Show review: Hexmachine, Medic, Black Tusk, Landmines.

This show happened at 9 North Boulevard, aka Eric's house. It drew a diverse crowd of people, which reflected well on the choice of bands to play together. It seemed like each band had its own crowd, but also that almost everyone who'd come out for one particular band was interested in the other bands as well. Needless to say, this is always awesome.

Landmines played first. They're a new band, featuring Joe from Brainworms on drums, and though I was expecting something pretty heavy based on the name, they actually aren't too far from Brainworms in sound either. However, where Brainworms have more of a mid-80s DC emocore sound, Landmines fall in a different place on the spectrum of melodic hardcore than Brainworms do. It's easy for people to hear "melodic hardcore" and assume you mean pop-punk, by the way, and let me assure you that Landmines are not pop-punk. The basslines are note-heavy and melodic, similar to those of Karl Alvarez from The Descendents, and the guitars use melodic octave chords in a similar manner to that of Leatherface or Hot Water Music; comparisons, incidentally, that also fit well with the gruff vocals. The hardcore part of their sound distinguishes them from these influences, though, as Landmines' faster tempos and more aggressive moments are nothing any band like the ones mentioned above would do. In those moments, they remind me more of bands that are hardcore first and foremost, but incorporate melodic leads and fills into their riffs. The best example of a band like this would be Swiz, or maybe Bread and Circuits. In the end, Landmines straddle the line between heavy and melodic quite well, and gain important elements of their sound from both sides of the equation. I can't wait to see them once they've been around a while longer.

Next was Black Tusk, from Savannah, Georgia. They were a three-piece with huge amps and drums, who looked fully prepared to blow the back wall out of the basement. However, once they got going, it wasn't quite as loud as I expected. Who knows, though, maybe that's just because I'm going deaf from too many shows. Anyway, Black Tusk had some interesting elements to their sound. Their guitarist got tones from his amp that reminded me of southern rock/boogie bands from the 70s, and they also mixed parts that took obvious influence from that style into their songs. In addition, they had moments that reminded me of Metallica's more ambitious instrumental moments circa "Master of Puppets", and sections that sounded like late 80s crossover hardcore; think Corrosion of Conformity, circa "Animosity". However, my enjoyment of all of these parts was hampered by the fact that they often returned to two or three chord crust riffs for the main verses of their songs. Now, I personally am not much of a fan of crust, or D-beat, or whatever you want to call it. Therefore, I was a bit put off by the fact that every time Black Tusk went into a vocal part, it had that sort of sound. There were plenty of other styles on display in their music, and in the later songs in their set, they sometimes didn't play crust parts at all. However, generally when songs didn't have crust parts, they were almost completely instrumental. This made me feel like Black Tusk saw crust parts as the only type of riff that could be considered a verse, and that everything else they incorporated into their sound was an intro or a break. If they could free themselves from this mentality, use the archetypal crust riff more sparingly, and start writing songs where they sang over all sorts of different parts, I would probably like them a lot better. As it is, they are by far the most creative crust band I've ever seen, and I can imagine that someone who actually likes that style of music would be blown away by Black Tusk. Problem is, that someone is not me.

Medic came next, and were far more up my alley. Medic play complicated hardcore songs that can touch on everything from grinding blast beats to brutal mosh parts to surprisingly melodic breakdowns. Often, a song that another band would play for 90 seconds will expand over twice that length in Medic's hands due to their ability to come up with parts that the average hardcore band would never think to use. Not only that, but as strange as these parts often seem on first listen, they work perfectly. In addition to having all of this going for them, Medic are an outstanding live act. Therefore, I was really excited to see them. When they set up, we learned that original guitarist Dave Villegas had quit to become a DJ. Their new guitarist was a guy named Paul, who played in the band Bison with Matt, Medic's drummer. Paul was a more than capable replacement for Dave, and I'm glad Medic were able to keep going without him, but I'll mis seeing Dave's huge mop of crazy hair flying everywhere when they play. Then again, Tem, their other guitarist, still throws his long dreads around plenty, and Faraz (vocals) and Sonny (bass) tend to throw themselves around, careening into each other and the front rows of the crowd frequently throughout their sets. This night was no exception, which was fine with the kids watching the show. There aren't usually pits of any sort at 9 North Boulevard shows, but one broke out in the middle of Medic's set, and Faraz and Sonny were both right in the middle of it. The pit was craziest when they played "Breathing Ashes Spitting Scabs", which drew out the signature 9 North Boulevard chant of "Holy shit". Medic played one more song after that, then finished, by which time I was ready to sit down and catch my breath.

Hexmachine played last. They're a three-piece band that is made up of local (and not-so-local) scene veterans: Trevor, who played bass in HRM and Human Thurma, plays guitar and sings; Paul, who played bass in Gnob and Hortus, plays bass; and Dave Witte, who has played in such bands as Discordance Axis, Human Remains, and Burnt By the Sun, and currently plays in Municipal Waste, is their drummer. I've been known to refer to Dave as The Best Drummer In The World, and he's certainly the most important element of Hexmachine's sound. The first couple of times I saw these guys, I wasn't too impressed, but every time I see them they grow on me a little bit, enough so that I want to see them again. They'd improved noticeably since the last time I saw them, and Dave's drum parts seemed more complex and more well-rehearsed. He and Paul complement each other well as a rhythm section; Paul has a very good sense of the rhythm of the song, and places bass notes in complex patterns that bring out nuances of the songs that would otherwise be unnoticed. Meanwhile, Dave, who has typically received most of his critical acclaim due to his speed, demonstrates through his playing in Hexmachine that it's not just speed that makes him so good at what he does. When playing slower songs, such as those of Hexmachine, Dave has the ability to play inside the beat, breaking a three or four beat measure down into dozens, maybe even hundreds, of evenly divided spaces between the beats, and then playing all of these sub-beats without ever losing the main beat that he's actually driving the song with. This is fascinating to watch, and at times is the only thing keeping Hexmachine from being boring. Their overall style is one that I find difficult to pull off well; they play slow, dirgy, heavy rock, which at times reminds me of The Birthday Party and at other times of The Jesus Lizard. With Dave's fascinating drum parts behind the songs, they can sometimes sound like Don Caballero, but this does not disguise the fact that not that much happens in some of the songs. Trevor tends to stick to playing two or three basic chords per riff, and in some of the songs, he just switches between two different riffs of equal tempo and simplicity. With a typical rock drummer, this sort of thing would never work, but with Dave playing with them, it seems like they get a bit lazy at points. Don't get me wrong, Hexmachine have some really good songs, in particular the last two they played at this show. The final song, which Trevor introduced as "Black Skeleton", was the fastest thing they did all night, and had a definite forward propulsion to it. The song immediately preceding it was much longer, and was based around a slow, pounding two-chord riff that the band would steadily build up into a faster verse and chorus that eventually cycled back to the slow riff, before starting to pick up again. These two songs in particular prove that Hexmachine are capable of a good bit more than what they're currently doing. They haven't been around that long, so I think there's a good possibility that they just wrote their first set of songs a bit too fast, and that as they continue to play the weaker ones will be weeded out, replaced by better new songs. I look forward to hearing them once this happens.


