The meaning of the word "punk," in 2015, is something that can be debated endlessly by those with stakes in the underground, or in the rhetoric of music description. A primer in what it could refer to was put on this weekend by the Boston-based arts nonprofit Brain Arts Organization, sponsors of the annual punk-rock throwdown Hassle Fest.
This year represented the festival's seventh installment, and the three days of shows — at the Cambridge Elks Lodge and Out of the Blue Too Gallery in Cambridge, and Brighton Music Hall in Allston — ran smoothly, an impressive feat for any event with more than 40 acts and a face-painting area. Schedules were finessed to keep a substantial portion of each night's bill open to those under 18, a crucial gesture that showed how the underground depends on the next generation; Brighton Music Hall's space was reworked to fit a smaller second stage in the back, so as to limit downtime between sets.
Those sets were short, allowing each band to show off their best selves. Boston basement-show heroes Pile put on a master class in crushing, yet complex rock, with vocalist and chief songwriter Rick Maguire balancing his emotional vocal performances with sardonic one-liners. The whirlwind set by New York three-piece Palberta smashed together pummeling rock and noisy delirium, with the occasional winking girl-group move thrown in for spectacle-enhancing purposes. And Obnox, the stage name for Cleveland-based rock lifer Lamont "Bim" Thomas, played blunt, floorboard-rattling rave-ups.
The bill's breadth was a testament to how, in 2015, the idea of "punk" isn't merely limited to those acts following in the guitar-bass-drums tradition of acts like Ramones and the Sex Pistols. Friday night's set by saxophonist Paul Flaherty and guitarist Bill Nace was quick and virtuosic, its brutality anchored by the relentless drumming of improvisational ace Chris Corsano. Saturday's performance by the Chicago act ONO, which brought together Krautrock, hardcore, and gospel influences, was capped by a stunning reworking of the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." The New Jersey act Home Blitz paid homage to pop during its noisy, brief set on Thursday. Producer Valerie Martino, performing under her unprintable nom d'electro, crafted music that sounded like an advancing navy of mutinous appliances, with a few analog-synth squiggles resembling passing birds; New York-based musician Tyondai Braxton's approach to electronic music, meanwhile, was more abstract, its ambitions lying in its subtlety.
Downtown Boys, from Rhode Island, headlined Thursday night's installment at the Cambridge Elks Lodge, their politically charged take on post-punk electrifying the venue's basement. Victoria Ruiz's gulped vocals traded off with her passionate mini-monologues about the world's ills, and the music backing her had the crisp, chaotic charge of the best post-punk, with saxophone squawks underscoring Ruiz's blunt lyrics.
Friday night's main set closed out with Screaming Females, a trio from New Jersey who this year put out "Rose Mountain," a devastating, highly personal take on hard rock — it possesses punk's economy while diving into metal's depths, with lead singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster's fleet playing and singular bellow serving as anchor. Their live version of "Triumph," a charging, defiant "Rose Mountain" standout, showed off Paternoster's delicate side; in the midst of its thundering riffs, she dropped an intricate solo that only bolstered the rest of the song's claims of strength.
Then there was Flipper, which closed out the all-ages portion of Saturday's bill. Founded in the late '70s in San Francisco, Flipper took the frenetic energy of the then-nascent punk scene and slowed it down just enough to curdle the resulting music. Bassist-vocalist Will Shatter passed away in 1997; vocalist Bruce Loose announced his retirement in August. David Yow, lead yowler for the beloved noise-core act Jesus Lizard, stepped in. His caustic sneer felt right at home on Flipper classics like the bored-to-death "Ha Ha Ha" and the disaffected "Way of the World"; he sailed over and jumped into the churning, rowdy crowd, occasionally taking the odd audience member (including this correspondent) for a quick spin around Brighton Music Hall's floor. What "punk" meant to each person in attendance this weekend probably differed at least slightly, but the charge offered by the performances was without question.
Hassle Fest 7
With Flipper, Screaming Females, Downtown Boys, Tyondai Braxton, Pile, Obnox, Palberta, and others.
At Cambridge Elks Lodge and Out of the Blue Too Gallery, Thursday; Brighton Music Hall, Friday-Saturday.