Straight Hedge! Noel Gardner Reviews Punk & HC For April

Your buyer's guide to the best new punk and hardcore returns, with reviews of new releases from Gel, Poison Ruïn, The Van Pelt and more. Homepage photo: Gel

In punk and hardcore, as in other underground scenes, it’s easy to overthink notions of hype and bigness – but Gel, a band of twentysomethings from New Jersey, are pretty popular from my geographically distant viewpoint, and definitely more talked about of late than most bands with their sound. Which, on debut album Only Constant (Convulse), is sub-two-minute ragers which manage to sound scuzzy and clean-cut at the same time, and which tap the trunk of hardcore punk as old as 40 years but have something very 2020s about them.

The median pace is above mid, but from leadoff song ‘Honed Blade’ on, intros for swinging forearms are a regular Gel tactic; Maddi Nave and Anthony Webster do smart things with the two-guitarist lineup, so you might find a barreling downtuned riff offset by some noise rock-adjacent feedbacker tackle. Only Constant’s nine (relatively) orthodox moshers’ appeals are accompanied by a mid-album intermission, ‘Calling Card’, which comprises a selection of answerphone messages sent to the band by fans with a sort of lounge trip hop underlay. Mostly, they seem to be complaining about their jobs, people they dislike, or waxing thoughtful on what hardcore means to them. The idea, I assume, is that Gel – whose lyrics, courtesy of Sami Kaiser, are equal parts posi and negi, and both embrace and subvert cliché – are aiming to reflect and amplify the voices of those in their audience.

While that audience appears to be growing, hopefully this connection can remain in place and the band can keep turning out hardcore as solid as this. Proof you don’t need a good or even memorable name to grab attention, either.

MSPaint’s Post-American is also fresh out on Convulse, with these 11 songs bundling up pedal-heavy post hardcore, electrofied punk and half-hollered half-rapped vocals. Where Gel’s nowness mainly comes through in their Gen Z-ish reserves of empathy, MSPaint have a sound it’s quite hard to imagine circulating five years ago. They’re from Hattiesburg in Mississippi, which itself has gone from having no meaningful reputation for its punk output to, lately, being talked of as a DIY epicentre.

Bass and synth combine, sans guitar interference, to dish out hefty hooks, keysman Nick Panella favouring the unclean tones of synthpunx old and new but also a touch that implies affinity with house and acid: at times I’m moved to imagine Special Interest if they were Deftones fans, which you can take as you will. ‘Decapitated Reality’ hops from part-digital hardcore to MIDI-fied doomy shoegaze, and includes a vocal spot for Soul Glo’s Pierce Jordan; elsewhere, MSPaint’s beats run at hip-hop tempo and best showcase the vocal heft of the mononymous DeeDee, a rapper in the belligerent lineage of JPEGmafia and MC Ride. Which points to only one of a few listener demographics I could envisage this kinetic smasher connecting with.

Philadelphian dungeonpunx Poison Ruïn don’t fit the preexisting image (or mine, anyway) of a DIY band who sign to a big metal label, but Relapse Records – their patrons for Härvest, the group’s debut album proper after a few scarce EPs – relinquished any coherent ‘sound’ long ago, for better or worse. The result bears little indication of having been created with the short-term intention of stepping into the arenas: like the earlier Poison Ruïn tapes, which Relapse are reissuing simultaneously with Härvest, these songs are recorded in spartan style but convey high drama through a sound somewhere between post punk, death rock, anarcho punk and metal.

The synthesised intros and interludes which helped Poison Ruïn stand out when they emerged in 2020, then a studio-only project by Mac Kennedy, feature in greater number on this album, including the first 90 seconds of LP opener ‘Pinnacle Of Ecstacy’. They remain distinct from the songs’ rock qua rock parts, but work as chilly palate cleansers, although sometimes feel a bit like opening a musical Christmas card. It’s the quartet’s skeletal stomps that’ll lodge in your skull, though, with the title track dragging a Greg Sage guitar figure to somewhere almost folky – I wouldn’t be shocked to find that Kennedy or his bandmates owned a New Model Army record or two – and ‘Bastard’s Dance’ marrying The Mob to Motörhead.