Diggin' in the crates.

I want to write something long about "Sunburn" by The Blake Babies, and hopefully I'll get to it in the next couple of days, but right now I really don't have the time. However, there's something I want to talk about that I don't think will take too long, and that way I can post something. So here you go.

The great thing about having a huge record collection like my own is that you're always discovering things buried within it's nooks and crannies that you either haven't heard in years or never really listened to at all. This happened to me most recently just last night. I was reading Colin Meloy's contribution to the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum Books, which is about the album "Let It Be"--the one by The Replacements, not the one by The Beatles. As with a few of the books in this series that I've read, Meloy's is less a book-length discussion of the album and more an explanation of the importance of the album through a memoir that explains the significance it had in his own life. Michelangelo Matos's book about Prince's "Sign O' the Times" is evidently similar, while Joe Pernice's about "Meat Is Murder" by The Smiths is a fictional version of the same sort of thing. I've heard some complaints from some of the readers of the series about these particular books, that they don't discuss the album enough or whatever, but for me these have been some of my favorite volumes in the series. To each his own, I suppose.

Anyway, there came a point in the book where Meloy was discussing a bunch of different albums he'd gotten during the same period of time in which he acquired "Let It Be." He mentioned "Candy Apple Grey" in this context, talking about how he'd bought it because of "Hardly Getting Over It", a song his uncle had put on a mix tape for him, and been shocked by what he called "the amp-destroying feedback" of album opener "Crystal". This piqued my curiosity--I'd bought "Candy Apple Grey" used on cassette something like 5 years ago, but only listened to it once or twice before filing it away. I don't remember why I found it disappointing; I still like the songs I know from it ("Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely", "Hardly Getting Over It," and "Too Far Down"), but for some reason the other 7 songs on the tape seemed mediocre to me at the time, and I never really got to know them. Now Colin Meloy talking about amp-destroying feedback was making me want to pull it out and give it another chance.

When I found the cassette, which had worked its way to the bottom layer in the milk crate it was in (one of 10 milk crates that house my cassette collection), and put it on, I was blown away. Meloy was right, "Crystal" was intense and noisy, everything I want when I go to listen to one of Husker Du's heavy songs. But it wasn't a fluke, as I feared it might be; indeed, pretty much every song on the album was outstanding. At the time of "Candy Apple Grey"'s recording, Grant Hart was really coming into his own as a songwriter (and the fact that this was starting to make Bob Mould feel threatened is obvious in the way that both sides of the album are laid out Mould/Hart/Mould/Hart/Mould, with Bob getting two more songs than Grant). "Don't Wanna Know If You Are Lonely" was known to be great, but I wasn't prepared for how awesome "Dead Set On Destruction" and "Sorry Somehow" also were. Meanwhile, Mould's songs were just as consistently awesome, with "I Don't Know For Sure," "Eiffel Tower High," and the aforementioned "Crystal" standing alongside his best songs from earlier in Husker Du's career, like "Makes No Sense At All", "Celebrated Summer" and "I Apologize".

In fact, after listening to "Candy Apple Grey" all the way through, it seemed like it worked better as a complete album than the two previous Husker Du efforts, "Flip Your Wig" and "New Day Rising", both of which are far more respected today. By cutting the amount of songs that they put on "Candy Apple Grey" down to 10 from the two previous albums' 14, they avoided padding their albums with such mediocrities "New Day Rising"'s "How To Skin A Cat", or "Flip Your Wig"'s two superfluous closing instrumentals. "Candy Apple Grey" is solid from one end to the other, and belies the oft-repeated myth that Husker Du were in decline by the time they signed to a major label. I have no idea why I went 5 years before really listening to my copy of this album, but it's a mistake that won't be repeated. I'm sure I'll be playing this one for a long time to come.


Show review: My War, The Internet, Army of Fun, The Moon Boggles (aka The Astro-Nots).

This show was actually something that I booked as a free show to celebrate my 30th birthday. There were some problems lining up bands to play it, because two of the four bands I originally booked had to cancel within a week of the show (one of them, The Setup, broke up, which is a real bummer). Army of Fun and The Astro-Nots both agreed to do the show with less than a week's notice, which was awesome of them. Anyway, the whole thing happened at 9 North Boulevard, on January 21st, actually the night before I turned 30.

The Astro-Nots played first. Upon arriving at the show, Margot, their singer, informed me that they had changed their name to The Moon Boggles, which is apparently a Gumby reference. I'd seen them the night before, at what had been their first show, but I had been pretty far back in the tiny basement they played, and couldn't really see much. I had a much better view of their set this time, which was great, because the visual element was definitely important. Casey, who plays synth, was wearing a dress with a lightning bolt insignia on it; Griffin, the drummer, was wearing a spacesuit and a motorcycle helmet, and Margot was wearing a black sequined skirt and a matching top with "NASA" written on it in blue masking tape letters. Their music was an interesting combination of dance music and hardcore--the guitar riffs all had basic hardcore structuring to them, but when combined with the new-wave sounding synth lines and a rhythm section that was straight up disco-funk, it added up to something quite different. Margot's voice reminds me of early 80s female new wave singers, the type who would have strange, futuristic MTV videos back when everyone's videos still looked really weird and ghetto. I can't seem to get more specific than that--I find myself thinking of a cross between Debbie Harry of Blondie and Nico, but that's not quite it. Also, that would give you the idea that she has a cold, standoffish stage presence, and nothing could be further from the truth. She smiled and danced around throughout the set, and on parts of songs where she didn't sing, she'd strike crazy poses that looked like futuristic karate or something. Meanwhile, Griffin pounded the crap out of his drums and Casey got all sorts of strange noises out of her synth. Everyone I could see during their set was smiling and and dancing, and with good reason. Whatever this band is called, they are a blast to watch. Catch them if you get a chance.

