2011 In Punk & Hardcore: A Review
, January 4th, 2012 07:03
Noel Gardner takes a tour through last year's trends in punk and hardcore, via Iceage, NASA Space Universe, Inservibles, Weekend Nachos and more
No, I’m gonna say it before you have a chance: looking back at what happened in punk and hardcore in a calendar year, and squishing it all into one rambling column, is kind of a bogus activity. It endorses an inappropriately neat culture of compartmentalisation, and ignores the fact that nearly all underground punk records come out when they’re ready and/or the label can afford to press them, rather than to maximalise its market performance or what have you. And yet there are trends in punk and hardcore, ones which create recognisable aesthetic shifts. For the most part, they’re tiny and amount to so much ephemera: fortnight-long bursts where disposable-incomed tosspots pay offensively large sums for limited pieces of vinyl they probably won’t listen to twice. It’s lame, but you don’t have to buy into it. Some of the best shit of 2011 has rattled around in a tornado of messageboard hype, and some of it has enjoyed nothing of the sort. There isn’t a golden rule one way or the other; there probably never has been.
This ties cosily in with some recent thoughts by Luke Turner of this parish, but hardcore/punk culture is a poster child for the fragmentation of music culture in general. Increasingly, artists – not all of them, but more of them – are realising that the major label game is for suckers, while independent labels are scaling their pressings the fuck back and trying to make their physical artefacts something you’d actually want to own. I appreciate that in general, this is being done to keep their heads above water rather than out of an active appreciation for, say, Youth Attack Records' approach to marketing (basically, that some people will buy absolutely anything if it’s limited edition enough). “DIY through choice, not necessity” has always been the mantra of those staunchly defending the culture from interlopers. These days, though, you need a keen eye to work out the difference between choice and necessity.
When I interviewed Iceage near the start of 2011, the Danish group’s frontman Elias said, “Some guys have offered to manage us, but we have declined as we like to stay in control ourselves.” A bit after that they started getting flowery write-ups globe-wide, had their debut New Brigade album released on a couple of… press-friendly labels (Abeano and What’s Your Rupture? in the UK and US respectively), and did get a manager after all. Fair to assume they weren’t expecting to generate the kind of chatter that transpired. The last quarter of 2011 has seen excitable music press screeds about The Men and Milk Music, both from the DIY side of American punk’s tracks, so maybe the fickle fingernail of fate will rake across the collective taint of one of them in 2012. (Cali HC kids Ceremony, whose fourth album and Matador Records debut is out next year, seem likelyish to perform the same tokenistic function as Trash Talk did in 2010.)
Notwithstanding the fact that Iceage’s album took up residence in my number one spot in January and is still there now, the scattered bands who stuck their heads out of the trenches this year haven’t really had much influence on the narrative of HC2K11. (I just wanted to see how that looked written down – don’t think I’ll use it again, no.) With this in mind, I’m going to identify a few factors that helped to define this rusty ol’ tureen of a ‘scene’ in the last twelve months, and highlight a record which sums up the factor itself. If you scroll down, there’s a box which is there so you can write that this is all horseshit and didn’t have anything to do with Your Own Interesting Punk Rock Experience. That’s the beauty of it, bub! Near-infinite worlds are possible, and all of them are valid, assuming of course that Frank Turner doesn’t live in them.
First off, hardcore got nastier and gnarlier this year, by which I mean good hardcore rather than some Hatebreed-ass vest convention nonsense. Yes, of course there are still bands writing peppy melodies (or attempting to), and it’s not unusual to find records which place breakneck belters next to meandering experimental feedback blah; but it seems to be more of a ‘done thing’ now to admit that you bug out to late-Eighties youth crew bands, the first few years of Victory Records, second-string crossover thrashers like Crumbsuckers and Ludichrist, and OG Boston hardcore (which in fairness has never really been uncool, I don’t think). This recipe runs the risk of an overpowering corn flavour, so its proponents have to enter into it with utter abandon, while also precariously balancing self-mockery and an intense jaw-snapping seriousness.
To wit, Blasts Of Lunacy, the debut LP by Montreal’s Omegas. The cover looks more like a friggin’ Ghost Box record or something than a hardcore joint, but that’s as off-message as they get. Although they tweak the formula just enough to not be, err, formulaic, their default pattern seems to be a long, slow, vaguely dramatic intro followed by a collective cattleprod and a upsurge of speed and vinegar. At its zenith, ‘Slam Skank’, a pro-mosh missive which might serve as their manifesto, careers into ‘First Shocks Of Manhood’ in what might be four of the finest unapologetic hardcore minutes this century. It’s on Hardware Records in Europe; Parts Unknown in the States.
