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.