Monday, 21 October 2019

Sonatas in D Major (part 8): Deathcharge "Plastic smiles" single-sided Ep, 2001

It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that we now leave the 90's, a decade often referred to in academic circles as, and I quote, "the golden age and Garden of Eden of the d-beat style, a time period that cemented the foundations of the epistemological tropes that define, aesthetically and critically, this rich cultural praxis". In the 90's, Dis-oriented hardcore was to punk-rock what costuming was to professional wrestling: an essential part of it, often mocked, sometimes awkward, but nevertheless crucial and looked at with nostalgia in retrospect. Did the D survive the new millennium?

To answer that vital question, I chose to invite an old friend on Terminal Sound Nuisance: Deathcharge. If you remember, about three years ago, I wrote about their self-titled 2005 Ep in a series called The PDX-Files (now that was a good name, wasn't it?) so I will do my best not to repeat myself too much and will skip the presentations. That '05 Ep however is not a d-beat record. It is a brilliant and rather unique slice of dark punk music evoking many personal favourites like (late) Antisect, Bad Influence, Smartpils and of course (mid-80's) Discharge but it cannot be defined as a d-beat record. One could venture that Deathcharge in the mid to late 00's probably played an important part in making postpunk or goth punk popular again locally, and even nationally when you consider how influential Portland is. I read somewhere that someone once coined the term g-beat (with "g" for goth) to name the sound that characterized this new wave of bands that suddenly all pretended to be lifelong fans of Siouxsie, Sisters of Mercy and X-Mal Deutschland. I am sure the author thought it was very clever but "g-beat" did not stick and I think we're better off without it. The hashtagification of punk is depressing enough as it is.

But let's get back to Deathcharge. Although they are now undeniably a goth punk band, and a very good one, Deathcharge saw the blinding light of domesday in 1997 as a d-beat band. Adam (on vocals) and Roger (on drums) were formerly in Masskontroll so I suppose the idea behind Deathcharge was to take it down a notch and play old-fashioned Discharge-loving hardcore punk combining the acute referentiality allowed and imposed by the genre with a tasteful raw punk styling. Was it meant to be a proper band or just a side-project? From what I read in an interview, I think it depended on who you asked. The first Ep, A Look at Their Sorrow, was released in 1997, probably not long after the band started playing, and, as announced, it is a thoroughly enjoyable record of referential dischargy hardcore. With song titles like "Fear their power", "A look at their sorrow" and "The price of violence", the riffs and prosody openly borrowed from Discharge, without even mentioning the very name "Deathcharge", the cover depicting a dove impressed over pictures of men, women and children hibakushas or the familiar font used for the lyrics, the worship detector went through the roof. In terms of production, A Look at Their Sorrow is a wonderful instance of raw hardcore punk done well (despite some sloppy bits) as it sounds energetic, angry and very direct. You could say it ticks all the right boxes and the music is reminiscent of UK bands like Antisect, Hellkrusher or Anti-System and Swedish fanatics like Dischange or Discard but it is a crust-free work. I suppose Deathcharge was the first American d-beat band. Of course, there were always a lot of Discharge-infuenced band in the States, from Iconoclast, to Final Conflict, Diatribe, Nausea or Against, and of course all the 90's crust punk bands like Disrupt and Destroy! or Aus-Rotten's very dischargy early days. For the density of its Discharge references, its general aesthetics and its "just like" approach of Discharge-oriented hardcore, Deathcharge can therefore be said to be the first genuine, proper d-beat band in the United States of America. A round of applause please. Of course, 1997 is arguably a little late if you consider what happened in Sweden, England or Japan, but being French I am in no position to condescend.  

After the Ep, the band sadly went dormant for a few years and woke up at the start of a crucial era for US hardcore punk: the Bush era. Between 2000 and 2008, George W. Bush was everybody's most hated figure and vehement anti-Bush lyrics and visuals spread across all the US punk scenes. Bush was without a doubt the Reagan of the 00's and I am sure that his bloody warmongering reign fueled the anger of many a young punk and prompted them to get involved in bands or in political activities. I mean, even Forward from Japan, definitely not the band you would suspect to be very politically-minded, had a song called "Fuck Bush!!". Plastic Smiles was Deathcharge's second offering and it had the new president on the cover with a target on his head and that was even before the start of the Iraqi war. This Ep is a single-sided Ep, not a format that I am particularly fond of, and lasts only four minutes. Four good minutes, it is true, but still. My only complaint about Plastic Smiles is how short it is. On this 2001 recording, the sound of the band shifts significantly as the songwriting becomes even more referential and restrictive. Not satisfied with just playing Discharge-loving hardcore punk, Deathcharge went for Realities of War-loving hardcore punk, meaning that the main, if not the sole, influence on Plastic Smiles, along with Bush's despicable character, is Discharge's first Ep. For real.

In 2001, that was a daring move. After all, throughout the 90's, the notion of d-beat and the expectations attached to it revolved almost exclusively around Why, Hear Nothing and Never Again. Sometimes, Fight Back and Decontrol were hinted at, but marginally. On the whole, you either tried to replicate Why's raw hardcore aggression or Hear Nothing's massive power. I am sure people were into Realities of War's rawer and punkier sound but, because the first Discharge offering only had one song using the d-beat drum pattern, the so-called 90's d-beat bands did not rely on it and favoured what Discharge systematized progressively on their following records, the generic trademark Discharge song was d-beat's reference point. Deathcharge literally went back to the roots with Plastic Smiles. It is basically "pre-d-beat" Discharge worship which implies that Deathcharge here do not sound so much like a "d-beat band" as we've come to expect, but like the absolute "Discharge-loving band". It is a Discharge-loving record with a limited use of d-beat drumming, opting instead with the heavy tribal mid-paced beats that characterized Realities of War. You can find re-interpretations of "Realities of war", "They declare it", "But after the gig" and "Society's victim" which, ironically, was fairly original at the time. The production is again very raw, with a couple of minor mishaps, and it sounds like it was recorded fast and loud which confers a bare directness and punk spontaneity to the songs, which is a little paradoxical since the songs were written to intentionally sound as close to Realities of War as possible and there is technically not much room for free songwriting with such a romantic template. 

I suppose Plastic Smiles appeals more to Discharge fanatics than to d-beat fanatics. I guess I have a foot in both camps, but since I love my d-beat with a very string Discharge flavour, I have a very soft spot for Deathcharge. Plastic Smiles is not a d-beat classic in the same sense as Disfear or Disaster or Meanwhile, but not only is it one of the most accurate "just like Discharge" bands that the punk scene ever produced, but they outplay everyone by restricting even more the Discharge field with an exclusive focus on Realities of War and by doing a Discharge-loving record containing marginal portions of d-beat drumming. Deathcharge just outnerded the Dis game. 

Perhaps the band will reissue their early works one day and perhaps there are some lovely demo recordings hiding somewhere (a full Lp of "just like Fight Back" hardcore punk?). Like A Look at Their Sorrow, Plastic Smiles was originally released on Distruction Records and distributed by After the Bomb Records, the latter being also responsible with Ep's from Religious War and Holokaust.

And fuck Bush.             

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