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.