Unsane In The Membrane: Noel Gardner's Straight Hedge Punk Column
, September 3rd, 2012 03:21
You don't have to be Unsane to work here but it helps, says Noel Gardner as he lists the best punk, hardcore, crust etc. out this quarter
It’s curious, thinking back to the way underground punk and hardcore used to rail against the mainstream. This is not to say that it doesn’t now, or that either of the ‘sides’ won or lost; it’s to say that many of the old bogeymen seem like bygone relics. When the Sex Pistols and The Clash had been around a few years, and it transpired that their initial youthquaking soundbites had evaporated into hot air, Crass and Rudimentary Peni were moved to write songs registering their disgust. Who would you write a song like that about now? Frank Turner? Please, no-one write a song like that about Frank Turner.
HeartattaCk zine refused to review anything with a barcode on the back, which was stupid at the time (not having one didn’t preclude an album being sold in chain stores, it just meant that some poor sod in a warehouse had to stick one on) and, in an age of atrophying CD racks, feels like an implausible thing to ever have cared about.
You would have to be truly deluded to think that major labels still consider punk culture a ‘threat’; they still sign a punk band every so often, and the band writes a tedious Facebook post explaining their “tough decision” and their obsequious fanbase wish them well, but the notion of majors as get-rich-quick schemes has to be a serious minority viewpoint by now. (If I was a betting man, I’d wager most bands signing such deals rationalise that the job market is so fucked, they might as well cripple themselves with debt this way as any other.) So what, apart from the fact humanity is utterly evil and is killing itself, do you get ratty about instead? There are independent labels acting like major labels – hopping between styles as the winds change, signing large swathes of genres to ensure a large market share. You could have a pop at that. Take, for example, the bands Southern Lord Records have been releasing in the last two years or so.
I mean, on the face of it SL is just one dude’s music taste, and these things mutate for any number of reasons, but ever since they reissued the first Black Breath EP in late 2009, they have gone bananas for hardcore bands who sound more like metal bands, or possibly vice versa. It’s slightly odd, and I can’t imagine they sell in especially alluring numbers, but after releasing a few also-rans last year, most of their current crop are worth your time. I’ll skip over Martyrdöd’s Paranoia album because it got reviewed in last month before last’s edition of the metal column; Acephalix’s Deathless Master and Hasta La Muerte by Xibalba because they’re death metal records really (plus Acephalix was reviewed in the metal column before the one before the last one); and the recent From Ashes Rise seven-inch because I don’t have a proper copy. That leaves us with Wolfbrigade‘s Damned LP; Enabler’s full debut All Hail The Void [Which is reviewed in last month's metal column, Ed] and Rotten Thing To Say, the ‘sophomore effort’ by Burning Love.
Damned, the fifth album by rampaging Swedish crust icons Wolfbrigade, actually came out a few months ago, but fuck it, it’s not like they changed the LED displays in Times Square to hail its release. It’s pretty monstrous, though. Recording in Studio Fredman, most commonly booked by Swedish death metal big ballers, is a decent indicator of what’s being attempted here: these cats were metal as fuck, even when they formed as Wolfpack in the mid-Nineties, but if there was ever any implied apologies to the peaked-cap-patch-and-rattail krust krew for their metallisms, there isn’t now. Lyrically, they’re like a depressed Bathory, and almost entirely apolitical – when Micke Dahl keeps harping on about “1968” during ‘The Curse Of Cain’, my first thought was of Parisian anarchy, but a closer look reveals it’s actually about Charles Manson. What keeps them indubitably in hardcore’s court is their continued reliance on the d-beat; Dadde Stark tears it up on the drums, but there’s no technical dickabouts here, chum.
Enabler are a quartet from Milwaukee, have been going a few years, and while they’re pretty tricky to pin down to one style, the twelve songs on All Hail The Void pay a hefty debt to Nineties metallic hardcore. Usefully, they have a drummer, Andy Hurley, with notable pedigree in this department – he played in the extraordinary Racetraitor, a bunch of white dudes whose name referred to their black nationalist running concept. He’s rather better known as a member of Fall Out Boy, which has inevitably been more of a millstone than a stepladder for Enabler. I kind of assumed that everyone, or at least everyone who cares about this sort of music, knew that most of FoB came from the vegan sXe scene, but obviously not. (Also, it’s pretty hilarious how people have tried to play up Enabler’s links to other, more ‘relevant’ groups, most of which actually comprise filling in for other members on tour.)
