Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: Amish Electric Chair - "Straight. No Chaser"

The playfully perverse name Amish Electric Chair dons across their equally morbid DIY cover art gives little indication of the fiery melodic punk contained therein: a fuming concoction of equal parts Anti-Flag, Time Again and Strike Anywhere with their own fervent Midwestern twist.

The initial shock of how much the EP’s opener “Social Revolution” sounds like Justin, Pat, Chris and Chris may take a moment to wear off given the familiar sneering vocals, rolling bassline, unabashed political stance and even the chord pattern. However, when it does, a varied but consistent five-song disc emerges. Arguably, the best of the bundle is “State of the Union,” which unlike its opening-number counterpart, seems more reflective than angry as it attests, “Young kids and girls / You’re at the top of the world” above a warm four-chord progression. Like the opener, “Jellico, Tennessee” gives a resounding nod to Anti-Flag musically and lyrically with a simple chorus of “Fuck you, Jellico, Tennessee.” “What We Could Use” follows with a stronger melody and outstanding bass fretwork, highlighted by start-and-stop timing and a popping rhythm.

The EP’s closer takes its name from the infamous 1980s anti-development slogan “Not In My Backyard.” At 3:05, it’s the disc's longest cut, and closes out the whole EP in appropriate fashion, a feisty shouter that ends with an ominous group vocal melody, set back in the mix to let the hammering guitar and barreling bassline play alongside.

Though brief in duration, Straight. No Chaser provides an excellent sampling of what Amish Electric Chair has to offer, and hopefully a preview of what’s to come from this Ohio trio.

Review: The Braces - "I'm Telling Everyone"

The Braces have changed it up significantly since their 2007 self-released LP Yeah Right!. Nearly gone are the angsty vocals, the sloppy poppiness and the amateur lyrics of the past, replaced with a cleaner, more accessible sound.

There are benefits and disadvantages of the changes, which don't appear to affect the net enjoyment one way or another. Though the welcome absence of goofy, immature cuts like “Dr. Phil” is appreciated, the band’s more serious and emotionally-laden numbers like “Confidence,” “Flood" and "I Love You, But" are inversely out of place, even while occasionally packing some hooks.

The best tracks on I’m Telling Everyone are those that balance the playful with the sincere, like the two-minute “Jumping” and album opener “I’d Rather Be Hot,” a declaration of why California’s so great despite its myriad flaws if only for the climate. I probably would have made the same argument some time ago, but two winters in Minnesota have proven that four seasons are better than one, even if it means not being a baby about the cold. “Missionary Position” is the same predictably closed-minded rant against religion that 10,000 punk bands before have professed: “I took the Lord’s name in vain / And you can’t convince me to pray / So take your beliefs / And preach them somewhere else.” This is too bad, since the choral melody that follows is one of the best on the album, with a bit of an Inspection 12 flavor. “Living Is Dying” offers a nice change-up with its brief segments of upstrokes and a strong chorus that turns into a gang effort.

Despite the changes, the Braces have another fairly solid collection of songs in I’m Telling Everyone. With the improved production, though, the band has to be careful of not getting too polished, and especially keeping the vocals more in line with Chris Fogal than Ryan Key.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review: The Manix - "Stay Low and Go"

The Manix of Minneapolis (not to be confused with Manix of Long Island) are probably best known nowadays in relation to guitarist and vocalist Corey Ayd’s “other band,” Banner Pilot, even though they’ve been at it almost as long, toured the country, and have their own healthy catalog to boast.

Released earlier this year, Razorcake predicted Stay Low and Go might be one of those discs that doesn’t grab you right off the bat, but eventually ends up at the top of the playlist, and that appears to be its exact effect. Though the Manix’ brand of Midwestern pop-punk is rooted in the tradition of its forerunners with catchy guitar leads, members pulling multiple vocal duties and compelling group sing-alongs, they’re certainly no derivative product of their environment.

The first five seconds of “I’ll Fill It In” are rather unassuming, a three-chord progression over a stiff rhythm that quickly breaks into the frenetic pop-punk the Manix display over the course of the next 20 minutes. Ayd and guitarist Steve Svennson craft a wall of chunky palm-mutes on the following “NO Country,” which bleeds into “Salt’s Too Sweet,” featuring one of the best guitar hooks on the disc. “Apparently” launches forward behind the thrust of Mike DeGree’s pounding rhythm and a caustic chorus of “You left me no choice / I’d rather kill myself than hear your voice.” Catchy harmonies and a strong lead abound on “Twice Over” while Tyler Rasmussen rounds out the low end on one of the record’s best tracks. The amusing closer "Sub-bourbon" sums up the disc in fine fashion: "We're back to burning bridges / Convinced we're not alone / Return to fill our ditches / Bring all the memories back home."

With additional vocals by Zack Gontard (Off with Their Heads, Rivethead, Dear Landlord), the only thing bad about this disc is when it ends after eight great songs. More of the Manix, please.

Review: 16 Second Stare - Red Carpet Material

This one’s a bit of a head-scratcher: rock/metal from Lutz, Florida, credited as a two-guitar duo in the lyrics booklet though clearly also composed of bass and drums. The packaging of their debut full-length Red Carpet Material is plastered with attractive women in seductive poses, and said objectification is supposedly “for the troops” because “freedom isn't free” and “these chicks are our gift to you.”

Before going into any extensive rants about justifying sex appeal for military service, it should also be mentioned that 16 Second Stare has the same trouble conveying ideas lyrically as they do warranting scantily clad females on their album art. Take “Anymore” for a quick example: “I don’t care if you want me anymore / It’s my time so let’s make it easy / I don’t care if you’re a pretty little whore.” The title track is much the same: “Wanna go for a ride / Release the fantasy / In our time of need.” Those are just two examples, but there’s nothing of any real substance on the entire album, which stands in direct contradiction to the claim laid on the band’s MySpace page: “The strong team of 'Angry' Tim Shanks and Todd Petus […] deliver pure rock and roll substance.”

Musically, this is about as generic as it gets, full of empty fist-pumpers (“Smash,” “Anymore”), boring rock ballads (“Control,” “Goodbye”) and half-hearted attempts at something slightly dancey (“Roxy”). The one listenable track, “Ballad of Billy Rose,” isn’t even credited to the band themselves. Oh yeah, “listenable” is somewhat debatable but “watchable” is almost out of the question.

Though it is a bit confusing as to why this was sent to Punknews for review, it doesn't take a genius to figure out this should be avoided at all costs, even if it's free (as it was for 10,000 troops, apparently). For pictures of attractive women, you’d be better off buying a Cosmo...there might actually be some substance in that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Review: Banner Pilot - "Collapser"

The fact that Banner Pilot has risen to such success (signing to Fat Wreck, international recognition among other merits) without heavy touring or high-profile promotion is the ultimate testament of this band’s ability to write a song. Their feisty brand of melodic (though not poppy) Midwest punk caught fire only a few years ago, and their popularity has exponentially grown with each release. Of course, it could also be having one of the best band names ever and/or being composed of members from such quality acts as Off with Their Heads, the Manix and Rivethead.

Still, Banner Pilot is somewhat misread by more than a few (my previous self included) as a Jawbreaker or Lawrence Arms by-product. And while they do claim influences from said bands, Banner Pilot’s approach is unlike any of the bands they’re often lumped in with. For one, Banner Pilot has rarely based songs around booming choruses á la “Indictment” or “Your Gravest Words,” for example. They are, however, more prevalent on Collapser, with tunes like “Skeleton Key” and “Starting at an Ending” packing some huge hooks chorus-wise. Furthermore, Banner Pilot offers a bit more of a personal, open-ended narrative than the Aesopic storytelling of Jawbreaker or the tongue-twisting tales embedded in the Arms’ lyrics.

Regardless, Nick Johnson writes damn fine lines, though they’ll surely resonate deeper with the Midwest/Minneapolis listeners who experience the same helpless urgency of soon-to-be long winters creeping up from summer happiness, as in “Losing Daylight,” where private trepidation is interlaced with imagery from John Fante: "I color inside the lines of days with blue / Since we drove up to Bunker Hill and you said 'I can’t take a winter one more year / If I don’t leave now I’ll die right here.'” “Farewell to Iron Bastards” is even more dismal, as Johnson attests, “Told you once that if life got too grim / I’d coast to Meadow Bay, become a ghost / I’d tie some weights on and think ‘bout what I’d loved the most -- you, in Minnesota air, ‘lone and standing there.” What may be lost on some listeners is this is no pity party -- this is commiseration. That’s not to say that all Minnesotans reflect so painfully on their surroundings, but it’s probably not something a lifelong native of Daytona Beach is going to fully understand.

The music on Collapser is also the best it’s been for Banner Pilot, production and otherwise. Nate Gangelhoff’s basslines are energetic and vibrant, and rise above the mix giving the sound a ballsy, more melodic shape. On tracks like the standout “Write It Down,” Corey Ayd’s guitar lead weaves in and out pitching a more somber overtone on top of the fill-friendly rhythm laid down by Dan Elston-Jones. Above it all is Johnson’s gravelly, half-snotty vocals describing the Twin Cities like Craig Finn on a steady dosage of the Broadways.

