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.