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Noel's Straight Hedge

Straight Hedge: Punk & HC For February Reviewed By Noel Gardner
Noel Gardner , February 8th, 2017 09:51

Noel Gardner is back in the punk, hc, crust, oi etc. saddle with reviews of Iron Reagan and Vexx... plus mix! Gutter Knife pic by Ben Hills

Welcome to 2017! Not a greeting you expected or wanted partway into February, nor a phrase said with any relish after about January 2, I’d wager. It is, however, the first Straight Hedge of the year, so there’s some catching up to do.

You know how nearly every column I do emphasises how the UK, and primarily London, is hatching new DIY bands at a prodigious rate, most of them as incestuous as a royal family tree? Well, if anything that rate is speeding up, and a bumper clutch of them whipped up tapes in the last two months or so – meaning there’s going to be EVEN MORE hot new ephemera than usual this time round.

Makes y’think: in the 1980s, nascent punk bands employed the cassette format because it was the simplest method of distribution and wouldn’t it suck if the world ended without anyone else hearing our bonzer racket? Now, you can host anything online for nothing, and I’m as itchy about the potential pitfalls of cloud storage as anybody but it’s virtually impossible for a digitised recording to be lost for good, save maybe for some sort of far-fetched apocalypse scenario. Hmm… on some level, then, this is what nu-cassette culture is preparing for, rather than because they were ‘hipsters’ like you were thinking.

Score are the frickin’ quintessence of what I speak: four London-based sorts, one of who moved from Argentina not so long ago (Marta Zabala, also of the delightful Los Cripis) and two who also play in Woolf. Their tape rattles through seven songs in ten minutes, noisier than the two aforementioned bands and more bared-teeth committed to the pursuit of no wave anarcho pogo abandon. It’s distorted and unyielding, but centred by tunes you can cling to; Sophie Brown’s lyrics are allusive, albeit with a rageful undertone. I also enjoyed how the title ‘Shot/Caught’, repeated about thirty times, sounded like “shark porn”.

Shecket also feature a Woolf alumnus (Colette Rosa) and Owen Williams of Joanna Gruesome. Their demo, released on tape label Far So Far, teems with the zeal of people who grew up in Cardiff before moving away to pursue their dreams of living somewhere else. Four songs, each a hair under one minute long, express a rata-tata pogo clatter broadly similar to Score, but with less noisy turmoil and a brittle feel approaching 80s UKDIY. ‘Serpent’, with a classically dumb riff for the ages, is the pick of Shecket’s very brief entrance to the fray.

Runt are bombing us back into the Stone Age by not putting their demo tape or anything else online (the hyperlink is footage from their set at last year’s Static Shock Weekender). You can buy it here and here, though, and should if you wish to be an early adopter of on-the-nose political LDN herbert chunter. Frontwoman Ashleigh Holland, who also sings in Frau and is joined here by people from Efialtis and No, rejects identity (‘Identity’, which possibly begins with a ‘Sweet Leaf’ homage), pummels Iain Duncan Smith’s departmental baby for the inhuman wretch it was and remains (‘DWP’) and concludes with the timeless thrill of barking “KEEP YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF ME” at a copper. It sounds like a band who unsuccessfully submitted a demo to Riot City Records in 1982, and I mean that positively.

Best tape of the bunch – fuck it, my favourite release in this column – is the debut demo from Pinkgrip. Which isn’t actually on tape yet, but is set to be so the week after this column is published (again, courtesy of Far So Far). My knowledge of them is limited, but I can give you this: six songs of blown-out slimy hardcore intensity, topped by the throatwreck vocals of Sasha Cresdee; mastered at eyewatering volume, something you can’t say for all these demos; kinda reminds me of Hoax or Gutter Gods with the macho twerpery drained from their veins. Pinkgrip guitarist Rory Salter also has a solo tape as Mea Culpa: more maxed-out hardcore, even more lo-fi than Pinkgrip and featuring what they call “table hitting drums”. They can’t mean that literally… or can they?

Brighton’s Gutter Knife are even greener than Pinkgrip, having played their first gig just before Christmas; their tape isn’t physical yet either, but the Illegal Activity label claim it’s imminent. I mean, featuring a band at this stage of existence should be a fairly ludicrous proposition, but this is astonishingly good, blessedly knuckleheaded street HC with cool menacing slow bits and a vocalist whose barrow-boy bawl would sound equally good over Oi! or power electronics. Gutter Knife is closer to the former, natch, and on this showing they could inherit the empty shoes of the recently-disbanded Violent Reaction.

