Straight Hedge! Noel Gardner Reviews Punk & Hardcore For September
, September 23rd, 2015 09:09
What is punk rock? asks Noel Gardner. Well, it turns out that punk rock is not punk rock; except when it is
You'll not need an especially rabid interest in punk rock, I suspect, to be familiar with an old saw relating to it: that making music in the understood 'punk' style is, in fact, a terribly 'unpunk' thing to do. By extension, the 'real' punks are adapting to or being inspired by developments on the cutting edge of genre, and seeking to create bold hybrids which prize modernity whilst retaining punk's anger and attitude. Whatever that is.
The earliest recorded espousal of this view is unknown to me, but I'd be willing to bet it was around the same time (UK) punk even hinted at becoming a codified sound. Was there ever another scene which (a) ate itself so quickly after conception, people taking of its death literally weeks after anyone had heard of it, while (b) not only existing to this day, but harbouring bands who sound pretty much identical to the first wave of the first wave? It was certainly in full swing in the mid-1990s, when I was a voracious teenage music press consumer (now making me a stereotypical reader of this website). An era of Green Day, Offspring and Rancid – and, enjoying a fraction of the sales but a sight more coverage in the so-called inkies, lumpen British bands like SMASH – it was easy to scorn this tendency as backward and conservative, especially when held up against the genuinely innovative music being made at the time.
What issues I take with this boil down to a couple of things. The idea that the listener is obliged to pick a 'side' on these matters, for one: with a mind to facilitating a taste built from impulse, nostalgia and unconscious bias, I would rather take Green Day's Dookie to a desert island than anything by, say, Tortoise, but would equally choose the first Labradford album over the collected works of Pennywise. Y'get me? Moreover, this line of thinking implicitly treats punk as a gold standard for rage, protest and absurdism set to music. Articles proclaiming Luigi Russolo, Jerry Lee Lewis, Albert Ayler, The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and Public Enemy as punk are a Google search away (see for yourself). This does a disservice to all concerned, including punk itself, by erasing each individual vision.
Over the years – all six of them – this column hasn't been too stringent a genre gatekeeper when it comes to punk/hardcore, waving stuff through that sounds suspiciously like indie or metal or noise. Invariably, notions of community and values come into play – not in a UKIP sense, or anything else coding as fear of outsiders, but close-knit people with (somewhat) shared outlooks and lifestyles bouncing wide-ranging ideas off one another. The debut album by L.O.T.I.O.N. is very much a product of the Brooklyn scene built round the Toxic State label, a textbook 2015 example of what I'm talking about here. They sound very little like any of their peers or other projects, thanks to heavy use of programmed drums and a retromodern, technostrangled aesthetic, but make no bones – Digital Control And Man's Obsolescence (released by Toxic State in the US; La Vida Es Un Mus in the UK) is punk music made by punks, and DIFFERENT with it.
Not, like, completely different to anything ever, that would be silly. The nuclear-glowing dementia of fabled Japanese band G.I.S.M., whose 80s output started as wailing-solo-drenched HC and morphed into an improbable muddle of of ambient noise and power metal, has made its mark on L.O.T.I.O.N. (their habit of ascribing many meanings to their acronym is a blatant G.I.S.M. homage). While there's pretty much none of the stuffed-codpiece wheedle left in the mix, instead there are swathes of primitively layered and utterly trashy breakbeats, courtesy of Emil Bognar Nasdor. Factor in the possessed vocals of Alexander Heir, guitar like Discharge fed through a building site radio and lyrics teeming with paranoia, distrust and disgust, and the cumulative effect's got me thinking of names from the late-90s Digital Hardcore Records undercard, like Ec8or or Killout Trash. (This whole scene, you might recall, was regularly treated to “now this stuff is the REAL PUNK ROCK” tonguebaths back then.)
If L.O.T.I.O.N. had existed at that time, I suspect they would have been my favourite band in the world. Less sure, mind, about whether they could kickstart a one-band DHR revival. As far as I can tell, any real-world links to rave culture are pretty tenuous (they might have gone down well at a Bangface night ten years ago, but in fairness, so would an unannounced evening of roadworks) and for all the palpable and justified lyrical attacks on the ruling class and their hired executioners on cuts like 'Vid The Pigs' and 'Welcome To The Civilised World', it's hard not to see this LP as… quaint from a certain angle. From another, it's a magnificently rule-ignoring sonic waterboarding, and one of the least conventional documents hardcore punk has spat out for a few years. Oh, and the packaging is quite spectacular, even by Toxic State's high standards.
