Featured Releases: Aug 5 2021
Welly Artcore: Directions to the Outskirts of Town book (Earth Island Books) Welly, the longtime publisher of the UK’s Artcore fanzine, has published his first book, which presents fleshed-out diaries of two tours he went on in North America in the 90s: one tour selling t-shirts for Chaos UK in 1994 and another fronting his own band, Four Letter Word, in 1998. The tours were very different, the Chaos UK tour a drunken, drug-fueled circus, while the Four Letter Word tour felt very familiar to me, basically a low-level DIY band attempting to break into the world of punk touring from the very bottom. Since the tours are so different, the two halves of the book are very different, with the Chaos UK tour highlighting the drunken antics while the Four Letter Word tour sheds more light on the interpersonal relations. As with Get in the Van, Directions to the Outskirts of Town is the opposite of a romanticized view of touring. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not, but Welly’s writing underscores the monotony of touring with little touches like listing the street address of every single venue and recycling the same jokes again and again (like calling American beer “fizzy brown water”). The Four Letter Word diary was so familiar as to make me feel a twinge of PTSD from past tours I’ve been on. I’m a fan of Four Letter Word, but when they go on this tour, they aren’t a big enough band to draw their own crowd and they’re not really able to win over an unsympathetic crowd, so they are at the mercy of the particular circumstances of any gig. They’re not incompetent, so if the promoter does a good job and there’s a good lineup and an enthusiastic audience they can have a great gig, but more often than not the wind blows from the wrong direction—a bad PA, a mismatched bill, a low turnout—and things go poorly. At that point, the people crammed into the van look at the person next to them and think, “maybe YOU are the problem” and things get tense. Which percolates because on US tours all you do is drive and drive and drive some more, and even though it seems like you do nothing but drive, you’re constantly running late and never able to get your bearings. Like a lot of bands, Four Letter Word doesn’t survive the endeavor; that version of the band dissolves after the last US gig. There is no resolution, no happy ending… in fact, no ending at all really… it just goes and goes and then stops, leaving participants and readers wondering what the fuck just happened. That is both the weakness and the strength of the tour diary as a literary genre; it’s a Kafkaesque maze where every step you take leads nowhere. Not that reading the book is pointless. It’s an accurate and honest depiction of touring the US as a small punk band. That’s interesting enough on its own, but the best parts are Four Letter Word’s interactions with their American label BYO Records and bands like Swingin’ Utters, Youth Brigade, and 7 Seconds that they share stages with. The worms-eye view of that world of mid-level commercial punk is unflattering and thankfully it’s a world I don’t come into contact with often. While the punk conversion narrative and Behind the Music-esque musician / band biography feel like rote forms at this point, Directions from the Outskirts of Town sheds light on aspects of the punk scene that will be new to many and all too familiar for some.
Spllit: Spllit Sides 12” (Feel It Records) Feel It Records has been on a hot streak, and this debut vinyl from New Orleans’ Spllit stands out even from that strong pack. Spllit Sides reminds me of one of my favorite records of the past several years, the World’s Reddish 12” EP. Like the World, Spllit shares a lot with the artier end of the Rough Trade Records spectrum: Vivien Goldman, Essential Logic, the Fall. However, Spllit doesn’t sound as retro as a lot of contemporary bands in this style; in fact, it isn’t so much that they sound like the aforementioned artists; rather, that they share an approach to music that’s instrumentally and tonally eclectic (almost, but not quite, to the point of being deliberately weird), emphasizes rhythm and groove, has smart, surreal, and self-aware lyrics, yet isn’t afraid of strong vocal melodies. In contrast to many bands who are into the Fall, for instance, the songs on Spllit Sides are shorter and more ornately arranged, and there are quite a lot of them (16!). This is smart, ambitious, and memorable music, and I’ve been reaching for it constantly, partly just to hear the songs again and partly because I hear new things every time I listen. If you’re a fan of bands like Janitor Scum and the World, this is a must-listen, but this is so killer that I think it’s gonna play well with a lot more than just the egg punks. My only issue is that I can’t decide which track to choose for my Best of 2021 mix.
