BLAG. Vol. 15: Travelin'
"Travelinnnnnnn at the speeeed of... love."
That song gets stuck in my head more times per week than I'd care to admit, and if you haven't read this oral history of the Judgement Night soundtrack, it's a fun read.
When traveling, most of us seek out the local color that bleeds through the tourist traps: the native cuisine, idiosyncratic boutiques, or the bars where everyone isn’t. As fans of underground punk and hardcore, we look for the local scenes, right? Who are the good bands? Where are the shows? How does the local flavor digest the broader, established network?
With contemporary stuff, my friends and I are generally old and out of touch, so I tend to travel without leads. Most times, I go in cold – it's actually preferable. Start with a good record store – the smaller and nichier, the better. Otherwise, most musicians moonlight in the service industry, so asking around with bartenders and wait staff tends to help. Find a show in the weekly paper and talk to strangers over cool band shirts.
Errant note: the last time I was in PDX, I noticed that most bartenders and bussers wore Red Fang t-shirts. It was more often to be coincidental, like it’s part of a planned community or something. Someone, please enlighten me.
I’ve found that mid-sized scenes are far more interesting than big metropolitans. It’s something Daniel and I discuss a lot – maybe it assuages any of his existential anxiety about settling down in Raleigh, North Carolina. Big cities carry a lot of autonomy; which is the ultimate freedom, but its punk scenes tend to be fleeting – their foundations weakened by transient populations, rapid gentrification, and trying to create niche on a very large canvas.
Chicago was the latter, literally. The city itself is sprawling with endless, wonderful neighborhoods with punks peppered everywhere. There was constant activity, but it’s hard to gain cohesive momentum when various splinters are working in silos. And, as with most urban areas, other cultural events compete for time. Like, The Busy Signals are playing an afternoon show, but it’s also Paczki Day? That’s a legit standoff.
My wife’s from Rochester, New York. She’s not punk, and my visits there have entailed hopping from one family function to another. On my last visit, I enlisted my brother-in-law, Jarrod, to check out a few record stores.
It’s obvious that Record Archive is an institution, and it was cool to gawk at Dan Lilker stalking around behind the counter. However, its behemoth size flattens out, then it’s very apparent you’re just there to transact currency for goods. House of Guitars is also massive, but its disorganization bristles my OCD tendencies, that sorting through decades of neglected filler is a lot of heavy lifting.
“This place is probably more your style,” said Jarrod, as we stopped into a small shop on Gregory St. called Needle Drop. After flipping through a New Releases stack of well-curated indie store fare to the ambient industrial playing over the speakers, I looked up and saw a Repos promo noose, and a sign above the register that said KEEP CALM AND LISTEN TO INFEST. Walked to the back, and – ah, here we go – punk/hardcore had its own third of the store.
The owner, Russ, and I traded some small talk upon check out. Once the store traffic died down, I asked him about the local happenings. A good record store clerk relishes the opportunity to play scene ambassador to an out-of-towner: it’s a way to dish out on your favorite overlooked locals, upsell some dead stock, and swells that civic pride (which, is often clouded in cynicism). With the stranger danger tedium defenestrated, Russ was walking me through the local music section, talking up bands of years past and what they’re up to now. I walked out with a handful of Rochester-area stuff, ready to open like fortune cookies.
Seth told me that Rational Animals was the recent big band from Rochester. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any of their stuff at my stops. However, the former members have stayed busy, so a number of those ex-Rational Animals releases are below.
Here’s some highlights of my Rochester Record Haul:
Tapehead, 7” (Cherish Records)
Tapehead’s pedigree is ex-members of Rational Animals, Brown Sugar, Love Pork, Ivy, and Aaron and the Burrs. Both songs are Dead Boys-style punk that just veers through a gamut of creative turns: off-kilter hardcore riffs, stompy rock ‘n roll, skittering leads, a false ending, shimmering hooks, rude ‘tude, spacey noise, and a big, 70’s rock finale. It sounds messy, but the transitions are well-earned and it’s an absolute journey.
Rotten UK, That is Not Dead… LP (Hells Headbangers)
The singer of Blüdwülf fronts this smart twist of UK 82 punk and deathrock that slaloms between ominous anarcho-punk gloom and ghostly oi, pierced by atmospheric interludes that harkens Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack. The band executes its tone perfectly – “Their Dreams” refrain is “Thatcher! Thatcher! Reagan! Reagan! / It’s all happening again,” and “Back to War” ends on a spoken word part that feels so tongue-in-cheek that I’m hoping my chuckles are with them, and not at them.
