Contrary to "Whispers", which was a record that deeply informed my conception of punk when I bought it in the early 00's, I actually got "Iron Columns" relatively recently although it is a more recent work. Truth be told, I have pretty much ignored this record for a long time. I wish I had a good excuse but I don't. I even remembered seeing copies of "Iron Columns" floating on distros 10-15 years ago and getting average "neocrust" Lp's instead that I promptly sold when the trend died. What a lack of insight... The sad thing is that I cannot have been the only one to dismiss this wonderful compilation as copies go nowadays for a mere tenner on discogs, which only confirms that there is no correlation between quality and monetary worth in our growingly trendifying punk economy. Our attention span is just becoming shorter and we are lazily being subjected to the appeal of novelty.
"Iron Columns" is both similar and very different to "Whispers". While the Skuld record can be seen as the definite snapshot of early 90's European anarchocrust, "Iron Columns" embodies the second part of that decade. The focus is proudly international as well but from an American perspective this time (quick thinkers would say it means "more hardcore, less crust" although it is not as simple). IC is a stunning compilation on all levels that epitomizes the level of dedication and faith in punk as being more than music that often characterized the 90's. In terms of genre, the scope of the compilation is impressive: from crust, to scandicore, old-school and modern anarchopunk, fastcore, D-Beat and even streetpunk. I am an obsessive bastard, I'll be the first to admit that I tend to focus too much on punk niches, and I am sometimes suspicious when I am being told that a compilation is very diverse. It is not so much variety I am wary of, but the lack of cohesiveness and direction. Few records are as painful to listen to as compilations without a clear focus and purpose that include bands from all over the punk spectrum that have nothing in common but their name on the backcover. And to be perfectly honest, I can get this patchwork feeling even with bands belonging to the same subgenre actually. The very essence of a punk compilation is to offer, literally and figuratively, a meaningful example of punk collaboration driven by the same passion even when they sound very different. If it is merely a collection of new songs, then it is just a label sampler, there is nothing necessarily wrong with it, but don't expect me to listen to it more than once (especially in 2016).
But back to IC. The object itself is breathtaking. It looks fantastic and, like for "Whispers", I can only imagine the amount of time and work that it necessitated. IC is a gatefold with a thick, 12'' size, glossy booklet with lyrics and art from the bands as well as political texts. This is one of the indisputable strengths of IC: its political dimension. In "Whispers", the politics appeared in the bands' lyrics and in the untold DIY implications in the realization of such a project. With IC, you also have explicit, detailed and creative anarchist writing as well that reminds me strongly of the political and personal zines that abounded in the 90's and early 00's (before it all got too inward focused or sloganeering). What I particularly enjoy is that the texts, content notwithstanding, also look nice and, well, punk, and that is an idea that informs the whole of "Iron Columns". Feminism, sexism and gender roles are central themes here and are tackled in different ways. You can find at the beginning and the end a montage of short pieces of articles about women revolutionaries, lore and history among other things, very different pieces of information aiming at giving a meaningful and cohesive picture of an alternative "herstory". You also have a personal text about the pervasive sexism in the punk scene written by Charlene from Mind Control. Prison struggle is the other main theme of IC and there are two letters from anarchist prisoners at the end of the booklet as well as an introductory text by Raze the Walls, a prisoner support group. The record is unashamedly anarchist and the label wrote a text stressing the political motivation behind such a project and why the phrase "iron columns" is meaningful metaphorically to describe our oppressive social relations and historically as well (the famous "columna de hierro" of the Spanish civil war).
"Iron Columns" was released in 1999 on Mind Control, an Austin-based label run by Jack Control (from Enormous Door studio, Severed Head of State and WB2D) that put out a couple of very good records between 1991 and 2003 from Antischism, Masskontroll or Warcollapse to name but a few. And as the label logo unambiguously states: "Mind Control is agit-prop for social revolution". Ambitious, naive perhaps, but I'd rather have that than the fake cynicism that is so prevalent today. There are 39 songs for 28 bands on IC. Let's 'ave it.
- Antiproduct: along with Aus-Rotten, the band that exemplified 90's US anarchopunk and that really spoke to me. I have always loved them to death, whatever they did, they did well. Intense, energetic, clever and passionate fast anarchopunk with dual male/female vocals that sound angry but also determined to do something. This song was recorded in 1997 and the production is just perfect, aptly bass-driven and super dynamic (that was before the genre was coopted and overproduced into meaninglessness by streetpunk bands), two years before the more intricate Lp that saw Antiproduct toying with emocore influences to great effect, not unlike Unhinged.
- Defiance: a band that is commonly associated to the streetpunk scene but was really an anarchopunk band to begin with (well, if people had kept in mind that anarchopunk is not an actual genre but rather a set of values and a way of doing things, things like that wouldn't have happened...). I like Defiance and their updated version of UK82 punk, although I sometimes feel they tend to overdo it at times, thus lacking the sloppy snottiness of the original bands. This is a drinking song and a cover of The Sex Aids, a Vice Squad side-project.
