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Album Review: Various Artists – “Red Scare Industries: 15 Years of Tears and Beers”

I’m never quite sure where to place compilation albums in the grand scheme of things. Are they disposable? Are they art? To this day I’m not sure, and because I missed out on the days of Punk-a-rama, I may never truly understand where a good comp falls into one’s collection. If I were to hazard a guess though, in a world where everything is perfect and physical media has not yet been grounded by cardiac arrest, I would want a good comp to be something akin to your coolest friend with the coolest taste sitting you down and saying: “listen to this.”

I like to think that’s where Red Scare Industries: 15 Years of Tears and Beers falls into place. And if there’s anyone to inhabit the role of coolest friend with coolest taste, it’s without a doubt Red Scare’s mastermind Tobias Jeg. 15 Years of Tears and Beers serves as a reminder to all the great music Red Scare has brought us over the years, featuring fifteen artists that helped shape the label into the monster it is today. 

The best part of this whole thing though, is that these are new songs. This isn’t just a greatest hits collection of some classic Red Scare alums—these are hot new tracks from some of the finest punk rock songwriters in the game today. The Copyrights start things off with one of my favorite songs by them, period (“Maine or Oregon”). It’s as fast and catchy as just about anyone familiar with the Copyrights would expect, and it’s less than a minute long. Sincere Engineer makes an appearance with “Dragged Across the Finish Line,” another song that I thought was just stellar. Funny enough, this is one of those groups that I could never get into, but recently, I seem to recall Jeg saying that Sincere Engineer wasn’t a singer-songwriter thing, but in actuality a stealth gruff-punk thing. This shifted my perspective quite a bit, and on this track, I totally hear it. “Dragged Across the Finish Line” is a total banger with lots of heart that sounds like something straight out of the camps of Hot Water Music and Lawrence Arms. 

There’s a couple of great covers on this one. The Menzingers are represented by Broadway Calls who cover their classic “Sunday Morning,” with a grounded pop-punk approach. Billy Liar ends the album with a Nothington cover of “The Escapist.” Both of these tracks provide a little familiarity in the mix as well as a sense of living history. At the end of the day, 15 Years of Tears and Beers is a celebration, and is working tirelessly not to give you a sense of dour self-importance, but a sense of fun surrounding all of the great music that’s happened because of Red Scare. This is fun, covers are fun; the message is clear: have fun. 

There are too many tracks to call out by name as favorites here, but I’ll list a couple that I thought were standouts. Elway’s “High Drama, Low Comedy” knocks it out of the park here. This is a band, much like Sincere Engineer, that I never got into. First it was the Elway is Jerks meme that went around PunkNews that I mistook for people actually calling the people in the band out as rockstar divas (apparently, I was quite wrong, and they are good folks). Second, it was For the Sake of the Bit’s aim at taking down internet music reviewers, which hit a little too close to home for me, because, well—guess what I am? Either way, I can’t deny that this song is a banger and it might just be what forces me to reconsider Elway. Shout out in particular to the Queen-ish guitar solo bridge, inspired stuff. 

“Dead Body” by Garrett Dale of Red City Radio is a ridiculous, catchy song that stopped me in my tracks on the first listen. Dale is clearly having fun with this one, where you can hear him exclaiming “this has got to be the dumbest song” after a killer sax break. And hey, maybe it is—but it’s fun as Hell (and as I established earlier, fun is the name of the game). It’s like an oldies radio hit born in 2019 and is a clear highlight of the whole album. 

But if that’s not enough for you, you also have great tracks from MakeWar, Ramona, Tightwire, The Bombpops, and many, many others. What I’m trying to say here is: this thing is stacked! And it’s not just big names, it’s big songs. What struck me most about 15 Years was the sheer quality from start to finish. It’s a diverse collection of great songs from the Red Scare roster, and if you ask me, it’s worth all the tears and beers to get there. 

 

4.5/5

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Album Review: MakeWar – “Get It Together”

Developing a Theory of Integrity was one of my favorite releases back in 2016. Back then, they were on Red Scare—one in a long line of bands that helped carve out the label’s reputation as having the best ear for signings in the game. Now, three years later, MakeWar has come a long way. In the interim, I had the pleasure of seeing them play twice—and two times I got a look into their continued development, and subsequent dominance, within the world of melodic punk. Once at Fest: where they played one of the best sets of the weekend (complete with a blow-up orca bouncing around the moshpit—you know, the one from the album cover). People were into it; loving it, eating it up. This was a crowd of fans who knew every word, who had already adopted their latest release into their all-time favorites. MakeWar had made good on everything their song’s promised. The second time I saw them, they were on the bill of a mega tour, opening for Lagwagon and Face to Face. Of course, this was writing on the wall, writing I should’ve read. MakeWar was poised to release on Fat Wreck Chords, joining the talented masses that got their start on Red Scare and graduated to the upper echelon of modern punk. 

