11 min read

Rock Her Like a Martyr: Live music, new music, music music

Rock Her Like a Martyr: Live music, new music, music music

Protomartyr Formal Growth In The Desert

Went and saw Protomartyr at Bowery Ballroom the other night. Because I hadn’t eaten much during the day and had taken an entire adderall (I usually prefer half a pill at a time, as to maintain a smooth enthusiasm for whatever is going on around me), I ended up spending more time within the venue’s cordoned-off outdoor smoking area than I normally would during a performance by bands I actually dig. I saw some people I liked within that patch. But I tried to avoid talking too much to anyone as—like I said—I was a little speedy, and therefore inclined to spread idle gossip about myself, and generally treat a conversation like I was workshopping material to the audience at the Alternative Laff Factory, rather than engaging with another human being. My friends didn’t need that, and I didn’t need any future bruised ankles; the inevitable result of kicking myself for giving too much of myself away or, worse, having people think I’m boring and stupid and pathetic etc.etc. Point being; I spent a bit of time outside, refreshing Twitter, and eavesdropping on strangers who were very much exactly like me, in ways I didn’t entirely care for. Other point being; you know that French modernist novel (that I can’t remember the name of), where the author (whose name I don’t remember) wrote an entire book without once using the letter “e”? No? Here it is! (I honestly didn’t remember, but it wasn’t too difficult to look it up…) Well, writing that book must have been pretty difficult. Now, take that (assumed) difficulty, and magnify that times a hundred thousand. That, I figure, is how difficult it would be for the men around me to have constructed a single sentence, in their entire lives, without once using either the word “Sonic” or “Youth.”  

Rider/Horse—the Kingston Duo+ which features members of Chron Turbine and Spray Paint and, at least live, Open Head—opened up the show. They were wonderful; motorik and moody and their sound—if not as bruising as on record— was warmer, arguably more ingratiating. At least it appeared to win the crowd over. One of their fans gave them the middle finger throughout their set. Growing up listening to Shellac really did a number on some dudes. (If he wasn’t a fan, and it was a gesture of genuine animosity, well, good for Rider/Horse! I don’t know that Protomartyr attracts a crowd famous for outward expressions of emotion.) There’s seemingly a wild and wooly scene that’s been building up in Kingston for a while now—made up of ‘90s-survivors, aughts-freaks, and presumably some miscreants under the age of thirty—of which Rider/Horse are some sort of stalwarts, and deservedly so. Great, great band. One dude in the smoking section “thought they’d be weirder,” but that dude was also genuinely bragging to his friend about how much he knew about Sonic Youth, so… his idea of “weird” might not imply someone else’s (such as myself’s) idea of a good time.

(Yes, at 48, I am finally coming around on some Sonic Youth. But I’m still mad at the Village Voice for making a teenage me spend my hard earned dishwashing wages on Daydream Nation, when I could have gotten a nice cassette by Cows instead. And I definitely still don’t like “weird” Sonic Youth. Gimme “Teenage Riot” and “Dirty Boots” —the latter video for which I’m pretty sure matches the emotional beats of The Clash’s “Stay Free”— and you can keep the rest. I’ll try again at 58. In the meantime, I prefer bands like Rider/Horse, who it’s safe to assume love Sonic Youth more than I do. But who don’t let that get in the way of, you know, rockin’.)

As for Protomartyr… I will say something I have never said (or written) EVER: they should do a live album. I am, historically, not a “you gotta see ‘em live” guy. Live music, for me, is as much about just going out as it is seeing an artist. I know that’s, you know, bad. But I don’t care. I go see music to see my friends, to walk to a venue at night, to walk home from a venue at night (the best!), to drink, to be by myself in a crowd. All those reasons first, with the music immediately following. Not following at a distance; I do think music is pretty sweet (and god knows I've inherited my father’s deep hatred for people who talk loudly during shows). But still not in the top five. But Protomartyr bucked that. I’ve seen them a bunch, and always enjoyed it, but clearly at some point they’ve transformed themselves. What used to be caustically fun, not-as-propulsive-as-hardcore-but-still-pretty-driving good time rock show is now what I imagine stadium bands sound like to people who can stand that sort of nonsense. The most recent Protomartyr album is fantastic. If not their best then at least as good as 2020’s Ultimate Success Today (which, in a freakishly—for a post punk band that doesn’t tend to veer far from its comfort zone—strong catalog, was the best thing they’d at that point done). But, live, Protomartyr now don’t really sound like their records. They sound like the Virgin Prunes, or Killing Joke; something garish and epic, with the band lurching through mountainous high drama, and Joe Casey bellowing about his loss and grievances like some sort of ponies-playing, tailor-less Nick Cave. So, yeah, they should record a live album. They can call it Protomartyr: I’ll Take That Applause (Live!) or Protomartyr? Protoparty(r)! Or something. I’m just spitballing. For a crisp check for $250-$400 from Domino Records, I’m confident that I can come up with something that will make everyone happy (as far as that goes).

