I can’t shake the sense that there’s something wrong with punk and politics right now. At the risk of nostalgia–or betraying a lack of knowledge otherwise–it feels like fewer bands these days have the pulse on the roots contemporary political situation than in years past. My favorite hardcore punk bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s were all informed by radical politics of some kind, from MOSS ICON to BORN AGAINST to the gamut of Sarah Kirsch bands (TORCHES TO ROME, PLEASE INFORM THE CAPTAIN…, BAADER BRAINS, etc). The whole Ebullition/Heartattack scene was oriented around a certain political orientation, and while it’s easy to lambast this as a form of deluded lifestyle or dropout politics, the attempts at veganism, feminism, and ethical life of the period were more comprehensive and collectively-oriented than I think it’s sometimes remembered. I was reading the “Ecopunk” column from the Richmond-based Slug and Lettuce zine a few months back, and was surprised to find how reflective and perceptive it was on issues of masculinity and coloniality in radical ecological politics. Sure it’s “cringe” and certainly not perfect, but it’s also an authentic attempt to work through actual relationships.
In 2022, these zines are no more–even MRR is online only, its final pages riven by a pretty disastrous conversation about BDS. The politics of punk in the last decade has largely been regrettable–think Kathleen Hanna’s Hillary Clinton song, or on the other side the asinine suggestion that a Trump presidency would “make punk great again.” More of the scene discussions have turned inwards, focusing on representation, identity, and belonging in subcultural spaces–worthwhile topics as they always are, if sometimes veering towards their more liberal formats. Meanwhile capital accumulation chugs along, ravishing the planet, its people, and nonhuman life alike. Oddly, little attention is directed here from almost any punks. I recall talking to a punk friend about the Standing Rock pipeline blockade and a variety of solidarity actions organized with it, and they expressed incredulity that there were more hippies–and they were better organized–taking more solidarity action than many punks (with Native punks making a notable exception).
There are of course pockets of more interesting trends, mostly outside the colonial US. Consider the Barcelona hardcore scene of the last decade–more principally anarchist in orientation, groups like ANARQUIA VERTICAL, PIÑÉN, ULTRA and of course the eponymous BARCELONA. Many of the homegrown US examples are a bit more playful–think XYLITOL’s excoriation of geoengineering on “Dim the Sun.” But it is the groups associated with D4MT LABS INC NEUROSONIC RESEARCH–many of whom share members–who have most comprehensively worked through the ecological catastrophe and its social roots and effects. These include KALEIDOSCOPE’s After the Futures LP and “Decolonization EP” and last year’s excellent TOWER 7 Peace on Earth? LP, as well as two full lengths by the more introspective STRAW MAN ARMY.
Sonically, STRAW MAN ARMY–particularly their first LP, Age of Exile–seems to me to reference that period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when anarcho/peace punk began to be superseded by hardcore punk. But sometimes it seems forgotten that some of the Dischord and Vermiform sounds of the eastern US seaboard emerged alongside bands who incorporated more of that anarcho/CRASS sound. Consider NUCLEAR CRAYONS and NO TREND, two DC bands that seem to bridge this gap. The incorporation of plodding FLIPPER-esque bass lines frees almost psychedelic guitars to meander over the top, while deadpan stream of consciousness poetic rants form the final layer. Is this not the same well that MOSS ICON would later dip into so successfully? These scenes tend to be separated in our historical imagination of genre difference, but it seems to me like they’re working with similar construction materials.
SOS continues building on this foundation while continuing to carve out their own unique music. Many of the punk tracks are both urgent and somewhat austere, allowing silences to emerge between the interplay of the guitar, bass, and drums. Spliced in between these, almost half of the record is more ambient interludes and recorded nature sounds. The penultimate track “Beware” pushes the band to even more melodic territories, with a little bit of actual singing rather than just the spoken poetics. I would never foist “concept album” on a record as good as this, but what is clear is that there are thematic ties across the songs on both of their records. Whereas Age of Exile was clearly a record interrogating a variety of aspects of US settler colonialism (and like KALEIDOSCOPE, raising funds for The Red Nation). SOS is a comprehensive portrait of the contemporary planetary catastrophe. Technological narcissism (“State of the Art”), the inscriptions of settler colonialism on the landscape (“Jerusalem Syndrome”), and the persistence of the haunting dead (“Underland”; “Day 49”). Indeed, there’s a persistent focus on what is hidden in the soil of the earth: history, seeds, refuge, the dead, memory; “the underlands remain the true territory of history.”