If any band can do it, it’s MakeWar. This is a band that thrives on the one X-factor that can make or break a group: songwriting. Anyone who’s heard Developing a Theory of Integrity knows that these guys have chops to spare when it comes to writing great songs. They match these catchy anthems with something akin to early Against Me! arrangements, stabbing strums and a penchant for gang vocals; a tightly wound three-piece with fantastic songs—what’s not to love?

Get it Together is a continuation of all the most important aspects of MakeWar. Their Latin American identity is put front and center, with two songs in Spanish sung by bassist Edwin. The first of them, “No Mas,” is a melodic hardcore rager with a staccato machine-gun vocal rhythm that rattles off Spanish with an ear-pleasing fluidity. This thread is also continued by “Hands on the Tyrant,” one of the most striking and personal songs on the album, directly addressing singer Jose Prieto’s native Venezuela. Both these songs and others feel like a more active engagement with their identity than the anthems on their last record, while still supplying hooks aplenty. For my money, perspective is one of the most important attributes of great songwriting, and here, it’s put front and center. 

The heart-on-the-sleeve introspection, however, is still one of the band’s most powerful motors, brought forth into the Fat Wreck era by album opener “Hopeless Dreamer.” The song is propelled by chugging guitars and some killer backing vocals. The lyrics range from aspirational to slice-of-life conversational (“Is it cool if I close my eyes just for a bit?”); just as ever, they’re relatable and hard-hitting, the sort of stuff you can feel falling off your tongue from the first time you hear it. 

MakeWar has always had a loud, brash, aspirational center indebted to the best of punk’s rhetoric. And in a world where it’s harder than ever to be an artist, this is not only charming, but admirable. “Oh, Brother” is an ode to a life lived in the punk scene, told as an all too familiar story. “Welcome to the world of punk, freaks and geeks and silly drugs,” begins the chorus. It’s a rallying cry, an ode to playing music in spite of all the constructs that make it near impossible. The bridge is perhaps one of the most emotionally powerful I’ve heard in recent years, a declaration to its listeners to embrace the grind, to create in endless defiance. 

“Sails” matches this discontent with a fantasy of leaving the nine-to-five to sail around the world (in a parallel to “Sallie” from Developing a Theory of Integrity). It’s one of the best songs on the album, undoubtedly one of the catchiest. While the subject matter has been tread before, the tone is more ethereal, feeling like a daydream brought to life, something that the lighter guitars on this album bring to a more fully realized cohesion. 

In the case of “Sails,” the lighter sounds on Get it Together help sell the content of the song. But other times, it feels like perfunctory growth. MakeWar has an album full of great songs, and a lot of them will come to define the band, I truly believe that. But, I can’t help but feel their sound was more impactful on their last outing. Before, they had that jittery, crunchy intensity that really fed into that sing-your-lungs-out, emotional punk aesthetic. Here, the goods still survive with a slicker package, but I’m often left with the question: why? There’s more treble, there’s more reverb, and sometimes a spare effects pedal is thrown into the mix—but for the most part, it doesn’t do much to develop the band’s sound in any notable way. It feels like a new coat of paint for the sake of painting, an affectation rooted more in their move to Fat Wreck than in the band’s core identity. Get it Together is a great album, but sonically, it sounds like a band developing in the most usual way. 

Luckily, while the production seldom adds much, it doesn’t take away much either, leaving me only with a couple of gripes to go with a handful of new favorite songs. In my mind, it’s a fair trade. Get it Together is MakeWar doing everything they did great on the last album, and now doing it better. What’s added to the mix this time is the band’s political content, which is exciting and illuminating across the board. They’ve embraced themselves to a greater degree than ever, and in that, they’ve codified their identity as artists and musicians. 

