Sunday, 13 December 2009

The Submission - Enjoy With Alchohol

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but one of my favourite albums of 2009 so far was not a punk rock album. Far from it. Despite AFI, Billy Talent, Green Day and Rancid all putting out fair-to-great albums this year, Nell Bryden's 'What Does It Take?' was my personal favourite for quite a while, and for quite a few simple reasons. Firstly, I'm a sucker for retro Americana sounds, which Bryden does impeccably. Secondly, and most importantly: she writes and performs with a real spirit of honesty and integrity that is missing from so much new music nowadays. It is soulful, beautifully down-to-earth, and well-crafted without being bent over a recording desk and being subjected to painful and pointless amounts of Pro Tools. This is not to say the above artists do not have honesty and integrity in their music, far from it, but Bryden, for me, offers the single best contrast possible to the hordes of manufactured, droid-like figures cluttering up the Top 40 with almost robotic beats and cliched lines. It's a refreshing blast, and a very enjoyable one too.

Now, you may have noticed that I said it was my personal favourite. That's because I've now got a new personal favourite, and guess what? It not only trumps 'What Does It Take?' in all the areas I highlighted above, but it's also an absolutely killer punk rock album. I now take great pleasure, ladies and gentlemen, in introducing you to The Submission, a band who are almost a living definition of the term 'punk rock', with 'Enjoy With Alcohol'.

Any readers of my reviews will know that The Submission are a personal favourite band of mine, having given them rave reviews for their 'Spaghetti Penis' EP and their chaotic performance at the Ska-Punk All-Dayer 2009, and when the band broke cover with their plans to bring out a 22-track album entirely consisting of originals, it was not an understatement to say that the levels of anticipation were high. It actually means that this review could be quite difficult; y'see, I want to try and remain neutral here, and not get bogged down in a sea of NME style 'this band will save your life' type eulogies, but to be quite honest, it's hard not to when you're being presented with such a glorious collection of pure-hearted, strong-minded anthems as this.

In my humble opinion, punk rock as a music genre is the perfect balance between blind rage and fury and catchy pop hooks. Too far down the blind rage path results in hardcore, and too far down the pop end results in bubblegum-style pop-punk. On this record The Submission go all-out to try and fit both ends of the spectrum into almost every single song they write, and what results are two to three-minute explosions of equal parts pure aggression and wonderfully catchy melodies. Sounds simple? What makes them so fantastic is the fact that The Submission do both so well, and what's more, the four individual members both stand out as individuals and simultaneously combine to create a well-oiled and tight-knit machine. Thankfully, both the songs themselves and the production (which, despite being a home-studio job, is very very good) give all the members their chance to shine, and they all gleefully take it with both hands. Frontman Richard Harris is a one-man wrecking ball of passion and fury in the vocal department, but very rarely does he have to resort to blind screaming to get his point across - his vicious snarl does that perfectly. The rhythm section is built on Stuart Cavell's near-destructive drum work, which blends chaotic rolls and crashes with iron-clad beat precision. The same could be said to some degree of bassist Sadie Williams, whose basslines flow in and out of songs like mercury; forming the musical backbone of a track one minute before spinning out on a subtle run or lick the next. It certainly guarantees that she doesn't fade into the background like too many rock 'n' roll bassists are guilty of nowadays. Not to be outdone, Harris and his partner in the six-string cohorts, Phil Morgan, lay down equal parts bruising and melodic riffs, and barely a single song goes by without a thrillingly chaotic solo or guitar break.

There are highlights aplenty across the album, and the first 10 tracks alone are 10 of the very best rock 'n' roll anthems you are likely to hear all year. The record kicks off with 'Stay In Action', an outrageously catchy and bouncy slice of ska-punk, before crashing into 'I'm Lazy', a celebratory two-and-a-half minutes of pure good-time rock 'n' roll, which then in itself gives way to 'No Tomorrow', which hammers out of your speakers on the back of an intro riff brilliantly purloined from The Clash's 'I'm So Bored From The USA'. If anybody can find me a better opening 10 minutes to a modern rock 'n' roll record, I will be glad to hear it, but for now, this sits proudly atop the pile.

Speaking of The Clash, this album could easily be renamed 'A History of Classic Punk Rock', such as it shamelessly nods to past legends such as The Clash, the Stiff Little Fingers, the Ramones and the Buzzcocks. This is hardly original stuff at all, but thanks to the sheer level of musical skill, energy and passion thrown at these songs, it may as well be. This is not blatant grave-robbing; this is an evocative celebration of how emphatically uplifting and powerful punk rock can be. The fabulous 'Soldier' is a good a tribute as any to the Fingers, particularly on account of it's anti-government vibe and rallying 'bring the troops home' message, delivered with almost feral, phlegm-spitting rage by Harris. In fact, it is as close as The Submission have got so far to writing an epic, running as it does at just over 5 minutes and opening and closing with a haunting military drum roll.

On the subject of anti-government diatribes, the blistering 'Government Lies' is a personal favourite of mine, and you can just tell that, somewhere, Johnny Ramone is hearing the fabulous four-chord riff which drives this vicious diatribe along - and he's grinning. The two highlights from the 'Spaghetti Penis' teaser EP - the Rancid-infused 'Reggae Rock Rebels' and the loud and proud 'You Just Don't Know' - are wheeled out here, and they slot neatly into the mayhem. There are only a couple of slight deviations to the overall formula - 'Discharge' opens with a menacing bassline before quickly exploding into a runaway freight train of low-fi, crackling guitar and Harris loosing his temper with the microphone, and 'Sanity' rides on the back of an almost slightly metal-style main riff.

I've racked my brains for criticisms, but the only one I can really think of is that I would have chosen another song to end the album on rather than 'She Said', which isn't quite an 'ending' song, despite being excellent. That's just a personal foible for me. You could perhaps throw the lack of changes in pace or experimentation charge at this, but to be honest, they have plenty of time on future releases to address that point. Right now, they are clearly having a lot of fun evoking the spirit of original punk rock, and I as a listener am having a lot of fun hearing the results. Long may The Submission keep producing records like this and touring with their incendiary live show.

Album Details
Label: Unsigned
Release Date: October/November 2010
Rating: 10/10.
Standout tracks: I'm Lazy, No Tomorrow, Soldier, Government Lies, You Just Don't Know, Get Up.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Live: Billy Talent - Brixton Academy, London, 1/11/09

I outlined in my review of AFI's 'Crash Love' how there are precious few bands out there, let alone rock bands, who seem to have a unique sound, and far too many are happy to copy, note-for-note and riff-for-riff in some cases, other artists' sounds and styles. It can get quite depressing, but I assure you, there are bands out there willing to put their name on a style that you cannot mistake for anyone else. AFI are one, and tonight, I'm about to see another - Billy Talent.

