Fucked Up.

When I first got the most recent Fucked Up album, "Hidden World", it was as part of a batch of CDs mailed to me for review. The review I ended up writing of the CD was favorable for the most part, but at the time, I didn't see the band as being worth the kind of hype they were getting. I was hearing from hardcore kids I knew that this was the most important hardcore album of the year, and that just didn't seem merited. A solely musical analysis of "Hidden World" seems to bear out my initial impression, too. While the songs do demonstrate an acquaintance with the history of rock n' roll on the part of the musicians, they're also still pretty standard three-chord midtempo hardcore songs. In fact, the thing that stands out the most about Fucked Up's songs is the lack of fast parts and breakdowns, the two most heavily emphasized parts of most hardcore songs. Instead, these guys stick to midtempo riffs, riffs I could call upbeat but not fast, and build their entire songs around them. Since the parts aren't all that fast, and since the songs usually contain several verses and choruses, they tend to last for four or more minutes rather than the usual 90 second blasts that make up most hardcore albums. "Hidden World" contains 13 songs, which is a normal amount for a hardcore album, but rather than lasting 20 to 30 minutes, it's slightly over 72 minutes in length. And as I said in my original review (written for Ghetto Blaster magazine, if anyone's curious), it can get boring by two-thirds of the way through or so.

But lately, in spite of my lack of real interest when I first heard it, I'm finding myself returning to "Hidden World" more and more often. I think a lot of this has to do with the extra-musical aura that's built up around Fucked Up. For one thing, they seem to be rising to prominence within the hardcore scene, which is rare for bands as loud and angry as Fucked Up, or at least loud, angry bands that don't base their sound in metal. Fucked Up mingle influences from prog and classic rock into their sound, but the main thing you hear when you listen to them is still hardcore, way more than anything else. On top of all that, they have a singularly unmarketable name--even if they were to get radio play, the DJs couldn't tell you who you were listening to. Still and all, they've managed to elevate their profile considerably in recent months--"Hidden World" is on Jade Tree Records, home of Lifetime and Strike Anywhere, and they recently performed live on MTV in their home country of Canada (where they were billed as "F***ed Up"). It blows my mind that all this is happening. It makes me wonder how they're pulling it off. Which, of course, sends me back to the album to look for what I'm missing.

And upon repeated listenings, I think I'm starting to get it. Because, see, it goes deeper than just the sound. Fucked Up's lyrics and visual presentation are quite unusual for hardcore. Their records feature colorful covers with strange imagery that doesn't immediately even make sense. "Hidden World"s cover is a painting dominated by bright red tangles of snakes. Through the exact middle of these tangles runs a sky-blue river, which recedes into the distance, where it eventually reaches a distant nude figure of indeterminate gender, who is raising its arms in what appears to be a gesture of welcome. Above the figure an arch with strange red faces carved into it stretches across the top of the painting. To see all of that topped with the words "Fucked Up" is a bit surprising--the juxtaposition is incongruous, to say the least. But I think this kind of off-kilter feeling is exactly what Fucked Up is trying to evoke in their music. Lately I've been reading a lot of interviews with them, and I think this too is playing a big factor in drawing me back to them over and over again. The interviews make it obvious that the members of Fucked Up are intelligent, and are thinking critically not just about their music but about their place in the world, as humans and members of a band, at all times. And in turn, they're utilizing the tools they have at hand--their music, lyrics, and other elements of presentation--to at least attempt to affect the world around them in ways they deem positive.

This in itself is not unusual for a hardcore band. It may be rare in other genres of music (though certainly not in all other genres of music), but where hardcore is concerned, I would go so far as to say that it is the norm. What's not normal about Fucked Up is the content of the message they're trying to get across. In an interview I read with guitarist Mike Haliechuk, he discussed how they hoped that "Hidden World" would "destroy punk", and explained how the lyrics to most of the songs on the album were written in opposition to the desire most people have to indoctrinate the world with their ideas. I don't know if I can explain what he was saying adequately, so I'll go ahead and quote from the interview:

