Monday, 22 July 2013

Some Problems In The Punk Scene

Before I dive in, I would like to say that this is no dig at punk in general. In fact punk was my first love, long before I delved full in to the realms of metal. However, I'll be quick to point out any problems in the metal scene and a genre that prides itself on staying true to yourself and proporting brutal honesty as much as punk screams to be called on it's bullshit whenever said BS rears it's unwashed, scabies-laden head.

More than anything, punk prides itself on it's stark anti-conformist attitudes. Eschewing mainstream ethos, they have created something truly of their own, a strong subculture with its own structure, ideas and mores. While carving out their own niche meant to abandon notions of conformity within the mainstream, something very ironic has happened - the scene has become undeniably conformist in itself. How much punk music sounds the same? How many punks dress the same? Have nearly identical political views? It's something very common to subcultures - it starts off as a vibrant, diverse smorgasbord of ideas and sounds, and eventually succumbs to sameness and finding comfort  in familiarity. Pioneers such as The Stooges and Black Flag never looked back and were such good bands not just because of their songwriting, riffs or any other quantifiable aspect of their music - what made them so great was innovation and the reach towards something more, something different.
I remember reading an interview with some crust punk band, who's name I can't recall (probably because they were unremarkable) where the interviewer asked something along the lines of "what do you guys feel you add to the crust scene?". The band replied that they weren't really doing anything new musically but were just happy to be part of the scene and carry on the crust tradition. This is the problem - one which I've especially noticed in the crust scene. So many bands sound exactly the same and are happy to sound identical to the next band as long as they have a place in the scene. While there are certainly innovators in the crust scene such as Behind Enemy Lines, Amebix, Dystopia, Cursed and the like, as well as a decent handful of bands creating quality songs using the same old formulas, a lot of bands just don't try to be anything more than crust punk band number 5591. This also applies to other punk genres, as well. While innovation is not always necessary to create quality music, a scene where bands by and large are happy to sound like the next band will quickly sink into stagnation. You're against conformity right? Fucking act like it.

Politics is something intrinsic to the punk scene. With ideology so deeply entrenched in the sub-culture, this question is bound to pop up - what is the best way to go about espousing your political views? I've increasingly become averse to the preachy I'm going to shove my views down your throat and if you disagree you're a horrible person approach that sadly many bands have no qualms with using. It's fine to have political essays as part of your packaging, but lyrics coming off as intro to poli-sci essays is rarely a good thing. Sure, Behind Enemy Lines has used essay style lyrics to great effect, but in the vast majority of cases they come off as stale and emotionless. I've always felt in art it's better to show why your ideology is right rather than to tell. American History X is surely a better anti-racist tool than a dry lecture listing bullet points about why racism is harmful to society. This is why the lyrics of political bands that use evocative metaphors and potent imagery have always had a greater effect on me than bands like Iskra that basically have essay style lyrics about where they forcefully hammer their ideologies down your esophagus and more or less make you out to be a human parasite if you disagree.

Perhaps this forceful preaching and demonizing of people who don't agree is most prominent with vegetarianism and veganism. I recently came across an article Profane Existence, a label (and former magazine) I generally like, on dumpster diving. While I personally find the act rather gross, if that's how you want to live you're life that's fine with me. The article derides dumpster divers who eat meat, not because spoiled meat is gross, but because meat in general is disgusting and you're basically an immoral person if you enjoy a nice steak every now and again. While I certainly have problems with factory farms, and think it's better to buy local from more ethically inclined farmers, accusing the majority of the population of essentially being nazis for following the dietary choice of eating meat, which is completely natural as humans are omnivores, is quite simply absurd. It is fine to promote your beliefs and explain why you think it's right, but to outright call everyone who opposes is the type of extremism that might make newcomers more weary about diving into the punk scene.

Immortal Technique has a song called Beef and Broccoli, starting off with "look, let me make something abundantly clear to people who are so bereft of activities that they feel like they gotta comment on every one of mine", that lambasts the type of left-winger that feels like he can't be one of them because he enjoys eating meat. Surely ethics are a factor, but aggressively asserting an agenda down everyone's throats that is so blatantly subjective, will never be the most effective way to convince people of your logic. In the end all they'll hear is your anger. Tech makes this clear with the line "I like beef & broccoli motherfucker, mind your goddamn business".
Punk's unapologetically DIY attitude is to be commended, but the amount of sameness found within its walls is betraying its anti-conformist ethos. Discarding the conformity of mainstream culture is all well and good, but when you're all starting to dress the same, have similar bands and almost consistently congruent world views, are you not falling into the same pitfalls of the mainstream? Wouldn't a vibrant scene full of different ideas, music challenging the notions of what punk can be - one that strives for originality, be preferable? Also, the whole either you wholeheartedly believe exactly what we believe or you're a bad person attitude is not one that is doing the scene a great service. Isn't an open dialogue preferable to a one sided conversation with a crusty screaming at you for not being as unflinching in your opposition to the establishment as him? It's not as if morality and politics are always black and white issues.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

City Spotlight: NYC - Part 2 of 3

Morning Glory

Although having been a member of Choking Victim and currently a member of Leftover Crack, the two biggest bands in the closely related circle of 'Crack Rock Steady' bands, Ezra Kire has never been content with just doing one thing. He originally also lead INDK, which didn't last long. After Choking Victim and INDK broke up, he formed Morning Glory. Although the earlier work did feature raw production value and more aggressive passages, it always featured catchy song structures and a British classic rock tinge, with The Beatles being a notable influence. The first album, "This Is No Time To Sleep", was both raw and catchy. The lack of a clean production provides an interesting contrast to the infectious songwriting.