Of course, if you’re going to flounder in this pool you have to accept the fact that the vast majority of what you’re going to be listening to will be white males from the first world, and many of them will use this position of privilege to be provocative oafs. Toxic Vision (Deranged), the blistering third single by Chicago four-piece Cülo, has amongst its five songs a jam called ‘Neighbourhood Watch’: “I’m not racist, I don’t say black / I say African-American / But stay out of my culdesac.” I’m reasonably sure they’re not being, you know, serious (it’s pretty much the same brand of arch assholery as Chronic Sick’s ‘There Goes The Neighbourhood’, from nearly thirty years ago), but the fact it’s a grand HC tradition doesn’t mean folks aren’t entitled to eyeroll at it. Western Mass uglies Hoax, who also have a bonzer seven-inch on Deranged, played a Chicago show recently, footage of which has been doing the rounds online. It looks like a complete hoot, the sort of sweaty bedlam you thought only existed on flickery VHS, but… well, it’s so unceasingly male you expect a Triga movie to break out at any moment. (Wait until your work colleagues are behind you before you look that one up.)
A tonic is located in the emergence of some fully legit oddballs, hardcore bands who make capital from being as awkward and ungainly as possible. NYC’s Crazy Spirit and to a lesser extent, their spinoff band Dawn Of Humans are both so solipsistic that the closest I can get to a website is their respective last.fm pages; despite (or perhaps because of) this, their 2011 releases have been fiercely desirable. Rochester quartet Rational Animals did a great’n’goofy LP of sneakily stoned-sounding Black Flagisms called Bock Rock Parade, with the best “hey guys, just chillin’ yo” sleeve art since last year’s Slices album. (The band are cool with you downloading it for free, too.)
The strongest and raddest antidote to all that testpostureone browbeating, however, is NASA Space Universe. These four Californians are seriously marching to their own beat: their debut album, Across The Wounded Galaxies (Shogun) teems with crypto-trypto-Huxleyan lyrics riffing on a science-as-religion notion. They mentioned their LSD consumption, unprompted, in the one interview of theirs I read, so I don’t feel too presumptuous throwing that into the mixer. Musically, their high-pitched wall-of-jangle/atonal solo approach has earned them plenty of Die Kreuzen comparisons, which have merit, but I’m equally reminded of the collective mentality of those mid-Eighties Ron Johnson Records bands, only with a hardcore upbringing. To that end, Across The Wounded Galaxies is recommended to Stretchheads fans wondering if there’s owt out there even vaguely equivalent these days.
Something which seems to have been a far more common talking point in 2011 than previous years is Spanish, or Spanish-language, punk and hardcore. Now I realise that more than anything else I’m talking about in this column, this opens me up to mutterings of the “oh, so it only becomes a thing once you notice it, huh” variety, with the exciting added prospect of Anglocentrism thrown in. This is sort of true, I suppose, but like the song says, everyone’s a little bit racist/lazy/spoonfed/pejorative of your choice. There’s just so much out there, you need some sort of filtering influence to guide your purchases, and it’s near-inevitable that passing trends will play a part. Moreover, it helps to shine a light on ass-whipping ensembles like Barcelona’s Glam, Destino Final (formerly called Invasion) and band I really want to flag up: the fully bananas Inservibles, who are from Mexico City.
Their eponymous debut LP, co-released by Shogun and La Vida Es En Mus, is out on its own limb, from the unsettling, Giger’s-school-jotter style sleeve art onwards. It’s grotesquely over-reverbed and gibberingly vocalled, but could never be mistaken for a pat crust-punk record. The influence of fringe USHC like Void and (again) Die Kreuzen is embedded in the wax, but shit like ’23 De Septembre’ and ‘Dolor’ is more blown-out and violent still. Yecal and Kuble are a deadly twin-guitar team, even if it’s unikely anyone save themselves could tell who’s playing which parts; there’s a dedication to the crude kernel of rock’n’roll which saves Inservibles from being a straight-up noisecore rekkid, and homes in on the panel-beating yobbery of, say, The Hunches at times. Oh, and it ends with a chopped and screwed section, because… Well, I don’t think there is a because.
There’s potential to irk the purists with pretty much every inside pocket of underground punk culture I’m highlighting here. In some cases, the irking is more inevitable than others, such as anything that fucks with the template of black metal. Pissing off BM trueskoolers is so easy, it’s barely worth making the specific effort: better to just submit to the fact that punk and black metal are excellent bedfellows, and their increased bouts of greasy copulation are if anything years overdue. Yes, you can go back as far as the early Nineties and drone on about Ildjarn, or point out that Darkthrone were embracing their punk side by the start of the century, but these were essentially one-offs. Conversely, 2011 has spawned several entities who share sonic DNA but, in the rarified spaces they occupy, are terrifically individual.