Lest that disbandenment (it’s a word now) have got you worrying that VR’s members would vanish from hardcore view… well they all play in a daft amount of bands, so that was never on the cards, but for now you definitely have True Vision, who include a Tom and another Tom from Violent Reaction, plus another Tom and a Callum, both from a bunch of moshy Leeds bands. Debut seven-inch Against The Grain (Quality Control in the UK, Painkiller in the US) is a wee ripper – a wholesale homage to clean-cut late-80s NYC hardcore, but fast as fuck and enacted with their evident expertise. ‘Condemned’ is probably my choice cut, for its beezer mosh part and metallic solo, although the frantic bass intro of ‘New Standard’ runs it pretty close. Had True Vision existed during that period of youth crew revival in the early millennium, they wouldn’t have exactly stuck out wildly, but are distinct from most of that by virtue of not being giant cheeseballs.

Unpleasant sounds, pleasant surprises: I’d paid scant attention to Oxford trio Girl Power before this year, in part because of their stupid name. You guessed it – none of them are girls. Except they now have a drummer who is. Except she didn’t play on Welcome To The Gun Show (released by Richter Scale, Kibou, Mangel Wax and Mondo Canibal, four labels I know next to nowt about), a mini-LP which tramples HC/noiserock boundaries in a way that has me casting aside my misgivings about faintly appropriative monikers.

Lyrics which hop from inward-looking swipes at the self-image (‘Holes In The Wall’, ‘Pleaser’) to pelters aimed at machismo and bro culture (‘Muscles’, ‘You, The Man’) jostle for attention amidst swirling, reverb-happy hammerings which, if I was being a snotty snob about it, sound straight outta 2009 or so when US bands like Walls and Sex Vid were bringing the noise. Except that was a great time for hardcore, in this reporter’s opinion, and bands from unfashionable English towns bending my ear in ‘17 with comparable moves are highly welcome in here.

Wild Hunt (Upset The Rhythm / M’ladys) is not only the first ever release in this column to have an approving quote from Greil Marcus stuck on its sleeve, it’s also the last ever release by Olympia, WA’s Vexx. Why the heck haven’t they been in Straight Hedge before? Truth be told, this twelve-inch (which has taken so long to come out, it’s now posthumous) is the first time I’ve ever properly vibed with a Vexx record – as opposed to their live shows, which were matchless Glasgow kisses of sass, style and energy.

Those are the good times evoked by these six songs, which bounce airily between bases: slipping classic rock a jar of trucker’s speed on the Sheer Mag-worthy ‘Do What You Want To’, checking in on hardcore for ‘Step Inside’, which sounds like one of the faster songs on Black Flag’s My War, knocking out a spirited Runaways cover (‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’) and finally reverting to wistful heartland rawk moves on closer ‘The Rule’. The band are tight as a fist, guitarist Mike Liebman standing out with myriad moments of quasi-metal bravado, but it’s hard to look past singer Maryjane Dunphe as the element that elevates Vexx to the level of powerhouse. Having lit up 2016 as half of synthpop duo CC Dust, whose song ‘Never Going To Die’ is an actual and genuine classic, look out for her new band Gen Pop, who Chris from Upset The Rhythm tells me have an EP in the can already.

What’s the story with White Dog, whose debut album Sydney Limits (Agitated) is named in reference to their home city? Not much, at least for anyone whose heels aren’t dug deep into its grub-rock underground – the four members were in some other Sydney bands, none of whom I’ve ever heard of, prior to White Dog’s well-received debut 45 in 2015. A sheet of promotional A4 earnestly informs me of local radio airplay and opening slots for the sort of bands who probably get taken to a restaurant while the supports are playing, which is fine but gives limited clue to their ethos, politics or motivations. Leaving me judging Sydney Limits on its musical merits – imagine! – a department in which it performs very well.

A stated intention, pre-recording, to create something equal parts Brainbombs, Hellhammer and Coloured Balls did not come to pass (as delicious as that combo sounds), but a 16-song whack of burly ‘tude suggestive of early US hardcore and 1980s Aussie garage punk is no bad replacement. Sam White’s vocal sits pleasingly betwixt yobbo rasp and wistful melody, ‘Neck Up’ improved by a barking dog and a cry of “FUCK OFF!” Uncomplicated tubthumping and wheedle-metal solos (‘No Good’, the amusingly titled ‘Turnip’) coalesce with pace and punch, while ‘Hard For You’ sounds like a quasi-homage to ‘Ace Of Spades’; if I had to point towards White Dog soundalikes, which admittedly I don’t, I’d mutter something about Reagan Youth or DOA and wave my hands a bit, hopefully indicating that these guys stack up on their own terms.

