“I’m learning to like Chicago,” Protomartyr singer Joe Casey said toward the end of the band’s set at Thalia Hall on Thursday night. Protomartyr hail from Detroit, which has a storied Midwestern rivalry with Chicago, so the minor bit of animus is understandable. He also may have been kidding, but his detached demeanor on stage made it difficult to tell. That’s by design of course, befitting a singer and band that crafts songs so relentless and emotionally intense they often seem on the verge of total collapse. You can’t allow your feelings to become too invested when performing songs about the ails of the world, lest they hold you in a masochistic pit of despair.
Tag: post punk
Before you read any of this, do me a favor: Take a close look at this photo. Notice any similarities between the people depicted? If you don’t, I suspect you’re blind. On the left is Jehenny Beth, singer for the band Savages. On the right is Ian Curtis, singer for the band Joy Division. Two different genders and two completely different people, however they could potentially be fraternal twins. Sure, Curtis died more than four years before Beth was born (under the name Camille Berthomier), but if you believe in reincarnation perhaps this connection is much deeper than skin deep. Joy Division was an all-male post-punk band from England that became well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. Savages are an all-female post-punk band from England that’s becoming more and more well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. In terms of label dealings, Joy Division signed with RCA, only to later buy out their contract because they were unhappy with how things were going. Despite Curtis calling Factory Records founder Tony Wilson “a fucking cunt” to his face and then repeatedly insulting him on stage one night, the band would eventually sign to Factory, a label best known for letting its artists do whatever they wanted and splitting all profits 50-50. Savages view record labels as evil, but a necessary evil. With Beth still entangled in label dealings from her last band with boyfriend Johnny Hostile, she pushed the idea of not signing to a label until their debut album was finished. Ultimately Silence Yourself is being distributed via Matador Records, in conjunction with Beth and Hostile’s own small imprint Pop Noire. “I believe artists make their own success,” Beth said after signing to Matador. “No record labels are my heroes today.” I don’t doubt that Curtis would have said something dramatically similar were he alive to survey the music scene in today’s digital age. There’s a rebellious, wild and angry spirit that runs through both of their world views, if you can define a person via their interview quotes. But what does all of this mean? A pessimist might view the similarities between bands as a series of coincidences that amount to nothing. An optimist could call this the second coming and the rise of a new band set to change the musical landscape once more for the better. Let’s just hope this new story doesn’t end the way the earlier one did.
To be perfectly clear though, Savages are not Joy Division, even if my first listen to Silence Yourself felt strangely similar to the first time I listened to Unknown Pleasures. That is to say, it felt like a door to an entirely new world of music had just been opened up. Unlike back in the late ’70s and early ’80s however, this sort of post-punk sound isn’t new or novel anymore. In fact, it’s downright out of style at the moment. Of course this is the sort of band that revels in contradiction and doing whatever the fuck they want without a care if it’s in style or out of style. As such, listening to their record can feel a bit like playing a “spot the influence” game. The Joy Division (and similarly Gang of Four) is there thanks to the extremely present and dominating work of bassist Ayse Hassan. Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons run abound because Beth’s vocals often resemble that of Siouxie Sioux’s, though in more modern terms you can pick up on some early PJ Harvey or Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs when she escalates to a higher and more shriek-filled range. Gemma Thompson’s piercing and rusty chainsaw-sounding guitar work fondly recalls bands like Public Image Ltd, Bauhaus and Converge, while the incredible aggression through which Fay Milton attacks her drum kit draws power from krautrock like Faust and Can, with a bit of Sleater-Kinney era Janet Weiss thrown in for good measure. Savages sound at least a little bit like all of these bands, yet they still manage to break free and expose a sound that feels intense and unique as you’re listening to it. Such a quality is so rare in music these days it can easily give one the impression that this band is out to save rock and roll. They certainly play like it, and though it shines through the record, their raw nerve and extreme ferocity on stage are what they’ve built their reputation on. Simply put, Savages live up to their name.