 

4.5/5

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DS Exclusive: Stream New Tracks From Ground Score (Portland) and Cop/Out (NYC)

Portland’s Ground Score is an under the radar band that deserves at least a listen (if not a beer bong and a stage-dive). This is fast and fun skate punk with a darker edge and some serious songwriting to elevate it beyond you’re usual circle pit. You may even remember, their album Old Theories on Society garnered a not too shabby review from us here.

Well, the boys are back and this time they have a split with New York’s Cop/Out—an absurdly intense, positively destructive pop-punk band that plays Queer anthems that come from a place of raucous distortion and land-speed records. Seriously, this is some frenetic stuff. The split’s titled Hindsight 2020 and sounds pretty rockin’, if I do say so myself.

We’re proud to be streaming songs from both bands, sure to please fans of all that is fast, loud, and Epi-Fat—if you like what you hear, take to the streets and pre-order the damn thing. Split hits the streets 11/1. Go!

 

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Album Review: The Menzingers – “Hello Exile”

The Menzingers were the first band I could truly say was my own. I was twenty-one when On the Impossible Past came out, and looking back, I’m not sure there was ever a better time to be that young. For myself and others, the Menzingers had just written an album that could be considered as monumental as Reinventing Axl Rose or Caution. And since then, they’ve toured endlessly and continued releasing quality albums. Sure, they’re not as fast and screamy as they used to be, but they’ve settled into a comfortable niche within the greater world of punk and indie, and more importantly, they occupy this space with consistently poignant songcraft. 

Hello Exile follows up After the Party, which in a lot of ways, was as career-defining as On the Impossible Past. This makes for a challenging release, as how many great albums does any band have in them? What’s always impressed me about the Menzingers is how they’re able to crank out so many of these great songs, and really, Hello Exile is no different. The songwriting is there, just as before (maybe too much as before, actually), and the melodies are just as sticky. Is this album a masterpiece? Well, no. After the Party and On the Impossible Past still lay the best claim to that elusive victory, but Hello Exile is no slouch, and while it may be divisive, it still brings the heart and lyricism that its fans crave. 

That being said, the greatest strengths and weaknesses of Hello Exile lay within its songwriting. The Menzingers have always been a songwriting-forward band, and as such, I think that’s a fair place to start, with both my praise and my criticism. Here, we have the band progressing into exciting new heights, and falling back onto old crutches. Opening song “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” is one of my favorites of the album and it’s also the punkiest. Which means, if you’re reading between the lines—that no, this is not the album where the Menzingers’ reclaim their title as a raw-throated punk rock group. The song itself is a driving force though and it’s nice to see the band react politically (“what kind of monster did our parents vote for?”). They’ve always been a thoughtful band, and they again prove that in spades, even dropping a line referencing totalitarian Vichy France. “America (You’re Freaking Me Out)” continues a career-spanning tradition of opening their albums with absolute bangers. 

“Anna” is an equally great song, but it’s also where the band begins to look a little exposed. Here, is a wonderful track about a long-distance relationship, featuring a helluva hook. But here, we start seeing the limited subject matter inherent in the Menzingers’ songwriting. With lyrical references to Nabokov in his back pocket, we’ve all grown accustomed to guitarist/singer Greg Barnett as a deep literary reader. I’m pretty sure I’ve even read an interview where he mentions wanting to tackle writing a novel. These are awesome aims for anyone, let alone the primary songwriter in a punk band. But all artists can fall into the trap of repeating themselves. We’ve seen far too many songs about growing up, being reckless in Bukowski-certified ways, and doomed relationships. If I were Barnett’s writing coach right now, I’d be telling him he needs to push himself into new perspectives and subject matter. He needs to take an inventory of his common tropes and start building beyond them. Because, right now, it’s okay—“Anna” is one of my favorite songs on the album. But how many more “Anna”’s can we take before we start seeing the dove hidden in his sleeve?

“High School Friend” trods-well on familiar notes of nostalgia as well, but it does so with a sense of purpose, setting up the album’s theme of growing up before your time. This is, in a way, a sequel album to After the Party, it’s thematic mate. “Hello Exile,” the title track, is actually one of the stranger tracks I’ve seen the Menzingers do in recent years, and because of that, it has grown on me as one of the highlights of the new album. It has a swanky, cocktails-in-first-class feel throughout its opening, growing into a bluesy, Americana drenched singalong. It’s one of the best songs on the album and features some of Barnett’s most vivid imagery to date. “Strain Your Memory” is probably the song that most fans will be wishing the band would write more of, and it’s easy to understand why. In an album of plaintive mid-tempo jams, this is the mid-album rager that’ll get bodies moving in the pit. Of course, as is standard, it comes with a melody that fits easily on the throat and tastes sweet on the tongue. 

