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Return of Moss Icon

Punk rockers reunite with help of remastered collection of music

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Moss Icon did a great job of becoming legendary.

Formed when they were teenagers? Check. Terrific band name? Check. Enigmatic record covers, enigmatic lyrics and impressionistic music? Check. Outliers at the edges of a world-famous punk scene? Check. Broke up before anyone outside their scene had heard of them? Check and mate.

For decades among fans of the sort of artsy, mid-'80s punk rock lumped under the still-unfortunate name "emo" (think Rites of Spring, Dag Nasty), Moss Icon was the one that got away, the band from Annapolis that put out records with names like "Hate in Me" and "Mahpiua Luta" and the posthumous album "Their Lyburnum Wits End Liberation Fly."

Tonie Joy was the guitarist in Moss Icon. In the years following their breakup in 1991, Joy went on to play in the seminal ‘90s hardcore band Born Against, the brilliantly frantic Universal Order of Armageddon and his long-term hard rock project, alternately known as the Convocation Of... or simply the Convocation.

Joy played a stunning reunion show at Chaos in Tejas last year with Universal Order, but Moss Icon is a very different animal. After years of the music being out of print and hard to find, Temporary Residence Records (the home of Austin's Explosions in the Sky) recently released a two CD/three LP Moss Icon collection called "Complete Discography," a remastered set of everything the band recorded and released.

"The folks in Moss Icon, we were between 16 and 18," Joy said from his Baltimore home, "all in middle class and upper-middle class suburbia outside of Annapolis. I lived with my grandmother, which made me a little different than most of my friends. I was never much of a child. I thought the Black Panthers were cool when I was, like, 10."

Though Joy was into hard rock like Uriah Heep, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, a cousin lent him records by Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle. All of that fed into the music he and future Moss Icon singer Jonathan Vance were to make.

"The name was all Jon," Joy said. "I was bad at coming up with names, but I could recognize a good idea from a bad one, and I wanted the name to be amazing. Jon said, ‘Moss Icon' and I thought ‘that's a great (expletive) name.' "

The two were joined by bassist Monica DiGialleonardo and drummer Mark Laurence in late 1986, first playing shows in 1987. (Laurence was eventually replaced by drummer Zak Fusciello, and Alex Badertsche joined on second guitar. For the reunion shows, the line-up will be Joy, Vance, Fusciello and Badertsche on bass.)

The songs were as much rooted in classic psychedelic rock as punk, the sound of high school kids figuring out how to make their trippy visions work.

"We could barely play our instruments, we couldn't copy anything," Joy said. "That's why all of our songs are different from each other. It was like, ‘Here is this weird riff, here is this weird part, let's go.' Every song just came out the way it came out."

While Moss Icon were fans of the fabled DC hardcore scene personified by the Dischord Records lineup and bands such as Grey Matter, Ignition and Soulside, Joy says Moss Icon was never of it.

"The idea that we were really connected, that's misconception I think," Joy said. "I mean, I loved (noisy Maryland hardcore band) Void and the whole ‘Revolution Summer'-era of bands (meaning post-hardcore acts such as Rites of Spring)."

But his favorite was Beefeater, a band that blended funk and hard rock with hardcore in a time when it was considered seriously uncool.

"I always thought they were doing a similar thing, being such a mixed bag of influences," Joy said. "And they had this political and spiritual element that made me think, ‘Yes, this is what the youth of America need pounded into their ears.'"

Moss Icon lasted until 1991, and then everyone went their separate ways. Joy continued operating his Vermin Scum Records micro-label and being a struggling artist in Baltimore.

As for the reunion, Joy says that it helped that the reissue was finally out there, but there was an element of reverse psychology to it.

"I think we did it because we thought nobody would believe it or expect it," Joy said. "I have also never been very good at music business things. Wasn't punk supposed to subvert all that?"

Contact Joe Gross at 912-5926