Mr Gardner's Straight Hedge No. IV: Punk And Hardcore Reviewed
, February 23rd, 2011 11:47
Noel Gardner has returned to educate you in the finest punk and hardcore releases he's recently heard. Live photo courtesy of Frederik Korfix
Not complaining, you understand - especially as writing this column was my idea in the first place - but punk rock and hardcore have a rather fractious and distant relationship with 'relevancy'. Which makes it a little tricky to bite down on a theme, or at least one you couldn't have covered three months or so ago, when you wrote the last column. I mean, the dude who writes the dubstep one gets to talk about styles of production that were more or less unheard a few years ago. Meanwhile, there is almost nothing new in contemporary punk, so neophile fans of the form have to busy themselves by highlighting or projecting micro-trends. Before you know it, nitwits around the world are convinced that because literally five or six bands have recently released records which sound a bit like, I 'unno, Void or G.I.S.M. or Nastyfacts or some other droppable name, this constitutes a "bandwagon" which is "totally played out already".
This line of thinking pretty much sucks, and it would be no real loss to the world if most of the Wotsit-fingered warriors propagating it were buried in mass graves, but... superiority complexes and inferiority complexes can often seem pretty similar, I suppose. Talking about 'fashions' in punk is 95 per cent whiny bullshit, because what rewards are actually there to be reaped? Maybe you'll play to 10 more people per show on your tour, and maybe four of them will buy a t-shirt. Quite the gold rush. Almost all punk and hardcore being made in 2011 could have also been made 20 years ago or more; certainly, all the records reviewed here fit that criteria (and one of them actually was). A lot of it also smokes and is made with freeness of spirit and scant restraint. They found a 35,000-year-old bone flute in Germany a few years ago, so you should probably bear that in mind if you ever worry about your musical taste not being chained to the cutting edge.
(Also, I don't know if there are still people who say that techno or rap producers "are the real punk rockers now", but, you know, I imagine techno and rap producers would actually prefer to be judged by the standards of their own subculture, rather than being reduced to a neat link in some dingus' cod continuum.)
I'll start the actual reviewing caper, then, by talking about, respectively, the best record I've heard in the first two months of this year, and the best record I heard in the first two months of last one. New Brigade (Escho - Tambourhinocerous) is the debut album by Iceage, a band of teenagers from Copenhagen who have already found the Danish media – as in, like, newspapers, not just some goons with an MP3 blog – riding their rumps in a most unseemly way. I don't know why this happened, but it's not the result of an orchestrated PR campaign: Iceage are, for now, answerable to no bugger but themselves and maybe a select few Copencohorts.
This album is, basically, perfect. It sounds like a bunch of other biz, sure, but never just like it, and always managing to leech the immeasurable vitality instead of just biting a melody. The Middle Class, Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, Wire, the Screamers, Mission Of Burma, The Chinese Stars, Regulations and Bauhaus all buzzed round my brainbulb across New Brigade's 24 minutes: foetal hardcore, martial drumming at the top of the mix, yobbos reading yellowing paperbacks, a band playing all-metal instruments for an audience of rusty no wave robots, hysterically poetic retellings of your life's mundanities. Buy or die. (I always wanted to write that.)
Mob Rules have also been endorsed by a national newspaper, after a fashion. The Guardian featured a well-meaning - if mildly tenuous - blog post some time back which suggested that the scattered legions of sonically pockmarked bands from Leeds, this quartet being one example, were reflecting the general levels of unrest in the region. This isn't by a long chalk the most noteworthy thing about Mob Rules, but I like segues. The Donor, co-released by the Zandor and Grot labels, comes about two years after their first, and so far only, seven-inch: while that was indebted to blitzing late-80s powerviolence, in the interim they've developed a yen for wailing guitar solos, and dropping to tempos that evoke a teenager dragging himself to a phone box after being kneecapped by the IRA. No, really! You will unquestionably think the same thing when you hear this LP. When people talk about hardcore bands 'doing' slow and downtuned, they most often invoke Black Flag's My War, but Ben Hirst's guitar is so off the map it sounds like his alma mater was their Live '84 album. I probably just think that because it was my Flag introduction, though. Anyway, this is an incredibly powerful and well-realised album which transmits a contempt for society – one that sounds raw and sincere, but never tries to pretend that its protagonist(s) aren't a part of it.
