It's Noel's Straight Hedge! The Latest Punk & Hardcore Reviewed
, May 18th, 2015 13:50
Noel Gardner's punk and hardcore reviews column returns with some thoughts on music's eternal obsession with youth and write-ups of new releases from Poison Idea, Terveet Kädet, YDI, Violent Reaction, Hard Left, Sheer Mag, Christi, The Coneheads and Foot Hair
The elixir of youth, so vital to the enduring self-image of rock music, is in fact snake oil guzzled for decades by the credulous. There's nothing inherently useful about 'being young' when it comes to crafting greatness, just an industry invested in continuing to tell you so. I say rock music, because this balderdash pervades all corners of it, but if one focuses on punk and hardcore – which one tries to, when one's been commissioned to write a punk and hardcore reviews column – there's more than enough empty lionising of youthfulness.
Due to it not being a requirement to have impeccable chops before hitting the stage, teenage punk bands have traditionally flourished; many chanced upon brilliance. They sang about being kids out of impulse, and later it became a staple punk subject. There's even a hardcore subgenre called youth crew, which admittedly doesn't bar adults from taking part. Anyhow, some of these teens got older, and older, and kept playing in their bands, sometimes maturing but often not. Some people continue to find it amusing that someone would want to play this kind of music for twenty years or more, an amusement they'd never derive from someone continuing to DJ deep house or write poetry or ride mountain bikes. Society, man: two loudmouthed fuckers on each shoulder, one telling you to find something you love and do it much as possible, the other chiming in about putting away childish things and learning to be PRODUCTIVE.
Quite the weasel word, that, isn't it? I myself would call Poison Idea a 'productive' band. Although Confuse & Conquer (Southern Lord) is their first album for nine years, since recording the last one they've had one member die and another leave the band after robbing several chemists' shops in their Portland hometown to feed his drug habit. They've also been going since 1980, making them (or the two 80s-vintage members, at least) veterans, crumbly bastards, old-and-in-the-ways. As if Poison Idea frontman Jerry A would care if I wrote “more like Jerry Atric, amirite?” somewhere in this sentence – he helped, more than all but a scant handful of people, to make hardcore punk what it is.
Confuse & Conquer is the first Poison Idea album not to feature Pig Champion, their mountainous guitarist who passed away in 2006. It comes fair careering out the blocks, thumbs jammed up the noses of those who would presume this incarnation of the band to amount to Jerry dragging around a mouldy carcass. 'Bog' and 'Me & JD' have wailing metal solos, vocals which hector and rasp like days of yore, and the keys to the essence of some of the finest post-PI groups: Midnight and Zeke in the case of the first song, Fucked Up and Turbonegro in the second. Not everything maintains this standard, especially undistinguished, rockabilly-tinged numbers 'Hypnoptic' and 'Dead Cowboy'; and while it may be impossible to fat-shame this infamously bulky band, there's a few songs on here which nudge four minutes and, y'know, would be healthier if they were two-and-a-half. 'Cold Black Afternoon' and 'Beautiful Disaster' serve to tip the balance comfortably into the zone of the worthwhile comeback, however – and if Jerry A sounds bitter and jaded on these, it's only in the same way he always did, and in the way much of the most totemic hardcore does.
The early part of 2015 has also brought us a new album by Terveet Kädet, progenitors of Finnish hardcore. They're pretty much exactly the same age as Poison Idea, and their frontman (Läjä Äijälä) has, like Jerry A, been the sole constant amidst the proverbial revolving door membership, so I'd be lying to myself, you and Jesus if I did anything BUT lump them together. Lapin Helvetti (released by Svart, until recently a metal label but responsible for everything from acid folk to free jazz nowadays) is something like their tenth studio album, and it's both robust and credible.
The evolution of Terveet Kädet's sound starts with embryonic, cheaply-taped soap'n'spikes ejaculations, gets progressively more metallic, enters a lengthy wilderness period before wising up to the fact that they'll always be best regarded as a hardcore band, and returning to base camp accordingly. This is a time-honoured pattern, traced by several other 80s groups. Long story short: Lapin Helvetti features 18 songs in 21 minutes, and while no-one involved is pretending it's still 1982 or anything, the rage audibly roils and the sputum flies freely. Ilari Kinnunen's guitar playing has a gleam of crossover thrash in places, while many of the sub-one-minute numbers – about half of the album – are exemplary exercises in efficiency. Helped by broadly modern production values, by which I mean it sounds a bit like Kurt Ballou recorded it (he didn't), rare ventures beyond the ninety-second mark often seem to ape the modern crust metal sound – which has plenty of TK in its DNA, natch. While there's zero chance of this album entering the HC canon alongside Terveet Kädet's early singles, which are brilliant because they sound like a band who heard Discharge and thought they were weighed down by needless competence, it's another one to stuff ungraciously into the worthwhile file.
