Tuesday, 6 September 2016

The PDX-Files: Atrocious Madness "Spectres of Holocaust" Ep, 2001

Is the notion of "acquired taste" compatible with punk-rock? And should it be? It is a tough one if you really think about it because punk is meant to be direct and accessible, not fancy and out of reach and requiring the listener to have a specific musical background in order to relate to it. The punk ideal is contrary to this: angry kid listens to spontaneous angry music made by other angry kids and the magic just happens. But then, we have all been confronted with bands we disliked or did not understand at first but grew to really enjoy once the effort to really engage with the music was made. Such a new connection is only made possible through knowledge, context and perspective. Does such a stance, that I deem necessary if you really want to understand what is going on, jeopardize the inherent directness of punk music? Well, it only does if you believe that the sensate approach has to exclude the cerebral one, which I certainly don't. If anything, they work very well with each other and even have to if you want to literally make sense of things. Besides, I would argue that even the senses are shaped by the sum of punk knowledge that you accumulate throughout the years. When in 2002 I only heard sloppy noisy punk with unpalatable drumming and angry vocals, in 2016 I listen to tasteful crasher crust with referential drumming that couldn't have been done any other way. I (painfully) enjoyed it then and I enjoy it now. The two level of appreciation are not unreconcilable.

Which brings me to Atrocious Madness... I have to admit that I was more than a little confused (pun intended) when I first listened to that one. I got it from Missing the Point, that Brighton distro run by Jules from Substandard, in 2002, pretty much when it came out. I think it was the first time I was ordering from a foreign distro so I was definitely a little nervous that the bills I had stashed in the envelop would get lost or detected by a money-grabbing postie. I remember there were also the Disaffect cd discography as well as Coitus' "Necrocomical" - among others - on that order, since both of them were on my "bands-I-have-to-get-records-from-at-some-point" list (the charming forefather of my Discogs wantlist). I have to be honest, upon first hearing them, I thought Coitus sounded very metally indeed and Disaffect almost too fast at times. But I was completely unprepared for Atrocious Madness. I had picked that one because they had a super cool name and I thought they were having a go at Madness which I also thought were atrocious (true story) and because I could see they had used the Crass font for the title of the Ep (there were little pictures on the distro list). I was expecting something intense, clearly. I think the description was along the line of "Confuse/Chaos UK/Disorder-style noise from Portland" and since the Bristol bands had been favourite of mine for a couple of years (although I was still unaware of "Short sharp shock" and "Under the scalpel blade" at that time and only had cheap Anagram "Single collections" from both bands), I felt - wrongly - that I was ready for that "noise". I had heard Confuse once on a local radio show done by old-timers that was broadcast in the Paris region but I don't think I remembered it well, especially since the reception was horrific where I lived and I was listening to the show on a derelict radio alarm clock.

So when I first played "Spectres of Holocaust", I was at a loss for words. It was apparently spinning at the right speed, there was no dust to be seen and yet... What a mess. And it was not just me either as I remember reading an early 00's AM interview in a zine a while back (it may have been Cancer from Sweden) where Frank explained that they did empty a few venues during their European tour, with people genuinely thinking that the band could not play in the least and were just making a racket on stage. It took me a whole year to start to understand what was really going on and buying Confuse's "New god, old god" bootleg in 2003 certainly helped (I still have to listen to the full live side to this day...), as it was then that I noticed that they had a song called "Atrocious madness" (so Madness were not that atrocious after all...), and reading an issue of Punk Shocker in which he reviewed almost only Japanese punk records (he had brought back a lorryload of them from Japan) was also enlightening and a fantastic way to add a lot of entries on my "bands-I-have-to-get-records-from-at-some-point" list.  

But anyway, you will be reading lengthy accounts of my personal punk-rock quest in my soon-to-be-published grandiose autobiography so I will leave the boring recollections here. Atrocious Madness were a PDX band active in the late 90's and early 00's. The original line-up had Joel (from Axiom and later Hellshock) on the drums, Chanel and Saira (who used to sing for Detestation) on the guitars, Rodney on the bass and Frank (who also sang for Final Massakre at the time) on vocals. It is a good thing my AM experience was through "Spectres of Holocaust" and not "Visions of Hell", their first Ep from 1998. As Chanel reveals about the inception of the band in an interview for a zine called UGZ from Oakland (an interesting read you can find here): "Saira and I decided we didn't need to learn how to play guitar before we made a band". And let's just say that it pretty much shows on the first Ep, not that there is anything wrong with it, but I am sure 19 year-old me would have been cruelly defeated by the wall of distortion and feedback. "Visions of Hell" is probably AM's record that is the closest to 80's Japanese noisy hardcore, it is shambolic, intense and all over the place, with the compulsory gratuitous referential yells in some chorus (something that I always really liked for some reason).