Collapser is a hell of a release, but only for what it is. Go in expecting 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and you’ll be confused, because that isn’t Banner Pilot. Go in expecting the gritty, intelligent accounts of the world according to four Minneapolis punks and relayed through catchy tunes with earnest lyrics and you’ll be more than satisfied with Collapser.

Review: Suicide City - "Frenzy"

Brooklyn’s Suicide City claims themselves as one of the last bands to emerge from CBGB before it closed in 2006. Which I guess is true. The problem is that even though the location and venue was still the same, this CBGB was nothing compared to this CBGB. Obviously.

Suicide City was formed by Biohazard guitarist Billy Graziadei in 2005. Eventually, Jennifer Arroyo from Kittie (remember them!?) was added on bass, and the resulting quintet began playing shows and actually building a solid following in the NYC area. Now, what the guitarist from Biohazard was doing forming a melodramatic emo-nü-metal band is anyone’s guess -- perhaps Biohazard wasn't controlling enough of the Hot Topic demographic. If that was the desired outcome, Suicide City has certainly positioned themselves for a run at it.

The greater part of the record (quantity-wise) is made up of three-to-four-to-five-minute modern rock songs inflected with heavy doses of emocore wails, treated vocals, nü-metal riffs, an occasional electronic sputter and a whole, whole lot of woe. Way more than necessary, and way more than tolerable. Vocalist Karl Bernholtz doesn't so much sing as he throws his voice up and down with indiscernible words, sometimes to the beat of obnoxious double-bass palpitations (“Undone”), sometimes to plodding hard rock (“Burn”) and sometimes to layered piano balladry (“Lost Years”). Spattered throughout the album that’s already too long for its own good are 18 to 33-second tracks of pointless filler that only serve to disrupt the flow of what might otherwise have been a fairly decent sequencing. Even though “Undone” may be one of the more bearable songs musically, the lyrics completely nullify any positives: “Jesus makes you cursed/ Jesus why’s it hurt / Undone, I come undone.” There are a couple vaguely redeeming moments in “Cutter” and “The Best Way,” but the vocals make sitting through an entire track nearly impossible.

It doesn’t matter what venerable rock veterans are contributing to this mess, the result is the same: run-of-the-mill nü-emo with intolerable vocals and cringingly forced lyrics. There should be a hotline to prevent this kind of outcome.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Review: This is Hell - "Warbirds" [EP}

Generally when hardcore bands begin meandering down the path towards crossover, thrash, and eventually full-blown metal, it’s because they’re running out of ideas, trying to expand their fanbase, or possibly see a little bit more cash potential in headbangers than two-steppers. But for whatever reason said unnamed bands begin blowing the winds of change, This Is Hell gets a free pass for probably not falling into those categories even while turning slightly in the direction of crossover thrash.

Although the band’s preceding full-length was interesting and enjoyable enough, Warbirds looks slightly more appealing right off the bat, with song lengths hovering around the two-and-a-half-minute mark instead of the four-and-a-half minute tracks that populated Misfortunes. Furthermore, by the time the music gets going, it’s fairly evident that This Is Hell aren’t barking up too high on the thrash tree. Aside from some guitar soloing rarely seen in the band’s previous catalog, not much is different, and the tunes certainly don’t lack the hardcore wallop the best tracks from Sundowning, Cripplers and Misfortunes packed. Well, “Never Tear Us Apart” does, but that’s probably because it’s an INXS song. The other cover of the bunch is Warzone’s “Crazy But Not Insane,” which plays a great deal more to This Is Hell’s strengths, especially given that Warzone was exploring similar avenues at the time the song was written.

The three originals on Warbirds range from pretty good (“Worship Syndrome”) to great (“Warbirds”). The treated vocals may be a little off-putting in this era of AutoTune, but evaluated without bias, they really don’t affect the songs negatively or otherwise. “The Search” opens the EP with machine gun riffs and vocalist Travis Reilly proclaiming “We’re searching for oil / We’re searching for gold / We’re searching God / Or so we’re told.” Midway through, searing metal scales enter into the equation to confirm claims of such crossover tendencies. The aforementioned greatness of the title track is held up by a solid minute of hardcore chaos with an interesting breakdown and subtly slick guitar playing through the second half. “Worship Syndrome” drags slightly in comparison and starts to lose energy, though “Crazy But Not Insane” follows and picks up the pace again.

Warbirds is the first release since the band left Trustkill Records for the perceived greener pastures of Think Fast! Records. In a hilarious turn of events, Think Fast! has since inked a distribution deal with Trustkill, though unfortunately for comedy’s sake, it’s not set to take place until Outbreak's full-length drops. Either way, Warbirds is a tight collection of hardcore thrash fury that won’t lose many fans while charting new territory.

Review: Intro5pect - "Record Profits"

Back in 1999, the Faint had recently begun their transformation from a Braid-influenced post-punk band to an electronic-leaning dance-punk group, !!! had been tinkering around and releasing singles, and Big Audio Dynamite’s foray into techno-punk was over a decade in the past. But no act had successfully blended the tenacity and politics of punk rock with the programmed beats and synthesizers of electronic RPM until Intro5pect debuted on the fledgling GC Records with their Education 7-inch. After high-profile tours with the likes of Dead to Me, Citizen Fish and Leftover Crack, a full-length on A-F Records and an EP on Blacknoise with Stza Crack, Intro5pect returns to where it all started with Record Profits.

The seven-song EP gets going with what is likely to be one of the catchiest non-Orgcore songs of the year, “Work to Live.” The choppy `77 guitars are layered alongside 8-bit synths, blipping and bleeping over a driving digital rhythm. “Fuck Your Flag” smacks of a poppier Anti-Flag with male and female vocals, much like “Sound Is the Enemy,” a riff-heavy choral manifesto propelled forward by a breakneck beat, save for the chunky call-and-response breakdown that takes up the middle.

The band really hits their stride by the time “Collateral” comes around, thick with a rolling bassline and flittering percussion and made memorable with a booming chorus and sound bite collage that seems to take aim at every president since the invention of the microphone. “The System” is fairly baldfaced politically, with a chorus of “Fuck the system / Fuck the system / Fuck the system / Tear it down” but blends in some nice synth work, while “Turnaround” is the disc’s most straightforward punk number. Keyboardist Sara Zaidi takes charge of “Plastic World,” both vocally and instrumentally, as the Metroid-styled keys rise to dominance when she’s not singing about feeling constrained by the status quo -- er rather, not caring about feeling constrained by the status quo.

Intro5pect are in fine form on Record Profits, having finally figured out how to diversify their sound while still creating a patently individual style. The seven songs of Record Profits hurl forth with dizzying ferocity and don’t let up while showcasing the seamless blend of electronic dance music and digital punk that has become Intro5pect’s calling card.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: Unknown Instructors - "Funland"

In the long and seasoned musical careers Mike Watt and George Hurley have jointly commandeered -- from the Reactionaries to the Minutemen, the Bootstrappers, fIREHOSE, and the Unknown Instructors heard here -- there is a spirit of exploration and perpetual breakthrough that miraculously never seems to cease. Sprouting from the original seeds of the Southern California punk scene, the pair and their co-conspirators throughout the years have grown the branches of their musical tree, swaying into such forms as jazz, art rock and experimental improvisation without ever disconnecting from the roots.

At first it seems that Funland might run contradictory to the preceding pedestrian analogy. The drumless, bassless “Maji Yabai” opens the disc with nothing but a sauntering jazz guitar lead and Watt’s thick, croaky spiel, musing semi-animatedly like a working-class beat poet: “Maybe transcend a brutal reality / I guess it was time undefined / You can dance with your mind, Maji Yabai.” This is, however, the most tranquil the album ever gets, as the eight-minute narrative “Those Were the Days” quakes forward next, driven by Hurley’s cadence of cymbal crashes and snare pops. With feedback hissing and squealing like a rusted-out ferris wheel, the maddeningly accurate imagery of a post-prime county fair comes to life in the spoken word of Toledo-based poet and Jamnation ringleader Dan McGuire. “Transience…makes anything possible,” he asserts, “Negotiable, up to a point. Bootleg Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Hendrix shirts sold wholesale. No fucking around with rubber softballs and weighted milk jugs.”

Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas handles the role of producing indecipherable vocal duties on one of the more lively and melodic numbers, “Later That Night,” which is followed even more aggressively by the incredible cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Frownland” with multiple vocal tracks and a whipping, chaotic arrangement. Black Flag artist Raymond Pettibon (and younger brother of Greg Ginn) controls the microphone on “Lead!”, an ambiguous rant that begins with “As was, thou art, thou shall not steal my Goddamned girlfriend!” and ends with him shouting at the guitarist (Joe Baiza of Saccharine Trust) to “Lead! Lead us on to the Promised Land.”

Watt makes a particularly amusing lyrical showing with “Chicago, Illinois” as does McGuire again on the exceptionally verbose “No Words.” The only track that doesn’t sit so well is the ten-minute instrumental jam “No Chirping,” which would have been sufficient at a fourth its size, as the jazzy guitar tinkering doesn't alter significantly throughout.

