Hardcore crew Year of the Knife are deep into their set at Polish catering hall–turned–music venue Brooklyn Bazaar when vocalist Tyler Mullen pulls "the Cornholio." He yanks his T-shirt up and over his face mid-song for several minutes, forcing his screams past the sweat-soaked cotton barrier with heightened force and zero self-consciousness. This habit, named by his bandmates in honor of the Beavis and Butthead gag, began as a way for the singer to vent excess energy during childhood; it's since become his signature move. "I just need to just lose control, you know?" he explains simply after the show.
Over Year of the Knife's approximately 20-minute-long set, that's exactly what Mullen and his bandmates do, charging through a roiling set list comprised of highlights from their latest release and second EP overall, Ultimate Disease. Aside from a brief introduction, a few shout-outs and requests to fire up the pit, the frontman keeps his inter-song banter to a minimum, letting loose a public exorcism and holding the audience rapt.
For Year of the Knife, the audiences are only getting bigger and paying more attention. Since forming in 2015, the Delaware five-piece — Mullen, guitarist Brandon Watkins, Watkins' wife Madison "Madi" Watkins on bass and twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Kisielewski on drums and guitar, respectively — have stormed U.S. stages with Knocked Loose, Terror and Jesus Piece, and appeared at hardcore gatherings including United Blood and FYA Fest. It's an impressive list of accomplishments that has helped make them one of hardcore's most highly touted young outfits.
A single spin of Ultimate Disease reveals the hype as wholly justified. Released last fall, the three-track effort teaches a master class in musical self-immolation, setting rough-and-tumble hardcore alight by way of scorching death-metal theatrics. Give the band eight-and-a-half minutes, and they'll show you a spectacular, sobering world of pain, informed by their real-life experiences.
"Straight edge is so much a part of who we all are … every member has been touched by loss due to addiction," says Madi. "For me it was about taking control of my life when I felt like I had no voice as a child. I watched both of my parents suffer and struggle and become complete strangers to me through their alcohol and pill addictions. You never get over the feeling of watching the people you love destroy themselves. It's sad, but so many straight-edge kids and people within hardcore understand that truth — and maybe that's what drives them here in the first place."
The band started as a collaborative project between Mullen and Brandon, the latter of whom adopted the straight-edge lifestyle in 2010 after watching his friends succumb to drug addiction. He remembers a particularly traumatic event when a girl he knew "overdosed on E with a group of people — my friends, kids — and they watched her die because they were too scared to call for help," he says. "They didn't want to get in trouble … I think we were 15."
"I didn't want to waste my life doing something that would hurt me and those around me," Brandon concludes, "so I made a choice."
That choice led him to Year of the Knife and, tonight, to Brooklyn Bazaar, where they channel all their harrowing past experiences into another cathartic show, "Cornholio" and all. After the gig, as the bandmates finish loading up the van for the drive back home, they reflect on Mullen's antic of choice. "Someone took a photo of him at one of our shows doing that," Madi points out, before Brandon swoops in to set the scene.
"Madi's soaring through the air with her fuckin' pink-ass bass!" he giddily recalls. "And Tyler's got this bright green Switch shirt, and he's got it fucking wrapped around over his head!"
Mullen laughs, adding, "It looks like I'm being fucking hazed." But of course, he's not. For Year of the Knife, hardcore has an open door even to fans who don't share their straight-edge beliefs. "There is no support system in the world that understands and has your back like the people in this scene," Madi reflects later. "That is something that I truly don't believe can be said of other communities in such a deep-rooted way."