Army of Fun was next, and played on the same equipment as The Moon Boggles did, so the turnaround time between sets was almost nonexistent. Griffin from The Moon Boggles is also the guitarist for Army of Fun, and along with everyone else in his band, he's still in high school. I don't think any of the kids in that band are even 18 yet, and the crowd they brought out to see them were just as youthful if not more so. I've known Griffin for a while, and have hung out with Aiden, the singer, a few times, but this was my first time actually seeing their band, so I was excited, having heard a lot of great things from various friends of mine. I was not let down--they tore the place up. I guess I expected pretty standard fast hardcore, of the Gorilla Biscuits/Minor Threat style, but they were actually a lot more rock n' roll than that, and a good bit faster as well. Griffin's guitar playing is top notch, and though he doesn't write any riffs that are too complicated or tricky, he plays them in a distinctive style, throwing in plenty of little leads a la Black Flag's Greg Ginn. There are a lot of Army of Fun songs that sound like nothing so much as sped-up rock n' roll, and in that way they reminded me of 9 Shocks Terror, who take just as much from Chuck Berry and Little Richard as they do from old school hardcore. Add all of this to Army of Fun's ridiculously energetic stage show, and you've got one hell of a live act. The kids who came out to see them moshed it up and sang along with almost every song, even the ones that haven't been recorded yet; on a couple of occasions they came close to knocking over the PA stacks, but it was all in good fun and nothing got broken, so it was all cool. There were a few songs on which it seemed like one member or another of Army of Fun weren't too sure exactly what they should be doing, but if they messed up at any points it wasn't bad enough that I could tell. A highlight of the set for me was them covering "Young Til I Die" by 7 Seconds, which seemed especially appropriate on my 30th birthday.

The Internet was next, and since I sing for that band, I certainly can't write a review of the set. However, I will say that I felt like it was our best set so far, despite the fact that our bass player, Kyle, broke his collarbone in a bike accident the night before. We weren't sure if he was going to be able to play the set or not, and we were going to play without him if we had to, but at the last minute it was decided that he'd play sitting in a chair, which worked fine. So yeah, we played the five originals we have written so far, plus a Black Flag cover. It was fun. Hopefully it sounded decent to the kids watching.

My War were next, and my god. I've always really liked these guys, but I never really realized how good they could be until recently when they got (former) Setup drummer Gene Byard to play for them. Their old drummer, Brandon Ellison, was really good in his own right, but he has a very different sound than Gene's, and it just seems like Gene's sound fits with My War a lot better than Brandon's did. He's slowed them down slightly, which might seem like it'd be bad, but instead has been instrumental in clarifying their sound. His playing style is tight; every snare or cymbal hit is perfectly on beat and brings the songs into focus in a way that Brandon's more fast-and-loose style never really did (Brandon still plays in the band Flickerflame, where his style is a much better fit. Hopefully I'll have a chance to review them soon, as they are quite excellent in their own right). Gene's playing has helped me realize just how great My War's songwriting has become. They play a set of something like a dozen songs these days, and it's been so long since they last made a record that almost none of them have been released, which is criminal in my opinion. They're doing something that happens way too rarely for my tastes; testing the limits of hardcore as a musical form, without sacrificing any speed or heaviness in order to do so. The songs are dark and heavy in a manner resembling bands like Cursed and Tragedy, but also incorporate influences from many different genres, which is obvious by the wide variety of riffs they write. Despite this amount of variation, though, none of the parts ever seem ill-fitting; all of them are sonically of a piece. What's really interesting to me about recent My War material is the way some of their songs are minute-long blasts and others top out at 5 to 6 minutes. The longer songs are the ones with the most experimentation going on; there are points where things drop into a quieter lull, the band laying a hypnotic groove down as Braden, the singer, barks out intense lyrics. At times like this, his stage presence is reminiscent of Henry Rollins in his Black Flag days (which, to avoid confusion, is a high compliment in my opinion). Then the band builds up to a crescendo, sometimes pausing right before they get there for a couple of seconds longer than you'd have thought you could stand, before dropping into a super-powerful breakdown that crushes your skull. It's quite a thing to behold. These guys are apparently doing a demo soon, and I can't wait to hear that. I also can't imagine that it won't catch the interest of at least one or two record labels, because My War is one of the best pure hardcore bands I've seen in quite a while.


Bob Mould's triumphant return.

I got a comment the other day that mentioned Bob Mould, and it reminded me that I haven't talked about his new album yet. This is an oversight on my part, and I'm going to correct it right now.

I first heard the new Bob Mould album when I was at a bar last fall with a whole bunch of friends. The bartender was playing something over the sound system that sounded good, and though it was loud enough in the place that I couldn't be sure it was Bob Mould, I felt like it was, and what's more that it wasn't something of his that I'd heard before. I had to figure it out, so I approached the bartender, and he told me that it was a new Mould album, "Body of Song," and that several other people had approached him while he was playing it and asked him about it. Apparently, I wasn't the only Mould fan excited to hear that he'd made a new record.

Back in 1998, Bob Mould made a record called "The Last Dog and Pony Show," which was apparently his declaration that he wasn't going to be playing loud guitar rock anymore. His tinnitus was getting too bad, or so the story went, and he just couldn't handle that kind of noise anymore. At first he was doing solo acoustic tours, then he got into playing dance music. He released one record, "Modulate", that was some sort of mix between his rock past and the techno he was more recently getting into, and released another album under the name Loud Bomb that was apparently full-on techno grooves. I never heard either of these--the reviews I read made me think that I wouldn't appreciate them. I was glad he could find enjoyment making records like that, but for my part I figured I'd stick to my Husker Du and Sugar records.

