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Neurotic Text: May 2006

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sons of Ishmael

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Like Australia-- home of perhaps the single greatest punk rock scene in history from 1975-1980-- Canada's punk scene was enormously fertile in the '70's but failed to deliver on that initial promise as the music evolved. Certainly early Canadian punk bands like DOA and the Subhumans were instrumental in the very evolution of hardcore, but their successors were generally less inspiring and the country produced very few great hardcore bands in the '80's (although the recent appearance of such internationally-recognized outfits as Career Suicide, Fucked Up, Inepsy, Under Pressure, Action and so on has done much to correct this imbalance at long last). Growing up and first discovering punk in Toronto during the mid '80's, it was difficult to avoid comparing the Canadian bands one saw every weekend to both the legendary first-wave bands that had made Vancouver and Toronto such hotbeds of '70's punk and the global hardcore that had been setting standards for the past seven or eight years, and the comparisons were rarely favourable.
While many Canadian bands were solid and entertaining, the prevailing styles were a rather pedestrian, mid-tempo hardcore inspired by DOA and Subhumans, the senile mohawk punk that had taken root in Toronto's Kensington Market scene and thrives to this day, and the generally disdained crossover punk/metal thrash that was so in vogue at the time. In retrospect, each style had its appeal, but at the time, I craved the most over-the-top, intense noise I could get my hands on and was freaking out over music coming from pretty much everywhere else, especially overseas; the local fare seemed positively tame next to the likes of Larm, Gauze, Poison Idea, Anti-Cimex, Discharge, Wretched, Terveet Kadet and all the other insane hardcore bands then roaming the earth. Only one local band truly seemed to have tapped into the same well of manic thrash as these outfits, and they were my favourites.
Ironically enough, Sons Of Ishmael didn't even come from Toronto, a huge city with an established punk scene and record stores like Records on Wheels and the Peddler stocking all the latest underground singles for anyone with the $3 necessary to purchase them, but from Meaford, a small town several hours to the northwest. Whatever this this relative isolation might have cost them in terms of ready access to obscure vinyl, however, it more than compensated for in a visceral sense of alienation and disgust with the "small town mentality" that would fuel their music's rage and power as effectively as any simple musical influence. This simmering anger first found (recorded) musical expression in a crudely recorded and packaged demo cassette by the charmingly-named Angry Thalidomide Babies (it was no doubt a similar concession to commercial viability that led the band to title their demo "Coathanger abortion"); the eight or so songs were split roughly equally between ferocious but generic three-chord hardcore and more grating, noise-drenched experimental fare. Unfortunately, I lost this demo while moving years ago, but the real prize was yet to come anyway.
The short-lived ATB soon became Sons of Ishmael, who released "Hayseed hardcore", their debut EP, in 1985. By any measure, it's a great EP, but by the standards of 1985 rural Ontario, it's nothing short of astonishing. Miles beyond the agreeable melodic punk and cretinous heavy metal of their peers, the Sons ripped out 14 songs in as many minutes, and this was no disposable speedcore exercise either. Oft compared to early DRI at the time, this record certainly merits that comparison on the basis of speed and economy alone, but what's much more interesting is the apparent influence of Dutch and Italian hardcore of the era, with the sheer velocity and near-hysterical vocals recalling Larm and early Funeral Oration while the ragged energy and chainsaw guitars suggest Wretched or Impact and the searing leads, so glaringly out of place on an otherwise entirely non-metallic hardcore record in 1985, echo Raw Power. The lyrics are superficially standard '80's hardcore stuff, full of teenaged disgust with pretty much everything but undeniably passionate and remarkably smart and acerbic. What's most impressive about "Hayseed hardcore", and what simply can't be aped or duplicated, is the relentless energy and fury that drives the whole affair along so violently, each song ending only to slam into the next jolt of hyperactive thrash without a moment's let up.
Self-released by the band, the initial pressing of 500 copies soon disappeared, and one of my earliest DIY punk rock memories involves sitting in a Wendy's restaurant on Carleton in 1987, folding covers for a second press that had just arrived from the plant. This second pressing had a new cover and was printed on a variety of stock colours, but the music was the same and that was all that mattered. Around the same time, the band contributed a couple of songs to a local benefit EP (along with MSI, Nunfuckers and other leading lights of TOHC circa '87) and the "Apathy...Never!" compilation LP on Connecticut's Over The Top label. With a new line-up, the band was also playing a good number of shows, both locally and on weekend forays in the US. All that was needed now was an LP, and Over The Top soon promised to release one.
Apart from the Sons LP, Over The Top had released a number of records, and owner Karl's predeliction for raw, international thrash was obvious long before such material became in vogue with North American punks. Released in 1987 and even licensed for a UK press on the popular Manic Ears label, the resulting "Pariah Martyr Demands A Sacrifice" 12" (almost always refered to simply as "PMDAS", for obvious reasons) suffered dreadfully from a truly terrible recording-- not simply raw and unrefined like all the best hardcore records, but muffled, thin and powerless to a degree that the songs lurking somewhere deep within the grooves were simply neutered by the production. Generally regarded as being fatally flawed, the record has largely sunk from memory, even as the preceding EP fetches considerable sums from collectors.
The next release was 1989's "Sing Generic Crap" EP, a tremendous record that recalled-- philosophically-- that first ATB demo in its mixture of raging, straight-ahead hardcore songs (albeit considerably more controlled and cleaner than the wild earlier efforts) and some more left-field stuff that dabbled in odd time changes and stranger vocals. Completely unchanged were the sharply sarcastic, critical lyrics and the short songs, but this was clearly a band already progressing beyond its three-chord roots. Several pressings sold through, including one in Europe, and the record can still be found relatively cheaply. More touring, both throughout North America and in Europe, followed as the band shared stages with the likes of Youth of Today and Larm.
Despite the progression of their sound and their success in touring overseas, however, the band's days were numbered, with an unstable line-up and conflicting personal priorities ensuring that Sons of Ishmael would break up in 1991, shortly after a successful European tour and a disaster-plagued, German-only 10" that unfortunately traded in much of their early firepower for a now-dated foray into music inspired by the likes of Th'Inbred, Rhythm Pigs and Victim's Family (so yeah, and when is that particular revival scheduled to occur again?) and never saw release or even real availability in Canada; bizarrely, the band's final shows would be opening for Hole around Ontario.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Back to Finland