Through the late-winter trees, the wind whistles a lament: “where is the protest music?” As much as it rules to soundtrack footage of coldcocked Nazi scum with 300 different raucous pop bangers, there are legions of people in khaki trousers who know who the Dead Kennedys are, waiting patiently for an actual response to the abhorrent dawn of Trumpocracy. Surely a band called Iron Reagan will throw the huddled masses a bone? Sorry, cool dads and Guardian BTL posters – this is a band featuring two members of Virginian thrash revival goof troop Municipal Waste and, while by no means apolitical on third album Crossover Ministry (Relapse), Iron Reagan are here for a beer-bongin’ good time über alles.

The kind of mid-80s-birthed crossover thrash on show here usually ends up sounding like a consummate party soundtrack no matter what the bands actually sing about, which perhaps impacts its ability to be taken seriously. Unlikely Iron Reagan lose too much sleep over this, but Crossover Ministry begins with a pro-environmentalism song (‘A Dying World’) before moving on – in some cases repeatedly – to privilege and the justice system, capitalism, war and religion. There’s also a loving paean to having a pet dog, a seven-second song whose lyrics are, in full, “Mom’s on the internet!” and ‘Fuck The Neighbors’: “Strangers suggesting I keep my voice down / Just because it’s five a.m.” So, y’know, yin and yang. Protest music wanters are advised to come back in April, where the next instalment of Straight Hedge might have something for you (and, equally, might not), and for now tide themselves over with half an hour of meaty revivalism along the lines of Excel, Cryptic Slaughter and Suicidal Tendencies.

A more comprehensive stylistic break can be found with Kindling, a Massachusetts band who are in part veterans of the early-00s screamo scene. Stephen Pierce and Andy Skelly spasmed frantically in Ampere and other garment-rending types, but now find themselves feeling dreamier in their dotage: Kindling is a stoutly indie-rock affair, albeit with billowing sheets of volume and a dervish energy that – as with bands such as Dinosaur Jr, Sugar or No Age before them – betrays the members’ hardcore background. Their debut album Everywhere Else having been released by No Idea last year, Adagio830 and Echo Canyon now present No Generation, a six-song mini-LP recorded at the same time.

Its sonics are equal parts sweet and oppressive, guitars churning away in the foreground while Skelly drums with arena rock-level bombast, albeit largely flash-free. Save for an ambient instrumental whose title is two parentheses with a tabbed space in between, No Generation ladles on added charm through the vocals of Gretchen Williams, which are akin to a slightly folkier Alanna McArdle, ex of Joanna Gruesome. Rippling, presumably pedal-heavy guitar parts, particularly effective on the transition between ‘Fade Into’ and ‘Sunspots’, frame Pierce as a staunch My Bloody Valentine fan, but Kindling mostly favour sturm und drang over dreaminess.

Finally, one of those reissues of a hardcore album which, despite being hella influential and canonical and such, has been weirdly hard to buy for a weirdly long time. Screaming For Change by Uniform Choice originally came out on the band’s own Wishingwell label, was later bootlegged by shady German imprint Lost & Found and is now officially back on the market in an extortionate rainbow of vinyl colours, thanks to archive enthusiasts Southern Lord.

Assembling in early 1980s Orange County, and inspired by Minor Threat and the blooming of straight edge on America’s east coast, Uniform Choice were pretty much the first band to espouse these sentiments on the other side of the US. Audibly indebted to the DC hardcore of the time – ‘My Own Mind’ sounds like an outtake from Out Of Step – the four-piece attempted to take the edge ethos to the next level, faster, harder, cleaner cut, more stony-faced and hectoring. Screaming For Change succeeds on all these fronts.

Uniform Choice vocalist Pat Dubar was a muscular, imposing bro with a reputation for wading into the fights that were ubiquitous at Californian HC shows at the time, but on this album comes off as a beacon of unbendable morality. Any PMRC-fearing parents sneaking a look at the lyric sheets of their offspring’s fave raves would have surely felt the soothing glow of relief had they picked this from a collection: treat people with understanding, create bonds and communities, be true to yourself and – of course – swerve the stimulants, kiddo. It even finishes with a reading of a (terrible) poem, ‘Silenced’.

A huge influence on the more goody-gumdrops type of straight edge bands which followed in the 90s, Uniform Choice also proved ripe for parody, and did nothing of value post-Screaming... (Dubar went on to sing in one of the absolute worst nu-metal bands of all, Corporate Avenger, to boot). Its legacy being pernicious doesn’t make this album any less of a bruising, cleansing marvel, however. Bonus trivia: according to hardcore lore, plans were made and sadly unfulfilled for a collaboration between Uniform Choice and NWA.

Starting next month, Mr Gardner compiles the best of the UK fringe/ underground/ extreme/ unclassifiable music in his new Noel's Foul House column