#- Modern Life is War - Witness
This week, Marshalltown, Iowa’s, Modern Life is War broke a 5 year hiatus, unleashing their new record Fever Dreaming. While the jury may still be out on it, this seems like as good as time as any to reflect on their landmark 2005 album, Witness, as I found myself doing last week.
I’ve written and spoken at length about how Give Up the Ghost’s 2003 finale We’re Down ‘Til We’re Underground marked an end to a certain style of hardcore which already by that point had found itself increasingly moving towards metal. Keystone records like Botch’s We Are The Romans and Converge’s Jane Doe changed the face of what it meant to be a hardcore bands; these bands were still that in spirit, but their sound had progressed to so much more. Give Up the Ghost were the last crusaders of an already dying genre, and by the time of 2005, no-one was really just a hardcore band any more.
Modern Life is War were in a lot of ways just a tiny bit too late to make a huge impact. The cultural significance of being a hardcore band as it was known had shifted dramatically. What kept them relevant was their highly encouraging début My Love, My Way. Released at around the same time Give up the Ghost disintegrated, Modern Life is War quickly became a cult band who they reminded many of then American Nightmare’s Background Music. Modern Life is War were keenly encouraged to carry the torch now that AN/GUTG were gone, but the difference was, many of those fans by now had moved on to other things.
This worked incredible things for when MLIW sat down to write their follow-up, Witness. Here was a band with an incredible amount of pressure, tipped to be the saviours of that “classic” hardcore sound in a genre that can be highly parabolic, and yet at the same time, the majority of the music world ignored them, not satisfied with being “just a hardcore band” any more, particularly with so many of their peers and heroes disbanding at this time.
What an incredible thing this follow-up turned out to be then. Weighing in at a measly 9 songs and 25 minutes, Witness uses all the force of it’s fallen heroes, old - “We’re Still D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S” - or new - it was released on the then fairly young Deathwish Records, run by Converge’s Jacob Bannon (who also designed the album’s powerful artwork) and recorded by the peerless Kurt Ballou.
Witness is such an incredible work, it’s tough to know how to begin talking about it. Even it’s artwork perfectly encapsulates the alienation and frustration this record is constantly tearing at the seams with, capturing a Marshalltown, Iowa from 1896, in monochrome, a town which presumably, by listening to the record, feels stuck in the past and aggressively colourless to this day.
Right from the opening guitar line of “The Outsiders” Witness is an empowering record. I still to this day remember the feeling of the first time I listened to it nearly a decade ago (16, growing up is absolute nowhere town of my own), and to use a cliché, not only felt the hairs stand up, but felt an urge for everything inside of me to be thrown out into the ether. It’s still the case today. And from the moment Jeffrey Eaton offers up the question “SO WHAT THE FUCK, ARE YOU GOING TO DO KID?” there was nothing else that could possibly have spoken more directly. There are scarce comparisons to a more perfect opening to a record, this is the frustration felt by millions of teenagers everywhere, striving to better themselves but not knowing how, and none more brilliantly captured than by these 5 guys who are laying all their guts out for all to see.
What’s really evidently stunning about this album is that it’s one of those rare occasions where every single member of the band seems perfectly in tune with each other. That’s what makes this such a cohesive record, it’s a short, sharp, shock which doesn’t attempt to thrill you clever experimentation nor stick too closely to the perceived conventions of hardcore (rather like that other hugely loved and respected aforementioned band) but merely to write songs which tell a story of pure loneliness, frustration and alienation. There are plentiful examples of this incredible skill, such as when the drums and Eaton kick in to “The Outsiders” or the way that before you can catch your breath, you’re suddenly in the double-time, disorientating chaos of “Martin Atchet”; the moment of reflection turned dizzying crescendo on the simply titled “Marshalltown”; the fact that they somehow managed to write a catchy single in “D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S”; the absolutely heartbreaking, emotional breakdown of “I’m Not Ready”; the closing moments of “Hair Raising Accounts…”. Perhaps the example in which they really shine however is the penultimate The Who referencing “Young Man Blues” a disconcertingly upbeat song from it’s initial classic hard-rock guitar riff, until about half way through where the song turns into a minute long build-up, piling layers upon layers of nervous tension before the brief explosion and quite possibly most succinct statement of the band’s career, when Eaton proclaims
"I am the 4 a.m.
Arcade Street white bloodshot witness.
I’m just another kid in the chorus.
An empty street corner prophet…
In this modern life…
Cheap and disconnected…
Where there is a siege going on and the besieged will be the last to know”
it is a purely thrilling moment.
