How San Antonio's Politically Charged Band Amygdala’s Deal with a Top Metal Label Gives It a Bigger Platform — and New Challenges

click to enlarge How San Antonio's Politically Charged Band Amygdala’s Deal with a Top Metal Label Gives It a Bigger Platform — and New Challenges
Jaime Monzon
“I just want to express that, before we play, punk rock has given me an outlet to cope with being a victim of sexual assault and being a victim of child sex abuse, and has given me a way to find solidarity with people,” Bianca Quiñones Cruz Benitez, vocalist of San Antonio band Amygdala said into the microphone before its set at a Philadelphia punk rock festival.

“We also take this time and take this music to bring out the struggles of persons of color, women of color, punks of color and queers of color,” the singer added.

Some audience members cheered. Several women watching the show from the side of the stage smiled as if Benitez’s statement finally acknowledged their presence in the scene.

Introduction over, the band tore into “Rose Bud,” a song about Benitez’s personal experience as a victim of abuse as a child.

Two years after that appearance at the 2017 Break Free Festival, Amygdala is on the cusp of taking its politically uncompromising brand of hardcore punk to a wider audience. On May 2, the band released a new album, Our Voices Will Soar Forever, on Prosthetic Records, a leading indie metal label whose roster includes heavy hitters like Lamb of God and Testament. They're also about to embark on a 40-date North American tour.

But the band — named for the part of the brain that experiences emotions — also acknowledges that its new chapter comes with new challenges. Though excited about the deal with Prosthetic, Benitez’s biggest fear is that wider exposure could water down the message. Standing up for people of color, women and LGBTQ people is part of the band’s essence.

“If it’s a crowd that I know will not respond or get what I’m saying, sometimes I kind of tone it down a bit,” Benitez said. “And I guess that’s fucked up on my part, because why should I have to do that for the crowd?”

To be sure, Amygdala — which also includes guitarists Ale Zamora and Cesar Bernal, drummer Alex Vazquez and bassist Yole Centeno — has put in plenty of hard work and logged a lot of miles to make its message heard.

Since its 2014 start, the band has funded its own tours, which have taken it across the U.S., Canada and even Europe, and self-released its debut EP The Horror of Never Being Able to Forget. When not on the road, the band organized shows at DIY spaces like the Land In Between DIY and the Movement Gallery, offering an inclusive outlet for local punk shows and even bringing in touring acts like New York-based punk band Iron Chic.
All five members still work day jobs.

While four of Amygdala’s members are still in their mid-20s, part of the band’s appeal is its ability to channel an earlier sound — that of the late ’90s birth of metalcore, a sound that intermingled the dual extremes of metal and hardcore punk.

Amygdala’s approach combines the chunky grooves and fast drumming of hardcore with the dissonant, distorted guitar and screams of extreme metal. All the while, the sound manages to transcend both genres and avoid tired clichés like the tough-guy breakdowns that feature in so many metalcore tunes.

And for a band working in such a specialized niche, it also shows a lot of sonic range. Sometimes, the music creeps along at a grinding pace as Benitez screams in anguish. At other times, it explodes into fits of blast beats and triumphant guitar leads. 

Kicking Open the Door

During the tour supporting its first full length release, Population Control, the band noticed that that an increasing number of LGBTQ people, people of color and women were attending their gigs. Marginalized folks who felt unwelcome at hardcore and punk shows, especially in the South and Southwest, told the members they came out to Amygadala shows because they felt safe there.

That recognition helped the band justify the grueling hours spent in the van, bassist Centeno said.

The band frequently addresses issues of gender and inclusion, not just in lyrics, but from the stage, where Benitez regularly point out that music from femmes, queer punks and punks of color is important.

“And it doesn’t even take long to say that,” Benitez said. “I’ll just say it before a set or after a set and it can change somebody’s whole outlook.”