Silence Yourself starts in an interesting fashion, with audio from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night. The scene in question is a crucial one, and comes about 50 minutes into the film. In it, the lead character of actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) sits down for a rather informal meeting at the apartment of the woman who wrote the script for the play she’s appearing in. This older, wiser writer Sarah (Joan Blondell) begins their conversation after some pleasantries by asking the actress how old she is. The actress dodges the question repeatedly and never gives an official answer, yet insists that she’s having trouble connecting to the part that’s been written for her because the character is so much older than her actual age. Of course the audio for the intro to the song “Shut Up” and the rest of the album gets cut off before the actual point of the scene is reached, leaving the lingering question of age hanging in the air. Yet lest you be confused, age is not the point of the scene, nor does it have anything to do with Savages’ music. No, the point is about fighting against perceptions and allowing for enough fluidity to maintain your own versatility. As Myrtle says a minute later in the same scene, “Once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that.” Her concern is that once she plays this older woman character, she’ll be forever fixed in the minds of audiences as a senior citizen and it will change her career trajectory in the wrong direction. Similarly, Savages refuse to be easily categorized or boxed in. They’re about outward rebellion and an innate desire to turn the music world on its head. Thanks to the primal, uncompromising brutality of this debut album, they’ve done exactly that. At times it’s enough to shake you to your very core.
Just reading the band’s song titles like “Shut Up,” “No Face” and “Hit Me” can go a long way towards telling you what to expect from the Silence Yourself listening experience. And boy, “experience” is the right word to use, considering the physicality that blindly attacks you at every turn. As “I Am Here” creeps along down the dimly lit hallways of your mind, the chorus suddenly comes at you like a punch to the gut in a momentary flash of rage. These spikes in noise and aggression come to a head in the final minute of the track, when the intensity finally builds to a release point and Beth howls the song title over and over like a mantra as the pace gets faster and the noise louder. By the end there is no doubt that she has in fact arrived and made her presence known. If a close listen with good headphones doesn’t give you goosebumps, perhaps you should check your pulse. A very similar set-up and execution happens on the single “Husbands.” In that case all the band members steamroll ahead at full speed the entire time, only taking a momentary respite in the chorus as Beth moves from a whisper to a shriek while once again repeating the song title. The effective point of it in this case is to destroy the meaning of a word that many equate with marriage, love, family and security by creating a true nightmare scenario. It’s equally easy to believe that the track “Hit Me” is all about the horrors of domestic violence were you to only think of the lyrics and not the context behind them. The 100 second beating this song will give to your ears (it was recorded entirely live in the studio, by the way) was actually written from the perspective of porn star Belladonna, about a violent scene she agreed to take part in for the sake of sex, art and masochism. “I took a beating tonight / And that was the best I ever had,” she sings, consciously aware of the choice and refusing to play the victim. Provocative and button-pushing as the subject matter might seem, it’s not the point Savages are trying to make with their music. The ultimate goal is liberation and empowerment, even if that means crossing the lines of physical and psychological pain to achieve it. Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn and grow.
