Noel's Straight Hedge VII: Punk Around The World

In the first 2013 edition of his Straight Hedge column, Noel Gardner takes a sojourn around the globe to uncover some quality chunks of punk for your willing ears

Do you ever worry about geographic fetishism? I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking "no, fuckface, I worry about being able to pay my bills without reaching rock bottom and using the last 20p on the leccy key to stick my head in the oven," but hear me out. Most of us have a country where we were born and raised, and then maybe one or a few with which we have a passing affiliation, learned the language, go on holiday there regularly. The rest of the globe is, by comparison, mysterious and exotic. You can either use that as an excuse to ignore it, or embrace its mystery and make it a virtue.

Some people don’t get the balance right – even, believe it or not, in punk rock, where everyone has an impeccable understanding of social and cultural mores, on account of being cleverer than normal people. I’m lying, obviously, but the punk and hardcore community – the DIY-motivated end of it, certainly – was hugely proactive in building links across the continents, before the internet made it a piece of piss. If you talk to a British or US punk from ‘the scene’ of the 80s, chances are they’ll have spent much of that decade writing letters to compadres in Europe, South America and elsewhere. Chances also are they’d have swapped mixtapes full of the sort of bands who would have otherwise had almost no chance of international distribution. So spiky jacket Britishers and Midwestern Reagan-fuckers wrap their ears round bands from Finland or Japan or Italy, and obsess over their broken English and ineffable OTHERNESS until they gain the ability to assign each country its own ‘sound’.

Or is it mostly the power of suggestion? I mean, these bands were clearly influenced by each other to some extent, because they were mates and such, but sometimes a ballistic teenage thrash is just that, border-defying that. You get too busy with the cultural determinism and you’re in "the Orientals are an inscrutable people" territory. This crossed my mind when I was jamming Cut Sleeves by Bits Of Shit, when I wasn’t thinking about how this debut LP is a future classic of hairy-necked überpunk. A quartet from Melbourne with an admittedly awful name, they combine sardonic vocals pitched ‘twixt drawl and snarl with hard rock guitars as pointed and structurally dense as a nail. As such, it’s a doddle to slot them into Australia’s punk lineage – the popular/cosy narrative of which starts with Radio Birdman and The Saints, progresses to X, The Scientists and the Cosmic Psychos, and ropes in AC/DC and Rose Tattoo for good measure.

Almost too easy, really. ‘Orphan Age’ sounds like Zero Boys; ‘Rock Sing’, a get-off-my-lawn bodying of "new age punk" groups, spars with the Pagans and other retrobates of olde tyme Ohio punk. ‘Patrol’ is like The Damned locked in the pub and, I think (I could be way off) has a lyrical reference to Nomeansno. Andy Lang can set his guitar to the kinda damaged metallic drone you might’ve heard on a mid-nineties AmRep record, or a burst of chordspray worthy of Greg Ginn. ‘Tally’s World’ is a breathless minute, the Flipper-y ‘Flunkies’ which follows it close to five. This is probably making it all sound more esoteric than it is, if anything: Cut Sleeves is majestically ornery, clever not clever-clever, and named in reference to the cutoff denim jacket worn onstage by singer Danny Vanderpol. It’s so good that in lieu of anyone stocking the vinyl in the UK, I actually bought the download off their label Homeless Records’ Bandcamp page, which I don’t think I’ve done before except for charity releases. "Please, keep supporting the Homeless," said the label dude, almost like he knew. Oh, and the Matador singles club have collared them for a seven-inch in the spring, which will do about fifty times more to get the Bits Of Shit word out than this review.

Condemned by their own musical choices, D-Clone aren’t likely to go too far up, down or anywhere in the world, yet their astoundingly volatile shitstorms of noise-ridden hardcore have a captive and adoring audience. Creation And Destroy (540 Records), their debut album, makes the case for D-Clone as standard-bearers of Japanese noizepunk – again, it’s hard to skate around their country of origin, because Japan’s efforts in this field have reshaped and mutated the form.  Thirty years or so back, the UK had Discharge and Disorder; their screeching, slogan-slinging racket was the blueprint for, over the years, literally thousands of crusty sods. One of the earliest D-Clone releases was called We Make Dis Clone Music!!! but not only are they furlongs beyond such apery now, they’re also in a class of their own when it comes to ear-drilling power.

