So…here’s part 2. At this rate I’ll finish around 2014. In this installment: Mrs. Magician, Anti-Flag, Sharks, Brendan Kelly & the Wandering Birds, The Mars Volta, Spider Fever, and The Used. There are music videos in this one.
Mrs. Magician – Strange Heaven
Mar. 6th, Swami Records
Call it surf punk, I guess. Mrs. Magician are from my ‘hood, San Diego, and if Swami John Reis (who produced this affair) gives ’em the thumbs-up, I’m at least gonna give ’em a shot. I saw them 3 times this year opening for the Swami’s bands (Hot Snakes and The Night Marchers). Their sound combines lo-fi ’60s surf rock with a bit of punk attitude, as if The Beach Boys had formed in ’77 instead of ’61. They’ve got that surf guitar sound and sweet vocal harmonies laced with “la-la-la”s and “whoa-o-o”s, but their songs have titles like “There Is No God” and “I’m Gonna Hang Out with the Lesbians Next Door and Drop Acid”.
Singer/guitarist Jason Turnbloom weaves some memorable lines, such as on standouts “The Spells” (“I’ve had the chills, I’ve had the spells / But I’m 27 now, so what the hell / I can’t be this pathetic forever”) and “Hours of the Night” (“Even in my desperate, darkest hours / Is it April Fool’s or April showers? / I say ‘fuck you’ on the notes, but I sent you flowers”). It’s too bad it doesn’t come with a lyric sheet. Elsewhere, the aforementioned “Lesbians” gets a bit psychedelic-freaky, while “Dead 80’s” brings up the old standby “fuck the world” chorus.
Overall, this is a solid debut and I’ve gotten more out of it from repeat listens. The Swami has never done me wrong and it’s clear why this record has his seal of approval. Mrs. Magician demonstrate a lot of potential on Strange Heaven, and I’m interested to see where they’ll go with their ’60s-pop-meets-’80s-indie-rock sound. 4/5
Anti-Flag – The General Strike
Mar. 20th, SideOneDummy Records
I’ll say this for Anti-Flag: They put on the most energetic set of any band I saw at Warped Tour. OK, so San Diego was only the 8th stop of the tour, but it was still impressive how much enthusiasm they put into their set, including when Pat Thetic passed his drums down into the crowd one by one and then came down to drum in the pit. That energy seems to extend to their 9th studio album, The General Strike, as evidenced by the 22-second hardcore opener “Controlled Opposition”. From there on it’s pretty much what one expects from an Anti-Flag album: grassroots anti-establishment anthems and direct addressing of current sociopolitical issues from the Occupy movement to “corporate state theocracy”.
The General Strike does seem to have a bit more staying power than the band’s last 3 albums, which I liked well enough but didn’t really get any mileage out of in terms of repeat listens. There are tracks on this one that could easily become staples in the band’s live set, including the pogoing “This Is the New Sound” (the video for which features the band being tortured by puppets), the chant-alongable choruses of “The Ranks of the Masses Rising” and “Broken Bones”, and the excellent rev-up of “I Don’t Wanna”, in which Chris #2 satirizes the petulance of the internet generation by rolling impatience for a PS4 and for the close of Guantanamo Bay into the same thought. Anti-Flag tends to stick to current topics, so the ground covered here may not stay relevant for long. Their unending protest stance can also wear thin, but there’s enough passion and sincerity in it to make this record worth a few spins. 3/5
Sharks – No Gods
Mar. 20th, Rise Records
Leamington Spa, UK’s Sharks built a lot of buzz on both sides of the pond through their early EPs and singles, compiled on last year’s excellent The Joys of Living: 2008–2010. Sort of a British Replacements with a dash of The Clash, they were the talk of everyone from the punknews.org comments section to the pages of Alternative Press. They won me over with their set on the 2011 Warped Tour. Strange, then, that their debut full length No Gods doesn’t really live up to the promise of those early releases (the ‘orgers were quick to denounce them once first single “Arcane Effigies” dropped, pretending they’d never really been that great to begin with).
