Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hot Water Music - The Fire The Steel The Tread

After a triumphant return to the stage, the members of Hot Water Music got together and put out a couple of studio recordings. The first was a cover of “True Believers” by The Bouncing Souls, a song that they’d played live, which was released as a split single with that band covering “Wayfarer”. We were never going to learn too much about what the band would sound like from this 2010 release, and so it was the next year, along with promises of a 2012 full-length release, that we were treated to a new 7”/download. The first new material since the achingly disappointing The New What Next in 2004, it could have gone anywhere. Would it be a salute to the days of old? This was unlikely given the band’s personal preference for their Epitaph-era work. Would it sound like The New What Next or their previous, better Epitaph work (A Flight And A Crash and Caution)? Would it sound a bit like Chuck Ragan’s solo material, which had gone from just the vocalist/guitarist and an acoustic to a full-blown country backing band? Would it draw from the other three members’ time spent playing as The Draft, or other vocalist/guitarist Chris Wollard’s other work as head of The Ship Thieves?

Well, over the course of two songs, the answer is “most of the above”. The A-side of The Fire The Steel The Tread, which goes by that title, is a Ragan-penned piece that sounds like a country tune that’s been beefed up with electric instruments. Ragan’s voice sounds horribly withered, and every line is sung in dual to keep it up in the mix. The vocal melodies are somewhere between country and old fashioned road warrior rock (which shouldn’t be surprising given the title and lyrics). The classy rhythm section is held back, as George Rebelo’s drums are reduced to a sluggish pounding, and Jason Black’s bass is almost impossible to detect in the mix, so I don’t really know what he’s doing.

I have to confess to being disappointed. There are traces of The New What Next, and copious doses of Ragan’s solo work, which have been possibly the least effectual releases that any of the four members of Hot Water Music have been involved with in the ten years before this release. “The Fire The Steel The Tread” embodies elements of just about everything I was fearful of that might have gone wrong. I’d always typically preferred Ragan’s songs to Wollard’s. There’s just something about the classic anthems of hope from what used to be one of rock’s most coarse vocals that just made you believe that every word and every note was meant, and it’s all missing now, the chords, the lyrics, the voice. The only thing worth salvaging from this song was some of the higher-end guitar work, which barely hauls itself out of the mix.

The flipside is the contribution of Wollard, and I did not expect it to turn around my feelings of sheer dread for how bad the next full length would be, given my penchant for liking his songs less historically. Nevertheless, I gave it a spin. Lo and behold, all the best ingredients seem to have gone into “Up To Nothing”. The guitar work comes over as a blend of The Draft and Caution, the finest of Hot Water Music since signing for Epitaph. It’s catchy, infectious, and lively, and a much more animated Rebelo can be envisaged behind the drum kit. The backing vocals work a treat, the choral refrain is memorable, and Wollard’s voice hasn’t suffered anything like as much. Of course, there are flaws, but these are in the mix. Again, Black isn’t heard, and you get the feeling that the vocals could just be mixed a little better, but these are minor blemishes on a faith-restoring song.

I’ve learned better than to be optimistic about anything, and the label that the band signed with to release the new LP looks to be so packed to the rafters with emo bands that it makes Epitaph look like they’re still in their glory days of the 80s and 90s. I’m not sure what the label expects from the band, or is just happy to have the name of a well-known band on its roster. Where do No Idea Records come in this time? In a way I’m glad that the quartet is moving on slightly, and The Fire The Steel The Tread does at least hint that what’s to come will be better than The New What Next. However, the thought of Hot Water music drawing out a legacy of below par records, after such a golden first decade together, is a sad one indeed. There’s nothing here for anyone who’s only a fan of the 90s material. Even the artwork continues in the vein of the uglier Scott Sinclair art present in The New What Next, whilst also bearing a resemblance to the artwork on the singles that The Draft put out. If you like Caution or Chris Wollard, the B-side is of great value to you. Unless the band put out enough loose material to fill up a third compilation album, these tracks probably won’t see release on a proper record.

Personal pick: Up To Nothing
Pick for others: Up To Nothing
Relative weakness: The Fire The Steel The Tread

01 – The Fire The Steel The Tread
02 – Up To Nothing

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Pegboy - Three-Chord Monte / Strong Reaction / Field Of Darkness

After defining the sound of Chicago punk kings Naked Raygun with his simple but direct guitar for the best part of the 80s, John Haggerty decided he’d had enough and formed a new band, enlisting the help of Larry Damore and Steve Saylors on vocals/occasional rhythm guitar and bass respectively, from the recently-disbanded Bhopal Stiffs, rounding out the lineup with his brother Joe behind the drum kit. Pegboy went in to record a few demo tracks with Iain Burgess, and decided that it was good enough to release as it was as an EP. Later packaged on one disc with debut full length Strong Reaction, it nevertheless gets a separate examination because of its initial release as a separate record.