The Brixton Academy is a fine venue, and I've no qualms with returning here after enjoying a brilliant debut here seeing The Offspring in August. Proceedings start tonight with Canterbury (6/10), and as first impressions go, it's not a good one. Basically, the first thing one sees are five rather floppy-fringed youths with a keyboard and some guitars and lots of neon colours. Oh dear, one thinks, haven't we seen this before? This rather haphazard mix of Decaydance fashion and attempts at heaviosity? Thankfully, I keep my inner cynic quiet long enough into their set for me to realise that, actually, though they may shamelessly steal fashion tips from All Time Low and synth styles from Motion City Soundtrack, they are actually a half-decent band. They have that feeling of groping their way through that most young bands do when they start out, and to be fair, if what the dual vocalists Mike Sparks (guitar) and Luke Prebble (keyboards) says is anything to go by, this is by far and away their biggest gig, and they do have a slight sense of rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights about them, but I defy anybody to not be. Given the circumstances and the style of music they operate in, they craft some very deft tunes and leave this author much more impressed than he thought he would be.

The real honour of 'biggest disappointment of the evening' are for the next band up, the Cancer Bats (3/10), and it's a deserving award. Now look, I'm well aware they are rather well hyped, and they've also been given the accolade of 'most exciting punk band' a numerous amount of times, but I'm sorry, the hour-odd of brainless sludge I see tonight is not punk. It's not even hardcore punk. It's not even anything that punk has ever been associated with, ever. It's just...I don't know what it is, really. It veers from quite bad Motorhead-esque beer metal to just plain metal to sludge to just random headbanging without ever making any sense. While the contingent of their crowd who are CB fans gleefully (and quite possibly drunkenly in some cases) whip shirts off and headbang, I just spend the entirety of their set trying to work out what they're about. And I can't. I do try to be open-minded about them, but my good mate and fellow gig-goer Jacob Peeling summed it up rather nicely in the following exchange:
Myself: "They're not too bad, are they?"
Jacob: "No, they're complete shite."
I'm sorry, but he's right. Rumours abound from their fanbase present that the sound setup is atrocious and not a good reflection on them at all, so it may be a case of digging up their recorded output and giving a second opinion, but for now I'm filing them in the same drawer as Gallows - the one labelled 'bands I've been told are amazing punk bands but in fact are overrated tosh'.

So it's not going completely to plan so far. Though Canterbury were better than I expected, they still weren't brilliant, and with only the headliners to go, the onus is now on them to turn this night into something truly memorable. And you know what? They do exactly that. Haunting background music and mood lighting herald their entrance, before guitarist Ian D'Sa rips out the opening notes to 'The Dead Can't Testify' and the crowd raise as one to acknowledge the entrance of Billy Talent (9/10) to the stage, and the band respond by tearing into a high-octane, razor-sharp set of high musicianship, high energy, and low flab. Starting on a brand-new song which hasn't even been released as any sort of single prior to the show is often a big gamble, but one of BT's strengths has always been their consistency - across their back catalogue of three LPs, there are very few complete duds in their armoury. The fact that they back this opening salvo up with the classic 'Devil in a Midnight Mass' makes the opening eight-odd minutes one of the most impressive openings to a rock 'n' roll concert I've seen in quite a while. As I mentioned, consistency is their forte, which means that, by picking and choosing the best bits of their three records so far, they are left with a setlist which is an exercise in scalpel-sharp precision and pounding rock 'n' roll. Their unique take on rock 'n' roll is driven along by a pounding rhythm section in the shape of bassist Jon Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk, and led at the front by the imaginative fretboard dexterity of D'Sa and the equal parts yowling and serenading vocals of Ben Kowalewicz. Kowalewicz's vocal parts mesh brilliant with D'Sa's backing yelps to create a vocal tour de force which, when overlaid over D'Sa's quite brilliant guitar lines and melodies, forms a fabulous sonic assault. Indeed, D'Sa is the first guitarist I've ever heard who manages to sound like he's playing guitar parts which were supposed to be played by two different people.

With this potent level of musicianship and energy, great songs are almost inevitable, and boy do they come thick and fast tonight - 'Line And Sinker' wallops out four songs in, the criminally underrated and soulful 'Surrender' makes an appearance, and the new songs slot in so smoothly you'd be hard-pressed to work out which ones are new songs and which ones are songs played a thousand times before. With perhaps the exception of 'Turn Your Back', which I've always found to fall on the wrong side of overly preachy, the final five songs of the regular set are all complete belters, and when they end the regular set with the fan favourite 'Try Honesty', you swear that that must be that - there's no way that they can top that with any sort of encore. But no, they do, with the destructive one-two gut punch of 'Fallen Leaves' and the rousing call-to-arms anthem 'Red Flag' finishing the evening with an almost exhaustive delirium sweeping through the Academy. Throw into the whole show Ben's light-hearted, almost matey stage banter with the crowd, and you have a night which started out unexpectedly okay, descended badly down the toilet, before recovering to screen-burn itself onto your mind's eye for a good while, and etch itself successfully into the memory banks for future recollection, for all the right reasons.

Overall Rating: 8/10

Headliner's Setlist (taken from

The Dead Can't Testify

Devil in a Midnight Mass

This Suffering

Line & Sinker

Rusted From the Rain

Saint Veronika


River Below

Diamond on a Landmine

This Is How It Goes

The Ex

Devil on My Shoulder

Turn Your Back

Try Honesty

Fallen Leaves
Red Flag

Saturday, 10 October 2009

AFI - Crash Love

One characteristic that sadly blights a lot of music nowadays is the feeling that we've been here before. Too many times a song will come on the radio, and I will sit and think "Hang on, that sounds like x band", before the DJ proudly announces that it's some 'hot new talent' or something. Cue a bemused look from me at how such a blatant act of ripping off can go unpunished. Of course, bands will always sound similar to something else, and will always sound a bit like who they were inspired by - that has always happened, and will continue to do so. But there are too many bands or artists nowadays who are either digging up past glories and ripping them off wholesale or just copying themselves in the same mould as a contemporary of themselves. Examples? Two off the top of my head: La Roux's shameless (and very bad) graverobbing of '80s electro-pop and the seemingly hundreds of identikit bands who have followed in Fall Out Boy's footsteps since that group blazed a mainstream trail a few years ago now, complete with the same haircuts, same guitars, same lyrics, same sound, and same posturing, give or take a few exceptions. Like I said, there will always be a crossover between bands, and no band can ever sound completely separate from everything else that has come before it, but it is becoming increasingly harder to find bands willing to not just accept their influences, but meld them into a unique combination which listeners will recognise as theirs and theirs only.

Which brings me nicely to AFI, a band who have managed this feat very well in recent years. Starting out as a slightly sarky bunch of punks, they slowly started daring to blaze their own trail out of the punk scene near the end of the '90s, and when 2003's magnificent 'Sing The Sorrow' arrived, their transformation was complete. STS stills sounds quite like nothing else I have ever heard - it has elements of hard-edged punk rock 'n' roll, heavy parts, ballad parts, dark and mystical elements, all combining to create a dark and unashamedly gothic listening experience. 'Decemberunderground' cranked up the mystery and dark imagery another notch with a heavy electronic overtone to their unique sound, but what let down this release was that it did appear to plod in places, although it still had the power to be a rip-roaring record when it wanted to be. Now we arrive at 'Crash Love', and I'm gonna state this right off the bat - this is a belter.

