Sunday 27 October 2019

Sonatas in D Major (part 9): Funeral "Cry of State Desperation" Ep, 2003

And while we're at it, let's stick in Portland for a bit longer then. I have never been there but the name of this town sounds so familiar that it feels like it is located, not unlike the final bloodbath, just around the corner. It is definitely not, though, and while I am quite conversant with punk music from Portland and have proven myself in hard-fought argumentative battles over the worth of Tragedy (a fairly common initiation ritual for young punks in the early 00's), I am literally clueless about the town of Portland itself. To me, it is synonymous with quality punk-rock that still tends to be overhyped, and therefore I have trouble imagining that actual persons that are not even punks also live there. The idea that someone could live in Portland and yet be unaware of the existence of Hellshock is something of a nonsensical aberration. I mean, what's the point of living there then? It cannot be just for the shit weather, right?     

The early noughties were a prolific time for the Portland hardcore punk scene and was home to some of the most wanted - or so they seemed judging from the hyperbolic qualifiers that often preceded them - bands around at the time. Bands like Remains of the Day, Tragedy, Atrocious Madness, Hellshock or Blood Spit Nights made a lasting impression on many young crusty punks like myself as they sounded both new and modern and yet grounded in the classic stuff (that was how I saw it then anyway). And that's without even mentioning studs'n'spikes-free bands like The Observers or The Exploding Hearts that were also active although then, though to be fair, they were extremely unappealing to me with their checkered shirts and their sensitive tunes. I craved to be beaten hard with relentless and tasteful hardcore punk that made me feel cool and Portland provided exactly that. I was aware that this geographical location gave bands an edge, if not a prestige, and there was certainly an element of trend to it as they were usually talked about and promoted in positive terms, sought-after and visible. Let's face it, not all those early 00's PDX bands were amazing, some were just decent small local bands, and I now realize how important and foundational the 90's were to the development of the aforementioned bands, but of course, when you're younger, you just have to feel that you are living in an exceptional time, in a good or bad way, otherwise it all becomes a bit pointless and you become aware of the repetitive circularity that make up our cultural practice and you do not really want to think about that when you are 20.

Funeral was one of many PDX bands active in the early 00's and I have had this Ep since it came out. Truth be told, it never was a favourite of mine, especially compared to other heavier and tighter PDX formations around then or to the so-called stenchcore revival bands that were about to rise. Still, Cry of State Desperation is an Ep I have always enjoyed listening to and that I have grown to appreciate more and more. I suppose you could compare Funeral to another band that got invited to Terminal Sound Nuisance in The PDX-Files, Final Massakre. Like Funeral, Final Massakre was a referential hardcore d-beat side-project that was not meant to become "the main band" but that presumably everyone enjoyed doing because it was fun to play this kind of music with mates. And because Portland appears to be a small place with overactive punx, there is one member in common between Final Massakre and Funeral, namely Frank (then also yelling in a microphone in the great Atrocious Madness, and later on the distorted 6-strings in Lebenden Toten), playing the bass. On vocals, you can find Simon (from Bacteria - that also comprised members of Remains of the Day and Warcry - and Bombs Away - with Harum-Scarum and Fall of the Bastards members), on the guitar you had Chris (from Yankee Wuss - with members of Harum-Scarum and Atrocious Madness - and Midnight - with members of Hellshock, From Ashes Rise and Harum-Scarum) and finally, on the stool, the D was passionately beaten by Todd (then in Tragedy, Severed Head of State and Call the Police, and drum-wise responsible for the dynamics in Deathreat and Trauma). That was already an intense session of name-dropping (that could earn you some decent punk points in 2003) and something that was very typical of the PDX scene. Every punk in town played in three bands so that, from the outside, judging from the number of bands, you had the impression that there were massive amounts of dedicated punks while the truth was far less epic. But then I guess most DIY punk scenes work this way. 

