Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Bellicose pessimism and the melancholy of Ελληνική πανκ (part 2): Γκούλαγκ "Στην Αυλή Των Θεαμάτων" Lp, 1990



The next instalment of the Greek punk-rock series is Γκούλαγκ (Gulag)'s first proper album, the "Στην Αυλή Των Θεαμάτων" Lp from 1990, which I will refer to as the "In the showyard" Lp from now on (who knew it would be such a pain to edit texts that include non-Latin alphabets...). This Lp is undeniably one of the great classics of the genre and one of the best Greek punk Lp's of all time. "In the showyard" is a unique work that saw Gulag at the top of their game and in fact, I would even argue that they could not have done a better Lp. I just can't think of any single things in terms of songwriting that I would like to change in this album (apart from the cover probably... but we'll come back to that later).

While a lot of the classic 80's punk bands were located in Athens, Gulag were from Thessaloniki, a place renowned for its student life and its radical left-wing leanings, and are probably the town's most famous, emblematic punk band. Contrary to Genia Tou Xaous, Gulag moved pretty quickly in their early days. They formed in late 1985 and released their first record but one year after, the "Είσοδος Κινδύνου 0° C" mini album. Interestingly, the band started just as the scene was really, albeit unknowingly, beginning to consolidate its dark punk sound. Significantly, it also implied that Gulag's early sound was probably influenced by the Ex-Humans or Genia Tou Xaous, and although they definitely brought other elements to the table, it is not unlikely that they also intended to build on what older bands from Athens were doing at the time. If Gulag were not, chronologically, a second-generation Greek punk band (after all GTX only released their first album in 1986), the fact that they borrowed key elements from the early Greek punk scene and reached their apex in the early 90's could make such a term relevant when dealing with them. But enough conjectures.



"Είσοδος Κινδύνου 0° C" was a highly promising collection of songs. Despite a rough, almost misty production, it already stressed the band's flair for great composition. While certainly reminiscent of the Ex-Humans' Lp, there was also an All the Madmen vibe to Gulag and I can't help thinking that bands like The Mob, Flowers in the Dustbin or Blyth Power may have had an influence at that stage. There are two reasons for this. First, on a very material level, Gulag contributed directly to the creation of the label that released the 12'', Thessaloniki's Lazy Dog Records, a label that not only went on to release Greek versions of The Mob or Astronauts' records, but also released a DIY compilation tape in 1987 entitled "No dogs fly here" (now, what a pun). Second, from a more analytical perspective, Gulag's sound has the same kind of warmth as the aforementioned UK bands. I have already heard people say that The Mob were "cold-sounding", something that I disagree with completely. Yes, they create a dark atmosphere, but there is an unmistakable human warmth permeating the work of the band, especially in the vocals. I am not saying that Gulag's singer sounded like Mark from The Mob, but that they both conveyed sadness, passion but also sympathy and warmth. That point is crucial when dealing with the Greek punk-rock sound: hopeless and dark it may be, but it is endowed with the warmth of alienated human suffering. And vice-versa. No, just kidding.



Following the release of the mini-album, Gulag toured Europe and played locally with bands as diverse as The Ex, Naftia and Chaos UK. In early 1989, they self-released a highly impressive demo entitled "Είμαστε Μικροί Μα Θα Μεγαλώσουμε" but I won't dwell on this one too much because it is basically a rough version of the album that would be recorded not even a year later, in december 1989. If "In the showyard" didn't exist, I would probably be raving like a madman about this tape because the songs are just fantastic, but since it does, let's just say that Gulag managed to polish and refine their songwriting between this tape release and the album's recording. An Ep, entitled "Big talk", was also released in 1989 but the sound is so rough and distracting, that I am wondering why the band still went for its release...



