Remember when we started a blog? And posted all about Comic-Con? And then abandoned the blog? We tend to do that sort of thing. Sorry. Point is: I’m back, and I’m gonna be writing about the “m” part of the blog name (that’d be “music”). As if you thought I’d write about anything else…
Over the next however-many-posts-it-takes-me, I’m going to attempt to review all the new music I purchased this year. Fair warning: That’s about 40 albums, and there are still 3 months of new releases yet to come. I’ll try to keep it short, 5 or 6 releases per post, maybe a short paragraph each, with a little more devoted to my top picks. And where possible, a video or stream of my favorite track to spice it up. For this post I’ve embedded a playlist; you’ll need to have Spotify installed to listen to it.
Here is part 1, which covers The Hell, Agent 51, Classics of Love, Cursive, and The Menzingers.
The Hell – Suaves les Requins
Jan. 13th, self-released
A side project of Alkaline Trio’s Matt Skiba and professional drummer Atom Willard (formerly of Rocket from the Crypt, Angels & Airwaves, Social Distortion, & The Offspring, currently with Danko Jones), The Hell’s debut 4-song EP is a quick but satisfying burst of poppy punk with a “recorded in the garage” feel. Opener “Gasoline” is early-2000s Trio with angrier drums (Willard actually filled in with Alk3 in ’01 for the From Here to Infirmary tours; spot him in the video for “Private Eye”). The sinister “Vas Te Faire Foutre” has a thick guitar riff but falls a bit flat with its unpolished vocals and “fuck you” chorus. “No Where Left” is the standout, calling back to the best of Alkaline Trio’s late-’90s pop-punk with its “whoa-oh-oh”s and Andriano-imitating bass lines. Closer “R R R” (“Regret, Repent, Repeat”) has energy and anger, with a “1, 2, fuck you!” thrown in there. In all this feels like a loose, unpolished affair that the duo had fun banging out. I’d enjoy hearing what they’d come up with on a follow-up or potential full-length. 3/5
Agent 51 – Operation Panther E.P.
Jan. 18th, self-released
I’ve always been loyal to local acts, and Agent 51 were a favorite during my college years. Formed in the same mid-’90s Poway skate-punk scene that begat Blink-182 and Unwritten Law, Agent 51 added a little extra flavor by concocting an X-Files-style mythos in which they claimed to be rogue secret agents with ties to aliens. Though not the only punk band I liked who wore suits onstage, they were the only ones who played AC/DC covers. They broke up in 2004 but have done a handful of reunion shows since, nearly all with fellow Poway skate punks Pivit. The most recent was in January (which I attended), and to coincide with it they released this 2-song digitial EP of tracks they’d previously kicked around the web as demos.
“Automatic Addicts” is the better cut: Though it mines old punk subject matter (vapid television eroding culture/lives), musically it waves the classic rock flag the band let fly to some success on 2003’s The Red & the Black. “These Streets Belong to Me” is more reminiscent of their early sound both musically and lyrically, with an anti-authoritarian/blue-collar aesthetic they previously mined on much of 1998’s Red Alert. The result is nothing special, but the band isn’t trying to win new audiences with this: These 2 tracks are really only aimed at the loyal San Diego fans who keep turning out to pack their reunion shows at the Belly Up. 2/5
Classics of Love – Classics of Love
Feb. 14th, Asian Man Records
There are a handful of figures whose voices are synonymous with the bay area’s late-’80s/early-’90s Lookout! Records/Gilman St. punk scene. Chief among them is Jesse Michaels, whose resumé includes ska-punk pioneers Operation Ivy and the reggae-influenced Common Rider. For his latest project, Classics of Love, Michaels is backed by San Jose punk trio Hard Girls. Their eponymously-titled full-length is 23 minutes of East Bay hardcore. There are occasional moments of Op Ivy-style ska-punk (“Castles in the Sky”, “Bandstand”), and an alt rock-esque half-time number (“Moving Pictures”), but for the most part this is ’80s hardcore flurry, with most of the 13 tracks clocking in below the 2-minute mark. But Michaels is no amateur, and every track is fully developed and built around his fierce vocals, which take sociopolitical themes and make them personal in a manner familiar from his prior bands (see “Would Be Kings” and “We Need a Change”). It’s wonderful to hear Michaels back and in such fine, fiery form. Now how ’bout a tour? 4/5
Cursive – I Am Gemini
Feb. 21st, Saddle Creek Records
I often find concept albums difficult to follow, especially when all the characters’ parts are sung by the same person (I’m looking at you, Coheed & Cambria). Cursive are no strangers to concept records, with 2000’s Domestica structured around a relationship and divorce while 2003’s The Ugly Organ wove a story of a depraved organist. On the latter, frontman Tim Kasher made things slightly easier to follow by adding stage directions to the liner notes. I Am Gemini takes it one step further, with the notes written in the form of a 2-act play complete with dramatis personæ and helpful dialogue markers. This written component is essential to following the story of Cassius, who inherits his unknown biological parents’ home only to find his twisted long-lost twin Pollock waiting there (is anyone else picturing The Venture Bros. episode “Perchance to Dean”, or just me?). What follows is a tale of kidnapping, drugging, unnecessary surgery, a carnival sideshow, dragons, skeletons, and dynamite as the brothers battle over their collective soul(s). Symbols of duality abound, including angels and devils, the sun and moon, twin girls conjoined at the head, and constant references to Gemini. Things get pretty confusing in the final scene: Was the whole thing a dying dream? A schizophrenia tale a la Fight Club? I don’t know.
Musically, the album frequently shifts gears, moving from angular post-punk guitar riffs to math rock and prog, with the occasional hip-shaker (“Warmer, Warmer”, “The Cat and Mouse”). It manages to build tension and drama without veering outside of sonic accessibility. Even so, the album as a whole is dense and difficult, and requires close attention and liner notes in hand if one is to have any hope of following it. The listener will be rewarded with a dark, twisted tale, but this is an inhibitor to repeat listens. 3/5
The Menzingers – On the Impossible Past
Feb. 21st, Epitaph Records
This one is easily in my top 5 of the year. I was hooked right from the opening lyric: “I’ve been having a horrible time pulling myself together / I’ve been closing my eyes to find the old familiar failures”. Sold; This is for me. A lot of punk-ish acts have been mining the Americana vein in recent years, and Scranton, Pennsylvania’s The Menzingers have nailed it on their third album. Full of songs about loneliness, nostalgia, and romance, the record is equally raucous and introspective. I’m reminded of an old review of one of my favorite albums that encapsulated why I loved it so much: something about “alcohol-fueled love songs and love-fueled alcohol songs” (found it!).
This is just an excellent album all around: The harmonies in “Burn After Writing” are eminently sing-alongable, there’s a palpable sense of longing and wanderlust in “Mexican Guitars”, and “The Obituaries” would be an alt-rock hit on par with The Gaslight Anthem’s recent breakthrough “45” if not for its radio-unfriendly chorus (“I will fuck this up / I fucking know it”). Instead it’s “Gates” that’s the album’s standout, with its emotional depth and storytelling lyrics. There are very few weak moments to be found over the course of the album (“Nice Things” is a punky number encapsulating burning desire, and a decent choice for a single, but the less said about its hokey music video the better). Highly recommended. 5/5