"The biggest lie about punk rock is that anyone can do it. Sure, anyone can do crap punk rock, but there is a fine art to taking a music fueled by destructive impulses and building it to last." - Stuart Berman, "Album Review: Metz' Metz" Pitchfork. 2012
Berman makes a bold statement at the beginning of his review for Metz' self-titled which was released earlier this month to glowing praise. The album does hold water to said critical justification just as much as Berman's statement about punk rock. While listening to Metz' latest record this week alongside cloakroom's EP and revisiting New Plastic Ideas and Nevermind as fodder between them, 2012 has been the year that time remembered. We once again felt the dirt wedged between our fingers and our nails and the music which accompanies it. It's now a time of idol worship and nostalgia, and the fine line we ride between the two varies from elitist to even more elitist publications back to the even more elitist culture of listeners who have their head so far up their own ass, they've traveled back to the adolescent discovery of all things they consider to be "true."
Between seeing At the Drive-In continue to deconstruct the sound they more than disassembled a decade prior and the beauty and sprawl of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's out of body experience, one can say that most of our musical notches are still in tact. (I say that knowing that there is much dispute about the former.) Between a new Hot Water Music record and Texas is the Reason entering the studio with J. Robbins, it seems we just can't let go of the '90s-core musical landscape of pre-Internet showmanship.
But there's still one reunion, one time in my life I've yet to revisit, and this weekend I feel like the last decade of my life will come to a close and I will have more than a better understanding of what punk rock truly is and not what I was told it was in 2002. While it was four years after the release of The Shape of Punk to Come, I discovered Refused for the first time after seeing the video for "New Noise" on an MTV affiliated rock channel. Like videos for "One Armed Scissor" and "Understanding (In a Car Crash)," this was my first dive into "hardcore" music as I knew it to be at that point. Dead Kennedys and Black Flag were still just "punk bands" and Operation Ivy was "ska" when I was sixteen and didn't know any better and lacked any sort of back story to the bigger picture.
I didn't have ten years of research and discovery under me. Now all the pieces fit. Now I understand how we went from The Sex Pistols to Public Image Ltd. to Black Flag to Fugazi to Blink 182 to Fall Out Boy to metalcore numbness and now past 'GO,' collecting $200 through Web funding.
Just as I grew up in the suburban landscape of America, I'm not alone in how I wedged my way into the punk rock lifestyle. My story is no different than many others. I've always been an angst ridden child. I wasn't good at sports. I was very self conscious about myself throughout high school - and still am to an extent. Like many of you, at sixteen, music was the escape of emotions. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you I didn't own a copy of Significant Other years prior, or still listened to NOFX, Reel Big Fish and Blink 182 around the same time - bands some Refused fans would find "below them."
The Shape of Nu-Metal to Come.
That was my environment, and I can only be a product of it. I think that's the thing overlooked when discussing The Shape of Punk to Come. In 1997-98, it was reinventing and "new," but in 2012 it's idol worship. I didn't know who Nation of Ulysses were when I was sixteen, but now I do, and when I hear people denounce the record because of it, it's like they're ripping out a piece of what made me who I am today. It's taking a sledge hammer to the foundation of my grade school punk history 101.
All you uptight pricks just stomped on my diorama. Thanks.
The funny thing about our youthful "know-it-all" attitude is that some of us grow out of it and open ourselves to broader ranges of music, and some can't quite shake what we've always been attracted to audibly. The Shape of Punk to Come is an album centered around the expansion of what music, particularly the genre of "punk rock," could be. Beyond the references borrowed from the early hardcore scene, down to the cover for Rye Coalition's Teen-age Dance Session, the band turned it into their own for the next generation.
Somewhere, at some point in the first decade of the millennium, a line was drawn between holding our elders sacred and handing down old ideas to create new ones. There are more listeners and critics (including my guilty self) who would rather blame the next batch of bands for turning a trick than doing their best at reinventing the wheel over time. It really bothers me at this point that some of us are still in this mindset.
