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Noel's Straight Hedge

Noel's Straight Hedge: The Latest Punk & Hardcore Reviewed
Noel Gardner , February 26th, 2015 09:38

In a busy month for his Straight Hedge column, Noel Gardner looks at trans visibility in the hardcore scene as he reviews a demo from G.L.O.S.S., and covers new releases from Dark Blue, Give, Cheena, Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, Karanteeni, Couch Slut, Generacion Suicida, G.L.O.S.S, Jackals, Mangle

"I hope Jimmy Pursey's working in a fucking bank." So wrote a rando to the NME letters page, back in the 1990s at some point. Possibly in relation to the Sex Pistols getting back together (remember when that carry-on seemed novel and bizarre?), I don't rightly recall. There's no good reason why I ought to have remembered that letter – except that my brain is an abandoned open-plan office full of post-it notes like this, and that it cutely crystallizes the way people love to see big-gob punks cut down to size by society and maturity.

Jimmy Pursey, lead singer of Sham 69 and sixty-years-old this month, never worked in a fucking bank as far as I know. Most self-identified punk rockers, of his era and others, don't keep it up for life though, because life gets in the way. The lifestyle tends to be a bit more demanding than that of, say, a comic book geek; ideologies are spouted which, erm, don't always hold water in a world of nuance. Or you simply get bored of being expected to act like a jerk when you don't want to, which brings me to the best capitalized Rock album of the last six months, Pure Reality (Jade Tree) by Dark Blue.

Most specifically, it brings me to John Sharkey, Dark Blue's singer and guitarist. The bulk of his reputation as a confrontational, straight-talking short fuse (or "asshole", as others might put it) was earned during his time with Clockcleaner, who like Dark Blue came from Philadelphia. Musically, they evolved from straight-up meaty noiserock into a grand, Bauhaus-indebted goth squall: 2007's Babylon Rules LP is like being water-cannoned with king's piss. Being in the band was, as Sharkey tells it, becoming increasingly less fun ("getting emails from people I'd never met that started with "Hey, [homophobic expletive]!" was starting to wear on my patience"). Four years living in Australia, becoming a husband and father in the process, recharged Sharkey's batteries for Dark Blue – who formed in 2013 and also feature one member each of Matador Records' Ceremony and Drag City's Purling Hiss – and is referenced at various points in Pure Reality's lyrics.

There's been a bit made of the vintage bootboy influence supposedly running through Dark Blue: the perfunctory realism of bands like Blitz or even Sham 69, slowed down and painted with Sharkey's charred croon. Armed with this info, it's detectable in Sharkey's clean, piercing guitar and Mike Sneeringer's pointedly un-flashy backbeat, but I don't think the layperson listener would consider these eight songs obvious Oi! descendants. At times, the knowing downpours of gloom and way with an earworm feel closer in spirit to a Morrissey solo album, or Depeche Mode or the Bunnymen – bands who, unwittingly or not, helped along the commodification of 'alternative'. 'Hanging From The Chandelier', in all its Virgin Prunes tribal menace, is the only song I'd call straight-up goth, and while I can't shake how much 'Dear Iris' (the album's sweetest and most romantic moment) reminds me of 'Zombie' by The Cranberries, I'm sure this is my problem, not Dark Blue's. Likewise, the lyric "I'm sure it's great, I'm sure it's grand / To me it all just sounds like hell on earth," loses a bit of its lustre when you imagine it appearing on the soundtrack of Grumpy Cat: The Movie (note for note-takers: I have not seen Grumpy Cat: The Movie).

Really, though, I'm just anticipating the zings Pure Reality might attract if it were to find the audience its prowess deserves. Potentially, that audience is huge: this is much more accessible music than that peddled by other bands deemed breakout successes, like Iceage. Sharkey's phrasing is simple, almost elegant; you can make out every word and there are choruses you can sing along to. Being 'successful' probably involves playing a game which Dark Blue may well be averse to, and it ain't gonna happen with this LP anyway; if they make another one, though, and it's consistently tremendous as Pure Reality, some interesting things might happen.