As you can see, Funeral was a band made up of busy bees and Cry of State Desperation was their first recording although it came out in 2003, after the 16 Song Ep that was recorded after (2002 I guess). I think I read somewhere that Cry of State Desperation was actually a demo recording that got to be pressed onto vinyl (a problematically common occurrence in 2019 but no so much then) and considering the absence of production and the raw rehearsal sound, it sounds like a very plausible origin story. The six songs that make up the Ep were recorded in September, 2001, although it does not say if it was before or after the eleventh, an event that along with its aftermath (the imperialistic oil policy and the wars of George W. Bush) certainly redefined, directly or indirectly, what American punk-rock was going to be about in that decade. This said, the songwriting would not have been affected too much if it were recorded on the 12th instead of the 10th and it would still have qualified as d-beat with a genuine raw punk vibe. I suppose the following years have crowned Warcry as the iconic PDX d-beat band, a title they do deserve as I cannot think of a better "just like Discharge" hardcore band in the 00's, thus overshadowing more humble bands like Funeral in the process. However it would be far-fetched to claim that Funeral (brilliant name for a punk band by the way) were going for the much-coveted "just like Discharge" throne. If there is a definite Fight Back and Decontrol influence that acts as a general structure, I can distinctly hear Discharge-influenced bands from the 80's as well. Peacepunk hardcore bands like Iconoclast, Diatribe or Against do immediately spring to mind, as do UK bands like early Antisect, Anti-System and Varukers or Europeans like EU's Arse or early Cimex. Funeral sound both like a contemporary of those 80's hardcore greats trying to get closer to Discharge and like learned punks doing their best to sound like they were an 80's hardcore band in love with Discharge. Undeniably, much of this strong 80's vibe derives from the very raw sound of the recording that confers a proper old-school hardcore aggression to the songs. Although I think that Funeral really recorded these six songs quickly and urgently, in a couple of takes if not in only one, with no overdubs, firstly to keep it raw, real and closer to the raw punk sound of their 80's inspirations, and secondly, because the members were all so busy with other bands that these few hours were all they could dedicate to Funeral at the time but seeing that they were all experienced musicians, the result was still pretty solid, energetic and intense instead of sounding like a sloppy mess. 

If you like your d-beat with a strong raw hardcore punk flavour, Funeral will be your thing. It has a great spontaneous and direct hardcore punk energy that shows that d-beat does not necessarily have to sound like a nuclear explosion. I would not go as far as stating that Funeral demonstrates that d-beat can be diverse (as it should not be! Who wants to listen to "blackened d-beat"? Exactly, no one does) but it shows that you can have several shades of D. Contrary to many modern bands claiming to be "raw" when they just use too much distortion or to boringly overproduced metallic d-beat bands, Funeral's songs were actually raw and punky and pogoable, as if taken from an old tape. Like with many PDX bands, you have two levels of appreciation. You can enjoy Cry of State Desperation for what it is primarily, a lovely slice of fast, riff-driven hardcore punk, and you can try to spot the Discharge Easter eggs and other hardcore references that they threw in the mix. The 2002 12'' Ep is not quite as raw and maybe a little too long given the genre's template, but it still comes recommended if you are like it raw and unpolished.              

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.             

Friday 11 October 2019

Sonatas in D Major (part 7): Disprove / Avgrund split Ep, 1997

Sonatas in D Major has been dealing with 90's Dis music and will continue to do so until we safely reach the mid-00's, the infamous turning point that saw social media tear into the delicate fabric that made up the DIY hardcore punk scene, unleashing new dynamics and new ways of writing, producing and listening to punk music that have seriously shaken things up FOREVER (see how panicked I am). That the rise of virtual platforms promoting mundane constant blabbering coincided with the slow disappearance of punk fanzines and, rather ironically, of content-driven blogs (which some younger punks qualify as being "old-school", which rather mystifies me) was certainly not accidental. Am I here to complain self-righteously about all these twenty-something ruining dad's punk and about the unfairness of receding hairlines in a world that discards the bald? No, of course not. Being an eternally buoyant and optimistic chap, I shall focus on converting the unwashed masses to the Terminal Sound Nuisance Scriptures and hope that a serendipitous encounter with the blog (and with the very word "serendipitous", see how meta I can be) can open their eyes and make them like me.

But yeah, seeing that Sonatas in D Major is mostly about old-fashioned d-beat, it may seem rather odd, if not somewhat baffling for the astute reader, that no split Ep has been given the treatment yet, since the format is an iconic 90's talisman. Well, there you have it, a typical mid-90's split Ep that will entitle you to feel nostalgic, even, or more likely especially, if you were not around at the time, because not only is it a very solid and consistent record but it also serves as a meaningful artifact of past times when the phrase "collaboration not competition" was not just office management talk aimed at increasing productivity. What we have here is a lovely Ep with Disprove, who hailed from Tokyo, on the one side, and Avgrund on the other, who wished they were Swedish, and tried hard to make the unsuspecting listener think so, but were actually from Bratislava, Slovakia. Cheeky indeed.      

