Noel's Straight Hedge X: Punk & Hardcore Reviewed
, April 22nd, 2014 06:28
He's back! Noel Gardner returns with an in-depth look over recent punk and hardcore releases, featuring Perfect Pussy (pictured), The Good Wife, The Offenders, Lumpy & The Dumpers, No Babies, Lotus Fucker and more
The reasons I occasionally get around to writing this column are legion, important, and all completely true. It helps me gain the respect of my peers and strangers alike; I'm passing secret coded messages to a terrorist cell in my obtuse description of unobtainable cassettes. It is 'character building' to politely tell people from PR companies that the rattly indie-rock album they're touting isn't really the kind of thing I cover, when in fairness the column has no set parameters. Most significantly, this instalment of the Straight Hedge takes it to number X, the most iconic of the Roman numerals. But ESPECIALLY most significant is the opportunity it affords me to write about records which, otherwise, would never be reviewed by this website, not least because they didn't get sent promo copies.
Occasionally, this suspiciously simple binary becomes muddled, and a band wind up having some degree of mnstrm xxxposure, aided by a promotional campaign, but can also be relevantly discussed in the context of DIY punk and hardcore. An 'achingly' current example of this is Perfect Pussy from Syracuse, New York state. "Not to be confused with Pussy Riot," to quote The Big Issue, they've just released their debut album, Say Yes To Love, on the Captured Tracks label; maybe you've read something about it, or them. Maybe it was people complaining that Say Yes…, at only 23 minutes long, isn't really an album. Or that their name is a grating attempt to be edgy (people who say things like this always appear convinced that band names could only have been decided on as part of a meticulous and water-tight marketing strategy, rather than just on a whim while bashing some ideas around). Or that the willfully muddy production obscures what musical ideas are on display, and that you can't hear what Meredith Graves is singing about.
With the help of a lyric sheet, the Perfect Pussy frontwoman is revealed as one of the more striking wordsmiths to emerge in punk rock of late. Some of the phrasing and imagery is of a piece with 90s emotional hardcore – as is Ray McAndrew's jabbing guitar, although he veers off into semi-freeform scree about as regularly. Tropes of femininity, and feminism, are employed and subverted. "I can be strong, and I can be kind, I can be good to myself" runs 'Bells'; 'Interference Fits' begins, "I never wanted any children / Just a nice apartment with open air…" Graves' vocals, which remind me at times of both Kim Gordon and a low-in-the-mix Jemina Pearl (from Be Your Own Pet), peak with the music on the lines, "When did we all decide to give up? / Since when do we say yes to love?" For a song which clearly draws on deeply personal concerns, on an LP of the same, this stands out for its near-universal resonance.
Graves' previous band, Shoppers, is the only pre-PP project to have gained any real out-of-state rep that I can discern. While their blown-out garage aesthetic isn't dissimilar to Perfect Pussy, this album is decidedly less obtuse (Shoppers eschewed song titles) and more hooky. Even when they really crank the BPM, like on 'Work', and abandon all niceties to shrill clatter, you'd have to be a truly tedious literalist rockist or a very old person not to recognise the pop backbone therein.
'Dig' has me thinking of the wiry sneer-snarl of Wives, the pre-No Age trio liked more by music reviewers than real human beings . 'Advance Upon The Real''s ninety seconds of actual song, pleasingly Void-like in its multidirectional splatter, is suffixed by a few minutes of ambient amp hum which morphs into 'VII', a swirly noise jam containing both dynamics and tenderness. I would say it will likely prove a dealbreaker for some of the audience Perfect Pussy have found – except plenty of curious folks have probably broke that deal off already. Say Yes To Love is a fine album – what Perfect Pussy do next could be unpredictable and excellent, although if they split tomorrow this would be a righteous and singular legacy.
Flesh World, from San Francisco, feature the vocals and guitar of Jess Scott – previously of Brilliant Colors, a fuzzy buzzy indiepop band who were archetypal among Slumberland Records' late 00s roster, and who got a fair whack of music press attention themselves. (What I mainly recall about them is that when I saw them live, the drummer had hair reminiscent of Stuart Cable.) Scott Moore, Flesh World's other guitarist, was once of Limp Wrist, a conceptually marvellous queercore group; the convergence of these seemingly very different combos has resulted in a highly enjoyable self-titled six-song twelve-inch, released by this column's most frequently featured label La Vida Es En Mus.