But now, "Body of Song" was a new record that sounded like his old stuff, something I thought he'd never do again. I guess it proves that it's really hard to force yourself not to do something you love, no matter how many obstacles you have to overcome to get there. After all, Roger Miller of Mission of Burma also quit playing loud music because of tinnitus, only to reform Mission of Burma 20 years after the original breakup. Thank goodness for that, and thank goodness Bob Mould couldn't stand to quit making rock records.

"Body of Song" starts off with a sad-sounding, midtempo track called "Circles", and then goes right into "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope", an overtly techno-sounding song with vocoder vocal techniques that sound like what Cher did to her voice on "Believe". That first night, when I went right home after the bar closed and downloaded "Body of Song", I found myself put off by "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope", and figured maybe the reason I had liked the record so much at the bar was partly because I couldn't hear it well. I ended up setting it aside for a few months, after hearing it all the way through only once, and didn't come back to it until reading Jack Rabid's interview with Mould in the new issue of "Big Takeover". Reading the two of them discussing details of the album's creation, as well as Rabid's gushing review of the album, made me excited about listening to it again. When I dug out the album and played it again, I found myself captivated.

"Circles" was the only song I really remembered liking from my first listens, and it's still good, but what I missed is that there are even better songs here. "Paralyzed" in particular grabbed me right away, with its uptempo riffs and the sort of uber-catchy chorus that no one writes better than Bob Mould (how'd I miss this one the first time through the album?). There are definitely elements of dance music throughout the album, as the vocoder from "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" shows up on a few other tracks as well (though not as overtly as it did on that song). However, I was over-reacting to them the first time I heard the record; they are never in any danger of ruining the songs they appear on, and in fact they're kind of fun and interesting at times. It's nice to see Mould add other colors to his palette, and once you get used to them being there, you may even find yourself enjoying them, as I have. "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope" has really grown on me upon further listens.

There are plenty of other great songs here. "Always Tomorrow" is a quiet, mellow track with soft vocals and electric guitar strumming laid overtop of swirling, ambient keyboard effects and masterful drumming by Fugazi's Brendan Canty, who plays on most of the album. This is one track on which the benefits of Mould's experimentation with techno are immediately evident. Meanwhile, "Missing You" is the kind of distorted pop gem that Mould excels at, harking back to songs like "Gee Angel" and "Could You Be the One", and "Underneath Days" has the sort of moody, minor-chord pounding that typified previous Mould classics like "The Slim" or "Standing In The Rain". "Best Thing" is the kind of upbeat rock tune that Sugar in particular did really well, and it even features David Barbe of Sugar on bass. Pretty much every song is masterfully written, and there was a time when we'd expect no less from Mould. However, in recent years when it's seemed like he's getting away from writing songs in the standard rock mode, it's a welcome surprise to get an amazing record like "Body of Song". Hopefully, he won't wait eight more years before he makes another one.


Mega City Four.

There are a few things I'd change about Jack Rabid's long-running fanzine "The Big Takeover", but they are minor and nitpicky. Mostly, I'm just stoked to see a new issue appear every six months or so. Jack always introduces me to new bands in the alt/indie, Anglophile, post-shoegaze, and melodic punk categories that I'd never have heard about otherwise, as well as reminding me of bands that I love and haven't listened to in a while. There are certain bands that I love, but I only really think about twice a year, when the new "Big Takeover" comes out. Often, they're bands that I loved in high school, back when I was into punk, hardcore, and metal, but focused far more on the esoteric bands I heard on the local college radio station. Swervedriver is one such band, and sure enough, I was reminded a few days ago about how great they were by a mention in the new issue of "Big Takeover". I'm still reading the new issue today (it's 300 pages long every time, which I suppose is why there are only two issues per year), and a little while ago, I was reminded of another one of those bands I loved in high school but very rarely listen to anymore: Mega City Four.

Apparently, Wiz (guitar/vocals) and Danny (bass) from Mega City Four have started a new band called Ipanema. I have no idea when or even if I will ever be able to buy one of their records, but reading the review of their new, import-only full-length made me want to go home and put on my records by their old band. I have four, and I consider myself lucky to own them. Around five years ago, I was going through the "new arrivals" bin in the used vinyl section of my favorite local record store, and found Mega City Four's first two full-lengths, "Tranzophobia" and "Who Cares Wins," as well as a 12 inch collecting their first three 7 inch singles, and another four-song 12 inch called "There Goes My Happy Marriage". They were $5 apiece, and since I had a good deal more than $20 on me at the time, I snapped all four of them up. I didn't know this at the time, but in one fell swoop I had purchased almost everything Mega City Four released in their first three years of existence as a band (I was missing the "Awkward Kid/Cradle" 7 inch, and the song "No Time", which was added as a bonus track to the early-singles comp "Terribly Sorry Bob", but had everything else). I went right home and played all four of those LPs constantly for the next week. It probably annoyed the kids I was living with at the time--two die hard crust/metal purists who couldn't stand Mega City Four's overtly melodic sensibility--but I was on cloud nine.

I'd first heard Mega City Four when I was around 16 years old, and the aforementioned college radio station played their song "Stop", which was the first single from their third album, "Sebastopol Rd." I was captivated immediately; Mega City Four played fast and structured their songs around simple, catchy chord structures, but offset the no-frills nature of their basic song construction with Wiz's high, beautiful tenor, a voice that skirted the edges of saccharine/cloying territory, but always managed to stay just far enough away from it that he remained captivating rather than grating. Also, the distortion on their guitars was kept to a minimum, giving the music a clean sound that allowed the melodies inherent in the songs to shine through and complement Wiz's soaring vocal lines. The fact that Mega City Four were from England was no surprise; this type of poppy punk was something I identified particularly with English bands like The Buzzcocks and The Undertones, as well as more modern practitioners like Snuff and Leatherface (though these bands had very different vocal approaches than that of Mega City Four). It's different from American pop-punk, and I almost always like it a lot better. It's like the British melodic punk bands stick with different aspects of their punk roots, and move towards melody in different facets, than do their American counterparts. What I'm trying to say is that if you hear me call Mega City Four pop-punk and you think of NOFX or The Descendents, you have the wrong idea entirely.

