Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Last Week's Trend is Now Passé (part 5): Shrapnel / Symbol of Freedom "S/t" split Ep, 1986

In the year of grace 2006, renowned punk archaeologist Ian Glasper introduced the chapter devoted to Shrapnel with the following philosophical statement:

Many great bands have slipped silently beneath the radar of the average punk rock fan, never gaining the kudos they rightly deserve; in the wrong place at the wrong time, they just never got the breaks afforded far lesser bands and remain criminally overlooked by all but a few die-hards. If a book like this can change anything at all for the better, bands like SHRAPNEL will be finally acknowledged as the fine song-writers they truly were and hordes of new adoring fans will run up and down the streets screaming "Missile" at bewildered passers-by...!

Never has a man been more in the right and, if I am being honest, this moral epistemological stance has been fueling Terminal Sound Nuisance's indomitable fire since the beginning. Unfortunately, and contrary to what postmodern ideologues would have you believe, language is not that performative and biblical opus The Day the Country Died did not result in any massive resurgence of professions of love for Shrapnel. I suppose it should no longer come as a surprise, but it still amazes me that the average punk-rock fan has not had his or her radar sorted by now. At a time when even short-lived second-rate 80's punk bands get retrospectively hailed as underestimated classics, their fictional legacy a uchronia to be printed on cool shirts for cool punks, Shrapnel are still left without a decent discography or even a meretricious vinyl bootleg to their name and that, comrades, is just bloody unfair.

In 2020, it is ingloriously easy to claim that the name "Shrapnel" is, possibly, a little too unremarkable and generic for a punk band. You would not be totally wrong to think so since many other bands have gone for this moniker, from a late 70's US super catchy punk band who dressed up as GI's, to a technical Polish black metal band from the early 00's, to dreadful Australian "blackened thrash" or a Quality Control SxE hardcore band from Leeds who should have been aware of the Welsh Shrapnel of old and if they were, they just shrugged it off. I was lucky enough to be familiar with Shrapnel before reading Glasper's wisdom since a mate of mine had got a copy of the split with Symbol of Freedom in the early 00's after an old French distro and label - New Wave Records - got rid of some old stock. I wish I could tell you that, upon listening to it, I instantly got hooked and spent the following days tormenting anyone who would listen, or who were too polite to tell me to fuck off, about the greatness of Shrapnel. However, I just thought that it was alright but that the two sides sounded a bit similar, still taped it for posterity and forgot about it until I played the tape again a couple of years later, this time armed with some basic knowledge about UK anarchopunk and thinking that it was pretty good indeed.

Shrapnel formed in 1981 and split up in 1988, which was not a bad run at all for what was originally just a snotty punk band from a small Welsh town, and their sound consequently evolved a lot throughout the 80's. Because of Britain's centralisation, punk bands from Wales, although very active and relevant locally, did not enjoy the same exposure and opportunities as London-based acts for instance (touring constantly with Conflict, Icons of Filth were an exception) and this discrepancy could account for Shrapnel's relative obscurity even if they played in London several times. There is no real point in dwelling too long on Shrapnel's infancy but let's have a quick word about the band two demos that preceded their first split Ep. Recorded in early 1983, They Control our Destiny, was a typical example of spiky and angry protest punk music that did not only rely on raucous chorus over a basic and pogoable riotous beat (though it contains its fair share of them) but also used clever bass lines and dared tread into more tuneful territories. Their second demo Restricted Existance, recorded in september, 1984, was an incredible step forward in terms of songwriting flair and had it been done in a better studio with more time (it was after all a humble four-track endeavour), it would have made for a wicked Ep bound to join the exclusive anarcho canon. Instead it was released on tape by Bluurg Records (Shrapnel and Subhumans played together several times) although the song "Unjustified actions" got included on Mortarhate's We won't be your fucking Poor Lp. Restricted Existance is nonetheless one of my favourite demos of the era as it really showcased that vintage Bluurg punk sound, catchy but snotty, with memorable tunes but also youthful spiky energy, high-energy tempo changes, smart bass and guitar hooks and distinct vocals, half sung and half shouted.

If 80's anarchopunk mixtapes were any indicators of bands popularity and relevance, then Shrapnel certainly did matter since, like Political Asylum or Instigators, they appeared on numerous homemade tapes, probably because they toured a lot and played in many places but also because their demo recordings were strong. The band's crowning moment would come two years after the last demo, in 1986, when Shrapnel contributed two magnificent anarchopunk anthems to this split Ep with another Welsh anarcho outfit Symbol of Freedom. By that time, the band had perfected their brand of fiery tuneful anarchopunk, classically and yet outstandingly performed. Thanks to a better production highlighting the details in the guitar work (that opening riff!), the many bass hooks and the drum variations, "Fact or fiction" and "They are wrong" are close to anarchopunk perfection. The song structures are smart and narrative, with some of the crispiest mid-paced punk of the time, and the climaxes sound brilliant, just capturing, and meaningfully serve the Cold War-inspired lyrics. The songs feel direct, honest and memorable, creative and quintessential. And so bloody catchy. In fact, challenges not to sing along to "Patriotic bullshit, political lies" after hearing "Fact or fiction" are a safe way to earn a bit of money on the side if you are skint. That Shrapnel do not enjoy a cult status in our internet age is perplexing (but then, many things are nowadays) and these two songs - at least - should be consensually regarded as top-shelf anarcho anthems, up there with those of early Subhumans, The System, Instigators or Pagans (whose two listenable songs were insanely great). After this split, Shrapnel recruited a second guitar player, who previously played in Capital Gain, and Steve from Symbol of Freedom on the bass, and they changed direction, becoming more intricate, with more of a progressive punk influence, but still bloody brilliant if you ask me (just listen to their 1988 split Ep with Toxik Ephex or to their live tapes here).