Simply put, I love albums with a fantastic opening track, and CL doesn't disappoint - after around 15 seconds of odd ambient noise, 'Torch Song' crunches and crashes, before vocalist Davey Havok gives his trademark cry and the song roars into life, guitarist Jade Puget's opening salvo of notes ripping through the noise and lifting the fists into the air straight away. It's an absolute belter of a song, led by a monstrously catchy and seismic chorus, single-handedly putting in the shade a hundred other rock bands with arena-rock aspirations. 'Beautiful Thieves' is a more subdued affair, led by a slightly blink-182 style verse riff (think Stay Together for the Kids style and you have a good idea), until the chorus arrives to blow you away. What hits you immediately, and will be obvious already to longer-term AFI fans, is that, while AFI have the outrageously catchy choruses of many of their peers, they also have the full songs to go with them - the songs aren't simply big choruses with some mediocre verses padded out in between.

With CL, AFI are also forging another unique path for themselves - they are somehow managing to walk the tightrope between catchy MTV pop-rock and more hard-edged goth rock 'n' roll, without falling on either side; for example, the foot-stomping, Adam Ant-baiting 'Too Shy To Scream' has a real Fall Out Boy vibe to it, but at the same time, there is no mistaking at all that this is Havok and company. Likewise, the belting lead-off single 'Medicate' has a little hint of Green Day about it, but Puget's imaginative little guitar runs and lines and neat drum fills from Adam Carson, as well as the trademark 'everything crashes down and then builds back up again' which only AFI can pull off with this degree of class, put you in no doubt as to who this is - indeed, AFI make forming a nifty slice of catchy, energetic rock 'n' roll look a damn sight easier than Green Day have done in recent times. In a perfect world, the strutting 'I Am Trying Very Hard to Be Here' would be the theme tune to a new teen drama show, but again, the fact that it rocks a bit too hard means that it stops just short in this aspect. In my mind, this has to be the perfect combination - pop sensibilities and melodies balanced with enough hard rocking and rolling to keep it firmly away from being the scene kids' new band of choice. Brilliant.

What is also pleasing is that it shows that they have moved another step forward without loosing their identity in any way. Sure, the pacey 'Sacrilege' sounds like an out-take from the Sing the Sorrow sessions, and the lyrics are still unashamedly emotional and deep to a large extent, but overall Crash Love shows a nice progression on from past glories. Havok in particular is allowing himself to be a little more bold and slightly flamboyant with his vocals these days, and while there is less screaming this time round, the emotion and power is more evident in his voice than ever, backed up as he is with the massive-sounding gang vocals that pop up all over this LP. What does let this disc down however, is that it is still not quite consistent - 'It Was Mine' is a bit of a plodding song to end on, and might have been better placed being mid-disc, and some other songs do suffer from being filler, but then again, I defy any band to write 12 songs of equal quality as the highlights of this LP - it would be a massive ask. But I'll sum up this record like this: a common argument in the whole illegal file-sharing debate is that, if artists want people to pay for their music, they should work hard to make music which is worth paying for. If that is the case, then AFI fully deserve your money for this release - I was happy to give them mine to have it on CD. It is that good an album.

Album Details
Label: Interscope Records
Release Date: September 29th 2009
Rating: 8/10
Standout tracks: 'Torch Song', 'Medicate', 'End Transmission', 'Too Shy to Scream'.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Live: The Offspring - The Brixton Academy, London, 25/8/09

This review's been pending for a little while, apologies for the delay.

The Offspring are a funny old band in terms of punk rock. They're almost like the forgotten ones from the mid-90s - whilst Rancid have achieved cult status and Green Day are happily riding a wave of commercial success, The Offspring are still ploughing on, doing what they've always done. Many people don't appear to take them seriously, pointing to the jocular, MTV-baiting hits 'Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)' and 'Original Prankster' and dismissing them as some sort of joke band. The truth is, though, The Offspring are probably the single most underrated band in the history of punk, and for those in the know, they are, quite simply, legends of almost unparalleled status, with a back catalogue packed full of brilliant records - 'Smash' needs no introduction, and neither does the blinding 'Americana', whilst 'Ixnay on the Hombre' is one of my personal favourite albums of all time. Last year's 'Rise & Fall, Rage & Grace' was a proud statement of intent from the Orange County boys, proving that despite being in the game for over 20 years, their drive and talent for writing great songs had not dimmed at all, and I was one of the first to snap up a ticket for their return to London.
I arrive about 20 minutes before they hit the stage, skipping the support bands - a friend of mine who was there for the duration tells me that Broadway Calls were very good, wheras Rival Schools were terrible - and at around 9:30pm, the lights flash, the intro to 'Stuff is Messed Up' crashes out and the fun begins. Several things were immediately obvious - frontman Dexter Holland, who is now shorn of his mid-life-crisis hairstyle, is a subtle and commanding presence, and his voice is clear and powerful as he belts out his lyrics. The band as a whole are an incredibly tight unit, and there is no stand-out performer out of the four-piece plus additional guitarist in the background - they all mesh together to form a perfect wall-of-sound. Bassist Greg K is unfussy and workmanlike as always, guitarist Noodles busts out his leads with his usual wry smirk, and drummer Pete Parada bangs and crashes with ferocious precision. Very impressive stuff.
As for the songs, well there are no real surprises in terms of the setlist, with the only exception being the criminally underrated single 'Million Miles Away', which gets a rare airing tonight, much to this author's delight. 'Gone Away' also received a gorgeous makeover, as it was performed solo by Dexter on a piano, adding extra poignancy to the lyrics. Aside from that, all the classics are present and correct - the menacing and chaotic 'Bad Habit' ('you stupid dumb shit goddamn motherfucker!'), the firecracker 'All I Want', the anthemic 'Staring at the Sun', the stomping 'Come Out And Play' - the list goes on. More recent tracks 'You're Gonna Go Far, Kid' and 'Half-Truism' augment the overall attack, and the pace is unrelentingly quick, with the only slowdowns being for the aforementioned 'Gone Away', newie 'Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?', the hilarious 'Intermission' (complete with dancing roadie), and the Beatles-mimicking 'Why Don't You Get A Job?' which has the entirety of the 5,000 strong crowd ('surprisingly round number, don't you think?') singing along with massive grins on dials.
You know that The Offspring have such a strong back catalogue when they can afford to leave out 'Original Prankster' and 'Gotta Get Away' and still have an absolutely killer set, and the encore is one of the finest that any band could possibly cook up - 'Hammerhead' threatens to blow the roof clean off the Academy with its muscular guitars and powerhouse drumming, 'Want You Bad', with it's Stiff Little Fingers-esque classic punk riffs, is quite simply awesome, and as they roll out the timeless 'Self Esteem' to finish, I can't see a single person in the audience NOT jumping up and down and bellowing the words back at the band.
If I'm being picky, I could point out such things as the fact that some of the songs are not quite as fast as they used to be, or that there isn't a tremendous amount in the way of audience participation or stage banter, but do you know what? Tonight is not about needless sniping - it is about celebrating a band which have weathered the mainstream storm and remain, to this day, one of the kings of modern punk rock.

