Saturday 12 December 2020

Wesh to Sweden, the Formative Years (part 6): Kontrovers "S/t" cd, 2002

The genuine melomanes among you (and I know that there are many) might be, upon the realization that the sixth part of Wesh to Sweden will deal with the first album of Kontrovers, a tad surprised and understandably so. I wouldn't blame them. The previous parts of the series saw me wrestle bands such as Skitsystem, Avskum, Krigshot, Uncurbed and Diskonto and tackle records strongly grounded in the 90's d-beat/käng wave, works that were, in their conception and execution, fundamentally rooted in the creativity of that decade (the argument that the production of Örebro-Mangel sort of heralded the 00's sound is not irrelevant though). Kontrovers' self-titled opus however firmly belongs to the decade of the 00's, the noughties, not so much literally but diachronically. This is not to claim that this very album was breaking brand new grounds or that it marked a spectacular shift in the world of käng. Kontrovers did not navigate in totally unchartered territory and they relied enough on dual vocal crustcore savagery for the patched punx to know where they were coming from. However, not unlike Acursed at the same time and with a similar evolution, Kontrovers were taking a path that was more progressive, more narrative not to mention melodic, a change that informed large segments of the 00's crust scene on a global scale, in Sweden and abroad. 
There would be (too) many bands, in the early and mid 00's, taking the dangerous and challenging path of moody and epic - if not emotional - crust music, with varying degrees of success. This new quest for dark melodies was baptized "neocrust" (although in France we called it "crust de salon", "lounge crust" as opposed to "crust des bois", "wood crust" which represented the Hiatus school of crust) and I suppose the old guard must have been rather distrustful of the term, and with reason, since, as the "nu metal" debacle proved mercilessly to the world, the addition of such novelty-implying prefixes is always dodgy at best. Although I was absolutely clueless at the time - as one generally is to global evolutions - a major shift was occurring in the early 00's just as I was starting to understand what the whole Swedish hardcore business really meant. The 90's d-beat/crust/käng wave, as symbolized in Sweden by the Distortion Records empire, was crumbling while new, younger bands, often with related but different songwriting ambitions, started to emerge. In retrospect, it would be relevant to see Kontrovers, perhaps more than any other Swedish band, as an embodiment of this moment of change. The band started out as a pretty classic savage crust band with a typical 90's spirit and ended up releasing possibly one the best (neo)crust album of the era, 2003's När Spelreglerna Ändras.  
Before I keep going with my enlightening analysis and my breathtaking insights and let my biting wit loose, I would like to point out that, although I very rarely play any bands of the neocrust obedience today, during a couple of years in the 00's, there were dozens upon dozens of punk bands all over the world trying very hard to emulate Tragedy, His Hero Is Gone or From Ashes Rise (but then, haven't most people always fantasized about being American?). Everybody seemed to be into those modern bands and, because that take on hardcore sounded fresh and was advertized as a novelty for the next generation - in other words for me - I was definitely not insensitive to the appeal and charms of neocrust and melody-driven Swedish hardcore. While I think Tragedy and From Ashes Rise are objectively great bands, they unintentionally spawned far too many bands in the 00's that have aged very quickly and not that well in retrospect and whose grandiloquence sounds pretty cheesy in 2020. This said, I am perfectly aware that the same criticism could be formulated about the 90's d-beat clones that I love so much. They may be objectively average but subjectively brilliant. It's all a matter of love. While some of us easily discard all the melodic crust bands of that period (not exactly the boldest of statements in 2020), I believe that there were some genuinely class acts that unfairly ended up getting dumped disdainfully in the "neocrust" wave and were often accused of "jumping on the bandwagon", one of the harshest accusations in the punk world - second only to public allegations of posing - that has been known to destroy once immaculate hardcore reputations. But doesn't the very notion of punk trends (whether it is 80's käng, 90's d-beat, 00's neocrust or 10's postpunk) imply some degree of jumping on the bandwagon? In the end, the other major crust trend of the 00's, the so-called stenchcore revival indisputably won the crust fight from my perspective and I, like most people, stopped bothering with melodic crust rather quickly (it has to be said that, to this day, there is still a quite vibrant emo/neocrust scene in Spain for example). But at the end of the day, I'd rather play Kontrovers, Schifosi or Muga instead of cheap radio-friendly Belgrado clones.