For though it certainly doesn’t hurt that Kurt Ballou makes this record sound absolutely massive from it’s very first guitar strum to it’s final drum shot, it is Eaton who somewhat steals the show here. He already showed he was a more than capable lyricist on My Love, My Way, but rather like Wesley Eisold before him, his vocals lacked the clarity or confidence to really make their full impact. There is absolutely no mistaking it here. From that very first, aforementioned line, Eaton’s voice has this incredibly powerful tone which can tell dozens of stories from it’s intonation alone. Hardcore music is at it’s best when it reaches a genuine honesty in it’s emotional make-up which is so rarely found in countless other genres, but increasingly by this point, was lost in many “hardcore” bands. Part of the reason the genre’s relevance was dying was because it’s many front-men and even often supporting band so rarely felt like they really meant it; Eisold merely put a witty and ironic epigram on it’s tombstone. But the pain and torture in Eaton’s voice is somewhat scary as it is stunning; the emotion and frustration of it runs exactly parallel to the deep lyrical content, and yet remains powerful and memorable to give it real impact. The stories of Marshalltown could and are those of thousands of nowhere towns and the largely alienated individuals which inhabit them, and Eaton captures them with the same brutal honesty and imagination as a young Bruce Springsteen once did about his native Ashbury Park, New Jersey. Both men looked around them and saw the great depression of America largely exhibited in Witness' artwork, saw all those around them in financial woe or drugs or worse and saw themselves potentially going the same way if they didn't act fast, what possible better inspiration could one have to write music that really matters and speaks to people than the one which surrounds countless others every day. That’s what I mean when I say Witness is an empowering, inspiring record; it’s content may be largely depressing but as exemplified by “D.E.A.D.R.A.M.O.N.E.S” the ability to make something of yourself, using that angst as a tool to aid it, is an incredibly moving thing to anyone who’s ever felt disappointed by their home.
Modern Life is War would never re-capture the sheer strong-minded spirit of Witness because they would never quite feel such a purely focused source of anger again. Sure, their following records still find lots of things in the world to challenge, but nothing will ever feel as important or as life-affirming/defining as channelling the spirit of millions of alienated young men and women who are fed up with the way their lives are and are desperate for change.
As an epilogue, if you’ll indulge me, this album and this band will always have a special place in my heart because they were the first band I went to see by myself (by that I mean without my parents, I went with some friends) in London at the Camden Barfly in February 2006. It remains one of the greatest spectacles I’ve ever witnessed, as well as one of the first hardcore shows I went to, completely opening (and blowing) my mind. All that tension and expectation from listening to the record was not only recognised, but fully blown apart, such an intoxicating experience this was. I can’t even begin to explain how perfect it was, it was everything I hoped and more, and remains an incredible and even important moment from my adolescence which I will take with me to this day as a huge point of inspiration.
(That’s a 17 year old me standing just behind Jeffrey Eaton, in complete awe)
5-10-15-20 is a regular feature on Pitchfork where we ask musicians about the music from their lives in 5-year intervals; I’ve done fun interviews with Johnny Marr and John Cale. If you wanted to do one I’d love to read it. I’ll add mine at some point. You could give the year for each age:
2012 undoubtedly for me however was a year for Unwound.
They’re particularly appropriate because I literally started listening to them about this time last year on a recommendation from a hometown friend and never really looked back. The first time I really fell was on that long…
Or, why I think Fugazi are our generations’ The Beatles.
Here, if you’ll be so kind to indulge me, I’m going to try something a little different. I am still, much like my earlier work, going to write about of my favourite albums by one of my favourite albums, and still try to give it some context as I go along. But I’m also here (and with my next essay) going to attempt to show the similarities between two (for now) of my favourite ever bands with two bands’ of my parents’ generation, who have the hindsight and the cultural revolutions behind them.
The first of these, compares probably the band who consistently amazes me more than any other, than one who we all know by now many, many, many people feel the same way about them.
Now, I’m aware as soon as anyone throws such a momentous cultural phenomenon as The Beatles into any discourse, you are perhaps entering a potentially endless wasps nest. So before I proceed any further, let me just lay out my intentions fully here:
- I do not for one second intend to insult the fairly sacred musical ground that is The Beatles. Quite the opposite, I am a huge fan of The Beatles and they have been a large part of my musical life for as long as I’ve been able to hear.
- I’m not for one second suggesting Fugazi are even in the same league as far as cultural capital goes, what I intend to do is point out the myriad similarities to the band and how there is a clear influence on the younger band from their earlier peers.
- Finally, music and discourse about music should be experimental, both bands would subscribe to this. Though neither band would perhaps want to associate with the other (or maybe the opposite, who knows), these two bands share a very incredible spirit that makes them both very exciting bands to this day.
I don’t really need to say anything about The Beatles; not only has it all been said before, but as I was born in 1988 I’m not exactly an authority on the situation. As people, McCartney and Starkey regularly embarrass themselves on TV to this day and George Harrison was on the Simpsons, that’s about all I’ve got.
But I feel I have plenty on the band who have pretty much existed about as long as I have. It took me a long time to really get Fugazi’s appeal, but when it did (via the song Target off of Red Medicine) it really, really did. For me, Fugazi embody pretty much everything I find exciting and pleasing about music. They are a punk band in the truest sense of the word; they like all real punks (elitism, sorry) know that punk music isn’t about dressing a certain way or even playing a certain way, on the contrary, punk should be about anyone, regardless of breakdown, who wants to make interesting and exciting music, can do so. In this theory of punk music I readily subscribe to, this “spirit” can be found pretty much anywhere in music (and occasionally beyond). It is no different from when Hip-Hop broke in the 80s, the point is making a loud, often anti-establishment, statement, which first and foremost appeals to you as an artist, the strength of which should then get heard and appreciated by anyone else who cares to.