Let's start with the obvious Discharge culprit which also happens to be the original reason why this split landed among these sonatas in such good company: Disprove. Not the most unfortunate Dis name around, but not the most eloquent either. It is a very average moniker, even according to the limited templates, which is only meant to indicate to the blockish punks (you know the ones) that the band is not insensitive to beating the bloody D. And since one is never too cautious, Disprove also used the Discharge font. With the people involved being pretty busy with other hardcore bands like the prolific and thrashy Beyond Description and Vivisection, I guess Disprove were more akin to a contextual side-project rather than an actual band but I could be wrong. I imagine a group of friends in a small Tokyo bar in 1994 having a drink, chatting about the current trends of playing just like Discharge, and maybe about that new upcoming band Disclose from Kochi, and thinking that they should have a go as well and that it could be a fun experience. Interestingly, two members from the group were already doing a Dis band called Discript at the time, but then, and in spite of the name, it was not a maximum d-beat project so something may have been missing in their life (we are dealing in delicate shades of Dis here). This fictional sake-induced gathering resulted in the creation of Disprove and in the recording of six songs that would appear on a self-titled Ep for Forest Record (a label that guitar player Hideyuki from Beyond Description conveniently ran). There are several ways to express the purity of your love for Discharge, they can differ but do not necessarily conflict with one another, and Disprove chose the noble "just like Discharge" option with one variation: dual vocals. If the music on both Ep's toes the "just like" line with very little room for the addition of alien, non-Discharge elements - the band clearly seal in the waters of Disfear, Dischange and Disaster - the presence of typically crusty dual vocals appears quite bizarre. I mean, I love "just like" d-beat and I love dual vocals crust but I don't necessarily expect or even want them to coexist in the same song. I would not go as far as saying that the vocals spoil the Dis worship since both singers do a really serious job at following the typical and crucial prosodic elements of Discharge (tone, accentuation, flow and so on) but at times they still go crust as fuck, which bothered me a little at first but once you get the inner logics of the band, it is just awesome.

Disprove particularly shone with their bouncy mid-paced dischargian songs and the opening number of their side of the split is one of those, a wicked "Protest and survive"-meets-"State control" number with crustier than thou singers. While the '94 Ep's production was pretty raw and direct, the sound is more powerful and sharper on this 1997 recording, perhaps because the lineup changed a little, Hideyuki switching from the bass to guitar and vocals, Yusuke from the vocals to the bass and Manabu from Senseless Apocalypse replacing Yasunari on vocals. Although the growls did not originate from the same throats as on the first offering, they still sounded as savage, if not more so, and followed the same artistic rule as on the first Ep (they do take more liberty with the classic Discharge tone though) and in terms of songwriting, the intent to play "just like" d-beat remained unchanged three years later. The two other Disprove songs on the side exemplify top shelf, heavy, raw and pummeling Discharge-loving hardcore music, with simple but authoritative, commanding riffs that have a genuinely aggressive vibe. The three songs are tied together with feedback so I left them on one single track, the way it is meant to be listened to. Punishing and highly enjoyable d-beat music.

Avgrund occupy the other side of the split and as I mentioned before, this lot were from Bratislava. Now I don't suppose you know much about the Slovakian 90's hardcore punk scene but I would strongly advise you to dig deeper into it as you are in for a treat. I mean, at that time, apart from Frigöra in Japan, outside of Sweden, can you name many bands playing scandicore with lyrics in Swedish? Exactly, you cannot. Well, there you had one and, unexpectedly, I suppose, because the Grand Punk Narrative often tends to ignore hardcore punk from Central Europe - Poland being a necessary exception because of its insane productivity - they were from Slovakia. Thanks to my global network of informers and sleeper agents, I have been able to get some information about the Bratislava scene of the 90's and you will NEVER believe what I found! Click on the link below to hear the rest of the story!