Not on Toxic State, but possessing fairly robust links to it, the debut cassette by Kaleidoscope also has some cute artwork: a fold-out poster sleeve festooned with the scratchy pen-and-ink sketching of Shiva Addanki, formerly of unruly NYC hardcore bands Ivy (who split up mere weeks ago) and Deformity. Titled Transmission No. One, it could pass for one of those sub-Ozric Tentacles free festival bands from the mid-80s, and at times the music lives up to this, opening up with lolloping saxophone and kitschly applied sitar.
In time, such fripperies are bullied away by the 'core 'tude of Shiva and his two bandmates, 'Prince' delighting in stubbed-toe bass riffs and cymbals that sound like a crockery mishap. When Kaleidoscope rock out, well, they don't go very 'out' at all, but attack every note with such idiot savant determination that the results are way weirder than if they'd just tried to make a psychedelic record. The one-two slap of 'Transit Fare' into 'Information Man' near the tape's end should clear any and all cobwebs, provided you've not already ran shrieking from its gurning sonics because the collected legacy of Metallic KO, Debris, Venom P Stinger, Bunnybrains and Royal Trux's Twin Infinitives swamped you like a lead duvet.
Positive Energy (Iron Lung/Adagio830), the debut album by Berlin-based Diät, is considerably more refined a listen, if only by comparison. Stoically focused in its approach, on paper these eight songs (one of which is a beefed-up cover of indiepopsters The Cannanes) revisit much the same proto-anarcho and amphetamine-twitch goth-rock as the Institute LP I reviewed in the last instalment of Straight Hedge. On record, Diät end up sounding pretty different: detached rather than distressed, and with the gleam of pop melody cutting through the slate-coloured pall.
'Young And Successful', the LP's opener, contains multitudes: more-spoke-than-sung vocals from Australian vocalist Chris Onton, lyrics mulling the lot of the white-collar twentysomething (“look after my appearance / try and present well … I'll be working late tonight”), an ominous Killing Joke guitar motif and a kickdrum that sounds like it wants to use your head as a pedal. There's a near-constant conflict between the grandiosity Diät seem to aspire to musically, and their herbertish punker tendencies – 'Nightmare', for example, isn't far removed from that early U2/pre-arena Simple Minds tip, but Onton delivers his street-rat vocals with browbeating menace.
While the whole is pretty one-paced, Positive Energy has undeniable panache, and is as good if not better than most similarly inclined records of recent years. Its closest sonic cousin, I'd say ('Schadenfreude' and 'Sinkhole' especially), is the Eagulls album that came out last year and seemed to fall through the cracks somewhat, despite being a perfectly decent amalgam of various chorus pedal abusers. Admittedly, I find it hard to take Eagulls quite as seriously since I saw them on a Dr. Martens-sponsored tour, with each member wearing a pair of the company's noted boots onstage, by contractual obligation. So if Diät want to maintain my respect, and no doubt this is paramount in their gameplan, they just have to avoid this particular trapdoor.
The 'ex-member tag' is a common bogeyman of punk and hardcore, wherein plumb-new bands are awarded credibility and enthusiasm before anyone's heard their music, simply because the people in them did some good stuff beforehand. This is an ill fit for principles of paying one's dues, and other such Bolshevik concepts, but it prevails, because folks've got to sell all those records/gig tickets/etc somehow. Aagoo Records, who are releasing the second album by Brooklyn's Zulus, have hedged their bets by listing what appears to be every band their four members have ever played in. These range from ones you might have heard of (Wand, The Homosexuals) to ones which have no internet presence whatsoever (Teenage Nitewar – and no, Google, I did not mean “teenage nightwear”, but nice try) to Battleship, an Oakland combo who I booked a show for in 2006. All I remember about it is the singer – Aleksander Prechtl, now on Zulus mic duty – delivering his vocals while standing on a chair, but it says here that “their chaotic live shows are destined to become semi-legendary among a very small set of people you'll never meet,” so hey.