The first thing you notice is how fantastic this record looks: intriguing archive photography, gothic typeface and heavy vinyl. The song titles, too, are excellent and fold neatly into Flesh World's aesthetic. 'Sturdy Swiss Hiker' effortlessly conveys longing in the way The Wipers and Vivian Girls once managed; 'A Trip To The Living Ice Age' prompts thoughts of Joy Division and Swell Maps (the title, not the music – there are echoes of JD in five-minute closer 'Are We Saved Or Are We Damned?', though). 'Lost My Heart In Transit Thru The Post' has you expecting the ultimate in hairslide shambling, but actually sounds like Mission Of Burma. Keyboards and chorus pedals abound; you imagine a Flesh World live performance would leave your ears ringing for a while after. Not without peers in the present rock climate, Flesh World are recommended to anyone who's been enjoying the Eagulls album, although this is a shade more cheerful.
In this age of parsimony and consumerism that eats itself, respect to Olympia's Hysterics , and their label M'Lady's Records, for putting this twelve-minute EP on a seven-inch when many would have plumped for the full-sized platter and charged twice the price. Apart from anything, this kind of stompy impulsive hardcore has deep-rooted links with the format, in the sense that Can't I Live?'s six songs express inchoate rage similar to the earliest Dischord releases. That said, I don't recall the words "parallel plane" or "simulacrum" cropping up in any of those, yet there they are in the first verse of the EP's first song, 'Outside In'.
Existentialism gives way to exasperation at authority figures on 'Leave Me Alone'; 'Psychic Drain' is about a knobhead who saps your will with ceaseless negativity. 'Please Sir (I Want Some More)', a four-minute epic with powerchords and relative bombast, is the most lyrically interesting cut: Hysterics, an all-female band, don't by and large write about 'being women' whatever that might entail, but here we find allusions to male entitlement, patriarchy, mansplaining and being talked (down) to by (more) knobheads. There aren't a lot of new hardcore records talking about this kind of thing, not least because there aren't a lot in which women write the lyrics. I assume, without being bothered to Google it, that legions of pigeonhole freaks have tried to tie Hysterics into riot grrrl – Kathleen Hanna has bigged the band up by, faintly inexplicably, comparing them to Pussy Riot (again) – but Can't I Live? is a back-to-base hardcore record, and a very good one. Female isn't a genre and all that, but I'd like to think that one can be thrilled about a band like this puncturing the bouncy castle of dudely domination without it being weird or unseemly or patronising.
As it goes, there were enough female or indeed 'female-fronted' bands kicking around early '14 for me to consider doing a whole column of them, but I decided this would be a bit crap and tokenistic. Here are a few more, though. Las Otras are from Barcelona, feature some personnel from a band named Crosta who are respected and junk (putting this here as a note to myself to get round to checking them out, really) and flung out a twelve-inch, Devolver El Golpe, on their own Discos Sense Nom label at the back end of 2013.
This is the kind of punk record that would sound equally, trend-defyingly current if this was 1984, 1999 or 2029. Fast, buzzbomb anarcho-meets-hardcore instrumentation with no specific geographical heritage ('Tragedia', the first of nine brisk songs, reminded me of Negative Approach's 'Tied Down' in its street-rat stomp, but I think it's just a rhythmic coincidence) is lent extra piercing clamour by Ieri, Las Otras' singer. Her siren-shrill yawp takes a few spins before one acclimatises, but is at perfect pitch, so to speak, for music which is empirically and unbendingly concerned with the right to have your voice heard. Las Otras self-identify as feminists and anarchists, and write reflective lyrics: as if anticipating my piggish ignorance of foreign tongues, the LP comes with a translation of the original Spanish, and reveal (to the likes of me) terse but weighty phrase-bullets about the sex industry, employment drudgery and defiance of the gender binary.
Meanwhile, New York City's La Misma (who have no representative website; the hyperlink there is as close to an online aggregate as I can find) are four women who play quick, unvarnished and politically weighted hardcore/punk. Their debut seven-inch on the Toxic State label finds them singing in Portugese, but gifting us with an English language insert. Having made a few enquiries with your friends and family, I have concluded that you only have room in your life for one of these cosmetically similar bands, and will put a complex grading system to use to determine who is BEST – Las Otras or La Misma? – so you can immediately order one of their records.
Actually, I'm not going to do that, partly because it would be a version (albeit a rarified one) of "sorry luv, we've already got a girl band playing" syndrome, but also because it is a source of cheer to me that records like these, in many ways outside my worldview and which once might have seemed so obscure and distant, are within easy reach so my ears can get their ass kicked. An outlay of a fiver or so for La Misma will get you four songs housed inside the delish screenprinted artwork of Nadine Rosario, the band's singer – in which capacity she's equally compelling. Her way with diction, where words just pour out and you wonder how she doesn't trip up, was perfected in hardcore at its inception, by HR from Bad Brains. It may be because of this, and the stop-on-a-dime intensity of, especially, 'Secespita' that I ponder comparisons between the two bands, but ultimately it's a red herring. 'Guerras Silenciosas' and 'Indentifika Oxintimento', the two B-side cuts, both pack some of that mildly fashionable anarcho-meets-goth gloom in their guitars, but retooled to take its place amidst gleeful pogopunk chaos. This single gets better and more musically interesting the more I play it; the people involved seem increasingly excellent the more I read about them.