The early years of Kontrovers were furious indeed. The band seems to have started playing in 1998 (there is a tape from that year including a live recording of their Malmö gig with Detestation and Operation) and they were quite active on the record front until they folded sometime in the mid 00's. Although vaguely aware of it when I first listened to the band, I was largely indifferent to the band's connection with the rather popular Intensity (two members in common). It was not my cuppa at all and, if anything, my immature self did not understand how someone playing in the crusty Kontrovers would also play in a US-styled hardcore band like Intensity, and, fortunately for my delicate mental balance, no one at the time told me that the man behind Putrid Filth Conspiracy - a label I strongly respected - also played in Satanic Surfers. Such an apparently dissonant impossibility would have surely baffled me to death. Kontrovers' career started properly with the Slendedemokrati Ep in 1999, a fast-paced twelve song crusty affair released on PFC that already displayed the band's love for multiple singers practicing vocal savagery. With a touch of grindcore, some dark Wolfpack-inspired melodic riffs here and there and even a soft acoustic introduction, the first Ep was reminiscent of Scumbrigade and Decrepit but also hinted at a sense of versatility that would prove to strengthen with time. The second Kontrovers record, a split Ep in 2000 with Beyond Description on Crust As Fuck Records, was a heavier effort confirming the band's intent to add more layers, some moodiness and more variety to their songwriting while sticking with the wild scandicrust tradition. Indeed, their side of the split even had openly screamo moments, modern metal breaks and some blastbeats for good measures, which certainly conferred a manic epic vibe to the songs but also felt too disparate at times. Their side of the split Ep with Mass Separation, though released only in 2004, was recorded in late 99/early 00's and shared the same creative characteristics as the one with BD. Their next record, their first self-titled album, was recorded in 2001 by Rodrigo PLC and it was an undeniably stronger and more focused work that can be rightly considered as both one of the best Swedish crust Lp of the 00's and one of the most 00's-sounding of the decade's best scandicrust albums.

With my beloved brain cells slowly but irremediably deteriorating, I cannot say that I recall the reasons why I initially bought this cd. I must have thought that it looked quite nice on the website (probably Hardcore Holocaust's) and the label's pitch must have implied that the album, usually referred to as "a classic for this day and age", was taking the genre "to the next level", if not "to a brand new dimension". Needless to say that I was then an ingenuous and dupable young fellow. I have very fond (if hazy) memories of playing this cd on my crappy boom box while smoking weed in my tiny room in Manchester and trying to make out the different layers of guitars and vocals and count the many changes of pace, sometimes in less than a single minute and being quite amazed although probably a bit too high to understand what was really going on. This 2002 offering is an intense and crushing album that sounds genuinely passionate and heartfelt. The album benefits greatly from the perfectly tuned teamwork between the two guitar players - serpentine melodic leads answering to dark and heavy crusty käng riffs - and from the addition of a new singer, Carin, whose rough and hoarse vocal style would make one think she had just swallowed a box of nails and can be compared to such great crustesses as Mags from Excrement of War or Agnes from Homomilitia. Her voice fits the stylistic progression perfectly, reinforces the brutal crust edge of the music and takes Kontrovers into the canonical realms of polyvocal crust music, a tradition that, sadly, barely survived the mid-00's. The very dynamic vocal arrangements sometimes work in the classic time-tested trade-off style but also in more tone-related ways (one vocalist will take care of one particular musical phase), a versatile and manic structure that, combined with the extreme furious singing styles, is possibly what I enjoy the best from the album nowadays.   