It’s not fair to paint Hello Exile as a riskless album though, because it does actually takes some large strides forward. “I Can’t Stop Drinking” is a great example of this. At five minutes and ten seconds, it’s the longest track on the album. I like that it challenges some of the Menzingers’ repeated imagery (“…and we drove back drunk through the busy city streets.”) with what is an ironically sober look at themselves. Greg Barnett is rightly lauded for his short story approach to songwriting, often taking his lyrics behind the eyes of another character. But, “I Can’t Stop Drinking” feels cutting, personal, and painful. I hope that both approaches survive into the band’s future, but it serves as a stark reminder of where all these pretty words are born. 

“Farewell Youth” completes the album’s arc with its chorus, “I was always hanging out with the older kids.” It feels like the Menzingers closing a chapter on themselves. These guys are just a little bit older than me, so probably feeling pretty similar things as they’re entering their thirties. They’ve spent over a decade as the Menzingers, a single unit with no personnel changes. That’s an impressive feat, especially while staying grounded enough to keep their audience engaged with their heartfelt melancholy. “Farewell Youth” doesn’t feel sad though, and it echoes a sentiment from the album’s opener, where Barnett croons, “Oh, how do I steer my early 30’s/ Before I shipwreck, before I’m 40.” The keyword is steer. There is control present, an eagerness for the future that can’t quite eclipse what’s passed behind them. It’s bittersweet, but as this album closes a chapter, I’m interested in where the ship takes us next. 

As so far, I’ve talked mostly about Barnett’s contributions to the album; these songs have come to define the sound of the band for many, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Tom May’s contributions to the album. He’s only got three songs on the album, but they’re three of the best he’s written, “Portland” being my personal highlight. I have mixed feelings here because I believe that the voice of a band is a difficult thing to navigate, because bands, by their very nature, are a collaborative art. But, because of the relative lack of Tom May’s songs, the cohesiveness of the album diminishes. There’s already a jolting difference in songcraft between the two writers (which I believe was at its finest point back in the OTIP days, as far as interplay and shared aims are concerned). One is nostalgic and wistful, carrying the band toward a more poetic direction. The other is sharp and declarative, the punkier heart of the band. I’d like to see these collaborate deeper in their compositions, combining their voices to do away with the notion of Greg-songs or Tom-songs, and just write Menzingers songs. 

So, what else can I say about a new Menzingers album? 

How about this—the biggest fuck up the Menzingers have committed is being good enough to become anyone’s favorite band. This is a review filled with nitpicks and suggestions, it gives praise and criticism to songs in equal breaths. Why? Because the Menzingers mean more to me than any other band, and with that affection, comes a sense of ownership. The Menzingers are my band. They’re the ones I learned to drink to, traveled hours to see, and became the go-to singalong for my group of friends. If all those sad-sack, Barnett-penned relationship songs have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t help but pick apart the things we love. Hello Exile shows the band stretching their limbs, ending an era with maturity and verve. It features some new tricks and also features some we’ve seen before. But for a band tied so much to so many personal times and places, I’m excited for a new sonic bookmark. 

4/5*

*This score is meaningless. Listen to the album. 

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Album Review: Knocked Loose – “A Different Shade of Blue”

Hardcore, for me, has always been relegated to the sidelines. I like hardcore just fine, and every once in a while I find something that truly resonates with me—but for the most part, hardcore is something I revisit a couple of times a year and them subsequently move on from. It’s powerful, adrenaline-pumping stuff, but I never really got the culture surrounding it, so I’ve always stayed at arm’s length, despite my dalliances. Knocked Loose are the sort of genre darlings that make waves big enough that even melodic punk folks like myself get to feel the ripple. Based on the buzz of the hivemind, these guys are huge and I should be paying attention; they’re bringing something to hardcore that is new, or they’re performing it with the intensity turned up a couple of notches. Maybe. I don’t know. I listen to Tragedy and Comeback Kid four times a year, so I have no idea what, if any of that, is true. But I do know their new album is A Different Shade of Blue, and that despite being somewhat unfamiliar with the tropes of the heavier side of the genre (continually thinking: isn’t hardcore supposed to sound like Minor Threat?), the music comes off as powerful, venomous stuff.

