Loma Prieta - ‘Torn Portrait’ from I.V. (2012)
This Must Be Punk
There’s a very good piece by Lindsay Zoladz published yesterday on Pitchfork, about the year in pop and Grimes, which includes this quote:
“When we’re open to pop being a potential space of freedom, rebellion, and idiosyncrasy, its possibilities start to feel limitless. “A society constructed in the image of punk rock might … essentially become nothing more than a new source of authority,” says Trevor Link, who writes a thoughtful Tumblr about the revolutionary potential of pop music. “Whereas a society constructed in the image of pop … might very well be liberating in ways unimaginable within the former paradigm.”
My problem with this is, well, I always feel the need to come to the defence of ‘punk’ when it’s used as a foil or a bogeyman for a utopian vision (in this case literally!) of indie or pop music. Punk is a failure, a flawed ideology - we can do better, with our contemporary sensibilities and access to knowledge. I don’t disagree that there’s a lot we can learn from pop, but there’s still some really vital, electrifying music out there under the rubric of ‘punk’ if your tastes are attuned to it and you know where to look.
Part of the problem I think is that using the term ‘punk’ as an opposite to pop, and referring at least implicitly to its 70s origin and form, in reality makes about as much sense as saying that, currently, punk music is much better than disco. Punk has evolved and split into different genres, and to my mind really very little interesting has happened to it since that hasn’t directly or indirectly involved hardcore. Above all post-hardcore was created, which provides most if not all of the musically creative threads in so-called ‘punk rock’ today.
Punk isn’t just some one-note screaming-at-the-man, any more than in the poptimists’ eyes pop is sugar-coated vacuous screaming-for-the-man. It’s a living, breathing artistic tradition with a trenchant and critical political and cultural philosophy, with many periods of exploration and creativity. It’d be nice to be able to open some more people’s ears to it, too.
Honeywell and abrasive delights
Loma Prieta probably isn’t the best place to start when trying to get someone interested in appreciating modern punk, but I’m including it here because it’s my favourite hardcore record of the year. Actually it’s the only one I spent much time listening to, because I haven’t been keeping up with the genre very well. Partly that’s because there are styles in vogue now that I don’t particularly like; partly because I’m distracted by all the more prominent, potentially punk-in-spirit but not in sound, stuff that gets bandied about from Tim Hecker to Grimes to Woods. But if I hear one or two records like this a year, it’s worth it, and proof that the p-word isn’t dead.
It’s also a factor that this music tends to be more intense than anything designed to be a bit more ‘poppy’, and thus one doesn’t really need to listen to as much of it (though Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 was enough of an aural saturation that I didn’t really need to listen to any new screamo/post-hardcore for much of this year and last year). But putting on this album again recently, I remembered why it is so different. I don’t really go in for very aggressive, hyper-abrasive music, and I’m averse to metal, but there’s a pleasant brain-cleaning quality to this. It’s not without genuine melody either though, which is important.
When I first heard Loma Prieta with their 2008 album Last City, they reminded me of a particularly excellent style of abrasive-yet-emotive hardcore perfected by an early 90s band called Honeywell, who made music so laden with distortion yet so perfectly picked out with feedback that it’s a joy to behold with your ears. Loma Prieta have evolved their style somewhat since to incorporate more recent elements of ‘screamo’, but the 1:31 track above is a good example of that original chaotic perfection. It’s not powerviolence - what I particularly like about it is how it wears itself lightly, without too much intrusions from drums or bass on the overall sound - which of course gives it a slightly thin and tinny quality, much like the original low-quality 90s hardcore recordings.
Another of my favourite things about the album are the sections where the distortion is blown completely into the red and clipped, disintegrating from guitar fuzz into pure digital distortion - an updating of the old attempts at pushing limits to the current age. It’s not that they’re doing anything particularly new, but in the quality of their musicianship and the intensity with which they play, I feel that Loma Prieta are well ahead of the competition in the modern screamo world.
Popularity is the only authenticity in pop
The Pitchfork article also goes on to talk about Carly Rae Jepsen, whom I’ve only heard once, a few weeks ago when the umpteenth online reference to ‘Call Me Maybe’ drove me to type it into Spotify. And the first thing that I noticed is the little graded bar to the right of the song that indicates some sort of popularity was full, or nearly so, for the time I’d seen. The tracks on this Loma Prieta album are all about 30%, which seems pretty decent but it is also a current release (all except the first track, that is, which was at 40% - clearly the rest of the album, starting from this track, puts people off).
The other thing I noticed about ‘Call Me Maybe’ is that it was very identifiably a pop song, in all its instrumentation and affects. No more so, of course, than this is recognisably a screamy-shouty hardcore punk track. Of the two styles, I know which I’d rather listen to - performed well, at least. But in reality I’ve spent most of this year listening to stuff much poppier than this, whether it be quite poppy, electronics-based stuff like Grimes or Elite Gymnastics, or indie-punk with a strong pop flavour like So Cow and Squarehead. I’m excited by this change in my listening, though I’d still like to find another solidly punk game-changer, and there’s a catharsis inherent in this kind of music that is difficult to achieve, or at least qualitatively different, in any other.
So basically I’d like to be a utopian poptimist, but it’s built on a false foundation as far as I’m concerned when it comes to punk. The same personal, enthusiastic language used in pop writing, the identification of music with emotion, can be applied I think to my own relationship with the intense creations of post-hardcore. The ‘popularity of one’ applies across all genres, and I’d like to make the case for listening to this particular one.