Tim McTague said something that just blew me away this past week in an interview with Alternative Press about the disbanding of UnderOath and about their legacy. He said, "It was this effort of a bunch of small things coming together, that obviously, we can’t take credit for—people we don’t even know probably played a massive part. It was just this thing that came out and I just kind of smiled for the fallen great bands, for the Froduses and the At The Drive-Ins, or Refused—who are obviously back and destroying everyone in their path. But at the time, all those bands that almost got there but didn’t. [Underoath] will never be dropped in the same conversations. No one from Refused will ever care about our band. I’m sure Justin Beck from Glassjaw hates our band—and that doesn’t matter. We know we’ll never connect with or inspire [the members of those bands]. They inspired us. Our music career is in honor of what they started."
It's sad to read that quote considering how far UnderOath pushed themselves as a band, the fact that they brought These Arms Are Snakes out on one of their first big tours and that like Poison the Well, UnderOath is that band that drew up the blueprint for the next wave, only to blow past them with their last three records. For some, even in the UnderOath's stride forward, they were just "ripping off Isis, etc."
The biggest tragedy to come out of The Shape of Punk to Come is that in the years to follow, we got so attached to the past that we forgot about what the future could hold. It's 2012 and we're finally digging ourselves out of the rubbish of 2005-2009's most popular hardcore, post-hardcore and punk acts to grace a Hot Topic display case.
You can sit here and bitch all you want about how Refused borrowed a few tricks from early hardcore's elite, but they also borrowed from European house music, jazz records (a genre based on ripping off other musicians and turning it into something all its own), classical string arrangements and even the blues. No one ever talks about those references. No one is defending the Bo Diddley or Igor Stravinsky allusions.
No matter the genre or sub-genres that make up punk rock, it's always been about dismantling the standard. With punk rock, there's no standard within the genre, if there was, and you're playing it, then you're not even really punk rock then, right? Punk rock's an excuse to be a rock star without having to know how to play an instrument, right? It's about being the toughest person in your crew, right? It's about cascading the most "fuck it" attitude in your lyrics, right? These standards sound familiar? That's because they're all made by us. In a genre without rules, there sure as hell seems to be a lot of them.
The Shape of Punk to Come is an album without rules. Worship and Tribute is an album without rules. Relationship of Command is an album without rules. You see where I'm going with this? But those records are references to the Bad Brains and Fugazis and Drive Like Jehus alike. So what separates their worth in history? Without Coltrane, there would be no Monk. Without the Kinks there would be no Spoon. Without the Talking Heads there would be no amount of great acts such as St. Vincent and Grizzly Bear. To put this all in a better perspective, I'll pull from what I know. To quote Roger Meyers Sr., "TV is built on plagiarism! If it wasn't for The Honeymooners, we would of never had The Flinstones! If someone hadn't made Sergeant Biko, there'd be no Topcat!" I'm ten years older than my first listen to The Shape of Punk to Come. News flash to younger readers out there: everything is built on everything. Some bands will disassemble an idea, and others will cook a pot of gumbo with many ingredients and influences.
You'll know when something is "crap," because when you move forward and backwards in time through its references, it all sounds the same. When you take a linear path through a timeline and similarities exist, but different landscapes are painted using different techniques and bases, you'll find yourself being able to sift through said "crap." It takes time and it takes growing up. You never have to grow out of punk rock, but you should learn how to use its insights to further progress.
If not, you're spending all your time on stage bitching about what's hardcore and what isn't and giving me something to laugh at on the Internet besides the "Darren Sharper 'Hold my dick!'" video.
Thanks Refused, for putting the team on your back.
