Thursday, 23 March 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST (round 4): Instinct of Survival "Lapsed into absurdity" s/sided flexi, 2013

Back on tracks after a short break due to a mean-spirited and acute maxillary sinusitis that has reduced me to a constant state of useless grumbling and migrainous self-commiseration. Despite what the doctor said, I was pretty sure I was going to die in excruciating pain, but when I woke up this morning I felt kinda alright, so I suppose I wrote down my last wills and testament in vain yesterday night. Bummer. My head still hurts enough to make me feel that I have been punched all night by an angry twat, but it is surprisingly manageable (the painkillers always help though). And besides, I have been looking forward to write about Instinct of Survival properly since I had the idea for this series. So piss off Sinusitis.

Let's put something straight first: I am a huge sucker for Instinct of Survival. This unrestrained passion takes its roots in the past decade and I can remember the exact time I figuratively fell arse over tit for them: the 2005 Yellow Dog Festival in Packebusch. We were staying in Berlin with some mates that summer and had thought of going to that open-air festival as it had a lot of hard-hitting bands and who doesn't enjoy being deafened by blast beats at 4pm while enjoying a warm lager? The headlining band was To What End? and Sweden had sent a rather large delegation to Packebusch with Uncurbed, Bombstrike, Massgrav, Reign of Bombs and Black Star Rising being also on the bill (reflecting upon the line-up makes me realize how much times have changed since then). Everyone was looking forward to TWE? and I remember them to be rather good live even though they took ages to instal and tune their three (yes, three) guitars together. Listening to their material more than ten years later, their highly polished sound feels quite dated, but then most bands who were going down the "melodic hardcore/crust" path at that time haven't exactly aged so well. Or maybe they just stand as bands of their time, and there is nothing wrong with that, as all bands do to an extent, and the nostalgia industry just hasn't hit the lounge crust (or lounge mangel in TWE?'s case) market yet. For all we know, there could be an epicrust revival in 2025, as ominous and sinister as it might read.

I don't remember much of the other Swedes. Bombstrike were very heavy, Uncurbed very fun and Massgrave very (VERY) fast. Of course, there were many German bands as well at this event, some that completely went over my head like Keitzer or Mörser (at that time I was completely unfamiliar with the genre, though I did buy a Keitzer tape that I have probably listened to twice since), others that were thoroughly enjoyable tight grindcore acts like Crude BE, Cyness or Infanticide (or Spain's Looking For An Answer) and one in particular, Room 101, that was a very pleasant surprise, dual-vocals metallic anarchocrust, whose 10'' I remember getting. But to me, the real highlight of the festival were Hamburg's Instinct of Survival and quite unexpectedly so. Before we embarked on our journey of tomfoolery East of the border, I had checked the Packebusch line-up and tried to find songs of all the bands that were planned to play there. I was able to find an IOS mp3 (possibly on the website of the Yellow Dog label), and well, they sounded like what I thought Yellow Dog bands mostly sounded like, fast and grindy. So when they took the stage at the festival, that is what I was expecting. It was not very late in the evening and I was already a bit tipsy (not unlike them actually, judging from their demeanour) but I can still distinctly remember the moment during their first song when I realized that, contrary to my expectations, they were playing proper old-school crust. It was too good to be true and I was frantic. To my knowledge, bands that were going for that specific sound, one that was steadily growing to become my favourite then, were few and far between. You had old-timers like Extinction of Mankind and Misery (Warcollapse had not yet started to play again), bands like Filth of Mankind, Χειμερία Νάρκη, Effigy and obviously Hellshock, but that was it. And here I was, witnessing an amazing performance of crunchy, groovy and tense CRUST from a band I virtually did not know, or rather from a band I did not know in that configuration. After they played I rushed to ask one of the members (the one that looked the least drunk I think) if they had something out with that new sound. "Not here and now, but soon," was the reply. From that moment on, upon returning home after a month of having Sternburg and dumpstered bread for breakfast, I checked the internet almost on a daily basis on the lookout for some news about IOS and consistently raved about them to everyone and anyone who would (or even wouldn't) listen. "They are the real deal, crustier than crust itself, and just wait until they released something and you'll see I'm right" became my motto.

By the end of 2005, the so-called "stenchcore revival" was officially in full bloom with the release of Stormcrow, Sanctum and After the Bombs' first records and I suppose that many took the IOS/Guided Cradle split Ep, that saw the light of day in mid-2006, as just an additional petal to this new modern crust flower. But was it really? Listening to the early IOS period, their eponymous 2000 Ep and especially some songs from the 2004 split with Wojczech, you could already spot that brand of groovy metal riffs that would become the band's trademark in the late 00's. From the start, the new IOS felt like punks who had grown up listening to 90's eurocrust and were keen on taking on its more metallic anterior entity. I am not going to delve too much on this glorious late 00's period. Suffice it to say that they were the best European crust band of that decade, taking the crunch of British bands like Deviated Instinct, Hellbastard, Napalm Death and Concrete Sox, the apocalyptic versatility of Misery, the gloominess of late Nausea and early Extinction of Makind and infusing it with the old-school death-metal of Autopsy, IOS didn't use this set of old-school influences to merely play the crust bingo, but to write actually GOOD songs. The influences served their songwriting, rather than the other way around, and that is why their releases are so strong. Their technical proficiency notwithstanding, there is a genuine drive to write riffs and songs that are heavy and catchy, diverse but cohesive tempo breaks that enhances the whole without sectioning it, vocal arrangements that are complementary and memorable rather than monotonous (the dual vocals in IOS are particularly interesting on that level, with Kalle's going for the gruff-yet-discernible crust texture while Padde's sound more evil and almost death-metal)... Basically songs that you can hum to (or whistle to, if you're good at it, I'm really not), that provides the listener with an immediate appreciation as top-shelf crust music but that you can also appreciate through time for what they are intrinsically: great songs.

Fast-forward to late 2013. On a cold Autumn night I learnt, out of the blue, that IOS had a new record out. I cannot remember what I was doing, probably arsing around on the internet, but that was news I no longer expected since the band had been silent record-wise since the 2010 "Screams of suffering" Ep. As is often the case with bands I love unreasonably, I started to fidget like a demented squirrel, sweat profusely, blame the whole world for not telling me and look through the internet for a copy that I eventually impulse-bought without even thinking of giving the songs a listen beforehand. It was IOS and nothing could go wrong. This record was the single-sided flexi "Lapsed into absurdity" released on Doom To Extinction, a very worthy label also responsible for records from Asocial Terror Fabrication, Nakot, Contagium and more recently, Dead Cult and Ulcer. Now, I must make a confession. I am really not that into single-sided records, meaning that I actually always feel a little ripped off by the missing side (more so with single-sided Lp's than Ep's), and I am not huge on flexis either as they can be capricious little rascals that sometimes just won't be played, and to my greatest embarrassment, the music files included in the download link are from the band's bandcamp as my turntable just refused to play my copy of the flexi despite numerous and strenuous attempts on my part to make it work (it was not a pretty sight as I spent almost an hour thinking about clever devices to read the fucker but ended up defeated, or rather, old, lonely, embittered...). So thanks a lot flexis of the world (but the scans are homemade of course).

My first reaction upon holding the record in my trembling hands was, first, one of satisfaction with the darkly evocative cover  - gone are the cheesy crust drawings - depicting a row of disintegrating stone faces with gaping mouths acting as pathways to nowhere. The second reaction, upon opening the foldout and gazing at the inner drawing, was one of bewilderment. Had they gone Japanese? This was Crashercrust Aesthetics 101 and I certainly didn't expect that, though I didn't dislike it either, far from it. Then looking at the label on the actual flexi, I noticed the ambivalent drawing of a hand emerging from a seemingly angry sea (executed in a Japanese style again). Even before playing the record (back when it was still an option...) you could sense that IOS had somewhat changed and that a sense of gloomy melancholy was pervading the wrapper.

