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Noel's Straight Hedge

Straight Hedge! Noel Gardner Reviews Punk & HC For June
Noel Gardner , June 10th, 2020 05:27

Noel Gardner brings you all of the punk & hardcore etc. fit to blast your small gravel carpark this summer. Sial live photograph by Christina Inferno

In practical news-cycle terms, the time lag between this column’s deadline and publication dates could antiquate the tone of this intro. That it was written under the yoke of a sadistic Tory death cult with no principles beyond the belief accountability is for peons was clear and true in May 2020, and will remain so through June. But as I stare wistfully out through the bedroom window at the grounds of my sprawling estate (a small communal gravel car park), before wedging it open so the supersonic sound of Sial jostles with lawnmowers and reversing delivery vans for position, is assembling out there to natter and fistpump along to these jams a socially responsible near-future ambition? Or will a killer combo of VE Day Caucasian conga fuckfests and economy-not-science public messaging move us back several squares? Non-bet-hedging sub-question: can all releases in this column be appropriately enjoyed either alone or with friends, like a fine wine? You best believe it!

Talking of Tory death cults, in most contexts the notion of looking to Singapore with an admiration for how they conduct business would be their exclusive preserve – unless you’re talking about contemporary hardcore punk, where Sial are one of many bands tearing it up in this south-east Asian nation. If we wish to fold Malaysia and Indonesia into this observation, that takes us to this digital mixtape of the region’s current scene, compiled by Sial guitarist Hafiz Shamsudin. His band contribute a song from their second and latest LP, Tari Pemusnah Kuasa (La Vida Es Un Mus), the entirety of which is a foaming blood blister of obstreperous anger.

Sial (Malay for ‘unlucky’, but with extra utility as an insult or vulgar emphasis – it doesn’t seem to really have an analogue in English) hold the distinction of being the most sonically punishing band I’ve seen at any Static Shock Weekend, thanks largely to Shamsudin’s earplug-deriding guitar tone. This is fully present on Tari Pemusnah Kuasa from the opening ‘Abintara’ onwards, and an instant-migraine foil for Siti Fatimah, whose gloriously arresting vocal is like razors on a waterslide. Burly and bombastic yet never indulgent or metallic, albeit a bit heavier-sounding than their previous three releases, Sial’s brand of noisepunk/crasher crust is reliably filthy but teems with ripper riffs (‘Tikam Lidah’; the imperious title track) which the recording puts on their rightful pedestal. They’re not really ones for variation, all eight songs on here presenting their fundamental idea and hammering it home, but that’s generally the nature of this stylistic beast.

Also on La Vida Es Un Mus – whose continuing release schedule answers a question I briefly floated in my last column, ‘Will it still be possible to buy new releases via mail order?’ – is the debut LP by Rat Cage, who like Sial I probably should have featured before now. A Sheffield unit, on record Rat Cage is a one-man band (save for a bit of guest guitar and backing vox) – Bryan Suddaby, stalwart of several punk bands from the city, the man in question. Tangibly a case of ‘If no-one’s going to make the exact ideal music in my head I’ll just have to do it myself’, Screams From The Cage is somewhere between first-wave Swedish hardcore and the pockmarked gluebag ravings which oozed out of the UK at about the same time, with production hefty enough to bundle later-on spawn into the mix: if you like anyone from Doom to Disclose to late-80s Poison Idea there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be in your wheelhouse.

Once again, the riffs here are both huge and crucial, with cuts like ‘Midnight Death Ride’ holding a level of rock & roll sass at their core that isn’t often found in music like this. Drums, Suddaby’s usual role in his other bands (Sievehead and Dry Heaves are ones I’ve covered in Straight Hedge), are ferociously paced, sometimes almost grind or powerviolence-like in their overwhelming pummel. A couple of token spoken parts betray a no-nonsense Yorkshire burr that’s wiped out by the intensity of Suddaby’s vocal style, as befits a collection with consistently excellent ultrapunk titles such as ‘Jump Off A Building’, ‘A Country Fit For Idiots’ and ‘Not Got No Hope’.

My friend the search function tells me I’ve mentioned Brightonians Vile Spirit a few times before in passing, when covering other bands the members play in, but debut LP Scorched Earth (Quality Control) will earn their first description of substance. Lawks, this is heavy! In a way that neither their previous cassette releases – a demo and two janky rehearsal recordings – nor even their more-than-serviceable live sets prepared me for. The addition of a second guitarist, bumping Vile Spirit up to a quintet, is undoubtedly a factor, but Ben Hills’ voice is increasingly death metal-adjacent, the blurry instrumental approach taking on a frosty blackened vibe. Nonetheless, Scorched Earth is a hardcore record all the way.