It's harder to explain what they're doing in terms of what it is, rather than what it's not. Just using band comparisons doesn't really get the point across either. But in the end, I'm afraid I can't really do Mega City Four all that much justice. I've been listening to them for two hours straight as of right now; I'm playing "Tranzophobia" after having listened to the two 12 inch EPs first. One thing I've realized after listening to them for this long is that, to someone who doesn't like their music immediately, this much Mega City Four at once would be maddening. Each song has its own particular melodic hook, its own soaring chorus; each one would work really well as a mix tape pick. Problem is, after a while, they all start to sound the same. Of course, I'm reminded of a story told by The Wedding Present's David Gedge, about how their band was often criticized in their early days for writing songs that all sounded the same; in response, they made a t-shirt design that read "The Wedding Present: All The Songs Sound The Same!", and it became their best-selling t-shirt ever. The point I'm trying to make is that for a Mega City Four fan (or a Wedding Present fan--I consider myself a fan of both bands), this sameness is less like an annoying repetitive pattern and more like an embarrassment of riches. I love the way Mega City Four sounds, and I would jump at the chance to own even more of their albums, especially if they all sounded like the ones I already have.

I hope this piece has done this band, whom I love, at least some justice. I know I've probably done a terrible job of showing what it is that I love about them, and why it is that twice a year or thereabouts, I absolutely have to dig out their records and listen to them all night. In the end, I don't really know why I love them so much. The songs just grab me, hit a spot that I often don't realize hasn't been hit in a long time until Jack Rabid reminds me of them again. I guess what it is is that their no-frills power-chord-based songwriting mixes with the beautiful melodies present in the vocals in such a way that it fulfills my pop jones and my love of tougher, edgier stuff. Maybe my love for Mega City Four and other bands of that sort is a precursor to my recent weakness for radio emo. Whatever, it is what it is. One last thing, though; even if I've done a horrible job expressing why I love these guys so much, I still highly recommend that if you ever come across one of their albums, you pick it up. Hell, they're rare enough that if you find one, buy it, and don't like it, chances are I'll take it off your hands. I may have four records by them, but there are a good three or four more full-lengths and over half a dozen singles I still don't have. And sometime before I die, I hope to pick them up.


Show review: Plaguewielder, Habbas, The Catalyst, The Drugs.

Tonight I saw four bands play at the Paper Street Infoshop, which is like four blocks from my friend Eric's house.

The first band was called The Drugs. I don't know what sort of reaction other people have to a name like that, but my first thought was that they were going to be horrible. And while I will give them at least a little bit of credit for the fact that it was obvious both guitarists and the bass player knew how to play their instruments pretty well, other than that it was every bit as bad as I expected it to be. The Drugs were the ultimate in generic 1-2-fuck-you punk rock, playing four-chord songs with simplistic structures and a minimum of changes in riff and tempo. Usually, there were two riffs, a verse and a chorus, that they would alternate between, and sometimes there was just one riff, and the distinction between verse and chorus was marked by how choppily they played the riff. When they went faster, they sounded more like Blanks 77 or The Casualties, and when they went slower, it was more like D.I. or Youth Brigade (LA version), though I hasten to add that this would imply more songwriting prowess than The Drugs exhibited. The stringed-instrument players had obviously had lessons, but they didn't learn anything about how to actually write songs in their lessons, if the songs they wrote were any indication. Another strange element of The Drugs' performance was their stage presence. It reminded me of watching videos of early punk rock performances. Sometimes when I watch bands like The Ramones or The Dead Boys play on old videotapes, I'm surprised at the amount of 70s rock posturing that is still present in their performance, if not in their music. That's the kind of thing that punk was supposed to be a reaction against, but it took a few years for bands that were part of the punk rock movement to get past the more obviously unsavory elements of 70s rock (i.e. how much a lot of it sucked) and start deconstructing the subtler elements of it. The Drugs, who, in fairness, are a very young band (I can't imagine any of them are out of their teens), remind me of the type of band that I saw teenage kids playing in a lot 12 to 15 years ago, back when teenage kids didn't have the post-Nirvana/Green Day second wave of mainstream punk to look up to, and the only bands who could get their records into the mall stores where younger kids could find them were early punk bands, such as the aforementioned Ramones, or The Sex Pistols. If the kids were really lucky, they could maybe find The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, or The Descendents, but that was about it. So instead of learning what punk rock was all about from the current practitioners of the style, they learned it from the early bands, and picked up some of the lingering traces of 70s rock excess right along with it. The Drugs definitely did that--the bass player made snotty snarly faces while he played, the lead guitarist did a lot of solos, the rhythm guitarist would wave his guitar around while contorting his face whenever he had to hold a note, and the singer wore big aviator sunglasses and those 80s vintage jeans that only skinheads wear anymore. On the whole, The Drugs offered nothing to recommend their band, and weirded me out besides. I feel like they're just kids starting to get into the scene, and I should therefore take it easy on them, but I don't feel like I should lie about my impression of the show, either, so there you have it.

I felt a lot better when The Catalyst started to play. Of course, I've seen those kids play a million times, but I always enjoy hearing their music, so I was excited. Since Jamie joined the band, they've generally played with two drumkits, and had Jamie switch between second drums and second guitar depending on the song. However, Paper Street's performance area was so small that they decided to just bring Kevin's drumset in and do an entire set with Jamie just on guitar. They proceeded to rock the hell out of the place. For some reason, the combination of their amps, the PA, and the space they were in was absolutely perfect where acoustics were concerned, and they sounded amazing. All the things I usually have trouble hearing--the bass, the difference between the two guitars, the vocals--were loud and clear, without anything else sacrificing any volume. The all-dual-guitar set worked well for me too--they didn't get to do any crazy jams, like they usually do on set centerpiece "Chronic the Hedgehog", but by cutting those elements of their sound out, they were able to attain focus for the more standard rocking elements and prove that they could be a hard-hitting, powerfully focused band when they want to be. New bassist Michael Backus has been settling in quite well, and they're even playing a couple of new songs these days, which I'm sure is a relief for the members who got used to playing the same set during a six-month period of fill-in bass players, after founding bassist Nate Prusinski quit the band. In the end, the only real problem with the set, at least for the band, was that they couldn't really pull of their usual smooth transitions between songs. The only one they really had a chance at got ruined by Eric breaking a string, and all the song-changes after that were complicated by confusion about which song was next in the set. Those guys should really see about using a set list.