The higher difference between a well written song and that of a math problem or riddle appreciated by few and held high among the majority that scuffs it. Where does the tangent of entertainment end and the construction detour of rhythmic changes and noise begin? Is there a middle ground, and if so, is that where all the best music lives? Does that make it harder on any artist to find that ground? To not be too liberal as to shove away an audience or too restrictive to never expand and try new avenues within their maturing skills? Who's to blame for that? Is it an audience whose core is made up of like-minded individuals who aren't always open-minded? There is always room for anarchy in our most anxious of nerves and methodical undertones of violence - physical anger asserted after mental frustration. We love to watch shit blow-up and the idea of minor destruction never completely leaves our subconscious after childhood. We think about it our every day actions: laughing at a person fall over, watching the news, all those blooper shows. What is it about some ambiance and noise that is attractive to some, and repulsive to others. But if you layer the sort of annoyance in a lush tune, you can sometimes sell it as artful pop? Or again, should that be in the consideration of "best music" found on a specific medium of measurement between harmonic and apocalyptic. What's harder to count? What's harder to hold - tension between bars and measures - or a constant rhythm across a bright chorus? Because of the subjectivity of music, there's no real answer - but I'm beginning to think we overlook the value of one song's point versus a "new favorite artist" (often read: hype machine) who is exploring something mocked only years earlier for something that's not that forward thinking still to people currently. Anyway, I'm sitting there eating a burger - drunkenly scrolling through social feed - and in seconds I'm watching Refused - almost a decade after hearing them - on a major Late Night show. It's all on my fucking phone. I had an aneurism, a hobo revived me for some change to get a burger.
I can't make this shit up.... well, most of it anyway.
In 1998, Refused released a record that would revolutionize the hardcore scene for some time. Some still herald it as some of the most revolutionary work since Fugazi, and others saw it as a rip-off of the United States' own Nation of Ulysses, releasing 13 Point Program to Destroy America in 1991. Whether one album and/or band is held higher on your elitist food chain, they're both important notches in the punk scene as a whole. Then there's At the Drive-In, known for their Fugazi work ethic and equally unhinged sound and insane live shows, they ended their career shortly after releasing one of punk rock and hardcore's opuses, Relationship of Command. It didn't destroy the workings of 3OneG or Revelation Records or even Ebullition, but at the same time it was on a spectrum all its own. It stood out like a sore thumb pushing the self destruct button and herald a revolution for all to wake up and attempt to just be creative while maintaining the aggression and political nature hardcore was built on. Like Refused shortly after the release of The Shape of Punk to Come, At the Drive-In called it a day after releasing a record that didn't just resonate throughout the punk rock community, it left a permanent mark on most bands wanting to create some sort of noise in the hardcore and post-hardcore scene alike.
Somewhat seen as two reunions that would never happen in a million years, Monday we were all floored by the fact that both bands would be reuniting, and that both bands would be playing this year's Coachella festival out in the dessert of California. The social networking feeds, our site and many other publications exploded with the news of this. Honestly, I think some people will be selling their property to go out to the festival just to see both of these bands reunite. It's understandable. Even Refused said it in their statement Monday night, "We never did "The shape of punk to come" justice back when it came out, too tangled up in petty internal bickering to really focus on the job. And suddenly there's this possibility to do it like it was intended. We wanna do it over, do it right. For the people who've kept the music alive through the years, but also for our own sakes."
That statement always makes me wonder about why bands even reunite. Money? Boredom? Settling old debt and differences amongst personal tension? Whatever it may be, most of us are happy that it happens. In the past three years I got to see The Get Up Kids, Sunny Day Real Estate, The Jesus Lizard, HUM, Hot Snakes, Wire and Olivia Tremor Control. All of these bands I never got to see at their prime, and thankfully they pulled it off years after creating some of the most memorable music for the respective scenes to date. But even watching David Yow stage dive during the opening song of The Jesus Lizard's set will never compare to people seeing that band in the worst of club settings at their prime. Do you think seeing At the Drive In play in a fucking classroom will even compare to a sea of people watching the band on the main stage of one of the largest music festivals in the world? It just won't. To those people in the basement at Refused's last show - they witnessed something that any reunion at 10,000+ person event won't begin to recreate.
