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Noel's Straight Hedge: The Best Punk & HC Of 2020
Noel Gardner , December 10th, 2020 08:51

Noel Gardner marks a full decade of reportage from the claret pumping edge of punk rock, HC, oi, crust &c. by bringing you his prime cuts from 2020

Muro live by Joe Briggs

It’s been a decade since I started writing the Straight Hedge columns, and half a decade since the top brass of this acclaimed website cracked the whip and got me to file them to set deadlines, including an annual December overview of ‘The Year In Punk And Hardcore’.

The first one of those, in 2015, rather set the prevailing tone in its intro I suppose, by countering a couple of lazy prejudices and offering some truisms in their place – saying, not literally but in so many words, that this subculture doesn’t tend to change in ways that can be usefully expressed in a ‘Year In Review’ type blurb. So it’s gone for each following year, with provisions for obligatory mentions of Brexit, Donald Trump etc: the context being, ‘Don’t expect these things or people to be directly addressed in great number.’

That 2015 writeup did specifically namecheck two 2K10s UK punk institutions, the Static Shock Weekend festival and DIY Space For London venue. In 2020, the first of those went ahead on the opening weekend of March, adapting calmly to a then-swelling concern over public hygiene provisions by putting a bit more handwash in the toilets than in previous years (this sounds like I’m just being a sarky wanker, but… everywhere was like that, wasn’t it). The second formally closed in June after a few months of paying rent on a building they couldn’t open, with the unmanageable prospect of many more months to follow, and intend to restart elsewhere in South London when feasible.

In short, acclaimed virus COVID-19 gave me an excuse not to try and earnestly round up the last 12 months, by ensuring that fuck all relevant to this column happened during most of it. There have nevertheless been lots of good releases, as in previous years; I reviewed about 50 in Straight Hedge and have provided cute little streaming embeds of my favourite ten of those below, as well as another ten which evaded coverage until now. As in previous years. I hope to be able to do much the same in December 2021, ideally without an event or ongoing situation allowing me to coherently tie things together, because those usually fucking suck.

10. Bruxa Maria – The Maddening
(Hominid Sounds)

“An essential UK underground dispatch, or to quote their label’s blissfully optimistic take, ‘What we all need as we plunge into another year of the same old same old.’”

9. Vile Spirit – Scorched Earth
(Quality Control)

“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.”

8. The Annihilated – Untitled Demo
(Roach Leg)

“People have flipped out over this demo, and if you like merciless ready-to-ruck hardcore you’ll be handspringing too.”

7. Gumming – Overripe
(Vinyl Conflict)

“A noise rock album with one foot in the genre’s club-swinging caveman side, the other in its fiddlier, more mathematical one.”

6. All Hits – Men And Their Work
(Iron Lung)

“Fearfully sharp axe, grittily insistent rhythm section, occasional gothic/anarcho outbreaks and impeccably relevant lyrical tack.”

5. Muro / Orden Mundial – Sonido De La Negación
(La Vida Es Un Mus)

“Muro, from Colombia, and Spain’s Orden Mundial take a side each of this split LP, and stand as testament to the endurance of the international hardcore family.”

4. Garrapata – Untitled Demo
(Roach Leg)

“The most primordially primitive lo/no/shit/fuck-fidelity punk noise I’ve heard in years.”

3. Mara’a Borkan – Untitled Demo
(A World Divided)

“Their name is Arabic for Volcano Woman, befitting these feminist punks and the molten invective they spill over five and a half minutes.”

2. Blind Eye – Blind Eye
(Viral Age)

“Vocalist Annie Spaziano’s musicians flit between full-tilt 80s USHC and spots of wailing, smoggy psych, guitarist Andrew Morgan’s serpent-squirm solo excursions being the bridge between these modes.”

1. Xylitol – I’m Pretty Sure I Would Know If Reality Were Fundamentally Different Than I Perceived It To Be
(Thrilling Living)

“From Olympia, and part of a family tree of (predominantly) queer/trans hardcore groups including G.L.O.S.S., Physique and Cyberplasm, Xylitol play delightfully pockmarked pogopunk with solos sculpted from pure distortion and blunt noisecore bass blat.”

10 That Got Away

Apsurd – Derealizacija/ Svemu Će Doći Kraj

Croatian label Doomtown released this LP at about the same time as an album-length tape, Dobar Dan, Izvolite, by Parnepar. I reviewed the latter of those back in August, but both are more than notable for reaching back into the underground punk legacy of the former Yugoslavia to produce music snapshotting the region’s current state. So while Parnepar, also from Croatia, have a hyperactive post punk thing going on, Apsurd – two Serbian women and an American drummer, apparently – hail the anarcho-tinged hardcore scene of 80s Yugo, Doomtown namechecking bands like U.B.R, Solunski Front and Tožibabe. For my part, I intend to make this a catalyst for a bit of self-education, but first let’s big up Derealizacija/ Svemu Će Doći Kraj, which pairs a 2018 cassette EP with six songs recorded the following year. Bursts of whipping speed meet scratched-out creepy-crawl guitar figures, Derealizacija’s ‘Kad Zatvorim Oči’ and Svemu’s closer ‘Sloboda’ both sporting particular heft, and the ‘shouting from the other end of the room’ vocal style, while well-worn at this point, is enacted neatly.