YDI, the final 80s hardcore band to feature in this edition of Straight Hedge (promise), reformed a few years back and are still together. They don't have a new album out, but they do have a double LP-sized discography out now on Southern Lord. It's basically a repackaging of a CD the Parts Unknown label put out a decade back, but that's way out of print, and there's no chance you and your tightened belt can afford to shell out on their original vinyl, so let's talk about this like it's plumb new and daisy fresh.
Actually, let's not, because these cats only start to make sense with an injection of temporal context. From Philadelphia, whose HC scene punched well below weight considering the city's size, YDI were always outsiders, pretty much – be that on A Place In The Sun, their headwreck of a nine-song EP from 1983, or the Black Dust LP, which emerged two years later sporting a profound, and profoundly fucked, metal influence. Preceded by their debut recording, a 15-song demo tape – perfectly decent in its inevitable rough-arsedness, but probably more suited to the end of the album rather than its opening salvo – A Place… is consummate '83 HC. Full of awkward tempo changes, lo-fi battering rammage like 'Get Up And Fight' and minor classic 'Out For Blood', and game efforts to pep up a style which was fast becoming codified, the EP is of a piece with Mecht Mensch, Neos and other North American hardcore marginalia of the era.
By the time of Black Dust, the absorption of metal styles and aesthetics into HC was practically an unstemmable tide – partly because of subcultures' barriers crumbling, less charitably because several bands saw an opportunity to get paid. This is not the impression YDI give off here. It's one thing to try and weed the basics out of your fanbase, like Black Flag did from My War onwards, but this album's eleven songs feel like an attempt to needle everyone who might conceivably hear it. Neil Perry's growling vocals, already a bearish forbear of the grindcore grunt and the maligned 'Cookie Monster' register, are rendered still more devilish, with a hefty side of ham. (If you weren't clued-in enough to process the towering Venom influence, the quartet helpfully posed for a promo photo where every member wears a Venom shirt.)
Nothing is right about this record. Guitar solos are jarringly misplaced, production values are way outta whack for mid-80s metal and the members were going by the noms de stupidities Jackal SSexxzzombie, Michael Kingnigger (one of hardcore's few African-Americans, for the record), Nikki Bones and Eric Hardlonger. It's slow, sludge-damaged and incomprehensible – and, like A Place In The Sun, staggered into a spare-but-significant landscape of square-peg, post-Flipper fuckers hell bent for aggravation. It predates Kilslug's Answer The Call, Melvins' Gluey Porch Treatments and the first Drunks With Guns LP, and is more legitimately weird than all of them. Given thirty years' hindsight, some attempts at exploding convention sound reasonably conventional – not Black Dust, and that's its great strength.
Wrenching ourselves forcibly into the 21st century, here's Marching On – the second LP from Violent Reaction, who formed in 2012 as a one-man project and are now a roughly Leeds-based quartet. The march of its title is not one of progress: Tom Pimlott, the one man in the initial VR project, started with a wish to front his own straight-edge revival band, and has gone on to splice that with the sound of early-80s UK Oi! and the American bands who crushed on it, such as Negative Approach. Total retro mania, then? Yes, but more subtly… no. For one thing, Violent Reaction now find themselves in a UK scene with record high numbers of similarly inclined groups (Pimlott plays or has played in some of them, such as Arms Race and The Flex); for another, the crossbreeding of bootboy Britishisms and USHC's brickwall rage is a relatively recent phenomenon. That is to say, few if any notable groups were combining them in the 90s, while a major prototype for VR's style is 86 Mentality, who stuck out like a sore plonker in the DC hardcore scene of the mid-00s.
Marching On is about as good as an album of this nature possibly could be, and a testament to the power of having a vision – even if it's a tunnel vision – and sticking to it. When Pimlott is backed up by a motley vocal chorus and/or an oompah-stomp beat, as on 'No Pride' and 'Crust Fund' (“YOU'RE A FRAUD!”), VR's yob-rock side rings piercingly through; the fastest, most compact cuts, like 'Death Threat' and 'Direct Action', are top-shelf Boston hardcore homages. The title track, which closes the LP in some style, is the closest we come to 'authentic' Oi!, right down to the Cockney Rejects-style budget glam rock guitar. The cover photo, featuring the band standing imperially on one of Lord Nelson's lion statues, would have done any olde tyme Secret Records release proud too, but there's nothing patriotic or… reactionary about Violent Reaction. If anything, the titles and lyrics seem tailor-made to appeal to as wide a global spread of punks as possible. The fact that New York label Revelation, which more or less bequeathed the world Youth Of Today, Judge etc, is releasing Marching On can only help to achieve this.