So in this sense, Fugazi are sort of the perfect punk band. The main reasons for this, is that they never felt shackled as artists to sound or conform to a certain set of ideals musically or indeed politically. Much is made of the band’s politics, but a lot of this stems from lead guitarist Ian MacKaye’s earlier, louder, snottier band Minor Threat. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of MacKaye’s former band (more on that later), but I still respect them as artists, and fully agree when McKaye still refuses to let the fairly iconic image from their only full length, self-titled album be used for anything he would not want to promote.
MacKaye in Minor Threat is largely credited with creating the “straight-edge” subculture that still lives on in Hardcore bands today. This is hugely problematic and frustrating for the band. As an ideal, it has been largely blown out of proportion for some time. MacKaye’s view at the time (as embodied by the Minor Threat song of the same name) is that people should do what they want, but that for their own health and safety, should do so in moderation. MacKaye himself at the time did not drink or take drugs, but this shouldn’t really be a big deal, why does it matter if he does or not? This foreshadowing as somewhat haunted MacKaye for the rest of his career, as he is still forever associated with the far more extreme sub-culture that takes a hard-line snobbery on drinking and taking drugs. Therefore, when a few years later MacKaye as a musician and a person wanted to push himself into new interesting ways in Fugazi, there has always been an awareness that this is a “political” band. Though it would certainly be an understatement to say the band engage with political matters, it is not exclusive, and they should not be typecast by it, much like The Beatles should not be classified as a band who strictly write love/hate relationship songs (such as Paperback Writer). The point I’m trying to make however, is the band’s continuing disassociation with a single political movement or subculture is in itself about as freely punk or artistic as it gets.
The other reason Fugazi are pretty much the perfect punk band, is their, perhaps obviously, music. Fugazi arrived at the tail of end of the 80’s, and by this point hardcore (as exemplified by the group’s previous bands Embrace, Rites of Spring who were already showing a maturity and progression from bands like Minor Threat and other early 80’s hardcore) had moved on. From their opening statement, the still incredible Waiting Room, right through to the closing Argument, here we had a band who straight away were willing to push punk music to places it had never been before. Take Waiting Room, a song with a reggae and ska rolling bass-line but without losing all the nervous energy of a great and true punk song. Before this, the closest anyone really got to that was The Specials, and there aren’t many similarities to be found there.
From thereon, it was pretty clear that this was the band that these 4 men were supposed to be. MacKaye (and to some extent Picciotto) may have been the best known headline grabbers, but it is the combination of these four extremely talented, artistic individuals that makes this band special. They never looked back, and more or less got better with every single album they as unit produced.
By now (if you’re still reading) you should have picked up on a few similarities to The Beatles already, but if not, before going any further I’ll summarise the correlations between these two incredible bands.
- As mentioned, these bands could not have happened if it hadn’t have been those four people at that place at that time. Even if its not quite as obvious at times given the band’s two front-men are given more exposure, they are all equally very important in their roles
- Further to this, both have an incredibly talented central song-writing pairing whom, though would often take songs for themselves and/or bring them to the whole band to flesh out, are the primary singer-songwriters of the band. This instantly gives the songs extra definition between a MacCartney/MacKaye song to a Lennon/Picciotto (and I choose these pairings for good reason) song. Similarly though, Fugazi’s George and Ringo (Joe Lally and Brendan Canty) will occasionally have their own songs featured, or at least an important role in a song which is more of a community effort.
- Both bands came from more modest surroundings both personally and musically to go on to pretty much dominate their respective decades of the 60s and the 90s. The creative process of both bands over such a short space of time is nothing short of amazing.
- They were both game-changers. The Beatles revolutionised rock and pop music and what it could be. They blew the lid off their earlier, Elvis Presley and further roots music inspired styles of the early 60s to become the first fully fledged Rock band. Fugazi similarly changed what it meant to be a punk or hardcore band in the late 80s and throughout the 90s. The term ‘post-hardcore’ though slightly misguided, was created to describe Fugazi. No one sounded like them or had the same sort of range (ditto the Beatles) to go from a quieter more delicate song to a instrumental experiment to a full-on ranging punk rock song that is all at once anthemic and storming but surprising and intriguing, so flawlessly.
- And finally, simply as bands they grew with more or less every single record. It’s not an exact science, but both spent their careers at least attempting, and mostly succeeding, at bettering themselves with every album. The difference is of course, that The Beatles flew a little close to the sun and things began to fall apart somewhere during recording The White Album, Fugazi finished at the height of their creative powers, which is what I wish to discuss for the rest of this essay.
