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When brothers Reid and Blaze Bateh moved from Athens, Georgia to Brooklyn, New York with their childhood friend William Brookshire, the trio—collectively known as Bambara—traded their bright Southern roots for something greasier, and coated with a thick layer of sludge. Gone was the tranquil life in the South; they were now a New York band, pairing their harrowing brand of post-punk with suffocating tales of city life and metropolitan malaise. Tracks like “Her Sister Touya” and “Black” on 2017’s Swarm are bleak and churning, sporting lo-fi guitars and disaffected vocals from singer Reid Bateh, clearly worn down by the unrelenting pace of life in New York. But with the recently-released Shadow on Everything, Reid wanted to move in a different direction. The result is a loose concept record about a small Western town and the people who populate it. It’s about as far as you can get from tales of big city life, but because of their severe, cutting sound—sharpened even further on Shadow on Everything—the songs feel just as barrelling and glorious.
“Our last record was all based on and heavily steeped in grimy city imagery,” Reid explains. “[For Shadow on Everything], I wanted it to be images from a different place, maybe a place I hadn’t even really seen.
“I thought it’d be cool just to write about a town out West and build a whole mythology around it,” he continues. “It started as an exercise, but it came together really well in a way that made it easy to dive into this town by focusing on characters and setting.” And while the lyrical themes provide the backbone for the album, they also reflect the music’s broad scope.
“Conceptually and musically, we put a lot of time into creating a sonic palette to pull from for the album,” says Blaze, the band’s drummer. “We wanted to tie everything together and make it exist in the same place.” As a result, Shadows is the band’s most refined work, emphasizing cleaner tones while still retaining the band’s signature layering. “Overall, we just wanted more clarity. There may be more layers than the last record, but they’re clearer and recorded at a higher quality level,” Reid explains. “We spent a lot more time mixing with clarity in mind this time around. That makes it feel less cluttered.”
This emphasis on higher quality recordings is apparent from the jump. “Dark Circles” pulses menacingly, driven by a circular tom-drum pattern and laconic delivery from Reid—half-observant, half-detached. For all its’ fanged menace, the album also boasts an array of subtler touches—the tambourine accent on “Dark Circles”; the Western gallop that complements the tremors of guitar on “José Tries To Leave”; the cinematic synths that sweep through the entirety of “Steel Dust Ocean.” The band’s only restriction was to ignore any preconceptions about what Bambara’s music was meant to encompass.
“We wanted to not limit ourselves in terms of instrumentation, which was new for us,” Reid explains. “We’ve always been experimenting with sounds. It’s always been about making instruments sound like other instruments. On this one, we brought in strings and saxophones, things like that.” Those instruments give Shadow new dimensions. “Backyard” is a huge-sounding shoegaze anthem with haunting vocals courtesy of Lyzi Wakefield. Reid’s voice emerges from the shadows on “Backyard,” turning in a surprisingly affecting performance.
Despite the fact that Shadow is a concept record, the story that Reid spins throughout the album is second to its bleak musical atmosphere. The album’s narrative may have shifted westward, but the songs are still rooted in large swaths of open space, punctured by sudden, brutal guitar stabs, heaving basslines, and drums from the Bonham school of hard knocks. It’s the rare concept album in which the concept isn’t a focal point—it’s just another layer among many. While the world Bambara builds on Shadow on Everything is situated in the rolling hills at edge of America, they never truly escape the filth and grime from which they arose.
Go to the YouTube page of virtuoso funk bassist Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas, Jr. and you will find videos of a young man wearing an outfit that falls somewhere between construction worker and raver kid. From the wool beanie and ski mask to the moon boots with the oversized tongue, his attire usually boasts bright and sometimes reflective neon colors—turquoise, safety orange, violet, and lemon yellow. The word MONONEON appears everywhere—on both his clothing and bass. If he isn’t wearing his eyeglasses with thick, forest green rims, he’s wearing ski goggles covered with neon tape and emblazoned in marker with his name.
MonoNeon has become one of the most sought-after bass players in the world. His formidable funk chops and impenetrable pocket, which he cultivated in his native Memphis and then briefly at Berklee School of Music, have led artists like Prince, Jack DeJohnette, Cory Henry, and Pete Rock to call and ask him to join their respective bands. This summer, Medeski, Martin, and MonoNeon will headline New Jersey’s BeardFest.
He has also become a popular online figure thanks to the videos he disseminates across YouTube and social platforms on a nearly daily basis; his Instagram account boasts over 115K followers. There are the relatively conventional concert clips, J Dilla covers, and interactions with other internet-savvy musical geniuses. Then there are the zany melodic interpretations of Will Smith’s motivational speeches and viral videos like “Angry Grandpa destroys PS4.” He has taken a particular interest in “covering” the rants and raves of Cardi B.
“I like the melodicism in Cardi B’s talking, it works for me when developing music out of speech,” MonoNeon explains via email. “The hopes that she sees it kinda doesn’t matter to me, but if she does see it, that’s dope too.” Even if Cardi B has yet to notice, The Roots did, and played one of his Cardi B covers as entrance music for her interview on The Tonight Show.
MonoNeon’s prolific online presence makes sense when you consider his epic discography. Across 17 albums dating back to 2010, he has attempted to meld funk and microtonal music, and also to use funk as a medium through which to explore the avant-garde art movements that have inspired him—namely, Dadaism, Surrealism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Color Field. His keen interest in these movements provides necessary context for his whimsical nature, his two-part artistic manifesto, and the way he presents himself visually. It was Duchamp’s readymades that prompted him to drape a sock over the headstock of his bass. You could interpret his viral video covers as expressions of Duchamp’s principle of “found art.”
