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Omaha Magazine

Stronghold: Hardcore Reinforced

Sep 29, 2022 04:36PM ● By Julius Fredrick
Stronghold walks down omaha streets

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

From Joslyn Castles' crenellated turrets, to Offutt's red-brick brutalism, or even Old Market courtyards where stone lions pace the wrought-iron gates—the 'fortress' aesthetic is never far from the Omaha public eye.

Still, the metro claims but one genuine Stronghold: walls of sound, halls of havoc, and a bedrock carved by steel-strung axes, drumsticks, and coarse, grindstone vocals. There’s no particular location to tour; no pencil shavings on the city planner’s grid, nor ledger on the historic registry. Rather, it’s anywhere the punks are. Loud, crass, and wayward—yet centered by a space where love and rage share a roof, old grievances be damned.

“I think the imagery just goes back to that '90s hardcore feel,” said guitarist and Stronghold architect Ryan “Rymo” McLaughlin on the band’s christening back in 2014, “the name just kind of stemmed from the idea that we’re a crew that stays together, going back to that kind of streetwise 90’s youth-crew.”

“We’re a cohesive unit, it’s what keeps us sane,” added Aaron “Aaaron” Skouge, the band’s Garibaldi-bearded growler, hype-conduit, and lyricist. “We’re kind of our own stronghold.”

Formed in 2014, Stronghold’s original members—McLaughin on guitar, Skouge on the mic, Tim “Timmy” Wilson on bass, and Ryan “Emmy” Emswiler on percussion—aimed to reprise the ‘straight-edge’ sub-genre of the '80s and '90s, broadly defined by its decoupling of bodily excess (namely, drugs and alcohol) from punk’s frenetic, anti-establishment pathos.

“I would say it was kind of my brainchild,” McLaughlin noted, “just very riff heavy, groove heavy, punk-influenced hardcore at the beginning. I had these ideas and said ‘let’s get together and write some songs,’ and I started doing it because of my love of 90s hardcore.”

At the time, McLaughlin and Wilson were spearheading a punk outfit called Old Bones, and involved in another group, The Curtain Calls, with Chris “Crutch” Crutcher. The latter would join Stronghold as de facto composer and a second set of strings in 2019. Meanwhile, Skouge had frequented Old Bones performances over the course of their two-year run, ingratiating himself with McLaughlin and company. In 2014, Old Bones fractured under intensifying creative discord, the ensuing ‘crack!’ heralding demise, opportunity, and most importantly, marrow for a newborn project: Stronghold.

“It’s very incestuous, right?” McLaughlin quipped, the lineup now fielding 33-year-old Tim “Twig” Lorence on drums in lieu of Emswiler, in addition to Crutcher. “When you’re stuck in the '90s like, I want to sound like Madball and Hatebreed, just kick you in the teeth right? But [Crutcher] came in with these little parts written over the top, and we’re like ‘oh my God, this taking it to the next level!’

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

“I would just put on songs they wanted to play and just go through them and start writing my own parts,” Crutcher added, “and then when I came to [band] practice the first time, you know, they’d heard things they hadn’t heard before, which reenergizes [the music]…but still keeps that heavy, groovy, hardcore punk spirit.”

Stronghold’s evolving, yet uncompromising, involvement in the metro’s hardcore scene has caught the promethean gaze of Dereck Higgins, Omaha’s post-punk torchbearer for over 40 years and counting:

“They have the secret sauce,” Higgins said. “I see them as being true to the music, whatever their amalgamation of influences was, it comes through very honestly.” 

“Do I hear development? Absolutely,” he continued, “every time I see them they’re very good, they seem to be getting better, and I also like the fact that they try to kick our ass, R.A.F, you know? And we like that. We lift each other up, and that’s why I call it a ‘rag tag scene.’ ‘Brotherhood,’ that’s how I put it.”

Stronghold’s musicianship begets other admirable qualities; their unwavering dedication, not only to their performances, but to one another, chief among them. While their livelihoods outside Stronghold are from from synchronized—with careers spanning health care, the service industry, and academia—for eight years, the band has aimed to practice at least once a week. Jam sessions at Skouge’s Benson-area home are more than diligent rehearsal, they’re a pulse.

“I need it. I need to yell into a microphone. I need to. I need to have my ears ringing for a bit,” Skouge confessed. “Failed relationships, dealing with family members passing away, or friends passing away…it’s the outlet for all of our rage and disappointment. Basically, it keeps us off the news and out of jail.”

With gigs returning to pre-pandemic pace in 2022—including prime-time sets at large festivals, like the Punk Rock BBQ and charitable SKATEFEST—and work on the band’s first full-length album underway, the Stronghold banner continues its tattered ascent. Its garrison, however, remains in the trenches; gritty and grounded as ever.

“The fact that we’ve been able to keep up this level of energy up and keep evolving over eight years, I thinks it’s pretty commendable,” Skouge said. “It’s definitely cheaper than therapy.” 

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This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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