Three-Chord Monte is one of the most charming little puns you’ll find in the often all too serious world of punk, and it’s reinforced by the cover photo of a shady character dealing cards on the docks. It’s also backed up by the opening track, as the riff that permeates most of “Through My Fingers” is indeed one with three chords. The song is remarkably unspectacular, and I still can’t fathom how they spun it out to four minutes. Damore’s flat vocals are a welcome change from the screaming, shouting, or whining that you’d usually get on straight simple punk, but on this EP and especially on this track, he sounds like he’s bunged up with a terrible head cold. The repetitiveness can really get to you on a bad day, which is a shame because it’s otherwise not a bad track. The unimaginative guitar solo coda doesn’t drag it out of mediocrity, and while Pegboy would always be better known for chunky riffs than creativity, how this song was picked to have a music video made for it and everything is beyond me. The lyrical despondency that features on most Pegboy songs regardless of musical mood is in full force here, and on every other track on the record. “My Youth” is more energetic and much catchier, but the combination with the lyrics creates a sort of bittersweet punk anthem, almost like The Bouncing Souls but more inland and closer to hardcore than Oi-punk. Most of the progressions in this song actually have four chords, but I think the least prominent riff in the verse has only three chords, so we’ll allow the song to be here, which is just as well because it’s the best song on the record.

The track fades away, as several of the best Pegboy songs seem to annoyingly do (“Strong Reaction” from the album of the same name, the closer to the mighty Fore EP “Jesus Christ”, and Earwig centrepiece “You” all spring to mind), and just to rub it in, the next track is called “Fade Away”. The guitar neck gets strangled in a more sombre piece that’s marked with a really awkward chorus that doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the song. I think it’s supposed to add a bit more kick to the dreariest track, but there’s no noticeable injection of energy. “Method” snarls a little more, and a more aggressive drum track propels the song to something greater. The backing vocals are at their best, and the guitars cruise and crash at the right times, including the best guitar solo that John Haggerty put down between leaving Naked Raygun and Fore in 1993.

A year later, and the band’s first full length was out. The strikingly plain cover of Strong Reaction reflects the music, and “Strong Reaction” grabs your attention without any fireworks. A monster riff drives the song throughout, and an impassioned but gruff vocal from Damore, whose nose was sufficiently clear by now, leaves us with a classic, and I have no complaints about this being a focus track with a music video made for it. “Still Uneasy” is brighter, shorter, and features a more noticeable bass. The backing vocals are much airier than in the opener. There’s still some beef in the post-chorus riff, and “Still Uneasy” is a good second track which manages to avoid sounding weaker than “Strong Reaction” by being just different enough.

“Not What I Want” is about on par with the previous track. It lacks a particularly interesting riff, but it’s bouncier still, and the classic air of defiance it carries will appeal to the younger punks out there. “What To Do” takes the pace down, and feels at times like a slight dip in form. The guitar lacks energy if not bite, although the vocals are still going strong. It feels like a blip, but is fairly consistent with the stock material at the back end of the album.

The instrumental “Locomotivelung” introduces a new flavour into the mix. Joe Haggerty’s drumming steals the show, but the dual attack of brother John and Damore on guitars is much more vicious than anything else the band did on Strong Reaction or Three-Chord Monte, being the clearest hint at what Fore would sound like. The only downside of this track is that it lacks an ending, which, considering they didn’t put the effort into lyrics, is particularly disappointing, because a crescendo was promising to build in the fadeout. “Superstar” is like “Not What I Want” in that it relies on infectious vocal tuning rather than a really good sequence of chords, and comes across as standard fare.

The song that was actually given release as a single from the record was “Field Of Darkness”, and it’s unlike pretty much any other Pegboy song from this era, in that right from the off, John Haggerty is hitting the higher notes of his guitar well away from Damore’s rhythm, and this makes it stand out in a big way, despite being the standard formula for most two-guitar four-piece units. Apart from trying to cram the song title into a space where there wasn’t room for it, the song’s full of melody and niceness and all that, so it’s no real surprise that it found its way onto a seven inch. “Time Again” brings the sound back into more familiar territory, with an urgent but dull riff that would have been chastised more if it had appeared on another part of the album, but it does the job after the last track, and one of the better solos on the record keeps the song treading water in its own right.