Yorkshire’s Sump and Denmark’s Sexdrome are both great, and were both written about in my last column. Wode, Mancunian newjacks, have a scorching demo of steadfast Nineties BM with a crusty foundation – like Jodie Marsh passing out with her makeup on. From the “Floridian swamps”, which I daresay means a perfectly adequate part of Tampa, Church Whip’s demo is twelve staggering minutes of claret-coloured hosing down. Murkier and more misanthropic still are Crooked Cross, a Georgia duo who feature a chap from the briefly lauded Cult Ritual and whose song ‘Father Jack’ sadly didn’t take the lyrical tack I was hoping for. Raspberry Bulbs, responsible for the only known pink design aesthetic in black metal, has caused widespread scalp-scratch since debuting in 2009: it’s one of the redoubtable blackened punk duo Bone Awl, who’ve been quiet this year, and Raspberry Bulbs’ debut LP Nature Tries Again (Hospital Productions) is basically like an Oi! version of Bone Awl. There’s a funny thing with Oi!, where its lunkheadedness is fetishised to the point that pejoratives like ‘plodding’ and ‘monotonous’ are reworked into compliments. As much as this often just excuses fumbling shitness, RB works gallons of clammy, sinister atmosphere into these eight basement snarls; it feels very urban for BM, a product of claustrophobia, but that’s probably most of its audience too.
Talking of hardcore’s more extreme mutations, powerviolence is at something of a crossroads right now. Nearly 25 years old now, as a genre descriptor it’s both venerable and embarrassedly shrugged off – there’s a feeling among many that it was never really meant to have been used after about 1990. As it goes, this has been a good year for bands playing songs which are very brief, speedy, downtuned and nihilistic; the only thing is that almost all the best have been made by old hands. The Endless Blockade, probably the most forward-thinking powerviolence band of the last decade, released their last record – a split seven-inch with noisy Iron Lung sideproject Pig Heart Transplant – and immediately debuted their new incarnation, the similarly brutal Column of Heaven. Another Iron Lung offshoot, Dead Language, unfurled a beautifully packaged twelve-inch of tech-grindy exactitude, while IL themselves showed up on Brutal Supremacy, a monstrous double seven-inch comp which also had Mind Eraser, Hatred Surge and Scapegoat bringing the pain.
The most bafflingly overlooked album of any genre for me in 2011 was Worthless, the third album by Illinois party-smotherers Weekend Nachos. It can’t just be because they’re on Relapse Records now, can it? Only the saddest and crankiest of old fools are still making out that punk and metal are ideological cat and dog! It’s a beautiful melting pot, albeit of mostly white ingredients. Anyhow, Worthless is a full-blown rager with the thickest lead-lined guitar tone fathomable; a couple of tracks (‘The Meeting’, ‘Future’) converse by sludge-metal deathblows rather than hundred-hand slaps, but mostly these missives are under ninety seconds, laser-precise and entirely vicious. Now Megabus just needs to buy some planes so Weekend Nachos can afford to tour the UK.
Speaking of the UK, by way of a few final thoughts, there hasn’t really been a prevailing sound in its various punky rabbit warrens for the last twelve months. What there has been is a glut of really bostin’ records and demos (the latter being better represented than I can remember for years), by bands doing their thing without appearing to fret too much about whether there’ll be a label willing to release them, or a bill for them to jump on. I’ll do a more ‘standard’ reviews column in the new year and wedge a bunch of new British stuff in. Meanwhile, be a clever puppy and download this compilation, which is a benefit for the laudable 1 In 12 Club in Bradford: an autonomous centre for anarcho/punk/general left-wing communal activity for over thirty years, it needs a cash injection to meet new fire regulations. In exchange for your small (or bigger than small) charitable outlay, you get 27 tracks by UK bands past and (mostly) present: Endless Grinning Skulls, Moloch, Mob Rules, Closure and Army Of Flying Robots are my fave raves.
It’s in small but cumulatively important ways like this that punk and hardcore manages to stay ‘relevant’, rather than entering into a zero-sum game of unquestioningly championing the new. I mean, if you think that it’s redundant to listen to music that could have been made twenty or thirty years ago (which applies to basically every band in this column), well, none of the participants are gonna miss you much. Likewise, if you think that what punk needs to give it an injection of modernity is some UK funky rhythms, then go ahead and make it; we all wish you well. (Refused’s The Shape Of Punk to Come is a good album an’all, but the two or three pedestrian drum’n’bass parts it features have had an almost entirely pernicious influence on hardcore, and the discourse around it.)
Still: as much as I’ve liked the return to forbidding badassery in techno this year (Sandwell District, Regis, Blackest Ever Black Records and so forth), it has crossed my mind that it’s something I would have really liked twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was in my late teens. Not because I knew much about techno then, but because it’s a terrific racket and it appears to be made by gloomy nihilists with a jones for industrial and noise music and it has cool grainy black and white sleeve art which tells you very little about the artists. Which you could say about a good deal of the hardcore punk released in the last few years. The fences between subcultures are never as high as you think.