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Noel's Straight Hedge

Noel Gardner's Straight Hedge XI: Punk & Hardcore Reviewed
Noel Gardner , September 15th, 2014 09:50

Celebrate! Noel Gardner is back with more punk and hardcore reviews and discusses the punk rock/ drinking scrumpy/ washing machine on a 30 degree spin cycle interface

While we live on a planet with billions of inhabitants wracked, day on day, by war, disease, poverty and oppression, all creative endeavour is bourgeois indulgence. So begins the talking point in a stereotypical undergrad philosophy class, anyway. Most people step back from that extreme of belief, obviously, which then tends to divert the issue into questions of how much responsibility art has to address pressing social issues. Within punk and hardcore, as genres and cultures, this is a perpetually prickly subject.  

There are few, if any, other musical styles which, pretty much from their birth, regularly served as a vessel for political commentary. Certainly, there have always been caveats (the MC5 had the radical slogans while the Stooges played the snarky nihilist card; the Sex Pistols and The Clash's broadsides were explicitly topical, The Damned, Buzzcocks etc less so; early American hardcore was equally capable of being startlingly literate and moronically myopic), but it's never been surprising to hear a punk band register a protest on wax. If they play anarcho punk or crust punk, say, it's virtually a prerequisite.   

Boredom, self-destruction and navel-gazing are the enemies of this ethos, yet all are threaded through the punk tapestry. In the last seven years or so, most of the bands who've blown up in, or broken out of, the underground have touted these kinda vibes: anyone from Jay Reatard to Career Suicide to Hoax to Pissed Jeans to a whole tranche of 2k10-era HC bands who made a virtue of being 'mysterious', i.e. not really saying much about anything. Failures, an American quartet who released their first album six years ago and have just followed it up with Decline And Fall (Adagio 830), are an adjunct to all this. It's not that they don't have anything to say, it's that it's said with such deathless contempt and sardonic iciness that Mark McCoy, Failures' lyricist, appears in danger of drowning himself in irony. (The grown-up kind, not the 'this bad thing is actually good not bad like you think' kind.)   

McCoy's notoriety in US hardcore runs deep: Charles Bronson, his first band, formed twenty years ago and pre-empted far too many ho-hum outfits who, like them, played compact, explosive powerviolence riddled with injokes and overly long song titles, but weren't half as good. Das Oath were marginally less intense – ostensibly a take on Void-style 80s screwiness, but smartassed and self-regarding in a very millennial way – yet managed to attain punk rock irritant status over a scattering of releases. (He also runs the collectible Youth Attack label, on which Decline And Fall is released in the States.) Failures are his most noteworthy of his several ventures since, I'd say – their releases combine the noise-blurred jangle of Das Oath with the BPM of Charles Bronson, are attractively packaged, and have some of this listener's favourite lyrics of at least the last decade.   

"Hopefully we can get serious and start going to bars together, then I can pretend I like drinking." "It's really interesting that you're whatever you do for a living." "Congrats on your new baby if it was deliberate!" Drawn from Failures' 2008 LP and 2009 7”, those three greetings card messages / OKcupid chat function brush-offs / lower back tattoos in the making are rivalled for raised-eyebrow tartness on Decline…, fourteen songs in about as many minutes.   

"Therapy is hard work / When you see your shrink / Pay them well until you believe / Those are your ideas you think," snarks 'Breakthrough'. "Of course I'm not lonely / In fact, my weekend's booked / I'm staying home to clean / And perfect my dirty looks," the ghost of young Morrissey offers on 'Introvert'. And scooping the prize for the disc's most delightfully quotable vignette is 'Trust Me', with, "If you took a chance on life, I'd come to your funeral."   

The very necessary lyric sheet suggests these words are to be read as poetry of a sort; line breaks, however, are not exactly adhered to by McCoy's breathless, nigh-on incomprehensible screech. Will Killingsworth, also a veteran of myriad bands including vicious screamo outfit Orchid, plays guitar with the tone and energy of a tin of angry hornets; Ryan Abbott's drumming frequently occupies the liminal space between a snare roll and a blastbeat. A token 'slow one', 'Hope', is still faster than the great majority of rock music, while 'Barnacle' has the kind of chuggy guitar break normally found in hardcore of a much less shrewd type (more of that in a minute). It's a sound that pierces the senses, but is musically deft, and never a sadistic assault. For my money, Failures are not only the sum of their members' very long list of ex-band parts, but a fully valid exhibit in the case for hardcore '14 being fresh and vital. The fact that Decline… appears to have flown almost entirely under the radar thus far suggests this is a minority opinion, but fuck 'em.   