Now, I don't say the following things because I'm bitter or an elitist or know that I, in no way in hell, can afford to make it out to Coachella this year. I'm just trying to make a point that reunions will never compare to the actual experience of the moment we all long to have been a part of. Seeing Portugal. The Man five years ago with 100 people is something special to me. Seeing Pygmy Lush thrash around at a house show is probably the closest I will ever see pg.99. Seeing a kid rip Drew Speziale to the ground in the middle of a song the first time I saw Circle Takes the Square with 50 kids is indescribable. Unless you lived that moment - or was even that kid screaming back in Spezlale's face as he was gripping his shirt in angst and passion, pulling him off the stage - it's a moment like no other to be a part of something that real at a young age, or at the very least, in the same room witnessing it first hand when you're going "Oh fuck, what is this?" over and over again in the back of your mind.
I've been working on a book for three years now, interviewing a lot of my favorite bands about some of the best records that redefined the punk and hardcore scene of the late '90s and early millennium. One sort of unsaid point that lays across every interview I transcribe is that a lot of these bands either (a) were attempting something new for the hell of it or (b) creating something out of a disdain for what was going on in the scene at the time. That's a point that resonates all too well today. Want to know why the punk and hardcore community is getting bigger? Kids are tired of being lied to. No one can manufacture that moment and put it on a stage for a summer to call it the next best thing. The greatest things to come out of punk rock were generally more organic than you think they were. Kids are going to basement shows and intentionally seeking out new and exciting music. They feel close to it because they are close to it. While some will call what's happening now a bit of idol worship to peers of the Midwestern scene and angst Northeast screamo of the day, at least there are a few doing it justice at the moment.
Let us rejoice for today that we finally get to see something like this go down. But know that history never repeats itself often. I'm not denouncing any of these reunions, or any reunions that have or will ever happen. I'm just saying, if you're excited about a particular band (subjectivity be damned) and that band makes you rethink what you know about music thus far in your life - go see them. Buy their limited vinyl and with technology today, film and archive as much of it as possible. Have you seen the Fugazi documentary Instrument? I think those gymnasiums and those VFW halls would be way more packed if more kids knew then, what we know now. You never know who is going to churn out the next important history notch in punk rock - that's why this scene is so exciting to be a part of. Heed this: If you feel it, reach out and experience something 10,000+ people wish they were a part of a decade earlier.
My 2xLP copy of The Shape of Punk to Come is sitting at the post office. Tomorrow will be an early Christmas for me. I haven't stopped listening to said record all day. Doing work, driving to work, closing the restaurant, driving home, writing this...well, you get the point.
The Shape of Punk to Come is arguably the Sgt. Peppers of punk music. The name was bold. The attempts were bolder. The pay off has stuck to this day and ironically the ideas that went into the system aren't seen by many. Even one of the creators of the album thinks the worship is all talk and no show.
The Shape of Punk to Come is a solid album under many pretenses. For one, it is driving and heightening. It has the power to set itself off like carefully placed bombs of passion. Did any of us really care what Lyxzén had to say? It wasn't what he had to say, but more of how hard it hit with the rest of the music behind it. We didn't believe in "the new beat," we yearned for the new BEAT!
If there's one thing special about the album that artists should take away, it was that it attempted something. Sure, there's tons of influence from the American hardcore circuit of the early to mid-90's, but it was meld into its own thing by four different artists blending and even fighting for different ideas to come into the mix. They challenged themselves which in turn challenged their listeners.
Punk has always been about the challenge. Whether it was the Sex Pistol's disgust or The Clash's political siren to no-wave, Fugazi's angular instrumentation and hardcore kids learning how to actually play their instruments with equal parts creativity and aggression.
A few years later we were introduced to albums like Relationship of Command and Worship and Tribute, once again challenging our tastes and what we think "punk" is in the end. The Shape of Punk to Come will stand as that album that changed the next ten years for better or worse. Seriously, look around you. Look at this site. Look at your hometown garage band start-ups. Look at the flavors of the week.
In the last month I've been kind of longing for another shape to come. I guess I'll have to be patient, or are we too far gone? Time will tell I presume. Until then, there is one line that is forever burned into my brain..."Where do we go from here?! Just about anywhere!"
God. I sure as hell hope so, because Refused are Fucking Dead!
thanks for reading my work. I can't wait to share more!
"...sub-question: is it better to die out, or to fade away?"