It should be mentioned that to all intents and purposes, the Unknown Instructors are a studio band, having only played one live show (Los Angeles, 2006) while releasing three albums. And for that you’ve gotta hand it to the folks at Smog Veil Records for being so eager to release albums by a band with no tour support in an era of internet piracy, let alone manufacturing the album packaging with (probably costly?) 100% recycled material and with such stunning artwork. But it’s impossible to disagree with their enthusiasm when listening to Funland, a fantastic musical trip whose lyrical, multi-layered poetry and skillful musicianship jump out of the speakers at any volume.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Review: Reaching Hand - "Threshold"

Female voices have been a part of punk all the way through its evolution, from Nico and the Velvet Underground to X-Ray Spex and the Avengers through modern bands like Lemuria and Deadly Sins. But frontwomen have been markedly less abundant in the hardcore scene, clustered mostly among crust and thrashier styles with bands like I Object and Bring That Shit. But there aren’t too many bands playing Comeback Kid-styled youth crew revival with female vocalists, and that’s where Reaching Hand comes in.

Hailing from the unlikely sanctuary of Portugal, Reaching Hand has made inroads into the U.S. on Thorp Records and covered Europe via Chorus of One with their debut EP, Threshold, after forming in 2007. In five songs -- all hovering around or below the two-minute mark -- Reaching Hand effectively demonstrates their fresh take on hardcore while drawing parallels to many of today’s biggest names.

With seemingly little time for intros, outros or breakdowns in their succinct songs, the opener “Time and Again” spends 45 seconds building before snapping into a shifty time signature and strong shouting by lead vocalist Sofia O. Absent gang vocals, the Comeback Kid comparisons are readily evident in the chord patterns and song structure, and serves as a nice warm-up to the balls-out -- err, rather, ovaries-out -- screamer “Insight.” Even communicating through their second or third language, the vehemence on “Settle the Score” is palpable, as Sofia asserts, “I took enough of your shit, won’t take it anymore / It’s time we settle the score.” While the title track punches forth with heavyweight gusto, the final cut “What We’re Missing” has an almost pop-punk appeal before the second layer of guitar leads in and lifts the tune into an unmistakably hardcore arrangement.

The music that makes up Reaching Hand’s debut EP Threshold is great any way you slice it, but the atypical inclusion of female lead vocals give it something special that very few hardcore bands offer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Subhumans - Reissues

With the exception of Crass (who often teetered on the edge of art-punk or equally experimental conduits), the UK’s Subhumans are arguably the most influential anarcho-punk band in history, and certainly one of the most prolific. With eight studio records to their name, an addition to the Live in a Dive franchise and a handful of EPs, Southern Records has taken it upon themselves to re-master and reissue six of the band’s classic albums originally released on the band’s own Bluurg Records.

From their DIY ethics to their radical left rhetoric, the Subhumans helped continue to carve out the definition of anarcho-punk even while the genre’s pioneers, Crass, were moving swiftly towards their end. At a time when bands like the Exploited and Chaos UK shouted their lyrics like political slogans, the Subhumans often seemed more reflective, or at the very least, like they were part of something much bigger.

Their first LP, The Day the Country Died became somewhat of an instant classic, selling 100,000 copies on the wings of such standouts as “Mickey Mouse Is Dead,” “Zyklon B-Movie” (later paid tribute by NOFX on “Zyclone B Bathhouse”), and “’Til the Pigs Come Round.” From the initial 20 seconds of white noise that opens “All Gone Dead” to the battering beats of “Black and White,” The Day the County Died not only showed promise, but helped secure the Subhumans place among the most prominent punk bands coming out of the UK in the early `80s.

The Subhumans followed up their debut with somewhat of a game-changer in the form of 1983’s From the Cradle to the Grave. While the 44-second instrumental intro is unsuspecting enough, the nearly 17-minute long title track shattered popular conceptions regarding the simplicity and insolence of the burgeoning punk rock movement. The cautionary narrative biography shifts tempos, chords, rhythms and melodies more than many albums of the time, and paved the way for its better-known, 15-year successor, NOFX’s “The Decline.” Sandwiched between the aforementioned tracks are some less impressive numbers like “Where’s the Freedom?” and the cowbell-laden “Waste of Breath,” though overall the album is still solid and topped off by the overwhelming magnitude of the title track.

Time Flies / Rats combines the eight songs from the Time Flies…But Aeroplanes Crash 7-inch and the four-song Rats 7-inch onto one disc with all the original artwork and classic Subhumans tracks like the anti-nuclear reggae-punk of “When the Bomb Drops” and slightly psychedelic “People Are Scared.” Some songs here like “I Don’t Wanna Die” and “Everyday Life” seem slightly less inspired than the majority of their catalog, but for the first half being released the same year as From the Cradle to the Grave, it’s still a respectable collection of tunes.

In 1985, many of punk’s first wave on both sides of the pond such as the Clash and Black Flag were nearing their end, but Worlds Apart was still the third-to-last full-length for the band in the decade. Aside from packing the fan favorite sing-along “Apathy,” it also contains such greats as “Ex-Teenage Rebel” and the reggae dub “Fade Away.” The bass stands out particularly well on songs like “British Disease” and “Straightline Thinking,” but interestingly takes a backseat on the brutally a-melodic “Someone Is Lying” where it might have been helpful.

EP-LP collects the band’s material that predates their debut LP, and coincidentally reflects a much more primal musical palette, though still containing such classics as “Religious Wars,” “Drugs of Youth” and “Reason for Existence,” which was covered by Leftöver Crack for the band’s split with Subhumans’ ska-punk counterpart Citizen Fish. These songs may be among the band’s least creative musically, but the zealous delivery with which they're spat reinforces the authenticity of lead singer Dick Lucas’ testimony.

The final re-release of Southern's effort is 1987’s 29:29 Split Vision, which oddly enough contains what would have been title tracks for two previous albums, Worlds Apart and Time Flies. Standouts include the frenetic bass-popping “Walls of Silence” and cock-rock guitar soloing of “Heroes,” while the aforementioned seven-minute ska jam “World Apart” is a good listen even while bordering on excessive tinkering.

As important as these releases are to stay in current circulation, Southern Records has done everyone an enormous favor by re-mastering these classics while preserving everything great about them. Outfitted in digipak form with original artwork, lyrics booklets and heavy-duty foldout posters, this collection of reissues will please both the perfectionist and the utilitarian while ensuring some of the most important punk rock music of all time remains available for years to come.

Review: Straylight Run - "The Needles the Space"

With the recent departure of co-frontwoman Michelle DaRosa as she attempts to launch a solo career, now seems as good a time as any to examine an album largely ignored by the Punknews community, and for fairly good reason. Coincidentally, it is DaRosa who creates the more captivating moments on The Needles the Space, which wouldn't seem like good news for Straylight Run as they continue on without her.

Outside of a few tracks, the biggest drawback here is how unmemorable the album is as a whole. While the compositions have become much more rich and layered than they were on the band’s 2004 debut, they’ve completely swapped out the energy necessary to bring their songs fully to life. Though they chime, bubble, beep, echo and whir, they never rise above a feathery murmur for their entire 45 minutes of existence.

Some of that is by design. “How Do I Fix My Head” hovers menacingly, aloft with DaRosa’s sighed song voice before surrendering to an unsteady bob of skillful hi-hat work and a crooning chorus. “Cover Your Eyes” radiates atmospherically for half its length sarcastically warning “We must care for these little ones / We must keep them safe / From the horrible ideas / And the people who have them / They're too young for wondering” before turning into a dry acoustic and eggshaker number. Sometimes it’s painful how held back the songs feel, like “Soon We’ll Be Living in the Future,” which sounds like a pretty lively emo tune that instead had to be played in a coffee shop or a thin-walled apartment complex. “We’ll Never Leave Again” is five and a half minutes of overproduction and boring songwriting, especially as the last two minutes are spent on drawn-out chords and single piano keys. Sure, it’s a tad relaxing, but life is short! We don’t need songs like “Buttoned Down” and “The First of the Century” to fill our lives with humdrum acoustic strumming and melodramatic vocals.

To be fair, there are some decent tracks on the album, the best of which is “The Miracle That Never Came,” led by an upbeat, marching rhythm, absurdly catchy verse by DaRosa and backed by a brass ensemble that supports without distracting. Among co-vocalist and Taking Back Sunday alumnus John Nolan's best tracks are the piano-led “Take It to Manhattan” and “Who Will Save Us Now?”, which begs “Who will save us now? / It's our life but we don't want to live it / And all you'll get is down because the people you elect to protect your best interests / Will just protect themselves and all their investments.”

However, even a couple stellar tracks can’t sway the monotony of this big-budget bust. While Straylight Run avoided the cliché emo pitfalls of their previous efforts and composed some fairly ornate arrangements, it hasn’t made for much more of an enjoyable listen.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Interview: Jesse Michaels (Operation Ivy, Classics of Love, Common Rider)

When I first started getting heavily into punk around 9th grade, Operation Ivy was one of the first bands to really resonate with me. Their simple message of individualism, unity, and nonconformity was uncompromising, but never without a glimmer of hope hidden beneath. Years later I heard my first taste of Common Rider and was blown away to find out it was the same singer as Operation Ivy, Jesse Michaels. Since then, I have collected every piece of music he has done, from Operation Ivy bootlegs to the four-song Big Rig EP, to Common Rider and beyond. When I heard Jesse Michaels and his new band Classics of Love was coming to Minneapolis, I jumped at the chance to interview him and could not be happier with meeting him and finding out more about his life and projects. In a 2003 interview, Michaels said of the late Joe Strummer, “I was lucky enough to meet him and he was everything one would hope for in somebody they looked up to.” Now I can say the same of Jesse Michaels.

