BLAG. Vol. 4
Apologies for the lag between BLAGs. I had written a piece about the gear-up to the 2016 Election, and some thoughts about what’s been going on in North Carolina’s twisted politics. However, at the time of this writing, our gubernatorial race still hasn’t quite settled.
I learned two things about writing about politics during election season: 1) whatever you write becomes obsolete tomorrow, and 2) good luck finding time to write when your media consumption level is like Homer Simpson eating doughnuts in Hell.
+•+•+ 2016 +•+•+
Seeing how this blog exists on a record shop/label’s space, it seems obligatory to post up a Best of 2016 List. Mine always feel woefully incomplete, with 2016 being no exception: newly minted fatherhood chews at my leisure time, current events dominated my commutes, and I had to lull that road rage by long, meandering treks through Fallout 4’s Wasteland (purchased a week after release, and still playing).
On the other hand, being a parent also means being anchored at home, countering indecipherable screaming with music depicting more indecipherable screaming. A couple weeks after our daughter was born, some friends dropped by on a well-being check. I chastised them for knocking instead of utilizing the doorbell. Shane got halfway through, “We didn’t want to wake the baby,” before realizing the walls were already quaking to Framtid’s Defeat of Civilization. Please note and log this “Cool Punk Dad” anecdote for when my kid decides to use my RARE OOP KBD 7”s to ice skate down the hallway.
I’m lucky enough to even remember what was released in 2016, much less rank them in some kind of top ten hierarchy, so you’ll have to make do with a list of “stuff I liked” in alphabetical order.
+•+•+ LONG PLAYS +•+•+
Textured noise riffs are a fine tightrope. Often, a band focuses so much on atmosphere, they lose whatever driving force there was behind the song. Thankfully, Glasgow’s Anxiety never lets up on the velocity with this dense offering of anarcho punk meets industrial. So here’s your stupid ambient analogy: it’s like sledding down a steep hill and feeling the ice and snow lightly sting your face. You know, that warm, tingly sensation. Then you realize someone in front of you is smashing crack pipes into their palm, so you’re really getting a dusting of glass shards and a slight buzz. This record is full of surprises like that.
To immediately contradict my anti-hierarchy talk above, City Trends tops my list as Best Album of 2016 — that Sorry State Records released it is only coincidence. Raleigh’s Davidians is 3/4s of Double Negative, with a recruitment of Twin Cities transplant Colin Swanson-White (Safewords, Voight-Kampff).
The anticipation for the full-length was built from a couple of eps, some teaser tracks posted to their Bandcamp, and an excruciating production delay. The result is nearly twenty minutes of fully-realized, off-kilter hardcore that never bores. All the pieces careen off of each other in some backwoods drag race, leaving the listener panting to catch up. It’s some of Brian Walsby’s most nimble drum work in his storied career, and when he and Justin Gray lock in a rhythm, Swanson-White’s skittering guitar work is straight up dizzying. This barely left my turntable since its release last month.
Upon first listen, this record has an uncanny knack for prediction. I’d think, “You know, a divebomb would be perfect right… here.” And that divebomb would happen. “The singer has to grunt before this breakdown.” UGH! Aw yeah, there it is. Paramount is almost too perfect in execution. While throwback hardcore always has problems with mimicry, and Fury are obvious well-studied Youth of Today disciples, what makes a modern interpretation stand out is added depth. Daniel called this “thoughtful hardcore,” with lyrics pulling inspiration from the likes of Kurt Vonnegut and Don Delillo, raking raw, nuanced introspection on the age-old themes of classic youth crew, but that whole being mad at your best friend for stabbing you in the back thing seems kinda petty next to this.
I feel like there’s very specific drugs to consume to truly enjoy this record, and none of those are in my strict coffee and sleep deprivation regimen. Records this mellow tend to rely on minimalism, but the way the samples are diced here unearth something new with each listen. Even more impressive, Kaytranada’s production wizardry never flashes novelty — whether he’s working funk or letting a house beat zone out, it all fits together organically. Anyways, while you’re listening to 99.9%, definitely read the heart-rending profile The Fader did on him in the spring.
I saw Konvoi three times in 2016. Twice, I’ve gone straight home to immediately grip this release off their Bandcamp page. Twice. I wish I could say that I purchased a digital album multiple times out of drunken carelessness, but if that were the case, I would have tried to bean a member on stage with my wallet.