I write this, mind you, while an infomercial for Monster Ballads is on the television. Maybe we just don't know what we've got, until it's gone.
Remember the entry where I shed some details on my conversation with ex-Refused drummer David Sandström? We had a small tangent of a conversation concerning the "death of the album."
Well, it would seem appropriate that the band we all love to hate to love may be putting that idea into play. Brand New, rumored, are about to take this idea into play.
But let's face it. We brought this upon ourselves. Case and point: Drew's entry that the new Thrice album has leaked three months prior to its release. This shows that the majority no longer longs for the days where we waited in anticipation for new releases, rushed to the store to grab it and flipped through the pages of the album's booklet while the first song off said album blasted out of our car stereo.
No, no...those days are gone.
Back to Sandström and mine's conversation. He believes that single will possibly make it's way back into the system. Get rid of filler, and constantly spin the killer, right?
Well, that's good and bad for artists and listeners. Artists will be able to release music instantly. Record a song, or two, release them digitally, and boom, instant gratification! Listeners will no longer have to beat the system, never have to wait impatiently again, constantly updating their MP3 players daily with new music from their favorite artists.
Win-win, or not?
Some of the best music is a full album. Ranging from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon to Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come. These records work best as a whole, argueably containing great stand-alone tracks though. The shape of music would change, and I would bet the major's would lose more money because they are shelling out less of a product. If the market is flooded already, can you imagine an increase in songs, since the new way to create art is in singles, not in albums. Well, I guess someone like Ryan Adams or Sufjan Stevens would like this idea, but there are exceptions to every rule.
To see music being created one block at a time would be tragic. By producing a full product, artists create something on a full scale to be judged as a whole, instead of incriments. Singles and demos are fine when it comes to selling and creating interest, but the idea of creating songs at a time in an already flooded market seems too much of a bad thing.
Two incredible albums are released today: Portugal. The Man's The Satanic Satanist and Rx Bandits' Mandala. Both these records would not work as separate tracks, and I'm stoked that they came together as a whole.
To Brand New, you may mean something along the lines of what I'm speaking of above, or possibly moving to a completely digital medium, since it would seem the public doesn't care about money put into tangible products of your art.
Whatever the case be me, I hope that your band and Sandström are wrong in the end.
Today I interviewed David Sandström, formerly the drummer of Refused.
We ended our interview discussing the differences in recording an album like The Shape of Punk to Come in 1998, as opposed to now.
That led us into a conversation of how the recording and distribution models have so drastically changed; how bands have cut out the middle man; how bands weren't making money back then, so no one should be complaining now; and how the older punk and hardcore bands used to network by pay phones and numbers written and given to other bands on paper.
The one thing that was brought up, and interested me the most, was our talk on the death of the album. Now, this is nothing new. An argument brought on by the likes of many music writers and critics.
But Sandström brought up a new business model that he would think to see the majors possibly use in the future.
While the old standard was a single, and a series of singles became an album, and then bands began to create a testament as a proper full-length - that trend is dying.
While I'm not saying that there aren't bands out there creating great albums, I'm saying that they don't exist as much as I would like to see, but they do exist.
Sandström's idea was that there are artists who can create great songs, or singles, but when constructing an album, they fail, and only create meaningless forgettable filler. He suggest that some artists should go back in creating singles. That some band's should just release songs as they go.
With the ability to create music on your own, as opposed to "middle man" help - and the distribution and sales of digital singles out weighing full length albums - bands can still make money off of singles.
The idea makes sense, revolving back into the old standard of 45's and 78's that had an A and B side. The problem with this is set times. Who wants to go to a show to see only a few songs - right? But imagine a tour with more bands and shorter set times.
Sandström was part of one of the best records ever written for a genre that has all but dwindled itself into muck. Those bands who are still around, but started the race, are lapping those who joined later.
It was a privilege to interview such a talented musician, and a creator of a footprint of a record.
"New Noise" Video
"Deadly Rhythm" Live
(NOTE: Sandström told me he used three different drum sets to get different sounds on this song)
Also, Anton has written a great blog on his thoughts on Twitter. Please check it out here if you haven't already.