Asidhara – Killing Rites
(Nuclear Family)

The Bandcamp link above calls this a 2019 release, but if memory serves that was just one preview song and Killing Rites actually came out in its entirety – a single-sided 12-inch, the better to drink in the ludicrous sleeve art – circa spring of this year. Its entirety being four slabs (that metal-hack cliché one uses when ‘songs’ just won’t do) of monstrous heavy, fashioned from tropes of crossover thrash, 90s Euro beatdown, Integrity/related Cleveland ugliness and divebombing death metal axework. Adam Smith and Evan Williams are an especially effective twin-guitar Cerberus, and while I think Asidhara, based in Cardiff and featuring one-time members of neo-emo types Casey and UKHC sorts Rancour, are still stuck in single figures of live performances, I have to suppose this beastliness would/will simply pop off in the flesh.

Joy – Joy

I don’t always pay much heed to the tags at the bottom of a release on Bandcamp, or even notice them really, but this five-song EP has no less than three referencing the Spice Girls. “Anarcho-Spice” feels like the one Joy would cling to, if forced to choose. “New Orleans” and “electro peace punk” aid, too, in forming a picture of this band, information otherwise being extremely scant at the time of writing and the name being less than Google-helpful. A guitar/bass/drums trio with the latter element, Griz Palella, chipping in extra electronics and sharing vocals with guitarist Pasha Jovanovic, at various points Joy sounds – to me – like Fugazi, The Mob, Shopping, The Slits, Chicks On Speed (mid-EP dancepunker ‘Daj Mi’, and I probably could have namechecked someone with even less 2020 cred in truth) and NOLA neighbours Special Interest, if only because I’d like to think a band that inspiring are, well, inspiring others in their locale. Joy also strike me - who admittedly has a tin ear for these matters - as a band who could get seriously popular, and far beyond where this column normally treads. It seems daft that I appear to be writing their first review, frankly.

Mummise Guns – Mummise Guns
(Riot Season)

There is already a review of this weighing down this website’s back end, plus most of the Mummise Guns members’ other bands get covered on here, but I think the album fits within whatever this is supposed to be and I want to rep it, so I’m going to. Basically it’s a bunch of London, Manc and Geordie heads (albeit weighted to the first of those locations) from the currently thriving cloud of British groups who exhibit both psychedelic and noiserock-ish tendencies: Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs, Luminous Bodies, Casual Nun and Ghold being some involved. My interpretation of why Mummise Guns exists, and sounds like it does – 27 minutes of skull-singeing sludgepunk with three guitarists, fuck knows how much overdubbed Buttholian effects, teetering layers of competing Babel-tongue vocals, total collapse averted by gothic bassline anchorage – is that it’s an outlet for the six members to go ham in a very specific manner which the tacitly accepted approaches of their other bands don’t allow for, gnarly as they often are. Until this LP was announced, nearly three years after recording, I was under the loose impression it was destined to be lost to the ages unreleased, which would have been a right fucker.

Oily Boys – Cro Memory Grin
(Cool Death/ Static Shock)

From Sydney and not beaverish in their workrate, at least not under this name, since 2012 Oily Boys have released a demo, a single and a tape whose three songs all feature on this debut album. Whether that equates to the four-piece tweaking Cro Memory Grin to perfection is something I’m not placed to answer, but there’s multitudinous range to this half hour, and a lip-frothing berserker approach that sounds not so much practised as baked into the players’ collective psyche. Tempos, rhythms and tones are predominantly hardcore, larded with psych swirl and wind tunnel screech – then there’s experimental in/outros, directional changes that’ll have you slamming the brakes and some saxophone parts that are, for this sort of thing, unusually textured and mellifluous rather than squalling and freeform. (Two of the band also play in the gothgazey Low Life, whose music you could imagine that sax melting into.) At almost nine minutes ‘GTrance’ is that thing we all love, a long closing song on an album of otherwise short ones, but it tips the balance into uneasy noise beltingly thanks in part to vocalist Drew Bennett fair yelling the roof off.

Plastics – Plastic World (Crew Cuts)

This Brighton band’s six-song EP was dubbed to cassette near the start of the year, albeit so secretively (unless you went and saw them play live around that point or were a mate of theirs) that I was unaware they’d done so until very recently. In fact it was its reissue, as a 7-inch, on the Crew Cuts label which tipped me off, and in a painfully if understandably dry year for UK hardcore where hardly anyone appears to have recorded, I’ll treat this as a plumb newie if I have to. Plastics members feature, or have done, in other relevant BN HC data points – Never, Gutter Knife and State Funeral have all been repped in here before – although this looks to be vocalist Oli Carter-Hopkins’ first band, from what my clearly limited powers of scene surveillance can discern. Lyrics about domestic violence and depressive brain fog in shit accommodation are bawled over economically engineered, slimy-stampy fodder that fits into the blossoming sound of Plastics’ home city, and measures up to the bands in question too: ‘Nerve Pusher’ is an especially powerful sendoff. New shit coming in early ‘21, too, one reads.

