Noel's Straight Hedge: Punk And Hardcore For July Reviewed
, July 21st, 2015 10:37
Noel Gardner examines the current intersection between hardcore/punk and politics, reviews the best of the new releases and revisits the work of the god-like Leatherface. Picture of Institute by Breanna Kay
Over the last 18 months or so I’ve spent more time than ever before thinking about British identity in music. The reason for this is more about the music than me, in that there have been a number of records released in that timeframe which have approached the topic in shrewd, funny or thought-provoking ways. Only one of them comes within the purview of this column: Good Throb’s Fuck Off LP, whose title gives fair indication of the joyous venom it spits about ketamine-heavy house parties and tube journeys full of pricks. Meanwhile, most if not all of Sleaford Mods, Richard Dawson, The Pre New, O’Hooley & Tidow and Half Man Half Biscuit have some form of punk DNA, but couldn’t in good faith be shoehorned into this genre ghetto.
Somewhere in its evolution, British punk moved away from singing about specifically British concerns, and even further away from using British idioms. (It’s hard to imagine pretty much any non-Oi! band of the last thirty years saying "bollocks" in a lyric, let alone an album title.) Yes, obviously there were/are exceptions to this, but in short: the prototypical Pistols/ Clash era (i.e. a mongrelised version of rock & roll and other American musics) begat Oi!, anarcho punk and UK82, all movements with aims of trashing their ancestry. Eventually, the next generation of punk bands came along, and didn’t necessarily much care for those who’d come before, possibly because they were listening to foreign hardcore records out the wazoo.
Thatcher, likewise Reagan, had been eviscerated on wax in the foulest terms, hundreds of times over, and remained immovable. This is a topic that probably needs a bit more room than the third paragraph of an intro to a reviews column, but it seems likely to me that this helped to set the tone for the last 25 years of punk and hardcore. Political lyrics tend towards the global; save for a small spike of spite during GWB’s presidency, party leaders are rarely held up as avatars for evil. For better or worse, the prospect of a punk rock song whose lyrics promised to bash Cameron would likely cause eyerolls in me at this point. Blame the standard vehicles for this sentiment now: crap TV comedy panel shows, nth-rate Onion knockoff websites and pixellated image macros which insult your intelligence. Still, this is the first of these columns to be written since the 2015 General Election, in the wake of which there was much talk of a collective call to protest among the notional left. Of the ten records reviewed, seven are both British and new – all written pre-election, containing varying degrees of relevant social comment but all worth hearing.
Muscle Horse Records is run by Ben Fordree and Bryony Beynon, whose musical CV includes Good Throb and one of the bands I’m about to review. Outside of that, she’s founded or worked with various wholly commendable projects: the Good Night Out campaign; Hollaback London and most recently, DIY Space For London, which is what it sounds like. This possibly explains why Muscle Horse has just released three records at once, like that ain’t no stress inducer. The self-titled twelve-inch by Leeds’ No Form (co-released by Reagent, their own label) is probably my favourite of them, but likely to be the most divisive. Of its five tracks, one lasts eight minutes and occupies a whole side, bluntly threading shrill sax parts through an especially abstract, industralised reading of noise rock. Loosely on a similar tip to Rusted Shut or Drunk In Hell, there’s a touch more poise and less suffocating air removal. Its four shorter cousins veer from crypto-thrash brainbash to bad trip dub experiments to backmasked-sounding growls of virulence that kinda do for hardcore what Portal have done for death metal.
No Form’s lyric sheet suggests that if they have a political agenda, it’s heavily couched in metaphor – which is fine, not least because there’s enough upfront invective in Dregs’ demo tape for two bands. Or more. Dregs is the Beynon-featuring band previously mentioned – her first stint as a singer since a faintly Poly Styrene-ish turn in The Sceptres (reviewed in this column’s dorky first edition), I believe. Fourteen minutes later, it transpires she’s one of the best hardcore vocalists in the UK. Which sure must suck for the wide array of frontmen who’ve been at it much longer!
These seven songs buzz and clang in a manner which defies sub-categorisation: never whip-fast, and capable of creating menace by dropping pace, but as direct a boot to the breadbasket as I’ve encountered in 2015. Time spent squinting at the lyric sheet indicates that the ferocity of Beynon’s delivery is warranted – from ‘Asbestos’, about the gentrification of London and the alienation and helplessness it ladles on, to broadsides against (male) creeps and cretins (‘Sketch’, ‘Tactics’) to ‘Parallel Justice’, the tape’s highlight and one of the most powerful punk songs you might hear for a while. The refrain “I KNOW YOU DID IT”, in its unambiguous defiance, serves as pushback against the song’s topic: domestic violence, and the means which allow so many perpetrators of it to escape conviction.
