Whenever there is a new Strung Out album, my first inclination is to look out for the “Strung Out song”. While arbitrary, it’s been a staple of the Strung Out discography and always a good sign that the record will be a great one. From Another Day in Paradise (1994), the band crafted songs that were the sum of the their best parts; urgency, melody, and emotion. These were songs that didn’t care that they were melodic to the point of balladry, yet still had the razor-sharp mix of high-octane riffs, high-energy percussion (that beat!) and Jason Cruz’s vocal anguish. What songs do I mean? It was “14 Days” in Another Day…, “Solitaire” in Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues, “Paperwalls” and “Matchbook” in Twisted By Design early on while their latter discography was punctuated by the superb “Andy Warhol” in Agents of the Underground and “No Apologies” in Transmission.Alpha.Delta. My long-winded point is that when Strung Out forgo their love of metal for their love of melody, the results are always great.
Case in point the solitary 2017 single “Crows”, which would have been the best song on any of their albums but remain left off all. It’s these kinds of songs that Strung Out are at their best and in Songs of Armor and Devotion, we get the terrific “Ulysses”; a song of manic energy, superb melodies and yes, that sense of melancholy that all its “Strung Out song” brethren have. Criteria met.
So is Songs of Armor of Devotion a great Strung Out album? In a word, yes, and it’s been a steady ship since 2009’s Blackhawks Over Los Angeles after a few years of fluctuating returns and flirtations with more metal and less punk. Their latest builds on the terrific work they showcased in Transmission.Alpha.Delta, ratching up the melody as showcased in the opening salvo of “Rebels and Saints”. The nuanced harmonies play well with the blistering solos and make for the strongest opening track since Exile In Oblivion’s “Analog”. The album is buoyed by some strong percussion work again, and while this is the first album since the departure of long-time drummer Jordan Burns, newcomer RJ Shankle is no downgrade behind the skins.
There is still plenty of fire (“Monuments”), touches of metal (“Daggers”), and many instances of the band being great at who they are. But the strongest aspect of the album is the album’s consistency and tone- it’s good all throughout, with plenty that still stokes the energy and electricity they blazed on to the scene with. They’re a little more composed now, and there’s a level of introspection and maturity that keeps the more ruthless vitriol they showcased in Twisted By Design a little at bay. But for a band to be this well into their career to still be writing songs like great “Strange Notes” (hectic guitar solo work over razor-sharp punk “gimme gimme more” vocals and d-beat percussion work) is a testament to the band.
Longevity may not always be a musician’s strongest trait, but for Strung Out, it isn’t just about being the last one standing- it’s their continued ability to write songs that connect, that the listener can relate to. They write songs of loss and heartbreak, anguish, and anger, songs that incinerate as well as they reflect on life, and all these years later, they’re still doing it with fire and fury. For many, Twisted By Design is still the band’s apex, but remarkably, Songs of Armor and Devotion has come the closest to emulating it, with moments on it inching close to surpassing it. In “Andy Warhol”, Cruz sang “You can’t write a song if you’ve never lost anything you’ve truly loved”, and it always sounds like the band have loved and lost better than so many.
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.