Straw Man Army: Her Majesty’s Ship OST cassette (Stucco Records) Straw Man Army and Stucco Records surprise dropped this release on us, Beyoncé style, and I had to stop what I was doing and listen immediately. After I hit “play” on the BandCamp site, I read the description and this part stuck out: “Straw Man Army’s ambitious soundtrack, presented here for the first time, captures the freewheeling energy of the film and its attitude of exploration via a wide range of samples, found sounds, and themed arrangements.” Like many people, I’ve dipped my toe into the world of film soundtracks over the past few years, particularly enjoying the soundtracks to 70s art / cult films like La Planète Sauvage, Profondo Rosso, and Belladonna of Sadness. I don’t know if Straw Man Army has been mining these same seams for influences, but the resemblance is uncanny. Her Majesty’s Ship OST features a series of 13 instrumental themes, all of them short and tonally distinct, suggesting a narrative without outlining one. Each track is its own rhythmic and melodic world, and the samples add even more texture and nuance. Not that you have to be into film soundtracks to appreciate what Straw Man Army is doing. Her Majesty’s Ship OST sounds as much like Can as anything, with complex, grooving drum patterns that take the rhythmic intricacies of other D4MT Labs projects even further out there. The sound also isn’t unprecedented for Straw Man Army; the Sun Ra-ish instrumental that started Age of Exile (perhaps my favorite record of 2020) could slide right into this track listing. The packaging is also interesting, housed in a red envelope with a thick booklet that extends the imaginary world of the music in literary form. This is awesome; so awesome that I kind of wish it was an LP rather than a tape, but I’m just happy to have it period. Oh, and just to lay it on even thicker, we only got a few of these and we don’t expect them to last long at all. I suggest you jump on it.
Pesadilla: Imagen 7” flexi (Huayno Amargo) When I picked up this record, the first thing I noticed was its packaging design, a pitch-perfect homage to early 80s Japanese punk. This shit is detail oriented, with elements like the paper stock and center label layout feeling like they were beamed in from another place and time. Those are records that are very close to our hearts at Sorry State. When I stopped by our office / practice space earlier tonight, I heard a band practicing who was drawing from the same well, and several of the people whose staff picks you read in our newsletter spend our time and money chasing down original pressings of this stuff. Pesadilla clearly loves that whole world of 80s Japanese punk just as much as we do. The music lives up to the packaging too, capturing the exciting, underground feel of those records without feeling stiff or labored over. If you have a youtube play history littered with names like L.S.D., Gai, Execute, the Clay, and Mobs, you will love everything about this. Like the Sirkka demo from 2020, this record wears its influences on its sleeve yet still sounds vital and relevant.
Spiritual Mafia: Al Fresco 12” (Ever/Never Records) As I was sitting here, listening to Al Fresco and pondering how I would start writing about it, I found myself lost in thought about whether I should describe them as “menacingly weird” or “weirdly menacing.” That says it all; not only is Al Fresco weird and menacing, but also it gives you time and space to ponder things that seem simple at first glance but, when you think about them a little longer, don’t seem so straightforward. Spiritual Mafia lives in a similar headspace to newer bands like Knowso or the Mind or older groups like Pere Ubu (if the members of Spiritual Mafia aren’t already card-carrying members of the “Australians who love Cleveland” club, they should be). I also hear a lot of the Fall at their most apocalyptic. Like I said, menacingly weird (or weirdly menacing). Spiritual Mafia also resembles a lineage of Australian bands in their stretched-out quality, possessing the same propensity to ride a groove that convinces me Eddy Current Suppression Ring spent plenty of time listening to the first two Stooges albums. And then there are the lyrics, which take mundane yet cryptic phrases and repeat them until they sound like mantras. If I quote them here, they’ll seem sillier than they are, or at least sillier than they seem by the end of each of these long songs. I’m a sucker for this sort of modern art punk, and Spiritual Mafia’s heavy, hypnotic grooves and surreal qualities are bound to win over anyone with similar tastes.
Thought Control: Shock to the System 7” (Not for the Weak Records) I’m not sure if it’s just luck of the draw or a reflection of the world, but it seems like everything I wrote about for this week’s newsletter is kind of abstract and heady. If you’ve sifted through all that looking for some fist-pumping, hard-moshing hardcore punk, then congratulations: you’ve reached the portion that is relevant to your interests. Shock to the System is a vinyl-ification of a previous digital / cassette release from this one-person project from New Jersey (though, like a lot of one-person projects, they’ve evolved into a proper band). If you’ve been following Virginia’s Not for the Weak Records (and you should be!), you’ll be unsurprised to learn that Thought Control’s influences come from the angrier, more straightforward end of 80s USHC. In particular, I hear a lot of early 80s NYHC in the toughness of the riffs, and the vocals remind me of Antidote, sounding unhinged yet catchy and memorable. If you’re looking for something that’s mean as hell to power you thought another day of the endless grind, this fits the bill.