Skate Korpse, Limited LP (Punks Before Profits Records / Feral Kid Records)
Dr. Daniel plugged this one heavily, so this was one of the ones I sought out. Skate Korpse are definitely a punk band in velocity, but the guitars carry a heavy surf influence. Top that tight execution with way sarcastic vocals, and you’ve got this absurd mix that just as funny as it is good. Part of me wants to think they existed just to annoy hardcore kids.
Lieutenant, s/t LP (Art of the Underground / Warm Bath Label / Peterwalkee Records)
Ohh, this one is good. Singer sounds like Tony Erba, but instead of the Japanese riffage of Gordon Solie Motherfuckers, it’s more rooted in American East Coast hc – there’s a dark and brutal tone brings on qualities of Rorschach and Protestant. Related bands include: Resist Control, Gas Chamber, Lemuria, and Running for Cover.
Running for Cover, demo LP (Painkiller Records)
The Buffalo, NY outfit play some No Comment-infused powerviolence: hyperventilating drums, beastly bass work, and kidney stone passing vocals. So it makes sense that one of these guys played on the No Comment-related Dead Language LP, which was one of my favorite records of 2011.
School Shootings, s/t LP (Casual Punks Records and Tapes)
I picked this one up from the stacks because it had a really intriguing cover: a Siegfried Lenz children’s novel, 5-ink pen, microcassette recorder, hammer, coffee mug, photos, and a graph paper pad with “School Shootings” written over and over – still trying to connect the dots. The music itself is much more straightforward. It’s fast and furious, with harrowing vocals and enough noise to bring on the dirge.
Flip Shit, Outgoing Rockers 7” (Reel Time Records)
Five songs of tornado-velocity garage punk played with hardcore discipline. The overly distorted barking and grimy swagger remind me of Buffalo-cum-Chicago’s Baseball Furies, but with much more polish.
A few years ago, a couple friends and I traveled through a few stops in Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Singapore, to be precise. Asia proved to be a hard nut to crack for a number of reasons: lack of local access, language barriers, and in some of the countries we visited, any sort of Western subculture carried a heavy stigma and marginalized to the far fringes.
In Cambodia, we found a record store in Siem Reap that specialized in your standard thrift store finds, but there's a neat selection on the wall.
Vietnam had an “indie rock” bar called Yoko Ono in Ho Chi Minh City that featured bands playing Western covers. The headliner warned the crowd, “We’re gonna be heavy,” and kicked off their set with Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name of…” Then, they followed up that jam with UB40’s “Red Red Wine.”
In Thailand, our friends Logan and Sandy were living in Bangkok, but a national flood emergency kept us from exploring much. They were involved with graf artists, and, from that, knew of a prolific straight edge scene. We did find subculture in the sense of a country/western bar. It was a haven for rural Thai workers, trying to escape the urban bustle of Bangkok. The live band played American country songs, and patrons would take turns, singing their own lyrics about the Thai heartland.
We found an independent record store in Singapore that had printed up some infamously subversive t-shirts, but when I tried to talk about local punk music, the clerk had no idea what I was talking about. We did see flyers for The Casualties and Every Time I Die.
We came out of the trip with the theory that punk rock – at least our modern version – was a byproduct of industrialized nations. Or, to take vernacular from that time, a First World Problem. For punk, our trip proved to be mostly a failure.
This is not the case with John Yingling, an old acquaintance from Chicago who pretty much dropped everything, moved to Asia, and now follows bands around on tour, through places like China and Indonesia, documenting as much as he can. Editing live footage, interviews, and touring b-roll into a project called The World Underground, he already got two episodes out. Each are over an hour, but very much worth your time.
Pluggin what's Buggin
Crisis Actors, demo (self-released)
This Boston peace punk outfit preview three songs off their upcoming demo. What elevates their Crass foundation are nervy lead guitar work that isn’t afraid to burst into rockin’ solos, and stellar vocal work that shifts effortlessly between pissed menace and belting melody.
Negative Scanner, Nose Picker LP (Trouble in Mind)
There’s a lot to anticipate after Negative Scanner’s s/t LP, a smart debut of dark and angular post-punk, but I didn’t expect Rebecca Valeriano-Flores and company to elevate their game this much. Their follow-up shines brighter, plays more tricks, and renders more shades out of the infinite post-punk well – tracks like “The Only One” emit a heavy Wire influence. When many of your friends across Chicago’s diverse punk scene are all calling out “Album of the Year” on this, in unison, you best perk up.
Tierra Muerta, (Trans) Human (C) Ages (self-released)
The first song perked my ears, as it has an Assfactor 4 blend to it that a lot of modern bands don’t do. While the rest of the songs diverge to other hardcore influences, there’s a melodic quality to the riffing that keeps bringing me back.