I have got a bit of a confession to make: the further away I get from my 40th birthday, the further away I seem to be drifting from my “punk rock” roots. It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate the music or the message at this point; quite the opposite, in fact. It’s just that I think as the old internal time signature slows down a bit, so too does the music that I find myself gravitating to or seeking out.
But every once in a while, an album or a band (more often than not from the UK) comes along and grabs me by the ears and shakes my brain a little bit and reminds me about all of the things that got me into listening to this music in the first place thirty-whatever years ago. The snarl, the aggression, the being fed up with the current state of the world and your place in it, and the rallying cry for uniting us toward something better.
Enter Grade 2. The trio from the Isle of Wight are just about to celebrate their tenth anniversary and recently released their fourth studio full-length (a self-titled one, naturally) via Hellcat Records. The album somehow has sounds that are both modern and throwback, and it finds the fellas right at the peak of their A-game.
Grade 2 comes out swinging with “Judgement Day.” The frenetic drum and bass-heavy intro is what initially grabs your attention before the almost psychobilly-sounding guitar riff joins, creating a groove that is perfect for both shaking your ass in celebration and shaking your fist in protest. The song checks in at a tidy ninety-three seconds, which gives it a feel that it’s almost over before it starts, yet also serves as a perfect place-setter for what’s to come over the next thirty-four minutes.
When Grade 2 the album is at its best, it finds Grade 2 the band occupying a sort of hybrid style of punk rock. There’s the swagger and camaraderie and gang vocals of classic UK punk bands like Cock Sparrer or The Buzzcocks but through the rhythmic filter of classic 90s East Bay punk bands. The album is a solid mix of rapid-fire sub-two-minute bangers and stretched-out, more melodic tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on a certain series of skateboard-legend-inspired video games. “Doing Time” is a blistering paean to leaving behind the monotony of the day job life.
Personal favorites include the back-to-back “Gaslight” – a middle-finger to corporate profiteers and political hucksters, common themes on both sides of “the Pond” – and “Don’t Stand Alone,” a classic pop-punk tale of unity and trying to look out for those who feel isolated or left behind. Album closer “Bottom Shelf” is another scorcher lead by another nimble-fingered Sid Ryan bassline, a regret-filled ode to life in sketchy barroom corners. Ryan and his bandmates Jack Chatfield (guitar) and Jacob Hull (drums) have got talent and energy and musical chemistry in droves and it’s as apparent on Grade 2 as it has ever been; they might be only in their mid-twenties (oh God, now I’m back to feeling old) but a decade of plying their trade and focusing their energies creates a modern sound that’s well beyond their years.
At some level, it’s disheartening to know that some of the themes of isolation and frustration and anger at the ruling classes are just as prevalent and poignant now as they have been at any point in any of the previous generations across the nearly five full decades since punk rock burst onto the scene middle-fingers first. However, it’s refreshing to know that there are still trios like Grade 2 snarling at the bit to keep the fires lit and modernize the sound and the message.