The Problem with Post-Punk

I went to see the United Sons of Toil show at the Frequency on Friday. Great show. The opening acts, Disguised as Birds and Ampline were both very good. However, USoT definitely grabbed me the most. They played one of the best sets I've seen here in Madison since I relocated here six years ago.

Yet, I'm uneasy about the whole experience of hearing them for the first time. They've garnered a lot of really good press here in Madison. And they deserve twice that which they've received. The thing that concerns me is that the music and the show were both so referential that I found myself comparing every musical phrase and every convulsion to some other group. Whether it be Tortoise, DNA, Fugazi, Dinosaur Jr. or Gang of Four. I was reminded of something Marc Ribot said, "The problem with post-punk is that it's hard to dress the wound for all the screaming". (I'm paraphrasing)

From what I've read, and certainly from the lyrics and other text the band produces, they've got a bone to pick. A particularly far-left bone at that. I don't have a problem with this whatsoever. I'm the sort that doesn't talk about politics for fear of being accused of sedition. Yet, from a musical standpoint, I have to wonder if aural assault is too referential to be effective.

Regardless, it was refreshing to actually hear a band so dedicated to what they're doing. I love the volume, the feedback, the aggression and the compositions. I'll definitely be keeping my eye on this group.


Rusty said...

Hey, Russell from USoT here. Thanks for the kind words as well as the thoughtful criticism. I'm eager to hear more about you view our music as "referential." I plead guilty to our music having clear and obvious antecedents as well as our overtly political stance. I'm unclear though how our music is any more referential than any other band, regardless of style or lyrical content. I welcome the chance to explore these ideas further. Thanks again.

conanneutron said...

Unwound is a far better touchstone than Tortoise. The west coast had noiserock too.

What's also important is that USoT actually ADD to that sound, which is very much alive and not necessarily as referential as it's made out to be.

conanneutron said...

Unwound, maybe... but noiserock exists beyond the midwest. And the important thing to remember is that USoT are actually actively adding to that genre.

I would argue that it is NOT as referential, at least no more than anything else.

It is almost impossible to NOT be referential in this day and age unless you are throwing obvious reviewer sops, such as incorporating "weird" instruments and electronic beats.

To me that sounds far more tired than anything as vital as USoT.

Matt Nelson said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

I think I should clarify after re-reading my post. (And listening to Until Lions Have Their Historians... again) I think that I was questioning the effectiveness of, what are now, post-punk gestures as a means of expression. In fact, I'm beginning to feel as though post-punk and its derivatives are becoming as contrived as blues was in the 70's.

Honestly, I think this is a discussion that is probably better suited to a face-to-face conversation. I'll make a concerted effort to see you guys on March 12th, maybe we can discuss a bit then. In the meantime, I'll write up my thoughts and post them here later this week.

To conanneutron: I admit that I'm ignorant of Unwound. I'll certainly check them out. I'm not sure how Tortoise falls into the category of noise-rock though.

I won't argue that USoT are a very vital sounding band. I would agree. I am interested in what it is you feel they're adding to the noise-rock genre.

Rusty said...

I agree that a slavish devotion to a genre is an ineffective form of expression. It's interesting that we are often seen as a retro band because, while I may have grown up with noise-rock the first time around, I rarely revisit or immerse myself in that music now (and apart from Joy Division and Gang of Four have left post-punk far behind). Bernard Albrecht and Andy Gill are inarguably my biggest guitar-playing influences, but I hear (in my head anyhow) traces of hardcore, mathrock, post-rock, post-metal in addition to "classic" Touch&Go grind. I can certainly sympathize with the viewpoint that loud, angry rock has ceased to make a statement. I disagree, but I can understand it. I look forward to your additional thoughts and comments.

conanneutron said...

The main point of my dashed off comment(s) was to mention Unwound as a vital non-midwest touch stone for noiserock. Which has underpinnings in areas that are NOT the midwest and should be taken as part of a greater whole if examined as a greater entity.

Even if it is to dismiss it as a dead form and contrivence.

I guess i'm curious as to what you would think a vital form is then? At this point in history almost anything has an antecedent. It is easy to get caught up into that, with or without genre bias.

When I was reviewing records (I am thankfully retired from that unpleasant task), I had the misfortune of dismissing mcclusky as "just a pixies/Jesus Lizard" melange, instead of the interesting band that they were. My ears were closed to hearing new music of that kind, to my detriment. I stopped reviewing records shortly thereafter for the good of myself and others.

Even if I, specifically, don't play noiserock as it is strictly defined anymore. I have some qualifications and history in it from my previous band. There is an excellent quote from Steve Albini (Big Black/Rapeman/Shellac, etc.), one of the universally recognized progenitors of the genre, in regards to the Jesus Lizard he says that he feels that they were/are an important band much like Led Zeppelin. A band whose influence will be able to be measured by their soulless and shameless imitators as well as by those that add to the formula.

That's quite a paraphrasing, but as somebody who *ahem*, "toiled" in that idiom with active touring and record making for many years, having seen and played with many bands, both good AND bad, I will say that USoT are the real deal. And you can usually measure that by who takes a formula and adds to it and who just sticks to the script.