The term "noisepunk" would be the most likely term to be used in order to characterize this first Ep today, however it may be slightly misconstrued and anachronistic since I don't remember seeing the actual "noisepunk" tag before The Wankys. I could be wrong, I am not the ultimate "noise freak", however, it is clear that the band said they were influenced by "noisecore" and a knowledgable person like Stuart Schrader refers to it as "noise-core". Perhaps "noisepunk" was created in order to disambiguate "Confuse/Gai noisecore" and "Sore Throat noisecore" or it might just be a generational thing as well that has to do with the internet culture. But words have meanings and I like meaning, so just to decrease opacity I will refer to "Visions of Hell" as a noisepunk record. From what I can gather, that subgenre, assuming it operated as such before 2.0, has very much been a contextualized Japanese thing for a long time. Most, if not all, bands playing Confuse-driven hardcore were from Japan. Of course, it does not mean that these bands had no influence on foreign bands, after all Extreme Noise Terror reworked a Kuro song, Warfear was going for a "Gai-gone-crust" sound in 1989 and I am sure that a lot of hardcore bands worldwide took influences from the Japanese noisy sound (MELI, Total Kaoz, Heresy...), but not so much as to strive for its recreation and make a genre out of it. To be sure, there were 90's Japanese bands relying heavily on the sound of their 80's predecessors, but I cannot really think of many 90's bands outside of Japan doing the same (Sarcasm does come to mind but only just). I suppose that, if it is safe to assume that Japanese noisy bands were confined to an audience of pre-internet punk nerds, Disorder and Chaos UK were definitely not, and yet, even if they never ceased to be very influential, it was not really that "fast distorted noise" aspect of their sound that people used as an influence. The way a band is perceived changes through time and space and you can be influenced by the same band in very different ways.

All this to say that AM were probably one of the first bands to be not only openly influenced by Confuse/Gai/Kuro/State Children and so on, but also to openly try to replicate the sound and some of the aesthetics ("openly" being a key word here). Well, one of the first non-Japanese bands that is. The 90's saw the rise of a new wave of bands in Japan that would prove to be game-changers and shape a new genre: crasher crust. And that is where things get fascinating as much as complicated (but you cannot really have one without the other, right?). In the early 90's, a new generation of bands like Gloom, Collapse Society or Life (and Acid to some extent) were reviving the noise of the aforementioned 80's greats through the infusion of crust music, thus creating a new subgenre in the process, albeit unintentionally. These bands took the distortion, the fuzz, the drumming style and the feel of insanity of 80's Japanese noisepunk and blended it with the gruff power and the fast impact of late 80's/early 90's crust. The chain of influence gets a little mind-blowing if you think about it. From Chaos UK and Disorder influencing Gai and Confuse, who in turn influenced ENT and Sore Throat - themselves also influenced by Chaos UK and Disorder - who influenced Gloom who were equally influenced by Confuse (at this point, a diagram would have come handy). And Gloom, of course, you probably saw that coming is probably our most important point of comparison when trying to understand "Spectres of Holocaust". Atrocious Madness were PDX answer to Gloom and that 90's Japanese crust wave, and a perceptive punk will have noticed that the Atrocious Madness font is exactly the same as Iconoclast's (another very useful, if less obvious, band when trying to understand AM).

AM don't sound "just like" Gloom though, you can definitely tell that they were not a Japanese band if you care to listen, but the Gloom intention is striking.  From the drumming with these specifically exaggerated drum rolls, the use of the crash cymbals, the distortion, the solos, the crazy-but-furious vocal style to the use of the doubled Crass Records circle common to both bands (and let me tell you that I am a huge sucker for that and it makes my heart beat a little faster when I see one), the connection between the two bands is strong. And it makes sense that crasher crust's high degree of referentiality would appeal to PDX punx: it is like a rallying cry for punk nerds. AM relied as much on references in their music as they do in their aesthetics : in the "distorted wavy bird logo" with the Flux peace and equality symbols, the use of The Mob's dove, the mention of cruise missiles and trident in the "Nuclear violence" Ep, the highly stylized cut'n'paste artwork, the selection of skulls... As I said in the previous entry: top music and gratifying fanservice.

"Spectres of Holocaust" is my favourite EM's Ep as I feel it is their most accomplished. From 2000 on, Hopper (from Detestation, Final Massakre and so on) had replaced Saira on second guitar, and while the Saira/Chanel pair was all about "Distort PDX by way of Kyushu", the Chanel/Hopper tag team works differently, one guitar keeping the piercing, fuzzy distortion to the max while the other plays early Doom riffs with a proper raw sound. Playing crasher crust with two guitars must be quite challenging and I cannot think of many bands who gave it a go but it does work well on "Spectres of Holocaust" (especially after the sixth consecutive listen). The Ep was recorded by Toni from Harum-Scarum and released on Wicked Witch in 2001. Arguably, the "Total control" Lp from 2002 is the band's best achievement (it is my favourite) and a record that manages to be extremely intense (almost too much so, it took me a long time to be able to listen to all of it at full volume and my neighbours are still struggling to do so, even after all these years), very tight in the delivery and precise in the songwriting. Not an easy feat for this subgenre (you may add as many "sub" prefix as you feel is necessary).