It can be a difficult line to toe without falling into a kind of essentialist nihilism. The aforementioned NUCLEAR CRAYONS and NO TREND each have regrettable songs decrying overpopulation; MOSS ICON’s exploration of coloniality is at times rather naïve; TOWER 7 worry that humans as such are corrupt, and perhaps ought to go extinct. How can such a position be avoided? One effective tool that several of the tracks use is a response to what “they” might otherwise say. “Simple Cure” for instance says “They’ll ask us–did you work alone? / You say yes and I’ll say no.” “Beware” says “They’ll say there’s no one left to care.” There’s also a bit of call and response in a few songs, where questions are answered (or statements questioned) in a back and forth. Finally, the accompanying insert text also provides a crucial rereading of what this “SOS” is meant to be: a kind of restless searching, listening, or even divining.
Music bears, at best, an ambivalent relationship to politics. I wouldn’t want to suggest that it ought to play the role of mobilization, organization, or even critique. I’m also a fan of pop and certainly capable of wincing at the most tedious “conscious” cultural forms–including the critical review blog which, through description and reflection, risks demystifying and thus ruining the text at hand. So maybe the place to start isn’t with “the politics of punk”, but the relationship between music and movement. They’ll take many forms and tones, and it can’t be predicted which will work or not. But we need more than ever subcultural and even avant-garde forms of expression within radical movements to expand the horizons of what we’re capable of thinking, seeing, or imagining.
Though I count the Ex among my favorite bands of all time, I was surprised to see that Dignity of Labour was on the reissue slate this year. The early albums by the band are easy post-punk classics, and each comes with extensive posters and reading material (lucky enough to have scored an original copy of History is What’s Happening, their second, I have long had the poster–a collage of the Dutch queen examining a pig’s head, or something–framed on my wall). Known for their perceptive if acerbic politics, ever-rotating membership, and proficient output, the band can count a bit of excess as well. Among their 26+ singles and 7″s are, of course, essentials such as their first, All Corpses Smell the Same, as well as somewhat unnecessary live tracks and Spanish civil war anthems. Their output contains a confusing array of regrettable formats–flexis, 10″s, and numerous 2×7″s.
Dignity of Labour, a ludicrously unlistenable pressing on four 7″ singles in a box set, I assumed could only have fit within that realm of excess. Confusingly subtitled “Sucked Out Chucked Out,” instead of any lead that might promise worthwhile the song titles bear only this name, titled 1-8. Yet I’ve found over the years that if there is anything mysterious left in tracking down the Ex records (and perhaps vinyl more generally), it is in their accompanying literature. Though Discogs policy suggests that one scan every page of an insert, the Ex frequently included so much literature to make this untenable. 1987’s Too Many Cowboys, for instance, contains two gigantic 24×36″ newspaper zines; one a DIY manual, the other filled with political cartoons and articles criticizing the Olympics, apartheid, major record labels, Jello Biafra’s censorship, etc (the auto-translate features on phones are now quite helpful in deciphering the comics). Additionally, whatever was happening in mid-1980s Netherlands (and since), most copies of these records sold today include a disclaimer “no insert, no poster.”
Whatever you can say about reissue culture, at least Superior Viaduct (in this case) has committed to faithfully reproducing this content. In the case of Dignity of Labour, it is all the more important. The 20 page booklet included with this record describes the total work of art enclosed within–an homage not to “the worker” as such, but to the particular story of a century of worker’s struggles in a Dutch paper mill closed in the mid 1970s. Archival images of the factory accompany the narrative, which describes harsh labor conditions and a semi-“feudal” entwinement of the church and factory in the rule over the town. Nonetheless, the workers “felt for the factory, because many made a living there.” Hence, a certain dignity.