Hey! Let’s talk about some other albums I am excited about!

SKECH185 He Left Nothing for the Swim Back

In the video for “He Left Nothing for the Swim Back,” the single from the SKECH185  (with Jeff Markey) album of the same name, the NYC/Chicago rapper is wearing a t-shirt that features The Lone Gunmen. The three characters (conspiracy investigators from the X-Files tv show who had a short lived spinoff that I’ve never seen) look like some Texas noise rock trio that’d have been signed to Trance Syndicate in 1993.

I am… not going to claim that SKECH185 is like CHERUBS. Outside of a shared affinity for caps lock, he is not. And my need—to compare all contemporary artists to three or four obscure reference points from when I was a teenager—does not extend that far. But, whether the shirt conjures ‘90s faux-interrogative media or ‘90s boho-alt misanthropy, the aesthetic is apt. He Left Nothing for the Swim Back (the song and the LP) is art that’s passionate about both external and internal existential threats. SKECH185 raps in his videos gesticulating wildly, a man seemingly at the end of his rope, trying—for one last time—to convey to the listener the absurd gravity of what SKECH185 has seen; the monsters that live on both sides of the bed, the utter depravity that exists on both sides of the veil, and the utter insanity in pretending that both sides of a divide are ever equal.

On “Badly Drawn Hero,” producer Jeff Markey evokes the doom-guitar, Helta Skelta funk of artists like New Kingdom or Evil Empire-er RATM, while SKECH185 steel-drives his grievances from a podium made from the steam-engine carcass of John Henry's killer. He doubles his vocals, talks over himself, interrupts his own flow with the frenzied enthusiasm of a high-on-cocaine choir.

On “Badly Drawn Hero,” he raps:

A collective scheme we rejoice in / A defective machine we're employing / Black blocks

On old Nazi tattoos on the arms of baristas on black blocks

Ad hoc crown for an army / Trained to fight bullets with tears / Praying for first world problems / It looks like a cashier is our mascot”

I have a sexy daydream of these lyrics being projected behind Cult of Youth as they play various Brooklyn venues.

On the rest of He Left Nothing for the Swim Back, Markey opts for slightly less metallic beats. But—whether the vibe scans ‘70s ghost story, ‘70s thriller paranoia, or Soderbergh tribute to the latter—the sense of tension is maintained. At the risk of running the previous train metaphor off the stuff that trains run on, SKECH185 occasionally sounds like he maybe heard the Jon Voight Runaway Train speech—which Armand Hammer sampled on Race Music—and recognized a kindred spirit. I mean, for the duration of that speech. Not *cough* the other Jon Voight stuff…

Fairytale Shooting Star

Hez Panamaniacs

The well deserved success of Turnstile has led to miniature reenactment of a hallowed punk/punk-adjacent tradition—that began with The Clash, went worldwide with Nirvana, and has been repeating, every couple years since, as an echo that diminishes as less and less kids give two hoots about guitar based music. The tradition I’m referring to is the one where one or two ostensibly “underground” bands break into the larger consciousness, and there’s an ensuing feeding frenzy to find the “the next…” whoever; Nirvana, Big Bopper, 100 Gecs, etc. The days of major labels being the big dog-sharks in the feeding frenzy are probably over. But, appropriately fitted rock’s remaining relevance, smaller labels and music sites still enjoy the ritual; looking for the next Turnstile with which to throw some new boots on (if not a contract worth a damn). And artists are still pretty game. Especially now that the concept of “selling out” is more often applied to pop stars—by pop star fans—for reasons entirely divorced from economics, and the concept of “selling”—in any financially meaningful way–anything really (besides shirts and hoodies) is the purview of the lucky few already ensconced in some higher level of success. Within that landscape, one can hardly blame those, who might still claim DIY as an identity, for subtly (or not so subtly) being tempted to maybe slow their chugga-chuggas down a smidgen, have their singer enunciate their vaguely affirmational lyrics a bit more, and—why the fuck not—maybe throw on a couple chorsuses reminiscent of whatever ‘90s alt records might be lying around the studio. Critics, many of whom were exactly fifteen in 1991, might hear that Breeders lift—or, say, that Rebel Girl/I Am The Resurrection beat—and they might think; “YES. FINALLY. A Turnstile for me.” Best case scenario? Enough riches to pay rent for a time. Maybe even an appearance on Seth Meyers! Middle case scenario? You wake up tethered to the medium font of every festival; spend the rest of your thirties as the Silversun Pickups of the melodic post-hardcore scene (sorry… community). That’s not so bad! And, really, worst case scenario: the band has got at least one song that their bassist’s mom can play for her pals next time she’s volunteering at the Temple Beth Shalom food drive.