"I thought of "Hidden World" in relation to the whole game that goes on just underneath of what is immediately visible, in all sorts of realms. And then I was reading an E O Wilson essay, and came across the words "Hidden World" regarding the biology of ant colonies, and that nailed it. [...] The metaphor is the plant world, and in nature all life is the struggle to perpetuate itself onto the next generation. The purpose of any organism is solely to pass its genes into the future, regardless of if those genes are the best or not (obviously the best ones are the ones being perpetuated). But these political games, religion, points of view, you can see how in society they mirror the same process - as soon as an idea takes hold, the people who believe in the idea will expend their political energies in order to send that idea deeper and deeper into society and culture. So the song is supposed to be about how people can get so carried away by their own viewpoints that they get insidious and hard to control, and people aren't really trying to move them along because they think they've got the best idea anymore, but just that they find themselves behind the idea, regardless of what it is and what it means. In the end of the song I tried to take the biological metaphor to it's logical conclusion - when a particular gene gets too strong or insidious it becomes endemic in nature - like alien plant species that colonize the entire terrestrial environment because they've quickly eliminated all their competition - so instead of having these healthy waterway areas for example that are rich in biology and different kinds of species, you just have this one kind of plant, and the elimination of a rich ecosystem. The comparison is that as ideas in society get stronger and stronger, they choke the life out of other ideas, so you get these ridiculous polar opposites in culture, like in the US where there are basically 2 primary political ideas, left wing, and right wing, which is totally fucking absurd. I mean there are millions and millions of free thinking and interesting humans in the United States but the whittling down of ideas has happened on such a massive level that there are only two ideas that have been strong enough to survive - left and right. So "Crusades" ["Hidden World"s opening track] is supposed to be how dangerous it is to try and get rid of opposing viewpoints, even if you don't agree with them."

[You can read the entire interview, as well as a whole lot of other interesting tidbits, on Fucked Up's blog, Looking For Gold.]

Presented with statements like these, I find myself coming around to what friends of mine have been saying, about "Hidden World" being the most important hardcore record out right now. But not for the same reasons they're saying. Sure, the music is interesting and good--in fact, I'm finding that the album growing on me the more I listen to it. I'm starting to notice catchier elements to their riffs, and to find myself drawn in rather than repelled by the extended lengths of the songs, and their increased repetition of the three or four riffs each song is based around. It's becoming hypnotic rather than grating for me. But again, that's not what makes this album important.

I was at a show recently where I saw a couple of vegan straight edge bands. Now, bands like this are so uncommon as to be, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent in the Richmond hardcore scene. I used to see a lot of them a long time ago, but it had been years since I happened across any, and I was starting to think that they were a thing of the past. In some ways, seeing the two bands I saw (one of whom was from DC, the other of whom was from Philly) made me nostalgic for the shows I would go to in the mid to late 90s, when hardcore bands would talk about their songs when they played, and make declarations about their beliefs and the reasons they wrote the lyrics they'd written. But I also found the encouragements in the direction of things like veganism to be vaguely off-putting. When I was younger, I too tended to believe that the world would be a better place if everyone believed in the same things I did, and acted accordingly, but in recent years, I find myself turning completely away from that way of thinking. Instead, I don't want to tell anyone what to do. I want to be respectful of the opinions and decisions of others (at least up to the point where they start to infringe upon my rights). Fucked Up agree with me, and are making this their message--that the world is a better place with a multiplicity of viewpoints, none of which strive for dominance but instead are in a perpetual dialogue with all of those around them. Constant interaction with multiple different viewpoints allows all of us to grow and to learn, to refine our own beliefs and even occasionally to discard them when they become untenable.

Maybe Fucked Up isn't breaking any new ground musically. Nonetheless, I'm starting to see a profound importance in their success and popularity. Maybe it's too much to hope for, that all the kids who buy "Hidden World" are paying as much attention to the words and other non-musical elements of Fucked Up, but if even a small amount of them do, it could lead to an increase in critical thinking, which could help hardcore as a scene progress beyond the immature desire to convert everyone into clones of itself, and instead lead to a more mature exchange of views and beliefs. For that reason, Fucked Up is important.

It'll be interesting to see where this all leads.

Fucked Up - Crusades