Plaguewielder, from Baltimore, was next. Based on the clothes the band was wearing, I was expecting crust-punk, but that only goes to show that you shouldn't assume anything by the clothes people wear. I was totally wrong--instead of crust, I got a whopping dosage of dark, heavy, metallic hardcore. To some extent, the riffs reminded me of black metal, but moreso, I was reminded of hardcore bands that were influenced by black metal, such as One Eyed God Prophecy or His Hero Is Gone, or maybe the post-Neurosis doom-crust of Logical Nonsense or Dystopia. Plaguewielder featured 6 members--a female singer, two bass players (one playing a 5 string, one playing a 4 string), two guitarists, and a drummer. However, the female singer didn't sing on every song. On some songs, she would step back into the audience and the rhythm guitarist and 5-string bass player would trade off on vocals. I don't really understand why this was happening; I prefer for band members to justify their existence, and I always feel weird about any band who has one or more members that just stand around and do nothing for parts of their set. Besides, the female singer had the best voice in the band--a loud, piercing scream that was just pure evil. I say, let her sing all the songs.

Other than this weird personal objection of mine, I found Plaguewielder to be awesome. Their songs were long and epic, occasionally fast but more often midtempo and made up of a lot of shifting, dynamic parts. They didn't use a lot of complicated chords, and the rhythms stayed with the standard 4/4 for the most part, but they did very well with what they had to work with and created some catchy riffs. I was really into it.

The last band that played was called Habbas (sp?), who weren't originally on the show. Their guitarist is the 4 string bass player for Plaguewielder, though, and he knew the bassist and drummer from Habbas were coming to Richmond to see the show, so they decided at the last minute to jump on. Unfortunately, most of the people had cleared out by the time they played (at least one and maybe both of the local bands should probably have played after the out-of-towners, as they were obviously the real draw to this show), and even more unfortunately, technical problems ruined their set. They got through most of one song, then the amp the guitar player was playing through, which belonged to someone from Plaguewielder other than him, died. This wasn't a critical problem, though, as the other guitar amp Plaguewielder used was still set up. Once he switched his guitar to that amp and got the settings the way he wanted them, though, they were only able to play half a song before the second amp blew a tube. Habbas gave it one more shot, running the guitar through the same amp as the bass, but not only did it sound terrible, they only got through most of one song before the battery in the guitar player's distortion pedal chose that moment to die. Before he'd even realized that his pedal wasn't working, he broke the low e string on his guitar. At that point, Habbas decided to give up. They seemed really dejected, and I'd talked to them earlier and thought they were all really nice guys, so I felt bad for them. Sometimes shows go that way, though, I suppose. By the way, what I could learn of how they sounded was good--loud, rocking chaotic hardcore riffs with vocals that were intense at times and more melodic at others. The melodic sense they had in the moments of music I caught actually gave them a good bit of an edge over other music in a similar style that I've heard recently. I offered to do another show for them in Richmond in a few months, and I hope they take me up on it. I'd like to see them again, when their equipment is actually working.


Yes, Juliana Hatfield still makes records.

These are two unedited message board posts. I don't use capital letters on message boards, sorry. I wanted to post this here, upon reflection after writing it, because this is just how strongly I feel about the new Juliana Hatfield album. Whatever, you'll see in a minute.

3:46 PM:

i read a short profile on juliana hatfield in the new issue of big takeover that i found really interesting. she was saying some cool shit about artistic integrity vs. career aspirations, and though i could tell she was proud of her new album, there's definitely some elements of bitterness that creep through in the article. when juliana became famous in the early 90s, i already knew her work with the blake babies and lemonheads, and bought her solo albums because i liked her work, not because she was some new buzzbin artist with a hot single. it was kind of disheartening to find out that, for her, it seems most people just see her as an early 90s one hit wonder, and i guess i can't blame her for being bitter--i'd hate for people to constantly judge me by what i'd done 12 years ago, too.

anyway, the article made reference to an essay that juliana posted on her website about the new record, "made in china", and i went and read it. it blew me away. i could see a lot of myself in the lyrical snippets she posted, and especially in these few sentences:

"I was in love when I wrote and recorded this album. Can you tell? Can you tell I have no faith in love, no hope in it, no belief?"


you know what? i get off work in an hour and 15 minutes. i got paid yesterday. i'm going to walk to the record store a block away and buy this cd the second i'm off work. there's a football game i really want to see at 4:30, but fuck it, if i miss the first few minutes, i'll survive. i think i really need to own this record.

9:13 PM:

ok, i kept my word and got the record.

whenever i run right out and buy a record like this without having heard a single song on it, i'm always a little worried. what if it sucks? what if i dropped $15 on something that totally doesn't live up to my expectations? luckily, nothing could be further from the truth in this case. immediately upon putting "made in china" into my car stereo, i was blown away by the loud, raw-sounding distorted guitar. the first song, "new waif", is just over two minutes long, and is probably the most perfectly economical yet supremely catchy power-pop song i've heard in a long time. i admit that i haven't listened to juliana hatfield in a long time, since "only everything" in fact, and at that time i felt like her records were getting a bit overproduced, taking on a bit too much of a commercial gloss. based on some of the bitterness she expresses towards the music business in the interview and the essay i linked to above, i figured this album would head in a more rough-and-ready direction, and i was right. most of the album sticks with what she does on "new waif", but even on the few acoustic tracks, such as "hole in the sky", things are a lot more raw than what she was doing a decade ago. "hole in the sky"'s sparse instrumentation and no-frills recording makes it sound like juliana is sitting right in the room with you playing it--the ambience of the room is captured perfectly, making the song jump out of the speakers at you. the production is used to just as great effect on the rockers, her distorted guitar sound cranking loudly out of your speakers at the forefront of the mix, without sacrificing any clarity or doing anything to obscure the brilliance of her melodic songwriting chops. i'd call this a return to the more rocking sound of her work in the blake babies and on her first solo album, "hey babe", but really, even that stuff wasn't this loud and powerful. this record has the potential to define juliana hatfield's career in the same way that the lemonheads' "it's a shame about ray" (a record she played bass on) defined theirs. i just hope people pay enough attention that this happens.

i guess what i'm saying is that you should all get this album.