The aural punishment as conveyed by the polyphonic crust horde behind the mikes in Kontrovers, though very aptly executed, was not exactly new in 2002. Kontrovers' first album can be said to firmly belong to the 00's crust wave because of its diversity of paces, its overall narrative moodiness and, of course, its dark melodic guitar leads (the first song actually opens on such a trope). On the whole, the album's core remains the traditional and obsessive scandicrust bulldozing of State of Fear, Skitsystem or 3-Way Cum, but Kontrovers infused a variety of paces and narrative styles to tell a poignant punk story of anger and love, from heavy and slow desperate-sounding post-hardcore moments, to relentless mangel-type d-beats, proper grindcore blast beats and the use of political samples over instrumental songs for the anarcho touch. And then of course, you've got the melodic leads over usually down-tuned heavy riffs, probably the most typical and clichéd trait of 00's neocrust, along with the emotional mid-paced break with high-pitched screamed vocals. To be quite honest, although Kontrovers did not overuse the Tragic guitar melodies (like certainly some did), in retrospect some perfectly good and effective brutal crustcore moments on the album get a little spoiled by that mood-changing technique. But then, I suppose that, if there had only been a couple of bands doing it then, it would have been quite alright, but our perception of music is a process conditioned through time and place and listening to this album with hindsight is a very different experience. I think it has definitely stood the test of time and, for all the neocrust leanings, there are enough devastating songs of brutal crustcore with brilliant male/female vocals to keep it afloat all along.            

Not unlike the of Easter Island statues', world experts are not completely sure of the origins of "the dark and epic melodic leads" invasion of the crust scene in the 00's but there is a growing consensus that the reptilians had nothing to do with it. Though the truth, after all, could be elsewhere, I would still humbly venture that its birth is threefold. The first point of entry would be essentially Swedish in style with Wolfpack's frequent use of cold yet melodic guitar leads that took their roots in classic Swedish death metal sound and I don't have to tell you how influential Wolfpack were in the mid/late 90's. Second, of course, you've got His Hero Is Gone and Tragedy, two rather different but highly inspiring animals, with the same down-tuned guitar players obsessed with the epic guitar leads of Burning Spirit Japanese hardcore bands. The third thread could be pulled from the heavy and monumental moody post-hardcore terrain laid down by Neurosis throughout the 90's and sometimes borrowed by From Ashes Rise. And besides it's not like melodic hardcore never happened anyway. To get back to Kontrovers, there is little doubt that what inspired their dark tunes was locally bred (just take a listen to Wolfbrigade's 2001 Progression/Regression if you want catch the mood of the times). As I said above, despite the obvious 00's markers, Kontrovers showed enough personality and passion to remain quite unique and I can happily listen to the 20 songs in 35 minutes. It sounds like Scumbrigade, His Hero Is gone, Disrupt and Wolfbrigade rioting and howling in a snow globe.

The cd version comes in a lovely digisleeve (that means it's made of cardboard you dimwit) and a proper booklet with the lyrics, drawings and short explanations in English. Bass player Simon took care of the visual aspect of the album and it looks great, not far from outsider art with a genuine organic feel. Certainly, there was an effort to get away from all the visual stereotypes attached to the crust aesthetics and, compared to the visuals from the first parts of Wesh to Sweden (or even to the band's previous Ep's), you would be entitled to think Kontrovers played a totally different style of music. The lyrics tackle a vast array of political and personal topics, ranging from the usual anarcho rants about the police, sexism or materialism, to critiques of the use of gory imagery or of the constant boozing in hardcore punk or more intimate subjects like depression and helplessness. Not necessarily original but the whole thing looks, sounds and feels sincere and passionate and during this current gloomy period, sometimes that's all a punk may need. 
This album was released on Putrid Filth Conspiracy in 2002, the rather excellent label run by Rodrigo from Satanic Surfers (and quite paradoxically the only Swedish label involved in the records reviewed in this series) that put out records from Acursed, Sayyadina, Sanctum or Skitkids. After the demise of Kontrovers, Mattias and Simon teamed up with Rodrigo (from PFC and Satanic Surfers) and two Oskars from Project Hopeless to form the crust hardcore band Ursut. 


Kontrovers 2002               


  1. Damn, how could I forgot these band. Thanx for bringing me 20 years back.
    And if you do me a favour please post Dread Messiah in the future.

    1. Ah! Dread Messiah is on my "to-do-list" but I can't promise anything!

    2. I just ripped Mind Insurrection off Youtube but it sounds pretty shit. Lol

  2. Not many did Disrupt justice, and thankfully, not many tried. This album did. If that comparison sounds like I'm cheapening their accomplishment here, that's wrong. For me, being such a big fan of Disrupt, it's a high compliment of no short order. -ZM