Beards, a two-girl-one-boy trio, are also from Leeds, which has been one of the UK's most productive founts of self-sufficient punk rock for probably fifteen years or so – certainly for as long as I've had some awareness of this pocket of culture. Although the degrees of separation are probably measurable, Beards' debut LP Brick By Boulder (Ouse) betrays a band who have very little in common to Mob Rules. There is lingering darkness and disquiet in their music, but it peers from behind broadly danceable and upbeat postpunk. To this end, Beards uphold the legacy of bands like The Ex and Red Monkey, albeit without their radical leftist politics (at least, not placed front and centre). Why, I'd posit that Red Monkey would have released this on their Slampt label if it had come out in, say, 1998. It's a long way from one-paced, too: clock the pseudo-Sabbathian riffs which kick off 'Gold Medal' , and the schaffel-y synthpunk of 'Tried Searching (Searched Trying)'.
Blown 2 Completion is the last ever record from Toronto's Brutal Knights. You can buy it, and literally everything else they ever released – four twelve-inches, six seven-inches – for less than the general market rate for one copy of some Fucked Up releases. The moral, one supposes, is that 'funny' is less valuable a commodity than 'mystical'. Brutal Knights, or more specifically the lyrics of Nick Flanagan (who released his debut standup album a few weeks ago), are or were an actual successful comedy band. This involves walking a highly treacherous tightrope, but their poise is commendable. I have, in times past, read Brutal Knights and Half Man Half Biscuit lyrics to myself, alternating between bands song by song. Flanagan's zeal for the most syntactically forced rhyme available outside of death notices in local newspapers reaches its apex on 'Wings': "My eyes doth see an item stomach want to do / Someone named me is hungry for a chicken food." Oh, and they play – as they always did – very fast garage hardcore which hootingly hails the Angry Samoans, New Bomb Turks and pre-Apocalypse Dudes Turbonegro.
I promoted a Brutal Knights show a few years back; Flanagan covered his face with cheesecake, mentioning this shortly afterwards in a Vice magazine interview. Vice Records, meanwhile, have released The First Four EPs by Off!. Everything is tenuously linked, now and forever. Off!'s strain of compact, brickwall LA HC did not find its way onto Vice's roster on musical merit alone – the hook is the lineup, which features Keith Morris of Black Flag and the Circle Jerks on vocals, plus Redd Kross' Steven McDonald, Dimitri Coats of Burning Brides and drummer for a thousand San Diego bands Mario Rubalcaba.
The First Four EPs ticks a lot of boxes: it averages out at around one minute per song; Morris sounds phlegmatic and hacked off; there's no wasted sonic space or superfluous dicking around. Obviously it's a shameless excavation of the past, albeit a past some of Off! helped to create, but the 35,000-year-old bone flute refutes all arguments. Is it actually that great? Sometimes, sure. 'Panic Attack' and 'Upside Down' are legit bangers that match up with any youngsters playing retro hardcore right now. And yet a fair chunk of the album is just not that distinguished, as much as it's obvious that Off! is a freeing experience for its members. Also, if you've ever witnessed Mario drumming for Earthless, you'll appreciate that any time spent drumming in another band is time he could be playing drums for Earthless.
If you've heard any chat about NYC's Crazy Spirit, it's 95 per cent likely that it told you their EP – released by Toxic State and packaged in a delish screen printed sleeve – is a brickdust-covered Godzilla high on the hog of noisepunk distortion, early 80s Italian hardcore insanity, demonically possessed vocals and shards of metal swimming around like flakes in Goldschlager. (Wow, when did you last drink that stuff?) All of which is empirically true. Thus, I merely wish to spread the love among people who came here to read about the new Gruff Rhys album or whatever. Go and find this single if you want to hear how it's still possible to make hardcore music that sounds appreciably different to other hardcore music, or just to straight melt your mind.
None of which means that you can't make music like Brain F and sound like you piss pure yellow vitality. This two-track 45, on UK label Static Shock, is the North Carolina band's debut release proper – there's a demo tape and another, near-simultaneously-released seven-inch kicking around too – and it's classic both in intent and result. 'Restraining Order', especially, is a breezy road trip across the torso of the States that starts in late 70s Cali (think The Dils and The Avengers) and arrives in Indianapolis a few years later, when Zero Boys were birthing the incredibly classic Vicious Circle.