Anyway, this album does a bunch of things very well without ever quite being superlative: turbocharged Mötorcrüst parts that tip over into High On Firey OTT-ness (‘Fuck Today’); annihilating drums caught between grind, powerviolence and d-beat; guitars which, in the tradition of the best pre-Killswitch Engage metalcore, feel like a lead sky being split by lightning (the huge title track). If you have Black Breath’s Sentenced To Life, well, you have probably the best album of the year, so it’s no slight to say that this isn’t as good.
Burning Love, too, are encumbered by previous ventures, albeit in a more manageable way than Enabler. Chris Colohan, their vocalist, has been in a stack of Toronto hardcore bands, Cursed being the ones that got up in the highest number of grills. Their records were decent, but when I think of Cursed, I think of the band who played a house show – not even a basement, a fucking upstairs bedroom – for about thirty people including myself, at perhaps the height of their popularity. They were intense enough for the disappointment to be palpable when Burning Love emerged in 2009 after Cursed dissolved – their early releases had this chunkified stoner rock feel which amounted to a blunting of the Colohan icepick.
This isn’t absent from Rotten Thing To Say, either – ‘The Body’’s guitars could pass muster on a Fu Manchu record – but, all told, there’s ample fodder here for fans of Poison Idea, post-Swiz band who no-one remembers Jesuseater, or Cursed themselves. Recorded by Converge’s Kurt Ballou, everything sounds huge, of course (although you really can have too much of a good thing, listening to bands recorded by Ballou). Colohan still has a hell of a voice – I’d be surprised if Fucked Up’s Damien Abraham denied biting his style somewhat – and commits to lyrics which are both relevant and good. “The DUIs that never stick, and the punched out wives that drop the charge, and the racial slurs struck from the record,” on a song called ‘Pig City’, isn’t too ambiguous, is it?
So yeah, DIY punk. I’m trying to stick to a vague policy of not reviewing bands twice in this column (otherwise you’d have seen some or all of these covered: Crazy Spirit LP, Dawn Of Humans single, Column of Heaven LP, Slices LP, Double Negative single and Sump tape) but I’ll make an exception for London’s No. The two cassettes they released prior to this, a self-titled 45 rpm twelve-inch on Static Shock Records, weren’t deemed to flatter them much – I mean, the second of ‘em sounded like fairly unassailable Eighties oddball hardcore to me, but No is a palpable gear-change, so yep, spring for the vinyl by all means. It’s been given a thick, hairy production at the same place that recorded Electric Wizard’s Dopethrone, and it moves, somewhere between a stagger and a swagger, through eight songs in about twelve minutes. Side A is where chaos reigns – hyperspeed screwball scrambles siding with United Mutation and more recent goofs like Sex Vid – and side B approaches the anthemic at points, notably on the incredible ‘Big Black Wings’ and its frothing about the “sun coming up”. They indulge in a little pigfuck right at the end with ‘Don’t Forget’, but this is a pure bred hardcore record, and if there are… let’s say three better HC bands than No in the UK today, that’s a good state of affairs.
Woolf, also from London, employ the odd hardcore riff on The Right Way To Play, their 12" (same speed as the No record; roughly the same running time) on La Vida Es En Mus. ‘December’, for example, features a near enough straight jack of Black Flag’s ‘Rise Above’. On the whole, they are not a hardcore band: they are torchbearers for riot grrrl, mainly the kind that avowedly rejected mastery of one’s instruments and did so for ideological reasons and/or just to say FUCK YOU. Like, I got an email a few hours ago about Corin Tucker’s new album and how it’s going back to her (pre-)Sleater-Kinney rrroots, and I’m not saying it won’t, but… if I suggested that The Right… sounded like the midpoint between both sides of the Skinned Teen / Raooul split LP, that’s how deep Woolf are in these caverns of scrape and screech. Percussive playground chants (‘Witch’) and distant echoes of A Certain Ratio (‘Don’t Go’) are absorbed into the quartet’s musical worldview, and I dig the heck out of it, but you have to really prize amateurism. There’s no comprehensible narrative of punk rock that easily takes in (say) the Burning Love album and this, but most narratives are pretty bogus anyway.