Any or all of the singles preceding this debut LP by Olympia’s Electric Chair should by rights have clicked with me / kicked my ass, and I lack a robust analytical reason why they didn’t, but this isn’t Which? magazine so I don’t need one. Act Of Aggression (Iron Lung) is, however, the shit. Nihilistic no-slow US hardcore teeming with screaming metal leads and dunked in a psychedelic sheep dip – well, clearly I’m going to like that.

Electric Chair are all crack performers, with guitarist Dominic Munoz particularly standing out for the blood-twisting riff changeups he adds to multiple songs, but only on the mid-album ‘Security Camera’ do they deviate from the template: its goth-echoey tone and booming drumbeat sounds like it was plucked from that early-80s Hollywood scene where punk melted into death rock. To be clear, the template as established is a recipe for repeated glory. The backing vocals which intermittently accompany Trae Brown lend an 80s skate punk vibe and the lyrics Brown’s spouting – I’m not certain if he writes them too – are platonically ideal for the music, in that they read like someone on an ether binge. “Grinning bloody idiots / We’ll soon be dead / They hide it in our drugs”; “It’s arrogant to start a family / Your kids can go to jail”; “No, I didn’t vote in your fake election / Violence solves everything.” Right on.

Always happy to feature some product by Steven Milton’s Richter Scale label – it’s been a while since I’ve done so, but here are three RS releases I’ve dug in recent weeks. One, by Zipper of Connecticut, eschews the label’s standard cassette dubbing and presses its two songs on five-inch translucent lathe cut vinyl: it’s a wee cutie, but this momentary blast of hardcore is crabby and unvarnished. ‘Don’t Fit’ is the shorter and faster of the two, vocalist Hughie MacKenzie summarising his thoughts with a mid-song “EUGHHH!” as the full band kick back in; ‘Social Disease’ is longer and slower, going from creepy crawl brood to marauding thrash and back again. Two minutes and 25 seconds and we’re done!

Two previous tapes by Spam Caller, who hail from Novato in California, are combined into a single eight-songer and decorated with cool schlocky artwork by Youth Attack Records’ Mark McCoy. It seems safe to say Spam Caller are long-time listeners of that label’s output, blazing through a quarter-hour of compacted top-blowing which shares, with acts like the Repos and Goodbye World, the ability to sound like the inside of a mass shooter’s head. The debut demo is pretty good but Imposter Syndrome, its successor, is exquisite carnage. Were you hot for Hoax a decade or so ago? Spam Caller are like Hoax but better.

Finally, Sick & Perverted is the second Richter Scale release for Nervous B.O., a solo project from Stockholm. The first was a compilation also featuring previous Straight Hedge review fodder Secret Agent Headcheese, and NBO’s unhinged electro punk is chugging the same spirits on these six hydrochloric squirts. Lord knows what combo of live keys, plugins and post-production FX are in play to make the sound this ear-grating, but it’s raucous, revolting and rinkydink in equal proportion. I can imagine a room of small children dancing to this after two litres of orangeade apiece.

Everyone in Turbo has featured on something reviewed in this column at least once before, and in some cases multiple times. With limited live performances (possibly as few as one) under their belt at the time of writing, I’m not positive who plays what on this London quintet’s demo, but that’s most certainly Nicky Sarnella reprising the noisome bark he brought when fronting Arms Race, and based on their usual/previous credits I’m guessing Tom Ellis and Luca Selvaggio on guitar, Spooky Runo on bass and Paco Mus drumming. Any road, Turbo deliver dark, swirling hardcore with gleaming quasi-metal solos, ceaseless and tom-heavy beats, and lyrics that cover all the necessary bases (fuck cops/the government/Britain; personal hell, head’s gone; singer insults someone but we don’t know who they are). Imagine if Totalitär absorbed the influence of Oi!, pogo punk and basically all the Toxic State catalogue… even if it didn’t sound like this demo it’d definitely be good.

The various members of Sheffield’s Big Break have a solid body of ex-bands to their name. As it goes, those bands skew decidedly more indie than what transpires on Angel’s Piss (Wrong Speed), which claims influence from Negative Approach and is pacey and thrilling enough to give this credence, considering it sounds pretty much nothing like Negative Approach. Though minute-long LP opener, itself titled ‘Big Break’, could reasonably be called hardcore, a selection box of keyboard-larded garage punk follows.