V/A "Propaganda - Hardcore '83" LP

Like most raw hardcore fanatics, I more than just dipped a toe into classic Finnish hardcore in the late '80's and early '90's. Records by Rattus, Terveet Kadet, Riitstetyt and Bastards were a lot easier to find, and incomparably cheaper, than they have become in this era of eBay pricing and a generally much higher degree of musical knowledge and subsequent demand in the age of the internet. By the mid '90's, I had therefore amassed a rather unhealthy collection of vinyl by the above, as well as Kaaos, Appendix, Destruktions and many more, a sizeable chunk of a punk collection that probably could have covered a pretty healthy downpayment on a Yaletown condo had I held onto it until today. Nonetheless, I'll admit that I rarely listened to it; next to the sheer energy of prime American hardcore, the burly onslaught of Swedish kang, the high-precision violence of Japanese thrash and the seemingly limitless mystique of the late '70's punk rock no-hopers retroactively categorized as "Killed by Death" bands, this raw, scrappy music was undeniably effective and passionate, but somehow less substantial and memorable than so much of the stuff cited above (a claim I'd also make for Holland's hyperactive thrash and Italy's psychotic hardcore). By the late '90's, I'd sold or traded away virtually every Finnish hardcore record I had, and rarely thought about them even as I couldn't help but reminisce wistfully about the Minor Threat and GISM records that once lined my shelves.

Fast forward nearly a decade to spring 2006. There are a couple of Riistetyt represses in my collection and a Terveet Kadet button on my leather jacket's lapel, but that's about the extent of my connection to Finnish hardcore when I come across a new copy of the "Propaganda - Hardcore '83" comp LP in the back room of a record distributor I work for on weekends. Quickly perusing the back cover, I see names like Aparat and Varaus, and the memory of this vicious little slab of pure, unrefined Finnish hardcore at its peak, originally released on Propaganda in 1983 and now made available again by excellent German label Hohnie, rushes back. Not an hour later, I'm blasting it at home, continually inching the volume louder and louder as I soak in the astonishing, long-forgotten power and rage of this stuff.

For those unfamiliar with the style, the key concept here is Discharge, but more so. Finland just loved Stoke-on-Trent's favourite sons, and the country's particularly catchy and melodic early punk sound was soon obliterated by a wave of spikey-headed drunks taking the rough, simplistic Discharge '80-'81 template and cranking up the velocity and rawness to new extremes of hardcore punishment. Perhaps the purest expression of this aesthetic is found in the Riistetyt, Tampere SS and Bastards tracks, unforgivingly primal blasts of howling distortion and barked vocals that sound like nothing quite so much as "Fight back" out takes smashed forth at twice the speed. In a peculiarly Finnish habit, the vocals are often pushed through heavy reverb but, like Portugese, Finnish is an ideal language for hardcore punk, and the rough, gutteral manner in which the words are spit out is rarely compromised.

Doubtless inspired by Disorder, Chaos UK and their own excessive kilju consumption-- and possibly by the newest wave of North American speed freaks a la Neos, Poison Idea, DRI and Gang Green-- even less refined outfits like Kuolema and Sekunda are already breaking speed limits with ultra distort thrashers that barely crack the 20 second mark in duration. These tracks are mercifully too short to seriously interrupt the LP's flow, but they already suggest the dead end represented by this weak and powerless style, their thin sound and monotonous beats appearing all the more disposable when stacked up against the mighty roar surrounding them.

On the other side of the fence are comparably more advanced tracks by the likes of H.I.C. Systeemi and Varaus. These are still fierce, severe hardcore, virtually bereft of melody and distinguished even to rawcore cogniscenti only by the occasional tasty guitar break or shift into a slightly less amphetamine tempo, but they nonetheless serve to break up the record's otherwise constant barrage of million MPH thrash. Perhaps the best example of this is Rattus' tremendous "Taalta Tullaan Kuolema", a damaging chunk of exemplary Finncore that weds a primitively melodic guitar refrain lifted from early Blitz and almost-sung vocals to the usual bass-heavy lurch for maximum impact.

I should be over this stuff, but ever time I think I've grown out of it, nostalgic curiousity gets the best of me and I end up finding myself unable to resist the raw power of purist hardcore punk-- to the point that I've literally listened to the entire thing probably ten or twelves times in the last 24 hours In that spirit, I'll concede that, while I no longer feel the need to own every single piece of Finnish hardcore vinyl ever released, a compilation as solid and forceful as this serves as a necessary reminder of just how welcome and even essential it is to remember exactly why this music has endured for so long, and just why it's so much harder to really kick than one might ever expect given its fundamental primitivity and simplicity. In fact, it's precisely that raw authenticity that makes hardcore work-- and why this time I'll be holding onto my copy of "Hardcore '83".