Overall Rating: 9/10

1. Stuff Is Messed Up
2. Bad Habit
3. You're Gonna Go Far, Kid
4. Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)
5. Million Miles Away
6. Have You Ever
7. Staring at the Sun
8. Gone Away (Piano Version)
9. Kristy, Are You Doing Okay?
10. Intermission
11. Americana
12. Hit That
13. Half-Truism
14. Why Don't You Get a Job?
15. All I Want
16. Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)
17. (Can't Get My) Head Around You
18. The Kids Aren't Alright
19. Hammerhead
20. Want You Bad
21. Self Esteem

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Live: Calico Street Riots/Torn Out - The Call Boy, Gravesend, 25/9/09

The current trend in rock 'n' roll music right now appears to be to go as big and as 'epic' as possible. Bands appear to be throwing more and more guitar tracks, strings, horns, choirs and ballads onto their records than ever before, with their eyes firmly set on blasting these enormous 'widescreen' 'sonic vistas' out off the stages of arenas and stadiums around the world. Ah yes, arenas and stadiums. Expensive tickets, usually a poor view of the band, sometimes poor sound quality, and nine times out of ten the band in question don't actually have the songs to fill the seismic venue, no matter how hard they are trying to...I'm not naming any names there.

Whatever. That's just my take on arenas. One thing is for sure though, if you're looking for a venue which is as diametrically opposed to Wembley Stadium as you can get, you wouldn't go far wrong with the Call Boy pub. Tucked away down a one-way street near the town's clock tower, the area set aside for tonight's bands (calling it a stage would be like calling a rowing boat the Titanic) is about the size of your average living room. The word that springs to mind is 'intimate'. So intimate, in fact, that if you were to stand at the front of the crowd, there is a chance you could step on the performing band's toes. It really is that kind of a venue, and it is in fact perfectly suited to the two bands performing tonight.

Torn Out (9/10) are up first, and after a lengthy delay caused by a stubborn PA system, the two-piece stroll up to the mics and begin at about 9:15, and it doesn't take long before their truly unique brand of gritty acoustic street-punk persuades people to start singing. Electric guitars are the order of the day tonight, and it gives the songs a little more meat, particularly with bassist Steve Knight's wicked bass lines and runs. Guitarist and vocalist Ben Smith hollars and barks his lines with equal amounts of anger and emotion, blasting out lyrics about boring towns, dead-end jobs, consumer culture and unfulfilled dreams with so much frustration and bitterness that you cannot help but be swept up by it, and you feel it is your duty to join in, especially on crowd favourites such as 'Knuckles and Pride' (complete with some superb whistling from Steve), 'Soul of These Streets', and set closer and band anthem 'Chasing Lost Nights'. The entirety of their self-titled EP is wheeled out and given a battering tonight, along with a new song entitled only as 'Retail' on the scribbled set-list, and this newie slots in nicely alongside the established favourites - I personally cannot wait to hear a recorded version, as it showed real promise and progression from a band who appear to be getting better and better as a song-writing unit.

I didn't really know what to expect from Calico Street Riots (10/10); unlike Torn Out, where I had listened and enjoyed their EP and also seen them live once before, I hadn't heard a single note of the folk-punk sextet, and had only the description that they sound like a 'drunken Flogging Molly' to go on. In the end, that description was absolutely spot on. From the moment they somehow managed to squeeze themselves all onto the 'stage' until the moment they said their goodnights and came off it, they inspired almost chaotic levels of dancing and hollered singalongs. The reaction from the crowd was frankly unbelievable, one of the most intense I've seen since Tyrannosaurus Alan set the fuse on a rabid skankathon back at the Red Lion in August. The songs all blended into one, which is normally a criticism, but in this case, it doesn't matter, as they were all of the same formula: rabid and frenzied folk-punk packed to bursting full of hooks, energy and infectious melodies. The six of them hammered as much power and raw danceability out of the tracks as possible - the rhythm section of brothers Nick (bass and backing vocals) and Dave (drums) Whiteoak set a tight foundation for the others to follow, bandana-clad frontman Ian Day shouted his lines with real gusto, guitarist Tage Wood seemed hell-bent on ringing as much noise as he could out of his guitar, and additional instrumentalists Nathenial Smith (accordion) and Laura Lancaster (fiddle) augmented the mayhem with hooks galore.

This kind of music is hardly subtle, or intricate, and to an extent is isn't even that particularly original, but do you know what? I can't think of many other bands who are so perfectly suited to this kind of venue. You find yourself not caring about any of the above, and simply becoming caught up in the chaos, and I can promise you this - I saw nobody leaving at the end of the night without a massive grin on their face. Tonight, in a pub full of punks and beer, Calico Street Riots are an absolute runaway success.

Overall: 9/10
Photos by Ben Thompson.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

7-Day Conspiracy - S/T EP

Of all the fantastic bands on display at the recent ska-punk all-dayer, 7-Day Conspiracy were one of the very few bands I unfortunately missed. Which is a shame, as I did catch literally 30 seconds of their set, and that 30-second sampler was very promising - fast and hard skate-punk stylings with real bite and vigour. Which is why when a friend offered me the chance to have a listen to their EP, I jumped at the opportunity, and I've been busy catching up on what I missed, which is, it seems, something quite impressive.

'The Man Who Stole The World' is a bit of a curve-ball opening to the record, being as it is a lovely slice of atmospheric and catchy street-reggae, accented by some classy harmonica and with vocalist Dirty's gritty tones cutting through the mix, it is a real belter, topped off with some subtle distorted guitar licks not that far removed from Paul Fox's guitar work on The Ruts' 'Jah War'.

The rest of the record is packed with belting, lightning-fast punk, almost verging on the hardcore end of punk in some places, especially on the machine-gun bursts of 'Kicked to Death' and 'Go Back to Sleep' which both pass by in under a minute of aural mayhem. The mix is rough and messy, with the vocals often segueing into the chaos and sometimes being difficult to hear, but this doesn't detract hugely from the impact this will have being blasted out of your stereo. If you look for immediate comparisons, then I would say it sounds like a mix of early Oi! punk, several early NOFX cuts, mixed in with very early Bad Religion and Rise Against.

The record's sure-fire standout is the fantastic 'Open Your Eyes', which, alongside 'The Man...' makes this record worth buying on it's own. It's not as fast as their other onslaughts, but it works in their favour here, as they take the chance to throw some nice reggae-style interludes into the verses and pre-choruses to augment the furiously catchy chorus and driving rhythms.

This is all very promising stuff, and points towards a great future for the Sittingborne quartet - all that lets this particular offering down is a slight lack of cohesion caused by a rough, low-fi mix on most of the tracks bar 'The Man...', but this is nothing that can't be sorted on future discs. Apart from that, there is great potential here, and I wait with baited breath for future releases and live appearances.