Produced by Ben Greenberg of The Men and Uniform, Zulus gleefully exploit his willingness to provide an unpretty, blown-out recording. You can't really tie this 21-minute album down to any one style – there's flashes of bozo psych a la Purling Hiss, early No Age punkgaze squall, millennial sasscore that might have found a home on the Gold Standard Laboratories label, Hunches-style brute-garage panelbeating and a number titled 'Chemicals' whose velocity more or less makes it a hardcore song. Something about this unsighted collision of no wave, noiserock and garage feels very, well, 2006, but I for one miss the days of good Load Records albums every few weeks. Occasionally I do, anyway.
The only reason I am acquainted with the music of Kurt Baker is because someone posted me a copy of his Brand New B-Sides CD inside a self-addressed envelope – unsolicited, and I suspect for ballast rather than because he especially wanted me to hear it. As such, it was an extra pleasant surprise to halfheartedly throw it on and discover the most freakishly immaculate time-capsule new wave/powerpop imaginable – including a Nick Lowe cover and a Christmas song played with as straight a bat as a Christmas song can be.
Subsequent research revealed that Kurt hails from Portland; has 'ties' (that's a powerpop dress sense joke, laugh it up) to the Ramones-lionising leather jacket pop-punk scene (he used to front a band called The Leftovers, while Kurt Baker Band guitarist Geoff Palmer played on a few Queers albums); and had his third album, Play It Cool (Rum Bar), ready to drop around the same time as this column. Could I gerrymander the genre boundaries enough to shoehorn it into a section which has previously given space to Ildjarn, Bastard Noise and Exithippies? 'Course I fuckin' could!
Play It Cool is a funny'un, in that it's more demonstrably radio-rockish than Brand New Beat, its predecessor (...B-Sides was a collection of outtakes), but starts off punkier/rockier than anything off that. To wit, 'Sends Me To Mars': an electric piano-clattering excavation of the New York Dolls and The Nerves' mid-70s moves. Baker's vocals are delivered in a horndog whine handed down from Elvis Costello; 'Monday Night' keeps threatening to turn into Andrew WK before firing off a Van Halen guitar solo, the title track jumpstarts Cheap Trick's carcass with necrotically sexy results and 'Doin' It Right' has enough jacked-up pre-punk menace to recall Dr Feelgood. Pat lyrical anguish aside, Kurt Baker is here for the good times: that laundry list of comparisons will probably hint at whether you're going to like Play It Cool or not, but if you're even remotely sympathetic to this brand of splayed-leg grandstanding, a (mostly) undiscovered master of the form is waiting here for your patronage. This album rules and I'm not going to try and construct some convoluted “sounding like a 1976 bar band is the real punk rock, dude” argument to justify it being in here. Look Kurt Baker up for yourself and figure out the circles he moves in.
Even as the joy of life is drained from my being, year on year, I will forever remain easily tickled by out-of-control wordplay: things which clearly began with a pun and developed everything else thereafter. Yorkshire's Geoffrey Oi!Cott formed in the mid-to-late-00s, their M.O. being songs about cricket performed in an Oi!/streetpunk manner. Remaining unrivalled in this particular niche, even when they expanded their repertoire to include songs about darts, they don cricket whites and play Blackpool's Rebellion Festival every year to the pissed-up nostalgists who attend; have donated one of their songs to darts player Garry Thompson for his walk-on theme; and have now chalked up three albums, the latest of which is Sticky Wickets (Boss Tuneage).
Wrapped in a Rolling Stones-parodying sleeve, which if you use your imagination you can probably visualise without needing to see it, Sticky Wickets gives an unprecedented three songs (of ten) over to darts-based subject matter. Located at the end of the record, the better for a grandstand finish, 'Sid Lives' is naturally a tribute to Sid Waddell; 'BDO Vs PDC' weighs the merits of “beer, darts, Oi! … punk, darts, cider” and 'Tungsten Tossers' is probably the most noteworthy song about going drinking on a Tuesday since 2014. Knob, poo, wanking and fingering jokes are the order of the day, although Oi!Cott rarely 'work blue', being more in the lineage of Bottom or Carry On than anything too vicar-appallingly vulgar.