If I've any misgivings about Violent Reaction, it's when I try and imagine what they might inspire, beyond a mess of mic-grabs during their live sets and curtains-closed solo stomps around bedrooms. There's not a lot of cards-on-table politics here, which just leaves four seemingly archetypal hardcore dudes upholding the hardcore dude legacy. Obviously, this isn't a dealbreaker for me, otherwise I wouldn't be reviewing their album, but some of you may seek atypical punk rock voices, used to convey matters of substance. We Are Hard Left (Future Perfect), the debut album by Hard Left, might quench this thirst. An Anglo-American group based in Oakland, they deal in melodic, mid-paced streetpunk and lace their bootboy approach with grown-up political theory and socialist pontificating, hence the band name.
Any concerns that We Are Hard Left might come with footnotes are unfounded – their bookish inclinations are boiled down to chantable slogans and backed by buzzsaw guitar, handclaps and jaunty whistling. “COMRADE YOU'VE GOT SOMETHING TO PROVE!” scolds 'Safety'; 'Red Flag' talks of general strikes and not giving in “'til the victory's won”. Mike Schulman's English accent is, I suspect, not his natural one (drummer Stewart Anderson is the band's UK expat), but the pub car park's worth of gravel he puts into it is a more significant factor. The Oi! originators Hard Left recall are the boisterous funboys, Cockney Rejects or Cock Sparrer, rather than the 'orrible nutters; they would have fitted snugly into the 90s US Oi! landscape which harboured bands like the Wretched Ones, too.
The most obvious band to mention, I suppose, is Hard Skin: they, like Hard Left, wilfully blur the lines between a 'real' and 'fake' band, in a subgenre where realness is paramount. If you're a serious indiepop nerd (like Sean Forbes from Hard Skin), you might have recognised Schulman and Anderson's names – Schulman runs Slumberland Records and played in Black Tambourine, Anderson is in Boyracer among several other bands and founded the 555 label. Notwithstanding a keen tunefulness and the vocal contributions of bassist Donna McKean – female members being pretty rare in streetpunk – there's no discernable indie element to this album. It's not obvious to me, the layperson, where Hard Left's audience lies, but hopefully I'm not a special snowflake and there are hundreds if not thousands of people who think that janglepop bigwigs banging out terrace anthems is a pretty excellent idea.
It's possible that two years or so down the line, a review of the debut single by Sheer Mag will seem a puzzling inclusion in a column like this one. Anecdotal evidence, or 'blog buzz' as it's known to pig people, suggests that the Philadelphia group attracted great clots of A&R attention at SXSW recently. If, then, someone's cooking up a plan to make this band famous, they'll surely be eager to emphasise Sheer Mag's classic pop hooks, heartland rock gusto and Thin Lizzy guitar raunch, and cast their associations with DIY punk culture to the dustbin of history. For the moment, though, this four-song seven-inch is graced with a reissue by the London-based Static Shock label, the band's own pressing in late 2014 having sold out and become collectible.
One particular thing keeping the five-piece nailed to the punk cross – for now – is their recording aesthetic. Depending on your lo-fi leanings, or lack of, tape hiss, shonky levels and cardboard snare either conspire to prevent these songs from achieving greatness, or lend Sheer Mag some originality in a world of go-nowhere bar band schlubs. The two unabashedly hard rock numbers here, 'What You Want' and 'Hard Lovin', are the EP's true keepers, for my money. The only modern band I know to have paid homage to Heart with the panache of 'What You Want' are excellent, underrated Swedish group Spiders, while on 'Hard Lovin' the vocals of Christina Halliday, which I daresay get her misgendered fairly often anyway, rise to a spandex'n'sweatband-clad yelp, equally Springsteen and Stanley (Paul). The remaining pair, 'Point Breeze' and 'Sit And Cry', I'd label as powerpop if I was forced, keeping in mind that much of what's now tagged thusly in collector dork circles was really just demo-quality recordings by MOR artists. Overall, I'm fully on the bandwagon for now. Oh, and the Katorga Works label have just released Sheer Mag's second EP; you might have trouble buying a hard copy but it's all on their Bandcamp. It was recorded at the same, presumably very makeshift, studio as its predecessor and some of it sounds weirdly like Ariel Pink doing 70s boogie rock.