You can click Read More for the interview.

How are you doing? How does it feel to be alive and on tour in 2009?

It feels good…and bad. Up and down. Which is pretty much how it always feels.

So you’re playing a little mini Midwest tour, and then heading to Europe on the Plea for Peace tour?

What we’re doing is playing five shows—Chicago, Minneapolis, Springfield, Elgin, and one other, and then we’re going to the UK. We basically had two trips planned, and they ended up merging together.

Is it weird at all to be on a tour—no less have a charitable foundation—named after a song you sang 20 years ago? [Operation Ivy’s “Plea for Peace”]

Well, not exactly. For one thing, it wasn’t one of our more well known songs. It came out a long time after we broke up. And also, Mike [Park] has really made it his own thing, so I don’t even think of that association very much.

Have you ever toured without an album to support?

Yeah, Op Ivy did. Op Ivy toured without an album to support. We had a 7-inch at the time.

Do you have the material to fill a whole show now?

We have 14 songs now, so it’s a pretty strong setlist. And then we have an EP that we’re selling [only] at our shows. [street date is June 23rd]

Do you do any of your solo songs on tour with Classics of Love?

Many of the solo songs ended up being Classics of Love songs, so yes and no. I do those songs, but I play them with a full band now so it’s a little bit different.

Speaking of your solo stuff, you did some acoustic shows with Jeff Ott last fall. How did the idea for those come about?

Someone approached me to do some shows, and it took me awhile to learn how to play and sing, because I didn’t really know how to do both at the same time. And Jeff got on board, and then Kevin [Seconds] got on board. And it just worked out really well. I was happy to play with Jeff, I hadn’t seen him in years. I mean, we used to be friends, we used to run the streets of Berkeley and take drugs and stuff. And now we’re both older and we’re both a lot more healthy and normal, although still probably pretty crazy. It just worked out, it was a nice time. And it was great to play with Kevin too, he’s a great guy.

Do you stay in touch with other veteran East Bay punks and old bandmates, like Tim Armstrong [formerly of Operation Ivy], Aaron Cometbus [in S.A.G.], or even Billie Joe Armstrong [who played on Common Rider’s Thief in a Sleeping Town]? Are you still close with any of them?

Well Billie Joe is in a whole different world. Once you’re a superstar, you’re almost like in a different universe, so he’s not easy to stay in touch with, though I’m always happy to see him every time I bump into him. Aaron actually lives in New York, though we do stay in touch when we can. And the Op Ivy guys I don’t get to see very much just because we have separate lives, but I’m always happy to see them when I do.

One thing I’ve been curious about—we live in this information age of instant accessibility to almost everything—yet as far as I know, there isn’t really any S.A.G. [an early band consisting of Jesse Michaels, Aaron Cometbus, and Jeff Ott circa age 12] material floating around out there. How is this? Do the recordings still exist?

Well, when me and Aaron were 12, we did some songs on a tape recorder, and that’s what that was. It wasn’t a real band, and it was never put out except on really obscure tapes. Aaron is an archivist, and I’m sure he’s got that stuff buried somewhere, but who knows where. I don’t think anyone [else] has it, basically. And it’s recorded on a tape recorder, two kids in a bedroom, so you can imagine what it’s like. It’s not gonna be number one with a bullet on the billboard charts or anything.

One thing that did get re-released two years ago was Energy/Hectic/Turn it Around on Hellcat. It had gone out of print on Lookout! but what was the process involved in re-releasing it?

Lookout! more or less folded, they were having problems, and so we decided to move it somewhere a little bit more solid. It’s a pretty popular record, and we wanted it to have a more solid situation. Lookout! was having a lot of problems, and Op Ivy, since we’ve broken up we just kind of want to let it be, let it do its own thing. It’s great that people still love the music but it’s not like we want to be taking trips down memory lane, so we just never really dealt with it. And then at some point things got so crazy, it’s like “We have to move this,” because people were jumping off Lookout! and it looked if we didn’t do something smart, we could end up doing something stupid. So then we decided to move it. And we did the work, had the meetings, and got it somewhere where we felt like it would be a good place for it.

Since many of the solo songs became Classics of Love songs, did you do the solo shows and tour with the idea of getting back into playing live music, or were they entirely separate occurrences?

I prefer playing in a band to solo stuff, I don’t really like playing solo stuff. But I will if it’s the only way to play music. I didn’t have a band of people to play with, but because of the process of the solo shows, I ended up meeting people. I got in better touch with Mike Park, and he really helped me set up the band.

What can you tell us about the band and the EP?

I think it’s a pretty universal punk rock sound. What I’ve experienced after many years of going to shows and playing shows, there’s a certain electricity that happens when some bands play. It doesn’t so much matter what style they’re playing, but you can feel it, and it’s raw and it’s powerful, and it’s great. In other words, you can go to a Black Flag show or Ramones show or Stiff Little Fingers show, and you would feel this vibe. So what we’re trying to do, to put it very simply, is play really good punk rock music with high energy. That’s the main thing. To try and capture that electricity that’s always been around and put it out there. People say it has a very East Bay sound, I’m not exactly sure what that means, but a lot of mid-tempo stuff. Pretty strong melodies, but without being too pop--we’re not trying to be a pop-punk. But we do like hooks and big choruses. My favorite bands historically have been the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, Social Unrest from the Bay Area, the Adverts, Buzzcocks, the Misfits…so all those things are in there but there’s a lot more. There’s something new happening there that doesn’t have a name yet.

How did your friendship with Mike Park develop?

I met Mike in Florida at some ska show that he was involved with, I’m not sure if it was the Plea for Peace tour or not, but he was there. It was a Florida ska band, and I think Mustard Plug played, the Toasters played, Buck-O-Nine, anyway, that’s irrelevant. Anyway, I met him, he’s a great guy, we hit it off. Then later on when I was doing Common Rider, we ended up being on the Plea for Peace tour and he was always around, and we just developed a friendship in that way.

Not that I necessarily want to have a political conversation—most people who are familiar with your music and work with PunkVoter should know a little bit about your ideas—but there’s one line in particular from Common Rider’s “Firewall” I wanted to ask you about that says “This creature of appetite is bound to devour itself one day.” Are we at that point already? Banks are collapsing, people are overspent and in debt, is this what you had in mind or are you more optimistic about the current situation?

Well, I’m not optimistic or pessimistic. I just deal with each thing as it comes. The “creature of appetite” line, not to be too analytical about it, it’s about the way people in general live based on their appetites and desires. For example, “I want to be rich,” “I want to have kids,” “I want this,” “I want that,” it’s part of the human condition, I’m not saying I’m any different. If you look at society, that overall pattern of billions of individuals living that way creates these monstrosities like corporations and wars and so on. And to me, if there is no consciousness change in human beings, eventually it will have to destroy itself because it’s a destructive entity. Human beings—they way they live now—are a destructive entity, it’s not even a matter of argument, you can just look at the world. So it was a statement about that, but it wasn’t really a political statement, it was just an observation, kind of a common-sense observation.

You studied Buddhism for a period in the 90s, is spirituality something that you’ve taken with you from that experience, or was it more of an experiment or trial that has since ended? Is it something that’s still affecting you?

Yeah, it definitely is. My life has a spiritual basis. That’s not to say that anyone else should do what I do or think what I think. I think you can pretty much dispense a religion and still be on the right track. I just think there’s more to life than what we see in the daily world, and I’ve experienced it. And it’s really very simple. I’ve noticed, and I’m not a Saint by any means, but I’ve noticed that when I manage to decrease my habitual self-centeredness, I’m happier and better, and people like me more. Because I’m expressing authentic personality rather than a false face. That’s the way I try and live and the way I try and do that and is how I treat you. I try and treat people around me well, and I try and do things that are motivated by the aspirations to do the right thing and be conscious of that. So if that’s spiritual, then yes I still do have those values. Again, I’m not perfect, I have the same normal human appetite and ego desires just like everyone else, and I don’t strive to be perfect, I just strive to have an overall sense of pointing myself in the right direction in terms of doing the right thing.

What was the last album you heard that really blew you away, that really knocked your socks off?

Probably the Observers record called “So What’s Left Now,” it blew my mind when I heard it. There’s lots of records I’ve liked, I like the new High on Fire record… but that [Observers] one really blew my mind. I heard a song from the new Dillinger Four record that really blew my mind, really fucking good song.

Good thing to be saying a the Triple Rock!


What’s something that’s on your mind a lot?

I think a lot of people wonder how to just live. Because life is confusing and difficult and no one likes to talk about it and I don’t blame them. And since I’m a little bit older than most people who are involved with this scene--I don’t exactly have a lot of advice-- but I will say that if you experience a lot of confusion, depression and anxiety, drug problems, anything like that, you’re not alone. Things aren’t usually as bad as they seem, and things can get better if you point yourself in the right direction. And I don’t mean to be Mr. Posi-core, but that’s something that when I was in my 20’s, if I had heard someone a little bit older say that I would have found it encouraging. And being a little bit older—I’m 40 now—I’ve found that it’s true. If you try and do the right thing, things get better. It takes time, but that’s my message.

Is there anything I didn’t cover you’d like to add?