I've wanted to write something about Exithippies for a while now, on account of them being perhaps the most ludicrous, ill-considered cross-genre cut'n'shut of recent years which isn't 'Wake Me Up' by Avicii. This makes them ideal fodder for this column. A Japanese ensemble, Exithippies have been around for a decade or so and obsessively mine two stylistic seams: neolithically primitive noisecore with vacuum cleaner blare and incomprehensible grunts, and barely-more-refined Castlemorton-style zombie rave. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when acid house swept Britain, it charmed plenty of squatter punx who gulped down an E and saw the light, but – in spite of the KLF and Extreme Noise Terror's twinned efforts at the Brits that one time – intersection between these cultures has been fleeting and aberrant. Exithippies' reading of modern British tribal history is gloriously wrong, like a bad dream about a Simon Reynolds book. That has to be more interesting than another band who have boned up on exactly how it went down thirty years ago (or whenever), and can replicate the tics, cliques and tunnel vision to a tee.
The newest Exithippies release (that I'm aware of) is a split LP with Washington DC's Lotus Fucker, whose SPHC label it's released on. The Japanese band's eleven-track side starts as grotesque, punchdrunk sludge, veers off into a brief bout of hardware-hammering braindance and unifies the two for 'If!?', where synths pingpong in and out of atonal music-hating chaos. 'Vege And Peace (Bull Shitter Dub)' could function as an 'in' for folks who dig old-skool Nipponese noise destruction, your Hanatarashes and Gerogerigegeges, in that it's almost impossible to verify what instruments were used in its recording. And when 'Fuck Here', the last cut on Exithippies' side, looks set to be an uninterrupted track of bedroom techno, this horrible feedback screech comes from nowhere and jabs at your fillings. What bastards. Despite there being a bare minimum of info about this band out there, I bet they're the funnest dudes ever. Oh, and their artwork is literally just the cover of Disgrace To The Corpse Of Sid by Sore Throat, except with Elmo instead of the Sex Pistols bass virtuoso.
Lotus Fucker don't offer the listener quite as much pop-cultural context to pick apart. (Thinking back to their debut album, which I reviewed in the second edition of Straight Hedge, there was perhaps a case to be made for their shtick – a bunch of Americans imitating the adorable Engrish of their fave Japanese HC records – being a bit 'problematic', but they seem to have toned that down now.) Their side of this LP rages pretty hard, though. Seven songs fly by on wings of grit-blasted guitar tone and busy drums which give some songs a vague, unexpected powerviolence tinge. Dan McGregor's vocals are submerged in the mix but hoarse enough to jut out; come 'My Eyes Bleed', he's repeatedly hollering "IT WAS JUST A DREAM" over uncontrolled soundscape gloop, which is the only time Lotus Fucker truly sound like they favour noise over 'core.
'Course, one person's noise is another's invitingly mellifluous aural pleasantness, which is why 'noisecore' also gets used to describe yer Dillinger Escape Plan type bands who are very musically adept and deliberately structured. It's all giving your gran a headache, though, so be a dear and turn it off? Oakland, CA's No Babies have undoubtedly been dubbed a horrid racket before: I saw them play live a few years back and, to be honest, recall it as indiscriminate chaos. Listening to seven-inch EP Yo No Soy Como Tú (Upset The Rhythm), a new recording of a five-song cassette from 2012, it feels like they actually operate on multiple planes of competence.
At the nexus of hardcore, jazz and no wave, No Babies howl and flail and playground chant in abrasive, bareknuckled fashion – but the musicianship here, scalp-peeling saxophone and all, is adroit, and complex without being showy. Their label boldly invoke Magma and Schoenberg as comparisons; I'd be more inclined to bring up Melt-Banana, Stretchheads and The Flying Luttenbachers, while steering you away from notions of soundalikes. At least one of the band has a sideline in more quote-unquote orthodox punk – vocalist Jasmine Watson plays in the melodic Neighbourhood Brats among other bands – but if No Babies serves as an open valve to blow off experimental steam, that doesn't mean it's art with nothing to say. Watson's feminism, as expressed through her lyrics, is defiant and often sardonic, reaching an apoplectic peak on 'Your Lies'.
A saxophone also plays a pivotal role on 'Gnats In The Pisser' (Total Punk Records), the A-side of the second 45 by Lumpy & The Dumpers. Contrary to No Babies, its presence seems unlikely to stem from anyone's free jazz jones, rather because it's an instrument which is easy to make sound pore-openingly unpleasant. I was disinclined to listen to Lumpy & The Dumpers for several months after seeing the name bandied around – the name itself being the reason – but it turned out that this St. Louis band not only harness and feast upon lurid preteen puerility, they also write bafflingly memorable basement-crud punk bangers.