If I were to outline Knocked Loose’s sound I’d describe it as a focused cacophony. It’s wild and unhinged, noisy and loud—but with a strong sense of rhythmic hooks, both in their vocal lines and riffage. The songs are full of forward momentum and righteous rage, with jaw-dropping breakdowns (see: “Belleville”) that play with dissonance as much as melody. Not to say that Knocked Loose is a melodic hardcore band per se, but they know how to write a song and make it memorable, even in such an absurdly heavy, beatdown-influenced arena. 

Which is all the more impressive considering the rather narrow sonic range of the genre. Still, Knocked Loose manage to knock out chugger after chugger, swapping from groovy headbangers to high note dissonance to metallic riffing—all while maintaining the singular identities of their songs. “In the Walls” features all of these and more, all led by the throat-shredding scream of vocalist Bryan Garris, who may be the X-factor that propelled Knocked Loose to the top in the first place. Throughout the album, his vocals are unmistakably passionate. There’s been a shift in heavier genres in the last couple years that have strived to make screaming as sustainable and healthy as possible—the influence of vocal coaches and vocalists who want a career that lasts longer than a season. It’s a commendable drive—ultimately, no one should destroy their body for the sake of kids being able to hit each other in a pit—but oftentimes, the end result is a crisp, articulate noise devoid of the volatility of the noise it mimics. I don’t know if Garris is screaming healthily or not, but I do know that it sounds like he means every word that’s coming out of his mouth. And in hardcore, where authenticity is a currency, selling that intensity to your audience is paramount. 

A Different Shade of Blue is a sophomore album. And as a hardcore meerkat who pops out of his burrow just enough to know Code Orange Kids is now just Code Orange, I’m experiencing Knocked Loose for the very first time. What I’ve seen and heard is a band of incredible energy, playing heavy-ass music, and executing it with underrated creativity. Knocked Loose may not be the poet-bards of hardcore, but they’re not trying to be. This is a band trying to be nasty heavy—and shit, man, what can I say? They succeed. 

 

4.5/5

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Short/Fast/Loud: Lost Love – “Glenn Spaghetti Legs”

Montreal’s Lost Love came out swinging last year with Good Luck Rassco, an album that I thought showed great songwriting instincts as well as a honed-in power punk sound. It was good stuff, the kind of stuff you want to hear coming out of small bands—the kind of music that makes you think: maybe in a couple of years, when all my favorite bands have broken up, the wheel of punk will continue to turn. 

While this isn’t quite Lost Love’s ghost-of-Christmas-future, it is a solid two-song EP that shows them growing into their sound. “Glenn Spaghetti Legs,” which is technically the title track, reads like something between the Loved Ones, Weezer, and Jeff Rosenstock. Think chugging guitars, poppy fretwork, and big hooks. It’s all delivered with lyrics that feel close to the heart and accordingly, performed with emotional gravitas. 

“Ontarien Demande” has some killer woah-ohs and a sticky lyric (“I’m drinking but I can’t get drunk enough.”), making for a catchy sibling to its predecessor. And I hear you when you say: “is two songs really a notable release?” I agree, it’s hardly a full meal, but it’s hooky, sunshiney, and would go great on a end-of-the-summer mix. Substantial or not, Glenn Spaghetti Legs is two songs from an up and comer worthy of your attention. 

Check out:

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Album Review: The Trusty Snakes – “New American Frontier”

My eternal affection for the Taxpayers is well documented. While they were active, they had a certain magic to their music—a gonzo, anything goes approach with a rascally dash of political storytelling. They always knew who’s thumb they were under, and they made it their mission to meet it with a revolutionary shank. The Taxpayers have since dissipated, at least for now, but their members live on and continue to take on interesting projects. The latest of these interesting projects is the Trusty Snakes, which shares all of its members with the late, great Taxpayers, but take their music in a decidedly less punk direction. New American Frontier is an ode to country music, of all things, but it twangs and bangs with the best of them.

There’s more crossover between punk and country than we typically consider, even if both genres go after entirely different demographics. They’re both, at their best, music of the people—the downtrodden, the blue-collar, the average proletariat. They document these experiences through song. Through the years, punk rock has even adopted country’s popularly attributed melancholy—reveling in “woman done me wrong” songs with just as much heartache and half as much twang. The Trusty Snakes pull from an era of country that has been passed by for pop-production and star-studded duets—the end result is a joyful, sometimes winking, throwback with songs good enough to lasso even the most rigid punk purist. 