Here’s something that comes to mind: I think that bands should spend less time getting all their performances perfect on their records. It’s better to sound like a real band than to have everything stapled to a grid, and I think the aesthetic of making everything sound totally perfect has hurt music. And I think it’s more of a product of the music industry than what people actually want to hear.

Review: The Mars Volta - "Octahedron"

What about the voice of Geddy Lee…
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy (?)
I know him, and he does”

- Pavement, 1997

What about the voice of Cedric Bixler-Zavala…
How did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy (?)
I’ve heard him, and he kind of does”

- GlassPipeMurder, 2009

It’s been just a year since the Mars Volta’s Grammy-winning The Bedlam in Goliath dropped, but everyone’s favorite pair of afroed Texicans are already back with a new set of spacey riffs, vexing time signatures and hallucinogenic lyrics comprising the eight songs of Octahedron.

While comparing this post-hardcore/prog-rock/Latin-influenced jam factory to Rush is both a lazy description and an erroneous one, it’s harder to avoid on Octahedron than in the past. While this may be due in part to not promoting the album with a free Circle Jerks cover, and the album itself somewhat lacking the frequency of spastic freakouts found on Goliath, it’s also by design the band’s “acoustic” album, drawing much less from punk dynamism and even more on ambience, minimalism and metamorphosing musical transitions. However, even though the band refers to it as their acoustic album, there are enough chaotic outbursts and rollicking rhythms to satisfy those still riding the train from the At the Drive-In days.

“Since We’ve Been Wrong,” the album’s North American single, will probably not satisfy said fans, though. Drifting calmly, it wanes more than it waxes, but does serve as a new, more relaxed direction for the mercilessly progressive act. Europe’s first single “Cotopaxi” is much more in the vein of what one would expect from the Mars Volta. With a fuzzy groove and hastened tempo complementing Bixler-Zavala’s soaring vocals, it makes for the album’s best track while completely putting to rest any literal interpretations of this as an acoustic album. The album is thus rescued from tedium alongside such other notables as “Teflon,” which helps reiterate the mastery of guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez’s production skills, and “Desperate Graves,” a startlingly straightforward number structurally and lyrically as Cedric promises creepily, “When I turn the dial and leave the gas on / I'm the matchstick that you'll never lose.”

Some of the tracks demand more patience than they may be worth to many listeners, such as the seven-and-a-half minute “Copernicus” that follows a crawling guitar pattern up and down the scale, flanking the seemingly effortless crooning that deviates only to reach for excessively high stretches. “With Twilight as My Guide” reaches nearly eight minutes, rooted in an atmospheric foundation aided by former Sublime and LBDAS confidant (and seemingly Mars Volta lifer) Ikey Owens. It’s an interesting number, but it never takes off and passes by rather unassumingly.

Then there are those on Octahedron that do a magnificent balancing act between the minimalism of the “acoustic” direction and the convulsive Mars Volta that wows listeners around the world. “Halo of Nembutals” erupts in a series of crashes and staccato flairs after glowing softly for a minute and a half, while album closer “Luciforms” captures a quiet intensity offset with paroxysmal whirling and some of the best guitar soloing in the band’s catalog.

Octahedron is certainly not going to win over any critics or skeptics of the inexorably experimental ensemble. To them, this is probably more of the same weird clamor of the last seven years, just with a different title. And while that may be true to an extent, followers of the band will find a more controlled, meditative effort here that still manages to impress the same level of musical ingenuity.

Review: Outbreak - "Work to Death"

What’s the appeal of Outbreak?

That’s a lot like asking why people enjoy slam-dancing, hedg-ediving, or skateboarding without pads. It’s violent, it’s aggressive, it’s crass, and it’s fun.

Outbreak throws back to the golden days of hardcore, but not in a completely aesthetic way like such similarly great acts as Government Warning, Double Negative and Chronic Seizure. With Outbreak, the crude lyrics, manic shouts and sandpaper riffs aren’t homage to the past -- they’re the full-throttle effort of a band whose initial ambitions exceeded their correlating abilities. But that’s kind of the charm. And while they’ve grown musically and lyrically since, the offsetting youthful vigor has helped them maintain a level of rawness that most bands would have lost after six years of touring and putting out records.

Thankfully to rest any doubts that might exist based on the previous paragraph, the band has provided such illustrative examples on their new 7”, Work to Death, as the 38-second A-side “Don’t Want to Fade (to Death).” Toggling between a heap of gang vocals are the snotty thrashcore vocals á la Common Enemy that separate Outbreak from many of their hardcore peers. While the lyrics may be simple (and let’s face it, they are), the tenacity with which they’re delivered helps drive home the point that much more: “Don’t want to be plain and dull / ... / Don’t want to follow your rules!”

Side B is nearly four times the length of the first tune, as “(Work)ing Deads” powers forward with the help of a pummeling rhythm and glass-cutting guitar lead. If you can stomach the off-key wails like most punks should be able to, “(Work)ing Deads” is a juicy hardcore jam, topped off by a fantastic group-shout breakdown to close out the song.

Though brief in duration, Outbreak’s Work to Death is an enjoyable taste of the band and will certainly tide those over who have been craving more Outbreak while awaiting the band’s full-length followup to Failure.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Classics of Love - "Walking in Shadows"

Classics of love
make a dark day light
If you don’t believe the words then just look into their eyes"

- Common Rider, 1999

Like a crystal-clear prophecy, self-fulfilled by a resolute thrust of momentum and passion, Jesse Michaels has returned to making music. After five years without a band, Classics of Love has found the former Operation Ivy, Common Rider and Big Rig frontman joining the entire cast of Hard Girls to rip forth a new set of urgently delivered punk, nascent and sprightly, but with 20 years of substantive seasoning underpinning its foundation.

As each project Michaels has unveiled throughout the years has sounded considerably different than what preceded it, it should come as no surprise that Classics of Love is no “part two” of any earlier bands. Sure, there are elements of past work in the sound of the present -- the burning exigency of “Don’t Stand Down” smacks slightly of Big Rig while “Slow Car Crash” invokes memories of This is Unity Music outtakes -- but the sonic depth and brooding chord patterns are unlike anything from Michaels’ archives.

The angular “Countdown” begins choppy and unsteady, lifting off the EP with a half-step progression before the anthemic chorus explodes like a rocket, soaring for a few bars before returning to the shifty verse and speculative presentiment. “No Return” is perhaps the disc’s catchiest and most straightforward, seemingly in the same vein as Common Rider’s “Rise or Fall,” or to paraphrase Michaels, “I used to drink a lot and it was a lot of fun. And then it stopped being fun, and then I stopped drinking, though I’m not suggesting everyone should do that.”

The title track bobs and pops, grazing past reggae, punk and hip-hop without ever firmly latching on to any such style on the EP’s most rhythmic cut. In a Q & A with Michaels in 2007, he contested “Punk is, as far as I am concerned, the greatest form of rock & roll but it is not the ONLY form.” This sentiment seems to radiate on “Time Flies,” which bears more resemblance to the Who than the Clash, while still packing energy that matches the rest of the songs. The highlight “Don’t Stand Down” finds more contemporary parallels in acts like the Observers and Red Dons while showcasing Morgan Herrell’s ballsy bassline and the melodic poetry fans of Operation Ivy and Common Rider have come to expect: “In this book of years we read there are no torn-out pages / We watched waves of fear and dread proclaimed by our own state sages / Everyone becomes content with lesser joys / Maybe now it’s time to disclaim the national noise.”

Dressed in stunningly minimalist artwork done by Michaels himself, this six-song set can stand alone as yet another qualitatively great contribution to music from the Berkeley native. However, one can’t help but hope this is only a taste of what’s to come for Classics of Love, and that there is still plenty of more music from this group to follow.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Review: The Replacements - "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash"

In retrospect, and with their breakup 15 years in the past, it’s much easier to stomach the Replacements’ constant evolution and cycles of stylistic departure. One can only imagine some angsty Midwest teenager finding his new favorite band in 1982’s Stink only to hear a different band entirely upon picking up a copy of Let It Be just two years later. It’s certainly a good thing there weren’t online message boards back then.

None of that really matters in this case, though, as Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash is both the Replacements' first album and their best. Sure, albums like Pleased to Meet Me and Tim transcended genres, record labels, and helped birth the fledgling aesthetic of indie rock, but Sorry Ma did more. At a time when “hardcore punk” often meant nothing more than playing as fast and abrasive as possible, the album never sacrificed its pop appeal for throat-searing screams and whiplash speed. While the bulk of the movement was focusing their energy against social norms, the Reagan era, and the established roots of rock ‘n’ roll, the Replacements were writing 32-bar pop songs like “Love You ‘Til Friday” and “I’m In Trouble” to a spanking punk rhythm and grating guitars.

What’s most fascinating is that the band seems the most comfortable on this set of songs than anytime thereafter despite founding drummer Chris Mars’ confession “We were confused about what we were” as part of the hardcore scene. However, it’s certainly easy to understand why. The ‘Mats were playing better than the majority of their contemporaries, and that may have been the problem. From the flirtations with golden-era rock ‘n’ roll in “Shutup” to the confident chops and pop of “I’m in Trouble” to the loungy “Johnny’s Gonna Die” (which would later find itself referenced on NOFX’s “Jaw Knee Music”), the Replacements were somewhat of the black sheep in hardcore’s early years of distortion-and-scream, 50-second gut punches.