"Lasped into absurdity" is made up of two songs and one outro that the band recorded themselves in May, 2013. The production is quite raw and foggy, far from the brutal sound of their precedent records, which was a little unsettling at first but that can be accounted for by the fact that they recorded it on their own. Taking into consideration the change of mood, I think it works very well here as it confers the songs a claustrophobic, eerie yet organic atmosphere, one of confinement and inner madness emphasized by the deceptive warmth of the sound. The mood of IOS' music has indeed shifted and you can hear it from the second part of the very first riff, which would have been written differently just a few years prior. The filthy, all-out crust crunch has given way to more darkly mournful tunes. The heaviness is still present but is expressed through texture and evocation rather than aggression. The guitars have that same vibrating, pulsating quality but the feeling is different, more woeful, sullen and introspective, the drumming is less metallic and more tribal and goes well into postpunk territory as times, while the vocals are more sung, keeping the gruff quality but actually going for some tunefulness. Strictly speaking, and as corny the term might sound, this is postcrust. The übercrust vibe of IOS did not disappear but was now balanced with heavy goth guitar leads and beats, not unlike what Zygote crucially did in the late 80's. Structurally the riffs and the songwriting haven't changed dramatically, one gets the feeling that they express a different aspect of a similar thing or a different version of a same story. Like everyone I suppose, this flexi confused me at first but, when I focused properly on the songwriting, I was still hearing that IOS vibe I loved so much and recognized their propensity to write good songs. Musically I was reminded of early Extinction of Mankind (especially "Baptized in shit" that has some guitar riffs not so dissimilar to "Lasped into absurdity"'s) meeting Smartpils and their heavy style of Killing Joke tribal anarchopunk, or even of Coitus, who penned some genuinely dark and moody numbers in their days. And anyway, there is some synth on "The blue distance" (the outro) and everyone should know the equation by now: crust + synth = top-shelf.

When this came out, and even more when the "Call of the blue distance" Lp did the following year, I read numerous comments about IOS and how they were "jumping on the postpunk bandwagon" and "not real crust anymore". Being blamed for following a trend is, in "the scene", one of the gravest accusations, only second place to being a poser (this one being assessed according to the number of studs, tats, ingested drugs and showers of a given punk). I cannot say I am that surprised with such reactions although I do not condone them as they denote more intellectual laziness and absence of self-reflexivity than an actual thought process. Yes, postpunk (or dark punk or whatever it's called this week) has been fashionable in the first half of the 10's and yes, IOS did use clearer guitar sounds, goth-tinged leads and drum beats and they even - may the Stenchcore Gods forgive them - sing sometimes. But, in terms of vibe and songwriting, they are still a crust band playing crust music. The mood and sound are more melancholy and they borrowed from another punk subgenres but then, isn't it what crust has always done? And isn't crust originally precisely the result of such an ontological move, punk borrowing from metal in order to create something new? And after all, from a diegetic point of view, the incorporation of Zygote/Smartpils elements is relevant with the crust mythology. It feels silly to state the obvious, but punk (and yes, crust too if you understand it as a vibe, a creative tension rather than just a template) needs to be multidimensional in order to be interesting and stimulating, and there have been - and hopefully will be - potent examples of bands unafraid of injecting crust with some outside elements to great results (apart from Iowaska, who would have thought psychedelic crust could work?). But then, if "crusties" are just content with listening to the same old Bolt Thrower rip-offs, what can you do? As IOS put it in the song "Lasped into absurdity": "In the soil of your complacency / Germinates the seed of our bitterness".

"Lapsed into absurdity" can be seen as a transitional record, one that ties "North of nowhere" with "Call of the blue distance," like a connective hyphen. Taken strictly by itself, although the two songs are really solid, the flexi still does feel a little incomplete - and I had second thoughts about including the flexi in this series - but from the perspective of IOS' story, it makes a lot of sense. It has a primal, incantatory quality that makes you crave for more and I wish "Call of the blue distance" had kept a little of that earthy sound in the production (that is my sole concern with the album). Lyrically, the content fits with the form. "Lapsed into absurdity" is about self-delusion, self-proclaimed superiority and bitterness, while "What will you do?" deals with bitterness, disillusion and meaninglessness.

And on a side-note, do yourself a favor and give a proper listen to Kalle and Padde's side-project, Psychotic Mind Battle. Their "Cleansing" demo from 2013 is a brilliantly brutal, over-the-top, gruff cavemen crust effort and definitely one of the best I have heard this decade in the "Extreme Noise Terror" category.


Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST (round 3): Claustrophobia "Sobre las ruinas de la civilizacion" cdr, 2013

"Has nostalgia ever been more profitable than it is today?"  

This thought crossed my mind while I was doing the dishes today, an activity that, for some reason, I actually really enjoy for it allows to ponder and reflect upon things. I had just read some kind of corny and predictable mainstream article about how "old-school" - if not almost disgustingly "vintage" - the early 00's were, and it bothered me, probably more than it should have, but it did leave me with a feeling of unease. It seems that, although we live longer, because of the insanely constant technological innovations, things and ourselves ironically get symbolically old far quicker. With technology becoming so entangled with generational cultural practice and identity, a decade-old device is already seen as somewhat belonging to another time, like a relic or an artifact that will become valuable again as soon as its actual relevance and convenience are obsolete. The past has never been so recent and nostalgia is a flourishing business. To see twentysomethings bemoaning the disappearance of shite mp3's is quite baffling if you think about it. But I suppose that, faced with change and its dramatic speed, we all tend to reminisce about the past (even if it is objectively and chronologically close) with rose-tinted spectacles and boast about it, especially since our epoch glorifies even the most trivial of a consensually sanctioned past. I personally blame our own compulsive narcissism, the masochistic obsession with ourselves and the modern propensity to dramatize our egos...

And then I was basically done with the dishes and I made myself some coffee. I am not prone to nostalgia and I don't think things were better before. Some things were but other sucked and I generally prefer to think about it in terms of cycles and circularity rather than linearity because it feels more sensible and because it makes me look smart (or a smartass, depending on your perspective). But of course, just like everyone, it happens that I have Proustian madeleine moments and the acquisition of Claustrophobia's demo was a delicious one (you didn't seriously believe that my directionless rant would not serve an introductory purpose, did you?).

I remember it very clearly. It was in October, 2013, and La Fraction, Klee Benally and a band called Gerk were doing a benefit gig in Paris. I was, obviously, familiar with La Fraction, a band I have always enjoyed, but I was rather intrigued by Gerk. It said "Crust Punk - Argentine" on the flyer and, since the glorious days when crust bands would happily cross paths with the French capital had been over for quite some time, I was enthusiastic about seeing Gerk, a band I had never heard of. And they played a fine show, undeniably, very intense and energetic, and they were wearing gorgeous lucha libre masks which made me like the performance even more (I am a wrestling nut and I have no shame) and fear that one of them was going to pass out because of the heat. Were they a crust punk band? Absolutely not. They certainly delivered a tight set of super fast angry hardcore with a lot of tempo changes but the music was pretty much crust-free (truth be told, the crust genre is so misunderstood in France that a lot of people cry "crust" as soon as they hear harsh vocals and fast music...).

Being in a rather good mood, I decided to take a look at Gerk's distro. You do not get to see Argentinian hardcore punk bands play every week and I wanted to see what they had brought on tour and, maybe, get a record or two, to support the band. So I was browsing through the cd's (they were mostly cd's as I recall it) and then, out of nowhere, I bumped into this one.

The crust detector went mental...

As you know, I am a crust fanatic and, although I have grown far more demanding and rigorous with my crust with time, I have a fondness for the old-school take on the genre that is unbreakable (to the point of silliness, I will be the first one to admit that). I was awestruck. There was a band, obviously of the metal crust variety, that had a cd with a cover saturated with crust references, that I had never even heard of or read about. I am not saying that I know every crust band in existence, since that would be impossible and, honestly, rather unpleasant when one considers what passes as "crust" these days, but I do pride myself in being quite knowledgeable about the old-school crust subgenre (or stenchcore, if you like). Now, I realize that it sounds like a terrible pick-up line and I would be the first to run for cover upon hearing it in real life. But I nevertheless spend a lot of time scouting the merciless world of the internet for quality crust music, often getting knocked out but always getting up again. But there I was, confronted with an enticing band I knew nothing about, but which was, looking at the rather cheesy "crustier than crust" cover, clearly right up my proverbial alley. And I absolutely loved that feeling. It took me back a few years before, back when the internet had not yet spoiled the mystery and the excitement of discovery, in those years when I was gleefully clueless about crust and looked starry-eyed at distro tables, asking the person running them what this or that band sounded like, then proceeded to read the thank lists to see if I could spot familiar names and then watched the artwork closely to check for actual clues about the musical content. The method was not infallible, by any means, and some bands had names that could trick you, like Anarcrust, who were not really crust (I have made peace with them but it did take some time), but I was enthralled to bring home records from bands I had never listened to, not quite sure if I was going to like them or not.

