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Ben Weasel And His Iron String Quartet – These Ones Are Bitter

Ben Weasel returns with his Iron String Quartet to release These Ones Are Bitter; the best Screeching Weasel album the band never wrote

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Ben Weasel is a prolific writer- both of song and word- having churned out more than a dozen albums as both a solo artist, and as front man of iconic Chicago punks Screeching Weasel and its more poppy counterpart, The Riverdales. Since the demise of his more group oriented work, he’s continued writing books and columns and the like, fading slightly from the spotlight but never quite disappearing from it. It’s been some 5 years since Ben wrote and released material under his own name, but the lingering tone and seemingly undying appeal of SW meant he never really went away (what, with all the constant reformation gossip simmering beneath). So while Screeching Weasel remains dormant for however long, Ben has once again embarked on a solo effort that still has an ear for the Ramones style of things, but also recaptures the bratty, high-energy, melodic appeal of Screeching Weasel’s best moments.

It’s no secret that it was rather slim pickings for SW after 1996’s Bark Like a Dog– Weasel and company seemed that just run out of collective steam after that. And while his 2002 solo release, Fidatevi, hinted at a return to form, it was merely a dash of his brilliant, simple songwriting. So it’s great to hear that the last 5 years have been good for Ben and his guitar- after a short excursion to write another Riverdales album- he returns with his Iron String Quartet to release These Ones Are Bitter; the best Screeching Weasel album the band never wrote. It’s a full head of steam, highly charged romp through pop-punk’s finest qualities, and it’s a real joy to just sit here and listen to these tunes. From the opening salvo of “Let Freedom Ring” to the “Speed of Mutation”-sounding chorus of “In A Few Days,” it is clear that Weasel has re-found his touch, ultimately writing some of the best songs of his career.

It has all the noted Weaselisms spattered through the release; the piano Anthem For A New Tomorrow-era keyboards of “Blue is the Ocean,” to the ‘1-2-3-4s’ of  “Happy Saturday,” all of which sounds very concise wrapped in the trademark fuzzy distortion of Ben’s riffs, the occasional overlapping solo, and a pretty tight backing band- which consists of names from Alkaline Trio and the All-American Rejects. To boot, the continuation of all the themes and topics he’s written about over the past 20 years litter much of the lyrics- “Jeanette,” I’m sure, has been mentioned before (or was that Janelle? Joanie? Or Jeannie?), and Ben’s springy step must have something to do with the tone of songs like “The First Day of Spring,” (a continuation perhaps of “The First Day of Summer”?) and “Summer’s Always Gone Too Soon,” an ongoing ode to things more cheery. And while he may never write another “Guest List,” there really isn’t a misstep amongst the bunch.

These Ones Are Bitter is what good pop-punk should sound like. It seems difficult these days for traditional pop-punk bands to make a name for themselves- truth be told, it isn’t the easiest genre to sell. And perhaps a good reason why Ben’s own Mendota Recordings is handling TOAB as a digital-only venture. But after listening to the record a good few times over, it’s clear to see that while the music won’t break down doors, or sell a bunch of records outside the old Lookout crowd, its an infinitely more rewarding listen, and pop-punk fans may have just found their saving grace. To slightly modify lyrics from a tune familiar with the Weasel lore, it is perhaps the best note one can hope to leave this on; “He don’t like Nirvana / I know he don’t like Prong / But it’s great to hear he again write great song.”

(Mendota Records)

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Good Riddance – Thoughts and Prayers

The fire still burns brightly for Good Riddance

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It would seem that the current US administration has proven to be fertile fields for political punks. If there is a positive to have come out of the past few years, it is in the form of angry punk rock records. The aptly titled Thoughts and Prayers, the new record by Good Riddance, could very well be the best of them. For many like myself, Good Riddance was the gateway to a world of punk rock socio-political commentary; wrapped in aggressive, melodic hardcore that opened your mind as much as it punched a hole in the wall. 1996’s A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and the really terrific 1998 record Ballads from the Revolution, were eye-opening propositions for a wide-eyed kid. Good Riddance resonated because their songs were hard-hitting commentary that sounded like broken-hearted punk rock songs. They sang intelligently about inequality, human despair, and the sometimes broken system in which we live in. And when their broken-hearted punk rock songs weren’t about society and politics, they were broken-hearted punk rock songs about broken hearts (don’t think there have been love songs as good in the genre as “Jeannie” and “Not With Him”).

Four years since their comeback record, Peace In Our Time, we get the much more furious Thoughts and Prayers. 12 songs of trademark breakneck melodic hardcore that talks about the divisive current political climate without going as far as saying things like “Trump sucks”. But that’s never been the Good Riddance way. Vocalist and chief lyricist Russ Rankin has always found a way to express his anger and disappointment with poise and intelligence- sounding more like a well-read poet than a man yelling on a street corner.

