Friday, 15 March 2013

Off With Their Heads - Home

Off With Their Heads have been making great gruff punk rock that combines the horrifying despair that builds and corrodes inside too many of us with the explosion of pop-punk joy for a while now. They've always thrived on that dissonance, the gap, (the beauty between?), the sense of brokenness you feel a lot of the time splitting open into a big soaring chorus of Oi!-caught pain where the anguish is ameliorated not by any particular positive step, but merely by the fact that for this second the loneliness and isolation has been collectivised into a fists-in-air sweatsoaked pit singalongs, shit-off-your-shoulder catharsis.

Home does offer more of the same screaming-in-the-dark for a bunch of it, but it also has some stuff which is straight-up fucking inspirational, Focus on Your Own Family is like a miniature SELF-HELP book bolted to a Rivethead or Banner Pilot or Manix song where all advice starts with "FUCK EM ALL!" and continues "DON'T EVER LISTEN! DON'T EVER COMPLY! NEVER BE SCARED! NEVER BE FRIGHTENED! HOLD YOUR HEAD HIGH!" and the bits of the album with this tone are reminiscent of the sharp edges where Henry Rollins' stuff goes from that tight twitching wireball of brokenbone angst to the nuclear-powered punch-a-mountain-in-the-face fightspiration of a line like "I am ready for whatever's coming. I expect nothing but to be let down or turned away. I am alone. Goddamn. The shit hurts sometimes, but I realize what I am, what I have become." ( I was looking for a particular Rollins line to illustrate my point but I couldn't find it but it didn't really matter as EVERY SINGLE QUOTE IS LIKE THAT!) And that jump out of the tormented blue mess of hard drugs and hospitals and hate songs to that kinda (yeah maybe a little) cheesy yeah-I'm-gonna-live-this-life-and-you-are-too swerve  is all the more powerful from coming for a band that's worn suicide in its lyrics like a studdedpunkvest armour.

That is not to say the screaming in the dark, which still happens on this album, is not a useless thing, not an unimportant thing to do, not fucking relevant.

When I was 18 and living in college accommodation depressed I played Johnny Hobo and the Freight-Trains incessantly, a band whose entire oeuvre was about self-destruction and self-hatred, all the sorts tales of brokendown squatparty awfulness that just in their very existence made me feel less alone because of the way they articulated a bunch of the shit I was stuck on, stuck in, and I carved the chorus to Harmony Parking Lot into the back of my bass-guitar with a penknife and made a typo which I was unreasonably annoyed with myself about. I even loved the almost unlistenable early demo stuff with drum-machines, feeling like shit all the time, it made me feel a little better to know that someone else was feeling like shit all the time too, so when the songwriter Pat the Bunny disbanded the band and tried a more positive tack with his next project Wingnut Dishwasher's Union first came out I was not as into it as it was trying to be more hopeful and I didn’t want to be more hopeful, I just wanted to be miserable and nihilistic with someone else so I didn’t really listen to them that much so maybe Focus On Your Own Family could really run cold with some people, come across as too corny, but the interesting thing about Focus On Your Own Family is that it's soaraway believe in yourself mantra is tucked right in the middle of the album. A less confident band would stick the positivity, the rising empowerment anthem at the end and leave the listener on the upwards finish, throwing you back out with a sense of purpose, but that would be triter and less interesting that what OWTH do, which is constantly switch up in their writhing pain, yeah that'd be to cheapen and diminish the documents of impossible/everyday struggle that populate the rest of this album. Cos there isn't a snap-out-of-it moment with bleak shit like that, there are ups and downs and boy are there downs.

Also, the despair and self-loathing that OWTH have dealt with has usually focused on its application, the loneliness and ache that and the ruined relationships and long scorched-earth nights that result from living in a way where some of the time, or a lot of the time, you feel like you'd got something closer to a spikey rebarred concrete lump for a heart, that if a surgeon opened you up they'd find something closer to the grey-green of the Antikythera mechanism than anything resembling a functional muscle that can sustain life, that could ever be used as a metaphor for love or strength or forbearance by even the most optimistic poet you could find.

And here there is that, of course. There is angry disassociation on SHIRTS: "I don't feel like me/whoever that's supposed to me." There is failure and hopelessness in Nightlife "I know I’m sick and I’m not right. I’m so fucking tired of living this life, I made for myself, I’m sorry that I cannot get past what keeps me away from the light." There is a scary sense of a malicious otherness squatting parasitically inside you, pulling you away from life as it seems to run for other people, drawing a borderline between you and what you might call normal or you might , if one was taking it from one particularly seductive sort of angle, you might call 'good' on Always Alone: "Something inside, you'll never know, keeps me from feeling the things that are so/standard for most but not for me". Resignation on the fading buzz of Stolen Away: "I'm not gonna change after everything I've been through." There is a whole lot of discomfort punk thrust into anthems, rock and roll lovesongs terrified that this love is not enough, and half-crooned bummer numbers (stuff along the lines of their Don't Laugh, I'm Totally Serious from All Things Move Towards Their End) all packed to disintegration with the raw squirming honesty of a teary-eyed teenage livejournal post. Hearts sewn to sleeves with dental floss and circled like an A with Snuggle lyrics.

But as well as those moments when it's just hitting those same present painspots, screaming in the alltime dark, and as well as those moments when it's trying to move up and onwards, attempting to light a way forward, there is another way it moves, there's a  digging for the root, a coming together of an expose of the cause of this ugly wonk shit that lives and gurgles, something they've hinted at that before on songs like Janie, which is rerecorded here, ("This is why I cannot tell you what you deserve to know.").