Fugazi released their sixth and final full length album entitled The Argument on October 16th 2001. It seems slightly glib, but remembering this records’ release at the time with its eerie and haunting artwork (posted above), this record, much like everything else, lived in the shadow of 9/11. It’s another strange case like from Explosions in the Sky’s And those who tell the truth shall Die… in which people somehow predicted (but really the word is sensed) that something big was coming.
Though there is no clear connection to the events, The long arms of justice in the artwork for The Argument remind me of the fire and debris wisping away from the tower on that dreadful day that the central line in the piece creates. Similarly, the album which was obviously written before the attacks, though have no direct predictions, have plenty of warnings of excessive militarisation and their effects, something the aforementioned closer title-track speaks much of. As a result, there is a fairly melancholic effect to the record given its sound and place.
What’s really stunning about the band’s final album though is the way that it goes a step-further that redefining what a punk or hardcore band is, instead redefining what it meant to be the band Fugazi. Though as mentioned, the band got increasingly experimental with their sound as they went on (i.e End Hits IS the logical precedent to The Argument) but this record just sounds like nothing else, by the band or otherwise. It has been well documented that Fugazi changed tack in writing their swansong, taking a much longer time to write and demo tracks. Whereas the Instrument film showed us the making of Red Medicine and some of the material that would eventually become End Hits, there is a clear noted frustration in the band attempting to experiment and function as a band but being limited by their DIY production. There is a notably shift in The Argument. As a record it sounds huge, just listening to the wonderful melodies of Full Disclosure on full blast is a hard-to-beat joy to be heralded for some time.
With it’s cop theme inflected “Shaft" drum intro (I never could work out if this was intentional or not) it is pretty instantaneous that we are going to bigger places than before. Never really have Fugazi gone so straight for the jugular, with a wide-screen lens on their music. It is simply put, a brilliantly constructed pop-punk song, one that the Mersey lads themselves would be proud. What it also shows is how far Guy Picciotto has come as a performer and a songwriter over his career. Out of the two, Picciotto has always had the far more interesting voice. He had much more wide-ranging vocal style and can hit some fantastic melodies, much like John Lennon. MacKaye, much more like McCartney, is much more limited in his vocals and song-writing, both often opting to go for the more conventional simplified groundwork in the bands’ oeuvre. MacKaye’s Cashout for instant, a favourite for some, is for me more of a warm-up before we really get going with Full Disclosure.
This isn’t to say MacKaye isn’t just as capable. On this record alone his best efforts include the following 1-2 punch after Full Disclosure with the equally wonderful and explosive Epic Problem (the other, again is the title track). Epic Problem is a more subtle song than Full Disclosure (at first anyway) in that its based on a fast and fairly complex guitar riff, something again the band hadn’t really done much of before, usually opting for chords.
But as a song it grows in an incredible way, mostly down to Brendan Canty’s fantastic drum work. This is one of the songs that live the band would play with two drums and it has a HUGE effect on the track. Then half-way through, the song breaks down into a mostly instrumental piece, and each member throws in something wonderful into the song, all in the space of about a minute and a half. And then at around the three minute mark, we get just MacKaye’s vocal melody and guitar, and the song just blasts off from there. None of this is particularly revolutionary so far, but it is the way is works so effortlessly that makes this a special track.
So then after two tracks of fast bangers and one which works on its heavy building cresendo, the album could go two ways. On any other typical Fugazi album, the band would not let up on the energy and pressure yet, throwing in a couple more fast ones, before withdrawing to an instrumental track or quieter piece, drawing to a grand finale at the end. Here, before we can catch a breath, it is straight into the opening guitar and drums of “Life and Limb”.
At times Life and Limb is my favourite Fugazi song. It is subtle and mysterious and dare I say it about as close to being “sexy” as the band ever dared. Picciotto’s voice is a wonder on this track, as it sleeks in and out of the catchy guitar line, Lally’s trademark walking bass, and Canty’s hypnotic drums. What’s important though about Life and Limb is that signifies a shift not just in this album but in the band as a whole. Whereas a less experienced band would throw in another solid but less effective song of the same vein in at track proper number 4, here the band throw in a real curve-ball which suggests to not expect what you are thinking, but remains to stay just as tense (if not more) than the rest of the album so far. It is Picciotto’s ‘Hey, we want a violence double’ which kills it.
So then the tension does let up a bit with Joe Lally’s ‘The Kill' a much more dreamy and atmospheric song which also serves as an early hint at Lally's impending solo career. It is perhaps unsurprisingly a bass-heavy song, but it still manages to keep things moving beautifully, particularly when the slight key change around 2 minutes-in keeps the listener on their toes to never get too comfortable.
What we have after is the real centre-piece of the record, and also where I’m ultimately getting at with this essay. Next is a rare double from Picciotto, something the band were always keen to avoid in their previous records.
