Saturday, December 20, 2008

At the End of a Fucked Up Holiday: Punk Rock 1998-2008

Pennywise - 'Badge of Pride' (Straight Ahead, 1999)

Fucked Up - 'Son the Father' (The Chemistry of Common Life, 2008)

(the post title comes from a mis-remembered line in the Embrace song, 'End of a Year'. It would be a mixtape post, except for the fact that there's nothing in between those two songs that I really want to include - and therein lies the rub, and the 'holiday')

This isn't an anti-Fucked Up post, or an anti-hardcore post. It's a pro-punk rock post, and a pro-progressive punk rock post. I do think that the current Fucked Up album is overrated, but I also think that the importance of things being overrated is, well, overrated. So my aim is not to denigrate that album, but to put it into some sort of perspective.

'Badge of Pride' is the song that got me into punk and hardcore, via Punk-O-Rama #5 (2000). That album, Straight Ahead (1999), still stands up for me today, as does its predecessor, Full Circle (1997). In that respects, it's thus the first and the last straightforward - however melodic or 'poppy' it might otherwise be considered - hardcore song in my listening history.

At the time, "Hardcore 'til the day I die" seemed to me the most impossible ambition, philosophically speaking, but also the most sincere musical statement that I had ever heard. Some of the lyrics became gradually more problematic as I grew older - for example, how do you square "Say what you wanna say I'm not listening anyway" with a liberal, progressive and democratic political outlook? It's not impossible - part of the sincerity of hardcore/punk is the expression of attitudes in conflict with, as well as in support of, idealism - but it is difficult, and I think it's that tension, above and beyond purely sonic issues, that drives the typical listener, from across generations, along the line from hardcore to post-hardcore.

Beginning with this post and this post, I attempted to address a fellow blogger's contention - urbanology - that Refused's 1998 album The Shape of Punk Come marked the last really great hardcore/punk record. I came up with a personal list of, broadly, post-hardcore and screamo albums from the last decade, or part of it. For me at least, those six records (from Hot Water Music, American Steel, Mclusky, Envy, La Quiete and Sinaloa/Ampere) covers the main movements in 'new sounds' that have kept punk and hardcore fresh. Even this year, which hasn't exactly been spectacular for punk - with the exception of the one album featured above - has provided new variations on the post-hardcore and screamo fronts from Have A Nice Life, Loma Prieta and ...Who Calls So Loud; as well as my personal favourite punk album of the year from Shooting at Unarmed Men.

Mostly for the reasons outlined above, there is an almost complete bias amongst those choices away from straight-up hardcore. Upon posting the list, I was encouraged to go listen to Modern Life is War's outstanding 2005 album Witness - which is of superb quality, but still not quite my thing. And more recently, urbanology returns - to 1998 - with the twin brother to Refused's The Shape of Punk Come, Abhinanda's Rumble. This record, also from Umea, Sweden, represents another side of the same end-of-the-century movement:

"In retrospect this period with its releases, its shows and the lyrics, the whole scene seems like the climax of the new school hardcore in Europe; soon after that the music changed and hardcore-music got more into metal and tough guy shit, while the scene that held up the ideals of punk and hardcore (sometimes in a very dogmatic way) branched off the limited possibilities of the music. The last records from Abhinanda and Refused are a good symbol of it. Both bands told in many interviews, that after their releases from 1996 they fell into a black hole and soon started to search for a new way, in music and expression in general. Refused undoubtedly went to the highest step with “the shape of punk to come“, the epitaph and throne of that sound in one. A few weeks after the release, and I hope I remember it the right way, also after Refused split up, Abhinanda released Rumble. A superb record, still with a hardcore basis, but with typical Swedish garage rock’n’roll influences and thirst for experimentation. The songs are rocking like hell, not as arty as Refused, more directly, but not losing the hardcore spirit, the rage, the desperation and the hope."

Rumble is very good, undoubtedly, and an interesting artefact from an overlooked scene, but it also sounds rather dated. A decade old, and it sounds quintessentially like an album from late 90s punk and hardcore. Now we've moved on, far beyond the Epitaph sound and its apogee with The Shape of Punk to Come. Post-hardcore and epic screamo - each one and two decades old already, at least - define the alternative edge of contemporary punk. While I'm partial to some more traditional hardcore, I don't mourn its absence, in stylistic rather than innately spiritual forms, from 2008.

Which brings me directly to Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life. I'll begin by saying that it is a good record, even a very good record - but only potentially, or a slight possibility of being, a great record. In terms of hipster criticism, it makes an impressive #2 in the AV Club list, and a slightly more realistic #17 in the Pitchfork Top 50. Interestingly, in the latter #16 is the Vivian Girls s/t, and #15 the Crystal Castles s/t; both albums arguably more punk, subversive, and creative whilst being - respectively - catchily pop and vapidly electro.