That’s not to say the punk spirit isn’t overflowing in every song, though. Songs like “More Cigarettes,” “I Hate Music,” “Raised in the City” and their smile-and-wink to Twin Cities rivals Hüsker Dü in “Something to Dü” harness the youthful rebellion that gave the genre its credibility. The difference is that while most hardcore bands at the time played poorly to distance themselves from mainstream music, the Replacements played extremely well and distanced themselves from everyone.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review: Dos - "Justamente Tres"

In the expansive stylistic breadth that punk’s attitude and ideology both allows and demands, it’s no surprise that its pioneers are the ones who've seemed to take most advantage and keep pushing its innovation. Whether it be Ian Mackaye’s minimalist baritone approach with the Evens, John Lydon’s foray into musique concrète with Public Image Ltd., or Joe Strummer’s world-music punk with the Mescaleros, it appears the legions that followed the first few waves of punk have been plagued hardest of all with the notion that good music made by punk rockers can somehow be “not punk enough.”

Consisting solely of Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler (plus their basses), Dos formed after the death of Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in 1985 as a means for Watt to keep making music and emerge from the depression that ensued upon Boon’s passing. Roessler and Watt married in 1987 and were together until 1994, remaining friends and releasing Justamente Tres in 1996 -- though it was recorded from 1993 to 1994.

Justamente Tres is a low-key potpourri sampling Dos originals, classic covers and interpolations of Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and Watt’s solo songs. Perhaps the best track on the album comes right off the bat with a stunningly utilitarian rendition of Bessie Smith’s timeless bluesy jazz romp, “Down in the Dumps,” that somehow doesn’t sound lacking in any way, even with only two basses and vocals in lieu of a full Dixieland ensemble. The lively instrumental “Dream of San Pedro” is followed by a soulful cover of Patsy Cline’s “Imagine That.”

Two tracks on Justamente Tres would later evolve into full-band versions released on Watt’s solo record, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, with the superior “Intense Song for Madonna to Sing” playing off the Minutemen’s “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” plus the fairly flat “Sidemouse Advice.” Roessler gets theatrical covering “To Each His Dulcinea” from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha, then reverts back to the `30s again with Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.” “Powerful Hankerin'” is an instrumental with a relaxing progression and comforting hook that would later become a fIREHOSE song while Roessler provides vocals for her own Dos originals, “Little Doll” and “Even the Pain Has Changed,” as the latter proclaims, “It doesn’t get any easier / But there’s a light under the door / Could be a fire burning that’s already reached the core / Could be an empty reflection / There may be no fire no more.” The only track Watt contributes vocals for is the outstanding take on the Minutemen’s “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”, but it works so well, it’s a shame he doesn’t do more vocals on the album.

If ever there was a band to serve as a reminder for what “punk” really means as a form of expression, Dos should be it. Make your own rules, play the music you wanna play…hell, play in a band with your ex-spouse if it’s what you want. Justamente Tres is a great collection of tunes, and a nice change of pace from punk as a musical style rather than a way of thinking.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Review: Trencher - "When Dracula Thinks 'Look at Me'"

When one thinks of oft-imitated bands, the Locust usually isn’t the first one to come to mind. Yet that’s exactly what seems to be dealing a large dose of influence in the direction of London, England’s Trencher. True, Trencher dons infinitely less full-body, skintight nylon suits and operates as a trio sans guitar unlike the full-band, four-piece Locust…but let’s be real: Their ultra-short, noisy blasts of keyboard grind with cringingly creepy lyrical themes (“Horse Race Amputee,” “Erotica of Flies,” “Wounds Cordon Bleu”) roll extremely close in the game of musical marbles to their U.S. tourmates….yeah, the Locust.

While this entire review could probably be spent comparing and contrasting the two bands, let’s pretend for a moment that there’s no basis for association and describe Trencher as is. First observation: no guitar. Distorted bass, shrieks and screams abound, and a Casio keyboard help fill in the sound, that succeeds in at least not sounding lacking at all, and fairly convincing in its grindier moments. Secondly: the songs are short. Like, power-violence short. Blink-and-you-miss-it, 40-seconds-tops short. However, it’s still plenty of time for bone-crushing brutality intertwined with Nintendo-buzz keys and brief flirtations with negative audio space. Trencher’s macabre snark is as incomprehensible on paper as it is in the songs, as the 35-second “Autopsy” reveals: “In through the veils of skin --Lusting! / Break through, hymen! / You’re cracking my cranium / Like scaling the dizzy spine!” Though claiming the prize of longest song on the CD at 1:10, “Hispanic Telepathy Attack” is only one line long: “When you’re running from the law, be more careful and play dead!”

Not including the final track with hidden bonus noise that comes eight minutes after the last song, Trencher crunch out a baker’s dozen worth of spastic Casio-core cuts in less than 10 minutes that are interesting, if not altogether memorable.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review: Last Lights - "No Past No Present No Future"

When Last Lights opened for Four Year Strong at BU Central on December 5th, 2008, the band was celebrating their signing to blossoming punk label Think Fast! just two days prior, and singer Dominic Mallary was as energetic as ever, hurling himself about on the stage, screaming his lungs out and twisting the microphone cord around his neck, as he did nearly every show. A few hours later, his health began rapidly spiraling downwards, as he lost feeling in his legs and eventually convulsed in seizures after being taken to the hospital where he lost consciousness. Some 15 hours after performing what would be his final set, the last lights went out for Dominic Mallary, dying of a brain aneurysm before he could witness the full fruition of all his hard work and talent.

Though the band decided not to go on without Dominic, their recent contract with Think Fast! allowed them a proper sendoff, giving widespread release to their entire discography consolidated onto one album. From their initial self-released demos to their Bad Habit split and Mightier than Sword seven-inch, there’s no lulls or shifts in intensity; the collection is as seamless as if it had been cut in one clean studio swoop.

What Last Lights is able to do in 11 songs is rare. They don’t necessarily walk a line between the old school and the new school of hardcore, but they pull in the better elements of both and create something that’s as fascinating as it is raw and intense. Patches of short, fast Black Flag or Minor Threat riffs crop up (“Everybody’s Working for the Weak End,” “U.S. Out of New England”) to demonstrate the band’s sense of history, but co-mingle with discordant clashes of melody more reminiscent of Modern Life Is War or Bane. But what really solidifies Last Lights’ well-deserved recognition is the grimy, defiantly realist poetry of Mallary swimming in and out of the band’s damaging hardcore melee.

Mallary graduated from Emerson College in 2007. After one scan through the lyrics booklet of No Past No Present No Future, it’s hardly surprising that he focused his studies on writing, literature and publishing. Troubled by the wretched, creeping normalcy of modern society, burnt out on suburban blight and the false promise of the American dream, Mallary paints a bleak picture of the youth of recent past: “I was raised by radio waves in my parents’ separate homes / While our future was mortgaged for the down payment on a war of our own” (“No Future”); “These days are spent trading in cheap white lies / I’ll paint them black and call it a night / I tried but the light was never enough / This life could be the death of us” (“Destroy What Destroys You”). There's even the occasional homage buried in the lesson, as the Clash is quickly referenced twice in “Love + Rent”: “He who fucks nuns later joins the church / In the sad small town where fascism sells / The youth have hope, but give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves from wedding bells.” “Oh, Modern World” showcases one of the best single lines in recent hardcore memory (“Hey, hey, hey humanist: your Holy Grail is a cup of piss”) but it slightly loses its allure the eighth time it’s repeated. The only track exclusive to this disc is the instrumental “Sink.” Recorded in January of 2009 after Mallary’s passing, it’s pretty good for an instrumental hardcore song, but is clearly missing the key element of Last Lights’ greatness.

Though lead singer Dominic Mallary is gone and missed, No Past No Present No Future is a stirring encapsulation of his legacy. Graced, with the hauntingly lush artwork of Tim Brothers and a lyrics booklet of complete with photos of Mallary and the band at their finest, it makes it all that much more of a shame that Think Fast! is abandoning compact discs, because no digital package will be able to capture the feelings that complement the music in this way. But to give gratitude where it’s due, Dominic’s final goodbye is in fine form with this release.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: Roll Call - "Sotto il suo Cielo"

Finally! A European punk band that doesn’t feel like they have to sing in awkward, grammatically-massacred English! It’s a breath of fresh air, but alas, it’s also one of the more exciting things about this album.

Roll Call hails from Italy and plays a standard style of slow Oi! punk and/or roughed-up rock and roll. Though the first track “Preludio” is an intensity-building angry mob clip like the beginning of Refused’s “Rather Be Dead” or Leftover Crack’s “So You Wanna Be a Cop?”, the album that follows thoroughly lacks the intensity to match.