Sheffield’s The Repossessed, whose Born Work Die seven-inch is the third of this summer’s Muscle Horse releases, share characteristics with Dregs – they’re a tough-skinned, rawly recorded band of four women, operating in the mystical interzone between hardcore and punk. Singer Donna’s lyrics are more on the ‘personal = political’ tip, however, and include one in Welsh (‘Defaid’), her native tongue. To my knowledge, and I appreciate it’s an avenue of knowledge which hardly anyone else on earth is going to be interested in, this is the only example of Welsh-language hardcore apart from the Canol Caled release in 1989 – a record which includes “a tongue in cheek look at the soap opera Neighbours,” according to its sleevenotes. Getting back to The Repossessed, they tend to keep it simple, but pull multiple sharpened hooks from the unruly clatter. ‘Red Shift’ has a vague skatepunk feel, and ‘Never Good Enough’ is the most frantic of these four songs; predominantly, though, they exhibit a ruthless one-two stomp that would have seen them good in the UK82 scene. Not that an all-female band would have been much more than the stuff of a madman’s dreams among that crowd.
We remain stoutly in Sheffield thanks to Dry Heaves, and the sleeve art of their debut LP Slim Pickings (Viral Age/Adult Crash): the five band members, in illustrated form, have scaled the city’s famous clock tower to engage in horseplay. Thanks largely to acts more famous than Dry Heaves, there’s a received idea that music from Sheffield is moulded by the local character – post-industrial landscapes, northern grit and hot air of that nature. You could flag this up in Slim Pickings, if you were determined, but to me its lyrics read as geographically non-specific, a paean to feeling moribund in modern Britain. (“I want to live in the big city / This small town is not my fate,” frontman Avi hollers on ‘Big City’; I’m assuming he isn’t using Sheffield as an example of the latter, but you do hear some odd notions about what a ‘big city’ is.)
When trying to pinpoint Dry Heaves’ musical influences, logic points to North America: they’re near-uniformly fast and melodic, with a faint garage rock tint. At its most hardcore – ‘Rip Off’, about the currently-voguish topic of big charities whose benevolence is swallowed by admin fees and high salaries – their ornery battery recalls Boston’s Out Cold. ‘No Control’ invites you, via a classic streetpunk singalong, to whoop it up to Avi’s self-flagellating misery (“Been to the pub – NO CONTROL / Empty wallet – NO CONTROL”). The art of inciting stagedives and general mayhem via lyrics which should, by rights, have listeners standing in silence contemplating the awfulness of the human condition is as old as hardcore itself, of course, and Dry Heaves are close to mastering that art.
Glaswegians Clocked Out have been around for a few years without properly hitting my radar, which for neither the first nor the last time has revealed me as a dim bulb. Their eponymous debut album is released jointly by At War With False Noise, Superfi and SPHC, all of whom have bulked up past columns with their fine produce, so it’s nice to high-five them all at once, using this giant foam hand (not pictured). Clocked Out is a sub-twenty-minute dose of exceptionally rabid hardcore pitched at dizzying velocity – I mean, I called Dry Heaves ‘fast’ just now, but these guys are FAST. There’s never a hint this might boil over into grind, power violence or thrash metal territory, though: this is triple-distilled negative vibes HC with vocals, care of Crawford Mackay, which aren’t so much cut-glass as cut by glass. Featuring very few solos (‘Tunnel Vision’ is an impressive exception) and no slow bits whatsoever, I hear echoes of 90s Cleveland mobs like Nine Shocks Terror, the farthest reaches of 80s Massachusetts hardcore – Siege, maybe Deep Wound – and Toronto’s recently reformed Left For Dead. Clocked Out, however, establish their own personality here through sheer force of application.
If images of community spirit and warm-natured principles don’t always beam from the sonics of these releases, cursory background checks – even just a glance at the liner notes – reveals this to be the case. The three members of Soul Structure all have a hand in JT Soar, a Nottingham venue/studio (No Form’s EP was recorded there) operating on DIY punk principles. Singer and guitarist Joe Caithness has a decade or so of bands under his belt – different enough to avoid suggestions of an impasse, but generally exhibiting his love of obscure emo, and its transition between abstract and frantic. His last venture, Plaids, released an LP late last year to a glowing reception, including a review on tQ, and split up not long after. Debut EP The Body Of Man (Barely Regal/Dingleberry) picks up Plaids’ slack to an extent, but tries out a few new tricks.