Rating: 8/10.
Standout tracks: The Man Who Stole The World, Open Your Eyes.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

The Submission - Spaghetti Penis EP

I don't want to sound too righteous, but honestly, so many people who claim to be deeply into punk rock don't have a clue about it. I'm talking about the countless NME journalists and keyboard warriors on YouTube who constantly argue about what exactly 'is' punk and what 'isn't', and they've mostly been miles off the mark. NME are particularly guilty, along with many UK music publications, as they have been busy, in the past few years especially, championing the likes of Gallows as the 'saviours of punk rock'. Firstly, who decided that punk rock as a genre needed 'saving'? And secondly, whenever I listen to any of their tracks, all I hear is a messy, tuneless barrage of almost white noise, with the only lyrics being distinguishable being the odd expletive here and there amongst the sound of what seems to be Frank Carter trying to puke up his vocal chords. They certainly aren't 'saving' punk rock. I don't like the term 'saviors of (insert genre here)', but if you're gonna bandy it around, then I'd be very inclined to take it from Frank Carter and co and slap it emphatically on the backs of Richard Harris, Sadie Williams, Phil Morgan and Stuart Cavell, known collectively as The Submission.

I'm well aware of how bold a claim that statement is, but I stick by it. And that comes after witnessing just one frenzied half-hour set in a small club in Gravesend. And now we arrive at this 5-track EP, purchased for the princely sum of £2, presented as it is in a plastic wallet with the cover being what looks like an intense mosh pit. As visual embodiments of a band's sound go, this one is very effective. And I will say this right off the bat, I enjoyed this EP almost as much as I enjoyed seeing them live.

In terms of production, I've been warned by Rich that the quality isn't too great, but to be honest I had no problems with it. Sure, it's scratchy stuff, with the backing vocals not quite meshing with each other, and overall this is the polar opposite of the highly-polished, high-budget affairs many of us are more used to, but I wouldn't say it affects the quality of the music, and it may actually add something to it - it gives the music a slightly rawer edge which I think actually compliments it. Think along the lines of The Offspring and Green Day's respective pre-major label records, 'Ignition' and 'Kerplunk', and you have a fairly accurate picture.

The five tracks on here consist of three originals and two covers, and while the two covers - hugely enjoyable punk remixes of the '80s pop song 'Spin Me Right Round' and the rock 'n' roll classic 'Johnny B Goode' - are entertaining listens, the three originals are the songs that really merit praise here. It's easy enough to say that they are simple blasts of pure punk rock joy, but what makes them such entertaining listens is that they aren't just standard three-chords-and-that's-your-lot - every individual member injects extra life into the mayhem to take it up to another level. Rich hollers his vocals with wild abandon, but instead of just tuneless larynx-shredding, it meshes into the high-octane rhythms very well. He and fellow guitarist Phil intersperse the fast-paced riffs with thrilling and angular guitar breaks and solos to make the likes of Captain Sensible of The Damned or Brian Baker of Bad Religion proud, particularly on standout track 'You Just Don't Know'. Drummer Stuart drives things forward all the time, throwing in rolls and helter-skelter fills only where appropriate, and bassist Sadie augments the six-stringers' assault with some neat bass lines which bring to mind such famous punk bassmen as Mike Dirnt of Green Day or Paul Simonon of The Clash - hardly the centre of attention, more the glue which musically holds everything together.

Lyrically, do not look at the sniggery, blink-182-esque toilet humour of the title track as a guide, although it is funny in places. Instead, look at the aforementioned YJDK and the 'Reggae Rock Rebels' with it's fantastic skanking verses, as better guides for themes, the former being a powerful rant against those who look down their noses at others not quite like them, with Rich taking great pride in declaring: "I don't wanna ever be like you!" and the latter acting as a counterpoint, rallying the troops in emphatic style to break out of whatever humdrum town they may be stuck in (quite a common situation for many in towns across Kent), and when all four bellow the lines 'Jump up!/Shout out!/You're reggae rock rebels' with a ferocity that distorts the microphone, you can't help but want to join them.

Of course, this is hardly original stuff - the title track nabs a vocal line from the Stiff Little Fingers back catalogue, YJDK runs like a medley of all the best songs from the Clash's debut album, and RRR bounces along on a very much Rancid-style vibe. But at no point does it feel like blatant re-hashing of some dated concepts - the tracks all buzz with their own electricity and intensity, and are laden with hooks which are all their own, no matter how many nods to past legends they may make. And, ironically for a band who sing 'I don't think it really matters/whether you are, punk or not', The Submission are the best pure, 100% punk rock band I've had the pleasure of hearing in a long time, and one listen of this handful of tracks will leave you desperate for more.

If you can, go and see them live, and enjoy The Submission in their element. But if they don't happen to be playing anywhere near you tonight, then this little disc is a very enjoyable listen, and serves as a fascinating taste of things to come.

Rating: 8/10
Standout tracks: You Just Don't Know, Reggae Rock Rebels.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Torn Out - S/T EP

Usually, when you see a bloke touting an acoustic guitar, it's a prelude to some plodding, achingly earnest dirge. There are a few exceptions, but certainly you would never put acoustic instruments and raging punk rock together. It appears acoustic duo Ben Smith and Steve Knight, AKA Torn Out, have never read this particular rulebook on the do's and don'ts of punk, and they head into battle armed only with a couple of battered acoustic guitars. Even I will admit at first that I was slightly skeptical, but I'm happy to report that such conceptions are quickly ripped apart when you hear them for the first time. For me, that was a 2-track EP loaned from a friend, then a live appearance at a certain local all-day event, and now we arrive at this 9-track EP, freely distributed at the event in a full CD case with inlay card and lyric sheet, as well as nicely designed album cover.

First track 'Filthy Hands and Fluro Ink' is introduced courtesy of a lightning-fast bassline, with the guitar joining swiftly afterwards, and Ben's shouted vocals soon after that. And really, this opening track sets the tone for the entire record - it's fast, catchy, and confrontational, with Ben hollering for all his worth throughout. It quickly gives way to band anthem 'Chasing Lost Nights' which sums everything that Torn Out are all about up in two and a half minutes - energetic and hummable guitar lines, augmented by slick bass runs and backing vocals barked with gusto from Steve and topped off with Ben's aggressive vocals.

The lyrics really are an ace up Torn Out's proverbial sleeve - heartfelt, gritty and emotional without a hint of angst or cliched whining. It also has a powerful, street-level realism to it all - when Ben shouts 'these split bin bags and pissed stained streets are not the life of which we dreamed', people can nod along in agreement - having lived in Swanley for nigh-on the past decade or so, I can certainly relate to such statements as that. Such angry and disillusioned vibes run through the entire album, reaching their apex on 'Soul of these Streets', where Ben proudly declares 'We are the soul of these streets/we are the heart that beats/underneath all the chain pubs/we're the flesh and blood that's capable of love'. A strong anti-commercialist vibe permeates on the aforementioned 'Filthy Hands...' and album closer '10 Steps to Great Abs', a furious finale where Ben cries 'Let's stop buying what they're selling/we'll deal with our insecurities together/then we'll see we're all the same/not a manipulated image on a glossy page!'