“Believe” takes things down to almost the level of “What To Do” in terms of both speed and mood. A lively solo puts it higher up the pecking order, but it isn’t exactly stellar. The final credited track is “Hardlight”, eighty five seconds of disappointing throwaway material. I’m sure it’s some nod to the past bands that the members of Pegboy have been in, but it doesn’t belong here. The hidden track fades in where the fadeout of “Strong Reaction” left off, suggesting that the band had kept going until someone decided that they’d played enough (at approximately four minutes, the opening track is roughly a minute longer than the next longest track even with the fadeout), proving that those pesky punks were never intending to give the song a structured finish.

The Field Of Darkness single had the same version of “Field Of Darkness” as Strong Reaction, but featured a unique B-side. While “Field Of Darkness” remains a favourite of many who first heard Pegboy material when they heard their favourite band covering it (in my case it was Hot Water Music on a live bootleg), those that have grown into the entire catalogue might well find “Walk On By” to be streets ahead. Despite sounding like it was recorded in a tin of baked beans, it’s bristling with energy and is easy to sing along to, with the trademark uncertainly expressed in the lyrics, and I can't help but like it more than the A-side.

Being one of those albums that have a good sound to them without doing anything spectacular, Strong Reaction is as good a record to have in your collection as any Naked Raygun record. While 1994’s Earwig has some better songs and certainly better songcrafting, Strong Reaction just gives a great experience, and coupled with having just about enough good tracks, stands out as the most memorable and essential Pegboy release for most people. Three-Chord Monte is a worthwhile addition, although that’s easy for me to say because I accidentally bought it when I bought Strong Reaction. It’s unfortunate to say that the Field Of Darkness single is only for vinyl nerds and the hardiest of Pegboy collectors, because everyone who’s heard the band and doesn’t hate them would think that at least one of the two tracks on it was the best thing they’d heard that week.

Personal picks – Strong Reaction, Walk On By, My Youth, Locomotivelung, Method
Picks for others – Field Of Darkness, Not What I Want, Method, Still Uneasy, Strong Reaction
Relative weaknesses – Hardlight, Fade Away, What To Do


Three-Chord Monte
01 – Through My Fingers
02 – My Youth
03 – Fade Away
04 – Method

Strong Reaction
01 – Strong Reaction
02 – Still Uneasy
03 – Not What I Want
04 – What To Do
05 – Locomotivelung
06 – Superstar
07 – Field Of Darkness
08 – Time Again
09 – Believe
10 – Hardlight
11 – (Untitled continuation of Strong Reaction)

Field Of Darkness
01 – Field Of Darkness
02 – Walk On By

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Bouncing Souls - Live At The O2 Academy Islington, London, England, UK, 03/08/2011

I’ve been against the idea of playing a full album from front to back at a live show, from about the time when I heard of the concept. Surely the point of going to a gig is to get something you can’t buy on a studio recording. The energy, the suspense, the sweat, the ringing in your ears, and some classic songs mixed in with new ones to guarantee that you finish the night with a sore throat. Nevertheless, this was The Bouncing Souls, and they were doing a slightly different take on it, so I had to try. They were playing all eight albums over four nights in a few select cities, one of which was London. There are advantages to this. The band gets to stay in a hotel and chill out for a few nights rather than hauling their team around every night, which must seem ever more appealing to bands that have been on the road for more than a couple of decades. Fans can select which pair of albums they want to listen to rather than just have the latest release shoved down their throats. It isn’t that Ghosts On The Boardwalk is a bad record, but I don’t think that playing any entire record front to back is a very effective way of selling that record on a tour supporting that record. In my case, I was quite lucky that my two favourite Bouncing Souls albums were being played on the third night, so I talked two friends, each of whom I’d seen the band with once before at different venues in Birmingham, into seeing them perform How I Spent My Summer Vacation and Anchors Aweigh.

Because it was London and there was congestion and petrol to weigh up, we decided to train it down, and cram into a family room in a cheap nearby hotel so that we could stay the night. Having met up at the train station on a hot and humid Wednesday, we walked to the hotel and booked in at around half five, got changed and headed more or less straight to the venue. Surprisingly few people had turned up in time for doors, and we found out why. After chatting with the one couple that had arrived before us, they explained that quite a lot of people had bought the VIP option of going to all four nights. After waiting for an hour and a half inside the venue before anything happened, we found out that there was only one support act and that people who’d been there before knew better and didn’t waste their time. Eventually, local four-piece Pacer got on stage and motored through a series of pop punk. Think guitars reminiscent of the main act, but with less intrusive drumming and half-shouted half-screamed vocals, with a lot of complaining about the media in the lyrics. It was played pretty loud, and I’m beginning to wonder if support acts should be turned down a little so that those nearer the speakers can still hear the main act with good clarity. Their set can’t have been much more than half an hour, and they were soon taking their instruments off the stage.