Of course, if I didn't check a band's sound all the time before getting their record, I could still feel the same, but then, there are so many new ones that one cannot just buy candidly all the time and of course my tastes have become far more articulate and I am now fully aware of which records I want to own physically and which ones I am comfortable just having a passing acquaintance with...

Realizing that there was a peculiar geezer who had been staring at that one record on his table, the distro bloke finally asked me, with some awkwardness as I remember it, if he could help. And yes indeed, he most probably could. He told me that Claustrophobia was a newish band from Buenos Aires and that it was their first record. Obviously, I took that one home with me, beaming with childish joy and self-indulgence. I mean, the cover had a zombified crusty punk with an Axegrinder top and a bow and arrow, with two sloppy human skulls at his feet and hovering crows in a post-apocalyptic sky over his head... How could it go wrong?

I am not going to pretend that I am some sort of qualified expert about the Argentinian punk scene. It is actually a scene I - sadly - know too little about, although I can do a decent job humming to Dos Minutos. In the early noughties, the country had some cracking political punk bands like Migra Violenta with their fast and furious hardcore, Terror y Miseria with their angry yet tuneful brand of anarchopunk or the little-known but clearly brilliant Axion//Protesta who played a great blend of bands like Apatia No, Elektroduendes or Estigiä and managed to do excellent Crass covers in Spanish (an impressive job when one considers how difficult it is to cover Crass at all). None of these bands were crust though and, to my limited knowledge, the genre was virtually absent from the scene at that time. There were hard-hitting, fast, manic, grindy hardcore-punk bands, to be sure, but none had that specific gruff crust sound. When looking for genuine crust music from Latina América, up until the mid-00's, one mainly had two options. You could turn to Sao Paolo and its raw and chaotic grinding take on the genre with bands from the second part of the 90's like Under-Threat, Dischord, Cruel Face or No Prejudice, or you could go for the Mexican scene (mid 90's/early 00's era) and crust-infused anarcho bands like Desobediencia Civil, Regeneracion or Crimenes de Guerra, all-out gruff crustcore acts like Discordia and Inhumanidad (both are highly recommended) or the rocking crust-punk sound of Tijuana's Massakro and Coaccion. And of course, it would be criminal not to mention the longest-running crust punk band of the continent, Los Rezios from Lima, who have been delivering the goods steadily for two decades (the "Clarificacion" Lp from 2011 is really solid AND has an Amebix cover).

Thanks to several very active Latino punk blogs in the late noughties, the materials of newer bands started to emerge and spread more globally. That was when I became aware of several bands from Argentina that had crust elements in their music (to varying extents but still noticeable) like Disvastacion (sloppy but energetic raw, gruff scandicrust with some metal in it) and A Duelo Con La Vida (rough and primitive but glorious pummeling grinding anarchocrust). But it was a band called Horror Humano and their eponymous album from 2008 that really grabbed my attention, heavy and crunchy, distorted, angry grind/crust with overblown dual vocals and an ear for good short songs, a bit like a cross between Accion Mutante, Disassociate and Rot. This specific sound is rather difficult to do well and, pretty much out of nowhere, Horror Humano completely nailed it.

But even though there had already been a couple of crusty Argentinian bands before Claustrophobia, none of them had (to my knowledge, again) taken the old-school crust path yet and been so visually deliberate and exuberant about it as they were (and in actual fact, I cannot think of many Latino crust bands referring so openly to the stenchcore visual canons before 2013). As I mentioned, the artwork is ripe with referential graphic clues that indicate a high degree of crustness, arguably almost to the point of self-parody. "Sobre la ruinas de la civilizacion" was recorded in mid-2013 and co-released by seven labels (some of which, judging from the respective discographies, were probably just mates of the band giving a hand), among which Quien Calla Otorga, a label also responsible for putting out stuff from Gerk, Doña Maldad, Migra Violenta or Hummus. The object itself looks really nice and certainly not cheap. It is a pro-done cdr with a glossy insert and they even included some sort of large flyer with extra artwork in order to promote and thank the people who took part in its making, so that from the outset, it already feels like a proper album rather than a first demo.

My initial reaction when I played the cd was one of pleasant surprise upon hearing the sound quality of the production. It is heavy but clear and quite well-balanced given the template, it sounds spontaneous and aggressive with enough punky raw urgency. There are a couple of sloppy moments here and there, especially when the band tries to wander in death-metal territories, but they are few and far between and are arguably part of the genre's charm. Despite the über-stenchcore aesthetics, Claustrophobia are not even that metal. Don't get me wrong, you will find the usual mid-paced crunchy metallic parts but these are mostly used as introductions or breaks as the band opted for a decidedly fast crust tempo which was the right thing to do. Modern metal-crust bands like Stormcrow and Sanctum do come to mind, especially in some of the riffing, but I am equally reminded me of the more direct dark crustcore sound of bands like Man The Conveyor, Nuclear Death Terror and Dödsfälla and - possibly even more - of the filthy metallic crust of Campus Sterminii, early Cancer Spreading and Giuda ("Decadenza" era), especially in the arrangement of the vocals and the overall mood of the songs. Claustrophobia mostly keeps up with their "metallic pummeling cavecrust" plan but at times some elements from old-school grindcore, death-metal and neocrust do creep in and do not always work smoothly, for technical or songwriting reasons (the grind bits do function fine enough for me). This said, "Sobre las ruinas de la civilizacion" is a solid, convincing first effort that can be seen as a worthy blend of 90's gruff eurocrust and 00's stenchcore seasoned with that delightfully relentless South-American hardcore rabia epitomized and intensified by the polyphonic approach to the vocal works (to put it urbanely).

Lyrically, Claustrophobia did not go for the usual "apocalypse darkness from hell" that too many crust bands entrapped themselves in and penned revolutionary anarchistic songs, usually from an insurrectionary perspective (something not unusual for bands from that area). "Enjenadxs" is about the coercive nature of the psychiatric world, "Muerte al patriarcado" deals with the patriarchal conditioning of our selves, "Armate y se violento" is basically a call to arms for revolutionary love while "Afila tus ideas" questions the validity of the concept of "authority" in order to wage a war on authorities. Pretty intense stuff that the artwork does not necessarily reflect.

Claustrophobia are still active although I am not aware of any particular plan for a next record. And on a side note, if you are interested in quality Argentinian crust music, I would strongly recommend Ruinas, another Buenos Aires band emphatically treading along the stenchcore road (their own 2013 demo is a strong one).      

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST (round 2): Alehammer "Barmageddon" Lp, 2013

Humour and punk. Not often a match made in Heaven (or Hell, if you're into pretending to be proper evil). There have always been punk bands with humorous lyrics or even comedy punk bands, and everyone knows a couple of punk jokes, which, as bad as they might be (they often are if you ask me), indicates that there may be such a thing as "a punk humour". And it is not even a matter of punk subgenre either, I have witnessed - and sometimes endured - joke-cracking grindcore bands, clownish ska-punk bands or parody US hardcore bands. The anarcho/crusty side of things is often said to be humourless (judging from Glasper's books, the consecrated idiom appears to be "humourless anarcho types"), probably because the bands usually have some political pretensions and/or use a serious and stark imagery. And arguably, because some of them are indeed humourless anarcho types. At the other side of the punk spectrum, you have bands for whom punk is a vehicle for writing funny, provocative or outrageous lyrics. After all, punk is a multifaceted beast with a plurality of possible meanings and about as many definitions as there are punks on the planet. It does not mean that I agree with all of them but it is still inescapable and, for better and for worse, it is also what makes it so interesting, albeit frustrating at times.

But to come back to the topic of "humour in punk", it has often proved to be slippery. Humour is very subjective. Time and place must be taken into consideration but so must the intent behind the humorousness. For one Wat Tyler or one Sore Throat (that I personally find genuinely funny), how many punk bands just fall flat when going for humour and end up spouting terrible jokes that sound corny, lurid or stupidly offensive? And coming from a country where "funny punk" is a bit of a national sport, I have had more than my fair share of embarrassing humour on stage, from the clown nose-wearing jovial band who thinks scatological jokes are still hilarious to the grindcore act who firmly believes that mainstream sex and porn are the stuff of side -splitting subversion, let's say politely that shaking my head in disbelief has not been unusual. But then, maybe I am the humourless anarcho type.