The music has a fantastic renegade vibe to it, and they successfully achieve what many people would think was impossible - acoustic guitar music with more soul, passion, power and energy than most bands twice their size with more instruments and amplifiers. For them to pull this off is a tremendous achievement, and they should be congratulated for doing so. They successfully tap into the mundane and soulless vibe of many inner-cities and satellite towns without a hint of cliche or posturing; when they sing 'Together there's nothing stopping us/leaving this life we never owned', you feel duty bound to join them in their escape. Uplifting and anthemic in equal measure, Torn Out really are a hidden gem. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9/10
Standout tracks: 'Chasing Lost Nights', 'Matilda & Me', 'Soul of These Streets'.

Live: Jaya The Cat and others (All-Dayer) - The Red Lion, Gravesend, 8/8/09

For some reason or another, I didn't expect this all-day event to be a tremendous occasion, probably because I had become so disillusioned with local-band gatherings after a trip to a recent YOG gig in my home town of Swanley. I also hadn't heard of many of the bands performing - only the Moo Woos, who I had seen twice before, and Jaya the Cat, who I had been given a folder worth of tracks by one of the promoters, were acts I recognised. The location didn't appear to be anything special either - a small club strapped onto the side of a relatively small boozer tucked down a backstreet in the middle of shipping warehouses and factories in one corner of Gravesend, with a smoking courtyard and tiny outdoor stage out the back. When I finally arrived at around 45 minutes past the scheduled start of the show, some very bizarre noises were emanating from the outside stage (I'm pretty sure it was
The Cripples) and the first band inside were still sound checking. Still nothing yet to persuade me that this would be an amazing day out.

Then the band in question completed their sound check, turned to face stage front and let rip with what can only be described as a sonic punch in the face.

The band were
The Submission (10/10), and they proceeded in the next half-hour to remind me why I fell in love with punk rock in the first place. They played hard, fast (think Ramones-type tempo), anthemic, buzzsaw punk rock of the purest kind, and matched the energy of the songs with a furious delivery, led by talismanic frontman Richard Harris, who jumped, hollered, headspan, and not so much as strummed his guitar as beat it to within an inch of it's life. The rest of the band followed his lead and played to the top of their strengths - drummer Stu Cavell was a powerhouse at the back, guitarist Phil Morgan augmented the guitar assault nicely, and bassist Sadie Williams anchored it all with a bass performance that put me in mind of the likes of the Clash's Paul Simonon or Ali McMordie from Stiff Little Fingers - hardly flashy, but solid and impressive, and she was never in any danger of being drowned out in the mayhem, as some punk bassists can be. As for the songs? Again, comparisons to punk legends such as the 'Fingers and the Clash are inevitable - indeed, band anthem 'You Just Don't Know' sounded like it could have been lifted from The Clash's self-titled debut LP, which is high praise indeed. When they gave the rock 'n' roll national anthem, Chuck Berry's 'Johnny B Goode' a 100mph remix, I was sold. And when they finished with a rip-roaring version of the legendary 'White Riot', my mind was made up - The Submission are my new favourite band. They successfully tapped into the original spirit of punk rock much better than 90% of more successful 'punk' bands around today, and I certainly had no qualms in spending the princely sum of £2 on their 5-track E.P, which I shall be reviewing soon.

So a fantastic start to the day, and the band charged with continuing where The Submission left off were A Boy Named Girl (7/10), who hit the outside stage about 5 minutes after The Submission finished. ABNG were advertised on the fliers as pop-punk, but the phrase pop-punk puts me in mind of bubblegum acts such as New Found Glory. ABNG put me more in mind of the slightly heavier pop-rocking of acts such as Kids in Glass Houses, and even maybe Lostprophets circa Liberation Transmission. Certainly singer Phil was doing his best Ian Watkins impression throughout the set, or however good he could get, as the band were quite tightly crammed onto the small outdoor stage. The songs lacked the immediacy of other acts, and maybe that's what let them down a little, as their songs are the kind that may take repeated listens to get used to. I will admit that it wasn't particularly my type of thing, but I still give them good credit for putting on an energetic show, and to be honest, anybody who was given the task of trying to follow The Submission were having a lot asked of them. Also, their choice of cover was inspired - Ricky Martin's 'Livin' La Vida Loca' - and it certainly got people dancing and singing in the smokey courtyard. Full credit to them for that.

Back inside, and I was eagerly awaiting the start of The Moo Woos (9/10) set, having seen them twice before - once at a battle of the bands in Bluewater, where they performed last and blew away every band that had followed them, and another supporting the legendary Stiff Little Fingers. Once again, they didn't disappoint, with another energetic and powerful set of anthems, including the catchy 'Chelsea Girl' and 'Keep Your Eyes Peeled'. Just as before, they let loose their cover of Green Day's 'Basket Case' to a rapturous reception from the audience, and the finale to their set was inspired - a combined circle pit and singalong, if you can call it that, to their anti-chav anthem 'Fuck Drum 'n' Bass' with the crowd joining on the Neg-style 'Whoop Whoop's of the chorus. Great fun.

Another thing that hit me about the event came when Submission singer Richie ended up standing right next to me during the Moo Woos set. When I got talking to him, he was friendly and very knowledgeable about punk, and the same was true for the rest of his band - there was not a hint of arrogance or 'I'm in a band' aloofness about any of them, and the same was true for the other band members who I chatted to throughout the day. Nothing much in that you may think, but that was one of the great things about the day - there was never an 'us and them' divide between bands and fans; they all mingled and drank together as one. It made it something special - you could see a band rip it up on stage, then be sitting having a beer with them after the set.

Up next on the outside stage were acoustic two-piece Torn Out (8/10). All I had heard by them was a rough two-track demo loaned to me by the same promoter who sent me the Jaya the Cat stuff, and I was quite impressed by the way they managed to craft energetic and soulful songs with only two guitars and singer Ben Smith's gravelly voice. They kept that same feeling of gritty soul throughout their set, and while obviously they were never going to match the other bands on the bill in terms of energy and sonic bombast, they still managed to win over the crowd with a great set. Bassist Steve Knight added an extra dimension to what would have essentially been a solo singer/songwriter project with his clever bass runs and additional shouted backing vocals, but the aspect of Torn Out which sticks out for me is the honest of the lyrics - when Ben sings emphatically 'We spend our lives chasing lost nights, and we won't go home until, we know, that, Saturday's dead to us' on crowd favourite and set closer 'Chasing Lost Nights', you know that it's coming from somewhere genuine, and it's not being put on as some kind of act. Much respect.