There isn't nearly as much backstory to Give. They're from Washington DC, there's five of them and they've played in various other bands, mostly finger-pointy hardcore stuff. Electric Flower Circus (Adagio 830) is their debut album, after several singles and a compilation, and functions as a tribute of sorts to their city of residence. It's an unnervingly faithful homage to the sound that sprung up in DC in the late Eighties, from Dag Nasty's Can I Say and the first Fugazi demo onwards. A moment where some of the uptightest motherfuckers ever to preside over a scene took the collective stick out of their collective jacksie, and embraced unpunk sounds. Accordingly, Give trade in big hard rock riffs and psychedelic gnarl across these thirteen songs, and do so under the kinda-ironic-kinda-not banner of 'flowerheads'. As a vocalist, 'Crucial' John Scharbach is equal parts Rollins Band-era Henry Rollins and Jason Farrell, singer of Bluetip (and guitarist in Swiz, who are an even bigger signpost to Give's schtick). His lyrics are an odd intermingle of positivist HC sentiment and Jim Morrison-type blather which mentions the sun a lot, but you'd be advised to roll with it: with the, probably very arguable, exception of Guy Picciotto in Fugazi, I can't think of a band of this type whose verse benefits from being committed to paper.

Kicking the album off with a song, 'Sonic Bloom', which repeatedly insists "Everyone is moving!" almost feels like provocation: a willful throwback to the best known song ('Waiting Room') by the best known band in Give's orbit of influence (Fugazi). If this was just slightly less brilliantly executed, it might well be cringeworthy. Don Zientara, pre-eminent engineer of the DC era Give lionise, recorded Electric Flower Circus at his Inner Ear studio, and it sounds like it – each instrument has ample breathing space, each carries the groove at one time or another. 'Voodoo Leather' is bass-driven, quasi-funky; 'Electric Flower Cult' is unapologetic rock anthemia on par with, well, The Cult. The female backing vocals on 'Fuck Me Blind' and 'Bedrooms' (neither of which are as lascivious as their titles suggest) are sterling exercises in light and shade, rather than dippy tokenism. Right here right now, I have a weird feeling this might be the best album of its type this century, and no I'm not forgetting the one Fugazi released during that time.

Completing our traitorous three – bands who, as if with no shame, acknowledge there's a musical world outside of punk and hardcore – we have Cheena and their debut cassette, All The Cheena Money Can Buy. 

This is getting a European pressing, or dubbing, on an Italian label called Lo-Fi Lo-Life, which is just as well because actually buying (or even hearing) this is gonna be a fucker otherwise, and you have done nothing to deserve being taunted by me. Cheena are an NYC quartet who feature people from bands I've mentioned in this column before (Crazy Spirit, Dawn Of Humans, Anasazi), people from bands I inexplicably haven't (Hank Wood & The Hammerheads) and Margaret Chardiet, better known as viscera-keen noise musician Pharmakon and who's been given ample praise on this website.

All The Cheena… starts off as a kind of garage punk duff-up of Southern rock ('My Hand Is Shakin''; 'The Mask'), driven by Chardiet's slide guitar; Royal Trux circa Cats And Dogs are probably the closest analogue, and if I didn't know better (I can only barely claim to) I'd guess that it was her on the mic doing her best Jennifer Herrema impression. Thereafter, it gets weirder and more rhythmically inscrutable, like witnessing a contortionist's death throes. Describing 'Dirty Boy' or 'Midnight & More' as punk feels a bit off – although confounding expectations and breaking from the norm and blah blah blah is punk, yes – but there's a bit of a "band signed to Alternative Tentacles in the late 80s" feel about Cheena. And if they can make that sound fashionable, they probably deserve knighthoods/damehoods frankly.

Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät have been called "the last real punk band in the world". Statements like this tend to reveal more about the person making them than the band, but in this instance it's not completely trite and useless. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are four learning disabled Finns who formed six years ago in a workshop for learning disabled Finns; this is not in itself remarkable, but also not something you'd expect to travel much beyond the confines of the workshop. PKN, however, have released singles and cassettes at a prodigious rate since 2010, and have found an exponentially growing audience for their lo-fi, midpaced punk anthems. Significant points on this journey have included the 2012 release of The Punk Syndrome, a documentary movie about the band which has won awards at SXSW and elsewhere; Coffee Not Tea, a 2013 compilation released by the wholly commendable Constant Flux [] to coincide with PKN's first UK tour; a book of poetry by Pertti Kurikan himself (written about in fascinating detail here); and the band's attempt to represent Finland at this year's Eurovision. Lest you assume this is a daft publicity grab with zero chance of success, they've reached the national final and will be competing against eight other acts on Finnish TV this Saturday (as I write). This, all must agree, is a more exquisitely correct destination for the world's last real punk band than a fucking bank.

Amongst all this palaver, PKN have somehow found time to release three seven-inches in the last few months. The first is a split single with London's esteemed sons of Oi!, Hard Skin, released by JT Classics and sold on their joint tour in December (the Bristol date of which was a perfect way to spend a Friday night). Each band covers a song by the other, adapting the lyrics to their own language in doing so, although cursory dicking around with Google Translate indicates that PKN have ditched most of the sentiment of 'We Are The Wankers'. The chucking-out-time chorus remains intact, however, and more yobbo streetpunk thumpers could be improved by a Moog solo, as this is. Hard Skin take a shot at PKN's 'Miks Ei Kukaan Ymmärrä' ('Why Won't Anyone Understand?'), which is an excellent choice, as it requires Sean 'Fat Bob' Forbes to sing about the trauma of going to the pedicurist.

Three further songs feature on a split EP with Karanteeni, a first wave Finnish punk band who Kurikan cites as the chief inspiration behind the band's sound. Despite having formed 37 years ago, Karanteeni have resisted the temptation to become musical virtuosos, which makes their cover of Uriah Heep's 'Lady In Black' even more ridiculous than would have been the case in any circumstance. A shared spirit is certainly detectable on these two sides, but PKN's martial stomp is especially glorious here, and if you dig Good Throb, the early Raspberry Bulbs tapes or any number of early-80s UK DIY bands, get yourself acquainted. Finally, we have 'Aina Mun Pitää', their Eurovision entry – released by Epic, which I think makes it the first major label item this column has reviewed. Suffice it to say that the group have not gussied up their sound for the benefit of a Saturday night viewing audience, although of the three songs on the disc, 'Sofian Lehto' contains the most essential menace. I don't know or especially care if Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are the last real punk band, but I do know that a culture which permits them to flourish is one with redeeming features.

On their debut release, My Life As A Woman, Brooklynites Couch Slut trade in misery, loathing and situations more harrowing than an enforced pedicure. Their attempts to release this on vinyl were delayed by several months, due to their label, Handshake Inc., having difficulty finding a company who would print the cover art. As you'll notice if you click through to the Bandcamp link, this features a female face anointed with ejaculate, and the penis responsible. I don't entirely 'get' what's so great about this image that makes the time, money and headaches it apparently caused worthwhile, nor what makes it so uniquely offensive to so many different printers. (I remember first reading about Crass having to press their debut record without the song 'Reality Asylum', as the workers at the pressing plant found the lyrics beyond the pale, and being surprised that 1970s machinery operators would be such a bunch of Mary Whitehouses. The takeaway from this and Couch Slut's experience might just be that I don't have a very good grasp of stereotypes.) Any road, My Life… now exists in physical form, but seeing as anyone in Europe will have to fork out about thirty quid to own a copy, I'll settle for the digital version until further notice, as that's pummeled my anguished noiserock panic buttons very ably, thanks.