If we're putting a saddle on that metaphor and riding it 'til its hooves crumble, then Harbour's four-song single Gwalia Deserta (Carry The Weight) is resident in Washington DC circa 1986, thrilled about the scene's fresh new idiot-shunning direction while hoping that the name 'emotional hardcore' doesn't catch on. Aren't we all? What I'm saying is that primarily, these South Wales gentlemen fuck with Can I Say by Dag Nasty – I've seen them cover something off it, so they can't deny it now. You can mention Gray Matter, Government Issue or Lifetime too – anything that's fast but melodic, and kinda sideways-leaning – if it helps you get the idea. The lyrics, heavily pregnant with polemic and imagery, are introduced on the insert with quotes from figures of note, including Mr Burns and political scientist Samuel Huntington.
In common with several other genres, the last couple of years have seen an explosive upswing in the amount of punk and hardcore bands releasing cassettes. Not all my thoughts about this are positive, but when I interviewed Iceage recently (for an Escape Velocity piece which'll be up on The Quietus very soon), I sent them a long, rambling question requesting their thoughts on the subject, to which vocalist Elias replied: "Cassettes are quick and cheap and allow for a lot more projects to see the light of day." There it is. CD-Rs tend to be quicker and cheaper, but I'm not going to let that stop me enjoying this Foreign Objects tape, for example. It's an unmastered 'preview' version of this Boston band's forthcoming No Sensation LP, which is a neat l'il bit of marketing. Sorry, but it is. Sweet platter-to-be, mind: you can tell it's unmastered (some of the cymbals sound like a fork hitting a tin tray) but that has little bearing on Terry Cuozzo's piercing riot grrrl vocals, the near-relentless drum rolls or the way they cook up rad melodies and pelt them with dirt clods. I don't know if it's postpunk or post-hardcore or even powerpop, and I don't think it matters. Foreign Objects seem to be getting scattered attention, but they deserve more.
If this column had regular readers, they would be aware that it normally writes about The Shitty Limits, or one of the bands on their family tree. This instalment will be no exception, thanks to The Sauce. They feature a Limits member, a dude from the also-previously-reviewed-in-here-Hygiene, and (it has been claimed) one member each of Fucked Up and Trash Talk, although if this is the case they're doing hella convincing English accents during the football chant that sees the first song off. A severely scarce tape, whose sleeve appears to have been drawn with a pencil, yields two tracks in just under five minutes; bothering the border of parody (the songs are called 'Hardcase' and 'Down The Shops') while betraying a very real love for that kind of pre-Oi! style of Oi! made by people who got called "herberts" in reviews. All their songs are about coming from Reading, it is claimed, which honours punk's lingering fetishism for commuter town culture.
A fetishism rivalled – well, outstripped – by its boner for archivism and vault-raiding means that there'll always be some reissues to see us home. Brand new on Dischord is a shockingly overdue release of everything Artificial Peace ever recorded: Complete Session November 81, seventeen songs taped in one fell swoop on a four-track. Like almost every DC hardcore band, they were unable to stay together longer than a year, but the four members made their time count – except in the release stakes, only contributing to the 'seminal' Flex Your Head compilation and appearing on a split single in 1982. Nearly three decades late, this makes for a ripper of an LP, save perhaps for their 'Wild Thing' cover. Steve Polcari's provoked growl is given freer rein than in Marginal Man, the band that emerged from Artificial Peace's demise; the songs are as fast as Minor Threat, and although AP were plenty popular in DC at the time, perhaps the scene wanted something a bit more hectoring.
Also stepped on, like so much impure cocaine, in the putative fight for posthumous recognition were Chicagoan quartet Big'n. Released by French label Africantape, Dying Breed collects songs which might not be impossible to obtain, or for fearsome prices, but would likely require no small dedication. Playing aggressive, trigonometrical rock with pointedly clouded subject matter, aside from when they cover 'Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap', Big'n were utterly of their time and location, which is a large part of their appeal as well as a suggestion of why they slipped through the cracks of noiserock history somewhat. 'King Hot Pants', from 1992 and their first single, has William Akins attempting a strangulated David Yow gurgle – successfully, all told, but setting Big'n up as a band to fill in at those rare times when there wasn't a new Jesus Lizard record.
Nevertheless, time has served them well, and although this will probably appeal mainly to people deeply invested in the TJL/Rapeman/Dazzling Killmen/Bastro axis, these songs sound enormous with crania to match. Should Dying Breed be reviewed in a punk rock column? Well, I doubt Big'n would have balked at the descriptor, and they push all my pads, but tape some paper over your screen while reading if you don't agree.