First is ‘Strangelight’ which fits in beautifully after the lulled hush of the preceding track. However the muted Piano chords (another rarityt apart from the wonderful I’m so Tired which given the reference also seems to be a Beatles tribute) give an early indication of this song’s menace and threat. Then we’re into the arpeggiated guitar and bass line and Picciotto’s breathless voice announcing a far darker affair. Then a minute and a half in, that guitar riff comes in, but it is only a false start for now. So never-mind, the song starts all over again, but it’s made its point already; this is an atmosphere of music Fugazi rarely if ever achieved before, and not many bands can maintain. When that riff returns, its bigger and heavier than before, and this time the vocal line “Come on oooovvverrrr” emerges, and here we have a full blown chamber rock-pop song.
Once you think the song can’t build any more however, is where it gets really exciting. As suddenly a mini-orchestra is unveiled, and suddenly the song sounds like a mix of I am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever. This one of the most thrilling and enthralling pieces I’ve ever heard orchestrated, and it is fascinating to see The Beatles influence finally rear its head fully out of the ground.
Then a crash:
And we’re into the second part of this wonderful two-piece, ‘Oh’. This song follows with a marching beat that is not uncommon to many of Beatles (in-particular McCartney songs) where the guitar has replaced the previous piano. But then once again the song breaks to just a guitar line, and Canty explodes on his snare drum, and the song moves into its final section, another jam easily imagined by 60’s pop rock, with the final “I think you soon (Peggy Sue?) better have another” and “Please.”
In the interest of admitting nothing is perfect, I’m willing to suggest that the album drops off ever so slightly after this incredible peak. Canty’s drums on ‘Ex-Spectator’ are typically fantastic, but MacKaye gets a little trigger happy towards the end of this song where it becomes a little undefined. Similarly ‘Nightshop' takes a little while to get going, though the tension is back with us right from the opening guitar line (it opens up wonderfully however at 2:46 when Picciotto once again shows his range with a slight key-change that races to a wonderful finish.) But these are minor complaints on an incredible record which pretty much announced not just the end of the band but really the peak of so-called 90s post-hardcore (along with Unwound's incredible 'Leaves Turn Inside You' also released in 2001 before splitting the band up).
I have probably done a great disservice to everyone involved. I may come back and re-figure this, but this is about the similarities I feel about two of my favourite bands to ever pick up a guitar or drum stick, and I hope I’ve made some sense in doing so. Though no where as grand a statement, The Argument is perhaps what could have been for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, if they’d have just done what they feared and given up not being able to top The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This isn’t to say there isn’t lots of amazing music to be found on the White Album, Abbey Road or Let it Be, but The Beatles would have finished untarnished had Sgt. Peppers been their final album. Luckily for them (and Fugazi should they ever break this self-imposed indefinite hiatus of theirs) is that they had already cemented their place in the canon of musical and cultural history.
(Next Up, Fucked Up take on The Who)
This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but due to university and work and life and such, I haven’t had the time. That won’t be problem soon I guess.
Every now and then, sometimes from the unlikeliest of sources, a song comes along and hits you. It could be new or old, a…
Coming soon: History Rep/Eats Itself.
Unwounded - The Best of
I feel like I should give my own playlist justice by writing something about it. I feel this is probably the best place to write about this still relatively new (to me) band who have more or less taken over my life over the last few months. There’s a couple of reasons for this. 1)It’s how I got into them: There’s such an incredible wealth of material from this generally unheard of band that it can be a little overwhelming to take it all in. Particularly when their “Magnum Opus” is a difficult, subtle, long double-album that takes some time to really get one’s head around, more a mood than anything else; it meant that I concentrated on individual tracks before really conquering any one album. You’ll notice there are far more tracks from said masterpiece, but I don’t think its perfect (just damn close). Instead, I believe their most consistent record to be the equally impressive (but quite different) “Repetition”. This brings me neatly onto my second reason: like the incredibly similar Fugazi, I don’t really have a definitive favourite album, I just end up gravitating towards their final, “departure” records because they are so adventurous, exciting and pushing the limits of what (post)-hardcore can be. (little note: I will write about my adulation for that band and their record ‘The Argument’ soon enough).
I haven’t even really given all their records the time needed, which is why this list is centred towards the aforementioned Repetition, Leaves Turn Inside You and the excellent but top-heavy Fake Plastic Ideas, as these are the three I’ve given the most spinning time.
Here’s what I do know. Unwound were an incredibly underrated band. My pal Rob (shout out to Holy State’s final show on Friday) recently posted a tour diary by Unwound where they played shows with the aforementioned Fugazi and their fairly apparent heroes Sonic Youth, detailing the lukewarm, if, hostile receptions they received across the country outside their native Olympia, Washington (an incredible hotbed I’m sure you’ll agree.) Unwound do something stunning with their music. Like Fugazi (who are eerily similar) they messed around with conventions of what it meant to be a hardcore band throughout the 90s, recording just about as many albums over the same time-span, all consistently great and progressing with (more or less) every attempt, building to their final mission statement. The only real differences is that they’re from the West Coast (the other Washington) and that there are only three of them (something I still don’t really understand given how richly dense these albums are).