“The rebelliousness of Dadaism is something I channel a lot in my music,” MonoNeon says. “I read about the ridicule and rejection Marcel Duchamp and others had to face because of their artistic gestures, and that sparks a vibe not only for music but for just simply wanting to be me.”
MonoNeon is only 27 years old, but it is already clear that he is destined for cosmic greatness. Get to know him through nine of his most memorable albums to date.
On I Don’t Care Today, a “soundtrack about […] existential confusion and adventure,” MonoNeon uses the physicality of his turbulent basslines to ground his scattered thoughts on relationships. “How ‘bout you delete me from your Instagram? You can fuck me for all I care, I don’t give a damn,” he sings on “I Wish I Never Met You.” Each track feels like a left turn and channels a different artist than the one preceding it: “Shooting For The Stars With My Laser Beam” evokes the wonky Afrofuturism of Shabazz Palaces; “Look In The Mirruh,” the tipsy stomp of DJ Quik; “Thick AF [Look At All This Meat I Got Over Here],” the psychedelic musings of Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand.”
MonoNeon’s freewheeling, humorous lyrical tendencies make his occasionally sharp insights all the more surprising and delightful. He finds a moment of clarity on “All I Ever Wanted To Do Was Be a Mystery” when he describes the urges of a stoner introvert: “Smoke some weed and plant some trees / Burn a little spot where I can’t be seen, be by myself with nobody else / Find that freedom inside yourself.”
Although MonoNeon invites the listener into the world of Welcome 2 Whateva the Fyuck with the words, “Whateva the fyuck you want it to be,” the album is pretty cohesive by his standards. For the first five (of six) tracks, he strikes a balance between his commitment to experimentation and the Prince and Parliament influences that he proudly wears on his sleeve. This balance evaporates in hilarious fashion on the concluding track “Public Nookie,” in which he does his best Strokes impression, employing an idyllic guitar line and chipmunked vocals to underscore the joys of public sex, before launching into riotous funk explosion driven by guitar and bass interplay. Whateva the fyuck, indeed…
At five tracks and just under 11 minutes, SELFIE QUICKIE is a good example of the amount of ground MonoNeon is able to cover in a short period of time. Though he denies having been seriously influenced by video game music, the first two tracks of SELFIE QUICKIE have the distinctive feel of a Super Mario World session. He transports the listener through portals between far-flung landscapes, through deep dives into treacherous, murky waters, romps through sun-dappled meadows, and assaults on Bowser’s Castle and all the grotesque horrors that lie within.
A tribute to the post-war musical pioneer John Cage, John Cage on Soul Train marks a collaboration between MonoNeon and microtonal guitarist Michael Vick. “Cage was free and fearless, something I want to embody,” MonoNeon says. “There is this quote from Cage that really changed and shaped me—‘The first question I ask myself when [something] doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.’ When I found about John Cage I found myself, at least the avant-garde side of myself that I felt was always there but didn’t manifest till I got hip to Cage.”
On WEON, a pack of seven instrumentals, MonoNeon and experimental Danish producer Kriswontwo enjoy a fluid relationship. Sometimes he is timekeeper, sometimes the frontman flashing his brash athleticism, then he gladly slinks into the background to become a fleeting texture as Kriswontwo’s intergalactic synths swell to symphonic proportions.
The title (and cover art) of Uncle Curtis Answered the Lobster Telephone is as comical and absurd as the Dali sculpture that inspired it. The album opens with a bass and drum groove, the tightness of which approaches that of D’Angelo’s “Chicken Grease,” then unwinds from there as he pays homage to the his favorite visual artists. The lack of embellishment on “Mono in Color Field” could be interpreted as a nod to Mark Rothko. “I love his simple gestures,” Mono says of Rothko, “his use of colors and spatialization in painting. I’ve seen some of his paintings at MoMa a while back, stood and stared at that shiet [sic]… an unintentional meditative state took place.”
In 2012, Harland Burkhart’s world was different. The Oakland-based drummer and vocalist’s longtime passion project, Wild Hunt, had just released their debut album and Drew Cook, the band’s guitarist, and Burkhart’s close friend, was still alive. Bands, like families, are irrevocably changed by tragedy. For three years after Cook’s passing, Burkhart kept Wild Hunt silent. To the outside observer, Wild Hunt’s story seemed to be over.
This year, though, Burkhart and Wild Hunt are back with a new lineup and a new record. The group’s core musical DNA hasn’t changed: Wild Hunt still play an almost unclassifiable, vitally forward-thinking brand of heavy guitar music, informed by Burkhart’s inexhaustible appetite for new music. But now, their music is tempered by the grief and personal loss he has experienced. Those three hard years have only made Wild Hunt stronger.
Burkhart formed Wild Hunt in Oakland, CA in 2004, with the sole intention of making good metal music—a goal which proved more elusive than he anticipated. On their recorded output, Wild Hunt is a nuanced blend of black metal and other elements, one that shifts tempos, rhythms, and guitar tones more frequently than your typical blast-beat-and-tremolo-picking Mayhem clone. At first, Burkhart had trouble finding a guitarist who wanted to play anything heavier than Dream Theater and the band cycled through members rapidly.