Still, you’d expect a band called Shaved Women to offer a pretty comfortable run-on, wouldn’t you? Either a squad of no-shit feminists, or failing that some anarchos looking for a social centre to play (‘Shaved Women’ was a Crass single). Actually, they’re four men from Missouri called Tom, John, Chris and Ben, and they play dudely hardcore soaked in noiserock. Oh well! Actually, they’re pretty good at it, which is why Ektro – the label ran by Jussi from Finnish supermen Circle – has compiled two highly limited releases of theirs onto a self-titled CD. The last five tracks are from a tape of a live set which sounds fun enough, but which you don’t really need to hear. This leaves us with seven songs from their debut twelve-inch from 2011, including one Die Kreuzen cover, and here’s where Shaved Women prove their mettle. Confident enough to consistently rock at midpace, ‘Circles’ and ‘The Start’ are blue-collar dirges akin to Halo Of Flies or Fang; ‘Same In The End’ and ‘Choices’ run at a more evidently hardcore clip, and don’t stand out as much, but the dead-eyed negativity that powers Shaved Women seems to have elixir properties. They also have a new three-song single on the Pass Judgement label, from which ‘Static’, particularly, has potential to be a dead-ender’s anthem for the ages.
Fronted by Barker Gee, formerly of scrappy punknews.org-friendly bands like Ringers and Witches With Dicks, Neon Piss could probably stand to be a shade more prolific. Neon Piss, their debut album (on Cut The Cord That… Records in Europe; Deranged in North America), features eight songs, five of which are recycled from the San Francisco band’s 2010 demo and sole previous release. However, let’s assume you never heard that, the better to talk up a sturdy and stirring melodic punk rock disc. It has a similar timeless feel to someone like Red Dons, but without their latent Anglophilia; Marked Men, if you took away their Ramones jones and replaced it with the gruff realism of Leatherface or any of their many copyists. It’s pacey, but the tune is always paramount, and Neon Piss have penned two especially fine ones to date: ‘No There Here’, the LP’s longest song and possessor of the most gothic reverb, and ‘Sickening Wind’, which cops the Wipers’ skeletal jangle without sounding like an imitation.
Scouting around for a representative website for White Guilt brings their last.fm page up pretty early, featuring a link to a Tumblr post (deleted, but after having been reblogged dozens of times) titled “FUCK THE BAND WHITE GUILT”. It says, or said, that one of them got in a fight with someone’s housemate and then stole some stuff from their hallway. Riveting, I know. Anyhoo, the band – a quartet from Syracuse – have since broken up, leaving behind two tapes, an LP and this preposterously blown-out four-song single. Released jointly by Video Disease and Feeble Minds, it has the flailing drums of early Scandinavian hardcore; the kind of seductively incomprehensible recording fidelity you have to really try to get these days; feedback intros and general application of chaos that suggests an enthusiasm for early power electronics. Josh Smith’s lyrics mention rape (as a metaphor) three times in the first two songs, and remain fairly witless thereafter. That said, it was probably a similar impulse that led to White Guilt being more stupidly distorted and vomitous than the ‘competition’, which elevates this seven-inch above the generic.
Confines, a Boston hardcore band comprising members of other halfway notable Boston hardcore bands, are just about as lyrically histrionic, but help themselves by actually covering subjects, as opposed to just leafing through the misanthropist’s thesaurus. Granted, by tackling the brutality of war ‘Some Sick Joke’ – the title track of their second single on Side Two Records – isn’t exactly dropping science, but it’s landing punches, in a manner suggestive of Millions Of Dead Cops. “We distinguish between civilian and combatant to distance ourselves, quiet our minds and rationalise our disgusting greed.” Confines are no slouches musically either: Ryan Abbott has studied at the Greg Ginn school, where one is taught to wrestle one’s guitar rather than play it, and when they speed up for ‘Mediocrity Rules’ it’s catchy as hell, not just blurry or burly for the sake of either. Unsure how paramount Confines is in its members’ day-to-day lives – Abbott for one seems to be in a few other bands – but this is stone killer hardcore, and I hope more is imminent.
