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Total Control
Typical System Robin Smith , September 15th, 2014 00:42

"We know what we like and we know what we don't like." That curt phrase has become the topic sentence for Iron Lung Records, the Washington grind label that hosts the legendary band of the same name and an unrelenting roster of like-minded hardcore acts. If you've listened to anything from the label in this year alone, you'll know that what they generally like is punk rock nastiness: Demonbrother's Beyond The Veil sticks out in particular, a slab of zero tolerance powerviolence that sounds like it's been put through Paulstretch and thrown into a black hole. The Lowest Form's Negative Ecstasy is another strong example of grind deliverance, providing a more traditional take on the label's prime genre, while again expanding the songs beyond the capacities of your average Iron Lung tune. These two releases alone, with their dead-faced attitudes, give you an idea of Iron Lung's likes/dislikes profile: skulls get blasted and minds get changed, but jokes aren't told. Iron Lung Records don't go for powerviolence as much as they do transcendence.

Total Control's appearance on the label is a surprise in some ways; instead of blast beats and sludgy breakdowns, the band trade in beaming synths and iconic post-punk guitars. But there's something in their frustrated ideologies, embittered motivations and tight politics that makes them a natural fit – even if the other rule of three I have in mind for their music is loopy jams, A-ha vibes and squeaky harmonies. In spite of its blindingly bright sound, Typical System is one of 2014's most self-serious records, identifying problems at their roots and upholding them through forty minutes of music that never wavers, but reiterates plenty, motioning for its listener to resign themselves to – and also rise up against – systemisation. It could be a bright, joyous record, judged on its sound, but Total Control take their genre's most playful elements and blunt them out.

Despite its stern glances and gloomy poetics, frontman Daniel Stewart has claimed the main theme of Typical System escapes him. That's part of what makes it such a pulverising a listen, though – the record's lyrical ambiguities are never given dates or details, but they sound like they're part of a specific narrative. Total Control are visceral, not expositional – they rely on rigid song structures and suffocating grooves to make statements and create innate ideologies. Since 2011's Henge Beat, they've only got better at that, becoming tighter as collaborators and making sure each of their jams has an exact prescience. When they let a song spread out, they also make sure it interlocks. 'Black Spring' sounds like the record's most meandering cut, but resolves around a hypnotic, three minute outro–the band, compelled by a knotty riff and their two word manifesto, are interrupted by nothing. 'Flesh War', too, only restructures in its wide-eyed chorus in order to establish two flips of the same coin: the verses, upended with guitar chords that sound like they're being scrubbed out of the floor, curl towards their choruses with New Order synths that couple together Total Control's futile and aspirational nature like they're the same things.

"Tear yourself apart from this"–the lyric that meets at the corner of that song's verse and chorus–is an example of Total Control acknowledging the fluidity and constraints evident in their music. Typical System encompasses sounds so smooth they feel anachronistic, as if they counter the maudlin intentions of Typical System–but they're introduced so they can be suppressed. The flittering 'Liberal Party' is aired out with sax that could've appeared on Destroyer's saccharine pop classic Kaputt, but the illusion gets shattered by some swift, fuzzy guitar work and one of the record's most nihilistic vignettes: "broken porch light / shattered sense of worth". The almost cinematically inspiring synths that sparkle throughout 'Safety Net', rising with any hint of rising inflection in Stewart's voice, also feel easily counter-balanced with the garage guitars that accompany them. When Typical System aspires to something, it also dovetails, as if their sound is being worn like uniform.

Which is to say: Total Control have their own rules. What they're doing with their new wave affectations and post-punk sheen is absolutely creative and often subversive. It's hard to relate this record to its lineage, because Total Control find autonomy in traditions: I don't think of them actually sitting down and listening to New Order in order to make 'Flesh War', or being informed by Women's Public Strain in the process of recording guitars for the straight-and-narrow 'Systematic Fuck'. Typical System feels too internalised for those things to collate, the work of a band in their own bleak world. If they stumble upon those influences, it only goes to prove that this is one lousy, stinking institution we're all trapped in.

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