging.
"Plus, we decided we were really happy with the music we were writing, and, like, we didn't want to lose Sarah," Raffield says. "So we realized people are going to like our music or they are not going to like it. Our views shouldn't change whether or not people like the music."
They wrote songs and began going back and forth on a band name. Hyde suggested Lilith, and the group finally agreed.
"I've always been into Abrahamic mythology and the occult," Hyde says. "Lilith was Adam's wife before Eve, and she was kicked out of Eden because she refused to be subservient to Adam."
(Hyde says the name's similarity to that of Lilith Fair, Sarah McLachlan's female-only music fest of the '90s, was unintentional.)
Everything for Lilith seems to operate within tight economies. Bloom is 14 minutes long. McCann demonstrates an admirable knack for conveying anguish, frustration, and rage in just a few words. The first track opens with a measure of drums before guitar feedback creeps in and a sledgehammer of a guitar riff spurs McCann to launch her first salvo against disingenuous scene kids -- "Stop misappropriating the culture we bled to build. I'm not sorry that you don't have a battle of your own."
The second track lasts 45 seconds and is more personal. McCann injects desperate defiance into her lyrics, shrieking, "I refuse to shrink down to how fucking small you make me feel." Track four, "Fuck Yr Brotherhood," serves as the band's call-out to anyone who seeks to make hardcore music a boy's club -- "I won't stand in the back out of your way," McCann screams, repeating the mantra, "Fuck your brotherhood. This is our scene, too," as the song ends.
The final song, "Roman Candle," is about "stressful things," as McCann delicately put it. It's the slowest-moving and longest song on the album, building from creeping, subtle guitar lines into crashing, heavy riffs as McCann wails, "He's in every breath and every movement. How am I haunted when I'm the ghost?" It expresses the type of pain that might chill you to tears, and several people have approached her after performances to describe how impactful it was to them.
The audience for heavy music -- be it metal, punk, hardcore, or anything in-between -- tends to skew male. Much of McCann's anger comes from her experience as teenager trying to fit into the hardcore scene and running into people who doubted her sincerity, thinking she might only pretend to be into hardcore music as a way to get attention, that only men can truly appreciate heavy music. (Hence, "Fuck your brotherhood. This is our scene, too.") She wrote a zine about it called Who Belongs?, named after a song by the vegan straight-edge band Gather. The rest of the band has witnessed that exclusion, too, and wants it to stop.
"It's really the harder styles of music that really push girls out," Hyde says. "It's not even hard music in general. It's hardcore, specifically," Agwani continues. "The ongoing joke for Mesa hardcore bands was 'no clit in the pit.' That was the actual saying. It's extremely misogynistic. So one thing we've all really pushed on is trying to push the misogynist ideas and homophobic ideas out of hardcore."
Lilith is scheduled to perform Thursday, May 8, at the Nile Theater in Mesa.
Correction: This article originally stated that 6131 Records worked with then band Harm's Way, which they did not.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.