No Gods plays more to the band’s classic-rock and indie rock side, burying the flashes of punk attitude they’d shown on The Joys of Living. The punchiest numbers here are “‘Til the Wonders Rise”, “Matthew’s Baby”, and the title track. “Patient Spider” stands out with its catchy drumming and horn section, but most of the rest just sounds kind of tame and flat. The band is already working on a follow-up, which hopefully will have more distinction (maybe they’ll be able to hang onto a bassist this time; they’re on their 4th in as many years). 3/5
Brendan Kelly & the Wandering Birds – I’d Rather Die Than Live Forever
Mar. 27th, Red Scare Industries
For his first solo outing, Brendan Kelly of The Lawrence Arms and The Falcon didn’t go the acoustic, folksy Americana route traveled by so many of his punk rock peers (see Chuck Ragan, Brian Fallon, and Kelly’s TLA bandmate Chris McCaughan and fellow Falcon Dan Andriano, among others). Instead he had a simple rule to stave off complacency: “If it didn’t make me nervous, it wasn’t good enough to go on the record.” Whether lyrically or musically, there had to be something about each song that unnerved even its own author.
To that end, the Wandering Birds record is full of disturbing tales presented through the voices of various twisted, perverse characters. This is evident right from the get-go on “Suffer the Children, Come Unto Me”, which seems to be from the perspective of a murderous pervert: “What’s a pretty little thing like you / Doing in this dingy old back room? / I’ve got some candy, a piece for every bruise / Grab it if it’s handy, any cock’ll do”. Kelly’s no stranger to seedy/gross subject matter, as readers of his blog are probably aware. Even so, I’d Rather Die veers into some pretty fucked-up territory on tracks like “American Vagina” and “What’s a Boy to Do?” (I’ll spare you the specifics).
Elsewhere it’s the musical ideas that are unnerving, in that they’re quite different from Kelly’s normally raucus punk rock numbers in TLA and The Falcon. “A Man with the Passion of Tennessee Williams” and “The Dance of the Doomed” bring the tempo down to what, for Kelly, is a plodding pace. Some other critics will pick “Ramblin’ Revisited”—the bluegrassy, Americana-esque acoustic number about a boozy hobo—as the standout track, but for me it’s the rollicking “Doin’ Crimes” and “What’s a Boy to Do?” that show Kelly at his best.
Another interesting aspect of the album is Kelly’s vocal range: he stays in his lower register for much of it, but there are times where he goes up to his raspy higher range more familiar from TLA. “Doin’ Crimes” exemplifies this as he switches voices over the course of the song, doing his own backing harmonies in opposing registers. If I didn’t know it was all him, I’d swear there were multiple singers on this thing. In fact it’s made me listen to some of The Lawrence Arms stuff with a fresh ear. All told, this is a fresh and interesting record that reveals more facets with repeat listens. 5/5
The Mars Volta – Noctourniquet
Mar. 27th, Warner Bros.
I think it’s finally time for me to be done with The Mars Volta. I got hooked on the mind-blowing heaviness of “L’Via L’Viaquez” from 2005’s Francis the Mute and I’ve been buying each successive album for those moments when they blow the walls down in a similar fashion. But those moments have gotten fewer and further between, and I’ll be the first to admit I don’t “get” their intellectual, esoteric neo-prog. This stuff is for guitar snobs and lyrical analysts who consider Omar Rodríguez López a genius and Cedric Bixler-Zavala “A grade A modernist writer in a den of half-wits” (that’s an actual quote directed at me by an upset TMV fan…listen closely and you can hear the sound of B-Z’s balls slapping that guy’s chin). Being a punk rock guy, most of this stuff is way over my head conceptually. I enjoy their records, but I rarely listen to them more than once through.