Couch Slut's family tree includes the very different Epistasis, who are a kind of Rock In Opposition-doing-black metal affair. Amy Mills, the common member, produced this record as well as playing guitar, and absolutely bodies both tasks. When moving at pace, noiserock scholars might consider the enervating blues abstractions of The Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison ('Carpet Farmer' is a near-freakishly good bite of his style), and Laughing Hyenas' late guitarist Larissa Strickland. Slower ventures such as 'Lust Chamber' border on sludge metal, at least the skew-whiff iteration Harvey Milk made their own. 'Replacement Addiction' toys with a melody line which you could almost call indie rock, while preventing the prospect of anything remotely pleasant occurring thanks to Megan Osztrosits' vocals.

Her delivery – full-tilt howl-y roar, often submerged in the mix – is fairly typical of noiserock, but it's been a while since I heard someone in this or any other genre sound so possessed by what they're doing. And while describing something as 'a difficult listen' is another platitude rendered almost pointless by its subjectivity, 'Rape Kit', this EP's penultimate song, is uncomfortable on just about every conceivable level. The brief period of quiet and clean singing it contains only serves to increase the discomfort, rather than mitigate for it. My Life As A Woman is a seriously fucking powerful record, and if the delay caused by its artwork has a positive side, it's that this can now count as a 2015 release and blow up those end-of-year lists you love.

Todo Termina, the second album by Generacion Suicida also straddles the 14/15 divide, having been released in the States last summer and given new artwork for its three-label (Trabuc, Doomtown and Symphony Of Destruction) Euro pressing. The pen-and-ink mouse in the spikey jacket, towering over a sump of lumpen punx on the new sleeve, is pretty rad in its own way, but the image chosen for the US cover (see the Bandcamp link below) is, at the risk of going OTT, probably the best picture ever taken in the history of photography. They might not be the first group from South Central LA to pose in a graveyard with an empty 40 and some playing cards, but they're likely the first such ensemble to play fast, hyper-melodic punk and sing in Spanish.

Spinning at 45 rpm and barely breaking the quarter-hour mark before it signs off, Todo Termina (translating, appropriately, as 'everything ends') nonetheless crams hectares of tunes into its nine songs. Sharing male-female vocals between guitarist Tony Abarca and drummer Kiwi Martinez, Generacion Suicida seem to be channeling the embryonic punk blurt of their city: late-Seventies bands like The Avengers and The Alley Cats who contributed to what's now slightly reductively called the 'Dangerhouse Records sound'. 'No Hay Control' is a dead ringer for The Pagans' classic 'Eyes Of Satan', and the tuneful/tough schism that Stiff Little Fingers nailed seems to loom over much of this record; the title track dabbles with indiepop sunshine and is the only point GS could be said to slow down, even if it's not really that slow at all. It's nice to occasionally praise something in this column for simply being damn fine punk rock, and not feeling the need to justify that. Hopefully, one or more people who are into that kind of thing will be reading.

Released this very week on Michigan cassette label Not Normal Tapes, the debut demo from G.L.O.S.S. (pictured above) features five songs' worth of the kinda no-bullshit hardcore you've probably heard a stack of before, if you're apt to spend time truffling for treasure in this subculture.

They play a belting version of it, mind: rasping vocals, quasi-metallic guitar and occasional mosh parts with ancestry in Negative Approach and SS Decontrol. It would have chimed nicely with a bunch of bands doing the rounds in the early part of this century, too – Think I Care, No Warning, stuff like that. What sets G.L.O.S.S. apart from those acts is their concept: based in Olympia, they're made up of trans women and the acronym spells out Girls Living Outside Society's Shit. I think it's reasonable to suggest that the hardcore scenes of fifteen or thirty years ago wouldn't have welcomed G.L.O.S.S. in an entirely positive manner.