Their post-punk sound is top-heavy — a tightly-wound rhythm foundation is constantly challenged by vocals and guitars that sway and leer every whichway. Sean Bos’ commanding voice wavers between cold melancholy and a sardonic sneer, punctuating every so often to vomit condensed bile into mic effects. You’d think this machine would topple, but the white noise melody and gyrating beats soar. I’ve seen Konvoi work crowds both large and small, each time winning them over into a mad frenzy.
Confidential Human Source
This record came with an 8x10 promo photo, which my cynicism defaults to a category somewhere between “lame” and “dorky.” My days in college radio meant I saw a lot of these visual pleas to get noticed. Here, the promo fits with the satirical corporate tone that surrounds this record. Upon further examination, one realizes it’s a family portrait: the band with their gear, holding up a framed photo of their late frontwoman, Sarah Kirsch, who passed away in 2012 from a rare genetic disease. It’s a gut punch.
Sarah Kirsch left behind a legacy of incredible bands: Fuel, Pinhead Gunpowder, Torches to Rome, John Henry West, Bread and Circuits, etc. And MCMF’s live show was promising: visuals projected in the background and synchronized, Devo-inspired old man costumes, MCMF were pushing their sound past the Kirsch template of tightly wound, searing guitar fury. While sampling was a staple of 90s hardcore, these have thematic heft, woven throughout ambient compositions — indicative of the Please Inform the Captain This is a Hijack and Baader Brains material. Brass is blown a few times. Knowing this is Sarah Kirsch’s last hurrah is bittersweet listening, but it’s worse knowing that she was nowhere near done.
If the wait for the Davidians LP seemed excruciating, I had kinda given up on Noname's mixtape ever coming out. After grabbing attention with her guest verse on Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap, came the long wait for a proper full length. She — then going by the moniker “Noname Gypsy” — would throw up a song or two on the Internet, then they’d disappear, seemly victim to an introvert’s constant doubt and anxiety at massive expectations. If you can find them, those loosies are so good.
Telefone is a deceptive listen. On a passive level, its low-key demeanor is ripe for an easy Sunday cruise up Lake Shore Drive with the windows down. Most songs are comprised of a minimalist piano hook over a subdued beat, combined with Noname’s playful, near-lackadaisical flow. Tune your ear towards its lyrics, it’s an album of resigned fury — an anger that black female resilience shoulders in 2016. There’s heartbreak from love. There’s heartbreak from an abortion (“Bye Bye Baby”). There’s heartbreak about friends that go out into the night, and never make it back (“Casket Pretty”). Noname makes that darkness sound so effortless, and that breaks our hearts.
People who write about music like to debate about timeless albums: songs universally beloved enough to transcend its context. Pure Disgust wrote a timely album: a record that’s absolutely about now. Specifically, about patterns of American systemic racism gaining more visibility in the (social) media, and the dialog about Black Lives Matter. Looking back at hip hop over the past few years, one can see the growing frustration manifest into a theme that even crossed over to the mainstream. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from hardcore was largely lukewarm — I wrote a BLAG about it. Pure Disgust is one of hardcore’s only answers to BLM, with ten songs covering the modern black experience. The record reads like a catharsis, and the songs sound like they were written, marinated, and recorded in a pressure cooker. If I don’t feel that urgency when I listen to this record ten years from now, that might be a good thing.
Dead Hand of Tradition
Previously appeared in BLAG, Vol. 1.
We all know from Doug Burns’ tenure in The Observers that he can write a satisfying melodic punch. That immediacy is more elusive with Red Dons, where youthful anger is traded for anthems of alienation and the catchy stuff is woven into brooding textures. The third LP is their most thoughtful, letting the hooks take their time to breathe and build. When the tension breaks, they really shimmer. It’s also the loneliest Red Dons record, with a constant push and pull of outsider yearning vs. withdrawn introspection. With the band now scattered over three continents — given the unique populace of Vancouver, WA is its own world — one wonders if that distance translates sonically.
The Bucket List Project
Whereas Chicago rappers tend to spring from the South Side, boasting bars of turf wars and Twitter beef, while painting a reality as bleak as its drill beat. Saba’s from the the West Side: an equally tough Austin neighborhood, but his perspective as a gifted progeny — he graduated on a scholarship at a suburban high school at age 16 — raps of being ostracized at school for being black, and treated likewise in his own neighborhood for geeky pursuits, like Japanese animation.