A lot of the stuff I hear in this vein – and I’m not gonna pretend I’m an expert, just calling it as I see it – goes great guns to be as horrendously raw and lo-fi as possible, make the guitarist sound like an industrial sander, or treat song structure as something to be shaken off like a horny dog. D-Clone don’t do any of that. The production on Creation And Destroy is incredible, a perfect tradeoff between the exacting requirements of the D-beat and the freedom of actual, no-seatbelts noise: not yer dudes behind laptops/wearing balaclavas and breaking glass type noise, more the kind you get when a band finishes by leaning their guitars against the amps until someone kills the PA.

Vocalist Hiroshi sings of recurring subjects – the fuckin’ system, life’s innate chaos, the validity of punk culture – but is quite clearly just going "AAAAAARRRRGGGGGGHHHHHH" much of the time. Good thing he’s so skilled in this department, then. Everything here is a minute tweak of the thing before it (a D-Clone clone, almost), but for ninety seconds at a time, OTT feedbacker thrash will grip your body and elevate you with no bag of glue necessary. ‘Life Is…’ and ‘History Of Error’ are my personal picks, if this all sounds like gibberish to you but in a curiously enticing way.

Thawed Out own and celebrate their rawness with equal passion to D-Clone, and will be given equally short shrift by your grandparents. They are coming from a pretty different place, though – Birmingham, specifically, but in a less literal sense the scattered ranks of ‘mysterious guy hardcore’ bands of a few years back. A previous edition of this column was once the second Google result for "mysterious guy hardcore", but now sits dumpily on page three. Thawed Out, help me climb the ladder with your self-titled nine-song LP, comprised of four new songs and five off a 2011 demo tape and released on French label Shogun.

Given that said tape did very little for me at the time, pressed to disc it’s sounding disarmingly fresh, gnarly rather than just muffled. Of the new spawn, the faintly outrageous guitar solo in ‘Dull Knife’ lets you know the quartet are branching out (only about as far as early metallic hardcore, but even so); ‘Dead Inside”s slow-fast-slow tempofuckery is equal parts Flipper and The Offenders. Of all the right-minded and splattery UK HC bands doing the rounds at the moment – No, Mob Rules, Perspex Flesh, Hunger, The Lowest Form – Thawed Out, while closer to ‘good’ than ‘excellent’ at present, deserve to ride this canon.

Oftentimes, punk bands end up acting as placeholders: approximating the sound and/or style of some popular cats who broke up, moved on, sld ot, whatever. Certainly, that was the primary function of the myriad Discharge clones who preceded D-Clone. Consider the rock opera flourishes of Fucked Up’s last album, David Comes To Life: quite a way from their admittedly sprawling Hidden World debut, and especially the singles which preceded it. Who’s bringing the early FU-style bangers these days, hmm? Wiccans‘ second LP Field II (Hardware), without wishing to box it in too much, could well answer these hypothetical prayers.

These Texans peddled a sturdy, if by-the-book, line in mid-paced hardcore on Skullduggery, their 2011 debut LP; this time round, songs average over three and a half minutes (I know, right?), and teem with tightly-wound, hard-rock-on-45 intros. ‘Panthers In Wonder’ (dope title) even bats around that ‘punk krautrock with Cro-Mags vocals over the top’ thing that FU trialled on ‘Year Of The Pig’. Going on the sleeve and label art, they seem to be bang into their centuries-old mystical teachings and things that look kinda like sigils but may just be a hardcore band logo what you can draw on yr pencil case. Am I overstating the point? To the extent that Wiccans are still on their own trip, it’s a state-altering one; Payton Green and Daniel Zeigler are top drawer riff-writers, never more so when the penultimate ‘Nest Of Vipers’ flexes its biker-metal biceps. An indirect compliment would be to say that I could envisage Wiccans returning with a double album which didn’t suck. More pointedly, Field II bursts with life and creativity, four months or so after its release.

The debut LP by Prisoner Abuse (Painkiller), also unveiled in the last third of 2012, has generated a fair amount of chatter among those who munch brickwall hardcore records like Pac-man pills. It could have accrued levels of hype on a par with that Boston Strangler LP which at least one idiot paid over $700 to own, but naïvely, the label pressed enough copies so everyone who wanted one could do so.

