Mid-Year Post-Punk Rundown: Grave Pleasures, Algiers, Ought, Lunch + More

2015-midyear-post-punk-rundown

While summer is rarely a big season for new releases let alone post-punk, several albums snuck to the top of my playlists, with the warmer months bookended by Ceremony and Lunch in May, Algiers and PINS in June, and this past Friday, The Underground Youth, Gold Class and the highly anticipated Grave Pleasures (formerly Beastmilk), and Ought’s second album coming out in another week. Suddenly I’ve got a full batch, time for another post-punk rundown, a tradition I started almost exactly a year ago. For earlier 2015 releases, see my April rundown.

Grave Pleasures – Dreamcrash (Columbia/Metal Blade)

Grave Pleasures - Dreamcrash (Columbia/Metal Blade, 2015)As far as post-punk was concerned, 2013 was owned by Savages, and for good reason, as their intense debut was a welcome blast of, if not fresh, than invigoratingly tart air. However, the same audience bafflingly slept on another debut that was nearly as great, Climax by Finnish band Beastmilk. Perhaps the silly name, and song titles such as “The Wind Blows Through Their Skulls,” “Genocidal Crush” and “Surf The Apocalypse” may seem like they’d be third-rate amateurs with a bit too cartoonish take on their apocalyptic obsessions. In reality they are a supergroup of metal musicians, playing a muscular, heavy variation of a genre they grew up listening to. Pretty much all of North America slept on the album with the exception of a few metalheads and obsessives like myself. In Europe, they seem to have a much stronger presence where they have toured successfully. This probably explains the annoying, backwards approach their management has taken to signing a European-only deal with Columbia/Sony to the extent that their two new videos can’t even be viewed in the U.S. At the last minute, Metal Blade announced on Friday, that they were also releasing the album in the North American market as of now, at least digitally. CDs and other physical media will not be available until November, probably because the deal was completed last minute.

Since the debut album, there has been a lot of changes, the biggest being they are no longer Beastmilk. When guitarist Johan “Goatspeed” Snell left the band, they changed their name to Grave Pleasures, added guitarist Linnéa Olsson of psych noir hard rockers The Oath, and later Uno Bruniusson of the recently broken up trad metallers (who explored some post-punk on their last album) In Solitude. With lead singer Mat McNerney also serving time in avant folk psych band Hexvessel and guitarist Juho Vanhanen of the avant-psych black metal Oranssi Pazuzu, they’re more of a supergroup than ever.  Yet the individual bandmembers’ resumes give little indication of how they would affect the sound. Rather than going darker, heavier and more challenging, they are actually poppier. Some have attempted to use “death rock” to describe this band, and that’s just bullshit. Sure, there’s some gothy darkwave elements, but while their initial sound branched from Joy Division, early Cure, Killing Joke and Echo & the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here, Grave Pleasures is far more Ocean Rain era Bunnymen, particularly with McNerney’s vocals on “Crying Wolves,” Love era The Cult, similar mid-80s period Siouxsie & the Banshees, and even some Editors and recent Danzig and Interpol.

There is no plagiarism to be found here, however, as the influences are only general vibes. The band is not breaking any ground, but nor would they be mistaken for any of the bands. The metal, avant folk and psych lurks in their blood, straining to be let out, but is more a vein of molten lava  ominously rumbling beneath the ground. It’s perhaps this tension and restraint that makes the band so compelling, and entertaining. The songs are based on fairly traditional wireframes, but there are all kinds of moments where it seems like they are going to go completely off the rails, and you are reminded that they are complete batshit lunatics. But highly disciplined. “Futureshock” features some pretty fiery slashing guitars and choruses, and you can hear some demented cackling in the background.

Producer Tom Dalgety, who has worked with Killing Joke, helped the band negotiate the fine line between heavy darkness and more accessible pop, and the results are really impressive. “New Hip Moon,” the video for which Metal Blade kindly made available to the U.S. on release day, is a great melodic pop song without sounding too cloying or light.