- Obnoxious: a Parisian band on such a compilation is surprising but there you go... Fast and sloppy direct 90's hardcore punk with a typical British feel, not unlike Truth Decay or In The Shit maybe. It does the job.
- Hall Keft: I know next to nothing about this Swedish lot but this song absolutely smokes. This is an intense and pissed cover of Missbrukarna played with a raw hardcore power reminiscent of Shitlickers and early Anti-Cimex. I want more.
- Cress: two songs from the superb Cress. I know that the drum machine is usually a deterrent in punk-rock (and being French, I know what I am talking about as "drum-machine punk-rock" is our sadly our national specialty) but this lot always knew how to pull it. Cress is a potent punky blend of many things: I can hear two schools of 80's UK anarchopunk, the more melancholy and dirgy sound of bands like The Mob or Vex along with the protocrust crunchy mid-paced anthems of Antisect and Anti-System, a Killing Joke element as well, a psychedelic, incantatory component too, not so far from Smartpils or Bad Influence and a cold, synth-driven element reminiscent of European cold-wave. Unique band with great-looking visuals and top lyrics.
- La Aferra: I wish I were more familiar with La Aferra because this song is one of the absolute highlights of "Iron Columns". Heavy, mid-tempo, dark punk-rock with a posthardcore, almost progressive, feel, a synth and dual male/female vocals. The songwriting is solid and distinctively Polish in terms of witty and tuneful arrangements. La Aferra was a prolific band apparently but I have only listened to a few other recordings from them. Brilliant music.
- Extinction of Mankind: I am not going to lie here, I pretty much bought "Iron Columns" in order to have these two EOM songs. I suspect these were recorded during the same session as the "Scars of mankind" Ep and are therefore the last with Mass on guitar. I already mentioned that I am a huge sucker for his guitar sound when I review the aforementioned Ep: it is heavy and yet eerie, dark and yet groovy with a thick and slimy texture, probably the closest to Lippy's playing in Antisect circa 1987. "Remnants of war" and "Won't be broken" rate as two of the best EOM songs ever, the only letdown being the drums that would have deserved a heavier sound. My personal winners.
- Black Kronstadt: I never could get into Iskra, not for a lack of trying. Black Kronstadt are mostly remembered as a pre-Iskra band and I, for one, am much more comfortable with them. Epic, apocalyptic blackmetal-infused crusty anarchopunk with male/female vocals and radical anarchist politics. Exactly what I expect from this lot in the 90's. I like it.
- Fucking Mass Destruction: two songs from this Memphis band that I know nothing about. We are not far from powerviolence here, with a distinct American sound. Is it good PV? I think it works well on this compilation because the songs are intense and punk enough. They make sense basically.
- DDI: awesome Italian hardcore from Pavia with catchy hooks and dynamic male/female vocals. It is exactly what you want from Italian hardcore: intense, furious and anthemic. They remind me of Infezione, Contrazione (for the mid-paced moments) and even Franti (especially on some the eeriest parts) with a 90's feel. The third song is not that good (sounds like a horrible fiesta punk band) but the first two are brilliant. DDI had Milan from Agipunk in its ranks.
- Ebola: the Northern England take on 90's powerviolence I guess? I like Ebola probably more for their message and their aesthetics than for their music that corresponds to a genre I am not really familiar with (though I really enjoy the first Lp... to be honest because it is punkier). This is heavy and dark anarcho hardcore with harsh male/female vocals and manic tempo changes but there are some good tunes in the guitar to remind you that it was a post-One By One band. The song "Half human" is great here and fits perfectly with the spirit of "Iron Columns".
- Terminal Disgust: another band I know little about. I like the song though. Reminds me of Armed Relapse and The Pist: direct, beefy and fast anarchopunk with angry vocals you can understand.
- Força Macabra: one of the most beloved oddities of the punk world. A Finnish band singing in Portuguese and emulating 80's Brazilian thrashy hardcore. I love the idea, I relate to the passion totally. Expect raw but accurate and energetic metallic hardore punk along the lines of Armagedom and Lobotomia.
- Krigshot: I am not sure if I actually like Krigshot or find them ridiculous. I honestly don't. There are days when their songs sound insanely good for their outrageously fast take on classic Swedish hardcore and others when I feel they paradoxically lack the necessary aggression of Swedish hardcore because everything is diluted in manic speed. Early Krigshot was still very impressive and the first time I listened to "Orebro-mangel" I was flabbergasted (and I still am to some extent). Members of Nasum and Meanwhile playing 3 songs in 90 seconds of Mob 47 at the wrong speed (and yes, they cover "Krigshot" by Mob 47 here).
- Counterblast: a regular guest at Terminal Sound Nuisance offering a very interesting song, recorded in 1996 just after "Balance of pain". This is demented, angry, dark, anguished, inventive, progressive crust music at its very best, like Neurosis meeting Axegrinder and Zygote in the dark Swedish woods. It doesn't get much better than this song, "Activate", in the genre.
- Liberate: a band whose name I have seen countless times but that I don't really know that well. This is classic Japanese hardcore in the Burning Spirit vein: high-energy, tight, anthemic and triumphant hardcore punk with epic guitar solos and fist-raising singalong chorus. I am hardly the expert in that subgenre but I can tell it is good.