To the artists’ credit, there’s a fine line to walk with a project like this. A certain level of awareness is required to acknowledge: that yes, these are punks playing country, and that yes, it’s at least a little funny. But also, with that comes the difficulty of not turning in an album of parody, which makes for an insubstantial, and transparent release. Luckily, I think the Trusty Snakes handle this well, and deliver a sincere effort at the genre, while leaning enough into their country-fied subject matter to keep it lively and self-aware. This isn’t a silly album, but it does have fun; and in spite of that, there are some moments of downright transcendence. Their somber cover of “Can I Sleep In Your Arms?” with its hair-raising harmonies are testament enough. 

The Trusty Snakes, by taking on country, also get the rare opportunity to rewrite it in their own image, which is an interesting perspective shift for the genre. “Ain’t Gonna Change” documents the cycle of violence that surrounds an alcoholic’s weekly debauchery. The plainspoken manner of songwriting makes for a rather stark point of view, and by giving a voice to his victims (“Why said the children? Why said his woman? Why said his momma and pop?”), it paints a picture of inevitable small-scale tyranny, condemned even further in the song’s bridge. “Troubled Times” ends the album with a big, let’s come together singalong, which acts as the album’s formal thesis. It’s political, but also personal, it has the homespun comfort of a get-together with neighbors and friends. And here is where we see the true endgame of the Trusty Snakes—in the stirring gospel harmonies of country music—as reclamation of a voice. 

And that’s ultimately what makes New American Frontier such a wonderful experiment. It has a vision to it that stretches beyond its songs. We’re in an era where we’re still sorting out what value music has to us. Back in the day, it was easy because it was worth the plastic it was burned to. But now—physical releases are falling out of fashion, streaming services place all the music in the world in your hands for the price of a CD a month, and albums as a whole are no longer how a lot of us consume music in the first place. For me, and maybe many others—but I’m honestly shooting from my own hip—music has become more ephemeral, perhaps even weightless in the modern world. But bands like the Trusty Snakes, whether they know it or not, are proving that music need not be cheap and weightless, that now that music is available to everyone, it can still be a people’s medium. It can be as earthy, honest, and yeah, even country, as we want it to be—because there’s no longer a giant machine threshing our wheat, and in its absence, we’re now picking our own grain—and maybe that’s how it needs to be for awhile. A genre once marked by documenting the lives and woes of the blue-collar and working-class became a vehicle, through the power of that Great Thresher, to reinforce right-wing politics and form an identity around them. Not as conspiracy, but as salesmanship—a means to define an audience and have an audience define themselves. And in its sputtering death throes, where the bonds of music, money, and identity have become decidedly shakier, the Trusty Snakes are here to bring us back to the land. New American Frontier is as apt a title as any, and for once in a long while, we have music for music’s sake. 

 

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Album Review: Prince Daddy and the Hyena – “Cosmic Thrill Seekers”

Here’s the short version: Cosmic Thrill Seekers is a great fucking album. There I said it. If that’s all you need to know, you can load up Spotify and move on. There lies good music. 

Now, here’s the long story: Prince Daddy & the Hyena are a raucous emo act from Albany, New York. But, you could just as easily call them ambitious pop punk, if you were so inclined. Their sound is one of massive hooks, snarling and gravel-affected vocals, trilling guitar lines, and Jeff Rosenstock bells and whistles (mostly literally). Cosmic Thrill Seekers is a concept album about the long-felt fallout of a bad trip, each song melding into the next in perfect cohesion. From start to finish, the listener is treated to a personal, aspirational, and bombastic experience that might just be the culmination of not only a sound, but of a scene. 

“I Lost My Life” begins the album with strummed chords and a gentle melody before introducing lead singer’s Kory Gregory growl of a vocal. Being unfamiliar with Prince Daddy & the Hyena’s work prior, I wasn’t expecting such a labored tone—honestly sounding more like the rough singing voice of Scott “Stza” Sturgeon than the clear and conversational tone of bands like Mom Jeans and Modern Baseball. It grows on you though, and it’s inclusion ties it into the greater tradition of punk music, rather than gating it off in the much more respectable emo community. And I think that’s an important element of Prince Daddy’s sound here. Cosmic Thrill Seekers is an amalgam of musical influences (I hear stirrings of American Idiot, Welcome to the Black Parade, and The Monitor being some of them), but its delivery is youthful and expressive. In the same way older punks balk at the theatrics of the genre, Prince Daddy wallows in them. 

