Talkhouse contributing writer Dr. Drew Daniel is a member of Matmos and a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. Matmos’ new album, Ultimate Care II, is out on February 19, 2016 via Thrill Jockey Records.
(photo credit: Josh Sisk)
Before I get down to business, describing how and why this record is worth your time, permit to me to gripe that iTunes is implicitly engaged in a culture war against hardcore intensity on behalf of prog values. To put my hipster/tourist status on the table, I paid less than seven bucks for expansive techno and sprawling synth noodling on full length albums by Silent Servant and Emeralds respectively, but I had to cough up 12 bucks for only 20 minutes of Trash Talk’s hyper-macho hardcore tantrums. The implicit dollar-per-song aesthetic/economic framework of this pricing structure doesn’t suit the speed demon agenda of hardcore’s song-as-paroxysm scale of operations. That said, the iTunes comments field disagrees, or at least one Tommy Hosker disagrees, declaring that “You get what you pay for with this album,” a sturdy assertion of meat-and-potatoes listener satisfaction proving that, for a grateful fan base, on 119 Trash Talk delivers upon the implicit promise of their preceding EPs. The kids will have their say.
Dude, Tommy, you’re right. It’s worth it. This thing kicks ass. The magic trick that Trash Talk pull off is to bring the relentless propulsion of a stomper like “F.E.B.N.” — it stands for “Forwards Ever, Backwards Never” — into interlocking alignment with the existential panic and downward despair of an anti-anthem like “Apathy.” There’s a constellation of clichéd ready-to-hand macho metaphors that tempt me here courtesy of The Walking Dead: riffs rip like a chainsaw cutting through a zombie onslaught, basslines tromp like a tank running over that same zombie onslaught after it’s been already ripped up by the chainsaw, drumbeats skid forward like our hero getting onto a jet-ski in order to evade the still-crawling remains of… you get the picture.
But even as the tempos and textures stay mostly fast and mostly hard, there’s an emotional valence from up to down that gives 119 range without costing it any sheer force. The titular declaration “Fuck Nostalgia” sounds like a case of protesting too much, insofar as this record triggers for this fortysomething ex-punk some fond memories of the midtempo crunch of Black Flag, the ragged weltschmerz of Dystopia, or, to reach outside of California’s hardcore heritage, the throat-burning screech of Die Kreuzen. Yes, at its best it’s that good. The simmering mosh of the final third of “Uncivil Disobedience” sets you up for “Blossom & Burn,” a track on which the band slows down to a Cro-Mags-ish grind and fellow Angelenos Hodgy Beats and Tyler the Creator sit in and go off. They’re mixed a bit too loud, but their rapped flows sound entirely at home on top of this lurching, manic chassis, and the result is a free-associative tangle of malevolence and non-sequiturs designed to wrongfoot the listener. “Did he just mention Portishead?” my boyfriend asked over the breakfast table. Yes, I think he did. It’s the funniest moment on the record, but not the best moment— for me that’s embodied in the strength-to-weight ratios of catchiness multiplying heaviness in “Reasons” and “Bad Habits,” two songs that will make you bang your head and start a circle pit in your open-plan digital workplace.
Neither funniest nor best, the most telling moment of this record — its symptom, if you wanna be high-falutin’ about it — is a nakedly emotional declaration that ends the very first song, “Eat the Cycle” when the band grinds down to a smear of feedback and we hear Lee Spielman deliver a phrase that teeters between an adolescent posture of hateful malediction and a soberingly adult stance of depressive realism. The phrase is: “Everybody’s gotta eat.”
Ending a song with this declaration on this record at this point in this band’s career is particularly galling and particularly brave. It hangs the economics out to dry for anyone to investigate; as the cameo indicates, this staunchly independent hardcore band has inked a deal with Tyler the Creator of hip-hop crew Odd Future, and with it, the Sony BMG Music Group-distributed Odd Future LLC label. It’s a step up to the big-time, with iTunes prices and promotional pushes to match. But Spielman’s announcement that “everybody’s gotta eat” also conveys the Hobbesian “bellum omnium contra omnes” (war of all against all) of a national economy of scarcity, when access to baseline subsistence is hardly a given, and working people increasingly run aground on hard times.
Census information puts about 15% of Americans below the poverty line, but 58% of Americans live in poverty for at least one year of their lives. Faced with the pressurizing fact that “everybody’s gotta eat,” people can push against each other or they can pull together. The fraternity (or, increasingly, sorority) of the punk rock mosh pit can be a place to therapeutically act out that pushing and shoving, but the unwritten rules say: pick somebody up off the floor when they fall. In this gesture, hardcore community reveals itself to be an ethical alternative to the wolfish predation that supposedly lurks outside the safe space of the mosh pit, and it defines itself as a space in which other values (co-operation, togetherness, assistance) might proliferate.
Which is what makes Spielman’s blowtorch moment so uncomfortable: is he justifying the band’s own desire to make ends meet via Sony’s muscle — or is he curling up in despair at the impossibility of completing that work of justification against the backdrop of hardcore’s demographic affiliation with struggle and against material success stories? Defiance and bitterness loop into each other here. In laying bare this push-pull between Hobbes’ “all against all” and Bad Brains’ “I against I,” you have to admire Trash Talk’s honesty.