Over seven songs, Soul Structure come off as hyperactive and indecisive about their sound, but in a good way. Propelled by clean, postpunk-speckled guitar parts, tempo changes are frequently jarring, yet made to work. More contemplative moments, such as ‘Dovedale’, navel-gaze like The Van Pelt; ‘Whitlocks End’ and ‘Zapain’, among others, go for the bug-eyed jangle-guitared jugular, and kind of resemble late-80s Wedding Present if they’d (somehow) listened to early-90s Gravity Records bands. ‘River Leen’, at five minutes nearly twice as long as any of its six companions, allows for the most experimentation – in particular from Caithness, who embarks on a zig-zaggy reading of the American Primitive guitar style before drawing to a spindly, ambient close.
The sort of punk rock that Broken Cogs play has always had a certain groundswell of popularity in south Wales, where they (and this reviewer) are based. Gruff-vocalled without being an example of possibly defunct microgenre ‘gruff punk’, melodic and in possession of a political conscience, in this respect they follow in the footsteps of countrymen No Choice, Four Letter Word and The Take. One of the quartet, Lee Davies, moved down from Leeds, where he’d played in a few early-00s bands who moved in similar circles to those three mentioned; in a way, Broken Cogs’ four-song seven-inch (released by Brassneck) feels like a lost relic from that period, when No Idea Records were releasing an album every five minutes. It’s got songs about organised religion and climate change denial – they’re keen on neither, it turns out – chunky bass parts and a song, ‘We The Cattle’, that loudly suggests “KILL YOUR BOSS” for a solid minute. The legacy of Leatherface, more on whom shortly, and Jawbreaker continues to filter down the years, and while I don’t listen to a lot of bands who sound like Broken Cogs these days, it’s a palate-cleansing tonic when it’s done this well.
Not all punk bands come from the UK, of course – some are from the United States but fantasise about coming from the UK, such as Institute from Austin, Texas. Comprised of fellows from a few different Area Bands, including Wiccans whose useful Field II LP was reviewed several columns ago, Institute are an outlet for its members to honour a very narrow subset of British punk – “early anarcho/death rock back before it was defined and basically just still punk,” in singer Moses Brown’s words. This frequently means embryonic or pre-emptive versions of better known bands: Warsaw, Crisis and The Epileptics as opposed to their progeny (Joy Division, Death In June and Flux Of Pink Indians). Catharsis (Sacred Bones), Institute’s debut album, even has a song titled ‘Admit I’m Shit’ – a nod to an early-80s anarcho band with perhaps the weirdest backstory of all.
Much of the gothic pall of Institute’s previous releases has been drained away here. What remains are a collection of clipped, wiry postpunk rhythm tracks, over which Brown alternates between sardonic speak-singing and hyping himself into a state of distress, Ian Curtis style. ‘Perpetual Ebb’ is a generously midpaced introduction that works similar territory to dormant Australian outfit Eddy Current Suppression Ring, but things swiftly turn martial and dogmatic, in the most agreeable way, with ‘I Am Living Death’ and ‘Cheerlessness’. Any danger – and there is some – that Catharsis might be little more than period drama is quelled by two late numbers. Brown’s Texan drawl, exposed in the spoken-word intro to ‘Cheaptime Morals’, might be throwing me off a lil’, but here Institute come off more like Houston’s undersung Really Red than anything British (although Really Red’s Teaching You The Fear album always sounded like 80s hardcore filtered through Gang Of Four and The Clash… so, hands across the ocean and that). ‘Christian Right’ features one of Parquet Courts doing something or other, lasts eight and a half minutes and sounds like Prolapse, or similar bloodyminded 90s indie band who owned Krautrock albums.
After Straight Hedge’s past efforts at dipping a toe into the waters of contemporary Oi! music, via reviews of bands who arguably perform in costume (Hard Skin and Hard Left), how real are Bishops Green, eh? Well, they’re from Canada, thus turning me typing ‘eh’ into a sort of feeble joke; they’re four years old as a band but roughly middle-aged as people, and have a decent wealth of experience in other Vancouver area streetpunk outfits; and Lars out of Rancid was a guest on Pressure, their debut album. I’m not sure if that last one is making a case for the defence or the prosecution, or why there would need to be either. Any road, followup LP A Chance To Change (Rebellion) requires no outside help to show why Bishops Green command max respect both in North America and in continental Europe. God knows there’s a lot of half-cooked, plodding Oi! out there, but there isn’t a weak link in this band: Greg Huff’s vocals are commanding, almost soulful at times, and the trio backing him are clearly a well-drilled unit.