To the extent that the vagaries of fashion are (a) truly measurable and (b) in any way important, it's probably true that a band like Cold World are quote-unquote cooler than a band like Failures at this point in the game. I only mention this because of how ridiculous it seems. Cold World, from somewhere in Pennsylvania I know nothing about, are presumably named in reference to GZA or Mobb Deep; they play willfully cornball tuff-geezer hardcore with downtuned metal guitar, guest rappers and occasional pensive quasi-radio rock moments. How The Gods Chill (Deathwish) is their second studio album – they, too, have taken six years to follow their debut – and it's fairly awesome if your veins pump for chugging tattoo studio soundtracks which couldn't sound more mid-90s if you were listening in a hall of mirrors made from free AOL installation CDs.   

Turns out my veins do just that, which was a surprise. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed an album like How The Gods Chill – okay, some of it's just straight-down-the-line New York hardcore ('The Real Deal', 'Omega', 'Youthful Expression 2014'), but elsewhere I'm catapulted back to being fifteen and listening to Biohazard's State Of The World Address and the first Downset album, with an optimistic view of understanding the world depicted therein. You probably don't need to beckon me towards the psychoanalyst's couch to figure out that this is (at least a big part of) why I dig this album.   

Not so long ago, bands like the two mentioned would have been thought of as progenitors of nu-metal, and had their cards marked thusly. Water having now flowed under the bridge, we can all take the sticks from our arses and wile out to Cold World's impeccably realised moshathon. Yeah, I used the 'columnist's we' there, deal with it. I probably am a bozo for sleeping on this band previously, even if How… is streets ahead of 2008's Dedicated To Babies Who Were Born Feet First. 'Blind' is a ripper of a lead-off song: a minute of leaden riffing and Dan Mills' portentous, semi-sung vocals before the pace is cranked up to crossover thrash levels. 'Never Knows Best' is basically grunge, albeit grunge that wants to know if you even lift – it should be indefensible, but boasts a guitar part Kim Thayil wouldn't kick out of bed. The similarly titled but unrelated 'Never', the record's epic at four minutes, recalls Life Of Agony (if you're being kind) or a band who were track fourteen on a Kerrang! covermount CD circa 1997 and never heard from again (if you aren't). 

  Of the moonlighting rappers, NYC's Meyhem Lauren gives up some creditable verses for 'Cracks Of Hate' ("Keeping it live can leave you dead / I know a couple tough guys with gunshots in they head"). Kool G Rap effortlessly blesses the mic for about forty seconds of 'Hell's Direction' before Mills' wounded holler wrestles it back for a cut that could comfortably slide onto the Judgement Night OST (I had to mention it at some point). And Max B literally phones in his spot on the outro, due to being in prison, and might as well have actually said "I heartily endorse this event or product". How The Gods Chill is outstanding entertainment, and to think I was going to ignore it in favour of a recent, notionally more worthy Deathwish release – They Don't Have To Believe by Punch – until I realised I couldn't remember anything about it after it stopped.   

If you're the type of punk fuckin' consumer who is deeply pernickerty about not letting any heavy metal jelly get in your jar of peabrain butter, you'd better continue looking the other way while I ride for Austin, TX's monumental Impalers. This trio are, to say the least, not the first band to find a commonality of methodology between Mötorhead and the premier division of crust punk – but if there's anyone out there right now bettering them at it, link me up. An EP on the 540 label is imminent, while their first, self-titled LP (also on 540) is less than a year old – but let's talk about an LP on the Spanish-based Trabuc Records whch has only been out a matter of weeks. It's also called Impalers and compiles a demo tape from 2010 and a single from 2011, both titled Impalers. Thanks, Impalers!   

Although the band's lineup has shuffled about a little since the beginning (I think the only ever-present is Chris Ulsh, backbone of a silly amount of Texas groups including Quietus favourites of last year Power Trip), these ten songs maintain focus to an intense degree. There's never much hint of meaningful deviation from the basic template – a deathmarch d-beat, Ulsh's throat-wrecking, distorted vocals, guitar solos ripped from the copybook of Venom/Broken Bones/Attitude Adjustment – but neither does it threaten to become so stale that you'd want anything changed up.   

