Some fellows who make music for a living have figured out that singing songs about girls isn’t exactly the least noble activity to be undertaken on this blue ball we call home. With some it’s just vitriol, and with others it’s a novel form of pop psychology. In fact, rock and roll would have withered on the vine and died a most uninteresting death long ago had it not been for the relational foibles of many a baffled songwriter or two. Take one look into the catalogue of say, a Matthew Sweet (a guy who be logically perceived as having paved the way for Brendan Benson and those of his ilk), whose songs about girls ranged from starry-eyed (“Girlfriend”) to viciously bitter (“Devil with the Green Eyes,” “The Ugly Truth” and the rest of Altered Beast for that matter) to facetious (“We’re the Same”) to mature and grown-up (“What Matters”), and it’s plain to see that the male perception of the fairer gender is just as tumultuous as we see female emotions to be. Matthew Sweet is only one guy out of thousands who have been perplexed by the opposite sex. Brendan Benson, a talented popster in his own right, is yet another, and the end result of both his musical toiling and emotional turmoil, The Alternative to Love, is ample proof that one need not mope in the wake of failed romantic pursuits. Dang, it’s even downright fun. Lovelorn guys without songwriting talent only wish they had an outlet like this. Wait, that’s me.
The Alternative to Love is a veritable Pez dispenser of uber-catchy, driving guitar pop tunes, one song right after the other that mask even the most jaded sentiment in a smashing riff or massive hook. It’s difficult not to become lost in the bright, lively instrumentation and miss the lyrical content, regardless of how contradictory or apropos it might be. Benson is a master pop craftsman in an era that badly needs them; it’s as if he’s cherry-picked the best quality from any number of guitar pop legends and dropped them all into his sound. A timely synthesizer fill here, a tasty harmony there, and oh, the guitars. The guitars are just everywhere. To think he’s only on his third album. Without the flubbed release of his first album, One Mississippi, you’d probably know who Brendan Benson was by now. But as it is, this is a great starting point.
“Spit It Out” bolts from the starting gate with a sugar rush of overdubbed harmonies, Rick Nielsen-esque riffs and just a dash of that punkish spunk. “Cold Hands (Warm Heart)” drops in some flavorful acoustics and what sounds like a xylophone melody; odd as it sounds, it totally works. The title track is about as perfect as a pop song gets, opening with a strummed acoustic but adding a layer every four bars through the first verse, until we’ve got an electric, some handclaps, a tambourine and a bass to usher us into the chorus. It’s just plain brilliant, in a “wow, how didn’t I think of that?” sort of way. And it’s got an appropriately bittersweet, resigned message to boot. Repeated listens will inevitably ensue.
The rest of album ably displays Benson’s strengths to equal degrees; in his hands, even the Spectorian blast of “The Pledge” sounds fresh. (C’mon, who hasn’t tried the Spector homage thing already?) As radio fades into the sunset to something much more inferior than the closing theme to Indiana Jones, it’s refreshing to see a modern artist take us back to the day when radio didn’t suck quite as badly. Like Homer Simpson said, “we all know that rock achieved perfection in 1974.” Granted, many have attempted this trick, but very few these days do it as well as Brendan Benson. This much indulging of the sweet tooth usually requires a trip to the dentist. But not this time.
Good Riddance – Thoughts and Prayers
The fire still burns brightly for Good Riddance
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.
Hatriot – From Days Unto Darkness
From Days Unto Darkness is a relentless pummeling of thrash metal’s best qualities
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.