While the persistent gang choruses and yobbed-up glam guitars ensure Bishops Green still sound like thugs in the street (‘Government Lies’ and ‘Dead And Gone’ are two mid-album highlights with a healthy dose of Cock Sparrer), they’re far from mere slaves to Oi! tropes on Pressure. If you can get down with Leatherface, more on whom even more shortly, Stiff Little Fingers, or The Saints, then I submit that only obstinacy will stop you enjoying Bishops Green. As regards the lyrics, there are politics on parade here for sure, but not ones which claim to have answers, or even pointers towards them. Huff transmits a rejection of austerity, a wish for small government and working-class solidarity as a baseline principle; I don’t get the impression the band cleave to ‘the left’ as an organised movement, but like every non-right-wing Oi! band ever, they’ve been obliged to state in the past, several times over, that they’re not right wing. If Canada is anything like the UK, I daresay a growing disillusionment with both party politics and certain strands of activism has created a groundswell of folks with an outlook similar to Bishops Green’s.
And finally, the promised ‘more’ on stout sons of Sunderland, Leatherface, who have two and a half hours’ worth of their output reissued this month in the form of a CD boxset, Razor Blades And Aspirin. It covers the period 1990-93, reasons for which are less about any specific qualities during this time (they released stuff both before and after, splitting in 1994 and regrouping later in the decade) than Fire Records owning the rights to what’s been collected here. At any rate, it offers a chance for the curious to physically possess these songs without paying collector prices or snagging a bootleg which the band have disavowed.
Fire’s promo spiel describes Leatherface as “90s underground punk icons”, but without getting bogged down in terminology, they weren’t exactly underground at the time. Their earliest records were released by Meantime, a small label also from the north-east of England – but their ability to wrap devastatingly good tunes in the proverbial barbed wire, and pen lyrics with both a social conscience and an eye for romanticism, found them an audience beyond that immediate scene. In time, Radio 1 sessions and NME single of the week awards came their way, and if their frantic, Hüsker Dü-influenced buzzbombs couldn’t quite be pigeonholed as ‘fraggle’ – a la Senseless Things, Mega City Four etc – they were certainly enjoyed by many of the same people. There are valid reasons, though, why Leatherface have endured and those other bands haven’t. Frankie Stubbs’ vocals, Lemmy-like in their rusted rasp (when he sings, “It’s all the same to me,” during ‘You Wanted Everything’, you wonder if he’s poking fun at himself), are one of the group’s strongest weapons, but also disguise their classic pop sensibility. Covers of Elvis, The Police and ‘You Are My Sunshine’, squirreled away on B-sides, help to underline it, but these three albums and attendant singles show that Leatherface had scant interest in stereotypical punk imagery.
Musical progression from Fill Your Boots (1990), to Mush (‘91) and Minx (‘93) is subtle and incremental, mostly because the group nailed down their aesthetic early on. Dickie Hammond’s guitar sound seems to pull its inspiration from hardcore, powerpop and classic rock while sounding distinct from all of them, and has been subject to plenty of imitation in the last twenty years or so. Minx’s production borders on the polished – I’m reminded of Therapy’s Troublegum, released the following year – and the album did have its detractors at the time, but only chronic nitpickers would condemn it on this basis. Equally, I have no objection to the received view that Mush is their crowning achievement: overdriven and blaring, with emotionally stirring choruses (‘I Want The Moon’, ‘Not Superstitious’) and scraps of verse that pingpong around your thoughts.
“The air round here smells of religion and Vaux’s beer / We are this world, the sand drains from our very hands,” muses ‘Dead Industrial Atmosphere’, surely the best song penned on the topic of Sunderland. ‘The Bastards Can’t Dance’, from Fill Your Boots, offers the Nigel Blackwell-worthy “You know I've seen some things in my time / But nothing as heinous as your Chinos.” As with Blackwell, the thought of an alternate reality where Frankie Stubbs was lauded as a Great British Pop Lyricist – on the scale of Morrissey or Damon Albarn, say – is tempting, but if cult appeal doesn’t always allow the cults to pay their bills, it may have helped Leatherface to maintain their dignity.