The follow up, "The Whole World is Watching", was shorter and featured a variety of song styles. There was a good mix of ska, more rocking material and poorly produced punk rock. "Gimme Heroine and the title track featured much better production then the rest and where instant hits in the Crack Rock Steady lexicon. 

After a long hiatus, many fans began to wonder if Morning Glory would ever release another album. In 2012 they quelled fan's fears by releasing "Poets Were My Heroes", which is by far Morning Glory's most consistent and well produced album. The album chronicle's Ezra's recovery from a crippling heroine addiction (one interview regarding the album started with ""When a guy that calls himself "Stza Crack" tells you that you've got a drug problem, you KNOW you've got a drug problem"). For this album ska was omitted, with Ezra admitting that he never really was a huge fan of the genre. The addition of strings and piano make a great addition to this album. 

Although rooted in the whole Crack Rock Steady scene, Morning Glory have a decidedly different sound than one would expect from the style. They have less ska, less metal influenced passages and catchier songwriting. Although much of their stuff doesn't contain the same grit as Leftover Crack, they never set out to be overtly heavy or aggressive. Above all else, Morning Glory is about writing songs you can't get out of your head. 

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Review: The Ocean - Fogdiver

Brilliant Instrumental Work 

Fogdiver marks the first non-demo release by atmospheric sludge mammoths The Ocean. This German based collective, lead by Robin Staps, has delved into many interesting ideas over the space of their career. This EP not only lays the groundwork for what will come, it remains one of The Ocean's most interesting works - all with the omission of vocals. While there is no man behind the mic for this release, this is certainly not to the detriment of the music. The music is undoubtably strong enough to stand on it's own, and unless the vocals matched the caliber of the music, their inclusion may have resulted in the marring of an otherwise fantastic release. 

Much of the success of this release lies in it's lush atmosphere. The album is produced in such a way that it sounds both clear and full. As their name might suggest, this release evokes images of the sea. Not being as violent and confrontational as some of the band's other work, this still has it's share of crushing riffs. These riffs remain relatively simple and to the point, but the band only puts forth their best ones. The riff that reoccurs  in the second half of "Isla De La Luna" remains one of the most memorable The Ocean have ever written. While they still would be very effective, if put in a different context, the heavier riffs might not fully have had the same crushing effect. What makes them seem particularly devastating in this case is their contrast between the lighter sections. These lighter sections, while certainly not an exercise in minimalism, do contribute much of the album's atmosphere. 

While this release is consistent in terms of having a fluid atmosphere, it is comprised of many distinct ideas. While the main feeling behind the music remains relatively congruent, there is an abundance of different timbres, instruments and dynamics.  The classical stringed instruments not only enhance the atmosphere, but on multiple occasions become the main driving force behind the music. The exotic piano in "The Long Road to Nha Trang" is a welcome inclusion, conjuring images of Old World Eastern European coastal villages. The more tribal oriented drumming parts in "Isla De La Luna"  create a feeling of depth. This release does not seem decidedly dark as many lighter, more hopeful passages make up a fair bulk of the music. The hopeful yet vaguely melancholy melody that starts off "Endusers" may remind some listeners of Pelican. This melody is beautiful in a bittersweet way, providing a wonderful contrast of emotions.  Dissonance is also often used for the purpose of contrast, creating a compelling clash with the fluid forward motion of the EP.  It is especially interesting when they play a more hopeful guitar line under the lens of dissonance. 

One of the main reasons that the inclusion of vocals may have been an intrusion is that it could have resulted in the release feeling cluttered. There is a lot going on here, from the occasional psychedelic clean guitar tones to the well-placed voice samples. From the deep, rolling bass lines to the recurring crawling dissonant guitar lines, it becomes apparent that this release would not have faired as well without room to breath. The addition of vocals may have suffocated this need for air. This is an album of varied dynamics, timbres and instrumentation and the intricate and often changing way the songs are composed would have made it hard to figure out how and where to fit vocals in. Although vocals are indispensable to many of The Ocean's releases (with the band having used a nearly absurd number of vocalists throughout their career), Fogdiver is astounding as it is. 

Fogdiver is a composition of many diverse layers. With the success of a good number of their full lengths, most notably Precambrian, this early EP is often overlooked. It would be wrong to assume that this is just a rudimentary early release by a band still struggling to find their sound. This couldn't be further from the case. This is a fully developed exploration of the more progressive and atmospheric side of sludge. This exploration was no doubt a great success.