Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Searching For A Former Clarity. The Curse of Being 'Punk'

In order to keep up with the ever-growing field of published music, Riff N' Ralk, Music Tock has expanded to the printed word to review music. Want Alex, Ryan, or Corey to write a lengthy, well-thought-out essay about your favorite albums? Leave a comment below, or write on our Facebook wall and we will give it a fair shot!

By: Alex Gomory

I once mused to myself one afternoon the struggles of being a successful Punk band.  A genre that has forced itself to the confines of 2 minute songs at break neck speeds composed of 3 notes or less is doomed to stagnation.  I do not profess to be any sort of Punk scholar or expert, but as an observer of the genre I have a sense of pity for the hardest of Punk fans, the ones with their mow hawks, working class boots and suspenders.  Unfortunately for Punk, it has forced itself into a corner and stereotype it can barely escape without abandoning its morals and values.  This has led to many off shoots such as hardcore, ska, post-Punk, post-Punk revival, pre-post-proto-Punk review, and dubstep (I think that's right).  The music that was sticking it to the norm has fallen into such a cliche'd trap that it has itself become more the mainstream than the music it was once sticking it to.

Now to make things clear I think Punk was once a truly ingenious genre of music, its chaotic structure was in clear defiance to what was prominent.  Sweeping guitar solos were replaced with gritty riffs played with guitars that barely worked, obnoxious drum solos were replaced by 1-2 drum beats consisting of snare, hi-hat, and bass drums, and any and all keyboards were destroyed into oblivion.  Anti-mainstream genre's like this can be great when they point out the pitfalls of the current norm.  Personally I can't wait for the movement that will point out the stupidity of this over adherence to macbooks and programmed loops, but that is neither here nor there.  

Sadly over the years Punk has fallen out of its very small niche popularity and become somewhat of a cliche'd joke on its own.  Either you are attending basement shows of the bands that swear they are "keeping it real", or you are at Warped Tour seeing some glossied up corporate version of what the genre was.  If anyone tells you they like Punk music and the first bands they mention include Bad Religion, Green Day, or The Offspring just punch them in the head.... probably a few times just for good measure.  A happy medium has long vanished in the multitude of genres that spawned from the first Punk wave.  

A mere 12 years ago such a band did exist though, a band that finally brought the cool factor of Punk back into the mainstream.  If you saw the title and recognized the name then you probably have already guessed that I am writing about Against Me!  A once scrappy band from Florida (a state which I think may be the opposite of Punk) that has since lost all resemblance of what it once was, but we haven't quite gotten there yet.

Against Me! in its earliest days was a very unique breed of Punk music that had not really been on any sort of radar for a while.  Its infusion of somewhat folky tendencies and a more DIY sound brought the gritty sound of the early Punk era back into the spotlight.  Like all now famous Punk acts Against Me! started as a band that would play to the audience that consisted of the opening band and the sound guy, but their unique chemistry and sound caught the ears of reviewers, promoters, and fans young and old.  Somehow through those early records you would hear the instruments that were barely being held together and the energy that you figure could only exist in a live performance.  Yet, unlike the current trend of lo-fi buzzing, it was strangely crisp and clear.  The instruments half-broken sound came through loud and clear on your speaker system and wasn't added later via pro-tools.  It was a great combination of poverty and high society all in one sound.

I must admit I heard of the band many years after their inception and long into their current sound so I ensure you that I am not simply pining for "the good ol days", but rather looking back and wondering what happened.  Against Me! released a few EPs before releasing what I think was one of the greatest albums of the 00s Reinventing Axl Rose.  A brief 30 minute romp that capture so many emotions in its short audio assault such as anger, rage, jubilation, fear, exhaustion, and loneliness.  Tom Gabel's (His name at the time) voice sounded about 3 seconds from going out throughout the entire record, and a chorus of friends chanted throughout the songs in the back.  It was as if we were given permission to listen to a backyard party sing-a-long that was meant to be a private affair.  The raw intensity combined with the somewhat empty sounding recorded gave a vibe that these guys barely knew what they were doing, which added so much charm to the record.  This was once the definition of Punk, just some people playing together with barely a concept of how the hell to play their instruments or write a song.  Just read anything about The Germs if you don't believe me.  It did not matter though, as the emotion and feeling that came through the cacophony of noise made up for the general lack of talent.  There was hardly a complaint to be had about Reinventing Axl Rose, with the only one I could provide was the slightly too contrived Baby, I'm an Anarchist which sounded like something an angsty 15 year old would write as opposed to an eloquent word smith which Laura Jane Grace (which is Tom's name now) had proven to be.  Beyond that, it was near perfection.