Daisy Salinas, co-founder of San Antonio feminist punk collective Xingonas in the Pit, said Amygdala’s vocal presence is helping create a more inclusive space in the world of punk.

“Growing up, I was a brown feminist punk in a majority-white, male music scene,” said Salinas, whose group organizes “safe radical music spaces” like the Black and Brown Punk Fest. “I felt that my involvement in the punk scene would always be limited to the sidelines: to being a fan, a girlfriend of a musician or a supporting role to an all-male, white band. It was not until I discovered other punks of color that I felt I could reclaim punk for myself and for my people.”

Part of that discovery came when Salinas began attending Amygdala shows shortly after relocating to San Antonio from Denton.

“Amygdala is a powerful force in hardcore punk and deserves to be both recognized and celebrated for their immense talent and anti-colonial politics,” she said. Punks of color have played an important role in the subculture but haven’t received the same recognition as their white counterparts, she added. “For all of us punks of color on the margins who face these issues, Amygdala is an act of resistance that affirms our existence.”

“Like I Didn’t Exist”

Benitez, who identifies as queer and bi-gender, wants Amygdala to be an outlet not only for self-healing but also for raising awareness of issues like sexism, racism and homophobia in the punk community.

“I was scrutinized for being very vocal, about being anti-sexist, anti-racist and being more inclusive to [people of color] and femme persons in the hardcore scene,” Benitez said of the backlash that stance has sometimes yielded.

Before joining Amygdala, Benitez’s home served as a space for bands to practice and play shows. Initially, that brought a sense of solidarity. However, after spending time with the musicians, Benitez began to notice a disturbing thread in the interactions.

“One of the things that stuck out to me was just how these men would talk in front of me like I didn’t exist,” Benitez said. “I’m kind of grateful for it, because now I knew how these men thought.”

Benitez realized that while many men in punk bands claimed to be politically aware and espoused feminism onstage, some still saw women as less than equal when their set was over.

“We are always seen as an object, at the end of the day,” Benitez added. “We weren’t taken seriously as females doing music, or even just supporting the scene, which is something that is just as important as being in a band.”

“Changing Things for the Better”

At first glance, Prosthetic Records may not seem like the most logical fit for a hardcore punk band with an unflinchingly political stance.

Sure, the label’s roster includes bands with a punk-leaning aesthetic, but the majority leans way more in the metal direction. The latter genre usually places less emphasis on politics, and — let’s be frank here — includes more than a handful of bands with some outright regressive views.

It begs the question whether the folks behind Prosthetic encouraged the San Antonio outfit to tone it down.

“Absolutely not,” said Steve Joh, Prosthetic’s head of artists and repertoire.

While Prosthetic doesn’t necessarily want to be known as a political label, it fully supports Amygdala’s political views and wants to help the band spread them, Joh explained.

“I think it’s very exciting, seeing younger bands get involved and wanting to make a difference and change things,” he said. “As long as they’re changing things for the better.”

The label, he added, would draw the line at signing a band whose political message involves spreading pure hate.

And while Joh and the Prosthetic team appreciate Amygdala’s agenda, that was just one factor that went into their decision to sign the band.
click to enlarge How San Antonio's Politically Charged Band Amygdala’s Deal with a Top Metal Label Gives It a Bigger Platform — and New Challenges
Jaime Monzon
When it comes to adding acts to the roster, Joh said he keeps a couple things in mind. First, are they working, touring and generating a buzz? And, second, do they have a unique sound that fits the styles of music that he’s specifically looking for at that time?

For Amygdala, the answer to both was a clear “yes.”

Roots Bloody Roots

After wrapping up recording of its newly released album last summer, Amygdala began shopping it around in hopes of getting some label support.

On October 30, bassist Centeno sent an email to Prosthetic and within five hours had a reply. After a few days of emailing back and forth, Amygdala and Prosthetic reached an agreement and signed a four-year contract.