Despite usually dark and aggressive lyrics, crust music always had a fun elements to it. Whether it was expressed literally through tongue-in-cheek text (Axegrinder's "Special brew" or several Electro Hippies songs), or through pictures showing the members having fun on the insert, or through a goofy thank list, or a cartoonish caricature, or a parodic song title, it seems like crust has often retained that humorous side, probably intently so, in order to counterbalance the seriousness of anarchopunk and hardcore from which it largely stems (without mentioning that a significant numbers of thrash metal bands also had that fun vibe). There has never been a proper joke crust band however (not a memorable one anyway, Sore Throat being the exception here, assuming they could be categorized as "crust") and the D-beat subgenre, which is more compatible with self-derisiveness and self-reflectivity, has been more prone to try the funny path (with varying results...). But then, there is Alehammer.

Alehammer were never a joke band but they certainly were a humorous one and their focal point was booze (Captain Obvious strikes again). Alcohol consumption is, of course, very common in the punk scene, even more so among the crust crew, and there are numerous crust songs dealing with this fact of life. The subject is not so easy to tackle in lyrics actually, and the line between a cheesy "free beer for the punx" drinking apologia and an actual song about booze with some wit can be thin. I will not deny that the fact the band had members of Prophecy of Doom and Extinction of Mankind contributed to my biased liking for them since I am usually suspicious - on principle - about bands that have a pun in their moniker. At least, the pun does give you several clues about the band. Obviously, there will be some Hellhammer-influenced grooviness and booze is going to be topical, but it also points out to a certain sound, ales (along with stouts I guess) being largely drunk in England in order to get hammered. In other terms, and such is the awesome power of semiotics, we are being served a generous glass of bold, thick, hearty English CRUST.

As mentioned above, Alehammer were (or are, since the band is just technically inactive at the moment) made up of Shrew and Shrub from Prophecy of Doom on drums and bass respectively, Scoot from Extinction of Mankind and Hellkrusher on guitar and Karl from Impulse Manslaughter and Namland (he lent his impressive growling expertise on a Ep that was reviewed here a few years ago). They started playing in the mid-00's and although they did tour the States, I suppose that having a singer living in Chicago and the busy schedule of other members may have somewhat hampered and they mostly remained something of a side-project that could still rear its ugly head if the time is right and the beer plentiful. "Barmageddon" was Alehammer's first full Lp but prior to that fellow, the band already two very convincing records out. The first one, the brilliantly-named "Mine's a pint of crust", released on Agipunk (like every vinyl of the band) in 2007, was a bit of an oddity for a first record: a 10'' picture disc. Now, I am not such a sucker for picture discs in general but I am usually into the 10'' format for hard-hitting crust punk and Alehammer, not content to merely unleash their boozy mayhem, displayed some impeccable taste by including an Alehammer beer coaster proudly stating "Made with the finest blends of crust, punk & metal" and if ads always lie to us about their products, let me tell you that this coaster's claim is truthful indeed. Building on two main grounds, namely the warm, heavy, doomy metallic groove of Hellhammer, Venom and Celtic Frost on the one hand and the raw pummeling fury of gruff crust in the Doom/Hiatus tradition, Alehammer manages to create something that is undeniably wild and chaotic (to the point of sloppy at times), but also extremely effective and unapologetically CRUST. The "pint of crust" metaphor reads absolutely right here, the band blended and brewed a clear list of ingredients in order to achieve this. The recipe is not meant to be original but it certainly tastes authentic, the quantities are just right and the cooking is perfect. This is crust for old-school crust-loving crusties, this is pub crust in the noblest sense of the term, something you can drink and have a laugh to, socializing crust in a sense. In a tautological move, this is crust CRUST.

Their second record, a split Lp with Sweden's Tyrant in 2009, can be seen as a second round of crust brew. Maybe slightly better-produced than the 10'', which confers the songs a Swedish crust vibe at times (in the Uncurbed/Skitsystem sense of the term), it is probably my favourite Alehammer record and the perfect balance between Frostian worship and cavemen crust punk, far above the legions of bands who claim to be playing rocking crust when it is really neither, and no amount of pseudo Mad Max artwork, fake satanic pose or uninspired Motörhead riffs is going to change that fact. What makes Alehammer so effective and genuine is the feel and vibe they are able to create with such ease. It feels like they went into the studio, got pissed, looked at each other, drank some more, said: "let's do the crust then" and did it naturally, just like that, and then fucked off to the pub to celebrate and drink some more.

The third round of crust, the "Barmageddon" Lp, took some time to be released, in June, 2013. The instrumental section was recorded in late 2010 and the vocals only in early 2012 (due to the long distance between members, instruments and vocals were always recorded at different times and places). Needless to say that I was utterly thrilled to see a new Alehammer record and I was not disappointed. "Barmageddon" is possibly more rocking and dirtier than its predecessors, it almost feels sweaty and, well, inebriated. The riffs are heavy, played with conviction, with a filthy, slimy sound perfectly fitting the atmosphere the band aims for. The guitar texture never feels overdone or needlessly technical, it is metallic and groovy in a very organic sense and you can sense that it is meant to be played live. The bass is distorted (more so than on previous recordings) and thick, which gives extra sturdiness to the whole and the drumming has a primitive feel that, again, is coherent with what the band is going for, and the vocals are adequately hoarse and gruff. "Barmageddon" is not a tight album or a spectacular display of musicianship but then, if it were, it would probably not work (some metal websites completely missed that point in their review of the Lp, which made me giggle). As a pub crust work, it needs to convey the warm, messy roughness and good-natured chaos of a night on the boozer with your mates, as the lengthy and rather unpleasant feedback noise at the end of "Fermented death" can attest (does it symbolize the dreaded "bog moment" of the night?). Alehammer is to crust what real ale is to beer: the real thing. It might be a bit hard to swallow at first but after a couple of listens, you just cannot fail to join in the loud, raucous drunken fun. Musically, the recipe has not changed much, Hellhammer-infused Hiatus crust with an early Hellbastard feel, genuinely heavy and groovy, with even more head-banging moments than before, and some Black Sabbath-type riffing on "Floormonger". This album reminds me of the lovely nights I spent at the 1in12 when I enjoyed the terrific jukebox, the warm atmosphere and beers that I was unfamiliar with but were possibly a bit too strong for my skinny self. Oh well...

As mentioned, the lyrics of Alehammer mostly deal with booze but from different angles. "Last orders" is about the Alehammer boys basically missing the last bell because they are already too pissed and feeling dismayed because of it; "Floormonger" (an epic rocking punky metal one) is rather dark, the asocial thought-process of someone waking up from a drunken stupor; "Fermented death" is a funny ode to drinking hard but tastefully ("a half a pint of shandy" is apparently a crime and probably akin to the despised "false crust"); "ABV 666" is about, well, real ale and how it sucks to drink lager and pils; the poetically-named "Cunts to a man" can be seen as a rewriting of Doom's "Relief" as it does not so much glorify alcohol overconsumption but relates it to a remedy to cope with the daily rubbish; finally, "Nemesis" is about self-destructive drinking and the insanity it induces.

If you are looking for neat, sensitive and sophisticated, then Alehammer will probably escape you completely. However, if you fancy tasteful, hard-hitting, rocking, metallic crust with a humorous "fuck you" attitude and the unshakable belief in the validity of CRUST, then this Lp is for you and, lucky you, it is still available ("yay", as kids say these days). And to wrap it up, if none of my blabbering has made any sense, let's just say that the spirit, the worldview of Alehammer is reflected in the cover of "Barmageddon": even if the whole world is crumbling, they will be at the pub doing the crust.  


Thursday, 2 March 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST (round 1): Fatum "Время Уходит Во Тьму / Time passes to the dark" cd, 2012

4... 3... 2... 1... Ignition. And we're ready to ruck (yes, I did play the Rejects while making meself some lovely Japanese green tea before starting to write, in order to open my chakras or something)!

For this first part of my chronological journey into contemporary crust, I will take Terminal Sound Nuisance to a place it has yet never trodden: Russia, Moscow to be more specific. As I mentioned in the introduction (you know, that piece of writing where my self-important self used fancy academic terms in order to create a semblance of intellectual legitimation), it is difficult to assess the worth of a record when you lack the perspective that the progression of time and repeated listens can provide. It might be too early to be definitive about Fatum's "Время Уходит Во Тьму" as the album is only four-year old and, at that age, you are never quite sure yet if you have birthed a proper genius or if your kid will get thick as soon as he turns thirteen. But still, to this day, I cannot really think of a better crust album released in the 2010's (apart from Misery's "From where the sun never shines" maybe, but then Misery just cannot be matched when they have their mojo). It does not mean that the past 7 years have been scarce in quality crust (although to be honest there are days when I feel like they have) and, fortunately for this series, there are other contemporary works that are very worthy indeed. But "Время Уходит Во Тьму" has that little something that makes it special to my ears.