Back inside, and it was time for the one-off reunion of local scene heroes Drop the Pop (8/10). I'd heard a lot about them but never actually heard a note, so I count myself glad that I managed to catch them for this last-ever show, as I was able to bare witness to their impressive live show. The songs themselves were sometimes difficult to keep up with, veering as they did through several different tempos and time-signatures, but they still proved very entertaining, loaded as they were with plenty of energy and danceability. What also helped was the high technical skill of the three members - singer Jak was a powerhouse singer and let loose many angry noises from his guitar throughout the set, bassist Joe Josland provided neat backing vocals and skillful bass playing, and drummer Josh proved the famous Strummer-ism 'You're only as good as your drummer' 100% correct by flipping between beats and tempos with ease. What also helped was the laugh-out-loud funny stage banter between songs, showing that there appeared to be an easy chemistry between the three members. It is a genuine shame that this is the last we may hear of DTP, as they struck me as a tight and powerful trio capable of great things. Still, as send-offs go, they well and truly head out on a high.

I'm pretty sure I remember The Constant Gs (6/10) featuring next outside, although I may have got them and Torn Out mixed up. Either way, the Gs took to the stage despite missing 2 regular members - guitarist Dan Woodrow and bassist Andy Cherry. The stand-in guitarist, Dave Joseph, had apparently a single day to learn the set, while stand-in bassist Sam Van Leer had all of - wait for it - 20 minutes to do the same thing. Alongside this, drummer Paul Smith had a massive hand in organising the entire all-day event itself. I could easily rip into the Gs, but all factors considered, they actually did a good job. Technically they were sloppy, with the occasional falling out of time here and there, but really, it was the kind of day where you could forgive slip-ups like this, and the band still gave it their all nonetheless, with Paul in particular looking like he was trying to do damage to his kit rather than play it, and they still received a hearty round of applause at the end of their set.

From here until Tyrannosaurus Alan my memory of events is a little hazy, probably because I was looking after a friend outside who was a little worse for wear, and also sharing some drinks with the Submission and friends outside, but I do remember catching a little bit of 7 Day Conspiracy, and thinking that they were very powerful and punky. I've defiantly made a note to catch them again sometime, as the little bit I saw of them was certainly promising. I also remember catching a little bit of Beng Beng Cocktail on the outside stage, and thinking 'what on Earth is that bizarre noise from the stage?' Again, another band to check out properly sometime in the future. I also missed The Sketch/Call Off the Search, but happily I did manage to pick up one of their free 3-track EPs that were being given out, so I'll give that a listen and get back to you on that.

By the time Tyrannosaurus Alan (9/10) hit the inside stage, it was starting to get late, and a healthy amount of drinks had been consumed by this stage, which meant that proper, full-on skanking could begin. And if the skank pit that was waiting to happen was the proverbial stick of dynamite, T-Alan were the ones to light the blue touch paper and stand well back. They packed the stage out with a healthy array of horns and saxophones, and proceeded to belt out a set of tight, high-energy ska which got everybody in the room moving. If you're looking for immediate comparisons, Reel Big Fish come to mind, but for me they seemed to recall the sheer, almost out-of-control ska of such legends as Bad Manners, Big 5 and The Selecter, but, more refreshingly, they created a sound which was very much their own - they blended high-energy punk with ska well, and when you throw in Simon Champ's often rapped verses, you have a truly unique combination guaranteed to whack a smile on your face and get you moving. If The Submission tapped into the original spirit of punk rock earlier on, then T-Alan certainly dug into the spirit of original ska, to the delight of the crowd (including myself).

Pity The Plan (7.5/10), the last act on the outside stage - not only did they have to follow on from T-Alan's skankathon, they also had to act as the penultimate act of the evening and provide a warm-up to the night's biggest act, Jaya the Cat - easier said than done. However, they managed it very nicely with a set of fast-paced ska-punk, often veering more towards the punk end of ska-punk, but still getting the crowd skanking nicely. If I did have a criticism of them, and this is only what prevents them from scoring higher, is that the songs did seem to blend together and all sound the same after a little while, and didn't have the immediate hook of, say, T-Alan. That's not to say they were bad songs - they certainly got the crowd moving and using up what was left of their energy, especially in one song where they encouraged a 'skank-off', with the winner getting a Plan T-shirt. Guitarists Tom Crabb and Andrew Keech pretty much shared frontman duties between them, and one thing the band as a whole couldn't be faulted for was their energy - despite the late hour (it was getting on for around half past ten) they still gave a hearty and rip-snorting performance. Hats (or should that be flat-caps, in Keech's case?) off to them for that, and I look forward to getting hold of some of their studio tracks for a listen.

The all-dayer was at last reaching it's conclusion, and there was a real sense of excitement around the headliners - the anticipation in the room was all to see. The band in question, of course, was the legendary Jaya The Cat (10/10), and they provided the perfect end to proceedings. Everybody by this stage was tired from lots of dancing (and skanking in some cases), hoarse from shouting and singing, and in some cases pretty drunk, and Jaya provided the ideal finale with a relaxed and mesmeric set of punk-tinged reggae grooves. It's certainly safe to say that they lived up to the hype surrounding them, and they didn't miss a beat. Frontman Geoff Lagadec had the audience in the palm of his hand and his gravelled-throated vocals fitted the music perfectly, and he lead from the front. Particular praise must go to the rhythm section of Jeroen Kok (bass) and Dave 'The Germ' Germain (drums) for providing a tight yet groovy foundation for Lagadec, guitarist Jordi "Pockets" Nieuwenburg and keyboardist Jan Jaap Onverwagt to build on. Nearly everybody used whatever they had left of their voice to sing along to fan favourite 'Thank You Reggae' and, when they did ramp up the energy and tempo, such as on the angry anti-establishment anthem 'Final Solution', they did this in impressive style without even breaking sweat. However, they did seem more at home with the slower reggae and even calypso melodies, and to be honest so were the crowd, who had skanked themselves to a standstill by this stage. Also, extra credit must go to Lagadec for the moment when he saw me and a couple of my friends trying to get a whaft of the floor fan he had pointed up at him, knelt down and turned the fan around to face us so we could have a nice cooling off for a few songs. Just as had been done so many times already in the day, the barrier between performer and audience had been smashed, and despite the fact that Jaya were probably the most well-known - certainly internationally - of all the acts playing, they still never came across as aloof rock stars - they were simply a bunch of guys inviting everybody to join in with their punky reggae party, and never was that truer than on the closing track, an extended jammed version of the classic Willie Williams track 'Armagideon Time' which brought the event to an amazing close.

So, final thoughts on the near-10 hour marathon of music and mayhem? Fantastic. It was completely free of poseurs or anybody who was simply there because it was 'hip' or 'trendy' - it was a gathering of people all there to celebrate ska, punk and reggae, drink, dance and have a good time. And that's exactly what they got. The original spirit of punk rock and ska was alive and well, and I cannot thank enough Local Support Promotions, and especially brothers Mike and Paul Smith, for organising and staging an awesome day's entertainment, and one of the defining moments of this summer for me.

Same time next year, everyone?

Photos by Ben Thompson and Paul Smith.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

I really don't have to go through the whole back history of Green Day, do I? Breaking out of a small-town punk scene with Dookie, slowly fading after that until resurging with American Idiot - its a story well-trodden. For a protest rock opera, American Idiot had gone down in the charts with all the sales figures of an X-factor pop album. Though the band themselves must have enjoyed the plaudits, the indisputable financial gain and the filling of arenas worldwide it must have put them in a bit of a situation.