Shows, shows, shows.

Inbetween December 29, 2005, and January 7, 2006, a period of 10 days, I saw 7 different shows. I've been meaning to write about all of them in this blog, and I'm sort of afraid now that a few days have gone by since even the most recent one that they will have faded in my memory, and produce shorter, less-detailed writeups than they otherwise would have. That said, I probably go on too long most of the time anyway. So this is my attempt to write about the shows I saw during that time period. I'll get through as many as I can today, and what I don't cover, I'll return to soon.

Piedmonster, The Olive Tree; Dec. 29, 2005, 500 W. Marshall St.

This show was held at Olive Tree guitarist Wolfgang Daniel's house, in his basement. I know the Olive Tree practice there, but this was the first show I've heard about that happened there. It was a decent show space--though there isn't as much room for the crowd as there is at 9 North Boulevard, there was still plenty of room for everyone who attended to fit in and stand in a position where they could see the bands.

The Olive Tree played first, and were playing when I arrived, but I got there pretty early into their set, and I'm glad I did. This summer, the Olive Tree had a major lineup change when they replaced their original drummer, a guy named Scott, with Chris Lauderdale (also of the local hip-hop group Swordplay). Soon after, they added Kyle Pederson on second guitar, and wrote a whole new set of songs. The new stuff is far better than I remember their old material being; where before, the Olive Tree resembled nothing so much as Saetia, their new songs are far from their previous chaotic/screamo sound. Wolfgang has always been good at writing melodic, single-note parts on guitar, and Mike Cool's basslines are as inventive as ever, but Kyle's presence is instrumental in their new, improved sound. A lot of times, he just sticks to the root chord structures of the songs, but this has the effect of pulling the disparate elements of what Wolfgang and Mike are doing together, helping the songs cohere instead of seeming like a bunch of barely connected parts. Chris Lauderdale is also leaps and bounds beyond his predecessor; perhaps his hip-hop work has something to do with it, because it seems like he has an instinctive feel for the natural rhythms of the songs, something that Scott lacked. In fact, it was precisely this lack that used to be the Olive Tree's downfall. Now, with Kyle grounding the riffs and Chris adding a rhythmic backbone that was never there before, the strengths the Olive Tree always had as a band are emphasized, and their weak points to a great extent erased. Those who may have seen these guys before and not been impressed owe it to themselves to check them out with their new lineup. You won't be disappointed.

Piedmonster was the only other band on the bill. They were on tour, and sort of from North Carolina, but apparently these days some members of the band live as far away as Portland, Oregon, and as a result they're only able to be active during breaks from school. They didn't seem at all rusty or out-of-practice, though, and their music was quite enjoyable. Piedmonster feature five members, almost all of whom sing, and almost all of whom play more than one instrument. The drummer was the only member of the band who did the same thing on every song. There were two members, a guy and a girl, who mainly just sang (the girl would sometimes play tambourine or trumpet, but this was rare), a guy who switched between guitar and bass depending on the song, and another guy who played bass at times and keyboards at others, who sang more often than either of the members who mostly just sang. This seemed kind of weird to me, because I'm generally in favor of people justifying their presence in bands, which as far as I'm concerned isn't happening when the bass player is singing lead while two people who's only job is to sing are relegated to backup vocals. Whatever, though, if the arrangement works for them then I guess it's fine.

Piedmonster's music reminded me of a lot of that whole disco-punk thing that's going on right now in the scene, but where most of that stuff drives me crazy, I really liked them. The difference, for me, was that these were sincere, idealistic punk kids playing their songs on secondhand instruments while wearing goofy costumes and singing about issues from their daily lives. Most of the dance-punk stuff that's so big these days seems to me to be coming from a position of role-playing, where bands are trying to recreate elements of the postpunk early 80s scene through period clothes and kitschy lyrics full of empty cultural signifiers. This is a far cry from Piedmonster, who's most memorable song was one in which the girl singer took lead vocals and sang about figuring out that a supposed punk activist boy that she had a crush on was actually just as sexist as the typical mainstream fratboy. The song's lyrics revolved around the lyric "All along you were just a misogynist/I hope you fall off your bike and eat shit." It's the kind of experience that is all too common in the scene, one that we could all relate to having, or watching friends of ours go through, but it was presented in a manner that both told it like it was and kept it lighthearted--and of course, was set to really catchy music that you couldn't help but dance to. Indeed, everyone in the basement was dancing and smiling throughout Piedmonster's set; it was fun for all involved, even when the band's fog machine made things a bit too hazy. I'd go see them again anytime.

OK, just one today. Sorry. More later.


Don't force my hand.

America, as a country without a native race (even the Indians emigrated here, if you go back far enough), has long been plagued by the debate over who the Real Americans are. There are doubtless a million different ways to answer that question, but it seems to me that there are two main schools of thought on the question: those who feel that the Real Americans are the rich businessmen, those who drive national and international commerce and have worked their way up from the working class (never mind that those who live now may be five generations removed from this initial struggle to gain wealth); and then there are those who see the Real Americans as the common people, the farmers from the rural towns and the factory workers and tradesmen of the cities--the hardworking people who are on their feet 12 hours a day just to feed their families. Of course, to some this entire line of discussion may seem outmoded, especially since these days most Americans don't really fit into either category. Indeed, America has become a suburban country, a country whose most visible members of society have earned enough money to leave one of our definitions of Real Americans behind, but are far from having reached the position attained by those occupying the other definition. They're trying to get to that position, though, and in doing so, they inevitably turn away from the common people and begin to regard the rich as the Real Americans. They long to join them, even as they have to be aware on some level that there's only so much room at the top, and many of them won't make it there.

