It’s no secret that Strung Out love metal- from their earliest material on Another Day in Paradise (particularly tracks like “Ashes”) to the predominantly metal-sounding EP The Element of Sonic Defiance, they have over the course of their steady career blended the furious pace of hardcore/punk with metal’s more extravagant thrashing. Some of it was grand, and some, not so much. Enthusiasts will argue that the band have stood tallest when their focus was set on the more melodic side of hardcore- both Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues and Twisted by Design are still arguably the band’s most prolific musical period- but occasionally stumble when they shy away from it. The past few albums have been pretty lean from Strung Out, neither An American Paradoxnor Exile in Oblivion had the lasting impact their predecessors’ did- and while sound in terms of songwriting, lacked the punch (and production value) of their earlier work. Yet the hiccups of the past few releases have not stopped the band from producing one of the finest albums of the genre in recent memory. With Blackhawks Over Los Angeles, Strung Out proves that longevity and a steady hand can still be, and sound, essential.
Working once again with Matt Hyde (who for some reason has done an almost 180 degree turn from Exile in Oblivion), Blackhawks just sounds absolutely terrific. It’s all guns blazing from the start as opener “Calling” is a throwback to songs like “Firecracker” with its up-tempo audio assault, and save for the unnecessary South American instrumental intro, is perhaps one of the best songs Strung Out have written since the start of the millennium. There is no shortage of melodic overtones either, as “All the Nations” (listen below) is the perfect amalgam of high-soaring choruses, toe-tapping melody, and razor sharp guitar work; reminiscent perhaps, of standouts from the past like “Solitaire.” In fact, there really isn’t a sore spot in the entire first half of the album- filled with solid outings like “War Called Home” and “Party in the Hills,” highlighting the band’s new found songwriting energy.
The second half however, is a little patchier. The best tune from the last six tracks, “Downtown,” is a more mid-tempo effort that is heavy on the hard rock riffs and melody-filled choruses, that while doesn’t have the pace of the opening salvo, paints a more languid, settled approach. “Dirty Little Secret,” has received some flak for being a “WTF?!” moment for the band- but while it certainly treads on unfamiliar ground (bouncy, pop-sounding rock), is by no means a mess of any kind. It’s actually a rather sweet sounding song; owing a bit perhaps to late-era Schleprock than agro, late 80s Bad Religion. After these two, there is just not much that stands outs in the latter part- not entirely a knock as the songs are all solid, it is just that they lack the pervasive urgency that the first half of the album exhibited.
Shortcomings aside, Strung Out have found the perfect meshing of their love of metal and what they do best: shredding the boundaries of melodic hardcore like few have ever done before them. The album may just be the best way to connect fans of their earlier work to those more disposed to more recent outings. Blackhawks Over Los Angeles may not resonate the way Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues does, but it’s a solid, if not great, effort that just falls short of being stellar.
(Fat Wreck Chords)
The Ritualists – Painted People
The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music
After listening to Painted People by The Ritualists, I was very surprised to learn that this is their debut album. This band shows a maturity in their music that I would not expect from a first album and provides inspirational sounding tracks with ‘reach for the stars’ type of guitar riffs. I hear a modern version of U2 in The Ritualists, along with an influence of Radiohead. Their songs are full, wholehearted post-punk hooks with a lead singer that has a sizeable range.
“Rattles” opens the album, and it’s the type of song that shows their audience that they are here to stay. It has a great build-up of excitement and intensity. The band explains that this song is “A combination of dark, deep-pocketed verses juxtaposed with big, flashy choruses is a key element to tracks”.
“Ice Flower” and “Worthiest One” welcomes an electronic wave to the album and showcases just how impressive lead singer Christian Dryden’s range is. His ability to hit those high notes with such conviction puts my falsetto abilities to shame. “Worthiest One” brings this sort of nostalgic feeling- it’s a rock ballad with a floaty guitar riff.
“She’s The Sun” is a great follow-on from “Worthiest One” as it transfers the mood upwards and directs the music into more of a hypnotic vision, which conveys “the band’s inner Sixties Love Child”. “I’m With The Painted People” has a really relatable background to the song. Dryden felt a larger than life inspiration from people like David Bowie and Simon Le Bon, these artists felt like soulmates, which can be lonely at times. It wasn’t until he ventured out into the clubs of the lower east side of New York which helped him feel comfortable to express his creative vision freely. The song is all about finding like-minded people.
There are hooks galore and catchy choruses in pretty much every song. “With this record, I’ve specifically tried to be anthemic,” admits Dryden. “I’ve always loved going to shows, where immediately after the performance, and even on the ensuing days after, you just can’t help but remember and sing the songs you’ve just heard. It’s almost like a higher form of communication.” The Ritualists play some determined, strong-willed music and Painted People shows hints of variations with different genres explored throughout. They sound motivated and in return have produced motivating music for their listeners.
The Decline – Flash Gordon Ramsay Street
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk
It’s possible that since punk broke through to the mainstream in the mid to late ’90s, listeners outside of Australia think Frenzal Rhomb are the only band to have come from the lucky country. It’s true that during the rise of that Epitaph and Fat Wreck sound, Frenzal Rhomb became the namesake of the genre from Australia. However, Australian punks know that their history stretches long before the release of Survival of the Fattest. From the legendary sounds of The Saints to the rock n’ roll infused punk of Radio Birdman, Australia’s punk rock history is not only rich but very much precedes the genre’s mainstream explosion.
Frenzal Rhomb were another chapter in punk down under and for many, they opened a lot of doors. If not at the very least, proved that there were fertile grounds for new bands to emerge across the vast land. Western Australia’s The Decline formed in 2005 and quickly showed their talent for writing up-tempo melodicore that shred as much as it soared. From their 2010 debut, I’m Not Gonna Lie To You, it was clear that the band were equal parts snotty, urgent, funny, and melodic. Like the Frenzal Rhomb formula, they’ve got all of it in spades with a mean streak of Australianness that is both endearing and extremely relatable. Their latest album is no different.
From the title alone you can tell you’re in for a shedload of fun, and while it’s easy to think that Flash Gordon Ramsay Street is just goofy humor, it’s actually got a lot of pointed commentary too. From the animal-supportin’, veggie-lovin’, attack on meatlovers and meatheads (“Brovine”), to the real-estate market questioning “Smashed Avo”, there’s plenty of current talking points that The Decline run through. Sure, you also get vegan buffalo wing recipes (surprisingly, not the song titled “Bullet With Buffalo Wings”) and a love for The Legend of Zelda, but who says you can’t sing about Marxist theories while talking about your love for Nintendo?
What The Decline get absolutely spot-on is their clinical, unrelenting brand of skate punk; taking plenty of cues from the best of the NOFX / No Fun At All up-tempo, hardcore-derived brand of punk. The hooks on Flash Gordon Ramsey Street are as infectious as horny teens on spring break, highlighted by the endless harmonies on songs like the terrific “It Was Always You” and the call and response male-female vocal attack of “Verge Collection”. Brevity is also key, as the majority of the songs here never overstay their welcome with the longest clocking in at just 3:15 (the wistful closing of “Josh”).
Flash Gordon Ramsey Street is concise, to-the-point, and a furious medley of skate punk urgency that is relevant to young adult life as punks in Australia. Great production values to boot mean you can’t go wrong here.