The problem - for me - with The Chemistry of Common Life is that it's being held up as the absolute height of art-punk experimentation, as the apotheosis of post-hardcore. Yet when I hear it, it's a quasi-thrashy hardcore record with a (really) nice guitar sound and songs that extend past five minutes. Those songs are good - they have intelligent lyrics, great hooks, and generally a very agreeable mid-tempo pacing. The growling vocals absolutely don't bother me at all, as anyone who normally listens to hardcore is already familiar with that particular aesthetic.

Essentially, Fucked Up is a surprisingly normal hardcore record, admittedly with a lot of bells and whistles, and an arty gloss that makes it attractive (and this is a really good thing) to people who wouldn't normally listen to hardcore/punk. At base, there isn't then that much difference between the three-and-a-half minute long song from Pennywise above, and the six-and-a-half minute one from Fucked Up - apart from a misperception of the genre of hardcore, or the development of post-hardcore.

When looking for the development of punk rock since Refused - or as Pitchfork takes it back to, Husker Du's New Day Rising - it's to the side genres that the true aficianado turns: the sound of Revolution Summer and all the tunes that this blog originally focused on; this century, the noise-rock of Mclusky or the epic screamo of Envy; in 2008, the post-punk of Shooting at Unarmed Men or the latest developments in post-rock and screamo; or, slightly more commercially, Vivian Girls and Crystal Castles (perversely, I'll stick with them rather than the somewhat dull No Age). Making a melodic hardcore album not only just doesn't cut it for the most progressive record this decade, but also reflects the basic, straightforward hardcore sound - still valid, and still enjoyable - that all the really exciting albums moved away from.

- a guy called Clint got in touch about his sorta-melodic-hardcore band from Toronto that isn't Fucked Up, but who have a very nice EP/album available for download. It's called Outsourced from the New Enemy, and you can get it at their website here. And in case you're wondering, I don't usually do this sort of promo stuff, but in this case I just really like their sound.


cretin said...

first of all, great post. especially everything about the ideals that drive hardcore and how they relate to its musical development, as it relates to how the ideals that define a scene or genre can eventually trap it and/or isolate it from alternative ways of thinking. definining yourself by only the particular music you listen to and ignoring everything else can end up leaving a person as close-minded as if they only subjected themselves to sources that cover only one particular side of the issue, and unfortunately, this is something all too common within any form of music that reflects the desires of the counter-culture.

I guess my main contention with this post would be the idea that traditional hardcore, in its stylistic form, doesn't make an impression on 2008. This could amount to nothing more than a difference in personal preference, and I guess from a perspective that traditionally doesn't cater to punk unless something exceptional (as in, something that pushes the boundaries of what the genre is considered to be, regardless of quality) is done, i.e. Pitchfork and the A.V Club, then it may seem like that, but that would be to ignore some of the best albums of the past year (Aggression is the specific example I have in mind, but there are other good straight-up hardcore albums from 2008 as well).

I think I have more to say on the subject, but I'm quickly losing my sobriety, so I'll end it here for now.

DFelon204409 said...

i really enjoyed this post. i think that fucked up album is just bad though. it's just a bunch of chord progressions in parallel keys thrown around with no method (yet it somehow doesn't benefit from the lack of focus as if it might harness some "punk" energy, as in i don't need no instructions to rock)

gabbagabbahey said...

cretin; a perhaps simpler way to explain this is, I haven't felt the need to listen to a straight-up hardcore band after Pennywise; and of course, that is just a personal preference. But then after 10 years of exploring diverse post-hardcore sounds, the dominant critical perspective in alternative music comes along and says, Fucked Up is this totally great post-hardcore/art-punk whatever album, and I do a long double-take which results in this post.

like I say at the start, this isn't an anti-(straightforward)hardcore post, and I really don't want to be the guy that says punk always has to push boundaries just for the sake of it, because that's not why I enjoy a lot of the music I listen to. so by all means, do enjoy what you find in more traditional hardcore in 2008.

however, I think you understand me well enough already. I'm just trying to offer an alternative perspective on something that mystifies me slighly, not trying to lay down the law on what's punk.

nick: on balance, I think I'm going to stick with the judgement that it's a good album - I certainly enjoy it sometimes, although at others it just drags on. I'll have to wait and see whether it grows on me any further, or if I just stop listening to it altogether!

cretin said...

yeah, I understand what you're getting at, but I figure there's never harm in fostering discussion regardless.

on the subject of The Chemistry of Common Life, I'm inclined to call it over-ambitious and under-realized; which are basically buzz words for saying I haven't listened to it enough to have any objective criticisms to aim at it, just that it doesn't do anything for me.

Josh (UK) said...

bit late on the discussion but i would offer the opinion that maybe fucked up and some other bands coming to prominence (i would even consider mentioning gallows and the bronx in this statement) represent a reforming and reuniting of the heavier sound of tough guy hardcore-eque music and more experimental screamo/post punk music, which have now for nearly a decade moved apart.

I realise im talking in great generalizations but often these things, i think, can be best summarized by calling like u personally see it.

almost like the way 20years after rock n roll and early r n b had moved away from each other and gone on to become entirely new things with there own numerous sub genre in the 80s artists such as MJ and Prince collided them back together again.

A fair outlook/comparison?