I first came across Fatum through their "Skverna" demo, some time in early 2011. I remember it to be something of a weird time for old-school crust music as not much was being released and most of the bands of the so-called "stenchcore revival" had either split or taken different paths. It seemed like, apart from Cancer Spreading, Last Legion Alive and Contagium (without mentioning the always reliable, almost immortal Extinction of Mankind), the genre had been suddenly deserted and it was probably the first time that, always the late-blooming naive and candid one, I became really aware of the influence of trends crossing punk since the dawn of time (aka the late 70's). I'm half-lying here, I did remember the downfall of "neocrust" (or "epicrust" or "melocrust" or whatever people fancied calling it) before that but I just wasn't really bothered to be honest. Of course, top-shelf crust from Misery and Πανικός would surface by the end of the year 2011 but I had no clue. So when I first listened to "Skverna", the first recording of an unknown band from Russia, I was pleasantly surprised. Not so much with the origin of Fatum, as I had been aware of Distress since a mate of mine brought back their tape from Russia in 2005 and I was familiar with and quite enjoyed bands like Antimelodix, 4-Scums, Komatoz or Pan Zlobek, so I knew that something interesting and positive was happening in the country in terms of DIY punk, but it was the first time I listened to a Russian band going for the stenchcore sound and, well, I am a sentimental geezer about those things and I promptly proceeded to order the vinyl version of the demo (and to go completely off-topic, it confused me a little, I must admit, since I saw re-issuing one's demo on vinyl a little antithetic to the very notion of a demo, but then, that is exactly what every bands and their mothers seem to have been doing in the 2010's).

Released on Gasmask Records (a Czech label also responsible for tape versions of Lebenden Toten and Blood Spit Nights' records as well as great vinyls from Dazd or FUK), "Skverna" is a flawed but thoroughly enjoyable metal crust work. Arguably, its main quality derives directly from its main flaw: sloppy with that kind of youthful punk urgency that defines a band's early recordings and makes it so good. Deeply rooted in the crust sound of modern 00's bands like Sanctum or Limb From Limb (but, in genuine crust punk tradition, without the technical ability to really pull it off), "Skverna" sounds like a rather typical stench/crust effort from the late 00's, with a strong old-school black and thrash metal influence (I am reminded of early Apocalypse at times) and a generous spoonful of EOM's "Nightmare seconds" (which is a nice call). The production is raw and the songwriting a bit all over the place at times but the demo contains one crucial thing that cannot be faked and made it promising: love. One can argue all night about the relative sonic shambles (to which I would reply that, firstly, it is bloody crust not fucking power-metal, and, secondly, that I have heard far worse first efforts) but you can tell that the lads not only have fun playing crust but also, more importantly, that they enthusiastically believe in what they play. Just listen to the numerous times they gratuitously growl "cruuuust" or "uuuuurghhh" throughout the recordings and to the overall energy of the thing. Of course, some of the metallic leads are a little uncomfortable and the drummer loses it at times, but there are also a lot of good ideas in "Skverna" (like the eerie intro and arpeggio outro of "Back to caves", the overall songwriting of "Razor of reality" and the great gloomy building-up in "Cargo 200") and I'd rather have a punk band with some ambitions - as unachieved as they might be at that moment - than perfectly-executed but trite Bolt Thrower riffing.

From "Skverna" on, I kept following what Fatum were up to and got their next record, the split Ep with Saint Petersburg D-beat heroes Distress, released in mid-2012. Recorded just a few months after the "Skverna" session during the summer of 2010, it is quite similar to the demo in terms of direction but a more coherent production and mix (it gives the two songs a great early Mindrot vibe) provided the listener with a clearer picture of the band's potential. The artwork was also far more convincing. Gone was the common "blackened crust" aesthetics of "Skverna", giving room to some genuinely referential sloppy crust art reminiscent of high-school Deviated Instinct (yes, that is a compliment, but I still cannot read what's written in the top-right corner...). As a golden bonus, the second song of Fatum on this split is an instrumental one entitled "Wanker" and has the following subtext "Instrumental for 4 eye elitist wankers". Punk, innit? The next recording session for Fatum occurred in the autumn of 2011 but the two songs resulting from it were only released in 2014 as a split with Cancer Spreading. So although the aforementioned split saw the light of day after "Время Уходит Во Тьму", it was still recorded before the album so it feels relevant to talk briefly about it. The two songs included showed Fatum becoming groovier, in a crunchy Hellbastard way, and more articulate influences from Antisect, Axegrinder and Sacrilege were emerging. Because of the chronological dislocation, the first time I heard the Ep, I must admit I was slightly disappointed because it was not as impressive as the album, but unbeknown to me was the fact that the recording was actually anterior (granted, I should have read the recording dates properly). However, listening to the songs as a progression leading to "Время Уходит Во Тьму" makes sense and that is probably how they should be approached.

One day (it was in April of 2013 if you must know) my good friend Paco - with whom I have been trading crust secrets for a good few years - sent me a link out of the blue to download Fatum's "Время Уходит Во Тьму", an album whose release, to my greatest embarrassment, had completely escaped me. I almost fell off my chair the first time I played it. I did expect good in the same way you do when you have a pint of your favourite but regular brand of beer. You know it is going to be enjoyable, soothing even, but also predictable. You know how it is going to taste. That was my initial state of mind. I honestly could not believe how GOOD Fatum had got, not only musically (after all, strict musical progression can appear to be logical), but also in terms of songwriting, of conception, of scope. I cannot think of anything that I would change on this one. Fatum could have picked the easier "metal path" for a first album, they could have tried to just sound unsubtly heavier and louder by adding obvious death-metal elements (which is not something that is easy to do well in crust), and honestly I wouldn't even have blamed them. "Время Уходит Во Тьму" (translating as "Time passes to the dark" in English) took me by surprise, undeniably.

It is a flower. One that has been locked in the dark, in a room where Antisect, Sacrilege, Axegrinder and Amebix were constantly playing. Little by little, in the absence of sunlight and water, the plant started to feed from these sounds and to incorporate them organically, naturally, in an act of sonosynthesis. When the flower finally bloomed, it certainly looked like what it had been listening to and the whiffs it gave off was reminiscent of what it had absorbed, but it nevertheless had its own roots, colourfulness and vitality.

As you can see, I am utterly clueless about gardening (or nature really, let's get real) but the metaphor is relevant. "Время Уходит Во Тьму" is essentially a synthesis of foundational crust music, an act of syncretism not meant to mourn the dead but rather vibrantly revive their artistic relevance. Fatum's main achievement here is that it never sounds contrived or forceful, the album just flows effortlessly, paradoxically so, since you can tell that they worked hard on the songwriting. Even though the influences are purposefully obvious, in plain sight, the album does not feel like a tediously sectioned vintage crust catalogue but, on the contrary, like a whole organism whose cells vividly echo with one another. The songs do work very well when taken on their own, as discrete units, but I would argue that the web of interactions that they create as one cohesive narrative work makes them shine even more. In other terms, Fatum really wrote a crust novel, not just a compilation of short stories, (which is no mean feat considering how difficult it is to write a genuinely good crust album) and the fact that they tie the songs together (through synth or the sound of wind for instance) gives the Lp a sense of storytelling entity.  

Taken individually, the songs from "Время Уходит Во Тьму" do not really bring anything new to the crust banquet. Don't get me wrong, they are indeed all top-shelf crust numbers, but I would not say they necessarily innovate content-wise (though there are some details and arrangements that do). The undeniable force and indeed originality of the Lp derive from its incredible synthesizing, coalescing quality, which accounts for the fact that it sounds both familiar in content and yet creative in intent. Late Antisect could arguably be the main influence on the album, their lurking ghost informing its mood, and there are bits of drumming highly reminiscent of Polly's style and crunchy guitar riffs that would have fit easily on "Out from the void". But then, you also have these very specific tribally heavy Amebix/Killing Joke beats as well, and the omnipresent driving force of the bass lines cannot fail to bring Amebix to mind. But what about these cracking metallic Sacrilege parts? Or the eerie, monumental, apocalyptic Axegrinder moments? And didn't some of the vocal work definitely remind me of Misery too? And what about that lead? It did have something of the intensity of SDS, didn't it? All and none of the above?