“Crisis,” starts out sounding like a croony ballad along the lines of early Interpol, but picks up steam as it goes along, adding some pretty great vocal harmonies along the way. I could imagine this song going a long way to drawing in a wider audience if properly promoted. Like “Crying Wolves” and the sweeping romanticism of “Girl In A Vortex,” these songs are the honey that can draw in fans of the poppier side of 80s post-punk, while there’s plenty of crazed, apocalyptic ravers to hold the interest of those who loved the Beastmilk album. “Utopian Scream,” “Worn Threads” and “No Survival” are all rock solid guitar vehicles with pounding, tribal drums and killer basslines. “No Survival” brings to mind some of the great cold war paranoia of 1980 era The Sound. “Crooked Vein” features both the slowest tempo, and most sinister feel. Holding down the middle ground between extremes are succinct rockers “Taste The Void” and “Lipstick On Your Tombstone” the former with the most memorable hooks and choruses.

While an adjustment in reality perception might be required for some to take this band seriously, their sincerity in both romance and macabre is truly believable and infectious.

This video should be made available soon:

Algiers – Algiers (Matador)

Algiers - Algiers (Matador, 2015)While Algiers have post-punk elements like early Bad Seeds, they also dip into 70s psychedelic soul of The Temptations, The Isley Brothers, and further back into gospel, but laced with electronic drums that reference both 80s electro and 90s industrial. While early TV On The Radio took a somewhat similar approach with doo-wop and Massive Attack with dub and soul, Algiers sound completely original. On top of that, they have smart, confrontational, political lyrics and seem like a real passionate powerhouse live band, lately augmented by Bloc Party’s drummer, Matt Tong. It would probably be album of the year candidate if the songwriting was just a bit better developed. Part of the issue might be the fact that the band developed their music remotely online with singer Franklin James Fisher, originally from Atlanta, now located in New York and guitarist Lee Tesche and bassist Ryan Mahan living in London. The best songs are clustered in the middle, including the savage “Blood,” accented with gutteral grunts and rattling chains. “Old Girl” is like stumbling upon a gospel revival, only to find dancing demons within the church. “Irony.Utility.Pretext,” augmented by a situationist style video, full of New Order beats, Art Of Noise effects, and Miami Vice era production, while still somehow sounding new. “Games” is a more restrained hymnal, and extremely effective. With a tour or two under their belts, I’d love to hear what they come up with next. I predict righteous greatness.

Ought – Sun Coming Down (Constellation)

Ought - Sun Coming Down (Constellation, 2015)This Montréal-based band released their debut, More Than Any Other Day, just last year. I was slow in getting on board, as initial comparisons to Jonathan Richman and Talking Heads didn’t bode well, as Tim Beeley’s unmelodic vocals were a hurdle that took time to get over. It grew on me, however, once I heard the elements of shambolic Raincoats and early Clinic. Now there’s already a new album (as of September 18), and the vocal element has become a familiar element that now resembles The Fall’s Mark E. Smith at times. On “Passionate Turn” he even works in some vibrato and melody. The relatively epic length “Beautiful Blue Sky” was developed on stage into a fan favorite, with a kind of stream-of-consciousness lyrical progression from mundane observations to a critique on consumerism. It could be a highlight, or could get tiresome on repeated listens. It’s multifaceted enough that some hear it as the second coming of Pavement mixed with The Cure’s debut album. While not all of the tracks hit their target, overall it’s a challenging, fascinating listen that should keep their audience growing.

Probably not the official video, and definitely NSFW.

Lunch – Let Us Have Madness Openly (Mass Media)

The unglamorously named Lunch hail from Portland, the same scene that spawned Shadowhouse and The Estranged (a band I went nuts for last year), and Arctic Flowers, who’s Stan Wright recorded this album at Buzz Or Howl Studios. Their roots are embedded in a mix of British post-punk (Echo & the Bunnymen, The Chameleons, The Sound, Red Lorry, Yellow Lorry) and the American garage noir of Gun Club and The Wipers. In contrast to the band name, Prometheus Wolf is a pretty grandiose name for the lead singer, and he seems to pull it off with just enough charisma in his baleful, yelping vocals.

“Madness Openly” has that compelling Gun Club vibe (who’s “Sex Beat” they covered on an EP), while brilliant standout single “Not An Ocean” has more of a British feel, combining an acoustic guitar with a spidery lead that references Felt’s Maurice Deebank and Rowland S. Howard’s punk noir sound in The Birthday Party, underlined by a bass worthy of The Cure’s Simon Gallup. “Pouring Light” has that lurching early Birthday Party feel combined with some skronky Pere Ubu saxophone. There’s really no end to bands in local scenes throughout the world who worship the same bands, but very few who can come out with such an assured statement in a debut album like Lunch has done.