The emotions on Silence Yourself finally reach their true breaking point at two spots on the album, both of which wrap up their respective sides of the LP. It’s equally interesting to know that they’re also the songs that break from an attack dog-like format and attempt to truly inject the record with something more thoughtful and progressive. While the haunting and moody instrumental “Dead Nature” might be considered by some to be the singular throwaway track sitting at the center of the album, its actual purpose is to serve as a cooler and buffer before the onslaught of the second half begins. Call it the musical eye of a hurricane and an opportunity to take a breather. The true moment of power hits two minutes before that though, on “Waiting for a Sign.” That 5.5 minute dirge is perhaps the most terrifying white knuckle ride on an album full of them, even as it avoids the immediacy and hooks of everything else. As it plods along led by Hassan’s rumbling bass and Beth’s manic vocal, the final two minutes of this ballad are handed off to Thompson, who takes the old Beatles adage “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” literally, only in this case there’s nothing gentle about it. Thompson’s guitar is crying buckets of tears, and in turn squeezes our ears so tightly it’s difficult not to connect with that and break down right along with it. While the album’s closing ballad “Marshall Dear” doesn’t quite elicit the same strong emotional reaction as other tracks, it is important to the overall record because of what it introduces. Considering the blitz attack that most of Savages’ music so far subscribes to, it’s easy to predict that their sound has a limited shelf life that might stay viable for another couple albums at best. What’s hinted at on the final track is a continued evolution of the band as they incorporate more instruments such as piano and clarinet. In addition to being an incredible singer Beth is also a classically trained pianist. Though that skill is used rather sparingly here, it hints at a larger vision and destiny at play for a band that likely won’t take their own advice and silence themselves any time soon.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead aren’t an ambitious band. They are beyond ambitious, and often to a fault. Ten years ago, they were unfortunate enough to be cursed with an almighty 10.0 on Pitchfork’s richter scale, and they’ve always seemed like a band still trying to recover from that madness. Being told you’ve crafted a perfect work of musical art is enough to make any artist lose his or her mind, because that little voice inside your head essentially teases you with the idea that maybe you can maintain the impossibly high standard you’ve established for yourself. The reality is, you’ve got to keep pressing on like it never happened, and hope that the lightning in a bottle once again shows up at your doorstep. Unfortunately for Trail of Dead, they felt like the next logical step was to take their sound bigger and more robust than ever before. It led to two gluttonous major label efforts, Worlds Apart and So Divided, that left long-time fans feeling like they were standing on the wrong side of the gulf those two titles implied. Those were the days of such sharp backlash and disappointment it sent the band soaring downward in a shame spiral one might never expect them to recover from. After a bunch of in-fighting and stripping down the lineup to just the four core members, 2011’s Tao of the Dead was the start of a real recovery for the boys. They continued to defy expectations with that record, creating a conceptual premise built on two seamless parts that were recorded only in the keys of D and F. In spite of how gimmicky it looked on paper, the record’s pure rock drive and generally shorter songs were a blessing in disguise showing how far they’d climbed back up from a low point just a few years earlier.
Now about a year and a half later comes Lost Songs, a straightforward, pure Trail of Dead rock record the likes of which they haven’t done in 10 years. The high-minded concepts are gone, as is pretty much any song that clocks in at over five minutes in length. If you go strictly by the standard edition of this album, it’s the band’s shortest since their 1998 self-titled debut. Even the cover art, unlike the intense and complicated pieces created by frontman Conrad Keely in the past, is black and white simplicity showing four silhouettes standing in the middle of a desolate town. This is about as basic as the band can get both musically and stylistically, which is why they’re practically hardcore punk once you clear all the debris away. The energy and intensity hits you immediately with “Open Doors,” then refuses to let up or give you a true breather until “Awestruck” arrives 10 tracks in. This heavy punch to the gut almost starts to wear thin after about 30 minutes, but Trail of Dead’s ingenuity and ability to showcase the quiet instrumental builds to explosive finales serves them particularly well here, leaving you satisfied even as you know what curveball is waiting around the corner. Songs like “Up to Infinity” and “Pinhole Cameras” are invigorating in exactly the ways they need to be early on. It’s also extremely pleasing to hear Jason Reece get behind the microphone again a few times on this album, as he’s been largely stuck behind the drum kit the last couple records. He’s a larger than life sort of guy, throwing himself fully into whatever he does. It’s the main reason why the percussion is so strong on this record, and why the songs featuring Reece’s vocals are some of the album’s biggest standouts. “Catatonic” in particular feels like a special moment for him, to the point where you can almost hear a stage dive built into it.
But Trail of Dead want Lost Songs to be about more than just a forceful collection of rock songs. They have every intention of using their power as musicians to consistently challenge both themselves and their audience, which is why much of the new album revolves around world politics. This isn’t the same sort of politics that the new Local H record is about, though. On a much closer level they’re trying to take up the mantle left behind by a band like Rage Against the Machine. The goal seems to be less of a commentary on our leaders and more of an effort to cure social injustices. The band dedicated their single “Up to Infinity” to Pussy Riot, even though the song was written about the Syrian Civil War. On “Pinhole Cameras” they empathize with those that appear to be “starving, living in this land of plenty.” In other parts of the record they spit venom at despots and try to slap people out of comas of ignorance to serious world issues. Heroic though these efforts might be, and as much as it fills a void in the current music climate, it’s unlikely to truly spark a revolution. You’ve got to give them credit for trying though, and if that’s what fueled the post-hardcore aesthetic of this album, so much the better. Trail of Dead have reclaimed the spark they lost many years ago. In the best sense, that makes this record full of found songs, for they are lost no more.