Not wanting to abandon his personal project, but also wanting to be in more serious about the music he was making, Burkhart joined another Bay Area group—one that was musically complex to the point of inscrutability. That band was Dimesland, who played a knotty, progressive mix of punk and metal, and were led by the sibling guitar duo of Nolan and Drew Cook (Burkhart describes them as “the two best guitar players I have ever been around”).
“In the end, it wound up that I was in two bands,” Burkhart says. “At that time, Wild Hunt was not that crazy. Dimesland introduced me to really proggy playing, and taught me that I could do stuff like that.” Burkhart asked Drew Cook to join Wild Hunt. He agreed, and brought some of Dimesland’s progressive tendencies with him. The two bands became conjoined twins, sharing three members: Cook, Burkhart, and bassist Greg Brace.
That trio would collaborate on one album and EP, one of which was Wild Hunt’s ambitious and dense 2012 debut, Before the Plane of Angles. It’s an album that could only have come from the progressive metal boom in the Bay Area at the time, but it still manages to stretch into atmospherics and nonlinear songwriting more than its contemporaries. Those would be the only fruits of their collaboration. Cook passed away while on tour with Wild Hunt in 2015.
Burkhart recalls Cook’s passing with the detached, detail-oriented shock familiar to anyone who has lost someone close to them. “I personally have not been in close proximity to a lot of death, so when it happened, it was the first time someone really close to me had died,” he says. “It was a still afternoon. It was weird—there was no wind, and the color that I was seeing seemed like a sepia, cold blue. I felt numb. It was a profound feeling, not dead or alive. I felt sad, but I also felt strange.”
Burkhart began composing Wild Hunt’s second record, The Afterdream of the Reveller, in 2016, while still processing Cook’s passing. While the album isn’t entirely about his former bandmate’s death—some of its compositions were a part of the band’s live set while Cook was still alive, albeit with different lyrics—but Burkhart says that much of the album is colored by that grief.
“Strange gifts come from it,” he says of the grieving process. “With Drew’s passing, all these things came into my head—new texture, new reality. It got me to think of all these new things. Death is closely associated with birth. It can wake you up from your sleepwalking, day-to-day life.”
While he was writing the album, Burkhart also began reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which influenced his lyrics. Indeed, much of the record deals with death. The title track references the poem “On Suicide” by Antonin Artaud. In “Desiderium,” Burkhart imitated Gregorian chanting to narrate the experience of a dying person grieving for themself. Other songs carry oblique references to Cook. Lyrics in “Nest of Flames” reference “Dying Foretold,” the last song Cook wrote for Dimesland. The first and last riffs of “Odious Gamble” were written by Cook himself.
At the same time, Afterdream of the Reveller continues the ambitious songwriting and production style that made its predecessor so unique. “Each song has a different mix and texture, which is a mastering nightmare,” Burkhart says. “If I kept going until I felt truly happy with it, it would have taken 10 years.”
Electronic music also informed Burkhart’s approach to atmosphere and mixing. “I used to listen to a lot of IDM. All that stuff has a lot of depth to it, a lot of flavors,” he says. “One of the biggest influences on me is The Future Sound of London. They have these sprawling albums with one continuous mix.” Burkhart’s affinity for electronic music is unusual in metal. “When we did the first album, our publicist asked for my influences,” he says. “I said Morbid Angel, Cocteau Twins, and The Future Sounds of London. He said, ‘OK, but do you really want me to list The Future Sound of London?’”
Listening to Afterdream of the Reveller is similar to watching Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, where the narrator continues to awaken from one dream into another, each one featuring a different visual aesthetic and philosophical theme. Every Wild Hunt song has its own unique sonic fingerprint, and its own ideas on death, birth, and the process of awakening to new ways of perceiving reality. For all the bleakness throughout, the album ends on a positive note with “Palingenesia,” a song focused on reincarnation. “The last line of that song is ‘This body shall not be an anchor, but a mast,’ which is about moving on,” Burkhart says.
In a way, Burkhart himself is also moving in. Wild Hunt is back up to four members, including Jamison Kester of Void Omnia and newcomer Avinash Mittur. The style of music he plays is now even more uniquely his own. Afterdream of the Reveller, a record made in remembrance of his departed friend is, in the end, one of grief’s strange gifts.
Little is known about melancholic post-black metal act Unreqvited. Evidently, it’s a one-man project based in Ottawa, Canada—who is singularly known as the symbol 鬼, from Japanese folklore—that features both operatic female vocals (most notably on the sweeping opener “Sora”) and throat-shredding screams. One of Unreqvited’s listed affiliations online is “the Circle of Nine”; whether that’s a direct reference to the gothic RPG Legacy of Kain is unclear, although Stars Wept to the Sea, Unreqvited’s second full-length, shares its rich, textural grandeur and epic polish.
Musically, Unreqvited is unusual and intriguing. Sonically, it draws heavily on genre tropes common to atmospheric black metal. There are stirring piano lines, crystalline guitar riffing, tremolo blasting, and plenty of layered background vocals. Tracks like “Stardust” feel like a marriage between second-wave Norwegian black metal and expansive post-rock, shifting from battering ram brutality to sweet crooning, occasionally punctuated by chirping birds and poignant piano. Although much of the album is drifting and dreamlike, its strongest moments burrow into the brain, pulling you down to Earth.
Similar to projects like Ghost Bath and Lifelover, Unreqvited is music that encourages dissociation. Otherworldly and cold, it provokes a deep emotional response.