'Gnats…' is so lowbrow it sounds like the band are standing on their heads, chimp-wanking out a singular riff equal parts Flipper and GG Allin. Lumpy, the frontman, is concerned with the danger of unwitting toilet users being attacked by swarms of insects. His main lyrical crutches to date have been insects, bodily emissions (as expanded on during B-side 'Ghoul Breath') and effluvia (a song from last year proclaimed, "Too much slime – NO SUCH THING"). The age and upbringing of Lumpy, aka Martin Meyer, is unclear, but whether or not he is the product of excess hours spent with Garbage Pail Kids stickers, Ren & Stimpy repeats and some Roald Dahl books (Americans read these, right?)… if these references are inducing itchy nostalgia in you, L&TD have both muck and brass. They are also heartily recommended if you're looking to introduce a ten-year-old to underground punk. Of additional note is the packaging – like other Total Punk sleeves, so flimsy it seems to be mocking the anal collector's ideals of smudge-free creaselessness – and the fact that right after I finished typing the last sentence, I went into my kitchen and found two slugs having sex, with another one watching.
Southern Lord Records' occasional dabbling in the wacky world of 80s hardcore reissues has given us convenient collections by Poison Idea and Bl'ast in the last couple of years. Now they mess with Texas in the form of a not-quite-discography of The Offenders, Austin-based peers of bands such as D.R.I. and Millions Of Dead Cops. As with SL's previous reissues, this isn't an Indiana Jones-style unearthing of treasure – the material here, two LPs and a single, has been compiled before – but the label's profile should offer an extra boost of promotion, and maybe find The Offenders an audience beyond USHC listmakers. One which, at its best, their eyebrow-singeing velocity and anger warrants.
I dimly recall reading a review of the band in a mid-90s issue of Kerrang! which described them as "Minor Threat at twice the speed". While this isn't especially accurate, it serves a certain purpose, letting curious dabblers know what they're in for. Rough but effective production values; lyrics which alternate between reflecting paranoid nihilism and collective strength; everyone committed to playing as fast and viciously as they can. We Must Rebel, the debut Offenders LP, came out in summer 1983; D.R.I.'s first EP beat it by a few months, but if anything this sounds even more like quintessential Texas thrash. Although most songs are under two minutes, there's ample allowance for frantic guitar breaks and boiling-over solos.
One thought that holds throughout this compilation – especially during 1985 LP Endless Struggle, and a single from the previous year, 'I Hate Myself' – is that The Offenders were perpetually on the verge of becoming a thrash metal band, and surely could have. Mikey Donaldson, the group's late bassist, joined D.R.I. for their Dealing With It album, one of the inaugural 'crossover' records of the mid-eighties; while D.R.I. went on to a lengthy, not always distinguished career in metal, The Offenders drifted apart and split in 1986. Songs like 'Face Down In The Dirt', 'Impact' and 'Coming Down' serve as choice pissed-off kiss-offs, and while this comp contains 25 tracks, most of it flies by before you know it (apart from a ropey cover of 'You Keep Me Hanging On').
For as long as punk rock has existed, it's had a tendency towards the ephemeral. The most likely reason for this, I suppose, is that there's minimal possibility of making a career out of your ghastly din, so little motivation for one's band to limp on after everyone involved has grown weary of the sorry business. Which doesn't stop there being occasions when a band break up, and it seems frustratingly premature. The Good Wife, from southern England, had their debut single reviewed in the very first of these columns – five years ago! – and compared favourably, for neither the first nor the last time, to The Jesus Lizard and Oxbow. An LP was recorded for the Superfi label, sat around for a bit, then the band split up about eighteen months back, nixing its release. Faced with awkward situations like this, trust Bandcamp to get you out of a jam – it's not as good as a vinyl LP record album hand-carved by wizened forest elves, obviously, but it does mean that no-one loses lots of money pressing something which is unlikely to sell.
Bandcamp has also given The Good Wife the opportunity to tag the eight songs of Love Songs "male weakness rock". For the uninitiated, this is instructive – indicating that lyrics like "I don't care about your boyfriend / I'm probably bigger than him," are not to be taken at face value. Machismo and bravado are cousins of weakness, fomenting self-doubt; TGW's concerns are sometimes earthy, but pointedly not #laddish. Musically, too, there are big riffs and bouts of Duane Denison-adoring chainsaw blues guitar, prominent on 'Happy Vultures' and 'Love Pig'; the production is burly and sinewy, but capable of expressing tenderness, as opposed to being noiserock of the 'unrelenting barrage' variety. It's definitely possible to listen to too much of this kinda thing, but for a minute there The Good Wife were better at it than the great majority of those who toiled thus. Seeing as they INSIST on giving you this album for free, it would be financially smart of you to accept.