The angular solos and big shout-alongs of “I Lost My Life” lead to “Lauren (Track 2),” which could potentially be my song of the summer. It’s opening lyric, “Lauren! So glad you heard me calling!” is the sort of line that can unite a crowd. The riff that precedes it, noodling guitars punctuated with power chords, opens the song with explosive energy. It feels like hot summer nights staring into a wide-open future. Prince Daddy & the Hyena excel at writing earworms molded by their own idiosyncratic musical vision; throughout Cosmic Thrill Seekers hooky pop songs are transformed into frenetic punk rock, but they do it by knowing which buttons to press. Sometimes the guitar is this great rumbling force, sometimes it’s not playing nearly as much as you think it is; the band goes from tremolo leads to arpeggio picked bridges complete with falsetto vocals. If there’s one thing Prince Daddy understands, it’s that a song never need be boring. And this sense of constant change, of dynamic arrangement, makes for a much more intense and engaging listen than if they were played straight, so to speak. 

One of my favorite songs, “Slip”, begins with an alt-rock chord riff with a couple drum hits as emphasis. From there, it explodes into a verse so emotionally intense that the melody comes out in spite of the Kory Gregory’s near-screams. It’s chorus is one of the highlights of the album for me, and it features a handful of lyrics that feel intimate and personal (“He says all my friends are so hard to read…”), which become the seeds for rousing anthemics. This is a common thread throughout Cosmic Thrill Seekers, and perhaps it’s greatest triumph: the sublimation of personal experience into something loud, vital, and exciting. 

Without a doubt, this is an album that’ll come up again and again for the rest of the year. It’ll be talked about in top ten lists, and for a lot of us, it’ll be one of those albums that follows you around for the rest of your life. And really, it’s easy to see why. Cosmic Thrill Seekers has the songs to make it possible. The instrumentation is exciting, but nothing anyone who’s listened to PUP or Jeff Rosenstock hasn’t heard in some way or another. The concept is interesting, but Direct Hit! did a drug related concept album just the other year. But, the songs—the songs here form a steady foundation for everything else to be built on, and subsequently flourish. And now that these songs are out in the world, I, for one, am better for it. It’s as simple as that. 

 

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Album Review: Ramona – “Deals, Deals, Deals!”

Deals, Deals, Deals is probably my favorite surprise of the year. I’d seen Ramona before, I’d even liked them before, but their Red Scare debut is something special. They have the songs, they have the hooks, and they have the words to make it more than just a party. I’ve been struggling a lot lately with what I actually I want from punk music. So much of it is trying to be something else—either a clone of a clone or a knowing throwback to when clones ruled the indies. Ramona is different. Ramona feels like a natural intersection of a group of close creatives; Deals, Deals, Deals is defined by songwriting before genre, and where the songs go, the sound rightly follows.

Which isn’t to say that Ramona is making music outside the confines of genre. This is melodic punk, or maybe indie punk. It’s bouncy and catchy and plaintive when it needs to be. The power chords are thick and chuggy and they form the blocky backing track to the band’s dueling vocalists. But, the fact that Ramona is a three-piece makes their music feel all the more intimate, listening to Deals, Deals, Deals, I couldn’t forget that these songs, as personal as they are, were forged from the fires of three close people. It goes a long way to capturing a certain tone, of raw conversations and comfortable clashes. 

The album opens with “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Hearts,” which features some slice-of-life relationship storytelling delivered with emotional gusto and supported by some meaty hooks. Where a lot of pop punkish bands lose their way is with their arrangements, but Ramona dodges this common misstep with thoughtful changes in their playing, specifically their drumming. I don’t often notice drumming in a song, because I’m a rhythmless philistine, but they use it here to great effect to control the song’s dynamic. “Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Hearts” becomes a full-throated, danceable singalong with a positively insistent energy. 

On “Not Your Token,” we get to hear a really cool lyrical perspective as well as some Lawrence Arms-style duet singing between the two vocalists (who I wish I could name, but all the information I’ve found is the first names of the three members, and not what they do). The throat shredding call of, “I’m not your token, I’m a fucking person,” is the kind of punk rock line I live for. It boils down the sentiment to a single statement, direct and in your face. More structurally, the song is a grail of hooks, where the entire run time feels like a big singalong chorus. “We’ll make a difference, we’ll make it better, with or without you,” might just be punk’s logline for years to come. 