Like his last mixtape, some songs feel commercially complacent, while others hit the hard edge. Its lead-off, “In Loving Memory,” is a spitfire, stream-of-consciousness tongue twister that showcases that love of language. Saba’s production has generally been soulful and ambient, with tremendous growth since the last go ‘round. Saba is at his best when he’s in his head (“American Hypnosis”). He’s got a big brain that’s hardened with burden, and as he picks at those layers of pain, that story will set him apart from other MCs.
Previously appeared in BLAG, Vol. 2.
This Portland/Raleigh/Toronto band would rather skip its pedigree, but that’s part of the novelty: a ridiculous sampling of ex-members includes Cursed, Left for Dead, Ruination, The Swarm, Earth Crisis, Catharsis, Undying, Racetraitor, The Kill Pill, and Fall Out Boy. Save for Chris Colohan’s instantly recognizable vocals, the rest only hints at its 1990s-era resume. Sect’s breakneck speed (at times bordering on grind) is a pleasant surprise, with the outcome being torrential, metal-tinged hardcore that sounds like what a defibrillator probably feels like (GET IT? THEY'RE OLD).
Previously appeared in BLAG, Vol. 1.
Another Young Chicago Authors nod — not an alum, but the Associate Artistic Director. Most people are familiar with her hook on Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy,” so we know she can sing. Her tape is light and furious: beats inspired by old playground clapping games, topped with silly melodic nods to Paula Cole’s Dawson’s Creek theme and The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" deliver an aesthetic that coats the pained anger fueled by the Black Lives Matter conversation, intersectionality identity politics, and Chicago’s violence. Despite the despair, it never wallows — Woods’ strength is standing her ground and it uplifts us all.
+•+•+ SHORT PLAYS +•+•+
That Makes Me Smart
People tell me — and lots of people believe this — that, in America, we have the best grindcore. Don’t let those posers tell you that the Crooked Belgium scene is worth a damn. It’s not. And I’m telling you, any band that’s gonna head overseas is gonna pay. They’re gonna pay very, very, very dearly! Sad! Let’s make Seth Putnam great again, and Rob Crow (Pinback, Goblin Cock) and Travis Ryan (Cattle Decapitation) are the ones to do it.
Now, I don’t know if this is an official release, or something that leaked onto the Internets, so if the link needs to be taken down, let me know. This is 3/4s of South Carolina’s Assfactor 4, reuniting after nearly two decades to see if they still got it. They still got it.
Whereas Assfactor 4 carefully weaved melody into their chaotic sound, Bird Chest does the flip. The throat-scratching shrieking is gone, and the songs are much more tuneful, but it still rages the same inertia that made Assfactor 4 so unique. If this were a Hot Track Alert, I’d highlight “Alexander the Great” and hone in on the last 20 seconds. Bird Chest’s careening chaos culminates into a simple, but car-mosh worthy breakdown — a nice moment of contrasting conformity that’s a mic drop of an ending.
Whatever Brains pushed Raleigh’s hardcore scene further into brilliant Weird, therefore the city needed a foil. We got that with Blackball, a collaboration with Richmond, VA that includes members of Skemata, Crooked Teeth, Pure Scum, and more. Sometimes, you just want a barrage of heavy riffs with Infest vocals. That is not to say this straight-forwardness is dumbed down, but smartly efficient, and delivered with such hurling impact, even The New York Times and Greil Marcus paid attention.
+•+•+ ET CETERA +•+•+
Unofficial ‘Discography’ (re)mastered
Assfactor 4 existed in an early 90s zeitgeist where a lot of hardcore turned introspective — a precursor to emo. Sometimes, it was conveying more complex ideas. Mostly, it was ridiculously sappy and was just a bunch of dudes sharing intense, vacant stares into the abyss that is their dickhole. Assfactor 4 was able to straddle that world by burying understated guitar melodies under raging hardcore and keeping their lyrics at a pissed off wistful. It was a beautiful balance, and pioneered a regional sound, with Rights Reserved, Cornelius, and Eagle Bravo right in their footsteps.
Anyways, the Blogged and Quartered blog took the time and mastered the entire discography and it’s a great homage to a great Carolina band.
No Delusions documentary
My friend Don made a pretty pointed observation: If you want to see a great distillation of the personality and attitudes behind 80s hardcore and 90s hardcore, watch You Weren’t There, then follow it up with No Delusions.
Vincent Chung is a designer and writer living in Raleigh, NC. He can be found at prestonandlogan.com.