"In the showyard" has everything you can expect from a good Greek punk-rock record with solid, catchy bass lines, intelligent guitar riffs and leads and subtly dark tunes to die for. But it is actually much more than this. In a MRR review of this Lp from 2012, the writer, among other justified praises, said that it was never "predictable" and that is precisely where the strength of "In the showyard" lies. The range of mood and musical elements demonstrated in the Lp is just breathtaking. The band moves from sadness to optimism, from melancholy to rage, from compliant alienation to antagonistic resistance with ease, seamlessly, the Lp feels like a journey throughout various, but singularly-driven, human emotions. To manage this unpretentious tour de force, Gulag used different musical elements, there is hardcore-punk, punk-rock, postpunk and metal (with a bloody blast beat in one song that should not work but miraculously makes sense... Talent, perhaps?) that all work and blend together to create this Lp. "In the showyard" can appeal to anyone because of its variety and yet feels completely unique. The vocals are particularly impressive and are one of the Lp's strongest points. It is obvious that the singer can actually sing and is able to express different emotions with passion, vibrance and without ever overshadowing the wholeness of the songs.



In terms of influence, Genia Tou Xaous' first Lp is obvious because it also demonstrated varied and yet cohesive, passionate songwriting, but Gulag's sound is much rounder, indeed warmer, not as angular as GTX's. As I mentioned earlier, some All the Madmen bands and other UK anarcho bands could be points of comparison. But for some reason, and that is rather uncommon for me, Gulag's "In the showyard" also reminds me of early Social Distortion (especially in the composition) or even of The Misfits, and mentions of Californian bands like 45 Grave or Christian Death wouldn't be off-topic either. Do not expect some "deathrock", Gulag's sound is rooted in Greek punk, but there is still that dark American vibe floating around, readapted to fit the peculiarities of the context.



There are English translations of the lyrics, which is great to see, and you can tell (in spite of the usual risk of loss of meaning that such an exercise entails) that they fit the moodiness of the music perfectly. Gulag use metaphors and images to convey social hypocrisy, the inability to empathize, our self-created system of frustration and compensation, the fantasy to run away, literally or through drugs or death... There is definitely a lot to them and although the English is broken at times (but then, it never stopped anyone from loving Japanese punk-rock), they are well worth anyone's time and illustrate the band's intent to blend form and content in their work. As for the cover... well I am still struggling on this one to be honest... It depicts a pack of green cats waiting for food (I presume) in a bleak, grey room where two elderly persons seem to be living. It does give a sense of unease and gloom and the cats don't exactly look cute here... Would it have been my first pick for an Lp cover? Probably not.




Following "In the showyard", Gulag did an excellent Ep in 1994 called "Η Άλλη Πλευρά", again for Lazy Dog Records, that was every bit as potent as the first Lp. Unfortunately, their second album 1996's "Πάτα Γερά" told another story that illustrated the danger of being a punk band in the mid-90's. Gulag went "fusion". And I don't mean that they fused genres through great songwriting. No, they just became a "fusion band". I just can't talk about this album because it pains me too much. I hope you understand. The band pretty much split up after this although they still sporadically reform to play some local gigs.      



    


8 comments:

  1. there's an extended version of this album at the label's bandcamp

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The additional tracks on the bandcamp are actually those from the first mini-album. This version of the album was released on cd in the mid 90's I think.

      Delete
  2. Any chance of a Re-up of the Mortal Terror & Aural Corpse LP Please. Rich Bones

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had no idea it was down, sorry. I therefore re-upped it!

      Delete
  3. Great again!
    And what's next ?? Chaotic Dimension's LP mayhaps...
    :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I said "no spoiler"! It will be the Ep though ;)

      Delete
  4. Thanks so much For Mortal Terror/Aural Corpse re-up. Hadn't heard this in a long time. You have an excellent blog here. Some classic pieces of punk. Hope you keep going as many others seem to be dropping like flies. Cheers for the music & good luck for the future. Rich Bones. KTF

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks a lot mate. I'll keep going as long as I have something interesting to say about all those great records, so I'm not going away anytime soon.
      Cheers
      Romain

      Delete