That said, this LP's A-side (the demo) is a bit more standard issue in its Mötorpunk battery, relying on brute thunder and impeccably ragged production to get by. 'Rabid Transgressors' and 'Turn Me Loose' charge along frantically while 'Wheel Of Pain' is sinister in its midpace; one weird production quirk, a constant phasing effect on the guitar, foretells the blown-out batshittery of the B-side (the single). The glorious studio wrongness of early wave Japanese HC bands like G.I.S.M., and more recent noise hellions such as D-Clone, seems to loom over this masterpiece of level-ignoring. At the same time, Ulsh sounds more than ever like he's singing for an early death metal band, and the side's last two numbers, 'Blasts For Days' and 'Blinding', are not idly titled. This record, likewise the Impalers material which has followed, could certainly be enjoyed by fans of Black Breath or Trap Them as much as the cruster-than-thou set. For all I know, it already is.   

The influence of Mötorhead – please, take a seat while I don't exactly drop science – has permeated nearly every corner of 'heavy music'. It was all over earlier releases by Okkultokrati, a five-piece from Oslo who are tight with other Norse gnarlers like Årabrot (who I think introduced me to the band by leaving a CD on my living room table). Ingen Veit Alt and No Light For Mass rumbled and growled in all the requisite places, but just never clicked for me, never felt truly nasty or unhinged.   

New album Night Jerks, on the Fysisk Format label, finds them expanding their sound into areas that wouldn't otherwise get touched in this column, and is a resounding success for the most part. Raw, frippery-free rawk ugliness is still on offer, from the title track's 125-second evocation of the Amphetamine Reptile sound circa 1992 or so to the lithe post punk grimnity of 'Moon Daggers': an unlikely midpoint between Mission Of Burma and black metal, or perhaps what people wanted to believe the later Nachtmystium albums sounded like. 'Rose Crux' has something of the shivering paranoia of PiL's Metal Box, but with all vestiges of funk drained out and replaced by grinding sheets of repetition until it kinda resembles Ramleh. This, 'Zero Kulto' and 'Cosmic Wynter' are largely powered by synths rather than guitars, a result of a muscle condition which left the band's Pål Bredrup unable to play for a while. While this is only partially successful – 'Cosmic Wynter' is sixteen minutes long and seems to be attempting a space rock tip, but dollars to doughnuts you'll get bored before the end – the highs, which also include the giddy, Oxbow-like 'The Ladder', are high enough that you'd be a twerp to resent Okkultokrati for trying something different.   

Back to the realm of the d-beat, and with such tunnel-visioned tenacity it's hard to see the light of a different rhythm in the distance. Electric Funeral is a one-man band from Sweden, the better to achieve the remarkably stubborn single-mindedness showcased on Total Funeral. Released by the Southern Lord label, this double-LP compilation continues SL boss Greg Anderson's latter-day yen for overdriven Swedish mania, cf. Martyrdød and Wolfbrigade – both of whom sound like post rock bands next to the mindless demolition derby of Electric Funeral. Total Funeral is 53 songs lasting an hour and a half or so and features basically everything he (Joakim Staaf-Sylsjö) has ever recorded under this name; it was surely never intended to be listened to in one sitting, which makes that the only right and proper way to approach it. Don yer gasmasks then, eh.   

A piercing feedback intro, a revoltingly OTT bassline in which a chord pattern can be dimly detected, guitars tuned to frequencies known to arouse screech owls or passing members of Disorder, Joakim roaring with the anguish of an abandoned prisoner and a running time rarely exceeding ninety seconds. This is the basic makeup for an Electric Funeral song, with almost zero deviation from the script. It's stupid, bordering on indefensible – but EF gets away with it not only through demented dedication to the task at hand, but also a wizard's eye for boiling the vital elements of ye olde raw d-beat down to a dark, dense core of iron.   