Despite this love for their place of work, the bosses return no such feeling. Their only concern is finding higher rates of profit and expanding market share. With regard to the former, by the 1970s the factory is involved in asbestos production, a process more highly mechanized or automated than prior forms of production. This of course is slowly poisoning the workers, but eventual worker safety laws cut into the firm’s profits. Ultimately it is sold to an American company, which after ten years of scraping the bottom of the barrel, closes the factory down. All this ultimately culminated in an attempt by the workers to take over the factory itself and run it as a cooperative.
The music is recorded in the ruins of the Van Gelder factory. One might expect the signature of the Ex’s rhythmic approach (which often including two drummers) to imitate the mechanical sounds of the factory. Yet here, the percussion is also the factory itself becoming rhythmic, as pile drivers, bus engines, print-press, and other elements of the machinery are repurposed to musical ends. “Sucked Out Chucked Out #3” features in the background the off-kilter noise of the printing press; by “Sucked Out Chucked Out 8” the sounds are dead. As you might anticipate by now, lyrically the eight tracks describe the different phases of the historical struggle over the workplace. “Sucked Out Chucked Out #4”, for instance, memorably describes asbestos “a soft, fibrous / grey, mineral substance / that can be made / into fireproof fabrics / or solid sheeting / and used as a / heat-insulating material.”
The Dignity of Labour, it turns out, is not a paean to the worker as such. In fact, “what once was called / the dignity of labour” is that which is eponymously sucked out and chucked out. The ultimate story of this agitprop text is that there is no dignity in labour. That “we feel at home here / with our mates” (“Sucked Out Chucked Out #5”) is just a cruel myth. The protests and occupation cannot work. “All their protests were harmless roars”; “they could and should have known / steam-rollers have no feelings.” As the Ex write in the accompanying text:
The municipality, the political parties (from left-wing to right-wing), the church, the villagers, the trade-unions, Provincial States, Chamber of Commerce, government-committees, and of course the workers, suddenly they all stand in the breach for the maintenance of ‘their’ factory: ‘We can’t let this happen!!’
But it simply does happen. Whatever they try so desperately: breaking off work, negotiations, signature-lists, action-committees, strikes, the searching for buyers and for alternative products (glass fibre), meetings, tens of letters, petitions, posters and banners, it doesn’t help. It’s just too late.
The power of labor is only relational; absent an institution from which to extract measly safety measures, the workers are left alone “trying to convince a steam-roller / to change its mind” (“Sucked Out Chucked Out #6”). Should they take over the management of the factory itself, they would have to self-exploit in competition with the globalized paper (or whatever) industry. The capitalist system sets the rules of the game; without fundamentally upsetting those rules, no actual dignity will be allowed to exist. Social responsibility, “continuous care for our environment,” and so on is “all a matter of marketing” (“Sucked Out Chucked Out #8). Though a particular story, the Ex is able to pull out universal truisms about the shape of capitalist crisis which is still with us today.
Sadly, Mixcloud is transitioning to a subscription service, charging $15/month for hosting mixes. As someone who posts about three or four a year, this isn’t really possible for me to pay for. So, another corner of the internet dies. I’ll probably still post mp3s here, but who knows if anyone will find them! Anyway, here’s one last mix.
It’s bandcamp friday (not sure i understand what that is) and the XV repress is up and i want to write about one of my favorite records in recent memory instead of working on my book. XV is a three piece band of Shelley Salant, Emily Roll, and Claire Cirocco and the music that they create smokes. it is sonically garage-y, but not so much in “garage punk” or something like that, but rather that it sounds like music for garages and all that they contain. they remind me of some of those early DEAD C recordings that just cut straight into your brain. music to fall out of your chair to.
the record begins with some inauspicious test vocals, as if we had accidentally stumbled upon a casual jam session. “Lamps” ultimately rhythmically crescendos into snotty disaffected yelps. “Prison” and “First Letter” pick up the pace, with shambolic bass serving as the grounds for rhythmic guitar serving alternately as needle pricks and knife stabs on your skin. these set the table for the driving “Sore Throat,” increasingly pent-up expenditure ready to bubble to the surface, while “Saran Wrap” and “Costco” are so innocuously funny meditations on the drivel of capitalist hellworld.
but it is the b-side where this record really shines because we have the best punk instrument of all time on almost all of the tracks: THE SAX. opener “What did you do today?” that gets me, beginning tenuously, it ultimately falls directly into thirty seconds of noise supporting the wail “Just get a joooooooooooooob.” continuing sardonically, “just get a job, it’s really easy, why don’t you get one? it’s the easiest thing in the world, just go get one.” no, fuck that, ultimately the song comes back together instead of falling apart, an anthemic and tight background to the titular question. what did you do today? “Feeling” backs off again with some noodling sax over slow-tempo heartbeat drums. on “Hair” the sax is fully liberated. and then “Process” casually lets us go like an only-somewhat-forgotten cup of lukewarm coffee.