Well, if “Procore” is now a part of the Ask A Punk dialect, not every punk is asking to go pro. And—accepting that “punk” and “hardcore” overlap in a lot of ways but are practically different planets in others—not every punk (or hardcore-r or whatever) utilize the tools of punk and hardcore in a way where new boots and contracts are even a goal one might consider with a straight face. And, of those punks, some of ‘em, within the set confines of a willfully horrible racket, are still catchy as all get out.

Which brings us (finally) to Fairytale and Hez. The two bands, from NYC and Panama City respectively, play punk music. Punk music that is indebted to hardcore—or at least a UK/European version of it that was popular (relatively speaking) from 1982 onwards—and which is, perhaps despite the bands’ best efforts, extremely likable. Even to a square like me.

Both Fairytale and Hez something akin to d-beat, the regimented and repetitive sub-sub-section of punk invented by Discharge (and elevated into absurdity by a number of Japanese bands with names that start with a “D”), where political lyrics are shouted with little concern for melody, choruses are often a single word or phrase repeated, and any dove or cop that finds itself near an album cover screen printing press had best watch its ass. In the case of both bands, the “d” might just as well stand for “Destino Final,” the Spanish punk band which took the Discharge formula and threw enough reverb onto the vocal tracks that, on a quiet night, one can still hear a faint trace of vocals from their last EP in the wind, like the light from a star that died from rickets in 2009. And, most importantly, both bands play the kind of d-beat punk where, if you can handle the feedback, the repetition and reverb is applied to such a degree that the lines between “punk,” “psych,” Hawkwind, and even, god forbid, “art,” are blurred into a matter of semantics; each designation dependent on what records one listens to, and whether one wears certain patches on one’s jacket.  

While both bands’ new records have more than enough squirrely guitars and off kilter rhythms to elevate (in a non hierarchical way) them above some of their more meat/potato peers, what makes Fairytale or Hex catchy (or at least “catchy” enough to warrant using Turnstile as a framing device) is entirely on the vocals. Fairytale’s vocalist, Lulu Landolfi (who was, or is, also in Twisted Thing) has the punk/hardcore vocal tik (that I feel like was invented by Dan O’Mahoney, but I honestly have no idea) where the end of every phrase is drawn out for a millisecond, in an almost rising question, as if the singer was either from Modern Life Is War or Central Pennsylvania. But Landolfi shaves a millisecond off the millisecond so it’s less a question than an accusation, and that truncation sets up her (also extremely short) choruses so that they feel practically stadium-worthy, despite their being Dischargian statements of intent. And when the songs really go for a chorus, as on “Possible To Grow,” the result is jarringly lovely. (For a more detailed/punk-knowledgeable explanation of Fairytale’s abundant sonic charms, the Sorry State newsletter goes into Shooting Star at length.)

As for Hez, the Panamanian band goes for a (relatively speaking) cleaner heft to their overall sound, with discernibly “punk” guitar riffs and the drums walking the line between Motörhead and motorik. Singer Rodolfo Alemán lets echo be his gang vocal as he stomps through the songs, often punctuating the reverb with Iggy/Tom Warrior-esque grunts. Without making any overt concessions to pop (or even pop-punk) the songs on Panamaniacs take on cumulative hookiness. A strange and epic inversion of pop-vocal convention; like if The Pips developed methamphetamine habits, left Gladys Knight for good, crashed the End of The Century studio sessions, hijacked the amps, and promptly passed out in front of them. With the gain turned up to once. If that description doesn't make it clear: it's some gorgeous stuff.

They prob won't be opening for Blink-182 any time soon, but buy the new records by Fairytale and Hez anyway. You'll grow two inches and everybody will comment on the fullness of your lips, how stunning your haircut is, and how—when you stage dive—you look just like a majestic eagle.


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