Ceremony – The L-Shaped Man (Matador)

Ceremony - The L-Shaped Man (Matador, 2015)When they formed in 2005, the Bay Area-based Ceremony were a hardcore punk band. After three albums, they did a 180 with Zoo (2012), which explored 80s-era British post-punk and even a bit of jangly indie rock and new wave. This intrigued some old fans and perplexed most, but also brought new ones on board like myself. If the band intentionally named themselves after the song that bridged the transition from Joy Division to New Order, this is most likely a return to the band’s earliest influences. There are actually not that many bands currently taking on such a muscular approach to the genre (Beastmilk/Grave Pleasures, Dark Blue, RA), which makes this an even more welcome addition to the post-punk family. | See Full Review

Gold Class – It’s You (Felte)

Gold Class hail from Melbourne, Australia with a debut album nearly as promising as Lunch. Adam Curley’s vocals have often been compared to Morrissey, with a bit of Ian Curtis. That’s fairly accurate, though it can make one miss The Smiths’ melodicism and of course Johnny Marr. To be fair, they’re not aiming for that kind of sound, pursuing a more monochromatic template similar to Ceremony’s (though the last track, the piano-driven “Shingles (Stay Awhile)” does offer a Morrissey-esque departure). The album is top-heavy with “Life As A Gun” and “Bite Down” as the hookiest, driving numbers. While nearly all the songs have their strengths, particularly James Purdley’s chiming, excellent guitar tones, they can bleed into each other, with the exception of the aforementioned closing track. Definitely a solid debut with a band that most likely primed to achieve greater heights.

PINS – Wild Nights (Bella Union)

PINS - Wild Nights (Bella Union, 2015)Another band overshadowed by the monolith that was Savages in 2013, Manchester’s PINS had an excellent debut, Girls Like Us that was largely overlooked. On their second album, it seems like they decided getting pigeon-holed in the post-punk ghetto doomed them to be ignored because too many people feel like they only had room for one band in that particular sub-genre. Hell, I don’t know what anyone was thinking, both the audiences and the bands, but it does seem like they thought, fuck it, let’s do some pop. The result is a warmer, more diverse, melodic album that is brilliant when it connects with great songwriting like on the soaring “Young Girls,” but can also risk sounding too much like a million other ordinary indie pop bands, or in the case of the girl-group surf of “Dazed By You,” The Breeders. Same with another single, “Too Little Too Late,” which just lacks the bite of the band’s earlier work. “If Only” seems just as light, but is more successful in getting the emotional content across. While their first EP and album might have been a bit brittle, I was drawn into their sleek, spare aesthetic. Wild Nights has them exploring beyond that with inconsistent results. I’m pretty confident they’ll get there on their third album.

The Underground Youth – Haunted (Fuzz Club)

Psychedelic post-punk is a hybrid that is far too seldom explored, so I was excited to discover an enthusiastic practitioner in Manchester’s Craig Dyer, who had self-released over a half dozen albums as The Underground Youth since 2008, eventually signing to Fuzz Club records and expanding into a four-person band, at least for touring purposes. His latest album features a largely delicate guitar sound, often sounding like a distant bell cutting through the fog and mist in a way that reminds me somewhat of The Blue Angel Lounge’s Sea Of Trees (2014). The atmosphere and subject matter is dark, without the music being particularly heavy, though there are some harsh effects and feedback noises that slash across the recordings. In fact, there’s quite a lot of sound experimentation on this album, with a wide variety of soundscapes used to slowly build tension as if they are tracking a movie. A challenging, rewarding listen.

Crispy Ambulance – Compulsion (Factory Benelux)

Crispy Amublance - Compulsion (Factory Benelux, 2015)Talk about post-punk lifers, Crispy Ambulance formed way back in 1977 in Manchester and The Plateau Phase (1982) was a lost classic of sorts of the scene (see The Greatest Post-Punk Bands You Never Heard). While old-timers Wire, The Fall, Gang Of Four and even The Pop Group have all released albums this year, I’m most intrigued by this release partly because the songs were largely written back in their early years of 1980-82 and finally recorded. It’s like a missing-link follow-up to The Plateau Phase, though this is often instrumental, with some pretty wild experimentation with percussion, synths and other effects.

Coming Soon:

Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect (October 9)

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