“Is This Emo?” is one of the other highlights of the album for me. It’s an incredibly frank, personal song about self-perception and it reminded me of that uncomfortable frisson I first felt from bands like AJJ and Against Me! It was that sort of confrontation via talk therapy that initially pulled me deeper into the genre, and it’s bands like Ramona, with their fearless navel-gazing, that keeps me there. Deals, Deals, Deals! is filled with these trauma-narrative-cum-pop-songs, and it makes it for an involving, resonant listen. 

The album ultimately has a message of hope, as “Mambo 69” concludes: “you can build your own family, be the person that you wanna be.” Deals, Deals, Deals! uses punk rock as a vehicle for self-improvement, as a means to stare the bullshit in the eye and see it for what it is. It’s about acknowledging the worst and then striving for the best. Ramona accomplishes their goals with the finesse of scene veterans, and they do it with some of the best music I’ve heard all year. 

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Album Review: Russian Girlfriends – “In the Parlance of our Times”

A couple of years back, I managed to see Russian Girlfriends open for Red City Radio at a pretty unimpressive venue in Portland, OR that has since been closed. I had never heard of the band before the show, and I didn’t particularly like going to said venue, but alas, there I was. The New Mexican punk rock ‘n rollers impressed me well enough with their swaggering, high energy performance and I thought to myself that there must be something wrong here. Russian Girlfriends was a good band—they were extremely competent, they worked the crowd like industry pros, and they were opening for one of the biggest acts in punk rock at the time. The catch? I hadn’t heard a fucking word about them before that tour. They’d never been recommended, they’d never popped up in any of my many internet conversations with other disaffected scenesters. Russian Girlfriends were effectively off the grid for me, and then there they were: born as a full-grown band with full-grown chops, seemingly out of nowhere.

And now, they’re on A-F Records, perhaps one of the most exciting labels in punk today (also seemingly out of nowhere) and they have an album out. In the Parlance of our Times is a raging, spitting, staggering punk rock album that is as muscular as it is musical. It’s a testament to triplet runs, pick scrapes, and honey and oil high notes. Russian Girlfriends sound like an arena punk rock band—somewhere between ZZ Top, the Bronx, and the chugging melodicism of 90s Epifat. In the Parlance of our Times is all of those things, and maybe even too much of those things—but it’s here, it exists, and whether I like everything it tries to be, it executes it with a level of professionalism and competency that gives even its blandest decisions a sense of conviction.

“Coke” is a hardcore sprint that features some tongue-in-cheek sass (“you’re the reason punk rock is dead!”), a minute long rager that sets the stage not necessarily for Russian Girlfriends’ sound as it does their energy. “Angry Bong Rips” is a more traditional song, featuring a catchy vocal melody and a lot of guitar-centric antics. As far as riffs go, these guys got a lot of them, running power chords up and down the fretboard with leads a-plenty. The vibe is 80s and honestly not too much of a stone’s throw from Skynyrd, but where the influence might not be “cool,” at least it’s different. We can only take so much Replacements, Clash, and Springsteen worship in the punk scene—the palette change is refreshing, if not always to my taste.

The arrangements throughout the album are head-turning and part of the reason Russian Girlfriends feel so fully-formed to me (or pre-packaged, depending on my mood). “White Guilt White Heat” has heavy riffs complete with piercing harmonics as well as a strummed slow-down. Echoes of Interscope-era Rise Against come to mind, which is no bad thing, mind you, but in appreciating the album as a work of art, I can’t help but wonder how they ended up here. There is no evil work at play, I know; their polish is an admirable trait. But—and there’s always a but—it is in the cracks through which we see the artist, and I can’t help but feel like In the Parlance of our Times doesn’t have much in the way of cracks—that it is too tight, too competent, and in effect: void of personality. In less words: it’s safe.

But there’s something to be said for safe. Safe isn’t always exciting, but it can be fun in a comfortable sort of way. Like a well-worn boot or a favorite guitar. Russian Girlfriends aren’t reinventing anything here (Axl Rose or Billy Gibbons, take your pick), but they are banging out expertly conceived tunes with the precise execution of real life musicians. It’s something to behold. It might not change the world, but who knows, maybe it’ll improve your night.

 

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