For all that, and not suggesting that Joakim takes this shit at all unseriously, there is an element of theatre in the image that unfolds as Total Funeral plays. Song titles are either direct lifts from infamous ancestors ('Bomb Raid', 'Crash The Pose', 'No Masters, No Gods') or pitch-perfect nods to the gluebag'n'nuclear paranoia raw punk aesthetic ('Make Noise Not War', 'Worldwide Genocide', 'Distortion Of Sense'). The one cover I've confidently identified is Darkthrone's 'Raised On (Punk) Rock', and if this crazy cat would deign to acknowledge just one influence outside Electric Funeral's immediate, obvious parameters, damn if Nocturno and Fenriz aren't his perfect kin. Other relevant information about this record: its running time is very slightly less than my washing machine's spin cycle (at 30°C), and listening to it while drinking Weston's scrumpy didn't improve it per se, but felt like a natural pairing.   

There've been a notable amount of good bands emerging from Olympia, WA in the last couple of years or so, which from where I'm sitting – 4,748 miles away, apparently – hasn't obviously been the case since the turbulent birth of riot grrrl. Despite having absorbed and thrilled to Olympia bands including Christian Mistress, Milk Music and Hysterics in recent times, it isn't immediately clear if they exist in one formless scene, or several smaller, defined ones. Gag, a four-piece from the city, seem to make a case for the latter – the Tumblr page I've hyperlinked there serves as a blog for themselves and four other varyingly noisy/filthy bands who all share members with one another. Willfully aggravating and (self-)mocking since their earliest releases in 2012, previous Gag music has been released on button-pushing formats including VHS and lathe cut vinyl, while another EP was memorably titled This Punk Shit Is Cool But I Hope I'm Rob Zombie When I'm 28.   

A new two-song 45 on the Iron Lung label – which has put out its finest run of releases to date this summer, by the way – merely requires its owner to have a jukebox centre thingy kicking about, retaining most of its bamboozling for the actual music. Edging away from the full-tilt sludgy hardcore of previous outings, accurately compared to Hoax by many, 'Locker Room' subjects listeners to forty seconds of teeth-on-edge feedback before crashing into a sloppily cyclical riff, exploded into space by what might be the most reverbed vocals I've ever heard on a hardcore record (which is saying something). The effect, which the out-of-control fretboard frottage does nothing to dispel, is to suggest a more thuggish, compact version of ear-bleeding psychedelic bands like Destruction Unit, or even Gnod in their Guitar Army incarnation. The B-side, 'No Hope, No Change', is apparently a cover of Dehumanized, another Olympia band whom I'd never heard of previously; it has the same riff as 'Locker Room', and effectively seems to be reprising it, inviting the possibility of some low-level prankery. Regardless, this is a creditably mangled five minutes, and if Gag continue to mine this style they might become that rare bird, a properly original US hardcore band.   

S.H.I.T., while being neither original or from the US, have been earnestly lauded in 2014 by the secret cabal of people who decide what American hardcore gets earnestly lauded. A product of Toronto's enduring HC scene, their debut seven-inch came out earlier this year on Iron Lung, and is very much part of the imprint's winning streak. Generation Shit (Lengua Armada) followed it up, in an artistically pleasing poster sleeve; there's barely a Rizla to put between them, but the newer EP feels just a bawhair more intense and deranged.   

Rhythmically simple in the main, 'simple' is synonymous with 'effective' as 'Eraser II' and 'Mockery' stomp towards your door sporting flaming torches and thousand-yard stares. The title track, last of four on here, combines unruly guitar wheedle, Ryan Tong's blabbering vocal blowout (not blessed with Gag levels of echo, but treated quite enough) and a tempo which speeds and slows in disconcerting, fairground-ride fashion. Lyrics are suitably histrionic, all purple-faced about the surrendering masses, "a culture of sewage", "the disposable youth" and "the pride of the naive". At various points it seems plausible to point to UK82 punk, the more blokey, belligerent end of anarcho, Italian HC lunacy and San Francisco punx in Brit-anarchist clothes Crucifix, but none of these tags quite fit S.H.I.T.'s ankle. Maybe they're more original than I'm giving them credit for, then.   