THE COOL GREENHOUSE – s/t SARAH DAVACHI – Cantus, Descant SWEEPING PROMISES – Hunger for a Way Out FRIED E/M – Modern World STRAW MAN ARMY – Age of Exile
MARY LATTIMORE – Silver Ladders KELLY LEE OWENS – Inner Song THE MICROPHONES – The Microphones in 2020 SAULT – Untitled (Black Is) P22 – Human Snake
LITHICS – Tower of Age WARM RED – Decades of Breakfast THE GLOBS – The Weird and Wonderful World of the Globs SHINICHI ATOBE – Yes GEN POP – PPM66
Can’t believe I bought 9 7”s this year:
CB RADIO GORGEOUS – EP 7” THE UMBRELLAS – Maritime EP 7” BARCELONA – Residuos del Ultrasonido 7″ MILK – Bricks 7” XYLITOL – I’m Pretty Sure I Would Know If Reality Were Fundamentally Different Than I Perceived It To Be EP 7″ KALEIDOSCOPE – Decolonization 7″ RIBBON STAGE – My Favorite Shrine 7” NEUTRALS – Rent/Your House 7” SHIFTERS – Left Bereft 7”
P22 – Farrowing Crate Fried e/M – Capitalist Eyes XYLITOL – Don’t Let Them Leave Sial – Maut Barcelona – Salvajes Gumming – Dew Claw Kaleidoscope – Decolonization Milk – 100 Times The Cool Greenhouse – End Of The World Warm Red – Legwork Sweeping Promises – Hunger for a Way Out Lithics – Hands Straw Man Army – Option Despair Gen Pop – Concrete Patois Counselors – Efficiency Now The Globs – The Last Thing I’ll Remember Terry – Take the Cellphone Ribbon Stage – Reasons Why neutrals – In The Future The Umbrellas – Happy Chronophage – Destiny Falls CB Radio Gorgeous – Decline
Home Blitz – What We Wore CB Radio Gorgeous – Mid Fit Skinned Teen – Pillowcase Kisser (Peel Session) As Mercenárias – Pãnico The Fall – Deer Park (Peel Session) Tyvek – Sidewalk Home Blitz – Stupid Street D.L.I.M.C. – Wicker Park The Gizmos – The Midwest Can Be Allright Frozen Teens – Hopeless City The Bananas – Gentrification For Dummies Neutrals – Rent The World – Kill Your Landlord XV – What Did You Do Today? Lithics – Mice In the Night Broadcast – America’s Boy The Cool Greenhouse – Dirty Glasses The Gizmos – The American Dream The Cowboys – Now With Feeling The Globs – Cockroaches and Coca Cola Guided By Voices – Ha Ha Man The Styrenes – Empty Vessels The Velvet Underground – Rock & Roll (Live at Second Fret)
Felt – September Lady Heavenly – It’s You Imaginary Pants – Bus Driver Juniper – Think And Die Thinking G.S.B. – Telephone Bore Tyvek – I’ve Not Thought Once Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Our Quiet Whisper Charly Bliss – Camera Tony Molina – Walk Away The Bats – Mad On You The Shifters – Left Bereft Sweeping Promises – Cross Me Out Itchy Bugger – Next I Fall In Love, Man Guided By Voices – Wondering Boy Poet Cate Le Bon – Shoeing The Bones Rose Melberg – Whatever Became Of Alice And Jane (Confetti) John Cale – You Know More Than I Know The Microphones – Part Three Sarah Davachi – Midlands Yo La Tengo – Our Way To Fall
Vast Majority – In The City Meat Puppets – Our Friends Electric Deads – Fish In A Pool The Primitives – Dreamwalk Baby Big Supermarket – Peter Loose Prick – Mua potkitaan päähän Pekinška Patka – Kratkovidi magarac Neon – Modern Art Squits – People Stepping Talk – Common Problems Donkey Bugs – Abcs of Lust Ti-Tho – Elefantenjäger This Sporting Life – In On Time The Ex – Silent Waste The Pupils – The Mind Is A Hole In The Body the Pin Group – A Thousand Sins Ut – Exilee Goes Out Cocteau Twins – Blind Dumb Deaf The Dead C – World Felt – Song for William S. Harvey