The main problem is with the pacing. Slower songs aren’t inherently bad, but the sluggishness heard here is almost distracting. Songs like “Ricco Annoiato” (or “Bored Rich”) and “Fiero” (“Proud”) aren’t really bad, but with the average song somewhere around four minutes in length, they just spend too much time not really going anywhere. “No Mi Tzicheddi” is the fastest song, and at 3:44, nearly the shortest, which would generally make for the best of a punk band, but the repetitive chord pattern makes getting through it a chore. The album’s most enjoyable track is actually “Sotto il suo Cielo” (“Under Her Sky”) which is catchy and has a great gang chorus that captures the Oi! spirit better than anything else on the disc. The nice part about the included CD booklet is that it comes complete with translations of each song from the Italian they were written and sang in to the English of this review. Though the translations are a bit rough, it’s evident that Roll Call has a pretty good handle on lyric writing, though it’s hard to compare to other Italian bands who don’t include translations. Take “Appropriazione indebta” for instance: “Man open your eyes and look at your land / Raped by sheikhs and war debts / Our history derided and reduced to folklore / Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the big show.”

There are some pretty decent songs on here, but save for a few tracks, Roll Call fails to create anthems the way great oi! bands like Cock Sparrer and Sham 69 did.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Interview: Agnostic Front

The New York Hardcore institution known as Agnostic Front has been around in consistent form since 1983, making it one of the longest-running hardcore bands that hasn’t splintered into some unrecognizable faction or faux-legacy of reunions and hostile takeovers (see “Dead Kennedys,” “Misfits,” “Gang Green,” etc). Nearly thirty years after their formation, I (GlassPipeMurder) had the chance to sit down with founding guitarist Vinnie Stigma, Joseph James, Mike Gallo, and drummer Pokey Mo, who had just joined Agnostic Front last month. I don’t feel like I pulled any punches in this interview, and the band was very forthcoming, sincere, and appreciative of the interest in Agnostic Front.

The band released Warriors in 2007 and talked about the past, present, and future of Agnostic Front backstage before their show at Minneapolis’ Triple Rock Social Club.

You can click Read More for the details.

How are you guys doing? How does it feel to be alive and on tour in 2009?

Vinnie Stigma: Feels great. I’ll be doing it until I’m dead.

Are you still enjoying touring after all these years?

Vinnie: I do, we do, yeah. Me and Mikey always tour, we love it.

I read that 2009 is the ten-year anniversary of your tattoo shop [NYHC Tattoos] on the Lower East Side. Ballpark it: how many tattoos would you estimate Agnostic Front has collectively as a band?

Vinnie: Right now, as in the current members of the band? Definitely over a hundred.

Mike Gallo: Oh yeah.

Vinnie: Well over a hundred.

All done in your shop or around the world?

Vinnie: From all over, a whole lot in the shop, though.

After devoting the better part of the decade to Agnostic Front, Steve [Gallo] is no longer in the band and I know a lot of people are curious why. Can you give any indication or comment?

Mike: He was just…I think he was tired of touring. He’s teaching music now in New York.

So now Pokey Mo has taken over behind the kit. Pokey, what do you bring to the band?

Pokey: I guess I bring about 20 years of hardcore experience. I’ve been in the band Both Worlds with John Joseph and played in a couple of Cro-Mag shows and Murphys Law as well, Marauder, so I bring the old-school flavor to the band.

Agnostic Front and Madball are heading to South America this fall, though it’s not the first time either bands have toured there, as you kind of paved the way for future bands before it was really considered a viable touring option. With the fanbase you’ve built up down there and your connection with the Latino community having released the Puro Des Madre record, do you have big expectations for the tour?

Mike: I know all the major cities are already sold out, and I think Freddy’s gonna come out and do “For My Family” with us.

Vinnie, are you gonna jump on stage and perform with Madball at all?

Vinnie: Yeah, I’ll go on, we’ll make it a show, featuring me. We’ll have fun. The Vinnie and Freddy show [laughs].

I understand there’s an all-Spanish split CD in the works?

Mike: Yeah, we’re gonna do “For My Family” in Spanish, maybe another song and Madball’s gonna do something else also, a couple songs in Spanish. We’re gonna release it [in South America] first and then maybe we’ll release here, I’m not sure.

Vinnie, I wanted to offer my condolences that your presidential bid didn’t end up in your favor, but it seemed like the youtube videos were a big hit, where did the idea for that come from?

Vinnie: This great guy came to my house and puts a green screen up. And…jeez I don’t even know! [laughs and shrugs]

Are you okay though with the way the election turned out though? I mean, it could have been worse right?

Vinnie: It is what it is, ya know. He’s my President, I stand behind him.

Now talk a little bit about your new solo album New York Blood. Who’s been playing on the recording and for the shows?

Mike: Me, Vinnie, Josh, Luke, the whole band. Rob Lopez on guitar, and that’s our current, steady lineup. [We did] shows with Dropkick Murphys, H2O, couple of different shows.

Vinnie: We just had our record release party about 30 days ago, so it’s a brand-new record so we’re bringing new music to the table. And we already have the next record half-written!

Is New York Blood something you’ve been working on for awhile now?

Vinnie: When you do a solo record, it’s a different thing. Agnostic Front is my band, and then we went solo, Me and Mikey, and now we’re starting to put out records. If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right.

I heard you’re doing some acting too?

Vinnie: I got a new movie out called “New York Blood.” Mikey is in it, a bunch of my friends are in it. It’s like a Sopranos horror movie. It won the New York Film Festival award. It’s an hour long, it’s a feature film, it’s a movie, not a documentary. And if you like gangster movies, you’re gonna like my movie.

Is it out yet?

Vinnie: Yeah, it’s out. It’s on

What do you remember about your appearance on Phil Donahue’s show in 1986?

Vinnie: I remember that he liked to insinuate things for ratings. That’s what I remember. And I remember it was ahead of the curve [in that respect].

Yeah, Donahue was upset about [the song] “Public Assistance” even though Agnostic Front had already released songs like “Fascist Attitudes,” “United and Strong”…

Vinnie: “United Blood” too!

Yeah! Really anti-racist, anti-fascist songs…So were they just trying to construct their own controversy there?

Mike: That’s what the media does. That’s their job, of course they do. They blow everything out of proportion, even the weather. They say you’ll get twenty inches of snow and you get two.

Given the diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds of Agnostic Front’s members, do you have any idea why there are still neo-nazis and White Pride racists that seem to be into Agnostic Front? [Question was spurred by a MySpace comment to “keep it WP”, which seems illogical since Pokey is Asian]

Pokey: I have no idea. You’d have to ask them. It’s nothing that we’ve ever been a part of, and our message as a band is unity. I think what you have is people latching on to something from the earlier records they misunderstood in the first place and twisted it to fit their ideas. Growing up in the ‘80s in New York City, it was a different place, and there were people who wanted to speak out against discrimination of any kind. Everybody was against Reagan, but there were some [of us] who didn’t care for the anti-Americanism and wanted to make the country better and some people twisted that into nationalism on like the extreme, far right side. All the hardcore bands in New York know each other and play together so unity is something that is obviously very important to us.

Agnostic Front has always been very versatile with different sounds. With Epitaph and Lars Frederiksen there was more of a hardcore oi! sound, and with Freddy Cricien and Jamey Jasta producing the least two records they’ve been a bit more of a metallic hardcore style. What influences Agnostic Front in a certain direction and how do you decide which direction to take a certain album?

Mike: Basically it’s what we’re listening to at the moment or whatever we’re in the mood for.

Vinnie: Different members, times change, we change it up

Mike: We just put out what we love, whether it’s punk, metal, hardcore, oi!, whatever, you know? That’s basically what we do these days. Whatever we’re feeling, whatever feels right, that’s pretty much where we’re at right now.

Warriors was your last album, are you guys fans of “The Warriors” the movie?

Mike: Oh yeah, of course!

Was that kind of the theme for the last album?

Joseph James: Not really, actually what happened was we went to Japan on tour, and while we were there we experienced a lot of the culture, and the overall sentiment that we got from people was honor, pride, and respect for what they do and it kind of hit us in a way that made us think about the Warrior’s Code which is like, pride, faith, respect, and that really influenced the Warriors album and it just was a coincidence with the movie.

I was just curious because I saw they are remaking “The Warriors” movie and having it take place in L.A. and was wondering if you take offense to that being from New York?

Joseph: Absolutely! [laughs]

Vinnie: They don’t have as grimey of train stations in L.A.!

Mike: There’s no new ideas anymore, everything’s a remake. It’s disturbing to me because these are classic movies that don’t need to be touched, don’t need to be redone. It’s like taking classic albums and re-recording them. It loses some of the magic in the remake.

Vinnie: Like “The Honeymooners” remake!

Mike: How many movies can you name that are better than the original? “Cape Fear” was good but….don’t mess with the originals for the most part.

Have you started working on a follow-up to Warriors?

Mike: We’re doing that right now. We’re just in the writing process right now. We had to step back a bit, because we have a new drummer now but now we’re gonna start when we get back home, start writing more stuff.

Anything else any of you would like to add?

Joseph: Thank you for your continued support of Agnostic Front. Our heart is still in it and we’re very proud to do it and travel and hope to see you at the next show.

Vinnie: Come out to the Stigma show with me and Mikey, we’ll have a good time. We’ll be back here with Anti-Nowhere League and 999 in July, and you too can be in my movie [laughs].

Review: Roll the Tanks - "Suffer City"

First impressions aren’t nearly as important as everyone makes them out to be. If they were, I would be much more smitten over this album than I actually am. And even though (spoiler alert) it’s not bad, my initial enthusiasm faded quickly.