Photo by Valeria Zaklinskaya
“It wasn’t the happiest point in my life,” says Sae Heum Han, looking back at the time when he wrote the music for the recently released Dear God, out on London/New York label Tri-Angle Records. “There was a lot of shit going on… trials, tribulations.” Dear God, initially released as a limited cassette via Beer on the Rug in 2017, is a distant, yet poignant memory for the 24-year-old who records as mmph.
Han was born in Korea and moved to Canada with his family when he was nine. He’s been on the move since then. Not having a place he can really call home affected him deeply. “At some point you start holding on to little bits and pieces of memories,” he says over the phone. “Those that are the most important to you.” He’s now settled in Boston, Mass., where he recently started working on music full-time after studying at the Berklee College of Music.
Music has always been always central to Han’s life, wherever he lived. He studied classical cello performance for over 10 years, then played in various bands, and eventually started producing music for himself. “I haven’t had a chance or time to play the cello too much lately,” he says.
But it definitely left its mark.
“I think a lot of the people know production as this immediate thing,” Han continues, “where you open up the DAW [‘digital audio workstation’ such as Ableton or Logic] and produce the results right away. I’m not saying it’s a bad method, but I still have the kind of practice mentality that applies to a lot of classical musicians or instrumentalists. You simply have to put in your time, you’ve got to learn the skill set. I approached production in that way.”
The music on Dear God clearly mirrors mmph’s put-the-time-in approach: these are exquisitely crafted pieces of electronic music. The opener, “Sun God,” is full of intricate textures and massive-sounding hits, but retains elements of light, living up to the song title. “Façade” is more dynamic and dramatic, as tribal percussion erupts into hard-hitting electronica with an orchestral backdrop. But it’s the closing “Blossom” which reflects mmph’s process the most. Dear God was—believe it or not—written almost entirely on the guitar.
“I think a lot of the time when you’re doing production, it can become very detail-oriented and nothing feels urgent because you have so much time to do everything,” Han says. “So [writing on the guitar] was a good exercise to get all my thoughts out as quickly as possible, then working with source material I could build on, whether it was adding more, replacing stuff or simplifying it.
“There wasn’t any room in my headspace to really give too much thought to what I was making. It was more of just trying to express myself at that particular time.“
And that particular time was indeed very trying for Han. His mother had just been diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment in Korea, while he was in Boston, feeling stranded and powerless. “The only thing that I was told to do was, you know, ‘pray to God.’ And I found it kind of ironic, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I’m not a religious person in any way. Making this EP was my own way of praying to God. I was trying to get all the negative emotions out. It was healing for me.”
When viewed in this light, Dear God transforms from a mere EP into a sonic lamentation, exclaiming frustration and hope. It’s powerful and raw, and has a unique narrative, with abstract sonic elements and intelligible voices taking on new meaning. It’s a heavy listen, but as you edge closer to the end of the EP, on the uplifting closing track “Blossom,” you walk away feeling hopeful.
And mmph looks ahead full of hope, too. His recent contributions to David Byrne’s American Utopia (“I honestly still can’t believe that that ever happened; when I moved to Canada I used to listen to David Byrne records—my dad had some around—and that’s how I sort of learned English”) and serpentwithfeet’s soil are only the beginning for mmph. Dear God will be followed by a sequel EP. Han is also preparing a third release, albeit one with a completely different vibe. And while preparing for live shows to support the release of Dear God forces mmph to revisit some bad memories, he remains humble, thankful and hard-working.
As a genre, thrash metal has always been elastic. Given the style’s global reach, with its formative period seeing bands in California’s Bay Area, New York City, Germany, and Brazil—to name only a few—all pushing the style forward, there was never a single correct way to thrash. All that parallel thinking meant every scene was offering something distinct, and it’s why every band left behind a different thread for the next generation to follow, enabling them to spin off their own distinct takes on the genre, too.
This is, in part, what yielded crossover, a punk-inspired strain of thrash that came into vogue when hardcore bands started reaching outside their confines. The sound dates back to the mid-’80s, when bands like the Cro-Mags and Bad Brains began imbuing their sounds with a more metallic chug. But the genre was formally christened when the Texas band D.R.I. released their third record, Crossover, in 1987. Crossover was still firmly rooted in punk, but instead of rushing through 22 songs in a scant 17 minutes like they’d done before, D.R.I. was taking their more primal directives and supplanting them with the kind of lead breaks and technical riffs that Metallica’s Master Of Puppets so deftly inspired.
While thrash had a revival in the mid-2000s, it was only a matter of time before crossover had its day in the sun. While the distinctions between crossover and “classic” thrash are razor thin, there’s been an upswing of bands that hammer home the distinction, playing metal but approaching it with hardcore’s ethos. These bands are reclaiming crossover as their own, expanding upon the best aspects of the two sibling genres and allowing for it to become a vital sound that sounds just as good when it’s rebooted.
Over the past year, Power Trip have risen to a place of prominence in underground music. Not only have they toured with metal legends like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse, they’ve gained the approval of critics on the back of their sophomore album Nightmare Logic—which Bandcamp named the best metal album of 2017. After a decade of work, the Texas band have become the gateway for the rising movement, able to win over dyed-in-the-wool metalheads, as well as punks that don’t touch the stuff. While undoubtedly a metal band, Power Trip make some critical decisions that show their punk backbone, such as writing songs in standard tuning and forgoing the double bass drum attack that’s become such a cliché in nearly every sub-section of metal. The effect of that is a batch of songs that are true sing-alongs, hitting listeners the kind of choruses that arena rock bands would be jealous of.