The lyrics of Atrocious Madness are also what the band was renowned for. Love them or hate them, but they were one of a kind. While some of them could be dismissed as conspiracy theories, ever more popular since the rise of web 2.0 and 9/11, most of them deal with secret history, government manipulation, military experimentation, mind control, secret societies, the collusion of politics and economics on a global scale... AM's words not only describe the making of a dystopian future, they identify the 20th century as THE dystopia. In terms of the relation between form and content, the subject matters are actually very fitting: intense, desperate, paranoid, distorted music conveying the sense of an insane modernity that has been distorted and forced upon us. Distorted music for distorted minds, I like the idea. An atrocious madness indeed. In "Spectres of Holocaust", among other things, the lyrics focused on the ties between the US government and nazi scientists, militaries and dignitaries after WWII. You've also got pharmaceutical companies toying with the general public, the generalization of martial law, the education system creating neurotic citizens and government techniques for mind control. AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

If you need to remember one thing from my usual rambling nonsense, it would be this: Madness are alright really and throwing some silly dance moves to "Our house" can be proper fun.


  1. Thanks for this post; I've been wanting to revisit this band. I dutifully bought the EPs as they came out, but didn't care for them much at the time (although I appreciated the artwork and general aesthetic). I remember being rather...confused (sorry) by the comparisons to Confuse. Certainly I could hear the "noisepunk" lineage/influence and knew what people meant when they said a band was "influenced by Confuse," but to my ears, Confuse was doing something very different. Let's just say that I know every Confuse song by heart -- amidst all the cacophony, were they not essentially writing pop songs? -- but I can't recall how a single Atrocious Madness song goes (and I would say the same thing about crasher crust bands like Gloom).

    This is not necessarily a knock on bands like Atrocious Madness and Gloom, though. True, when I was younger, I would have said that the comparative lack of catchy hooks indicated poor songwriting, which ultimately meant the music was disposable. But nowadays, I like to think that I have a broader understanding of what makes music "good," and I'm more willing to listen to bands that don't write catchy "songs" so much as focus on texture, tone, atmosphere, and so forth.

    That said, I like Atrocious Madness now more than I did 15 years ago, but I'm still not wild about them.

    1. Reading several AM itws, I realize that Frank was as confused (yep, again) about the Confuse comparison as anyone equipped with decent ears would normally be. They never claimed they strove for the Confuse sound really, I guess it is just people being lazy or not being able to go past the distortion.

      Since you mentioned Confuse's poppy side, I actually listened to their records again through that songwriting prism and, while I must admit that I don't hear it all the time, there are some songs that I can definitely imagine being played in full-on 77 mode by Ratsia or 013. Which makes sense I suppose, since even bands like Chaos UK and Disorder had a solid 77 background if you really care to listen to the riffs and the song structures. And poppy or not, Confuse were super catchy and wrote proper thoughtful songs. And groovy, man.

      But yes, Gloom or AM were another kind of animal, more sound or mood-oriented than song-oriented. Possibly because of the crust influence.

  2. Thanks for the background on AM. I didn't know a lot of that, and I was a big fan of them. This is one of those instances that I know I didn't forget. I simply never knew. To piggy-back on the last post, and likely because of my experimental music background, I love punk like this because I don't think of it in terms of songs. This is about concept. The is about the execution of a concept. Why don't they need to know how to play their instruments? Because it isn't even about being simple, accessible punk, but because this is a punk animal of a different subset. Still simple in some of its parts, but complex in its overall makeup. The conversation makes me think of the likes of Bone Awl. Behemoths built of details. I have doubts whether bands like AM will historically be treated kindly, and if so, that history will lack justice.

    1. Yes, I really agree. The conceptual intent is crucial I suppose.

      Honestly, I really don't think AM will be remembered with much affection (what with them being a 90's band and not taking the over-the-top blown out distorted path). Which is unfair, since they were possibly the first band to take crasher crust out of Japan and they certainly played an important role in popularizing the genre and generating interest in noisy Japanese punk. Now, with the internet, everyone and their mom can listen to all the obscurest Japanese beasts but at the time, I am guessing it was much harder to connect with people on a crasher crust basis. My favourite thing about AM is how they worked on form and content. I think it was very clever of them to be themed around political paranoia, government lies, mass manipulation and so on and it gives that much more meaning to the music and cast new light upon the possibility that the subgenre can offer.