If you’re going to pick a band name as emotionally evocative as Eternal Summers, you’d best have the material to back it up. People get excited about summer, because it means time off from school or work, warm weather, and lazy days by the pool or lake with family and friends. It’s a special season to say the least, and one we often wish would go on forever. The road hasn’t always been paved with sunshine and blissful happiness for Eternal Summers though. They’ve spent the last few years in relative obscurity, part of a somewhat secret music community in their hometown of Roanoke, VA called Magic Twig. It’s a loose collective of musicians that work with one another without much regard for official band membership. They have their own recording studio and embrace the DIY/lo-fi aesthetic. Guitarist/singer Nicole Yun and drummer Daniel Cundiff met that way, and with their minimal pop powers combined they became established enough to earn a record deal. After a couple of EPs, 2010 saw the release of their first full length Silver. While it certainly achieved some degree of measurable success, reviews weren’t exactly glowing with affection for the duo. Then further tragedy struck: while on tour, their gear was stolen. Yun’s special Parker Nitefly guitar was among the losses, and she didn’t have the money to pay for a new one. Other guitars didn’t quite have the sonic range to pull off some of their songs, so to compensate for the low end they brought in bassist Jonathan Woods. Becoming a three-piece has fleshed out Eternal Summers’ sound more than ever, as has their decision to outsource the mixing of their new album Correct Behavior to New York, where The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner and producer Alonzo Vargas took care of it. They may have been concerned about letting other people have some degree of control over their sound, but the end product really shines positively on the growth of the band and provides the leg up needed to get the attention they deserve. Helpful as these changes might be, in the end they don’t amount to much if the songs themselves aren’t good. Thankfully Eternal Summers don’t have that problem, as this album features stronger lyrics, more confident vocals and more candy-coated hooks than anything they’ve ever done before. First single “Millions” kicks things off in a very bright and bouncy fashion, really hammering home the fuller sound and putting Yun’s vocals at the front of the mix. “I’ve got to shake this shell and break it into millions,” she sings, and while it’s supposed to represent a new found freedom in your life, in many ways it also feels like the band is starting fresh and embracing the same ideals. That same intense energy and playfulness continues to carry on through super addictive songs like “Wonder,” “You Kill” and “I Love You.” All together those first four songs make for one of the best starts of any record so far this year. Cundiff’s drumming is propulsive in exactly the ways it needs to be, especially on more punk rock numbers like “You Kill” and “Girls in the City.” Yun also gets in some intelligent guitar solos on “Wonder” and “Heaven and Hell,” likely the result of not having to worry about being the only guitar in the band anymore. There are a few moments where Correct Behavior slows down, which help balance out the record nicely and give you a chance to catch your breath. “It’s Easy” and “Good As You” are dreamy and beautiful in all the ways they need to be, holding your attention when they very well could have killed the mojo established by the quicker, more upbeat tracks. Perhaps the biggest standout on the entire album comes right in the middle with “Girls in the City.” It’s the only track where Cundiff handles the vocals, and the post-punk melody blended with his very cut-and-dry baritone makes it comparable with something you’d hear from Joy Division or Crystal Stilts. Eternal Summers showed hints of such influences on their previous releases, however it’s never come across as clearly as it does here. The only real problem is that it doesn’t mesh as well with the breezier pop stuff that’s all over the rest of the record. Finding a better way to incorporate new and different styles is one of the things they can work on for their next long player. In the meantime, Correct Behavior goes a very long way towards making Eternal Summers the sort of band you want soundtracking those times of fun in the sun.