A cheesy, amusing introduction imitating a boxing match between the two albums brought an introduction to How I Spent My Summer Vacation, replete with the music from Rocky, and a scantily-clad female walking around holding up a vinyl copy of the album as if it had Round 1 printed on it. Perhaps due to the late start, the band walked on, picked up their instruments and immediately rocketed through their first set, only stopping to breathe twice, one of which was to fix a couple of bolts on Bryan Kienlen’s ailing bass guitar. As well as hearing the songs we would have heard anyway (“That Song”, “True Believers”, “Gone”), it was great to be able to hear some songs in a live setting which would otherwise rarely if ever have been played, including the brisk “Better Life”, and my personal favourite, the high energy “No Comply”. On the other hand, the interaction the band afforded the crowd was much lower than usual. Greg Attonito ventured towards the crowd once, thought better of it, and stayed back. He’s always been relatively calm as lead singers go, but his cheerful nature seemed to be absent, and he spent most of his time off the microphone tapping his feet and looking at the floor. I can’t be sure whether he was as tired as he looked, or whether he was still struggling to remember some of the songs, although I suspect the former. Either way, this wasn’t the buoyant individual who would hop around, stick the microphone into the crowd, and even help crowd members with cameras out by taking photos of them, something I’d seen on both previous occasions.

The crowd was in a surprisingly physical mood compared to the last two times I’d seen the band, and both of my companions dropped out before “Private Radio” had even finished, and watched the rest of the show from the bar. To make matters worse, towards the end of this first set, a crowdsurfer went directly over me in an unpleasant manner. I didn’t think it’d be too much of an issue as the staff had spotted him early and as many as five of them formed a neat formation in front of me, and looked ready. However, instead of lifting the crowdsurfer over the top like they were usually able to do single-handedly, they pulled him down onto the back of my head and neck. I sustained a neck injury from having his weight rolling my head forward and then pinning it down and compressing it. Sometimes I wonder if crowdsurfers are the only ones whose health matters. I was hoping to not be compelled to discuss the issue at all, having documented some views on crowdsurfing after the incident-free Buffalo Tom show earlier in the year, but alas, I’m angry.

Most of the band disappeared through the back curtain for a five minute breather, soon followed by guitarist Pete Steinkopf who finished “Gone” alone. A very similar introduction was given for Anchors Aweigh, after which the band came back and continued at their uncharacteristically fast pace. Again, the crowd experienced regulars such as “Kids And Heroes” and “Sing Along Forever” as well as less frequently played gems like “Inside Out” and “Highway Kings”, another personal favourite. The crowd had mostly calmed down after the initial crush of the first three songs, although my knees were getting more and more painful after being flattened against the barrier for long enough, and I had a particularly sore rib, thanks to some troglodyte in the next row back who clung onto the top of the barrier like a Scotsman on a five pound note with his knuckles digging into me. What struck me as odd about this set was that “The Day I Turned My Back On You” was actually skipped. Otherwise, the album was there in completion including the bonus track (not with the two minutes silence). I usually like to have a gig end on a powerful note, but the semi-acoustic “The Fall Song” was a nice way to end the gig on a relaxed note. Maybe it was because I was tiring of dodging people doing music video stunts over me, or maybe it was because the band seemed more comfortable at the slower pace.

There is no substitute for the excitement of wondering what the next song is, and feeling the excitement of a personal favourite, the will to sing or dance to a staple, or the appreciation of hearing something rarely aired being plucked out of the past. There was no encore, so there were no surprises other than the missed song. I suppose you can’t blame the band, given that they had been playing a lot of songs this way for some time by this point, and looked exhausted and a bit fed up, although it would have been nice to have them play a couple of extra tunes, perhaps from the split album they did with Anti-Flag in between the two featured records. A bad night’s sleep thanks to the heat, and a walk back to the station the next morning in pouring rain in which it was still too hot to wear more than a t-shirt, gave me plenty of time to weigh up the pros and cons of this concert. After mulling it over for several days, I’m still not sure whether it was worthwhile. What I have learned is what I suspected all along, that full-album shows are not as good as regular shows. The Bouncing Souls looked completely drained, and even the ever-powerful Michael McDermott seemed to be feeling the effects of a tour that they may well look back grimly on. Judging by the introductions, they hadn’t lost their sense of humour with age, so I can’t see what else could be at fault. What I perhaps haven’t learned is that I just might be getting too old to keep doing this, especially if I can get injured without going near the circle pit and not resist complaining about it.

(Given the nature of the show, there is no need to provide a setlist.)