Regarding the actual music on Prisoner Abuse, though, they’re stripmining classic Boston HC with just as much record-nerd fervour as their fellow Bostonians, and also have artwork that’s trying to look like it was badly screenprinted in about 1986. Written, recorded and vocalised over seven years and three distinct periods, ten songs scoot by in sixteen minutes, with pretty much zero wasted space or concession to metal indulgence (someone wheedles for, like, ten seconds during ‘Extinction’, the last song). I’m assuming Prisoner Abuse are a straight edge band – at the very least they’re tipping their cap to the ethos – but they’re not here to advocate positive lifestyle choices so much as bawl out feebs for dropping the ball. Craig Arms, also a member of the decent Waste Management and colossal Mind Eraser, is sufficiently judgmental to make SS Decontrol seem laissez-faire: "Wasted and worthless / Fucked up and mindless." Sorry, Craig.

You can imagine Prisoner Abuse being a little aggravated that a band like Goosebumps almost certainly own and enjoy many of the same hardcore records as them, but are bringing them to bear on a band which endorses narcotic extremity and general naughtiness. I Hate My Body (Burn Books), their debut 7", has a desperate-sounding, stompy scumminess which is ever so voguish in NYC this season – but these eight songs are more worm-eatingly remedial than the likes of Crazy Spirit could ever approach. "Look at my eyes / they’re glazed cuz I’m high / what’s the fuckin’ problem / everybody dies" (‘Needles’) is a fairly representative lyrical sample. I refuse to believe that Goosebumps are actually as stupid as they portray themselves on this single, because if they were the start-to-finish process of making and promoting an EP of damaged NYHC would surely be beyond them. They do however have a photo of Jared Loughner, failed political assassin from twelve months ago, on the B-side label, and on the insert, a drawing of what seems to be a transgender person in jail. Come on, we all used to draw stuff like that in class.

On one hand, Lower are vastly more debonair than nearly everything else I’m jocking this time out. Youthful, Copenhagen-based and signed to the Escho label for this double A-side 45, ‘Someone’s Got It In For Me’ / ‘But There Has To Be More’, they are inevitably peers of Iceage, and seem to have been listening to the same 80s dimmer-switch goth as that band’s imminent album suggests. There’s nothing polite about the treble-drenched recording the quartet have settled for here, though. I’m actually reminded of Deerhunter’s Cryptograms album, or at least my memory from however many years ago I last listened to it, with the rhythmic rattle of pre-album Joy Division – and, when ‘Someone’s…’ pulls out a swollen solo, Clockcleaner circa Babylon Rules. I intended to see Lower live, late last year, but they didn’t show and were replaced on the bill by Chain Of Flowers who I know ‘IRL’ a bit, and who I’m shamelessly shoehorning into this review. If only Lower had shown up, they wouldn’t have been subjected to this ignominy. Bet they’re kicking themselves.

Want to be shown how deep the rabbit hole goes? Belgrado are some Catalonian cats who, in two and a bit years together, have been scratching tunnels between goth and anarcho punk. Lots more people, including shitbirds like me, have been glomming onto this in the last twelve months, making a thumbs-up for newish 45 ‘Vicious Circle’ / ‘Panopticon’ (on the consistently heroic La Vida Es En Mus label) a near-formality. You might pick out any one factor as primary in the A-side’s appeal: a bass sound hewn from ice, the tribal grooviness brought on by the ‘great tom work’ (can’t write that without scare quotes, sorry), the way singer Patrycja sounds like she’s at the opposite end of a hallway or the manner in which she stretches out the word "on". ‘Panopticon’ is somewhat faster and, rhythmically, skews towards their anarcho leanings (The Mob, say) with its military drum rattle, although you don’t have a forty-seconds-long fadeout unless you harbour some ambitions towards professional-lightshow rawk pomp. "Support DIY punk (and post-punk!) and bring down the system!!" stress Belgrado on their Facebook page, using parentheses with a rare brilliance.

Queer’d Science recorded their first vinyl release in the same building, Manchester’s Islington Mill, where I first encountered them a few months back. Not for what may be years have any other band, British or otherwise (with the possible exception of Drunk In Hell), gone from ‘zero music heard’ to ‘blind, unconditional adoration’ in such a short space of time. Vendela Engström, the Swedish frontwoman of the Mancunian trio, does that David Yow thing of fucking with the crowd right from the off – not in a mean-minded way, more a ‘your drink is less important than our freedom of expression’ steez – and that Madonna (and David Yow) thing of grabbing her crotch.