While it’s up for debate whether or not Municipal Waste fall more on the crossover or thrash side of the aisle, vocalist Tony Foresta and guitarist Phil “Landphil” Hall have always been upfront about where their side project Iron Reagan sits. On their 2017 album Crossover Ministry, which roots itself firmly in hardcore’s political tradition, Iron Reagan are more concerned with crushing establishments than crushing a beer, even if they slip in a lighthearted party anthem here and there. From their name on down, Iron Reagan follow in the footsteps of punk’s progenitors, building outsized caricatures of those in power so they can cut them right back down to size.
Like many of the bands on this list, Helsinki, Finland’s Foreseen have been around for a while, but they are just beginning to hit their stride. While they always were a forceful band, 2017’s Grave Danger was the culmination of everything they’d been working toward, pushing their tempos to an almost unreasonable pace and becoming a tighter, more focused unit as a result. A song like “Violent Discipline” sees guitarists Jaakko Hietakangas and Erkka Korpi rush to fill all the open space with punchy, memorable riffs, while vocalist Mirko Nummelin throws out lyrical phrases that build to a cathartic cry of “Fight back.” They clearly worship at the altar of Kreator, Germany’s biggest thrash export, but Foreseen write songs that could never be dismissed as mere homage, with the quasi-socialist bent of “Government Cuts” showing a perspective that’s all their own.
If crossover was first forged in Texas by D.R.I., it would be carried forward by fellow Texans a couple decades later. Before Power Trip took up the mantle, there was Iron Age, releasing the eclectic, genre-bending Constant Struggle in 2006 and becoming the silent influence on the next wave of Texas thrash acts. 2009’s The Sleeping Eye saw them move into a more mid-tempo arena, one that was drenched in psychedelia and brought a doom-indebted ambience to the fore. Though Iron Age has spent much of the past decade on hiatus, they’ve been playing shows again—with Power Trip drummer Chris Ulsh playing guitar in this new iteration—and introducing themselves to a world that’s never been more inviting to their unique brand of thrash.
Primal Rite are a band that carry on two distinct coastal traditions. Hailing from San Francisco, the band is the logical merging of the Bay Area hardcore and thrash scenes, but by aligning themselves with the iconic New York City hardcore label Revelation Records, their East Coast influence feels slightly more pronounced. This year’s Dirge Of Escapism is the perfect merger of those sounds, becoming a corrosive concoction that sees Lucy Xavier’s vocals bleed into the instruments, making an all-consuming racket that never lets up.
Hailed as a band at the forefront of the “New Wave of D.C. Hardcore,” Red Death have their feet firmly planted in the city’s punk tradition. While their debut album Permanent Exile sounds more like a hardcore band flirting with metal’s theatrics, last year’s Formidable Darkness showcases their evolution into a leaner crossover act. On Formidable Darkness, Red Death’s riffs are a little heavier, the songs a hair faster, and the lyrics more pointed, a potent combination that shows they’re a band that’s only treading upward.
Poughkeepsie, New York’s Mindforce have only a couple of EPs to their name, but they’ve quickly found a way to take crossover’s ideology and supplant it with the groovy bounce of East Coast hardcore. “They Just Want War” is a prime example, as Mindforce are able to take some technical riffing and wrap it around a bouncing backbeat, allowing them to effortlessly slide into a danceable breakdown without anyone being the wiser. With Jason Petagine’s vocal delivery giving a clear nod to the borderline spoken word approach of late-’80s hardcore, Mindforce add some new spices to crossover’s stew, and they blend in better than you’d expect.
Enforced have an innate understanding of the musical history of the city they call home. Hailing from Richmond, Virginia, it’s clear that Enforced have taken the mid-tempo, groove-laden path laid down by Four Walls Falling, but they’ve never limited themselves to that narrow frame of reference. By taking in elements from a band like Municipal Waste, they are able to craft songs that can make pinch harmonics fit into what are, from a structural perspective, hardcore songs. The cumulative effect makes Enforced a band that don’t just continue Richmond’s legacy of aggressive music, they cement their own place within it.
Like many people across the country, Yasumi Okano’s perception of the power structures in Japan changed after the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the accidents at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on the coast of the Tōhoku region.
“Before the earthquake occurred, politicians and power companies insisted that nuclear plants in Japan were the safest in the world, and I also believed that,” Okano says from his home in the city of Ōita, tucked away on Japan’s western island of Kyushu. “However, the reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant melted down as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. I came to the full realization that I can’t just leave politics to the politicians after voting.”
Okano channeled his anger at the Japanese political establishment into Xinlisupreme, his solo project since 2001. His rage crystallized in a song directed at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who, at the start of the year, pushed to rewrite the nation’s pacifist constitution. Okano recorded a blistering rock number in his house, highlighted by a call-and-response lyric inspired by on-street protests. It was direct, and made Okano’s feelings clear from the single sentence, hollered over and over again, that gives the tune its title—“I Am Not Shinzo Abe.”
“I have to learn about political and social issues by myself, raise my voice and discuss, and sing to change the politics of Japan,” Okano says.