Which takes me to Symbol of Freedom, another small-town Welsh punk bands from Pontypridd, with a, admittedly naive but still terrific name. Funnily enough (brace yourself for some trivia), Briton Ferry's Shrapnel first came across SoF through a 1985 tape compilation entitled There's more than Male Voice Choirs in Wales that had both Shrapnel and SoF. First, let me tell you that, apart from SoF, it included many excellent and rather diverse Welsh punk bands, from the ferocious Soldier Dolls and Classified Protest, the immense No Choice, to the postpunk-oriented Earth's Epitaph and Slaughter Tradition, and I will allow myself to state that, with my proverbial absence of objectivity, it can be an enlightening, educative listen. Being French, I was clueless as to why the average Joe would think that Welsh cultural life revolved exclusively around male voice choirs (I knew that Wales was officially the last country allowed to breed dragons though). And then, I saw some videos. I'll take that tape over any male, female or non-gendered voice choirs any day.

I have already written about SoF since they contributed a song to the classic You are not Alone 1986 compilation Ep, representing Wales on the record (here). By that time, SoF had recruited the former Shrapnel bass player on drums and original drummer Steve had switched to vocals. There is an earlier demo recording of the band released on Faeces Records (run, I believe, by Shrapnel's roadie), taken at the local YMCA in 1985 with Scottie behind the microphone. It is a rough collection of direct, angry and snotty anarchopunk that should please fans of Riot/Clone and Uproar. For the split with Shrapnel, the band had the great idea to hire a female singer to share the vocal duties with Steve, a wise choice which conferred another dimension to otherwise decent but rather generic fast punk numbers. The two songs on SoF's side, "Against our wall" and "Another day", are a massive improvements and make one ponder over what could have been, had the band kept going with this lineup instead of breaking up shortly after the release of the split. The fantastic chemistry between the two singers sounds very spontaneous and dynamic and emphasizes the raging aspect of the songwriting. The sound is quite raw but very organic and, given the band's rather basic sonic recipe, effective enough to convey significantly the heartfelt outrage. What an angry bunch. Stylistically, early Conflict really comes to mind and I would also send invitations to Toxic Waste and Disorder for good measure. Compelling stuff if you are into raw, fast and venomous UK punk music. The trade-off male/female vocal style is highly, albeit anachronistically, reminiscent of 90's US anarchopunk as well and I would be curious to know if bands like Mankind? or Antiproduct were at all aware of SoF.

The artwork of the split is beautiful done (I particularly love the caricature on Shrapnel's insert) and does not exactly correspond to your ordinary anarcho aesthetics while being evocative and dark enough. If Shrapnel dealt with media propaganda and Cold War paranoia, SoF's lyrics were of a more confrontational radical anarchist nature and as you can see they had a lot to say and to be angry about as working-class Welsh punks. The split was released on Hand in Hand Records, a label run by SoF Steve. If you are interested in Shrapnel and SoF, or more generally in Welsh 80's punk, then Bullsheep Detector is an ideal entry into that scene. Released in 2012 on Antisociety Records, this compilation was made up of an Lp with 20 songs from 20 bands that came in a foldout anarcho poster and a dvd that contained full demos lesser-known Welsh punk bands like Pseudo Sadists, Reality Attack, Condemned Skull Attack or Armistice. Amazing shit.


  1. saw em a couple of times in the 80,s great band.

  2. fact or fiction, encore un hit bien inconnu de beaucoup . j'adore ce morceau depuis que je l'ai entendu a la fin d'une de mes k7s, pour remplir l'espace restant, recu d'un punk gallois (hello dai!)

  3. Deserved praise for a great couple of bands. Shrapnel were indeed amazing with a brilliant sound, helped by Stu's voice, and an enviable energy on and off the stage, helped by a mischievous attitude and quick-witted humour of brothers Stu and Paul. They played a lot at benefit gigs me and Big Jon put on in Swansea and they joined us on many a hunt sab too. I remember driving their red, ex-postoffice Commer van up to Leeds one day for a gig with Chumbawamba, maybe around 86. Drove back all night and in the morning we got pulled over at a vehicle weigh station. The back of the van had about 12 people in it and amps, guitars and kit. The van was over weight, so people had to get out one by one until the axle weights were legal again. The cops didnt seem too bothered about half a dozen people lying around in the back of a van though. Those that had to get out started hitchhiking while as the driver, I did the paperwork with the cops (and was fined £90), and then over the next hour or so of driving back towards South Wales, I picked each of them up again as they were hitching. Good times.

    1. Thanks for the story. I love this kind of punk tales, I guess if you played in a band at some point, you're likely to have one of your own! It makes being in a band more real and, usually in retrospect, a lot of fun.
      I still don't understand why Shrapnel didn't get the reissue treatment yet, they were so good.