“Punk was originally about creating new, important, energetic music that would hopefully threaten the status quo and the stupidity of the 1970s,” asserts Jello Biafra, and in a short amount time it seemed if the stupidity of disco and glam rock were given a solid boot up the keister by what perhaps is defined as “punk’s most recognizable period.” Recognizable because the immediate mention of the word and the majority would allude to what it embodied in the late 70’s – pins, Mohawks, leather jackets and a crusty old stick-it-to-the-man middle finger – and yet many question the validity of the fashion statements as subversive, but one may forget that during that time, wearing safety pins was almost on par with of a nunnery full of whores (or a brothel full of nuns), and it was what got attention to the music if the music itself did not do so. In the immediate proceeding years, the very cornerstones of this counterculture would form; in New York rose The Ramones while the United Kingdom ignited the fury of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Buzzcocks. It was a short period of immediate glory, but what 1977 brought to the world would ring invariably in many shapes and forms – buoyed by what seems to be an undying cause for personal expression and a very human passion to question what is put before us.
Through the years that followed, the subculture formed many offshoots and evolved in countless ways, but the one product of 1977 that perhaps best represents “punk” in its most effective form, would be the birth of hardcore in 1980s – The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Minutemen, Minor Threat and of course Bad Religion. It is from these artists listeners finally sat up and took notice that punk was more than just saying “fuck you,” it was as Greg Graffin summarizes amongst several things, “a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through wilful ignorance of human nature.” And the ignorance of human nature was not limited to the suburbs of Los Angeles. But as the new decade rolled around, many of what youth began to see – hostage crises, assassinations, riots, the birth of MTV, and the full fledged burgeoning of iconic corporations – pushed them in one direction or the other. And from these locales, Bad Religion grew into perhaps the most prominent of these groups, spearheading a revolution from the suburbs that spanned the globe. Armed with sweltering melodies, a piercing sense of urgency and a vault of vocabulary, they conquered apathy, suffering, ignorance, greed, hate, faith and the consumption of the human spirit.
Through their approach they were effective with their message; never one to rely on finding singular, common constructs, they challenged their own sound and resisted the temptation to become indifferent – even when they had found their scope of influence. During this period of musical and influential prosperity, one for all intents and purposes we shall label as 1988-1992, their work was boundless, and in essence, untouchable amongst those who shared the same billing. Speaking personally, the albums released during this period, the bulk of Epitaph’s reissues, were by far the most appealing – at least for someone who grew up far from the immediate range of their music (at least for the majority of their broadcast). In this, I found a certain likeness to their work; that it was not merely discourse in the ills of American society, but the ills of the world, and more importantly, the society in which occurred directly outside my window. While my interest in American life sparked very early on, it was during my early teen years that I began realizing the tribulations of the country I called “home” – Indonesia was (and still is) rife with poverty, corruption, ignorance and greed of the highest level that succeeded in creating a false layer of security, hiding a bubbling self-destruction that, unfortunately, has since burst into a pseudo-democratic mess where few take responsibility, and even fewer know how to. Whether or not they aimed globally, Bad Religion spoke of these evils and their words quantified and summarized the moral extinctions to the greatest effect.
1988’s Suffer is widely regarded as one of the finest albums of its kind, and it first displayed Bad Religion’s ability to so efficiently, and meaningfully amplify conscious words. From there, they went on to release No Control, which still exhibits the single greatest song written in all mankind (at least in my humble opinion). “I Want to Conquer the World” will forever be the psalm for a soul desiring change and world revolution – never has two minutes and seventeen seconds been so precise in detailing the follies and hypocrisies of the so-called erudite community and preachers of good speak; fundamentally disclaiming that no human is infallible and/or capable of such wondrous feats, no matter how burning the desire. The follow-up to No Control is perhaps their greatest collection; although that debate would run eternal, Against the Grain exhibits songwriting and deliberation seasoned over two fantastic albums and a wealth of experience gained. Much of their 1995 All Ages compilation was built around a great deal of material from Against the Grain – a sign possibly that the band is best represented by these outings. [On (another) personal anecdote, I remember vividly how during junior high, my music class was asked to each bring in a song that they would like to play for the class – everyone else strode mightily with their collection of trivial music while I played “Modern Man.” I received disconcerting looks (a mixture of horror and confusion) while my teacher questioned my morality and positive responsibility to the classroom environment. Needless to say, the song speaks volumes in documenting how population Earth has so erred in an amazingly brief period of time.] Generator is the last of this period; released in 1992, some have argued its less than powerful nature – and yes, in contrast to its predecessors perhaps that contention holds value. Nonetheless, while it is one of the weaker releases, just barely better than both Stranger than Fiction and No Substance, it still exhibits some fine work – most notably the title track. It was also their last before their departure for Sony, another endless and seemingly futile argument that they somehow couldn’t be as effective surrounded by richer lining.
So now with Epitaph’s decision to reissue five of some of the most important records ever released, where do they really stand in regards to value? For one, the five – the retooled How Could Hell be any Worse? (an amalgam of their early documentation, 80-85, as well as added EP tracks), Suffer, No Control, Against the Grain, and Generator – have all been digitally remastered and reverberate with greater intensity. Cynics will argue the difference is minute, but for those who own the original recordings, the difference is palpable. The guitars discharge even more so commandingly, while the low-end and percussion work have been given added boost. The alterations are clear to anyone who was to play any song of the old recording with the newly remastered one in sequence; take “Modern Man” as an example – the chilling prophetic atmosphere of the 1990 edition is infinitesimal compared to its 2004 version; stunning. (Artwork has been updated as well, but that facet of these recordings is far less important).
Apparently there is debate on the usefulness of these reissues – but I for one cannot understand why this has become an issue. Do we forget at which stage of the evolution we seem so entrenched in? The filth of merchandising, commercialization, branding, manufacturing; this is what has become of 1977’s revolution that grew to immense power in the proceeding decade. Artists clamoring for music video rotation, clothing sponsorship, and magazine cover appearances. Even more alarming, those who are in a position to influence a great number of able bodied kids who seek direction, purpose and understanding are swayed to this useless and pointless brokerage of apathy. I recently came across an article on an influential website that has become a beacon for this meaningless practice, where the proprietor affirms that he is “not punk enough” but he definitely “does not care.” Indeed, discussing what is and what is not “punk” is just as futile, but this apathetic approach to what was the very antithesis for apathy is just plain delusional. And so perhaps these re-releases serves the purpose to (re)educate those who seemingly have distorted their view on what is and what is not. That alone justifies any cause Epitaph may have to re-release these records, and they couldn’t have picked a better selection.
There is no definitive punk manifesto; and while Graffin himself may have come closest in defining the relevance and importance of what it is, there can never be one true understanding. He does however, point to one important factor – that those who have never been challenged by life itself have no reason to doubt. And the existence of these records does endless good to illustrate situations for those unexposed to the many injustices that have become the constitutions of daily living. Humanity is bred imperfect, and we are all of the same mold; but there is much that can be induced from these albums – three of which will eternally remain essential – most importantly, that we should forever seek to find resolution for life’s answerless question.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.