That’s partly what motivated Okano to independently put out I Am Not Shinzo Abe, Xinlisupreme’s second full-length and first proper album since the celebrated 2002 offering Tomorrow Never Comes. Abe contains plenty of the same stylistic elements that made the project connect with listeners globally—noise rock, shoegaze, and electronic music that blurs together into something that’s at times cacophonous, at times meditative, but always shifting. Not all the songs are political, but Okano uses the album to voice the concerns he has with Japan’s government. Xinlisupreme’s official site is less about his music than it is about his talking points. Okano doesn’t hold anything back—which complicated the album’s release.
Okano began recording as Xinlisupreme shortly after the new millenium. His former label, FatCat Records, said in a website post circa 2002 that Xinlisupreme was “discovered via a demo that blew everyone in the office away, this is simply some of the best guitar-based music we’ve heard in ages.” They released Xinlisupreme’s first 7” single and debut album Tomorrow Never Comes, and the latter netted praise from English-language fans and music publications such as Pitchfork and Stylus Magazine. But all the attention led to a misconception about the project—namely, that it’s two people, rather than Okano alone.
“Xinlisupreme has always been my own solo project rather than a duo,” Okano says. “When FatCat Records requested a live tour and Peel Sessions during my debut, I asked Takayuki Shoji to be the band member I needed for those performances. Ultimately, there weren’t any live performances, so he and I parted ways right away. But that was after FatCat had already announced his name as a new member, so Xinlisupreme was introduced to the world as a duo.”
That Okano created Tomorrow Never Comes alone makes the final result that much more impressive. It doesn’t slot easily into any category; Tomorrow generated comparisons to everyone from fellow “Japanoise” acts like Merzbow and High Rise, to My Bloody Valentine, to Suicide and turn-of-the-century IDM. Pitchfork named it the 50th best shoegaze album ever, but qualified that honor by saying it was “perhaps the furthest from shoegaze in the purest sense of the term.” Xinlisupreme’s full-length debut offered a glimpse of the future, where genre borders weaken to the point of becoming non-existent. Machine beats collide with guitar squall, which falls away to make way for a sweet, feedback-drenched piano interlude. It’s one of the 21st century’s first great bedroom works.
Okano first displayed his fondness for protest on the followup mini-album Murder License, which was released in the run up to the United State’s invasion of Iraq. The music is uglier, and the accompanying art more direct—there’s an American flag on the cover, and George W. Bush’s image is featured inside. Abe takes those initial cautious steps toward politics to their natural conclusion.
“I had long been thinking about making music that brought to mind the various on-street protests that I saw all over Japan following the shake up of Japanese society on March 11, 2011,” Okano says. In early 2015, the phrase “I Am Not Abe” became a trend on Twitter in Japan, which gave Okano a rallying cry. Released early that year, the song eventually received attention from Japanese music site Natalie and was retweeted by SEALDs, a student activist organization.
Okano found himself wanting to engage actively in protests. “I quit activity of Xinlisupreme and have been participating in movements against the Abe administration, nuclear power plants, and discrimination,” he says. (He’s also recently been focused on movements to get U.S. military bases out of Okinawa.) But when a fellow activist heard the slow-burning “Seaside Voice Guitar” and was wowed by it, Okano began to rethink his retirement. “They encouraged me to begin activities as Xinlisupreme once again, and that is the reason behind I Am Not Shinzo Abe coming out now.”
The latest Xinlisupreme album continues the loud-to-soft dynamic Okano has long explored, featuring slightly reworked numbers from his days on the Japanese label Virgin Babylon. Its songs touch on both screeching noise rock (“Zouave’s Blue”) and smoke-damaged takes on dance pop (“Oh Yeah”). Yet its politics are always front and center; an accompanying text is focused on Abe, and it is being released at a time when the Prime Minister finds himself embroiled in a much-discussed scandal. In some ways, “I Am Not Shinzo Abe” is reminiscent of YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump”—no metaphor or subtext, just a statement delivered with passion.
Okano says he intends to explore more explicit political subjects—including racial and gender discrimination—in the near future, and he hopes others do the same.
“Political changes could not be brought about in Japan unless we artists take action to express our opinion against them,” he says. “Let’s be brave and speak up so we can change the Japanese government.”
-Patrick St. Michel
Photo by Eli Secody
In the liner notes for Keith Secola’s recent career-spanning compilation, Circle, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls writes, “Keith is like a Shakespearean character jumping out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a time traveler from a Tom Robbins novel.” In those same notes, Doors drummer John Densmore describes him as “a magician,” while U2 guitarist The Edge calls him “a downright punk rocker.” A Native American rock pioneer who calls his sound “Native Americana,” Secola appeared to be gaining traction during the ‘90s. He looks back fondly on opening for the Indigo Girls, and bonding backstage with the members of Nirvana at the 1992 edition of Denmark’s Roskilde festival.
But today, Secola is perhaps most recognized for his songcraft by fellow musicians. When the Tempe, Arizona-based singer-songwriter attended a 1994 Grateful Dead show in Phoenix in 1994, he was surprised to hear his signature song, “Indian Cars,” come on over the PA. He would later learn, as he made the band’s acquaintance, that the song was a favorite of bandleader Jerry Garcia, who had hand-selected it as a staple of the Dead’s pre-show song mix that year. Garcia wasn’t alone. In the new liners, Amy Ray encapsulates Secola’s appeal when she points out how disarmingly straightforward and funny Secola’s songs seem on first impression.