“I’m someone that came strictly from the ’hood and grew up poor,” said Benitez. “And me — that poor, queer person from the ’hood — gets to travel, gets to go to Europe and have people wanting to hear my music and come up to me at shows. That’s what keeps me going, honestly.”

Centeno added that even though he doesn’t feel like the band has come a long way during its five years of existence, it’s still taken a lot of sweat and toil to make it this far. Now he hopes Prosthetic is the next step that allows the band to live solely off of creating music.

“I think our ultimate goal as a band is to be able to write, record and tour with our music at a level where it doesn’t strain our lives personally,” Centeno said. “And it absolutely still has to be comprised of meaning and emotion for us.”

For Amgydala, the biggest challenge ahead may be continuing its mission of standing up for equal treatment of diverse people within the punk community. It’s a message the band expects to continue delivering from the stage — even if its new notoriety brings some backlash.

Shortly after the group’s singing to Prosthetic, metal forum Lambgoat shared the news, and some posters met it with ridicule.

“Oh wow. You mean that the overweight ‘latinx’ with a butch haircut has mental issues?” one wrote. “Well, colour me shocked. This band must be big on Tumblr.”

“Men in metal and hardcore are always gonna have some shit to say,” Centeno said. “And overall, with a platform like Prosthetic, our songs are hitting to a larger audience and there are already been people who disagree with us. Not really for our politics, but they target what our bodies look like, instead. There’s actually people upset that there’s plus-size people playing hardcore/metal and they gotta address it before the music.”

But if the band doesn’t resonate with everyone in its potential audience, Centeno added, so be it.

“I understand our music isn’t for everyone, but I know I want to spend my time on this earth playing music that I can support and matters to me.”

Benitez added that the higher profile ultimately helps spread the message of diversity and inclusion.

“Since the beginning our goal is to have visibility and representation for working class [people of color], trans, queer and women [people of color]. I hope, as Prosthetic backs us, that there will be more awareness and support for these communities.”

The Ugly Beauty of Survival

The newly released Our Voices explores the tear-stained journals of Benitez’s own childhood trauma backed by a beautiful and chaotic soundtrack.

The album opens with “Born Into Abuse,” a fast-paced burner with old-school hardcore drumming reminiscent of bands like Bad Brains or Minor Threat. Over music that could easily conjure up a circle pit, Benitez belts out heartfelt lyrics.
Born into abuse
My question is
Who takes the pill
And then who prays to god
That another child will bless their meaningless lives
That another child will be born into abuse
And then who gets the abortion
And who stays traumatized
And then who gets to be a mother
And then who remains childless
In fear of this world
In fear that history
Will repeat itself
Will undo onto their child
In fear that no matter what, things will not get better
In fear that the cycles will not stop here

But the album isn’t a race to the end. The second track, “Why Can’t I Heal,” is a grinding, tumultuous undertaking that evokes a feeling of discomfort as the drums and guitar weave into knots around Benitez’s screams.

That voice is strained with a pain and dread that’s almost too uncomfortable to listen to at times. The lyrics grab the listener by the throat and force them to look at the traumas of past abuse.

Despite the darkness of Our Voices, the album isn’t just a recollection of Benitez’s past trauma, it’s also a gift of hope to other survivors of abuse and those still enduring their own. On the album’s standout final track, Benitez shouts out a message of defiance and strength.
Now we rise!
We will take back what’s ours!
The lives we always deserved!
We have control over what makes us mad
We have life after rape

We are alive!
We will rise!

While lyrics so raw and intense aren’t for every listener, Benitez said such openness sheds light on the acts of violence so many marginalized people experience. The hope is that by being as honest as possible, the band can exact new awareness — and maybe even change.

Now armed with a Prosthetic’s megaphone, Amygdala is ready to keep making people uneasy.

“The lyrics and the music are supposed to make you feel uncomfortable,” Benitez added. “But I feel like being uncomfortable is necessary for change.”

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