The production on "Время Уходит Во Тьму" is brilliant. It is very clear and let the instruments and the songwriting induce heaviness in an organic fashion rather than forcing it through cheap tricks. The musicianship is not exactly flawless but I would argue that this is precisely how the genre is meant to be played. I particularly love all the beat variations in the drumming (the whole crusty range is aptly represented), never redundant and very energetic without drowning the compositions in double-bass, and similarly I really enjoy how you can actually hear all the details thanks to the crispness of the bass sound and its clever lines which give a groovy bottom to the whole. The guitar sound is ace as well, slimy and aggressive but not overbearing nor peremptory and the two guitars work together perfectly and with a sense of purpose. It sounds as if the band knew the songs were good enough to speak for themselves and didn't aim for loudness at all cost but, rather, for a meaningful balance. The summary would be cruelly incomplete if I did not mention the vocal work. The main vocalist has a very hoarse and gruff voice that makes him sound threatening and really quite pissed but with also some epic undertones, while the second vocalist has a more nasal and "melodic" (well, it doesn't sound as much like an agonizing bear) voice and his timely interventions definitely bring some crusty depth and variety. The fact that they "sing" in Russian is an undeniable asset as I think that it is a language that fits the crust genre perfectly and confers an intensity and a sense of a narratively construed impending doom that is remarkably impressive. Of course, crust is an international language and I am all for punx singing in their mother tongue (how ironic is that statement coming from a Frenchman writing in English), but I also think that some languages go with some punk genres better than others (and I know what I am talking about, crust in French fucking sucks). The only low point that I can think of about Fatum's language is that now I also fantasize about learning Russian as well as Greek and Italian. Dammit...

Thematically, "Время Уходит Во Тьму" revolves around the idea that mankind, because of its self-destructive instincts, has always been incapable to use time in a positive way and irremediably turns to war, greed, hatred and other joys of life. This recurring motif in the album is defined in the lyrics to the eponymous song (well, in the first part of it, since, in an intertextual move, like Antisect in "Out from the void", Fatum wittily wrote a two-part song) which can be seen as a tribute to "In darkness"-era Antisect as it is a dischargy-paced number with a long spoken word and the whole Antisectish bags of sonic tricks for good measure. The mood is decidedly dark and desperate on this Lp, with a strong emphasis on people's lack of empathy, social alienation and estrangement. Time is not passing to the dark in a temporal sense: it is in the very essence of mankind's misuse of time that it fatally, inexorably passes to the dark. The cover of the album is not so far from the post-1985 Antisect aesthetics either and I do like the Dantean atmosphere of bleak madness and macabre sorrow it exhales.

The cd version of "Время Уходит Во Тьму" was released in December of 2012 on local label Drunk With Power records but a vinyl version saw the light of day last year thanks to Insane Society (long-running Czech label) and Neanderthal Stench (a rather recent one that is becoming a reference if you like your crust to be generous with metal) with some new artwork and a lovely poster. Fatum released their second album "Life dungeons" in 2015 with a different line-up, but that's a story for another time. And on a different note, I also strongly recommend another excellent crust band from Russia called Repression Attack. Top stuff from them so far.          



Monday, 27 February 2017

Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST: an introduction

Alright then. Let's dive into it again, shall we?

This new series will be a little special - if not peculiar - to write and there is a chance I end up starved and delirious before the computer screen, mumbling like a madman in search of some unreachable truth that only really exists in the platonic realms of ideas. Thank fuck my meds are still working so far.

"Why?", I figuratively hear you ask. "It is only, and, may I add, yet again, you unoriginal, redundant sod, a series about bloody crust music! How difficult can it be? It is all growls, cheap metal riffs and pseudo apocalyptic lyrics anyway". And sure, imaginary antagonistic reader, you are not completely wrong and if I had earned one euro each time I mentioned Deviated Instinct, Amebix and Antisect on Terminal Sound Nuisance, I would be a wealthy punk (but let's face it, I would have used the money to buy even more records). Only this time, there is a twist, my unperceptive friend. The series will not be place-based, although it will indeed be time-framed: a selection of 13 crust recordings released in the past five years. An ambitious, crust-hungry endeavour, you will agree. As for the 90's crust series and the Japanese one, "crust" is here to be understood as a vibe, tension and mood rather than a strict set of musical elements or a "to-do list".

The scope of the, admittedly rather hackneyedly-named, "Ashes to ashes, crust to CRUST" series will be international, meaning that 12 countries will be represented in the 13 posts (yes, I could not decide which of two records to pick in one particular instance so I basically took both...). This obviously implies that the series will not be a top 13 list or a ranking. I did not select the 13 best crust records released between 2012 and 2017, although I firmly believe that they are all strong works. Rather, I subjectively picked records that I find interesting or meaningful in some important ways and, as usual, would be fun to write about. As for the timeframe, well, I don't have a logical explanation for that other than a five-year old record still feels new to me (or, if you like, are not old enough to have a serious analytical grasp). And I started the blog five years ago. Yay. Yolo.

The enterprise is tricky however. Terminal Sound Nuisance has never been about new or even recent records, not because I dislike contemporary punk music or idealize "vintage", "old-school" acts from "back in the day", but because it is always extremely difficult and slippery to write about a record (or any artistic production I suppose) without the benefit of proper perspective and hindsight. There have been few exceptions (like Cancer Spreading, Grind the Enemy or more recently Asocial Terror Fabrication) and I had never really thought of writing about recent records because I consider the task a little superficial in essence. How can you rate and analyze contextually a record when you are in the heat of the moment? How can you know how it will age and how it will be thought of in 10, 15 or 20 years? I distinctly remember people (myself included) raving about how classic and crucial a record was upon its release and then, not even three years later, said work of genius remains unlistened to and popping up in £2 record bins. I would even tend to think the consumeristic, attention-lacking web 2.0 culture has exacerbated that tendency to embrace and discard a record in the blink of a click and the defiance towards anything "wordy".  

Despite my original reluctance to deal with new, I have always seen the reviewing of novelties as being necessary and playing a significant part in promoting the DIY punk scene and its productions and also, perhaps more importantly, in creating and nourishing a continuous critical discourse about the music we love. With fanzines tragically becoming few and few - and let's be honest, they were the main purveyors of new reviews for years and strongly participated in the making of a specifically punk critical voice of our own art - the proper analysis of punk music is slowly becoming the exclusive domain of self-proclaimed punk experts (not an attack on anyone, but let's get real) while the first contact most punks have with new recordings is through youtube, usually utterly deprived of any relevant information and critical comment (and no, writing a mere "Fucking brutal" in the comment section does not count nor does liking the video).

I am not saying that people no longer review punk records and I do read smart things about new bands, but I feel it is not quite enough and maybe the time has come for me to contribute something, even modestly, and try to think critically about new, current, active bands. Besides, it will be the perfect way to get free records and shirts or even just a free beer (though I would be pretty upset if I only got one). Of course, most of the records I will rant about are still available and most of the bands are still active, so I strongly encourage you to support the bands and the labels in any way you can, by getting the records or going to the gigs or playing them at a radio show or at your gran's birthday party.  


Thursday, 12 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 12): Asocial Terror Fabrication "Under the Dark Force" Ep, 2010

This is the last part of the Japanese Crust vs The World, a series that proved to be far more demanding and, eventually, exhausting than I had originally imagined but was a lot of fun to do and, hopefully, to read.

For the last entry, I wanted to pick a record from a band that was still active. I usually do not review recent records, mostly because I feel that one needs time and hindsight in order to gain the critical perspective necessary to look properly at a given work. Too often, we are caught up in the ceaseless, glorified flow of novelties and, because of our decreasing attention span (both in terms of quantity and quality), we end up celebrating records that are really not that good and hailed short-lived bands who intentionally play the right fashionable subgenre as classics. Not being a mean-spirited geezer, I am not going to mention neocrust and the half-arsed "raw-noise-punk" or the lazy postpunk trends of late here, although I could have. And yes, that is called a preterition.