Gothic fannydangle and the sort of hybrid hamming that was called ‘deathrock’ in the Eighties is worming its way back to full-fathom punk cred in 2012. A lot of it seems to be propelled by the crusty/anarcho end of the scene, but if you elect to jock the Banshees or Bauhaus or whoever, you’re inevitably opening yourself up to the spectre of indie-rock crossover. This brings us to Anasazi, who live in New York and whose two singles to date have been on Toxic State (renowned for Crazy Spirit, Dawn Of Humans and other gutter-bound HC babble) and, in the case of the brand new ‘I Saw The Witch’, Sacred Bones. Not that they’re out of place among yer Zola Jesus and Cult Of Youth types – two of ‘em are in Cult Of Youth, in fact, although give me weirdly jolly drama like this over CoY’s martial folk drear any day. ‘I Saw…’ has engaging stompy drums and buzzsaw guitar, while B-side ‘Nuclear Paradise’ is pacey enough to cruise with either Killing Joke or early LA punk.
I don’t know how to tie this East Link tape into anything else covered here. I don’t even know if you can buy it at this point – if the Australian label, Creep Dreams, are out – or hear it online beyond a coupla generous YouTubes. It needs to get written about, though, as its brand of meaty inner-space psychedelic punk deserves a way bigger audience. Folks from this band also play in Total Control, who The Quietus have previously lauded, and The UV Race, who’ve had product on In The Red. East Link have those bands’ hypno-repeto qualities and garage-punk bleeding knuckles, but sound bugger all like them. Not only is ‘Vienna’ not an Ultravox cover, if I wrote "Killdozer by way of Dr Feelgood", I’d be less than 66.6% of the way to describing it. "A primitivist Band Of Susans" isn’t quite cutting it either. "Brainbombs being calmed down by Hawkwind and Eddy Current Suppression Ring"? Dude, you’re just pissing about now, either tell people it’s first class Aussie postpunk sludge or stop writing.
And another thing, why are there so few British bands in this column? No particular reason, but let me add two in the form of Grace and Tide Of Iron, who both come from the North-East of England, have cumulatively been in so many bands I’m not even gonna try and list them, and have a split seven-inch out on Superfi, Shy Bairns and Tombs In The Valley. Grace’s two songs are equal parts sludge and hardcore – ‘Alchemist’’s debt to Neurosis is hard to ignore, but they race ahead of second-raters with staccato riffing which continues into ‘Hammer’. If I was the sort of guy who sported full sleeve tattoos I’d call this one ‘mathcore’. Tide Of Iron are a bit grimier, submerging the vocals in a vat of ear-ringing noiserock. "You’d have to be Unsane not to like this!" is my quote for the billboard.
It’s a long way from the north-east to Torquay, where Blow The Reactors Records is based, but it’s even further to Macedonia, home of the Fuck Yoga label. Together they have released a split single by Noothgrush and Suppression, who hail/ed from California and Virginia. Which are even further away than Macedonia… although with the help of fibreoptic cables, all this hardly matters. The songs on here were actually recorded in the late Nineties, but better late than never: Noothgrush’s ‘Flee From Hunger And Disease’, aside from only being 140 seconds long, is a textbook example of their violent carcass-dragging sludge, which mashed metallic crust and early Ebullition Records-style hard-left hardcore into the subgenre. Suppression submit two songs in one minute 26, like a good little Nineties powerviolence band; the gurgling synths on ‘Cyanide (Iceman)’ betray the influence of Man Is The Bastard. All told, a wholly worthy excavation, although this is one of those five-inch vinyl singles you sometimes see, which are liable not to get on with your turntable if it’s as shit as mine.