Cold Beat – Gloves Caterina Barbieri – Bow of Perception Kelly Lee Owens – Evolution Talk Talk – April 5th Windy & Carl – Departure Neil Young – Hitchhiker Nicolas Jaar – Cenizas Julie Byrne – Keep on Raging (mix) Dirty Three – Black Tide Roy Montgomery – Last Year’s Man Sibylle Baier – Remember the Day Biosphere – Too Fragile to Walk On Duster – Cooking Songs: Ohia – The World at the End of the World Windy & Carl – Alone
Porno Glows – Constant Abject State Primo! – Up in the Air Triple Ente – Antropoceno Liquids – Got The Disease Urinals – Last Days of Man on Earth Cold Meat – Industry Sleaze Rudimentary Peni – Nothing but a Nightmare Secreto Público – La masacre del cuerpo Minutemen – Paraniod Chant Anarquía Vertical – Anti-Elección Catastrophe Bizarre – Alarm Runt – No Future Please Inform the Captain This is a Hijack – Apocalypse Theme Park Gang Of Four – 5.45 (Peel Session) PIÑÉN – Especie Destructora Fried e/M – Feel the Void P22 – The Industrialist Heartthrob Ultimo Resorte – Agresividad Controlada A Frames – Transgenic Wire – Culture Vultures (Peel Session) Black Eyes – Letter To Raoul Peck Tony Dork – Tongue Tied Rain – Snakeout Heavy Metal – Kick out the Jams Devo – Beautiful World (Demo) Eric’s Trip – My Room Guided By Voices – Do the Earth J Mascis – Untitled #6 Wreck Small Speakers on Expensive Stereos – Too Late
Recent years have seen a resurgence in bands drawing from the (admittedly deep) well of THE FALL reference. And while there are many of these bands that I like, almost all of them miss key parts that made that band interesting. THE SHIFTERS (who appear as a collaborator on one track of this record) are unique for plumbing history, going beyond Mark E. Smith’s obsession with World War II to explore political themes from the world-historical to the everyday. THE COOL GREENHOUSE explore the other: Smith’s incredible capacity for irreverence, to the point of producing disturbance or even disgust. I am not saying that every band that rips off THE FALL needs to achieve a Smith-level psychosis to the point of gnawing off one’s own hand (Brix’s book is good). But on the other hand, does any of us really want to inhabit the world of 4Chan or think about incels? Is it cringe to have multiple songs referencing the internet?
A solo operation producing several singles and EPs to this point, the full-length finds a full backing band as well. To be entirely honest, after the wonderful “London / The End of the World” 7″, I was a bit underwhelmed by the follow ups. However, the backing band really helps add a ton of energy – just compare the versions of “4Chan” and “Cardboard Man” to their prior iterations, or the insanely good full band version of “The End of the World” (on the new “Alexa” 7″ – yes, that Alexa).
And yes, while the music is fantastic, what makes THE COOL GREENHOUSE more than annoying is its lyrical approach. The band lives in the world where these things exist, while the rest of punk operates as if we’re in a film where people don’t use cellphones. But the thing that makes it click “You can hear people’s skin crack at regular intervals” could have fit right next to the best of Smith’s body-horror lines in “The Man Whose Head Expanded” or this favorite from “How I Wrote ‘Elastic Man'”: “The only thing real is waking and rubbing your eyes.” Would any of us stare clear-eyed at the world of “high-minded conspiracy theories” concerning clerical workers and musical pets? THE COOL GREENHOUSE does, and on “Dirty Glasses” even offers us “a glasses cleaning service” to wipe the ideology from our perspectives. What the band sees is weird, horrible, “disgusting.” I feel like I’m John Peel after first hearing “Eat Y’self Fitter.”