There has definitely been some solid Japanese crust being released for the past ten years and I was unsure (as usual) of which band to pick. Bands like Absurd Society, Asmodeus and Massgrave recorded top crust in the early 10's, but then long-going bands like Death Dust Extractor, ZyanosE or Disturd - the latter even getting better and better with the new line-up - relentlessly kept delivering the goods (and I am not even going to mention LIFE who are in a category of their own). And then you have brand new acts too like Avvikelsse, whose recent Ep brought back the best years of Crust War, or Scene Death Terror and Ulcer, who I am dying to hear proper studio recordings from as they are likely to cunningly blow the crust barometer to bits... In truth, some bands did disappoint me during those years but I am guessing it had more to do with my own high expectations than with the music itself... Anyway, things really do look good on the Japanese crust front and I feel optimistic for the next few years. But to get back on tracks, I decided to pick a record from Asocial Terror Fabrication to conclude the Japanese crust series for several reasons. First, ATF (you didn't really think I was going to write "Asocial Terror Fabrication" throughout the whole post now, did you?) epitomize the high referentiality that has always been an important part of Japanese crust and they certainly carry that tradition with pride; second, ATF have that specific Japanese crust sound that no one else seems to be able to recreate, as hard as they might try; third and finally, it is a bloody great record I am personally really fond of and, in the end, it is probably what matters the most.

ATF are a Tokyo band that (apparently) formed in 2007. From what I have read, some members have also played in Exclude and Abysstyx (both of which I am completely unfamiliar with and I therefore cannot confirm the veracity of the intel) and singer Riki played the drum (well, beat the proverbial D) for Krossa. I remain quite undecided about the name "Asocial Terror Fabrication". I do like the idea it conveys for its "crusties gone Mad Max" implications and I feel it actually suits the music well. But it is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it? Three distinct words and nine bloody syllables. I am guessing it could be a nod towards late 80's crust and longer band names such as Deviated Instinct or Genital Deformities or indeed Extreme Noise Terror (both phrases having a similar linguistic pattern), and, although I am not sure I like the sound of the moniker, it certainly borrows from the traditional lexical field of crust, in an act of both structural and nominal referentiality. And that is exactly what ATF is about.

The first demo was recorded in 2009 and had five songs. If the Doom-styled logo already gives the game away, it is the actual picture on the cover that is the most relevant. The highly contrasted picture of the crustier-than-your-socks singer obviously, and intentionally, refers to the one found on the cover of Abraham Cross' "Peace can't combine", which, keeping the Doom nod in mind, indicates that ATF was going for multileveled worship: the early Doom sound by way of Doom-worshiping Abraham Cross. Actually, the demo is closer to Abraham Cross than Doom so could it be... the worship of Doom-worship? Seeing it in that light, ATF's demo would take on an interesting meta dimension that, given punk's propensity to continually recycle itself, would reflect the overall trend of self-aware referentiality, both deferent and cheeky. Musically, and unsurprisingly at this point, the demo is absolute gruff crust heaven. If you think Abraham Cross' singer sounded like Jon Doom, you are in for an epiphany as Riki sounds JUST LIKE him. It is extremely impressive and also almost scary... These five songs in seven minutes sound like a crash course in cavemen crust. The riffs are great, the arrangements clever and the production has that raw, almost subterranean, aggressive and tense quality that is a genre-defining characteristic but that few bands can actually pull out properly. And the vocals... listen for yourself. Apart from Abraham Cross (the religion) and Doom (the deity), the dischargy songs of Sore Throat also come to mind (but it is almost redundant to point it out since this specific influence was at the core of the Abraham Cross sound) and I am also hearing some Private Jesus Detector in the songwriting, in terms of gruff power and impact (and well, they also had a rather long name, right?).

Demo art

The Ep "Under the dark force" was released in 2010 (or was it 2011? I cannot remember exactly but Discogs says 2010) and contained six songs. These were actually part of a larger recording session as the three songs from the split Ep with Exithippies were also taken on this occasion. It was released on Hardcore Survives, a label that has grown to be one of the most reliable in terms of top-notch Japanese crusty noize and had put out records from D-Clone, Disturd, Kriegshög or Skizophrenia!. And now the time has come to be completely honest with you. Although I had heard the demo before and thought that it was a great effort indeed that made the (demo-era) Doom fanboy dance inside my skinny self, it was really the cover of this Ep that made me jump on ATF like a goofy nerd. Absolute, unashamed, direct Deviated Instinct worship, to be more accurate their 86/87 era ("Terminal Filth Stenchcore", "Welcome to the Orgy", "A Vile Peace"...). And despite DI's "cvlt" status, few bands visually paid tribute to them as obviously and lovingly as ATF. Granted, the insert of the demo already had a pretty cool crow, but there were also your typical Disorder/Electro Hippies/CFDL smiley faces and one sloppy Amebixian character, so I think ATF aimed delightfully at the broader early crust aesthetics on that one. But "Under the dark force"'s cover is all about DI (well, the font for the band's name might be Genital Deformities' actually) and so is the first page of the foldout (I mean, it has to be a scarecrow, right?). This is the ultimate level of fanservice and I will be forever grateful for that. Thanks Asocial Terror Fabrication.

And now, it would be logical to assume that ATF also went for some heavy Deviated Instinct worship sonically on this Ep, right? Well... they didn't. Not exactly. If you look hard enough, you will be able to spot a DI riff but "Under the dark force" was actually not about the Norwich bunch. So why the over-the-top DI's referentiality then? Well, it is a contextual clue rather than a textual one. In other terms, it acts as a symbol of an epoch and of an overall vibe, namely the mid-late 80's UK crusty punk wave. It wouldn't be far-fetched to describe this Ep as "Mermaid crust" in reference to this Birmingham pub where so many early crust gigs took place (the metaphor does not work quite as well with the imaginary creature). Although Doom and Sore Throat were definitely still crucial influences on this one (with Abraham Cross' pregnant template in the background of course), ATF added elements from other regulars at the Mermaid like early Napalm Death, Extreme Noise Terror, (noisecore) Sore Throat, to which you can also significantly add (though I am not sure they actually played there, they shared that specific vibe) Genital Deformities and Mortal Terror. Of course, the production and the distorted sound of the guitar and bass indicated that you dealt with a Japanese crust band, because they have that recognizable craft, but "Under the dark force" (and the aforementioned split Ep) nevertheless spoke that Mermaid crust language which they learnt through the Abraham Cross textbook. It is a brilliant exercise in style, but one that does require the listener to know the basics of the language and its culture. Does it make ATF an over-referential band? Possibly, especially since one might argue that punk music has always been meant to be easily accessible and spontaneous. But then, don't all works of art (and yes, even your filthiest crust band makes art) require some level of cultural background for them to make sense? I am aware that there are thousands of music styles I am not able to understand because I lack the basic information and knowledge, I don't speak their specific language. Even if I feel ATF's Ep is strong and energetic enough to be enjoyed even without being a fluent crust speaker, I still think a lot of its meaning and essence would be lost in translation without at least some skills in crust linguistics. And I am fine with that.

The production on this Ep is brutal (not quite on the level on the fantastic "Peace can't combine" but it still works great), with a lot of echo, it sometimes sounds like it was recorded in an actual cave and I am reminded of the crasher crust school quite a bit on this level, although there are important differences in terms of intentionality. It is an absolutely ferocious record with an impressive flowing quality, as it has that groovy and filthy referential old-school crust sound (in merely 6 minutes, the band managed to vary the beats without it feeling forceful or mechanical) and, never falling into pointless technicality, still sounds relentlessly aggressive, angry and out of control (which it is definitely not, they know what they are doing). This is exactly how I like my crust, with a dark neanderthal vibe, a tense moodiness and meaningful chunks of punk in it. The split Ep with Exithippies, released on Doomed To Extinction (a label also responsible for a really good Contagium Ep that is not unlike ATF actually), also comes recommended. In 2015, the band released two new recordings, a tape entitled "Folly of wisdom" (that I have not heard), and a split Ep with False Insight that saw ATF back with an early Carcass old-school grindcore vibe (and borrowed font, of course) and some crisp Hellbastard and Axegrinder nods in terms of visuals. It is tough being a fanboy sometimes.

The band is still very much active despite the significant change in sound and some of its members started the intriguingly named noizy Kaltbruching Acideath that sounds much closer to what ATF originally did and has a demo out.      

Friday, 6 January 2017

Japanese Crust vs The World (part 11): Zoe "The last axe beat" Lp, 2004

I left 2016 with some over-the-top Japanese Amebix-worship in the shape of early Acrostix and, to smoothen everyone's transition into the new year, I shall enter 2017 with (wait for it, wait for it...) more Japanese Amebix-worship! Now, before you roll your eyes, point your bony finger at me, blame me for this indecent display of unoriginality and accuse me of laziness, let's take a deep breath and think about it for a second. And while we're at it let's open that can of cider you've been saving for special occasions.