Long Island is one of the most prominent communities in the country to which this blanket statement can be said to apply. With its proximity to New York City, it can be argued that Long Island is the archetype of all suburbia. The middle class men and women that make up the majority of Long Island's population are striving for that mythical American Dream, reaching for the wealth that is varying degrees of distance away from their outstretched fingertips, but never quite within their grasp. This is the dominant paradigm into which they bring their children, and most of their children grow up to follow in their parents' footsteps, still reaching for that proverbial brass ring. Some get closer through the generations, some fade farther away, and some stay in the exact place that previous generations of their family occupied.

But what happens when the children of Long Island turn away from this entire cycle? What happens to them when they look around at the world they've been given and come to see it as hollow and bankrupt? What happens when they realize that, in their own minds if nowhere else, it is the working class, the common man, who seems to most embody the Real America?

One answer to that question can be found on Mendicant Friends' newest CD, "These Are American Songs." Mendicant Friends are five boys from Long Island, all of whom have turned away from the American Dream and are now wandering the country, searching for their true selves and playing music along the way to anyone who will listen. Their albums, of which "These Are American Songs" is the third, are filled with these recovering suburbanites' takes on America as they have found it in their travels. One section of the album's rather inscrutable liner notes reads: "These are American songs, and all our lonely silos were sworn in, told to me on front porches, sung in cars, vans, buses, and bicycle shells, environments of motion and thought and confusion and yes, language, crossing through South Dakota, California, Indiana, Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire, Georgia, both Carolinas, Spain, Italia, New Africa, and yes, New York." Then there is a line break, emphasized with a line drawn in ink. Under the line, it says simply, "Long Island was our home." All of this is written in a strange, ornate penmanship that evokes the calligraphy of past centuries.

The music on the CD also evokes a past century, conjuring up the ghosts of Delta blues and Ozark mountain hillbilly yodels, then mixing these things with dissonant electric guitar lines that are more noise than they ever are structured melodic leads. If it weren't for lead vocalist Evan Louison's high, boyish tenor, I might feel like I'm sitting on some old man's porch, listening to him play songs from past generations on an old acoustic guitar as cars roar past on the four-lane highway that the road in front of his house has grown into. Louison strums the basic chords to his mournful, high-lonesome songs on a beat-sounding acoustic guitar, and often this strumming and his angelic voice are all that there is to be heard. On the album's closing track, "Dust Storms", even those things drop out at times, and this is when the production job shines through. Producer Phil Douglas has done an amazing job of capturing not just the sound of the music being played, but the sound of the room it's being played in. During the moments when Evan stops singing, pauses in the strumming of the song's chords, the whole room seems to hold its breath, and this tension floats down the wires and out through your speakers into the room where you're playing the CD. At first, "These Are American Songs" might seem like a mellow record, one that's easy to listen to while falling asleep, but nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it demands attention, raising the hairs on the back of your neck with its silences as well as its sounds. "Dust Storms" is a creepy song, mixing disconnected lyrical imagery that relates the sometimes fearsome weather of the flat midwest to problems with communication in a romantic relationship. There's something here about a relationship with God, too, but I can't quite understand it, and the lyric sheet, instead of clarifying my confusion, only further muddies the waters. The words to the album are scrawled out of order, mixing lines from different songs together and scrambling even the easy to understand parts, so that it's all one can do to even pick them out. Worst of all, it's written in sloppy, faded chickenscratch, like a note written to oneself and never intended for other eyes. This mysterious approach might be frustrating in other situations, but here it's fascinating, and adds to the romantic feel Mendicant Friends create with their powerful evocation of eras long past.

There is one song here that at least seems to acknowledge the modern era, always assuming I'm making accurate sense of Louison's strange lyrics. This is the opening song, which might be called "Twin Sisters" or "Don't Force My Hand", or might be called something else completely. As I said, these are strange and inscrutable liner notes. Here, as is basically true on the entire album, Evan Louison's voice and guitar are almost the only things we hear. There are four other members of Mendicant Friends, and while percussion, bass, and folk instruments like banjo do show up on occasion, most of the time it seems that the only real duties of the other four members are to create the snaky electric guitar lines mentioned earlier, and to sing backup on the songs' dramatic choruses. That's pretty much all they do on "Twin Sisters" (or whatever it's called), but nonetheless the other members play a vital role, singing the chorus so loudly that they drown Louison out and creating a powerful crescendo in an otherwise minimal song, one that makes me shiver with its obvious emotion. Louison is singing during the verses about "towns who's names are other places", factories, churches, and "petrified gardens", none of which seems to have anything to do with the chorus. This doesn't reduce the effect of this chorus, and indeed the chorus helps to place an emotional resonance on lines that might mean nothing without that context: "the car filled up with exhaust, all on it's own", or "the roads we build to walk and drive and crawl upon" take on a more depressing and ominous meaning than they might have otherwise.

This all comes together with a line in the last verse that crystallizes everything Mendicant Friends are saying with this entire album: "I'll stop asking what everyone's rent is because it's always less than mine," Louison sings. Then he continues, "And even worse, sometimes it's just as high." The members of Mendicant Friends have discovered a truth that is particularly bitter for kids from their native land: once you decide to walk away from the American Dream, to identify with the common people and to sing their songs, you are fucked. There's integrity to your life that you may have found absent before, but there's also poverty and toil, and soul-crushing despair. It hurts to know that people everywhere else in the country pay less than you to have a place to live, but it hurts twice as much to find those rare unfortunate souls who are just as bad off as you. Would that these songs could fix those problems, could help ease the struggles of the common people all over this country, who are continually left behind by the rich men they are given to represent them. Perhaps, if nothing else, the songs of Mendicant Friends can ease some of that spiritual pain, at least for a moment, by giving it voice and allowing it catharsis. It's not everything, but sometimes it's enough to get you through the day.