With that in mind, Noctourniquet doesn’t really do anything for me. The twist on this one seems to be the emphasized presence of the electronic and synthesized elements. Just when you think “The Whip Hand” has built up to a rock-out moment, it suddenly veers into psychedelic freakout territory via an off-kilter synthesizer and some electronic bleeps. Those rock-out moments I crave are still there in the form of “Molochwalker”, which sounds like it leads off with a backmasking effect, but the chosen single “The Malkin Jewel” feels inside-out and meandering, though it does have some of Bixler-Zavala’s vicious, sneering vocal moments. I like the album well enough, but I’m not enthusiastic about it. I just sort of is, another Mars Volta record that’ll probably be relegated to popping up on shuffle but will otherwise just live on my shelf next to their others. Besides, the big news from these guys this year was the At the Drive-In reunion. 2/5
Spider Fever – Spider Fever
Mar. 27th, Windian Records
Here’s another local band with Swami ties: Spider Fever is a project of prolific drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, Earthless, Off!), but in this band he plays guitar, sings, and does the artwork. Interesting note: Mario’s a lefty, but plays a right-handed guitar that he simply flips upside-down; doesn’t even re-string it. On bass is Dean Reis (Heartaches, Sultans), Swami John’s younger brother whom I went to high school with. I saw Spider Fever 4 times this year opening for Hot Snakes and Off! and was able to briefly reconnect with Dean at a couple of the shows.
Their full-length is 9 tracks of grungy garage punk with lo-fi production full of distortion and fuzz. In other words, exactly my thing. Mario’s vocals are buried deep in the mix, with the bass brought up and the guitars toward the front. The kindred spirits that spring to mind are The Stooges and Sultans. The whole thing is 34 minutes of straight-up down ‘n’ dirty rock & f’ing roll. “Pub Rock’n” builds up to a thunderous crashing of drums and bass, “Hyena” rocks as hard as any of Mario’s other garage-punk acts, “Lost in You” slowly builds up to an explosive release, and “Don’t Let Deth Get in the Way” is simply hard-charging punk. But it’s the 7-minute closer “Simply Nervous” that really throws me back against the wall: About halfway through, the track becomes an instrumental jam emphasizing some truly evil guitar work before the band locks back in together fiercely. It’s total balls-to-the-wall rawk, and easily one of my favorite tracks of the year. Chalk Spider Fever up as the best new act to hit my radar in 2012. 4/5
The Used – Vulnerable
Mar. 27th, Hopeless Records
On their 5th studio album, The Used aren’t deviating from the formula that’s made them Warped Tour favorites for the last 10 years. Full of the hook-laden “gross pop” they’ve been employing since 2004’s In Love and Death, the album delivers in all the ways we’ve come to expect from the band. Still, it doesn’t quite measure up to 2009’s Artwork, which I felt was markedly better than 2007’s Lies for the Liars. Vulnerable sounds more like Liars combined with their eponymously-titled debut, in that it veers around with the reckless abandon of that first effort.
Opener and lead single “I Come Alive” has a soaring chorus and a weird dubstep breakdown that I’d call inexplicable except for the fact that, well, this is The Used…and the whole song breaks down into chaos at the end, as The Used’s songs are wont to do. “This Fire” has a theatrical flair and string section that makes it sound like a Panic! at the Disco track. “Shine” is probably the most characteristic song on the album, with its drum loops during the verses, artsy midsection detour, and predictably hooky choruses. “Kiss It Goodbye” has a ‘wtf?’ final minute in which Bert McCracken does a dumb beatbox thing. “Now That You’re Dead”, which features Aiden’s Wil Francis, is the most rip-roaring cut and the only one without an overtly pop-leaning chorus.
This is a Used album, and if you’ve heard their last couple then you pretty much know what to expect here. They’re not breaking new ground, but they’re definitely bringing all the elements they’re known for and their fans expect. If that’s your cup of tea, you certainly won’t be let down, though I it doesn’t top their first 2 albums or Artwork in my ranking system. 3/5