For me, Unwound capture the catharsis that is often ascribed, and which I felt, with Screamo music. The difference, fairly obviously, is that this is far more measured and considered. I’ve written before about how I lost interest in Screamo when it ceased to offer that little bit more I was looking for beyond reverting to fairly worn (noisy) archetypal songs, and Unwound it seems are the answer to that. They are, at their core, an intensely heavy and dark band - just look at the pitch-black artwork of Leaves… - but that doesn’t mean they don’t find a beauty inherent in such dim places.
One thing I always remember being initially disappointed about when I got into Sonic Youth is that they didn’t always hit the aesthetic highs I wanted them to. I mean, they did eventually, but I always remember looking for a greater dedication to the song, something SY do only when they feel like it. This isn’t a complaint really, I don’t believe I know anyone who enjoys ALL of Sonic Youth’s music (and to be honest if they told me they did I’d think they were lying) but Unwound channel something from SY’s best moments (Daydream Nation, Sister and Sonic Nurse, since you asked) into everything I find exciting about punk rock as found in Fugazi or even Trail of Dead’s case. But unlike Trail of Dead (whom I do love dearly but all the same) Unwound hardly ever revert to some sort of easy comfort with their music. They are endlessly fascinating with what they do, making them an extremely re-listen-able band (and it really is in repeat listens that this band click - hence ‘Repetition’) but have a consistent defining sound that could only come from them.
It may be late in the day, but for me and this band, its still morning.
Which is nothing short of amazing. As a result I have a few new followers now. Hello new followers! I will start working on some new essays once I’ve finished my final exam of University in a couple weeks time! For the mean time, KEEP LOVING!
Give Up the Ghost - We’re Down ‘Til We’re Underground (2003)
Before Cold Cave, before Some Girls, before the lawsuits with Fall Out Boy over his lyrics, there was Give Up the Ghost. Give up the Ghost came at the peak and eventual tail-end of a revival of sorts of American Hardcore music starting somewhere around downtown-LA-late-70s-by-The-Germs-or-Black-Flag-or-Circle-Jerks. And it would be an understatement to say they were “an explosion” of sorts. They arrived in an already over-saturated music scene, in one of its most notorious epicentres (Boston, Massachusetts) and only existed for about 5 years. But what they did to an already dying scene is quite remarkable, given over the space of two albums and a few singles, totalling at about an hour and a half’s worth of music, they pretty much changed the concept of what being a Hardcore band in its more traditional sense was all about.
First, a little context. It may surprise some of you (others, not at all) that my home-town of Norwich, Norfolk had quite a prosperous and thriving hardcore scene at around the same time as this record’s release. Our biggest export was a band called Hearts, but more importantly, we had a venue (The Ferryboat, long live) and a small group of passionate people willing to attract touring bands to come and play with the few local bands in the East Anglian area. Sadly, American Nightmare as they’re originally and still passionately known, never made it over to here. However many other big players in the contemporary American hardcore scene (Terror, The Hope Conspiracy, Bane, Suicide File to name a few) did, and it was an extremely exciting time for young aspiring music-fans like me. One thing that I always remember from that time was the adulation so many of my peers held for a band called American Nightmare, regularly seeing their famous angel logo around on many tees and hoodies (some home-made).
The thing that always attracted me to Hardcore music at that time was its energy and its passion. This was music that had broken from the shackles of the first wave of 70’s punk, and steadily progressed into the thriving scene of the day. One thing that always used to bother me about the scene, aside from the occasional macho posturing that would go on, was the lack of innovation that seemed wide-spread. This isn’t essential; lots of people love these bands almost for their reliability. Plus, Punk music has always been built on certain expectations; it’s more about a feeling that any particular musicianship, that’s exactly what makes punk (or the influence of punk) the most exciting music genre in the world for me. But as someone with eclectic tastes, I would often listen to hardcore records left wanting more. None of this mattered live of course, because this is a style of music that is meant to be performed; the energy comes alive when you’re in a small sweaty room watching a bunch of boys and girls beating their hearts out in front of you. But it could be disappointing when half of the deal just isn’t up to standard.
Enter Give up the Ghost. Their almost mythical status (by the time I listened to them they had split up) had reached ridiculous standards, and my, they did not disappoint. The thing about Give up the Ghost is that they barely fit the standard of what a hardcore band should be like. A lot of that is to do with their enigmatic front-man Wesley Eisold, now a hipster crush in Cold Cave. For starters, Eisold is an incredibly tall and awkward man, mildly disabled, and clearly a very sensitive soul. On top of this, he has a bizarre, screeched-yet-tangible voice, summed up no better than in his own words (which are also consistently brilliant):
I know my voice isn’t great, but at least its sincere
the self-humility (and occasional self-depreciation) of Eisold in his lyrics and in his voice are a major part of why this was such a special band. No where else in hardcore, prior to this band, did you get such an emotional impact conveyed merely through Eisold’s performances. Here was a man who you could really see, but more than that, hear putting his heart on his sleeve (a cliché he would knowingly accept and turn into a witty epigram) for all the world to see, and if we don’t listen it may mean drastic things ahead. Throughout the band’s discography, increasing with confidence, Eisold was willing to turn clichés into moments of epiphany, moments which simultaneously connect AND devastate the listener, such as: “We love the hearts but the hearts, love, us e-ven more” or “I gotta love-hate, relationship, with love and hate” screamed at the top of his voice; top of all those screaming it back at him. It’s one thing to have charisma and to have “positive lyrics” its another to be able to complete dissimulate one’s self on stage or even on record.