Boycot: pretty standard mid-90's anarchopunk from the Netherlands with snotty vocals and cool lyrics. I guess Boycot always sounded a little too generic for me to really get into their music but the three songs here feel fresh and genuine. And you gotta love the "Only stupid bastards help Epitaph" slogan. Sooooooooooooo 90's, right?
- Armistice: I love Armistice as they proudly carried, along with Resist and Exist, the banner of that mid-late 80's SoCal anarcho/OC crust sound that I enjoy so much. Metallic, angry anarcho hardcore-punk reminiscent of Final Conflict, Bitter End and Glycine Max. The guitar sound is particularly good here and owes a lot to Jeff Harp. And I love the Winnie the Poo logo as well. Cheesy crust.
- Scum of Society: this lot already did a stint at Terminal Sound Nuisance a few years ago. Coming from Italy, SOS played raw crusty punk with a great anarcho squat feel. Sloppy but utterly lovable and genuine.
- The Unseen: yes, The Unseen, that iconic streetpunk band from the late 90's. And why not? After all, there were some great songs on "Lower-class crucifixion" and some good political lyrics too. The development of separated punk sub-scenes has largely made such crossovers unlikely today (unless the compilation is local) but I like the idea. The song is alright as well, quite raw and relatively catchy, it fits. Validated.
- Los Crudos: yes, Los Crudos, that highly influential hardcore band that took the 90's by storm. One minute of unadulterated intensity and anger. I don't often listen to Los Crudos but whenever I do, I am always impressed with the level of passion they put in their music. Inspirational hardcore to be sure.
- Dezerter: yes, Dezerter, that legendary 80's Polish band. I am not sure when these two songs were recorded but my bet is 1996. Classic Polish punk-rock, dark and tuneful with catchy chorus, that you can't possibly mistake with any other style. I dare anyone not to sing along to the re-recording of their anthem "XXI wiek". Yes, it is THAT catchy.
- Scatha: my favourite band from the Disaffect/Sedition/Scatha trinity, not a light statement since the three bands are among my favourite 90's bands ever. Not unlike Counterblast or Panikos, Scatha took crust to another place, another dimension, reworked it in order to shape a soundscape and an identity of their own. A difficult band to describe Scatha. Fantastic tribal drum section that sounds inventive but is meaning-driven and echoes with the band's essence as a whole instead of being merely a show of skills; a heavy, world-creating, textured sound with innovative guitar riffing and a groovy bass; a songwriting that organically conveys a whole set of different moods; and vocals that are harsh, desperate but also outraged and beautiful. Scatha aimed at transcribing traditional Celtic culture into heavy punk music and its aesthetics, an incredibly difficult task with the risk of falling into lame, clichéd folklore, but they pulled it superbly. "Necrophobia" is a song about the modern and perverse vision of death and how it differs from the old Celtic notion of rebirth. Unique stuff.
- Disclose: total D-beat raw noise punk attack! This was Disclose in their early Sweden-loving stage with Kawakami using double-track vocals. Ultimate Discharge love.
- Brother Inferior: classic US anarchopunk with that typical 90's sound that never really got the credit they deserved, but maybe coming from Tulsa did not help. Angry and intense punk music with smart lyrics and tuneful guitar leads that set them a little ahead of their time. Do I have a soft spot for Brother Inferior? Yes, I do.
- Sbitch: a band I know virtually nothing about. Sbitch were from Austin and played fast and thrashy anarchopunk with raspy female vocals, not unlike Antischism or Disaffect maybe. I like the imagery and listening closely to their song makes me want to dig more into their solid and intense angry 90's anarcho sound.
- Sharpeville: one of the highlights of "Iron Columns" and a band that no one seems to remember. Sharpeville were from Finland and played heavy, dark and crusty hardcore with a gloomy and demented feel that was incredible. The multilayered vocals confer their music a real sense of raging insanity and creepiness that I rarely heard in other bands. This fast song is quite thinly recorded but their 2000 Lp is an unsung classic that got unfairly dumped in the HHIG bandwagon. "War is stupid and unfair" is actually a clever song (Sharpeville could really write) about the everyday class war. A rather unique band that will eventually come back to Terminal Sound Nuisance.
- Mâkhi: the most obscure band on the compilation and for good reason as these are the only two songs they ever recorded. Mâkhi were from Austin and I suppose that, unless you were around in the late 90's, they will not ring a bell. Well, let's take a look at the line-up: Kelly Halliburton, Chris Pfeffer, Jack Control and Todd Burdette. Sounds familiar, right? Mâkhi were basically Severed Head of State under another name. I guess you could say that the two songs are rough versions of what SHOS did better later on: heavy and pummeling music blending American and Japanese hardcore.
As I mentioned, "Iron Columns" goes nowadays for a tenner. So instead of buying a "raw punk" Lp that no one will care about in two years, do yourself a favour and give this genuine and varied anarchopunk compilation a chance, if only for its cultural worth as a testimony of another time in punk history.