In the track “Don’t Have Time”, he sings about the futility of repeating history to trumpet nationalism; “And those same old fears arise / With eyes too drawn to counteract / The ghost in you comes rushing back / Too caustic to subside / Just what have we done? / We killed a mother’s only son / Just to remain at number one“. And lyrically, much of takes a similar route of well-written stanzas that question a lot of what is going on in the world at the present time. Songs like the opening “Edmund Pettus Bridge” (let’s hope everyone knows the significance of this landmark), replete with Michael Douglas Wall Street sound byte, sings of social inequality but does it with a trace of hope. While songs like “The Great Divide” are an example of melodic hardcore’s finest moments; unrelenting sonic pummeling that is as melodic as it is potent. “Wish You Well” takes cues from Good Riddance’s “softer” tones of catchy choruses and mid-tempo verses; akin to the track “Saccharine” (from 2003’s Bound by Ties of Blood and Affection). Perhaps the best thing about the 12 songs here is that they are all very succinct, potent, with rarely a moment of filler. The album is consistently good, and while it rarely deviates from the Good Riddance sound, it never lacks in the fire and fury we’ve come to expect.

The album itself SOUNDS fantastic, credit again to Bill Stevenson and Jason Livermore at The Blasting Room for their production. The guitars rip at the right levels while the percussion work hits just right. The mixing levels are as close to perfect as you can get without any one element dominating over another- a constant the band have found since 1999’s Operation Phoenix (no surprise, the first of their albums to have been produced at the Blasting Room).

The appeal of Good Riddance has always been two-fold. Firstly, their music has shown steadfast quality, and the albums have found longevity due to the way Rankin and company write their songs. With lyrics referring to and talking about a multitude of humanist issues without having to directly reference them, they remain political, timely, writing music as urgent as it was through the 90s as it is today. That may be a sad indictment of society itself, but it doesn’t take away from their effectiveness and influence. Rankin himself has said that their music may not have changed the world per se, they continue to open eyes and minds. This writer can attest to the latter- and the importance of that can’t be underlined enough. Their early discography spoke to my generation about life, self, and the interconnected reality of the world we live- no matter how hard to try not to believe it. Thoughts and Prayers is a furious, timely, and potent slab of hard-hitting melodic hardcore and shows that the fire clearly still burns as passionately for Good Riddance as it did all those years ago. And perhaps it’ll be what A Comprehensive Guide to Moderne Rebellion and Ballads From the Revolution was to me for a whole new generation.

(Fat Wreck Chords)

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Hatriot – From Days Unto Darkness

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities

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When it comes to Bay Area thrash metal, there are two bands that sit atop the mountain forever entwined to its history; Metallica and Exodus. Both bands linked together by Kirk Hammett, both bands crucial to the Bay Area’s most destructive form of music. Exodus may not have their name in lights as Metallica does, but Exodus’ influence cannot be mistaken- and many point to them as being the one true progenitor of Bay Area thrash. Hatriot, a band that was started by Exodus vocalist Steve Souza in 2011, are a real chip off the ol’ block. Surprisingly, it isn’t just musically that Hatriot follows suit from Exodus, its a family thing too. While Steve Souza left Hatriot in 2015, his sons Nick and Cody continue on percussions and guitars with the latter taking on vocal duties once the older Souza returned to Exodus.

Hatriot does more than just follow on the Exodus path; they’ve loudly carved their own slice of the thrash pie. Led by Kosta Varvatakis shredding guitar work and Cody Souza’s blistering (sometimes ominous) vocal work, Hatriot may have found their Fabulous Disaster, ironically, also three albums in.

From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities; machine gun percussion work (I’m a sucker for some great double bass drums), shredding guitars, soaring solos, and vocals that does the growling well, and the screaming even better. Tracks like “Organic Remains” and the blistering “Carnival of Execution” showcase the band’s ability to craft songs that are equal parts urgency and solid musicianship. Thematically, From Days Unto Darkness covers the usual thrash metal spread; the end times, death, destruction, and humanity’s failing graces- all done with equal breakneck, ear piercing destruction sonically. “World, Flesh & Devil” is perhaps the album’s best outing- a raging beast of a song, that if carnage could be written in music form, this is it incarnate. At 4:26, it is one of the shorter tracks of the release, but much of the album features in at the 6-7 minute mark- a trademark of thrash metal’s desire to not only showcase talent but to do it over extended periods.

What the album lacks perhaps is that one magnum opus of a track. Sure, it’s not easy for any band to write “Master of Puppets”, but From Days Unto Darkness rarely takes a breather. It’s mostly positive, but while Master had at times, slow interludes to let you catch your breath, Hatriot takes absolutely no prisoners- staying true to their thrash metal heritage. If you’re not quite up for it, this album will hammer you into a stupor.

The halcyon days of Bay Area thrash metal may be long resigned to nostalgic documentaries, but Hatriot are not interested in just being a throwback to their roots. From Days Unto Darkness is not for the weak and if this is the sign that thrash metal is alive and kicking, then the future and present are in damn good hands.

(Massacre Records)

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