Received wisdom has, for some years now, had it that Toronto is one of the globe's most fertile punk-producing cities. When Fucked Up started becoming bankable circa 2006, they did their level best to promote their peer group, which probably helped bands like Career Suicide, Brutal Knights and Urban Blight tour Europe. Before that, a local zine even called itself Town Of Hardcore. According to a S.H.I.T. interview I read, though, it's fallen off notably – all the bands I listed there are either broken up, dormant or no longer play hardcore, which perhaps tells its own story. Scenes, it's worth remembering, are usually in a state of constant flux. If someone had said, ten years ago, that London was one of the best places on Earth to enjoy DIY punk – the music, the culture – they'd likely have been looked at cockeyed. Circumstances, and the sterling and creative work of various people, have led this opinion to be not only valid, but possibly self-evident. (Also: I know most British residents outside London are conditioned to be all "fucking London" whenever it gets bigged up, but this is one department where it hasn't flexed its capital city muscle for a while.)   

The following three London bands have all released debut seven-inches this summer, and could have been joined in this column by more but for a doomed attempt at brevity. Mankind's effort, released by the Quality Control label, has curious if not mysterious sleeve art featuring uncredited monochrome photos of prison cells. It follows a 2013 demo tape which had the sort of endearingly ropey hand-drawn art that lots of emergent youth crew groups use. Accordingly, Mankind have a foot in two camps: moody, introspective hardcore with the occasional rock flourish, and the kind of straight & alert fodder that was sporting New Balance years before Rihanna (but also years after Bryan Robson). In the main, the six cuts here are burly, have non-cheesy – yet very much upfront – breakdowns and slow mosh parts ('Delinquent' is especially effective in this regard), and are powered by vocalist Tin's hoarse, exasperated holler. A minor change in mood arrives with the closing 'Stuck', which gingerly introduces a splash of Circle Jerks-style proto-hardcore melody before going full thrash jacket for its last thirty seconds.   

Mankind's lyric insert outlines a fixation with weakness and bleakness, excoriating oneself and nameless others for needling aggravations and blindness to the awful reality of existence. This makes it something of a tonic to follow it with Frau's Punk Is My Boyfriend single (Static Shock), those being about the only words I can actually decipher. Which is not to imply that Frau's music is a trifling matter, or that they would likely be shy of an opinion. A four-piece who feature members of Good Throb (whose album, I'm compelled to mention in lieu of writing about it when it came out, fucking owns and is a lock for my personal top ten of 2014) and Woolf, they debuted with a demo tape whose ramshackle yet essentially orthodox punk sound gives little preparation for how berserk this sounds.   

'Punk Is My Boyfriend' itself lasts 49 seconds and could plausibly be inspired by recalled playground chants as much as any specific bands. You've probably read reviews of some noisy band or other saying they "barely hold it together" – by the yardstick of many Trained Musicians, I suspect Frau don't hold it together at all. I'm reminded in equal degree of Half Japanese and The Frumpies, so for neither the first nor the last time, fuck Trained Musicians. 'Snakeskin' (51 seconds) is less enervating, especially in regard to Ashleigh Holland's vocals, but still clatters with great impropriety; 'Orca' (two no-less-frantic minutes)  has a scratchy, addictive guitar line and could possibly be deemed a hardcore song, not that category twattery really matters. Although if Frau were punk, that would make them their own boyfriend, which is liable to get confusing.   

Another of the – apparently, and happily, limitless – offshoots of Good Throb are Snob, who are four in number (including GT vocalist Ellie Roberts, on guitar here) and have self-released their debut single. They contain multitudes, intentionally so I suspect: the front cover, a sparse and eerie pencil sketch, is contradicted by an insert created by cutting up someone's back copies of Viz and repeatedly defacing a photo of Phil Mitchell from Eastenders. Spanking good immature fun, but replete with lyrics which neglect to hold back their anger and scorn – against street harassers ("RIP THEIR EYES FROM THEIR SOCKETS AND RIP THEIR TONGUES FROM THEIR MOUTHS"), mens' rights bozos and their inept efforts at equivocation ("My mother's a woman WAH WAH WAH WAH WAH") and Boris Johnson. In fact, the only facet of existence to be endorsed by Snob on this record is the "sweet relief" of pissing yourself. Not certain who writes Snob's lyrics, but the worldview as laid out over these six songs is much like Ellie's in Good Throb, and Fran Wetherilt's vocals aren't wildly dissimilar either. Musically, though, this takes a different tack, fuzzed-out basslines and anarcho-sounding guitars given a creepy and vaguely gothic production clang. 'Send In The Mayor', the BoJo broadside, is the longest track and affords the rhythms the most breathing space, but overall this collection will soundtrack dank-bedroom paranoid times and feedbacking-PA punk pub pissups equally well.