While this column tries, whenever possible, to only review releases which exist in meatspace, it is also of the view that Bandcamp is fantastic, and the best music streaming platform by a thousand miles. If you're enraptured by the girl group garage glow emitted by 'Cry' (Feel It), the debut 45 by Christi, you are then free to discover an eight-song tape they released last year, parts of which are nearly as good as 'Cry'. Unlikely that (m)any tapes made it out of Richmond, Virginia, where Christi live, but there's an effortless appeal to this single which belies the pressing stats (just over 300) and their Facebook 'likes' at the time of writing (just under 300). The lead track is powered by melancholy guitar with a surf-rock edge, a bit like Irish indie champs September Girls minus the JAMC scree; the arrangement is Shangri-Las in excelsis and it's lent punk bite by the cracked cackle in Maggie Yokley's vocal. The lyrical cocktail of schadenfreude, triumphalism and sweet revenge is pretty delicious, too: “You see me round with other guys / I don't even have to try / When I wanna make you cry.” Only a few hundred people bought the first Christi single, future histories of men's rights activism will one day record, but they all went out and formed an oppressive culture of misandry and reverse sexism. I know I did. ('Get You Off My Mind', the B-side, does in fact cop to sadsack self-pity, and is pretty good, just not as good as 'Cry'.)
Speaking of PC fascism, the debut LP by The Coneheads is called 14 Year Old High School PC-Fascist Hype Lords Rip Off Devo For The Sake Of Extorting $$$ From Helpless Impressionable Midwestern Internet Peoplepunks. Clearly, this flags up their sense of the absurd, but also invites us to address some of the points made. Unsure if 'hype lords' create or receive hype, but The Coneheads have caught some of it, at least among the US basement-punk scene. Weird is pretty 'in' for 2K15, thanks to no-filter oddballs like Lumpy & The Dumpers and Dawn Of Humans; this Indiana band (hence 'Midwestern') are far less aggressive than that, but share an ethos that's in no way filtered for tastefulness. One of the two tapes they released last year, which have been compiled on this LP and released by German label Erste Theke Tontraeger, has sold online ('Internet') for a cool $100 ('$$$'). Thanks (for leaving certain parts of the American middle class with that much disposable income), Obama!
And finally, the one you've been waiting for, or perhaps clicked the link to find out for yourself: are The Coneheads ripping off Devo? Ehh, not exactly. They play hyperactive, nerdy synthesised punk with vocoders and archly foolish concepts, so it's not an easy reference node to ignore. They are faster, sloppier and more to-the-point than Devo, though, in this regard more in line with The Screamers and The Units (trivial aside: Units frontman Scott Ryser's son, Sam, plays in oodles of NYC hardcore bands, including Dawn Of Humans). Seattle retrobates – a portmanteau I may later disown – The Spits also cast a shadow over this disc, even if The Coneheads sound way more pencil-necked; when they listen to the Musicians' Union pleas and ditch the keyboards, it comes off like Chain Gang or similar no-count Killed By Death scunners. Songs rarely hang around much beyond a minute, excepting the last two songs: a superfluous cover of Talking Heads' 'Psycho Killer' and something with guitar solos called 'Way Things Am'. This LP is incredibly charming, makes 'clever' and 'stupid' seems like synonyms or one another, and is my favourite record in this column.
The cover art for the debut album by Foot Hair is most certainly #weird, and arguably #random. It features the band's five members variously dressed in loud shirts, a bright pink flat cap and a gimp mask; one of them is also holding a basketball. Perhaps a tad practiced, the Newcastle group at least deserve credit for not using their sleeve to signpost exactly what their music sounds like. Foot Hair, released on the excellent Box label, is seven tracks of deafening, demented mono-riff dirge, bowing out with 'Outlander' – which edges into sludge doom territory, the kinda primal ape howl Fistula or Moloch peddle. Prior to that, there no metal per se but high levels of viciousness: riffs emerge from swamps, vocalist Sam Booth (who also plays in the incredible freakout psych band Haikai no Ku) makes his presence strongly felt without you being able to make out a word he's saying, and songs are titled 'King Of Scum' and 'Send In The Dogs'.
Hardly relentless self-publicists, and rarely gigging outside their locale's noise scene in their time together, Foot Hair have excelled themselves on their vinyl debut: this is a very horrible record which their work colleagues/extended family members should probably be kept from hearing about. It's also fortunate enough to have been released before the debut album by Drunk In Hell, that being very much the Chinese Democracy of north-eastern noiserock. Foot Hair may fill the gap many Drunk In Hell fans had reserved in their record racks, which is a polite way of saying that they sound extremely similar – god knows this stuff isn't without precedent (referring back to the YDI review), but the opening twenty seconds of FH's 'I See You' is almost identical to DIH's 'Hungry For Blood'. And yet, despite repeated listens to an album which was probably supposed to induce negative feelings in me, I've come away with a cheerful positivity that bands are biting the Drunk In Hell style with this much power.