With a pretty good band name, cool CD booklet artwork, a clever title take on David Bowie’s “Suffragette City” and a good introductory song chosen randomly by the “shuffle” option on my CD player, this disc seemed to have a lot going for it. But by the end of the cycle, I found myself not only less impressed with Roll the Tanks -- I couldn’t even find the first song I really liked again! Either I was hyping up my own enjoyment, or the rest of the album’s patchiness washed away the early delight.

Based on re-listens, I would have to guess it was either “Police Me,” a catchy mid-tempo power-popper of threats to “Crash down on your Crown Vic,” or “Defense Mecca,” a choppy garage tune that must have been the one I liked because I remember muttering something to myself about the Briefs with an emo singer. And that’s exactly what some of the better songs come across as. Well, maybe not an emo singer, but whoever is singing (which is hard to tell since all the members are listed with respective instruments rather than vocals in the booklet) puts an unwelcome melodramatic sheen on every word in every line of every song. Case in point is “Gameshow Love,” which sandwhiches a charming intro and outro melody and great musical composition with an “iraaaaaaaational”-ly drawn out vocal delivery. Then there’s the dusty twang of “Loaded Gun,” which is also kind of catchy in some parts, but the repetitive chorus and vocals that keep reminding me of the Pink Spiders and the Matches nearly kill it.

But enough with the heavy-handed slander. There are some good songs on Suffer City and Roll the Tanks definitely know what they’re doing. “Look at Me” is a manic, bluesy screamer with the promise “In time we’ll reach up with a firm grip / See how strong his neck is / Bring him down to Earth for the Armageddon picnic” and “Blood Flow” is an infectious foot-tapper anchored by a fairly strong chorus. The main problem tracks are the wispy Spaghetti-Western-meets-Shins numbers like “Saddle Up,” “Loaded Gun,” and “Bonnie Brae,” which aren’t even unlistenable -- they just disrupt the flow and add some cringe where there otherwise might be none.

Suffer City is a fairly enjoyable, though sometimes mildly obnoxious debut that has the potential to get Roll the Tanks big. It has the pop appeal you would expect from a band punning David Bowie and the energetic kick to satisfy the rest of us. And fortunately for all parties, Roll the Tanks have nothing in common with their “similar artists” of “K’naan Ft. Kirk Hammet, Jonathan Davis of Korn Ft. Jim Root of Slipknot, and M.I.A. Ft. Jay-Z”, though the latter may have been kind of cool.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review: Gonzales - "Checkmate"

Contrary to the undiscerning robots of, Gonzales is not “a Canadian multi-talented musician known for his MC and electro albums (i.e. "The Entertainist" and "Presidential Suite") and his comical live shows, is able to play the piano, guitar, bass, drums and various brass instruments and [who] in the 1990s, was the leader of the alternative rock band Son before embarking on his solo career.” This Gonzales is a mildly Bronx-y punk-n-roll quartet from Italy.

Checkmate is a fluid, ten-song, 30-minute blast of really fast rock and roll, southernized slightly (where the faint Bronx comparisons come in) but whipping by with almost a skatepunk propensity. Either Markey Moon or Mark Simon Hell (whoever is doing the majority of the guitar solos on this album) is ridiculously good and saves this album from the threat of mediocrity. Even though the Italian accents and awkwardly pronounced vocals tend to get in the way, the semi-distorted tone and production/mixing help effectively cover it up. There’s no lyrics in the included booklet (only thanks, contact info, and production notes) but with songs titled “Kiss the Sky,” “Go to Hell” and “Nothing to Lose,” it’s safe to say Gonzales isn’t betting the ranch on their songwriting ingenuity. What they do succeed in is crafting numbers that utilize the soaring solos of the aforementioned guitar. Their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” isn’t bad (probably the best cut on the CD), but besides being beaten to the punch by Social Distortion by nearly 20 years, the concept of an Italian punk band trying their hand at Johnny Cash is executed at the same level it looks on paper. The album-ender “My Son” is the band at their most minimalist, slowing down the tempo, focusing on the riff and building a gang vocal effort that doesn’t rely as heavily on fierce guitar playing but still works.

However, the band’s clear competitive advantage comes in the form of balls-to-the-wall rock ‘n’ roll led by impressive guitar work, which thankfully is in no short supply on Checkmate.

Review: Skavesa - "10 Years of Love and Hate"

Adequate but average ska is one of the most difficult segments of music to assess and write about, I’ve found. By its shear makeup, a run-of-the-mill ska record will almost always be qualitatively better than its punk rock counterpart, but the leisurely pace and homogeneous structures of the former can make it just as shrug-worthy.

Italy’s Skavesa` released their first album 10 years ago (hence title) and have moved from a ska-core approach to a more traditional two-tone sound since their inception. Hauling in big-name ska-sicians Vic Ruggiero of the Slackers and King Django of Skinnerbox, Stubborn All-Stars and Murphy’s Law among others to produce the album, Skavesa`’s 10 Years of Love and Hate is observably fueled towards the likeness of its engineers. Even with a smooth rocksteady sound and crystal-clean production, though, it lacks the x-factor that makes good ska great. The ESL lyrics unsurprisingly cannot capture what streetwise poets like Ruggiero add to their music, and the cocky charisma of Django is practically unmatchable.

The lead track “Caresses” is probably the strongest of the CD, a sunny reggae offering warmed by consecutive organ and sax mini-solos and some breezy guitar work to finish the track strong. The next couple songs kind of blend together, though “Lovely Girl” has a bit more lively rhythm but falls victim to female chipmunk vocals that make for a less enjoyable listen. “My Angel” is spit-shined with polished brass, but the lyrics leave no uncertainty of the language divide: “Distant day / I had you come closer / And you layed down on my laps / I remembered it like yesterday / Your eyes sparkied of hapiness” [sic]. Still, vocalist Ferrari Fabrizio’s relaxing croon low-lights such grievances and finds the band settling into their groove midway through. But just before peaking, Skavesa busts out the jarringly hyper title track, a nimble-footed blue-beat tune of jousting organ and guitar unified by a solid horn line.

On 10 Years of Love and Hate, Skavesa` is playing the same ska/reggae/rocksteady sound of a zillion other acts capturing the retro flair of the genre’s pioneers. It’s not groundbreaking and it’s not trying to be, but more importantly, it’s executed fairly well.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Review: Druglords of the Avenues - "Sing Songs"

God bless the Swingin’ Utters and all the ten-thousand branches of their musical family tree. The level of consistent quality not only ensures a worthwhile purchase, but effectively renders obsolete any excuses or attempts to justify illegal downloading “just to make sure it’s good.” Because whenever Swingin’ Utters-related music comes out, you know damn well it’s gonna be good.

Long-time Utters frontman Johnny Bonnel also fronts Druglords of the Avenues, the Northern California ensemble that self-released their debut and nearly watched it sell out before Red Scare Industries came to the rescue, bringing Sing Songs wider distribution and the attention it deserves while preserving the enthralling artwork done by Bonnel himself.

Backed by members of Knuckle Up, Moonshine, Butterface and Hot Heresy, Druglords of the Avenues represents the complete other side of the spectrum from Bonnel’s Filthy Thieving Bastards whereas Swingin’ Utters meets halfway between. That is to say that if there was a Venn Diagram for visual aid, Filthy Thieving Bastards would be the right circle with their blend of mostly punked-up country and folk, Swingin’ Utters would be in the middle blending country, folk, ska and street punk amongst other styles, and Druglords of the Avenues would be on the far left spitting out nothing but raw, unadulterated street punk.

But it’s still classy, mind you. Bonnel has one of the most articulate mouths in punk, and doesn’t shy away from esoterically poetic storytelling even while howling out to grubby, working-class jams. Arcane opener “Me Decided” sounds like a cross between the whimsical tirades of a salty seafarer and graphic sexual accounts told through quasi-colloquial innuendo: “Me feel so strongly that me gave inside your cave / Be still so calmly catch me make upside your cake / Me chill salami watch me wait outside your gate / Me saw a vessel that me rode inside a cove / Me draw a pistol that me tote inside me coat / Me was a fistful watch me float inside your boat." The song is catchy and upbeat, as are those surrounding it and at its opposite end, rounding out the album with a fantastic hidden cover of an influential Twin Cities punk band and “So Called Druglords,” which finds Bonnel pitching a suggestion to “listen to Crimpshrine.” “He Loves” follows “Me Decided,” anchored with a pleasant guitar hook that makes the verses more memorable than the chorus.

The artist-track “Druglords of the Avenues” is the album’s catchiest but nearly ruined by a perfunctory throng of “Hey!”s that sounds like a tiny, miniature Oi!-boy being pounded over the head with a rubber mallet. It eventually becomes tolerable, and perhaps even welcomed, but not without some getting used to. The fourth track “Stalling Breed” is the temporary finale of the record’s more pop-oriented tunes as a harder-edged street punk style emerges for dominion of the interior. “What Is Good,” “So Mixed Up” and the ruthlessly a-melodic “Search Again” are straightforward lyrically and musically, and provide a better soundtrack for slapping a heavy bag than singing in the shower.

Sing Songs is punk’s perfect paradox; the debut of this veteran assembly is artistic and utilitarian, witty and forthright, of poetry and prose. Whether expressed through a capricious chorus or an uninhibited yell, Druglords of the Avenues tell their stories with sophistication and zeal and the salivary projection of a street punk band armed with the aptitude to match.