They don't sound that much like an Oi! band here, either – more like The Lurkers or Stiff Little Fingers or someone, but with rougher arses and more “woah-oh” backing vocals – but they rattle the tunes out with practiced efficiency. For all the smutty enjoyment Geoffrey Oi!Cott have given me through their releases, they've not enabled me to 'get' cricket culture, which is to say that a song ('Mace In Your Face') about battering impoverished former British colonies still feels like a very, uh, weird thing to hear on a punk rock album.
Efialtis are based in London, have lit up the undercards of many a DIY punk show in the city since forming about a year ago, and have just self-released a seven-song cassette. They're the 768th group this column has reviewed that features Bryony Beynon (of Good Throb and 767 others) in its line-up; perhaps of greater note is Efialtis' status as the UK's only Greek-language punk band. Unless there are others, in which case I would find it most satisfying to be corrected. Of the three members, Alex Smyrliadis claims lyrical responsibility, and while the inbuilt arrogance of the British education system means that I didn't learn any other languages and so can't understand what she's singing about, the effect is a sort of haunted rage, both defiant and terrified. Arrangements are midpaced, production blood-raw and fidelity fuckyouishly low; Smyrliadis sounds like she's hollering from inside an abandoned banquet hall, a production quirk that makes Efialtis sound like some weird European anarcho band from the mid-80s. There's even a Hellenic cover of 'Scavengers Of Death', originally by one-shot Texan obscurities Bobby Soxx. I'll cop to needing a few listens to this tape before it did much for me, but it's slyly addictive and – again – DIFFERENT.
Metro Cult, meanwhile, come from Copenhagen and play synth-heavy, vaguely apocalyptic-sounding gothic punk rock. They don't scrub up too bad, either, all of which should be – in my reductive thinking, at any rate – a passport to swoonworthy hipness. In reality, there's little evidence of this happening, although their recent Transparent seven-inch (Mass Media) arrived nearly two years after their debut, suggesting Metro Cult aren't busting their collective lung trying to impose themselves on the wider public. It's a panstick-faced smasher on its own terms, though, not miles from the Diät album sound-wise but with most of the smooth edges whipcracked away. Produced in booming, unrelenting style, Johannah Jørgensen's keyboards are about level in the mix with Christoffer Bagge's vocals; they echo the tangible anarcho influence of modern goth-punkers like Belgrado and Arctic Flowers, while 'Straylight' ramps up the horror-movie vibes enough to recall Phoenix's immense Mighty Sphincter. The lyrics seem to be nonsense on stilts (“Newfound prophets speak through glass” – 'Transparent') but it needn't be a dealbreaker. Hopefully Metro Cult will swiftly (a) do an LP, (b) promote the crap out of it and (c) do whatever they like no matter what I think.
And finally, a whirlwind of compressed sputum flattened into a black, plasticky substance and given the exciting trade name 'powerviolence'. I put gnarly Leicester band Mangle in the last-but-not-least slot for my first reviews column of this year; Mangle appear to have now broken up, but here's Nothing Clean, who Mangle vocalist Matt Howlett has migrated to; who feature members of several other shouty beggar bands from the east Midlands; and who barrel through nine songs in about five minutes on their side of this split seven-inch, released by the labels Vleesklak, Samizdat and Circus Of The Macabre.
As that timeframe might indicate, this is legitimately vicious, intense stuff, allowing itself little room for variation ('Self Help', the final Nothing Clean song, is the only one to exceed sixty seconds, and relaxes towards its close by blithely slowing down) but instantly establishing this quartet as one of the Shittish Isles' finest, fastest hardcore combos. Bordering on grindcore for sure, Nothing Clean are honouring the spirit of the most insanely compact West Coast powerviolence bands of the mid-90s: Spazz and Lack Of Interest, particularly. On the flipside, meanwhile, three songs from Madrid trio La Letra Pequeña, who purport to be “una banda de emo violence/crust”. They have the flailing, desperate vocals of the first of those microgenres, the drill-hammering snare sound of the second, and intermittent breakouts of chugga-chugga hardcore guitar which you might expect from either. It's a bit forgettable, to be honest, but Nothing Clean's side is easily worth the price of admission – four quid plus postage from the Bandcamp above, which is an admirable ignoring of the last decade's inflation.