‘The Smoke’ testifies with the demented sass of Hank Wood & The Hammerheads, ‘Happy Bank Holiday’ is like if Alien Nosejob had written Devo’s ‘Girl U Want’ and ‘Fuckboy’, in taking a turn for the ineffably camp, had me reminiscing over good times spent with trashy Oaklanders Gravy Train!!!! The concluding ‘Yes, Goddess!’ portrays vocalist Joseph Armstrong as a foot-licking human toilet – albeit the lyrics are a cowrite with an outside party, Jennifer Reid of Big Break-related hardcore band Champayne. Reid, incidentally, is also a researcher and performer specialising in broadside ballads from 19th century Lancashire, back when times were ‘ard and human toilet was a job description not a hobby.

Big Break lament their habitual use of what they coyly call the ‘Computer Phone’, and indeed present as a fairly online bunch: ‘GGG’, short for “gaslight, girlboss, gatekeep”, is one of a few songs to ambiguously mull the spectre of vilification for microtransgressions. Is it just me who prefers (not only, but especially) punk bands to write lyrics as if the internet had never been invented? I should probably have got over it by now, right? And yet.

Tasked to write a swift approving blurb of the new album by Canadian duo Home Front, Jonah Falco – also its producer and a guest performer – dreams of an alternative history where Annie Lennox wore Crass patches on her jacket, among other pop/punk culture clashes. For my part, when I saw this band live last year I described them as “OMD meets Sham 69” in a message to a friend, and am now repeating that for you, my enemy. Games Of Power (La Vida Es Un Mus) is Home Front’s second release, and leans more definitively into their synthpop and ‘erbertpunk influences than 2021 EP Think Of The Lie.

‘Nation’ perhaps crystallises all this most efficiently, with its lead vocals handed by The Chisel’s Callum Graham and BVs by French Oi! ensemble Rixe. Its drums, either electronic or so gated they might as well be, travel at a fair clip, while Graeme McKinnon fires off a sweet glam-yob guitar solo and Clint Frazier’s synths glimmer with menace. Sonically, it’s hard to imagine Games Of Power sounding better, even if these deftly tweaked twinkles, cleanly-enunciated (and, I’d suggest, somewhat Anglicised) vocals and emotionally manipulative key changes will surely repel many of this label’s regular customers. Though matters mostly transcend homage, one’d be forgiven for invoking New Order and Joy Division in relation to ‘Faded State’ and ‘End Transmission’ respectively, while ‘Born Killer’ not only pays clenched-fist tribute to Suicide but runs a high-pitched siren through the whole song, causing me to go and investigate which dickhead’s car alarm had gone off. Very good prank, laughing about it right now actually.

Artisans & Merchants (Gringo/La Castanya/Spartan) is either the third or fourth studio album by The Van Pelt, depending on how you’re counting, but it constitutes their first 21st century recordings either way. A gift to those of us already fond of their chatty, clever-sod jazzbo post-hardcore: The Van Pelt were well regarded in the 1990s, if ultimately limited in their reach (one song on this album, ‘Punk House’, is a less than wistful recollection of playing to empty rooms booked by disinterested promoters), but the millennial (re)discovery of peer bands like Karate and Duster has kept them in circulation too, I fancy.

All four members – Sean Greene, Chris Leo, Brian Maryansky and Neil O’Brien – had played in emo or straight-edge bands before assembling in TVP, and if this was intended as a mellower outlet, a distinct spikiness remained. A quarter-century on, Artisans & Merchants is on average smoother still, with Leo’s vocals most often either a honeyed whisper or spoke-sung prose poetry. Songs don’t want for instrumental energy, necessarily, with the title track and ‘Grid’ (another tale of show woe – here, Leo enjoys a house gig before releasing he’s lost his wallet) bounding along, and though ‘Old Souls From Different Epochs’ draws out its chords in the manner of slowcore or shoegaze, O’Brien’s drums have an improvised-sounding swing that beguiles.

A zenith of aesthetic unpunkness is reached with the fingerclicky ‘Cold Coconuts’, where Leo mentions “a date in Addis Ababa”, “the best focaccia in the world”, “excess yucca” and “a disco in Leipzig”, to list only four topics never before broached in these columns. I wouldn’t wish to upset anyone involved by saying this song made me think about Vampire Weekend, but it didn’t upset me so that’s something.

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