Straw Man Army – Age Of Exile
(D4MT Labs Inc)

D4MT is a label-cum-collective in New York whose ethos is pretty hard to nail down beyond being weirdo punx; their ‘flagship’ band, I guess, is Kaleidoscope, who I reviewed a tape by yonks ago. Straw Man Army, who’ve introduced themselves to the world with this LP, are a duo featuring one full Kaleidoscope member and one who seems to be from their auxiliary circle. Age Of Exile pursues a sound and aesthetic you don’t much expect to hear sprouting from contemporary US hardcore: minimal, sweetly heartfelt and somewhere between early post punk, UK DIY and the more hippyish anarcho bands like Zounds or Omega Tribe. You half expect it to take a break for a poetry jam at points, but Straw Man Army have a lot to say about colonialism and war among other topics, and the musical presentation is neither aggressive or prettified. The D4MT crowd have long had a fine line in visuals, too, and the video for album track ‘The Silver Bridge’ is well worth a peek; the collage-y found-footage style might even be familiar to you from one they did last year for Stevenage’s own Bad Breeding.

Tropical Nightmare – Demos II & III
(Punk Vortex)

Tropical Nightmare are a trio of Brazilians living in London, who’ve been active since the mid-2010s or so while rarely (almost never?) playing outside the capital and generally being pretty low-key. Their music, meanwhile, is anything but: this release by a German label upgrades their second and third demo tapes to vinyl, and a coherent collection spanning psych, hardcore and noise rock results. “We don’t have a clear influence list,” they say on their Facebook page, “but at least two-thirds of the band like some Amphetamine Reptile bands” – certainly, this comes through in songs like ‘Andando Pra Traz’ and ‘Só Sente Na Pele’, going for power without polish in the recording and bass lines cutting through as swingingly and repetitiously as a woodchopper’s axe. If Tropical Nightmare have fallen through the cracks of the London scene somewhat, it’s probably no-one’s fault in particular, but I feel like a few distinct crowds should be way more familiar with them.

Zulu – My People… Hold On/ Our Day Will Come
(Quality Control)

By the time you read this, both of these EPs will hopefully exist as tapes courtesy of UK label Quality Control, but if not you can stream/ purchase/ whatever ‘em on Zulu’s own Bandcamp and get just as much wicked sick Afrocentric bulldozer hardcore. Zulu is the solo project of LA’s Anaiah Lei – otherwise best known as a drummer (and, outside of music, a pretty handy skater), he was once in a garagey buzzband, The Bots, with his brother Mikaiah, but listening to the 15 minutes or so of music in this latest incarnation you’d frankly be cuckoo to question his bona fides for this stuff. Our Day Will Come, uploaded in October 2019, laces samples of Malcolm X and old dub reggae and crooner records in between sledgehammer-swinging drop-tuned riffs and borderline power violence tempo shifts. My People… Hold On, from this September, is even better. ‘Blackcurrant’, its opening track, finds Lei “taking a step back” in his words to allow Aleisia Miller to read a monologue on the topic of misogynoir; ‘Now They Are Through With Me’ gives Aaron Heard of Jesus Piece a guest mic, and honestly I wish that band sounded half as hard as Zulu. I’m fairly sceptical about narratives which paint hardcore as a uniformly white subculture, because I don’t consider that true and it can serve to reinforce norms more than push against them, but it is the case that acts whose lyrics and outlook are for and about the Black community have a very marginal presence in pretty much any hardcore scene. It’s not crazy to think Zulu could be a catalyst for change.

Various – Oltre Lo Sguardo
(Sentiero Futuro Autoproduzioni)

“Under its designer clothes and glossy make-up, Italy is festering with infection. Fascism, nationalism, the rotten stench of xenophobia emanates from the open wounds left by a spiralling economic crisis holding grip of the country for over a decade.” This is the intro to the biog for Oltre Lo Sguardo, a cassette/zine package from a crew of punks in Milan – and passing over the fact that reading this as a British person, it feels less an internationalist cry for help than a boast about having nice garms and lipstick, the 20 bands assembled here amount to a tidy bulwark. Billed as a tribute of sorts to the 1980s Italian hardcore scene, there’s only one actual cover I’ve identified (‘Nessuna Fiducia’ by Declino, done here by the longrunning Kalashnikov Collective), plus 80s OGs Wretched have a song from a lateish-period release. Otherwise, there’s a few somewhat known quantities – Kobra, whose fine LP I reviewed a few months ago; Idiota Civilizzato, who I keep ignoring for some reason – and plenty more who’ve been beyond my horizons until now, the Oi!-mungous Iena and ripping Destinazione Finale worthy of note among these. The tape and zine also have (in Italian and English respectively) a history of Ambulatorio Medico Popolare, a volunteer-staffed clinic for asylum seekers in Milan.