Getting me harking (un)pleasantly back to those Sex Vid and Cult Ritual records from a decade-plus ago, here the chuggy feedbacking parts glow with mystery, the sped-up sections live the chaos; songs are predominantly under two minutes but occasionally break four, ‘Going Home’ and LP closer ‘Abstraction’ eking out their seasick-swirly metallic menace without outstaying any welcome. Not that this is the kind of thing which exactly asks your permission to hang: a proper revelation, to an outsider/sometime interloper like me at least, and one that puts clear water between Vile Spirit and pretty much anyone else in current UK hardcore.

And yet! If that all sounds good, you should probably cop Disappointment (Fuzzbrain), the debut tape by Londoners Sterile, who formed last year and were until very recently called Sterilization. I wouldn’t peg these four songs as metal, true, but frontman Karim Newble (also of the slightly cleaner-cut Mastermind) seems to be leaning into full vocal demoncy – and was that a micro-quick ‘Raining Blood’ reference I caught in track two, ‘Running Away’? This demo’s swampy, crypto-psychedelic weirdness impresses itself on you exponentially, so what first might appear as beefy HC with added phaser effects open out into a patchwork of alarming tempo shifts, deathrock ghastliness that doesn’t skimp on the tribal drums, solos that choke the air like smog and more than enough god’s-honest chug to keep you barrelling round your nearest gravel car park. Slot Sterile alongside Permission and the latest – recommended! – Raspberry Bulbs album, if you please.

If this edition of Straight Hedge was a Super Bowl, Goldie Dawn would be the half-time show, providing valuable light entertainment in between juiced-up maniacs running into each other. A Glaswegian affair who materialised in early 2019 – drummer Jordon Hutchison’s past life included membership of briefly hyped Birthday Party-ish sorts The Amazing Snakeheads – their four-song debut 7-inch comes via Drunken Sailor: a label whose activity, like the afore-reviewed LVEUM and QCHQ, seems impossible to slow down. Goldie Dawn’s beat is powerpop with the snap of 90s garage rock, or vice versa. Glammy handclaps are generally either audible (‘Gone With The Wild’, the Sheer Mag-worthy ‘What’s Inside (Never Dies)’) or feel like they’re imminent; singer Kate Thorburn’s enunciation of “smash it up!” on the chorus of ‘Crime’ is almost certainly intended as a Damned homage, and almost certainly not supposed to remind me of ‘Ready To Go’ by Republica, but if I can’t unhear it I’m going to spoil your fun too. ‘It’s Nothing To Me’ adjusts itself to an agreeable punky-honkytonk canter that I guess sounds like a ton of things but reminds me of that neat Cheena album from a few years back, topping off an EP of varying moods but acres of singular personality.

Again delivering the goods in banks of four, this cassette by Stockholm’s Power Face is billed by label Interceptor Editions as a “promo tape” whose lead track, ‘Struck By Lightning’, will be on a 7-inch later this year. Is my decision to review this instead attributable to my impatient urge to tell the townspeople about Power Face’s blitzing mindmeld of classic hardcore and classic rock? Could be! Does it also have anything to do with the last song, ‘Is There A Better Way’, being a Status Quo cover, this providing the means to fulfil the dream of discussing Status Quo in this column? (To wit: the original, recorded in 1975, is protopunk to the marrow of its bones.) This press conference is over! Power Face do our beltloop-thumbing heroes fair justice, but the three originals here have already banished doubters by then – if, that is, you’re in the market for some skatecore party snarl, NWOBHM-tinged derring-do and the gay abandon of Apocalypse Dudes-era Turbonegro. I know I am. In fact, there’s room in my skull for both this and the recent debut album by Chicago band Man-Eaters, which does almost exactly the same thing.

Catching up with Warsaw’s Jad on the occasion of their new 7-inch, the self-released Wstręt: an LP last year, Strach, made a ripple or two and these five songs are even more economical and spitefully nihilistic-sounding. If you think hardcore should be a vehicle for social comment rather than sunken-eyed navelgazing, Krzysztof Paciorek’s lyrics might be a sticking point, although should you be requiring translations from Polish like I do, it surely makes more sense to just roll with it and allow yourself a good (bad) time. So all-consuming is the stompy intensity of the first four songs – captivatingly tinny guitar solo on ‘Pętla’, dropout-before-the-swell mosh part on ‘Zwykła Śmierć’ – that it almost obscures Wstręt’s creepy gothic (in the sense of atmosphere rather than genre) tendencies, which hove into full view for the slow menace of closer ‘Spalona Ziemia’. Brickwall, but in a black shroud: international HC heads assemble!