Against Me! would follow up with with As The Eternal Cowboy, a slightly cleaner sounding affair, but still offered enough grit and fast paced dysphoria to get fists pumping across any concert venue.  As a second LP you could not discount Against Me! for attempting something a bit different than what they had been doing since the late 90s.  It still worked. 

We then come to the divide among Against Me! fans.  I have two friends who were big fans of Against Me! before the shift occurred and would tell me stories of how they watched one of their favorite bands disintegrate into corporate fluff.  Searching For a Former Clarity is a peculiar departure from the original Against Me! formula in many ways and it was the sign that things would never be the same for the band.  The original rough and tumble sound of half broken spirits and instruments was cast aside for something so polished you would have thought Rick Rubin had had his way with the album.  This was a band that would headline Warped Tour, not somebodies basement.  I fully respect that bands change, mature, grow up, and ultimately do not sound the same as they once did.  I respect that when a band evolves their sound, but this wasn't an evolution by any means.  It was assimilation.

To be fair many will argue that Searching For a Former Clarity is a quality album that is still leaps and bounds above the rest of the mainstream punk affair of its time.  I have a hard time disagreeing with this opinion after looking at the rest of mind numbing material that is listed on a Warped Tour line-up.  I have had the conversation with plenty of people, and typically it goes nowhere.  For those of you who love this album, and the rest of their catalog, by all means enjoy it, enjoy your t-shirts, buttons, and sew on patches as well. 

For the rest of you who are wondering why I would review an album so many years later, it is because the album is such a bizarre turning point.  Everything that made the band unique and enduring is hurled out the window for one reason or another.  The crackly snare drums, sparse guitars, and chorus of drunkard friends are gone. Celebrated sparse moments in their previous albums are filled with fuzzy guitar whirs and crunching bass lines.  It is as if they felt they had to be more 'Punk' in their sound to appeal to a wider audience, but in doing so they ended up sounding like something that came out of the back of a Hot Topic.  To make matters worse, the album is considerably longer than anything they put out before.  At 47 minutes the album drones on and on and without any of the character that made their earlier work charming and endearing, not even a wink or a nod.

Laura's lyrics have taken an odd turn for the worse as well, as if he (at the time) had taken a whole bottle of stupid pills and decided she needed to be more "edgy".  I always have a hard time with 'political' lyrics as they seem to fall into one of two camps, brilliance, or sounding like an angry 8th grader.  Those few bands that have pulled of that brilliance often drown their lyrics in metaphor in order to get a bigger point across.  Laura's inane anti-whatever shoutings come off sounding like the latter as she wails "Condoleeza" (During From Your Lips To Gods Ears (The Energizer))over and over to an audience who will progressively know less and less about the individual.  Laura, you might as well make a song titled "Barry Goldwater Sucks" as you would be having the same effect.  The rantings continue during Unprotected Sex With Multiple Partners as he makes bland verbal blows against the music industry, a song that would have had some sort of relevance or impact two albums ago, but instead comes off almost as a joke at this point in their career.

The feelings and emotions are completely lost and gone from their older days and have been replaced with what seem like forgeries.  Holy Shit, which I guess is about how rock music is stagnate (am I missing an ironic joke or something) sounds so clean and polished that you could have played it at the homecoming dance.  The song almost tricks you into thinking that it will embrace the bands original simpler acoustic roots, but turns into another dirge of overly done riffs.  All the weight the song could have had is gone, and Laura's screaming sounds so unbelievably insincere.   The same goes for How Low, which is about her struggles with substance abuse, but holds nowhere near the emotional power of 8 Full of Hours of Sleep from their earlier days.  

I could go on and on, but the end point is that Against Me! clearly was at a turning point here, and one that alienated many fans.  It was a smart move for them as it garnered much greater media attention and popularity, but at the same time they lost nearly everything that made them the potential saviors of 'Punk' rock.  Instead, Against Me! became part of the power chord 'Punk' collective and has never emerged again.  After this album followed more dull, boring, uninspired drivel that had none of the heart and soul of what was once this band.   It is a real shame to because Against Me! had the potential to really shake up the 'Punk' scene and encourage a return to their simpler roots, but instead they joined the conformed norm.  They had the ability to show that raw dirty 'Punk' was the future, celebrating the efforts of great acts such as The Lawrence Arms and The Falcon, but instead I go back to my ivory tower of criticism and ridicule and pity the genre once more.