So, what you do when you're a bunch of middle-aged punk rockers still hanging on to those old-skool punk protest ideals but are one of the biggest acts in the world? It appears that they played a definite gamble with the American Idiot formula, now it seems they're gambling that they can pull it off again. Only listening to the record itself will prove whether they've got away with it.
I initially planned to review this as I listened to it for the first time, but that never really materialised, which is quite lucky, because in a maelstrom of nostalgia and love for the 'Day, I was going to review it very highly. And, to spoil the review somewhat, repeated listens have downgraded my opinion of the album each time, to the point that, from thinking it was a success, I now see it simply as a stinking failure.

Let me explain. I said to myself when starting this review that I wasn't going to judge it against past albums, but to get a full view of how much of a letdown 21st Century Breakdown is, we are forced to look back at American Idiot, and why it was so great. It wasn't supposed to work, but it did, chiefly because it felt natural. 'American Idiot' crackled with stinging anger and threatened to explode under the sheer weight of venom Billie Joe and the boys were throwing at it.
'Holiday' was swashbuckling, 'St. Jimmy' the aural equivalent of a severe electric shock and 'Letterbomb' summed up everything about Green Day in just over four minutes - fast, loud, and powerful. The MTV favourites - 'Boulevard...' and 'Wake Me Up...' were both big ballads, packed full of emotion - the former, desolation and loneliness, the latter, sadness of loosing a loved one. The whole rock opera idea worked because there were no weak links, and everything flowed into the next. The story idea worked as well, as not only was it clear what it was about (to a degree), but once you understood what it was about, you could easily find yourself believing in the main character, the proverbial 'Jesus of Suburbia'. People could relate to the feelings, emotions and experiences laid bare on the album - the barbed criticisms of brash, myopic patriotism in '...Idiot' and 'Holiday' not only rang true with Americans, but with Europeans and particularly British people too - its effect was universal.

'21st Century Breakdown' will, in terms of sales figures, probably reach similar heights as 'American Idiot', but I can guarantee that it will not have as much of a lasting impact, simply because it is a poor copy of 'American Idiot' itself. Every song appears to swell with a feeling of self-importance and grandiose splendour, but all this does is mean that, in terms of simple listenability, nearly all the songs miss the mark by miles. By trying too hard to replicate what made American Idiot great, Green Day have wound up with something that, when listened to, will not inspire emotion in people - they will simply sit there and shrug.

The warning signs were there from the first single, 'Know Your Enemy'. Someone I know is quoted as regularly calling it 'the most generic rock song ever written', and, although that would be a little harsh, he would have a strong case. Whereas 'American Idiot' the single blasted out of speakers and radios and emphatically roused the troops simply by being furious and pulsating, KYE simply tries too hard to cajole the masses - who
is the enemy that they speak of? Further regressional tendencies occur on the 'Viva La Gloria' duo of songs - tracks 4 and 12 respectively. 'Viva La Gloria!' could not try harder to be a slightly more epic and arena-sized rewrite of 'Letterbomb' if it tried, and 'Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)' recalls some of the better moments off of 'Warning' in the form of 'Misery' and 'Blood Sex And Booze'. '21 Guns' has 'Boulevard...' written all over it, 'East Jesus Nowhere' is Holiday with a little more stomp, and the title track is a much watered-down version of Jesus of Suburbia. Green Day cannot expect people to judge this album on it's own merits if it is so ingrained in the memory of it's predecessor; it was always going to be tough for them to break out of it and make something that stood alone, nodding to it's past but having it's own identity, but it doesn't even felt like they've tried - it's almost as if they're happy recycling the A.I. formula, track by track, even at times note by note, and rack up another million billion record sales. Some of the other tracks are just poor altogether - songs such as 'Restless Heart Syndrome' and 'Last Night on Earth' fail to pass muster despite the tonnes and tonnes of strings and Pro Tools trickery thrown at them.

Okay, you think, so some of the tunes aren't really up to scratch, let's have a read through the lyrics. But again, we are destined for disappointment. Trying to plough through 21st C.B.'s weighty lyric booklet is like trying to walk down a hallway which has been flooded with toffee and fudge - you're bound to get dragged down, and end up scratching your head and wondering what the hell Billie Joe is on about. 'Last of the American Girls' is a prime example - 'She rides her bike like a fugitive of critical mass'. Whatever kind of social observation or criticism of American life Billie Joe is trying to get across, it just falls flat on its face. Not only has the music gone up a gear in terms of aloofness and arrogance, but so has the lyrics, to such an extent that no emotional investment can be made whatsoever in any of the songs - the listener is simply left wondering what on Earth is being said, let alone whether he or she believes in it or understands it.

The criticism does not end there. Despite being the same length, roughly in minutes, as A.I., it feels overlong and weighty. As epic track after epic track comes out of the speakers, it can feel like a bombardment, a sensory overload. It wouldn't matter too much if you had something to actually listen to, but when it's endless stadium-rock-sized riffs and Billie Joe's self-indulgent ranting, it just becomes a bit of a white noise. What single-handedly salvages some credibility from this album, however, is Green Day themselves. They are such good songwriters as a unit that the law of averages dictates that, even when they are writing average stuff, every so often they will produce a gem. 'Christian's Inferno', 'The Static Age', 'Murder City', parts of 'Before the Lobotomy' (from about 1:20 to 3:30), most of 'American Eulogy' (despite the pretentious title) and the middle bit of the title track (from 2:13 to 4:13) are awesome, and so long as long as you largely ignore the lyrics, they manage to extract some sort of fist-pumping energy from the listener. The undisputed best track on the album, however, is 'Peacemaker'. Fast-paced and dominated by slightly Latin-sounding acoustic guitars and a trademark Mike Dirnt bassline, the song rattles along at a great pace, and Billie Joe's lyrics hit the mark perfectly, with it's overriding theme of extremism and paranoia giving the song a slightly disturbing edge amidst the James Bond-sounding swishes of strings that flit in and out, and the duelling lead guitar solo at the middle eight. It's not because it's different to anything Green Day have done before that sets it apart on this album - it is simply because it is simple, imaginative, and provokes genuine emotion within the listener. Plus the fact that you will be humming it for the rest of the day.

The fact is that, if you discard some of the weighty ballads, trim down some of the remaining songs, and possibly throw in one of the B-sides from the Know Your Enemy single, the excellent and zippy 'Lights Out!' (find it if you can - it is fantastic), Green Day would have had a good album to release. Not great, and certainly not fantastic on the same level as A.I., but good. As it stands, they have what is trying so, so hard to be a fantastic record, but collapses under it's own self-indulgent and excessive weight and ends up at around average level. And for this record to be called average signals a massive failure on Green Day's part.

Album Details
Label: Reprise Records
Release Date: May 15th 2009
Rating: 5/10
Standout tracks: Peacemaker, The Static Age, American Eulogy.