The New Christs – Incantations (Impedance)
Someone coming across The New Christs’ latest album Incantations in the top ten for the year in the post-punk and garage rock charts at Rate Your Music could easily believe they’re a relatively new band. The sound isn’t exactly brand new, but the menacing edge and vital songwriting suggests an energy not normally associated with ones pushing 60. But they’re not so new, having been a band in varying forms since 1981, lead by the not so young Rob Younger, best known as the lead singer for the legendary Aussie sons-of-the Stooges Radio Birdman from 1974-78. Along with The Saints and The Birthday Party, they established templates in punk and post-punk that would be followed by bands in Australia and throughout the world.
Of the several post-Birdman bands, The New Christs beats them all. What kills me is that when I first discovered Radio Birdman in 1987-88 and featured them on my Fester’s Bucket O’ Nasties pre-punk, punk and post-punk radio show, I was obsessed with everything associated with them, hunting down records by The Visitors, The Hitmen and New Race. But I totally missed out on The New Christs because their first collection compiling their singles, Divine Rites (Citadel, 1988) was not issued in the U.S. This kills me because on that and their classic debut full length Distemper (Citadel, 1989), they had perfected garage noir. That’s a genre I made up that refers to the dark, proto-goth garage rock and punk blues established by fellow Aussies The Scientists, The Birthday Party on their last few EPs, The Cramps and The Gun Club. It hasn’t really caught on because not many bands consistently follow the template, aside from Gallon Drunk, The Flaming Stars and of course occasional songs by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Grinderman.
Perhaps one of the reasons The New Christs were so good was that Younger took his time in letting the band percolate. Named to take the piss out of his former band’s revered legacy, they recorded the rare “Waiting World”/”Face a New God” single in 1981. After recording a live album with supergroup New Race (with The Stooges’ Ron Asheton and Dennis Thompson of MC5), he was dormant until Iggy Pop wanted him to open for him on his 1983 Australian tour. Not one to deny the Godfather of Punk, he assembled a band consistently of mainly The Hitmen and Kent Steedman of The Celibate Rifles (later replaced by Richard Jakimayszyn of the Lime Spiders). That lineup only lasted a year and recorded two singles. Younger also started doing production work for the likes of the Celibate Rifles, the Hard-Ons, Screaming Tribesmen, Hoodoo Gurus, Died Pretty and Lime Spiders. The next, completely different lineup formed in 1987. Arguably the most powerful incarnation of the band, they supercharged Younger’s seething anger on the singles and Distemper album into something truly menacing. They sounded like no one else at the time, though American Gun Club (and X and Neil Young) acolytes Eleventh Dream Day made a similarly fiery guitar album with Prairie School Freakout (Amoeba, 1988), and to some extent Minneapolis’ Run Westy Run on Not Hardly Even (SST, 1988)
Rather than attempt to take the world by storm like every other alt guitar band in the early 90s, the band broke up in ’89, forming briefly in ’91 to tour with the Ramones. Younger formed a new lineup in ’92 and took his time, recording two EPs in 1994-95, compiled as These Rags in 2002, and the excellent Lower Yourself (Citadel, 1997). Younger also participated in the first Birdman reunion tour in 1996. This lineup broke up before their last album, We Got This! (Laughing Outlaw, 2002) was released. Probably the band’s least great album, they still have never released a substandard one. But they certainly didn’t do much to help spread the word, as many former Radio Birdman fans were still oblivious to their existence. The first three albums have been reissued on vinyl by Bang! Records and are available in the U.S. at Forced Exposure. CDs are hard to find, but I ordered them directly from Citadel.
In 2006, Radio Birdman finally released their official reunion album, Zeno Beach (Crying Sun/Yep Roc, 2006). It was a really solid album, better than many might have expected, except perhaps for fans of The New Christs. While it’s better than We Got This!, it doesn’t quite measure up to most of the band’s catalog. Younger probably knew this, and formed another lineup of his band that year, and toured Europe with The New Christs when he wasn’t touring with Radio Birdman. Indeed, Gloria (Impedance, 2009) arguably features better songwriting than the Birdman album.
With the lineup remaining stable for eight years, Incantations is the band’s best album since Distemper. While the jagged edges are smoother than that earlier incarnations, the songwriting is glorious, piled high with the best hooks and melodies the band has ever come up with. The first half is a particularly impressive run, with opener “Ghostlike” featuring a psychedelic organ line that embodies the greatness that The Godfathers promised early in their career but failed to achieve when they were far better known in the late 80s than The New Christs. “Waves Form” kicks off with a great “Wipeout” style drum roll and invigorating surf guitar riff. Like a beach party interrupted by the discovery of a dead body, it invokes salty ocean air and spilled blood. Someone needs to make a beach noir movie and feature that song and earn the band their belated fortune. “We Are Lovers” is dark, brooding and sexy in a way that I fear Interpol will never again be able to pull off. That’s okay, these punk geezers show them how it’s done. “It Means Everything” is another killer, featuring a great wah-wah hook that will stick in your head for days. The hooks keep coming, on “It’s Not A Game” it’s in the vocal chorus. The next few tracks are a step down from the previous stunners, but remain well crafted, especially “This Is A Party” and “The Golden Street.” “Precious Little” can be a little draggy, but the Deep Purple organ line and dark psychedelic guitar solos sound cool. It’s hard to expect a full album at the level of those first five songs from any band, let alone one 30 plus years into their career. Had they managed to do so, it would definitely have been contender for album of the year. As it is, it’s still a solid candidate for my top 20.
This is really what I live for, discovering an album that isn’t just a top 20 contender, but reveals a whole case of cans of earworms, a catalog worthy of just as much reverence as the original Radio Birdman albums, proving the band deserves props as one of the all-time greats, no matter how belated.
Hits – Hikikomori (Conquest Of Noise)
Rob Younger continues to produce bands, including Hits, who bear the influences of The Saints and Younger’s bands, but with a heavier take on garage noir. The new album tightens up the Brisbane band’s loose but promising compositions from the debut Living With You Is Killing Me (2009), winding them up like little sonic boobytraps. The vocalist goes by Evil Dick. A tongue-in-cheek reference to The Dictators’ Handsome Dick Manitoba? Maybe not, as his vocals bear more similarity with Younger’s but more ragged, reminding me of Bill Carter from The Screaming Blue Messiahs, Scott McCloud of Girls Against Boys and a touch of Mark E. Smith’s sneer. Considering the extremes of terrifying sounds bands have achieved lately in noise rock, Black metal and such, it’s impressive that a mere rock band can still sound badass at all, like Hits manage to do. This album is immediate with it’s high energy and low spirits, and grows even more on subsequent listens. It’s a blast of rock power performed at an MC5 level, but with no particular retro feel, even when they ably cover Joy Division’s mighty “Shadowplay.” The cover fits in well with the band’s sound, which bears a consistent signature across the album despite the variety of song styles and structures. Highly recommended.