Ray actually laughed out loud when she first heard “Indian Cars” (often stylized with the shorthand “NDN” spelling that’s widely used in the Native community). Admittedly, it’s clear that the song, a kind of lament over the broken-down condition of a vehicle, was meant to make audiences laugh. On reflection, however, Ray was struck by what she describes as “an overwhelming sobriety.” By laughing along with the plight of the driver, the listener is unwittingly invited into Native society, a world where poverty and myriad other struggles continue to exert a heavy toll far out of view of the mainstream American consciousness.
“Indian Cars,” however, never explicitly addresses these social ills, and Secola’s verses barely hint at any sense of marginalization. Nevertheless, Secola’s delivery—and his use of the automobile as an analogy for making due with whatever you’ve got—struck a chord both within and outside the Native community. Speaking by phone from his Tempe, Arizona home, Secola stresses the importance of humor in his music. Native artists, he points out, can easily find themselves caught between a stark reality and the caricature-like way that Native history is portrayed in popular culture.
“The only choice,” he says wryly, “is between an angry Indian and a Disney Indian.”
Secola’s body of work cut a new path between those two constraints. When he sings “gotta make it to a powwow tonight” on “Indian Cars,” a chant-like guitar line and rolling tom-toms playfully evoke familiar stereotypes. Contrast that lightness with “So Many Dreams,” where Secola underscores a tribal chant with mournful acoustic guitar. Consisting of a single verse, “So Many Dreams” contains very little in the way of detail, yet the song conveys a powerful sense of loss. The chant fades out until all that’s left is acoustic guitar and Secola’s voice. Without being too obvious or heavy-handed, Secola has transitioned from ancient, pre-colonial North American music to the present.
It’s easy to see why Secola would become something of a cult figure among Native rock fans, thanks to his unabashed love of rock ‘n’ roll and with his ability to work with common themes for people who relate to his background. But he wouldn’t have been able to reach as many listeners as he has without the emergence of Native American radio. Since its release in 1987, “Indian Cars” has risen to an iconic status among Native listeners—somewhat analogous to the way certain classic rock anthems have become an anchoring force in mainstream pop culture.
Growing up in the ‘70s in a Native community in the Mesabi Iron Range of northern Minnesota, Secola discovered rock music the way so many of us do: by being introduced to bands like Black Sabbath and David Bowie via older relatives and friends. He tells an endearing story of hitchhiking to the town of Hibbing, Minnesota at the age of 18 to buy his first electric guitar: “I hitchhiked back home with it,” he says. “I didn’t really know any chords, but I remember stopping at my friend’s and showing him my Gibson Marauder guitar and my little Fender Vibro Champ. I learned a few chords of ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult.”
Back then, there was no Native radio station. By the time “Indian Cars” was released, Secola was aware of “maybe a handful of stations.” Slowly but steadily, Native radio has grown into a vital artery of information flow for communities that have been largely underserviced by high-speed internet. Today, according to Native Public Media, there are 59 full-power, Native-owned stations throughout “Indian Country,” while hundreds of other low-power stations dot North America, with yet many more affiliate stations that syndicate Native programming. Aside from broadcasting Native music, these stations serve as a lifeline for rapidly-disappearing languages and customs.
It is thanks in large part to Native radio that Secola, who is of Anishinaabe origin, is more aware of his place within the dizzying variety of Native cultures. Even Natives, he warns, can fall into the pitfall of appropriation.
“I see other artists,” he says, “and as soon as they learn that they’re Native American, they appropriate the sun dance. But I don’t need to appropriate cultures and ceremonies from other Native tribes. I don’t have to become the sun dance chief or start conducting spiritual ceremonies for people who don’t use the sweat lodge. By seeing Native ceremonies from other tribes, it helps me realize I’m an outsider too, and that it’s important for me to be respectful.”
“It may be a stupid fucking world we’re living in right now,” says Brooklyn-based trumpeter Jaimie Branch in a Bandcamp article this past December, “but it still needs a soundtrack.” Branch was discussing her 2017 breakout, Fly or Die, a heterogeneous jazz album released under her own name. Fittingly, Kudu, the first release by Anteloper, Branch’s duo with drummer Jason Nazary (Bear in Heaven), is an apt soundtrack to our stupid fucking world as well. While Kudu and Fly or Die share some stylistic similarities, though, their respective “soundtracks” possess different tonal registers: the conversational acoustic interplay that marks Fly or Die is traded on Kudu for a spiraling mix of freely improvised trumpet, percussion, and electronics. That is, if Fly or Die’s uplifting displays of musical communion provided a salve for the chaos of today, Kudu, across five sprawling and unpredictable tracks, seems to provide a mirror.
“The thing I’m constantly working on, musically or otherwise, is Patience with a capital ‘P’,” says Branch in that same interview. Kudu, in contrast, is loose, challenging, full of 12-tone trumpet runs, arrhythmic drum hits, mesmerizing funk grooves, and meandering webs of electronic noise. These aren’t necessarily sounds equated with Patience; still, the album’s nine-minute opener, “Oryx,” is a lesson in musical equanimity. After 90 seconds of a glitchy electronic undercurrent, Branch and Nazary—whose synergistic relationship began in 2002 at the New England Conservatory—start to slowly map out a sonic territory that they’ll carefully explore for the rest of the album, one where the duo’s differentiated grooves can recall anything from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble to the pulsing, melodic rock of ’90s Thrill Jockey. The standout track, the 15-minute “Ohoneotree Suite,” is crisscrossed with shifting patches of information, with Anteloper striking a distinctly contemporary balance between disorderly and patient, a balance that could help us understand this stupid fucking world and then begin to navigate through it.