But then there’s also the band, who sometimes sit in Eisold’s shadow, given the minor-idol he has become to a few, passionate individuals. On Give up the Ghost’s earlier material, they sat very close to their hardcore peers, but there has always been a certain distinction to the band’s song-writing. Even on early singles and the first full length, the excellent-if-slightly-generic Background Music, there was an urge to transcend their allotted genre without alienating any of their earlier fans. It’s quite a feat for a band within such, at times incredibly stubborn scene, could get away with songs such as the aforementioned “Bluem”, effectively a jazz-inflected song with heavy guitars. But even on their earlier work, tracks like ‘AM/PM’ or moreover ‘There’s a Black Hole in the Shadow of the Pru’ remain both endlessly ferocious and inventive at the same time:
It’s just that one would be hard pressed to find another record with so many tightly packed, special moments as in the 25 or so minutes in this one. From the word go, the record starts with a stadium rock swagger and a beautiful production job to truly do it service, quickly undermined by probably the best straight up hardcore punk song ever written in ‘Love American’ and it just goes and goes from there. I spoke in my previous post how what makes Swing Kids so exciting are the little moments of dissolution in a song which ups the tension ante tenfold. This record has this in spades. ‘Since Always' is probably the poppiest song the band wrote, and yet its built on a guitar riff that seems to be stuck on harmonics rather than chords. Then you have breakdown in 'Crime Scene' and its refrain “PROVE! ME! WRONG!” or the “You fixed my broken plan!” line from 'AEIOU’.
This was an incredible short-lived band who pretty much epitomised everything the genre was about, then distorted it. Since then, the more “emotional” hardcore band, has flourished, with other excellent bands such as Modern Life is War or Title Fight. This is an incredible record, which is as breathless and as exciting as all truly great punk rock should be, and a triumph perhaps against all odds. It warmed my heart that their reunion was just as successful and ecstatic as their original incarnation, now I’m on tender-hooks for their UK return.
Swing Kids - Discography (1997)
Another rule I’m going to set myself in this blog (though I’ll inevitably end up breaking) is that I’m only going to be concentrating on records from the 1990’s and 2000’s. There are two main reasons for this; 1) Because plenty has already been written about 70’s and 80’s punk rock, sometimes overlooked as the ‘golden age’ of which later records has little merit, and 2) Because, barely scraping into the 80’s generation, these decades’ music and culture appeal and relate to me far more greatly. This obviously isn’t to say I am not a fan of plenty of 70’s and 80’s records, it would be foolish and ignorant to ignore their relevance completely; without them, we wouldn’t have the more recent records I’m focusing on now. However, there is certainly a more prevalent connection I have to more recent records, records that belong in my timeline, because they represent all the anxieties and energies and attitudes that I do, being of a certain epoch. Also, the production is better, sort of.
As mentioned in my City of Caterpillar post, something, apparently, happened during the 1990’s that meant the more artistic attributes of punk rock bands started being called “screamo” or “post-hardcore”. As also aforementioned, these are nonsense terms, but there is certainly an attraction is tracking the progression of a genre as different generations and geographical scenes distinguish between what has gone before. For San Diego’s Swing Kids and their Three One G records, here we saw the next clearly established step from Discord Records and its clear North-East/Coast base. Swing Kids could easily be a Discord records band, some would argue should or maybe even attempted to be, their style of inventitive yet abrasive, profound yet energetic punk rock can be easily traced. However they weren’t a Discord Records band, nor from the East Coast. As is often the way, California and the West of America is the second wave; looks at itself with fresh eyes, and creates something original. Such is the myth of Manifest Destiny, such is bands like The Germs or Black Flag following on from the New York that birthed punk-rock a couple years prior. In the 90’s the same thing happened. Discord had reached something of a cultural peak, Fugazi starting bothering the Billboard charts with ‘Waiting Room' (and would have done more damage had they not had their morals in place, thankfully) and the bands on the D.C roster morphed from all out punk-rock to a more inventive way of looking at Punk Rock. Swing Kids and fellow Californians Antioch Arrow, Heroin and the phenomenal Drive Like Jehu were distinguished and yet similar to their East Coast peers, and their clear distinction geographically and in terms of Record Labels give them their own identity. This is where many establish the idea that ‘Screamo’ for lack of a better word, begins its strange and highly mythologised story.