I cannot count the many times I have heard people complain about punk being redundant and boring for its lack of originality... Usually, as a backing for such arguments, a diatribe about bands sounding like Discharge (or any other cult band depending on what kind of punks you hang out with) quickly follows, as if it were the irrefutable evidence of punk's hopeless lack of creativity. And I am not saying that there is no truth in such claims and I often find myself mumbling whenever I hear a new "crust" band trying aimlessly to be a death-metal one but ending up sounding boring and stale. Still, "worship-type bands" should not be discarded just for the fact that they build their discourse on another band's legacy and sometimes it requires a lot of inventiveness and indeed of creativity to emulate a specific band in a way that is highly referential but still brings an interesting, fresh perspective. Basically both unoriginal and original at the same time and still sounding good. After all, you could very well see the very careful emulation of Discharge's "Why" as a rather interesting exercise that paradoxically needs an important level of artistic sensibility and clever songwriting to be properly achieved. Of course, Discharge is not the most relevant example here since repetition and redundancy were crucial to their music in the first place as they shaped a new language and semiotic system that many bands still directly use nowadays, the degree of strictness varying from one band to another.

Of course, one is free to think that "worship-type bands" are ridiculous and goofy and that they should play stoner-ska or blackened-shoegaze or something that has never been done before instead of rewriting Amebix songs. Like Zoe. Because that is exactly what this band is doing. They take several elements of the Amebix legacy, sometimes directly referring to the Amebixian scriptures, at other times including post-Amebix influences, and blend them, from a Japanese crust context, in order to create a music that embodies amebixness and whose originality resides precisely in this creative drive that encompasses both the actual band and its direct legacy. On a metatextual level, Zoe also incarnate the potent fascination that Amebix have always held in the punk world. The overt referentiality can then be seen as a reflection of the mythic quality of the band, Zoe's work thus becoming a self-aware discourse about both amebixian music and our own obsession with it (the claim that the band aimed at creating a metadiscourse might be far-fetched but that is my own reading, make of it what you will).

Zoe were from Osaka and apparently formed in the late 90's, although their first demo, "The beginning", was only recorded in 2002 because of line-up instability from what I can gather. At the core of the band was Taki (aka TM Spider on "From Hell" and Lightning Baron on "The last axe beat"), previously in Gloom, Defector (as the "metal guitar") or War Cry, who played the guitar, sang and even produced Zoe's records so it is safe to assume that much of the songwriting was also his. The name "Zoe" is a bit mysterious in terms of paronomasia... "Inferno Punx" spells it as "Z.O.E." so it might very well be an acronym I am not aware of (but I don't have a clue either so any informed guess is welcome here). Taken simply as "Zoe", the name might refer to "zoea", which is some sort of larva in the crustacean world. This would make sense I suppose since the zoea is a primitive life form just like the amoeba, the spelling variation being yet an additional reference to Amebix and their name-making process. On the records, the phrase "The darkest heavy" actually precedes the name "Zoe". I cannot really pronounce "The darkest heavy Zoe" without giggling so I assume it is not really a part of the moniker but must be read as some sort of slogan beside being a wink at "The darkest hour" and stating what Zoe were going for in terms of mood: dark and heavy.

I distinctly remember the first time I heard of Zoe. A mate of mine, known to be a grumpy but quite knowledgeable geezer in terms of Japanese noize and crust (he even distributed some Crust War releases in Paris in the early 00's), told me that he was about to receive a new record from the label that I might enjoy. To be truthful, I think he phrased it like that: "They are called Zoe and they are dreadful, absolute rubbish Amebix-type heavy-metal with bloody makeup on... I am sure you are going to love them". And of course, he was right, I loved them straight away.

The band's first recording was the four-song 2002 demo entitled "The beginning", a rather thinly produced effort (it even has some unwanted feedback here and there) that still set the basis for the Zoe sound to great effect. By no means was Zoe the first band to go for Amebix-worship, but they took a rather unique creative stance. Bands like Axegrinder ("Serpent men" era) and Misery had reworked the Amebix sound very early on by making it heavier, doomier and, dare I say it, crustier, which was the logical step in the late 80's. Zoe, on the other hand, from the vantage point of view of the early 00's, did not merely take Amebix into account but the entire Amebix world, in other terms the "post-Amebix' bands like Zygote or Muckspreader or those that gravitated around them like Smartpils and other pagan psychedelic acts. This shift informed Zoe's music and aesthetics deeply and unless you are actually interested in Amebix as a band, vibe and worldview, you will probably miss what Zoe were ambitiously trying to do: syncretizing the Amebix world. I am not saying they did it perfectly but the intent is indeed fascinating and taking it into consideration, it made perfect sense that Zoe included heavy-metal, grungy and psychedelic bits into their music, just like Zygote did.

But let's get back to the band's discography before getting seriously into the Lp. After the demo, Zoe had one instrumental song, "Spere alive", included on "The Darkest 4" compilation tape, a rough number that sounded like an eerie tribute to the song "Monolith" that opens the eponymous album. In 2003, Crust War released the Ep "From Hell", a much better-recorded work with a title-track that still stands probably as the best blend of Zygote, Amebix and Antisect to this day. Apparently, Zoe were meant to do a split record with Effigy at that time. The two bands were close (the members of Effigy even told the Zoe story on the album's insert... with added Effigy visuals!) and, although the split did not materialize, not only did Zoe and Effigy release an Ep with the same title, "From Hell", almost simultaneously, but the bands also did their own respective version of the same song, also called "From Hell", which highlighted their different but ultimately complimentary takes on the old-school crust sound. Listening carefully to these two versions back to back is actually a brilliant exercise and an articulate essay about the discrepancies and parallels between them would make for an ideal entry test for my soon-to-open Department of Crust Studies. Right? The Ep also included some sort of strange teaser with just the first minute of "Spider" that would appear in its entirety on the Lp (I haven't figured that one out yet).

The album "The last axe beat" is undeniably Zoe's most accomplished work (the Lp format arguably fits the genre better). Perfectly-produced (you can really tell since four of the seven songs are new recordings of previously released songs) and displaying top notch musicianship, it is expectedly saturated with varying degrees of Amebix and Zygote referentiality, in shape and content, but it does not have the dreaded sloppy patchwork feel. If anything, I would say it sounds like a huge painting representing the Amebix universe, or like very well-crafted and tasteful crustpants. The music is certainly dark and heavy but not in the common accepted sense of "loud and crushing" that too many bands adopt (and no, adding death-metal riffs and guttural vocals will not necessarily make your sound heavier or darker). The album is groovy, powerful and has a genuinely epic quality but must be understood as a vibe-driven record. There is a very specific atmosphere pervading the songs, although they are quite diverse in terms of beats and moods. "The last axe beat" revolves around a carefully construed "Amebix essence" that is to be found in different times, places and shapes in the Amebix universe (I am aware that I am starting to sound like a New Age preacher but hold on in there). It has the same ritualistic, tribal, pagan feel with an earthy and dark but euphoric psychedelic vibe reinforced with the high-pitched almost heavy-metal vocals. You could make a comprehensive list of each amebixian element and then find them all on "The last axe beat" (which can be played as an Amebix bingo as well): the "Arise!" tribal beats, the "Monolith" synth-driven bits, the "Wind of knives" heavy rock/grungy moments, the classic Amebix arpeggio ones, the typical bass sound, the fast thrashy hardcore, the tuneful and lugubrious zygoty guitar leads... without mentioning several obvious reworkings of actual songs, the literal intertextuality of the song titles and the many visual references, from the font to the Amebix face.

"The last axe beat" is not a perfect album in terms of narration, as I feel it may be lacking in storytelling structure (something Amebix actually excelled at) that could have been strengthened with an actual intro and maybe a couple of additional songs (the Lp is rather short). Another missed opportunity for me lies in the overall look of the Lp, which is fine but not really spectacular. However, it is still a unique and fascinating record that is more subtle than it looks and offers a paradoxically creative perspective on crust music by working on a very specific realm. It probably will not speak to those of us that are not that much into Amebix (or are just not nerds), but as a record that literally and figuratively epitomizes the obsession with Amebix and genuinely, self-consciously embraces it, it is unrivaled. Following the album, Zoe contributed two songs to the "Konton damaging ear massacre" compilation Lp (re-recordings of "New world" and "Zygospore" that smartly refer to different recording sessions of Amebix and prove that the same song recorded differently can significantly nuance the original moods) and to "Amebix Japan" but then, at this point, it feels almost redundant or even offensive to mention it.