"People have told me we were one of the first U.S. bands to add metal influences to our music," says Dan Cunneen, the Seattle-based drummer for recently reunited Portland hardcore Final Warning. The group formed in 1982 and recorded an eponymous E.P. heavy on gang vocals, d-beats and chorus-effected guitar chords in 1984 (re-released on the Southern Lord Records' collection PDX last year—the liner notes, backed by convincing photo evidence, explaining that Final Warning was "considered by some to be the most handsome and slender hardcore band in Portland, OR"). More than two decades after a "chemicals"-related breakup, FW is about to play Portland one last time.
These days, metal and hardcore are often separated only by the font a band uses for its logo. But in the mid-'80s Northwest, the two scenes were on opposite sides of the pit—until Portland's Poison Idea, Seattle's the Fartz, and Final Warning began to mix a bit of Motörhead and Venom in with their Minor Threat and Discharge. "We could indulge our love of both metal and punk by just taking all the bullshit out of the metal-like long solos and squealing vocals and keeping it fast like the best punk bands," says Final Warning guitarist Jeff "Simon" Simoncini.
It was Tom "Pig Champion" Roberts—the famed Poison Idea guitarist who passed away in 2006—who discovered Final Warning's punk-metal fusion in 1983, after the two bands shared a bill. Roberts was so taken that he offered to produce the band's first (and only) full-length record for his modest but influential Fatal Erection label. The nod from Poison Idea proved a big deal for Final Warning—which would go on to share stages with acts like the Dead Kennedys, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü in its four-year run. Singer Jeff Paul says his favorite show, though, was opening for the Exploited at Portland's long-defunct punk club, the 13th Precinct. "I think we were paid with a half rack of Hamm's for that one," he recalls.
The Reagan era provided plenty of fodder for political bands, but nothing recurs in Final Warning's lyric sheets as much as the band's disgust with violence. On "Out of Sight, Out of Mind," the band criticizes Americans' apathy toward war over a chugging riff and floor-tom ride: "Staring from the pages of magazines/ The faces of death are trying to scream/ Since their plight doesn't affect your day/ Makes it all the easier to look away." After eight years of Bush, the sentiment seems familiar today.
It's impossible to measure Final Warning's impact on the culture at large, but the band did directly affect some future West Coast magnates—Greg Anderson of Southern Lord records among them. "I only had the pleasure of seeing Final Warning one time, which was in 1985 at [Seattle club] Gorilla Gardens. That show is strangely burned into my memory as a glorious moment where I emotionally fully connected with the purity of American hardcore."
In music-history hindsight, being first counts for a lot. When Final Warning opened for Danish metal act Mercyful Fate for the latter's first U.S. appearance, it won over a decidedly un-punk crowd. "We always wanted to turn more people on to what we were doing," Cunneen explains. "If you're dismissing everything but your own brand of music or refusing to play with certain bands, you're selling yourself short. Leave that close-minded shit for the Taliban!"
So, is Final Warning punk? Metal? Hardcore? Paul prefers the term "DIY."
"I'm happy to see there is a large group of people still willing to turn their backs on corporate labels and pursue creating music on their own terms," he says. Final Warning is sticking to that DIY vision as well, even as the members approach middle age. The Southern Lord reissue is what got the band talking about a reunion earlier this year. "We're all pretty excited to get that stuff out on CD," says Cuneen. And while the band may take one more shot at recording (the band sounds "pretty fucking good," Cuneen says), no more shows are planned. "Punk rock is a young man's—or woman's—game," Paul says of the band's reunion show. "We're not young. We're immature, but we're not young. We just want to show the kids some history and have a good time playing live one last time."