Several feet behind her, the band do a most complementary, maximal-minimal melee that you might have once called ‘spaz-punk’ – and that’s what prevails on Wrench, five tracks on one side of a twelve-inch split with Year Of Birds on the One label. Now, you suspect that a few minutes searching on Tumblr will find someone who objects to the term ‘spaz-punk’, so you settle for flagging up the oppressively strobe-like guitar/drums/synth dazzle; that if QS had been American in 2004 this would have been released by Three One G Records (thinking The Locust, Holy Molar and the Blood Brothers a bit, Ex Models quite a bit); that while they’re less explicitly no wave-styled than Divorce, the current UK band who they’re most easily likened to, Engström makes the experience feel akin to an iPod-era Teenage Jesus & The Jerks. That this band are fucking amazing, maybe more so for mining a style of punk that isn’t especially ‘cool’ at the moment.

Year of Birds, meanwhile, are from Middlesbrough and feature Michael Gillham of Drunk In Hell among their number. (It hasn’t been reported how he reacted to me absentmindedly creating ‘Michael Bishop’, a conflation of his name and DIH vocalist Stephen Bishop, when I reviewed the latter band’s Supersonic set for this website… but yeah. I’m a tool.) Their side of the split, Jaw – ten songs, all less than ninety seconds long – isn’t intense or brutal in that way, or even in Queer’d Science’s way, but betrays a singularity and absence of compromise. Half-stoic, half-joyous bursts of post-but-not-that-post-punk are topped off by vocals muffled like textbook early-nineties lo-fi. In spite of being as melodically cheerful as someone like Nodzzz, there isn’t even the faint glimmer of commercial potential, and that’s very likely how Year Of Birds intended it. To lazily paraphrase my own, already arguable point, if they’d been around in 1987 they’d have been signed by the Ron Johnson label.

Because none of you pig people pay for music any more, releases are coming in increasingly small pressing runs nowadays: the LP above is limited to 150 and may or may not be buyable on the link I gave, while Serious Power Hour by Reading, Berks’ Workin’ Man Noise Unit is 75 tapes, released on the Doubledotdash label and probably all under expensive home security now. You can hear it all on their Bandcamp, so I’m not that fussed really. WMNU, a four-piece whose previous tape was called Drinkin’ Stella To Make Music To Drink Stella To, seem at ease with their marginal appeal – I don’t mean this in a bad way, although many probably would. Their punk is really heavy rock, but played with hands of extra-glazed ham and peanut brains: if they’d lived during the time of dinosaurs, it’d undoubtedly be known as the Bozoic Era. Somewhat bracketable with eighties sludge-punk oafs – Drunks With Guns or Feedtime – as well as Blue Cheerful basement types from modern times like Birds Of Maya, this is tempered (especially on the first side) by the spectre of your mate’s band from 1994 who did Nirvana and Therapy? covers and two of their own songs. You remember.

And then – finishing this column off like a boss – you have things like the self-titled tape by Wölfbait, where it feels nigh-on OFFENSIVE that only 150 people will get to own this, for now. Given that this is Wölfbait’s first release, they aren’t alumni of any well known bands unless you’re embedded in the Dublin hardcore scene, and they have struck a massively noise-ridden end-of-days soundtrack they call "Kraut violence" (as in, Krautrock meets powerviolence), the lack of immediate big push is understandable. However, I’d be surprised if Wölfbait (Art For Blind) doesn’t get a vinyl release one day, because it absolutely rips, and no-one who’s heard it seems to disagree.

Unfazed by the challenges of keeping a five-minute-plus song compelling, things sometimes move at funereal pace over these 49 minutes: ‘Αntikristos’, being a burl-along rumble with shades of Pissed Jeans, is by a fair chalk the briskest. Wölfbait’s slowness never reduces itself to generic doom monolithia, though. The drummer switches up tempo and metre on the reg, vocals are bowled from the HC and noiserock end of the pitch and there’s a smog of gurgling horror electronics suffusing the air. Various parts bring to mind The Endless Blockade, White Mice, Today Is The Day, Khanate and Billy Bao, which is all brilliant. Most pertinently, though, I think of a quote by one of grindcore’s progenitors (I suspect Mick Harris) pointing out that despite what Napalm Death ended up striving for, the name was never supposed to imply velocity, and initially referred to Swans or Head Of David as much as anyone. To this end, Wölfbait grind harder than just about everyone in the double-kickdrum-and-autopsy-photo-sleeve game; in fact, they grind the idea of genre itself.

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