Photos by Jungran Park
Things that have happened to Say Sue Me in 2018 so far: they’ve been an official SXSW band, embarked on a second tour of the U.K. and western Europe, landed a supporting slot with Japanese Breakfast in Paris, and racked up yards of positive coverage for their second full-length and first international release, Where We Were Together.
It’s clear that the indie pop quartet from Busan, South Korea are well on track to become one of 2018’s breakout bands, but when I ask Say Sue Me via Skype a few weeks before the record’s release if they feel more famous inside or outside of their home country, they laugh.
“Well, if you’re famous outside Korea, you’re famous inside Korea,” says vocalist and guitarist Sumi Choi. “I think we are getting famous outside of Korea, but there’s still not much focus on us here.”
That will be changing soon. A cursory listen to their music reveals why Say Sue Me, made up of Choi, guitarist Byungkyu Kim, bassist Jae Young, and drummer Chang Won, is rapidly taking over the world. The band’s mix of catchy indie pop and vibrant surf gives them instant, familiar appeal that works over a variety of spectrums—think a combination of Alvvays’ twinkling hooks, La Luz’s wet atmospherics, and Pavement’s spiraling coils of noise. (We like to call it indie surf.)
Their self-admitted first “well-prepared record,” Where We Were Together is the fullest expression of Say Sue Me’s own sound to date, presenting a skillfully rendered amalgamation of elements drawn from genres the band has been experimenting with since their formation in 2012. But it took them a while to arrive at the right blend.
“When we started our band, we didn’t do it seriously. We just wrote songs,” says Choi. “Luckily, we knew Dick Dale and the Beach Boys. They have a vibrant sound, and we liked that.”
Say Sue Me’s discography shows a band dabbling in everything from heavy surf instrumentals and sparkling C86 jangle pop to blown-out proto-shoegaze and grungy ’90s indie. Last year’s Damnably compilation Say Sue Me, a retrospective made up of tracks taken from the band’s two Korean releases, provides an overview of the group slowly assembling their sonic identity (it made our best records of 2017). The results can be heard reverberating throughout the warmly recorded tracks on Where We Were Together.
That Say Sue Me are able to combine genres in such a natural fashion is due largely to the synergy between Kim, who pens all the music, and Choi, whose deeply empathetic lyrics and themes are inspired, you might not be surprised to learn, by an actual diary she keeps. “I have so many complaints about my ideas and myself and everything in this world,” she jokes.
Choi’s got a knack for balancing sweet and sardonic sentiments within lyrics like “I’m full of things I hate / But I like you,” from “But I Like You,” and this mirrors Kim’s ability to shift moods by layering various guitar tones and textures within the space of a single song. This versatility is not lost on the band. “He’s a genius,” Choi says of Kim.
When asked about their current influences, they mention Yo La Tengo and Pavement (Kim likes Megadeth). They’re also big fans of ‘90s Chicago indie band Seam, who, they point out, was fronted by Korean-American Sooyoung Park. The feeling from Park is mutual. It was through Park that George Gargan of Damnably, the U.K. label distributing When We Were Together internationally (Electric Muse is Say Sue Me’s longtime Korean label), became familiar with the Korean indie scene after booking a tour for Park’s band Bitch Magnet. This led him to John Yingling’s The World Underground, a documentary series dedicated to covering underground scenes from around the globe. Yingling had recently uploaded a live recording of Say Sue Me playing in a Busan club, Basement, to Bandcamp. Gargan clicked play.
“The name kind of seemed unusual, so I had a listen. You can hear Sumi shout ‘Yeah!’—then ‘My Problem’ kicks in, which is one of their best songs,” Gargan explains via email. “I was blown away by the bouncing melody, the switch to double notes on the lead, then Sumi’s lyrics.
“There’s a lot going on that in part reminded me of the Sarah Records releases I’d bought in my youth,” he continues. “But with added crazy guitar skills and full-on surf. A band that could do incredibly catchy indie pop and straight surf was a band we had to release.”
Much like the Sarah Records releases Gargan mentions, there is a distinct melancholy burbling beneath Say Sue Me’s radiant pop hooks. Where We Were Together, which bravely kicks off with a gentle, downcast six-minute ballad entitled “Let It Begin,” is, in part, about their former drummer, Semin Kang, who suffered a fall and remains in a semi-comatose state. Many of the songs touch on his absence, like “B Lover,” referencing good times had together in the past or paying homage to the type of pop culture he favored.
The other shadow falling over the record is that of Busan itself, a place Choi sings about with conflicted emotions on the record’s lead single “Old Town”: “I just want to leave here / But I want to stay here.” The record’s cover art is a photo of an unused swimming pool near the band’s practice space, the same broken down cityscape that graced the cover of their 2014 debut, We’ve Sobered Up.
“Busan is the second largest city in Korea, but the infrastructure is really poor,” Choi says when asked about the local music scene in Busan. “All the young people go to Seoul or other places, so there’s no audiences, but there are so many good musicians.”
Though they may indulge in wistful nostalgia in their music, Say Sue Me themselves are upbeat about their own future, so much so that they’ve all just quit their day jobs to focus on the band.
“I just want to keep this band healthy and happy,” says Choi. “That’s why I like Yo La Tengo. Yo La Tengo have had their band for a long time, and they’re always making good music. Even when I’m a grandmother, I want to be in this band.”