Listening to the Avgrund side for the first time, I have to admit that I had no doubt that they were from Sweden. And it is not just because of the words in Swedish, in fact compared to the stylistic Swedishness of the music, the linguistic identity of the lyrics is almost peripheral. Avgrund was undeniably a "just like" band but one that did not go for Discharge and had a different target in mind, namely the very raw, crude and aggressive sound of mid-80's Swedish hardcore epitomized by Svart Parad. They sounded "just like" Svart Parad if you wish. The idea that in the mid-90's a bunch of Bratislava punks wanted to play Svart Parad-like raw hardcore so much that they would even have lyrics in Swedish is deeply romantic for so many reasons. First, it is, in itself, an extremely nerdy project that obviously appeals to me and that I gladly give my support to. Second, material conditions in Slovakia at the time cannot have been easy and to put on gigs and play in bands and record must have required a lot of efforts and commitments. And third, at that time, in a pre-internet age when people did not claim to know a band because they had vaguely listened to a youtube link while browsing their Instagram feed, Svart Parad must have been a pretty obscure reference, as they had only done tapes in the 80's, and even if a discography had been released in 1995 by Finn Records (that one must have been overplayed in Bratislava), they were still the stuff of tape traders, people that were already into more established, vinyl-proven Swedish hardcore. All those things combined make the very existence of Avgrund very unlikely and yet, there they are, the very embodiment of passion, and that's for this kind of things that I love punk-rock so much.

At the time, Bratislava punks were heavily into Swedish crust and hardcore and the Avgrund guitar player, the very active Kono, was in touch with a lot of Swedish punks and managed to bring home a lot of Dis records from there (needless to say that there was no shortage of them at the time), records that would get taped and shared liberally so that they circulated quickly in the whole scene. This devotion to scandicore inspired many crusty/d-beat bands to form and tape compilations like Punk Není Mrkev Aneb Nežerte Krocany Vol 1 (often referred to as Bratislava Crusties comp) and Shitärna, driven by Kono at the core, are testimonies of this unrelenting passion for mangel hardcore and Discharge-associated noize with bands baptized Soul Scars, Hell On Earth, Agregat, Likvidation Friends or Slavery to Convention. If you have any interest in genuinely raw and angry Dis-punk music, do yourself a favor and check these out. It will also allow to shine in the most exclusive social circles. The Terminal Sound Nuisance spy that was hired to act as a double agent in Central Europe revealed to me that in the 90's, the Bratislava scene was close-knit and that many people played in several bands at the same time, a phenomenon that researchers have called "the Portland Syndrome" since. Busy bee and guitarist Kono was also playing in Hell On Earth, System of Greed, Anti-Capital and Nihil Obstat, singer Jozo was also yelling in Hell On Earth, the bass player was also in System of Greed and the drummer in Svablast. Finding time to rehearse with Avgrund must have been a nightmarish task (assuming they practiced much that is) but then it was a studio project only (though there is an unconfirmed rumour that they did play live once) possibly meant to sate and unbind their mania for Swedish raw hardcore. And I do mean RAW. What makes Avgrund so credible is not just the punk cheapness of the "production" but also the genuine crudeness of their unpolished sound and the concerted simplicity of the songwriting. It really sounds like a bunch of teenagers with rather limited musical abilities, cheap instruments and even cheaper amps, trying to play loud and angry hardcore on a rainy sunday afternoon in Göteborg circa 1984. Taken individually, the elements do sound a bit sloppy or off pitch, but everything put, the dirty tone, the simple compositions, the rough production, together Avgrund sound like a Swedish hardcore band you have never heard of. And these vocals... With that instantly recognizable gruff punk tone inherent in scandicore, they could fit with the greatest ease on a Svart Parad or a Bombanfall recording. I don't think I have ever heard that impressive a vocal impersonation of classic Swedish hardcore. And I'm being honest. Avgrund were like the ultimate d-beat band in terms of acuteness and reproduction but one that replaced Discharge with Svart Parad.

In our decade that celebrates the goofiest worship of 80's punk music, Avgrund should be considered as untouchable models but instead remain shrouded in obscurity, a name only whispered at night by the nerdiest of us when the moon is full and the wolves are howling (or something). Along with the three songs that Hell On Earth contributed to the Chaos of Destruction 2 compilation Lp's (Kono was in touch with Kawakami, hence their inclusion) that you can read about on this very blog, this split Ep, recorded in late '96, is the only vinyl evidence of the Bratislava 90's crusty hardcore scene (sob sob) but as I mentioned earlier, the two tape compilations are definitely worth your while.

I don't really understand the concept of the very black metal looking record cover and, to be fair, it is a bit of a visual miss. Not much to say about the lyrics either. This geezer was released on Forest Records, label of Disprove's guitar hero Hideyuki, in 1997 and it is a brilliant piece of 90's punk history. The D knows no frontiers.

PS: Massive thanks go to Tomas from Beton for all the help on the Slovakian crusty scene. Cheers mate!