This brings me to the A World Divided tape label, which began operations this year and is the brainchild of one Ghas Divided, a Montreal-based Tunisian. Its M.O. is promotion of Mediterranean-region underground punk, to date incorporating bands from Spain (specifically Mallorca’s Orden Mundial, reviewed in my last column), Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Ticking that last box are Mara’a Borkan, whose two-song demo offers a portal to a world unknown – even if strictly speaking, we’re left in limbo for now.

Mara’a Borkan’s name is Arabic for Volcano Woman, befitting these feminist punks and the molten invective they spill over five and a half minutes. There’s basically zero info out there about them at present, although an email to Ghas yields the news that the band are still together (their own Bandcamp page indicates these songs were first released digitally in 2015) but wish to remain anonymous for the moment. Right, so the music: ‘Chnowa Amalt’ cruises on a wicked downtuned basement-HC riff with added recurring late-80s grunge axewail and a singer who can hold a broken-glass note like nobody’s business. ‘Chnowa Kont Tetsa Wer’ is pretty similar, but with a more explosively rocking chorus and some gangtastic backing vox. Whatever this band were gunning for here, it certainly can’t have been ‘Blóm meets Firewalker’, and yet that is what I’m hearing.

You might be au fait with Philadelphia musician/poet/MC/activist Camae Ayewa under her primary artist name Moor Mother. If you’re especially plugged in to her transcendent Afrofuturist noise, you may even know the Crime Waves 12-inch she and Mental Jewelry – another Philly soloist, name of Steven Montenegro – collabed on in 2017. Replete with choice heavy dub bits, what sounds like a grime homage and even some brief fuzz guitar, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to review it in Straight Hedge: I like to think I’m decently inclusive about what can go in here, sounds-wise, but the artists have to bring up their interest in punk and/or its attendant culture in the first place, right? Well hush my face, as Moor Jewelry’s follow-up release does exactly that: Ayewa describing the True opera cassette (Don Giovanni) as an “improvisational punk recording, an ode to the punk we grew up listening to or the feeling we had when we started listening to punk.”

Not only does the result sound very little like Crime Waves, it establishes a very self-specific identity without really seeming like it’s trying. Recorded in two sessions, one expanded to a trio with drummer Philip Price (also of avant-proggers Kayo Dot), the improv element is more than detectable in the footloose spontaneity, but the rhythmic teamwork is psychically tight. I get a major Teenage Jesus/Mars no wave vibe from things like ‘Judgement’ and ‘Working’, as well as a more recent gem in Bay Area deconstructopunx Neon. A funk aesthetic gets pulled taut enough to snap, ‘Le Grand Macabre’ sprinting towards the tape like Big Boys or Beefeater, and – I think I realised this a while ago on some level but needed a heavy guitar backdrop to crystallise it – when Moor Mother repeats lines her voice often reminds me of Zack De La Rocha. No issue with that, I might add by way of wholeheartedly recommending this crucial freak-punk wildcard.

United Mutation: an 80s hardcore obscurist’s idea of a well-known band, or an 80s hardcore dabbler’s idea of an obscure band. Heck, why not both? The aura surrounding this group is bestowed on them by their actual music – frenzied, at times startlingly original speed demoncy – first and foremost, but the tortuous wait for anyone to properly reissue it has played a considerable part. Dark Self Image, a vinyl collection of their early recordings ending that wait, has itself been mooted for several years, and peerless punk archive imprint Radio Raheem have done a typically bang-up job – 26 songs and a big booklet inside a gatefold sleeve which even replicates the band’s rad collage artwork on its inside.

From northern Virginia and thus technical out-of-towners regarding the Washington DC hardcore scene, though in practise barely a stone’s throw from the capital, United Mutation’s outsider status stems from them being a squad of Hawkwind and Grateful Dead fans who did acid to aid songwriting and hardly ever played live. They’re often bracketed with Void, another crucial DC band who weren’t actually from DC, but for their brief time in the shadows of the sun spun the thrash aesthetic even further into abstraction. Vocalist Mike Brown monstered his righteous lyrics, as anti-war/ Reagan/ white supremacy/ Washington political elite as you like, from the darkest part of his diaphragm: hardcore frontpeople on this tip are ten a penny today (circling back to Vile Spirit’s Ben Hills, for instance) but even metal singers had barely countenanced such behaviour at the time. Numbers like ‘I Know A Place’ and ‘Flies & Lice’ are head-melting psych puzzles that make ample use of post-production effects; the three studio sessions that make up Dark Self Image were done in pretty quick succession, so there’s no real discernable progress across this half hour, but United Mutation were out to lunch while 99%-and-the-rest of USHC bands were still spooning cornflakes. Cool postscript: UM bassist Jay Fox later ended up moving to an Antarctica research station and forming a band with guitar improv don Henry Kaiser when he did the same.