All these bands and their Three One G label showed a curiously artistic style of punk rock which is highly chaotic and dissonant at times, but still retains an ability to write songs that move and are memorable. Though their peers were also excellent, the young Justin Pearson led Swing Kids’s ouevre was one for the ages. Punk Rock has always been about the performance, and this band is no different, the difficulty lies in capturing that energy that so perfectly invigorates the whole idea of being a punk rock band onto record. Swing Kids’ single record (another hardcore trope) is entitled discography (another trope!) but this is slightly misleading. Punk bands have an amazing ability to encapsulate everything they want to say in a short space of time (short songs, short albums, short careers) which perhaps is due to a lack of bloated expectations, a realism and ambition that “if we successfully say everything we want over the course of 3 years and only realise one album, then thats just fine.” It certainly adds to the mystique of a piece of art to know its a single entity; untainted by anything prior or after, it only exists in a single time by a single artist or artists and when successful (which these often are) adds to the pleasure.
This summer I had the great fortune to see the reformed Swing Kids live. They were everything I hoped. Sure they were older, perhaps less energetic, but they played these songs with the same amount of heart, precision and amusingly enough, with far better production values than their record. The set wasn’t the 9 incredible songs we find here, but 12. One was a b-side released on the ‘Situation on Mars’ 7” single, the other two were unamed. This should go some way to showing that though this album may be entitled ‘Discography’ this is a slight fallacy. Like so many of their peers who would release a few promising singles, suddenly split up, and then put everything they ever recorded on one album, Swing Kids were selective. Not only this, but the record has consistent and realised sequencing and production, giving it a cohesiveness that nearly every other album titled ‘Discography’ lacks. It seems unrealistic (though still plausable) that in their initial 3 year run they only wrote 8 songs (as one here is a cover) clocking in at just over 20 minutes. This self-editing and youthful exubriance of a young band writing at the peak of their powers then is what creates such an excellent record we find here today; one that set the pace for many bands to come.
And Lo! The drums (oh the drums) kick in to El Camino Car Crash and we have contact. This album essentially variates on a theme 9 times (including the cover) but when you do it fast and earnest enough (a basic ingredient in punk music) then it becomes highly enjoyable. The general formula of an average Swing Kids song follows this path: Jose Palafox begins with one of his trademark, chaotic, jazz-inflected drum beats, the rest of the band join in and the now infamous Justin Pearson floats in with a catchy, memorable but ultimately screeched vocal line. After the song has progressed in this manner for a few bars, their almost always get caught in a moment of stasis, some longer than others,which builds to an incredible, if short lived, denoument. This stuck feeling that is encountered in each of the songs is where each track’s individual worth comes into play.
For instance, take Blue Note, a track which slowly builds into complete disseray with every turn or snare hit, even that has a moment where the song, about a minute and a half in, gets stuck on a single guitar line and Pearson’s immortal line ‘Been Shot time and time again’ repeated to the point where the words cross lines into each other, and this ten second break decends in to the thrilling, mad closure of the song. Or even the wonderful closer Intro to Photography which begins is the manner established in the rest of the record, but suddenly breaks into a growing thunderstorm of a cresendo which finalises an album, a career. This is a motif that is repeated through-out the record, but it is also a subtle one and hard to over-blow when it pays such a central part of the record. Given this band’s obsession with fusing Jazz and punk rock, (best seen on tracks like Disease and Situation on Mars) it is not hard to see the power these moments within songs have. They are shortened, brutalised versions of what long Jazz movements succeed, and is equally thrilling.
And then there’s the cover of ‘Warsaw’. It seems funny now to think that Joy Division were once a very similar band to Swing Kids. Similarly, sitting in Manchester, in the throes of a second wave of punk that wanted to distinguish itself from London’s slightly base and questionable products, they equally set about establishing a name for themselves. Maybe that’s why Swing Kids didn’t choose to fuck around with ‘Warsaw’ that much, only update it by 20 years. The song is a classic in its own right, though many seem to choose to forget Joy Division the punk band in favour of Joy Divison the gothy-indie-post-punk band which still haunts our consciences today. There isn’t really all that much to say about it, other than it seems to not only fit Swing Kids’ ethos and sound perfectly (to the point where they essentially adopted it as their own), but also that it brought this oft-forgotton Joy Division song into a new generation, which in itself is a deserved cause.
The true crux of this records gleaming success however is the penultimate track, Forty Three Seconds. This song is what really best displays this band as the talented musicians and gifted songwriters that they were, and would go on to become. It’s possible that the strength of this song alone means its a shame that there never was a second Swing Kids album, but given all the bands these guys would go on to be involved in (The Locust, Some Girls, Album Leaf, Unbroken, Yaphet Kotto etc. etc.) then its easy to see they didn’t go wasted. It would be fair to argue ‘43’ is the only “real” song on this album, partly because its the only one that clocks in over 3 minutes, but also because its the one that plays with the entire form of their sound, plays each instrument to the best of its strengths, and shows Pearson off as the incredible frontman he would go on to become. The way this song rises and falls is showstopping, and that haunting line “just another kid, on the beat, yeah” breathlessly recycled until exasperation point. It is an incredible song that deserves every plaudit it, and this band generally, deserves.