As for the hardcore scene of today? Given the band only formed a few months ago, probably too early to judge. Recent years have seen an uptick in awareness of transgender issues in the world at large, which has naturally filtered into a punk scene that likes to think itself progressive; its default face is of a cisgender boy, though, with no obvious prospect of this changing. "We were all tired of the totally substance-free white boy 'slimy creep' thing — all these dudes whose identities are reflected everywhere but who see themselves as outcasts," G.L.O.S.S. have said, regarding their reasons for forming; it's a fair bet that at least one of the bands they had in mind here have been reviewed in this column, and a fair cop too, pretty much. (There's probably something more substantial to be written about the ideological/political/psychological implications of being drawn to music made by people who remind you of yourself, but… not today.) This is but one of the scourges the band push back against on this demo, which contains several unimpeachable lyrical highlights.

"They told us we were girls / So we claimed our female lives / Now they tell us we aren't girls…" rages the intro to 'G.L.O.S.S. (We're From The Future)'. Someone with a greater knowledge than me of trans activism and the like may know if this is a borrowed sentiment: it's such an excellently simple way of describing the dichotomy of transphobia, it's hard to imagine it's not been said before. 'Outcast Stomp', a paean to "the fighters, psychos, freaks and femmes / The transgender ladies in constant transition," goes on to brag of "stomping slashing moshing taking scamming stealing fighting cheating never believing" – these could be the words of any self-aggrandising HC band, which I imagine is the point. Best of a badass bunch is 'Targets Of Men', which addresses street harassment with extremely fierce one-woman-army rhetoric: "This makeup is for my eyes / This fishnets are for my thighs / This walk is how I got through life / You want the pepper spray or the pocket knife?"

Would I be writing about this demo if it was the work of a bunch of straight dudes? Probably not, but then it wouldn't be this demo, it would be something else. As with Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät, the chance to hear music played by people whose voices are typically marginalised counts for a lot, and if you want to call that 'novelty', at least bear in mind that that word needn't be a pejorative. The best scenario G.L.O.S.S. could inspire is to spawn enough bands made up of people like them that, with the benefit of hindsight, this just sounded like a pretty good hardcore tape.

Jolly old Britain is getting short shrift in this column, you might have noticed, so here's a couple of tasty seven-inches from Jackals and Mangle to redress the balance. We can continue the theme of hardcore created by disadvantaged members of society, too, as these bands come from Norwich and Leicester respectively. I got your cheeky banter right here, folks! Aesthetically, Violence Is… (Hardware) – the second single by Jackals, who also have an LP and a tape to their name – seems to be looking to combine mysterious guy hardcore and mid-Nineties Flat Earth Records-type bleakness, all gothic typefaces and collage art. That's not a bad way of summing up the music, either. It's hard to imagine a few of Jackals' six members haven't heard and enjoyed the demented chug of Hoax, especially, but there's shards of plenty more in here: early metallic HC, powerviolence, Discharge and their progeny. Politically literate lyrics also serve to help their case, although there are so many long words ending in '-ion' it starts to feel a bit like what I'd imagine an Immortal Technique record to be like, if I'd ever wanted to listen to one. If that sounds up your alley, be sure not to check out vocalist Jack Pitt's Twitter, which is mostly him livetweeting Spurs matches.

Mangle's first standalone single (released on At War With False Noise in the UK) follows three split sevens, contains five songs and is unapologetic in its desire to break no moulds, but make rock-solid powerviolence. Its artwork, song titles, lyrics, vocals, tempos and production all mark it out as something that might have been released by labels like Deep Six or Slap A Ham way back when. If they're gonna conform to type this willfully, then, it's as well they're good at it. 'Vain Torture' and 'Derived Form' are bass-driven sludgeslides a la Man Is The Bastard, while 'No Requiem' and 'Treader' mix things up with brisk snare rolls and denture-rattling low end. Pretty great all told, and as I say unlikely to change the world, but Mangle more than justify their existence here. Especially if you too live in the UK, and have an interest in getting off the computer and seeing DIY bands caving in heads for low entry fees.