Here it does take that ("I need to find my way back to where I began. Retrace my steps and start again." on Come Find Me, also a song about not doing it alone, asking for help) and as a result of that backwards interrogation it sometimes it feels tonally close to the harrowing beauty of The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree and its searching for some source of the torment and depictions of the intense trauma of growing up in a place where kids should never be made to grow up. It's looking for where this hate and woe got its big break

And in that case here that blame is generally lain at the big-ass wooden door of the church.

Altar Boy Blues probably does it clearest: ("There's only one time around and I choose not to blindly follow the same people that abuse. And I've seen it first hand, they tried to cover it up, I was confused.") but then there's the aforementioned Focus On Your Own Family which is a dig at the nauseating bigots at Focus On the Family, but it's not a scathing attack like something like DK's Moral Majority ("God must be dead if you're alive!") or Amebix's The Church is For Sinners ("The church holds out a bloodstained hand to pass around the hat"), in fact it really doesn't mention those bloviating christknackers at all, just the titular shot, it's a best-revenge-is-living-well kinda deal.

Something of blackhearted pop-punk heathen jolt of Crusades, attacking the consequences most, it's that antireligious spirit free of the smug punchability of people who post Richard Dawkins quotes and Amazing Atheist links on their tumblr (cos while I might agree with Hitchens and his ilk on the basic proposition "There is no god." I'm not down with their addendum "And you have to be a smirking cunt about it."). Attacks on the church not as a point of pride, but as a beatendog biteback at the damage caused, a hate fucking earned, a vicious stab, maybe not so much with personal faith, but with the atrocities it causes and conceals with its structures, when it is codified and socialised, the righteousness that blinds its wearer, convinces them of their goodness as they muck about in some obliterative evil works. I'm writing this as white smoke rises from the vatican and my twitter feed clogs up with pope jokes and my Rudimentary Peni patch burns hot against my punx jacket, so you could say that they're incredibly timely in this, but the truth is, the Catholic church is such an endless procession of vile conceited ignorance and venal hate-garbed boogie-dicks that attacks on their colossal hypocracies have been timely for roughly the last 2000 years.

And not just in the well documented self-serving cover-ups, right in the fucking giddy heart of Catholic doctrine is the weirdo notion of original sin, I mean what sort of fucking person looks at a baby and sees them inherently infected with the badness of the world? I don't believe in heaven but if I did there wouldn't be any sort of equivocation over whether a fucking newborn baby that dies is gonna go there, some shit that the Catholic Church only got done with in two-thousand-and-shitting-seven. I mean, jesus christ. That's the sort of just straight-up view-gnarling philosophy that should be kept the hell away from a developing brain and soul. This album screams "You want a fucking confession?" as Ryan Young's voice snarls and groans and aches as the songs, which are maybe a  little cleaner, a little slower, and the songs constructed in a different kinda way to their earliest fucking classics like Die Young or SOS or Sleeping in Carrie's Car, where they just stick to build-up/race-downhill, crack onwards consistently and punkspeed or chunter determinedly or just scrape painfully down the route like a dying man.

Because above anything else, this is an album which constantly goes against itself, sometimes an atmosphere breaking rocketship love, sometimes a trudge onwards, some, sometimes a nasty little shitwicket moaning alone and uncomfortable and twirling up into itself in misery spirals, sometimes reaching out pleadingly for any sort of help offered. It's  sometimes self-immolation, sometimes an immutable fuck-you punched into brick and poetry. It's not simple. Our moods and convictions don't flow in one direction, don't get simply placed into templates or regular orbits, depression ain't a Freytag Arc, redemption is not a problem to be solved. The only constant on this album, it seems, is movement. Away from something, towards something, escape, return. Always searching. Ever ticking over with the struggles and distance "Always upstream/always against the grain" on Shirts, "Gonna be a rough road/gonna take some time" on Focus On Your Own Family.

"It's a long way back to be anything that anyone could love." is how it's set out on the opener Start Walking. This is an album that gives no clue of when, or if anyone will manage to stop, There's less of a wallow, more of a sense of purpose buts it's a tidal ebb 3 steps forward 2 steps back kinda shuffle as this punk rock tears and rumbles on.

It's a fucking life. Is the home of the title a destination, a place to escape from, or the place we're going towards now? The album can't decide. "Please don't make me go home. I'm wanted less than I'm wanted here." on Don't Make Me Go. "Help me find a home" and those big beautiful whoa-oh-ohs that close out the album on Take Me Out. Maybe it's all those things. "Home" is a odd word in English, it's often a tricky thing to get a student learning the language to remember that you can't 'go to home' (that's what I do in my day job), because when you say "I'm going home" home is an adverb, it's not a place, it's a direction, a qualifier to the action.

Probably the Home Off With Their Heads are running with here is something like Pat the Bunny singing an acknowledgement of confusion on Johnny Hobo's Fuck Cops: "I don't know where home is, but I know that I'm not there now." and once when I was I was 18 and all wrapped up way too tight and deep in these sort of Off With Their Heads topics, those particular Freight Trains songs, my mum earnestly asked me if I was doing okay and all I could really hear was that line so I mentioned it and she kinda cried and I felt weird and ashamed and I needed to listen to punk rock because that's how I dealt. How I deal, when shit gets a bit too sharply human. With punk rock like this. As a companion for the journey, a whisper on the way.

“No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.” - David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster.

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